The Rev. Melanie McCarley
There is a folktale whose story is located in the confines of the desert amid barren and almost inaccessible rocks. There, we are told, lived a hermit. The hermit’s life was one of austerity and devotion. A cave in the rock was his dwelling. Roots and fruits, the scanty products of the sterile region he inhabited, satisfied his hunger, and the fountain that bubbled up from the lower part of a neighboring cliff slaked his thirst.
The fame of the sanctity of this solitary man spread abroad; and often the hermit found himself supplying the traveler of the desert with water from his little well. In times of pestilence, he left his solitary abode to attend to the sick and comfort the dying in the villages that were scattered around. The hermit’s fame was spread abroad; his name inspired veneration, and even the plundering nomad gave up his booty at the command of this tiny, unarmed man of God.
A rich man named Shebna, came to learn of this holy hermit. Now, Shebna had accumulated his wealth through a host of means, and, if we’re being honest, we’d have to confess that not all of these means were holy. His was a house filled with wealth, with many slaves, servants, cattle, wives and fine gold artifacts. Yet, Shebna felt an emptiness that told him that there was an elusive treasure, rich and valuable beyond price which he did not yet possess. The hermit, living high amidst the rocks in the desert came to his attention, and Shebna determined to visit this man and learn from him what it was that he lacked, and how he might obtain it for himself. So, Shebna loaded up his camels, gathered together his servants and set out to find the hermit and tell him of his desires.
“Hermit”, said he, “I have many riches and any number of slaves at my command. And I have a goodly treasure house filled with riches. Tell me, how might I add to these the hope of a happy immortality.”
The hermit led Shebna to the base of a neighboring cliff that was steep, rugged, and high. Pointing to three large stones that lay near together he told Shebna to lift them from the ground and follow him up the cliff.
Laden with the stones, Shebna found he could scarcely move. To ascend the cliff was nigh but impossible.
“I cannot follow you with these burdens, holy man of God,” said Shebna.
“Then cast down one of the stones,” replied the hermit, “and hasten after me.” Shebna dropped one of the stones but still found himself too heavily encumbered to proceed.
“I tell you it is impossible,” cried Shebna. “You yourself could not proceed a step with such a load.”
“Let go another stone, then,” said the hermit.
Shebna readily dropped another stone and, with great difficulty clambered up the cliff for a while. But soon, he became exhausted from the effort and again he cried out that he could come no further.
The hermit directed him to drop the last stone, and no sooner had he done this than Shebna mounted the final step with ease and soon stood with the hermit on the summit of the cliff.
“Son”, said the hermit, “you have three burdens that hinder you in your way to a better world. Set your slaves at liberty. Restore your ill-gotten wealth to its owners and give away your gold to those who have less. It is easier for you to ascend this cliff with the stones that lie at its foot than for you to journey onward to a better world with lust for power, pleasure and riches in possession.
The Gospel lesson for today includes a story found in three of the four gospels—which tells us how highly thought of it was in the early church. Here, we encounter a man who kneels before Jesus to ask a question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He tells Jesus that he has kept all of the commandments from his youth. In fact, the word translated as “kept” can also mean “guarded” and it carries with it an emphasis on the kind of observance this man has kept: faithful and careful, to the letter of the law. In other words, this man is a person who takes his faith seriously.
What comes next is my favorite part of the story. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Jesus found the man’s question worthy of consideration. And so, our Savior considers this man carefully, looking at him with love, and identifies for him (and ourselves) the challenge of what it means to go past the letter of the law to the heart of its spirit.
It’s a hard question—a challenging response; and as we learn, the man chooses possessions over following the Lord. A sad story, to be certain, but worthy of consideration.
For people who have stuff, and—let’s face it, that’s all of us—we generally consider ourselves to be folks who have the resources to be in charge of ourselves and our destiny. Remember last week, when Jesus places children in front of the disciples and tells them “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Well, children don’t have the capacity to be in charge of their destiny—nothing they have is actually theirs; someone else is literally in charge of them.
So, to enter the Kingdom of God and to truly become a disciple of Christ is to let Jesus be in charge—allowing him to tell you what to do with your time, your talents and your treasure. In other words, “Let go of the stones you are carrying, and let God be in control.”
Today (at our 10:00 a.m. service) we will welcome Callista Ross into the family of God through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. She’s starting her journey in following Christ at an early age. That’s wonderful—because it gives her ample time in life to learn what it means to trust and love Jesus from the beginning of her life and her spiritual journey. So, here is my hope for Callista—that this child has enough in life, but not too much. Enough love, enough wisdom, enough compassion and hope to place her faith in the Lord of Life, but that she not be burdened with what might hinder her from choosing to follow Christ. I wish this for this tiny child; and, in truth, I wish it for all of us. For, I suspect there are a good many of us who stand somewhere in the shadow of the man in today’s gospel lesson—people who possess much of what it means to have a good life: plenty of food, a roof over our heads, a bit of savings, transportation, stocks, bonds and a retirement account—but sometimes find ourselves wondering if something might be missing—something connecting us with the Eternal.
If this is the case, well—there’s good news for us in today’s Gospel. Here, we are challenged—not necessarily to give up all that we have (that’s not what this lesson is about)—but instead to place what we have in perspective with our pursuit of God—to recognize that all we might own is paltry in comparison with the promise of new life offered us in the cross—a love deeper, higher, broader, more dense and glittering than anything we might imagine or possess. Indeed, this is a pursuit worthy of letting go of some of the weight of the “stones” we carry in order that we might find the liberating love of our Savior.
Ask yourself, this week, if you might be carrying burdens that need to be thrown down in order to follow your Lord. And then, ask God for the strength to let them go. In Jesus’ name. Amen.