Some people say that the first steps are the hardest steps to take. The procrastinator in me tends to agree. It’s hard to get started. It’s hard to find the time and the energy. Especially if it’s a big project, especially if it’s going to require some sort of conflict or change or pain in my life, it’s easy to find something else to do for a little while – or maybe for years. Do we have any procrastinators out there who agree it’s hard to get going?
This fall I’ve been running more. I try to get out three or four times a week. I run from my apartment in Crown Heights along Eastern Parkway to Prospect Park, around the park loop, and then home again. I manage 7 or 8 miles at a go. For the first mile, I feel like I’m still twenty-years-old. Around the second mile, I age a decade or so. By the fourth mile, I remember I am, in fact, forty. And once I finally get home, I lie down on the floor and tell my wife I think I’m gonna die. The miles get harder as you go. It’s the final stretch that will kick your butt, not the first steps. Any joggers agree – it only gets harder as you go?
And then there’s sermon writing. Every sermon has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Right now we’re in the beginning. See how easy this is? And it might not seem like it right now, but I already know where I’m going with all this. The end is as good as written. It’s the middle where I tend to get lost – trying to trace in three or four pages a coherent journey from here to there with rich men, and camels, and needles, and persecutions all along the way. Sheesh. It’s in the second act that otherwise good stories tend to get bogged down. Any creative types agree that the worst blocks come somewhere in the middle?
And so I find myself wondering this evening, where has the rich man who comes to Jesus gotten stuck? In the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of things?
One possible answer would be “D. NONE OF THE ABOVE. The rich man was just stuck on money.” Well, teacher’s pet, aren’t you clever. You’re right, the rich man was rich and Jesus told him to give everything he had away and then come and follow me. And the man went away grieving because he had a lot of stuff.
And in my opinion, there’s no softening what Jesus’ says about wealth. Jesus unleashes this bizarre image on the disciples – a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle: the biggest, humpiest, stubbornest thing you can imagine trying to go through the smallest opening you’ve ever seen – that’s how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God, says Jesus.
The image of the camel and the needle suggests getting stuck in the beginning. Because if I brought you a camel and a needle and said, “Get to work!” you probably wouldn’t know where to start. Nobody is going to bring you a camel halfway through the eye of a needle and say, “Well, I gave it my best shot, but I just can’t figure this thing out.” Jesus intentionally chooses an image that is impossible – that no sane person would even attempt. Maybe you’ve had some experience in your life, some task, some project, some problem, some dream that you just couldn’t imagine ever succeeding so you never tried in the first place.
I’ve been lucky to have a number of friends and congregants over the years who have been in recovery from addiction and who went through the twelve steps. The twelve steps are the guiding principles (originated in Alcoholics Anonymous) to transform our lives so that we’ll be able to overcome our addicitons and other compulsory behaviors. Very often, it is the first step of the twelve that is the hardest to get to. The first step says: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. It can be very hard to admit to yourself and to others that you have a problem – an addiction or otherwise: that you’re stuck, out-of-control, unable to direct your life to the goal you hope for.
Listen to what the first step doesn’t say. It doesn’t say, “We finally decided to take back control, to put our lives in order, to smoosh a camel through a tiny hole.” No. We admitted we were powerless – that our lives had become unmanageable.
When they hear Jesus tell them about the camel and the needle, even the disciples, who are usually numbskulls and always getting everything wrong, get their first response right: They’re shocked, and they ask, “Who then can be saved?” Can a rich camel shrink itself down to the size of a poor gnat? Can it be done? No, says Jesus, for you it is impossible. But, for God, anything is possible.
The twelve steps take this reality seriously. Just listen to the second and third steps: 2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
Jesus and the twelve steps agree – if you get stuck somewhere at the beginning, admit that you are stuck. And if you can admit you’re stuck and if you can then offer up your mortal-impossible to be touched by God’s possibility, then you will no longer be stuck. You will have begun. You will have started down the path of spiritual transformation.
The disciples made that decision. They dropped everything and answered Jesus’ call to follow him. They’re on the middle of the path. After saying, “My God, then who can be saved?!” they get over their initial shock and think about it for a minute, and Peter (speaking for the group) says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Woah. That’s what I call a loaded statement. On the surface it’s a simple statement of fact, but, wow, that emotional subtext just demands some sort of response – doesn’t it?
