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If You Will, You Can Become All Flame

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/10/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 10:17-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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This is a passage that is uncomfortable to preach on. It doesn’t get a lot of air time. Because the truth is, most preachers, including myself, have not – and do not want to – sell all of our possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus with the complete abandon of the original twelve disciples.

Peter says to Jesus, “look, we have left everything and followed you.” And they had. Peter and Andrew, and James and John, we know, had left behind their family fishing business – their social and economic basis in life – to spend all their time and attention following Jesus. The disciples may have been confused about Jesus’ mission – and they acted awfully dopey sometimes – but they had skin in the game.

A lot of us Christians today, we know a lot about God. We have a lot of information – way more than Peter had. We’ve got the New Testament, which they didn’t! We’ve got apps, and videos, and commentaries, and even little Quaker churches to give us all the information we need to follow Jesus. But it seems like knowledge isn’t power. Because, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t left everything to follow him. In so many ways, I’ve held on to what is mine.

There have been times in my life when I didn’t have much. At certain points in my life, I put my sense of God’s leading ahead of money, career, possessions. I could argue that when I went to seminary, I did give up everything to follow Jesus. I gave up financial security. I moved to a land that I did not know, where I had no social connections. I surrendered relationships that were important to me. I gave up a lot to follow Jesus.

Yet today, would I say with Peter, “look, I have left everything and followed you”? I don’t know. I’m not sure I would. Because the choice to surrender and follow Jesus is not a one-time event. It’s not something you do once and then you’ve accomplished it. The journey of discipleship is a way of life, lived in community – and communion – with others.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I hear Jesus’ words to surrender all, and I get defensive. I say, “that’s just not realistic, Jesus. I can’t walk away from everything to follow you. I have responsibilities.” That was the answer of the young man in the story. He wanted to inherit eternal life, but what he wanted even more was to inherit his father’s estate and social networks.

How hard it is for those who are rich to enter the kingdom of God!

Why is it so hard? 

It’s hard because you and I are double-minded. We want to have it both ways. We want to enter the kingdom of God, but we don’t want to participate in the divine economy. We don’t want to rely on God. We don’t want to rely on people. Money is better. For those of us who can afford it – those of us who have wealth – it feels a whole lot safer to take refuge in our retirement accounts and ridiculously valued Bay Area homes. After all, Jesus doesn’t offer a pension, right?

Well, that’s not what Jesus says. The good news of the kingdom is not that we all have to be poor and wretched. That sounds like pretty bad news to me! The good news is that, in following Jesus, we have an opportunity to inherit a truly different experience of life. 

The kingdom of God comes with real, tangible benefits – material things! A new family, new friends, homes to live in, jobs to work, land to farm – with persecutions, Jesus is quick to add. The kingdom of God is not a fairy tale. It is not a promissory note, to be redeemed later on, in the spirit realm. It is objective reality right here in the Now. And in the age to come, eternal life.

How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! Because we get Jesus’ message all wrong. Jesus says, “sell all you have, give the money to the poor, and come follow me,” and what we hear him saying is, “sacrifice everything, endure epic, heroic pain, and then you can be a member of the spiritual elite.” 

That’s nonsense! The kingdom of God isn’t about sacrificing the things we want as some sort of aesthetic exercise. This isn’t about becoming spiritual supermen and wonder women. It’s not some sort of hot pepper eating contest, where you win by enduring the most suffering. Jesus is here to set us free! Following him leads to a far more grounded, empowering, truth-filled life. In surrender, we find liberation.

This reminds me of a story from the sayings of Abba Lot, one of the early desert fathers. The story is brief. It goes like this:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and contemplate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

I feel a resonance in this story, connecting us to Mark’s gospel this morning. Just like the rich man, Abba Lot says, “I am doing my best. I follow the law. I am a good person. What more is there?” And Abba Joseph says, “There is more. So much more!”

Do you want more?

The rich man discovered that he didn’t. Abba Lot discovered that he did. And his life became a burning flame that consumed all of his prayers and fasts and contemplation. It set him ablaze, it separated him from himself – drew him out from the stupor of self-regard. Abba Lot gave up everything, he laid it all down, and in that moment the Holy Spirit lifted him up and gave him all things in Christ.

So I don’t know about you. But I say my little office. I pray and contemplate. I live in peace as far as I can.

I do not murder. I do not commit adultery. I do not defraud.

I’m not a perfect man, but I follow most of the rules.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Do you feel the question, too? It’s there. It is alive in our hearts: “There must be more than this.” Right?

Jesus is saying to us this morning: There is. So much more.

If we will, we can become all flame.

There is so much more to be found in God’s kingdom than being a “good person.” There is so much more than following the rules. Do you want more? Will you ask God to set you ablaze?

I believe, Lord – help my unbelief!

We want this More, but we flee from it. We flee into our safety, our wealth, our dysfunctional relationships, all the ways that we guard ourselves from the feeling of falling, the loss of control.

And we say to one another, “Who then can be saved?”Abba Joseph answers us, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Jesus reminds us, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”