A couple of months ago I came across an image that I found disturbing. Crushing actually. It was of a sperm whale that had washed up on the shore of the Netherlands, dead. After an autopsy scientists discerned the cause of death- plastic. The whale had swallowed 59 different plastic items totaling over 37 pounds. Among the items were plastic bags, nine meters of rope, two stretches of hosepipe, two small flowerpots, and a plastic spray canister. The cause of death was intestinal blockage. This is an increasingly common phenomenon. When reading this story something inside me hurt so bad for what we are doing to the planet, to Creation. Then a couple of days later I read another, equally disturbing story. Plans were now going ahead to begin fracking in the Kalahari Game Reserve in Africa. Home to lions, giraffes, cheetahs and many more of the unique and amazing creatures that the earth has given birth to, it was now also going be home to one of the most destructive and invasive of industrial practices.
I once read the author Darrin Drda compare fracking to the behavior of an addict- a crack addict for instance, when dry, will frantically comb through their carpet searching for any last dregs of the drug that might be there. With fracking we further our addiction to oil and cheap energy by tearing the earth apart, ripping and scratching for what is left, destroying water supplies and ecosystems in the process. No not the Kalahari too I thought. Is nothing sacred? With this, plus the whale, I started to lose hope. It just started to leak out of me slowly. How are we going to get out of this global mess, how will we ever be able to stop this out of control juggernaut of a global economic system, before it takes many lives and so much else over the cliff with it? I was born with an extra dose of hope, of optimism and passion for what’s possible, but these two stories had me on the ropes, down for a very long count. I wasn’t sure I was getting up.
But luckily, that same week, I happened to be working with Luke’s Parable of the Rich Ruler for what would eventually become this sermon, and I recalled a key line from it- “nothing is impossible with God”. These words shimmered forth from my mind and I grabbed on to them like a drowning man.
Nothing is impossible with God. This is a line that shows up at various critical moments throughout the Bible.
When God tells Abraham and his equally old wife Sarah that they will have a child, a child with whom God will establish an everlasting covenant that will be a blessing to all the nations, Abraham protests and Sarah laughs. But God reminds them, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” When, during the devastation and destruction of Jerusalem, God tells Jeremiah that one day he will restore the fortunes of his people, Jeremiah proclaims his faith loudly by saying I believe, for “Nothing is impossible with God!” And when Mary is told by the angel Gabriel that she will conceive a child, the Son of the Most High who will establish a kingdom without end, Mary replies doubtfully “but how is this possible, for I am virgin?” And her answer- “nothing is impossible with God”.
So at all these utterly momentous junctures in the bible- the promise to Abraham and the establishment of covenant, the restoration of that covenant, and the amplification of that covenant with the birth of Christ- we get the same message. That nothing is impossible with God.
And we can ask ourselves today, can we find a similar faith now in our time of disaster and exile, can we find the faith of Abraham, the faith of Jeremiah, the faith of Mary? And this isn’t just some kind of blind faith either, some head in the sand magical ‘belief’ that God will do something, but that deeper faith of the bible, that fidelity to God, the radical trust that God will cure out wounds and restore our fallen times, if only we can turn over our will to Thine and participate in the kingdom that wants to come.
There’s a saying in the Zen tradition- leap, and the net will appear. Leap, and the net will appear. We are told in this saying, as we are in the bible, that if we take a radical leap of faith we will be rewarded, that our Rock of Ages will indeed have a cleft for thee.
So we may again ask ourselves- are we capable of such faith is this time of devastation and turmoil, can we conjure up a trusting fidelity to God’s promise even as the whales continue to wash up on our shores? Are we capable of living in a way that honors creation, which allows for the mutual flourishing of humans and non-humans alike? Well, I think we are capable of all this, I really do. But there is one problem. A fairly big one. And it’s outlined in the Parable of the Rich Ruler.
This is that we as humans can become very attached to material things, to our possessions, our stuff. And today we live in a consumer society that intentionally manufactures this desire, and it has us all rather wrapped up with our stuff. But before getting to that, let’s look at the teaching found in the Lukan parable.
The parable begins with a “ruler” coming up to Jesus to ask a question. The ruler asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus says, whoa, hold on moment, what’s with calling me good? Jesus replies, “No one is good—except God alone”. Only God is good. Interesting. Let’s hold onto this statement for a moment. So Jesus then replies, well what you have to do is uphold the commandments. You know what they are he says, and he starts listing some of them off. What’s interesting to note though is that Jesus actually leaves out the first two- that we shall have no other gods before God, and shall not make for ourselves any idols. This will be important in a minute.