And what we know about the disciples from the context of the gospels is that they’re always looking away – to the future, to the horizon. Never their minds on where they are, on what they are doing. The disciples are continually arguing who about who is the greatest, or asking to be seated at Jesus’ right hand in the coming Kingdom, or falling asleep when they ought to be keeping watch. And here they go again. They’re saying, “Well, hold on. You know, the twelve of us did leave everything behind to follow you, we achieved the impossible! We want to be recognized! We want to be rewarded! We want to know that the sacrifices we made to get to this boggy middle, this swampy second act are going to pay off in the end! Otherwise, maybe we just get up and leave the theater.”
And so Jesus decides to play a trick. In the Biblical story of Job, poor Job suffers a great deal and he loses his health, his children, his house, and all his wealth, but he hasn’t done anything wrong to deserve that kinda suffering. Job demands that God explain God’s self to him – why would God allow such suffering and evil to occur to a good and faithful person? And God comes to Job out of a chaotic whirlwind and says, basically, “Shut up. You couldn’t possibly understand even if I explained myself to you, which I’m not about to do. It’s over your head. Just keep going as best you can.” And Job repents and accepts his lot.
Then, in an ending so saccharine and contrary to the whole rest of the book that most scholars think it was added later to make it more palatable, you get a paragraph of happily-ever-after where Job gets better and gets twice as much of everything that he lost – friends, children, sheep, camels, donkeys. He’s a rich and honored man again.
So, Jesus – feeling tricky – takes on the narrative voice of the end of Job and promises the disciples, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold NOW in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields…. with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
It’s a statement so baffling that the disciples don’t even respond. Maybe they realize they’re being made fun of. Jesus lays out a fairytale ending that he doesn’t really believe and then brings the roof down on the whole premise. And, certainly, the disciples never did get a hundred children or a hundred fields or (ha, ha) a hundred mothers – how does that even work? But they did get a hundred persecutions.
It’s like Jesus is saying, “Shut up. You couldn’t possibly understand even if I explained myself to you, which I’m not about to do. It’s over your head. Just keep going as best you can. Stop rushing. Stop pushing to the front of the line. The first will be last and the last will be first. Pay attention. Don’t lose heart. God is with us, but this isn’t going to get easier.”
Which brings us to the end of things – that final mile on the jog home. I wonder if the rich man was getting tripped up at the end of the race. Think about it. Jesus doesn’t say the rich man is a bad person. In fact, he’s been following the commandments his whole life. And Jesus seems to take the man at his word. And maybe he admires the way this man has come in search of life. And Jesus loves the rich man. And tells him, “You lack one thing.” One, final thing! Sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor, then come and follow me.
What happens next seems a little ambiguous to me. The rich man goes away downcast and grieving. We assume, based on his sadness, and based on what Jesus then starts saying about camels and needles immediately afterward, that the rich man gets stuck. But we don’t know that for sure. Another way to read it is that the rich man is sad because he’s heading home to put his affairs in order and to sell the many things he loves just as Jesus has commanded.
There’s something about nearing the finish line – what’s good for you is also what challenges you. As you progress towards becoming the person God most wants you to be, it can be hard in the beginning to admit that you need to change. And you can get bogged down and lose hope and get distracted by things that aren’t important in the middle, but by the end you are most ready to make the biggest changes, to take the greatest risks, to open yourself up to your highest possibilities. And that’s not always going to feel joyful. Sometimes it’s gonna burn.
Maybe, when the rich man set out to seek Jesus’ advice, he knew it was going to turn his life upside down, he knew he wasn’t going to love it right away, but he knew that he was ready to go the final mile. And in the final mile there are no easy steps, no easy answers. Every step forward contains as a part of itself a sacrifice of something you were for the someone you are becoming. There are rewards, but even the rewards come along with their persecutions and their pains.
In the beginning, when we get stuck on the impossible, we can rely on God. In the middle, when we get stuck, it’s usually time to get over ourselves, to stop fantasizing, to get back to basics, and to remember why we started the journey in the first place. And when we’re nearing the end and we get stuck, we can get unstuck by accepting that there is no path to a bigger and better life, a bigger and better world, that doesn’t require us to sacrifice what we were for who we hope to become. At the end, if you’re still holding on to what you were, you’re still stuck at the beginning.
The good news is that wherever you are on life’s journey, and wherever you might get stuck, God is with you – a challenging, loving presence, calling us forward.