Fences Aren't Made for Sitting

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Mark 10:17-25

The First Congregational Church, Columbus

October 12, 2003 -- 18th Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching

In one of the closing scenes of the movie "Gandhi," a Hindu leader comes to Mahatma Gandhi's bedside and pleads with him to end his extended fast. Gandhi reaffirms that he will end his fast only when the Hindus and Muslims stop fighting.

The Hindu leader replies that he hates the Muslims and cannot live in peace with them. To explain this depth of feeling he tells how Muslims took his son and brutally killed him. He, in turn, then captured a Muslim child and killed him in the same way. Then the man added, almost as an afterthought, "I have been living in hell."

Gandhi reflected on this for a few moments and then replied softly, "I think I know a way out of hell. Go and find a boy similar to your son, take him into your home as your son, and raise him as a Muslim."

"Choose life," our Old Testament reading for the morning tells us, and this is the advice Gandhi gave to the man who came to him. Choose life over death, even when it's hard. Take heaven over hell. Decide on a life of blessing over a life of curse.

"See," our text from Deuteronomy says, "See, I have set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. "...I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him...."

Perhaps what we have here is life's most basic choice. We do not choose our parents, nor our time to be born or our country or the circumstances of our early life. We do not choose to die, nor generally the time or conditions of our death.

Yet, in between our beginning and our end, we have the power to choose how we shall live; whether it be courageously or in cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, with purpose or without. We decide what is important and what is trivial in life. We determine what we do or refuse to do. And as we decide and choose, so our lives as a whole become formed.

In the Bible the question of how one shall live is posed frequently, reminding us that we can't come down on the side of both good and evil, heaven and hell, blessing and curse. We may try to straddle the fence, but inevitably we must fall one way or another. The choice is ours to make.

Within this tension we find the story of a man who comes to Jesus one day, a man of wealth, asking what he must do to gain eternal life. We generally understand this request as referring to an afterlife, but the Greek word for "eternal" literally means "of the time to come." And I think that this broader dimension is what Jesus has in mind when he makes his reply. It is something of tomorrow, but it can begin today… if we choose it.

This "now and later" aspect of eternal life is a little like a couple planning to get married. They project ahead to when life together will be a reality, and by so doing, they enter into some of that happiness right now. Or take a family building their dream house. Even before the home is completed, their anticipation allows them to enjoy-- in part-- what the future will bring more fully.

And so Jesus introduces a bit of eternal life into this life. It cannot be not completely realized now, but starts when one chooses to seek it.

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"You know the commandments..."

"I have kept all these since my youth."

"There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and give your money away to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

Unfortunately, the Scriptures say, this man was very rich and was disappointed to hear what was required of him. He steps back because it is more than he is prepared to do. He expected some sacrifice on his part, but not this. What he is asked to do goes right to the heart of his identity and security.

Jesus looked into the man's soul and recognized money as the competing force for the center that must be occupied by God alone. He made it as clear as he could that a person's ultimate trust can only be in one thing. Unfortunately for this man, wealth held the stronger allegiance in his life that day.

Truthfully, though, the issue in the story is not money. The issue is faith. For another person the obstacle could have been power, or pride, or possessions, or any of dozens of other things. It could have been a job or a hobby or even an all-consuming relationship. Almost anything can occupy one's center of attention.

Jesus questions the man about what his life is built on. "If it's wealth," he says, "you can lose that in a minute. If it's fame, that's fleeting. If it's possessions, they can go up in smoke. Whatever the base that we create is transitory and illusion. It's not sufficient to stake one's life upon. When it's gone, it's gone; then what are you left with? I'm giving you the opportunity to choose life over death, meaning over emptiness, real security over false hopes."

In this imaginary, extended conversation the man replies back to Jesus that all this makes sense, but it's hard to accept. To do what he suggests would take a radical change in his thinking. "How can I undo what it's taken me years to build up? How can I give up what I know for something I've yet to experience? What if you're wrong? What if I do what you say and give away my money as if it's not important, then find there is nothing to fill the void at my core? How can I chance it?"

"Friend, I can't decide that for you. I can only tell you what I know, what you came to learn when you sought me out. But this I do promise you: if you get rid of the false security that is the base of your life now, I will show you the way to rebuild your life in a manner that will transform everything for you. Trust me. I won't let you down. Trust me. I won't leave you."

Whatever blocks a person must be pushed aside if he or she is to move ahead. There has to be a willingness to give up something in order to get something more. And to do that we have to get off the fence if we haven't done it already. That can be very hard.

The difficulty of being unable to choose from among competing directions is illustrated in Sylvia Plath's novel "The Bell Jar." In it the narrator, Esther, uses the metaphor of a fig tree to symbolize the possibilities that life holds for her.

The tree branches out in many directions and at the top of each branch is a tempting purple fig. One fig represents a happy home and children, another a career as an educator. Another is a brilliant professor, and yet another is a famous poet. There are figs which represent travel and adventure, and those which symbolize a bevy of lovers.

She says, "I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of these figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."

Well, I think that describes our situation well. We're given a myriad of possibilities in life, but we have to make the choices. Often our indecision leaves us stuck and without satisfaction.

The interesting thing about this man's question is that the answer is relative. God at the center of life is not an option among equals; it is the starting point that lays everything else out in priority. Once you have the base, you can begin to build upon that immediately.

So the question to us is not how does God fit into our lives, among everything else that is important. That's how we tend to think. It won't work. If you have tried that, you know it. The question is not how does God fit into my life, but how does my life fit into God's? Once we realize that everything starts from putting faith at the center, then we can more easily recognize the importance or irrelevance of everything else around us.

The man in our story had to rid himself of his wealth because his identity was so thoroughly caught up with his money. He's like the alcoholic for whom just cutting back on drinking can't put him back in control of his life.

"If anything is so dominating," Jesus might say, "then you may have to get rid of it so that you can start afresh. Other things in life are important, but not when they exert predominant control. Faith can only be centered around one thing. You know you really can't serve two masters."

Moses addressed the people of Israel as they prepared to enter into a covenant with God. They had been led through all their wilderness travels to a certain place and time where the Lord then invited them into a new depth of relationship; yet, the choice was theirs. The gift was apparent, but it was up to them whether to choose life over death, prosperity over adversity, meaning over nothingness.

The rich man was confronted with the same kind of decision. "Whatever you sacrifice," Jesus assures the man, "it will be returned ten-fold, a hundred-fold. Risking your familiar securities will lead you to possibilities not even dreamed of today. I'll show you life as it is intended to be lived, beginning now and extending into the future, which will knock your sandals off! Come, follow me.

The pathway is laid out and our direction is clear. Jesus can point the way, God can promise the reward, but each of us has to make the decision.

Choose life!

Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church

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