14 October 2018, St James United Church of Christ
17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ “ 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Hearing David Weintraub’s Feet
No one likes the gospel passage we just read.
Rich people don’t like it because it says they have to give up their money — there’s no way to pretend it doesn’t — and poor people don’t like it for very long because if they get what they want, which is the rich people’s money, then the inversion principle at the end of the passage flips them over into what they don’t want.
You lack one thing.
What do you lack?
I would bet that if you close your eyes and pretend you’re alone with your honest self, the one from whom no secrets are hid, you’ll see the lack of many things. I know I do. So does the man in this story, the one who’s done everything right, and has a lot of money. He runs up to Jesus and drops to his knees. In the gospel of Mark, that posture is reserved for sick people who are begging to be well. Can you follow all the rules, and play on all the right teams, and eat at all the right tables, and make a lot of money, and still feel like there’s something wrong with you?
When you lie down at the end of a good day, in the good life you’ve built for yourself, is the prospect of another one just like it ever hard to face?
“I’ve done everything right,” this man says with his words. And: “Something is terribly wrong with me,” he says with his posture.
What are we supposed to think about that?
One of the great blessings of the Revised Common Lectionary is that it invites us to read five different texts in light of each other every week, and one of the companion texts this week is a passage from the Book of Job, which may be the most disturbing book in the Bible, because it seems to say something like, “Is that really how you think the world should work?”
Job is the richest man in the east. He’s also blameless and upright, like the man who runs up to Jesus and drops to his knees, except in Job the symbiotic relationship between wealth and uprightness is clear.
Well of course he’s blameless and upright, Satan says: you built a hedge around him. Open the hedge, and he’ll curse you to your face.
We don’t want God to open the hedge — that’s not how the world should work! — but God does open the hedge, and Satan goes through. He burns down Job’s house, and kills his animals, and kills his children, and then covers his entire body in a plague of boils — his inner sickness oozing out.
“You must have done something to bring calamity down upon your head,” Job’s friends insist, but they’re wrong about that. Job keeps telling them they’re wrong, and they keep saying they’re right, and then Job begins to suggest that in a better world, God would back him up:
“Oh, that I knew where I might find him,” Job says, “that I might come even to his dwelling! There an upright person could reason with him, there I would be acquitted by my judge.”
You know the commandments, Jesus says: don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t fornicate.
I’ve done all that since my youth, the man says.
Then, we’re told, looking at him, Jesus loves him.
I love this guy! He’s awesome! And also sick, apparently.
Could the sickness be related to believing that the love depends on doing all things right?
You lack one thing.
I have not done all things right, or played on the right teams, or eaten at the right tables, but I’ve done some things right, and I’ve tried to make up for what I’ve done wrong, which counts for something, doesn’t it? And now finally late in life I’m honoring the voice I’ve been ignoring since my youth — is it still there, after 40 years? — finally listening to it and trying to follow. So if it says sell everything, okay, I’ll sell everything.
Except my boots. I have excellent boots.
These are Chippewas. I also have Lowas, Zamberlans, Filsons, and Red Wings. I wear excellent boots all the time, even in my house, even sitting at my desk, because they make me feel capable: I can go anywhere, on foot, right now. Like if the car of my life suddenly breaks down, it doesn’t matter: I can walk. I wrote this sermon in my Filsons, because it’s folly to assume you’ll be given a moment to gather your things: the hedge will open instantly, without warning, for no reason.
I wear three-hundred-dollar leather-lined hiking boots when I go to the bathroom. They’re the answer to my particular disease, which is that I expect to be put out, at any moment, even now, like Adam: “Go!” I expect you to say. The fundamental human experience is expulsion, isn’t it? “Out!” I expect you to say. You’re just waiting for the moment when the putting-out will bring the curtain down in most dramatic fashion. That moment’s power to wound me will be mitigated in exact proportion to the viability of what I’m wearing on my feet.
You know that song by Tom Petty: “You don’t, have, to live like a refugee — You don’t have to live like a refugee!” Maybe not, but I can.
Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. All right, but not my boots. I’m not selling my boots.
There’s a story a few chapters back in the Gospel of Mark that I find especially unsettling. Jesus has just been kicked out of his home town by people who know that his mother was pregnant before she got married — that he’s illegitimate: a bastard. Now, having been sidelined by disdain, Jesus tells the twelve disciples to go out and do what he’s been doing.
I’m signing up for that, finally: send me.
But he prepares them in a way that I can’t tolerate. Don’t take anything with you, he says: no food, no bag, no money. Don’t even take an extra shirt. And, most alarmingly for me, take off those boots and go in sandals. Get ready by getting unready, Jesus says. That way, when you’re rejected, as I just was, you won’t have recourse to any of the things we usually hold up against our awful fear of vulnerability. That way, when you get hungry, and it starts to rain, and you start muttering against the people who put you out, those so-and-sos who don’t recognize the gift of God when it walks through their door, you’ll have no way to protect yourself except by turning to those people, or to God.