So after hearing that he is to fulfill the commandments, the ruler says no problem, I’ve been doing that since I was a kid! Jesus say, okay, cool, then there is one last thing to do- “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” I can just see the ruler doing a double take. Cleaning out his ear a bit like he must have misheard, and then saying, “Sorry, what was that now? Something about selling all my possessions to the poor? Surely you’re kidding right?” But Jesus wasn’t. And the passage tells us that the ruler heard this “and was sad”, for he “was very wealthy”. Then Jesus utters that famous line- “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
With flair and humor Jesus is telling us how hard it is to receive and enact the kingdom of God if we have created other idols, as the rich ruler has done, ultimately worshipping money before God. We cannot worship both. Only God is good. The rich ruler had actually not been keeping the first two commandments.
Hearing this exchange, Jesus’ disciples exclaim with exasperation, well “who then can be saved?!” And it is here that Jesus says that key phrase- “Nothing is impossible with God”. And Peter exclaims, “but we left everything and followed you!” And Jesus replies by comforting them, saying not to worry- “No one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
So this shouldn’t be a problem right, selling everything we have and serving nothing but God? There is no question that Jesus is a radical teacher and that his path often contains radical demands. For instance, right after this passage in Luke, Jesus heads up to Jerusalem knowing that he will suffer and die for what he has just been teaching. Now that’s walking your talk.
Whether or not we actually have to give up everything we own is hard to say. Let’s perhaps just hold that aside for a moment, because there is a deep, core teaching in this passage about what we are meant to serve first and only in our lives- which is God.
Which brings us back to today, with those whales washing up on our shores, with the fracking for cheap energy so we can keep our consumer civilization going just a little bit longer. Our civilization cannot sustain itself and we know it, yet no one seems to know how to stop the runaway train. And in the past seventy or so years, those of us in the wealthier nations have come to be used to, and attached to, a life filled with stuff, with an abundance of cheap material goods. And we’ve often become addicted to it too. Several political scientists are using addiction as a political concept these days, and not as a metaphor either. They say that late capitalist society is characterized at its core by addiction, with shopping, gambling, sex and food addictions (to name only a few) being in the millions, with the rest of us often close to some line or another. It appears we haven’t been keeping the first two commandments either.
And it might be easy to despair about all this, to ask what can possibly be done about this situation, this deadlock. Must we simply go down with the ship?
Well I don’t think despair is necessary. I think we just need the ears to hear what Jesus is saying to us in this parable- which is, if we release our attachment to our possessions, and know in our hearts and in our actions that only God is good, we will have great treasure of a different kind here on earth. Jesus actually says we will enter the kingdom of God in this world.
And I think that this world situation we are in is presenting us with our greatest opportunity. In Sally McFague’s new book Blessed Are the Consumers- Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint, she argues that it is time for Christians to practice kenosis in our lives. Kenosis just means “self-emptying”. We empty ourselves so that we in turn might be filled with God’s will, so that we might become a vehicle for love and healing transformation in the world. Through emulating Jesus in this manner we can lead the way for our sick culture in the process. Consumerism on the other hand, McFague argues, is the antithesis of Christian discipleship
This self-emptying living is what Paul taught too, this was his vision for a community (ie. the church) that would be a foghorn sounding from an expected future, a cooperative covenantal community that would be a lighthouse shining across the stormy Jordan.
As Christian disciples we now have a great challenge ahead of us, and our lives and examples are more important than ever. We can help break the deadlock of a slowly dying culture, and open a door for the new world to come. But this will take a deep trust in the two things Jesus has taught in the Lukan passage. First, that this self-emptying way of living is the way of true riches, it is the life that our souls desire the most. This point cannot be stressed enough. I know when I think about giving up my attachment to possessions or various addictions, I get filled with a sense of clinging and fear. But what Jesus is teaching is that on the other side of that fear is actually the Promised Land, the pearl without a price, the hidden treasure in the field, the soil in which the seed of our soul will finally grow. To trust this teaching takes a great leap of faith, but leap and the net will appear.
And the second teaching is that nothing is impossible with God. In this statement we hear a powerful expression of Christian hope, that quintessential Judeo-Christian contribution to world religion. I recently had the good fortune to spend a three-day retreat with Peter Short, former moderator of the United Church. What a wonderful man. Peter defined Christian hope as that which we do in spite of the facts. Christian hope is not something that arises when we see something positive in the world, but is an utter defiance of despair in the face of the facts. It is a heart-body-soul knowing that one day the kingdom of God will indeed be a reality on this earth, as it is in heaven. This teaching that we find at so many of the key moments in the biblical narrative- that nothing is impossible with God- is the fiery embers that keeps this hope eternally alive.
So in closing, I believe that if we can hold onto these two teachings with a fierce grip as we walk through the coming storms together, that we will live to see a substantial fulfillment of the core promise of our tradition, a glorious revealing of the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, or what Jesus simply called, the kingdom of God. May it be so. Amen.