Some of you may be aware that in 2009 I managed to get the right to purchase tickets to the AFL grand final through the membership ballot. So, an event of my holidays was attending the grand final, and I wasn’t at church amongst you, to make the most of it.
But I want to talk to you about an incident that happened at the grand final. Well it wasn’t, in itself an incident, it was the climax to my built-up frustration. There was a lady two rows in front of me, who, whenever things got a little exciting, would stand up. The consequence of this was that the man directly in front of me would also stand up. And the consequence of this is that I did no see the end result of whatever it was leading to her and my excitement.
The problem was no that she stood up, but that having stood up, she would take what seemed like ages to sit down again, and the play had possibly continued, all missed again. I yelled numerous times to try and get her attention to help her realise what she was doing. Until, I was so frustrated, that I went down to her and, meaning to give her a nudge to get her attention, in my frustration I gave her a little more than a nudge and told her to sit down. Needless to say, the look on her face was sheer horror, and I felt a little guilty, only a little I must confess, about being relatively violent toward her.
I had to watch the replay on the telly the next day to see the behind Tom Hawkins kicked and was paid a goal, to watch the argument between Darren Milburn and the umpire that resulted in a free kink from the goal square and a goal to St Kilda.
Frustration is the result of unfulfilled vision, plans and dreams. I paid good money for our seats at the grand final, to see the grand final, and this person was getting in the way of my vision (literally). Continued frustration can lead to anger.
Frustration is not a sin. Jesus, himself, got frustrated and that is one of the things I think this gospel account of Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man, and the issue of wealth, is revealing to us today.
A young man runs up to Jesus and he kneels before him. His kneeling is not a sign of worship, it is an act of desperation. Like many in our society, and our capitalist culture reinforces the idea, he has tried to find eternal security in wealth – if only I have enough money I will be able to buy the best medicine have the necessary operations, if I only have enough gadgets to not have to work too hard, even a searching of so-called new-age, which is old-age, spiritualities – just check out the number of self-help psychology books that are in the bookshops. To a degree it is true, you and I, who are amongst the richest 10% of the people on this planet have the longest life span, but also have the least expression of religion. So, like us, he still asks, ‘what must I do have eternal life?’
It’s a good question to ask Jesus. It is the right question to ask Jesus and Jesus is the right person to address the question. What is important in the story, however, is the way the man addresses Jesus, ‘Good Teacher.’ Jesus, in his particular way, answers the question by asking a question. I love the way he does that! The basis of the question is to inquire about his motivation, ‘Why?’ ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’ The question amounts to the same question that Jesus asks Peter, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ ‘If God alone is good, and you call me good, do you recognise me as God?’ This is a fundamental theme of Mark’s gospel: who is Jesus and what does it mean to be a disciple.
Jesus does not wait for an answer. Jesus draws the man’s attention to the 10 commandments; not all, not the one’s concerned with how we relate to God, only the last 5 concerned with how we relate to other human beings. The rich man tells Jesus he has kept all those since he was a youth.
And, I love this, ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him.’ This love is a totally unconditional love out of total commitment toward. Jesus’ heart is on the edge of breaking for him as he loved him as the heavenly Father loved him.
Out of this love, Jesus pushes the point of the first 5 of the 10 commandments, response to God. ‘Follow me,’ he says, after giving him instructions to go and sell what he owns and give the money to the poor. But he cannot do it, because he had many possessions. This is not about the man’s wealth in possessions; it is concerned with his inability to respond to God.
Like the man, we too can religiously attend church, have good moral lives, be involved in activities of social justice, participate in activities to support the needy, but still have failed in the ultimate objective of becoming disciples of Christ, and giving our lives to God.
And Jesus is frustrated by the response of the man. He looks around and he makes a poignant joke with his disciples, ‘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 heaven.’ He effectively recognised God in Jesus and yet he cannot make the step to follow him. What more does he want?
Somewhere along the history of biblical commentaries someone stated that the eye of the needle was a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem that a camel needed to be unpacked, and crawl through this small gate when the gates to Jerusalem were locked at night. There is no historical evidence that such a gate ever existed. Jesus is joking. It is physically impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
The disciples respond, ‘Who, then, can be saved?’ Jesus answer: we humans cannot find the eternal life by any of our own means and devices. Only our response to God’s love toward us, only by our choosing to welcome a relationship with God, is God able to achieve that which is impossible for us.
During my holidays, as I spent time mowing the acres and weeding gardens, I found myself feeling frustrated about our work together here at St Stephens, praying, asking God, ‘What more do I need to do for you to fulfil your promise amongst us, what do I need to say, how do I communicate the vision I have for St Stephens? What is it that we, as a church, need to do? What is getting in the way of God achieving his promise to us?’ It is like there is some glass ceiling that we need to break through.
While I was away at the preaching conference between my holidays I had a very brief one-on-one conversation with Peter Adam, the principal of Ridley Theological College. He asked me how I was going and I explained that I was frustrated. In his very quiet wisdom, he said, ‘A sign of good leadership.’ We talked then about having a vision, a plan, a dream, a hope for what could be, and the frustration that will naturally come as a result of not coming to fruition as quickly as hoped or planned or expected.
I found this encouraging. Despite my frustration, there are really good things happening here at St Stephens. We recognise the participation of young families within our 10.00 am service. Without stealing our Treasurer’s Annual-Report-thunder, we have seen a 12% increase in pledge giving. There are very real signs that God is doing some really good things amongst us.
It is normal to feel frustrated. If we do not feel frustrated, we do not have any vision, plans, dreams or hopes, whether for St Stephens or for our personal lives. As Peter Adam reminded me, in his key note address at the conference, we need to trust in God for the promises he has made to us. We will need to give ourselves to God and allow him to bring his vision for us to a reality through us. We need to be asking God to help us trust in him as we wait, sometimes in frustration, for his promise to be fulfilled.