In other words, to do this work you have to unprotect yourself: take off not your shoes but rather the illusion that your shoes can make a difference.
I’m not going to do that.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came here to experience this congregation’s extravagant welcome for the first time, wearing these boots, and I saw the liturgist walk up the aisle barefoot. It was summer then, so I figured maybe he had slipped off his Birkenstocks in the pew and forgot to step back into them. But the next time I came, he was barefoot, too. It was autumn then, and his big-toe nails were painted sky blue.
When you all invited me to preach here for the first time, and I was trying to convince my friend Alex to come and play piano, I said, “This place is not like other churches: the worship leader is a barefoot guy.” By which I meant to say that this is not a place that cultivates social sameness. But I’ve come to believe that David Weintraub’s feet say more than that.
What do they say?
Every time I lace my boots, I listen for the voice of David Weintraub’s feet. When I walk across the gravel at the farm, I listen for the voice of David Weintraub’s feet. When it rains, when it snows, when the pavement is so hot that it feels spongy, I listen for the voice of David Weintraub’s feet. When I dress to meet with the committee overseeing my ordination, I listen for the voice of David Weintraub’s feet. When I watch homeless people put on their pitiful shoes and walk out of the shelter into another day, I listen for the voice of David Weintraub’s feet.
Mostly, when my personal protections fail, when the lenses I’ve been grinding and polishing for the last fifty years to make the world look how I need for it to look, to make my self look how I need for it to look — eloquence, rigor, acuity — when all those lenses prove, again, to be so many fish scales on my eyes, and I run off the road in blindness again — how did it happen, again? — I listen for the voice of David Weintraub’s feet.
I’m beginning to believe that what they say is: here I am.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote to David Weintraub to say that I’d be here today, preaching on a passage that lifts up the fundamental human desire to make ourselves invulnerable, which is impossible, so at least to feel invulnerable. “And it has occurred to me,” I wrote, “that walking through the world barefoot must heighten one’s sense of vulnerability rather than diminishing it. Has that been the case for you?” I asked.
He said yes, exactly that. Living barefoot means that he can’t stomp through life without minding where and how he steps, which forces him to confront his true place in the world. “Embracing vulnerability is central to that experience,” he said.
Embracing vulnerability: in other words, take off the illusion that your shoes can make a difference.
Some of you may remember the sermon David offered on Ash Wednesday, while the Ku Klux Klan was distributing recruitment materials right here in Lovettsville, materials targeting people outside the normative circle, like David. In response to that targeting, he asked you to take off your shoes, that you might experience vulnerability, powerlessness, and humility in the way Jesus wanted his disciples to experience those things. “Vulnerability can open you to feelings and connections in ways you don’t expect,” he said. Humility means facing and accepting our place in the universe and our relationship with other beings, including beings who reject us, as the purveyors of the KKK rejected him.
“If trying to love people like that sounds crazy,” he said, “that’s because it feels like giving up power and protection. But giving up power and protection is subversive,” he said. “It’s rejecting the normative order of things in which we save our love for people like ourselves.” Our love and our protection, the order which tells us that escaping human vulnerability is right, and good, and possible.
“I’ve kept all the commandments from my youth!” says the rich man, from the posture that says help me, help me, help me.
“You lack one thing,” Jesus says, and I tell you this because I love you, not in order that you might achieve my love.
I’ll close with a final thought on the normative order of things and the way I think the world should work.
There’s a pivotal moment in the Book of Genesis when God speaks to Abraham for the first time. After watching Abraham go about his ordinary business in Haran for seventy years, God says, “Abram, lech lecha,” in the original Hebrew text. English translations of the Bible, all of which reflect the normative order of things, render that command as, ‘Go forth from your father’s house.’ But the words really mean something quite different from that: lech lecha means, ‘Walk toward your self.’ So the entire Abrahamic tradition, which produces Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, begins with the command to walk toward your self, a command so inconsistent with the way we think the world should work that we English speakers make God say something else.
Walk toward yourself, God says, and Abraham does, for a long time. I would suppose that he spent his first out, and many nights thereafter, praying something like the prayer of Francis of Assisi: “Who are you, O God, and who am I?”
Connecting those two questions to each other unsettles my perception of myself, and my perception of God. Who are you, Oh God, that you should tell me to walk toward myself, and who am I that I should be walked toward?
The only way to answer that question is to walk toward our selves — our true selves, not the ones who think the world’s supposed to work a certain way, not the ones who trust in the protection of a better pair of shoes.
My wish for all of us is that we might take that walk, without trying to make God say something that conforms to how we see the world, or where we think the road should go, or who we think God is, or who we think we are.