Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“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” (Mark 10:25). Despite this, or maybe because of it, today we baptize little Salma and little Antonio so God may do for them what we who love them cannot.
We baptize them to receive new life by drowning. We baptize them to become children of a new humanity, to be born from above, to live like fish out of water, and to pass through the eye of the needle. We baptize in faith and hope that what is impossible for mortals is indeed possible for God.
Spiritual writer Anne Lamott writes about baptism, “Christianity is about water for God’s sake,” she remarks. It’s about immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry; looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and rivers and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time, it’s also holy and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving into all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.” In baptism, we are delivered from the shallow birdbath of culture and the daily news and immersed in the waters of life that go way over our heads.
These past five Saturdays I had the privilege of learning with Christians brothers and sisters taking part in Diakonia (the two-year adult study of scripture and theology in the Metro Chicago Synod). We examined the five phrases in the single sentence that is the covenant we affirm in baptism. “Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?” To which we respond, “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.” (ELW, p. 1164)
It’s going back a few years now, but I’m remembering a scene in the Broadway musical, A Chorus Line. In that grueling audition, one of the dancers, named Michael, tells a story about what drives him to perform. His big sister got all the dance lessons, while he had to insist and to prove and convince everyone “I can do that. I can do that. I can do that!” It was the beginning of a professional career in dance.
In baptism, our career in Christ begins by admitting exactly the opposite. The key that unlocks and swings open the great gate turns as we switch from I can to I can’t. The day Martin Luther died his wife and children prepared his body for burial. They found a small handwritten note in his pocket. It read: “We are all beggars.” We stand in need of grace to draw us into the life we were created to live. We move through the eye of the needle to and through the way of the cross, into the abundant and forever life we share in Christ starting today and into eternity. We can’t do this, but God can.
This might be the great question in every life. How do we get there from here? I imagine a man sitting on a bench in the park across the street watching his children play. He finished college in four years. Got married at 24. He realizes his biggest accomplishment in life is that he is reliable, responsible and respectable. He neither gives nor causes offense. You can take him anywhere without worry. He is a good neighbor, a good husband, a good father, even an occasional church-goer. But he wonders, is this all there is to my life?
Imagine a woman who decides to come to church with a friend. She is a citizen of the world. She is careful to turn off lights before leaving a room. She buys local and eats organic. She enjoys a warm circle of creative, left-of-center friends. She wants to contribute to the creation of an alternative culture. She hopes that she is making the world a better place, but she wonders with all the hatred and division how is it possible?
Each of them is like the young man in our gospel today. He is bothered by life’s ultimate questions. He is restless and unsatisfied. He kept the faith his whole life. He has amassed a fortune. Yet despite his righteous reputation and accumulated riches, he comes before Jesus as a needy man.
Notice, he waited until the last moment. As Jesus is about to leave, he ran up, knelt before him and asked the big question. It is the honest, sincere question of a man dedicated to conforming his life to God’s will and doing what is best. “Good Teacher”, he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)
The man in across the street wonders what he should do to make his life more fulfilling. The woman in church just for fun with her friend wonders if what she does really matters. The wealthy sincere young man wonders what he can do to eliminate the nagging feeling there is something that he is missing.
Our gospel says Jesus looked at the young man intently and loved him. This is the only person in the gospel of Mark Jesus is said to love. Yet Jesus’ answer is both wonderful and terrifying. What can you do, Jesus asks? What can you do to make your life better? Nothing. But see, God brings everything you are, but nothing you possess, through the eye of the needle.
The text says the man “was shocked and went away grieving.” I imagine it was sticker shock. The abundant life in Christ proved unaffordable. He considered his wealth an entitlement — a symbol not only of his worldly accomplishments but also of God’s favor. How terrible to be told that his best credential was a liability and a burden. How grievous to realize that God’s kingdom was not custom designed for his ease — that he might not like it, or agree with its priorities, or find common cause with its inhabitants. How shocking to encounter a God who is so scandalously honest — a God who strips us of our entitlements and freely hands us reasons to walk away. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus)
The key that unlocks the great gate is “I can’t” rather than “I can.” Through the eye of the needle, although we lose all our possessions, we receive gifts of the spirit. By gifts such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we become reconciled to God and to one another (Galatians 5:22). These gifts sustain our community here at Immanuel. These gifts nourish love in our families and kindle warmth between neighbors. These gifts have the power to repair the breach in our democracy and restore dignity to our civic life. Through the eye of a needle, in the waters of baptism, from lament into glory, from death into life, “I can’t” becomes “we can.” For little Salma and Antonio, for the man across the street, and the woman visiting the church with her friend, for you and for me, this is what God has done that we could not. Praise be to God.