Hi everyone, I’m so glad that I get to be with you today.
The text I want to spend some time with today is from Gospel of Mark, Chapter 10:
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.”
21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] 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.
So, before I dive into that text, I want to set the stage with a story from my own life. Back when I first from graduated college, I worked as a high school debate coach for a couple of years. I worked mostly with 8th and 9th graders – my job was to coach people through their novice season and give them a foundation of skills to build on later.
Now, I’ve always been a really effusive person, and I love using endearments and terms of affection for people that I care about. But I didn’t want to be too familiar with my students or make anybody uncomfortable, so I decided to pick a nickname all my own to use. I’m not really sure why I landed on this nickname in particular – but I wound up calling them sunflowers.
They’d come back and tell me they’d won a round and I’d say,
“I knew you could do that, sunflower.”
Or I’d start of practice, getting their attention with the name. When I gave them all little awards for the year, I put a sunflower on their certificates.
Because it was so prevalent, the image has very much stuck with me in the years since, whenever I think of that time, but now the more I think about it, the more I think it was unexpectedly applicable. Today, I want to share why, why when I think of love, I think of a sunflower.
So, to explain, let me share the first thing I always tell a new group of students when I start coaching them. I sit them down, usually at the end of the first practice, after we’ve played some games and I’ve started to get to the know them. I tell them,
if you’re in this activity because you want to win, find something different to do.
Because, no matter how good you are, there will always be someone out there who’s better. That’s not to say you’ll never win or that you shouldn’t try to or that you shouldn’t enjoy winning. But, if you think the only point to doing this is winning, if you measure your identity as a debater, as a student, as a person, by the number of wins you have – it really doesn’t matter how much you win, because there will always be a point at which you lose. It doesn’t matter how smart or skilled you are, somebody, someday will be able to beat you.
Instead, I tell them,
find something about this activity that you love – research, public speaking, whatever – and focus your energy on pursuing that. Wins will likely follow – but, in any case, you’ll be much happier and get a lot more out of it.
I’m pretty proud of that advice.
And I’m pretty terrible at following it. At least in my life outside of debate.
Our text today is often referred to as the story of the rich young ruler and I think I’m a lot like that young man. Well, I’m not rich or a ruler. But, if I imagine someone introducing me like the writer introduces the rich young ruler, I assume they’d say something like: the grad student, the intern, the person with these degrees or who holds that job. Maybe I’d be a bit more expansive: perhaps I’m the wife or the sister or the daughter, but, nevertheless, it’s likely to be something that’s immediately obvious from my Facebook page. I would have a title, a role, a descriptor.
And that’s not really a problem. I am all of those things and most, if not all of them, are good. But there’s a difference between recognizing that I am those things and thinking that they are all that I am.
I did debate for many years and I was good at it. I was a winning debater. But, like I tell my students, if that’s all I am, what happens when I lose?
What happens when I’m a student but don’t make the grade, what happens when I’m an employee but don’t perform and what happens when I’m a sister who fails in my obligations?
I think the rich young ruler sensed some of this tension. I imagine him as someone who was doing just a great job at being a rich young ruler. I mean, he had to be, right, to come out and say, publicly and point blank, that he had kept the entire law since his childhood. Wish I had that confidence.
Except he didn’t, really, did he? If he was so confident in his keeping the law, if he really believed that it was enough, if he thought that he actually was such a perfect rich young ruler – then why is he here, asking Jesus what else he can do? I think he’s here in this story because, despite all his bravado, he doesn’t feel like he’s enough.
He feels like something’s wrong. And whether that’s because he’s failed in some way he’s hiding from Jesus or himself or just because he’s scared he will fail someday, I don’t know. But I feel that way too.
I can keep winning debates as much as I want, but if that’s the most important thing, I will always be scared of the day that I lose.
Let me take this out of the hypothetical. I said that I coached debate after I finished college, but the real story is how I got there in the first place.
I’d been a debater for many years, yes, but that had never been the career plan. In college, I studied math and my plan was to get a career in that field, hopefully in academia. I spent years building my skills and my experiences to that end before it all came crashing down.
The summer before my senior year I was at school, doing math research. During that same summer, like happens to so many young 20-somethings before me, my mental health took a turn for the worse. I suddenly found myself unable to do things that had been, if not easy, then very much within my reach before. I found myself overwhelmed by even the most mundane tasks, barely able to turn in a journal entry or keep up with my emails. I was managing new levels of anxiety on a daily basis.
By the fall, due to side-effects of ineffective medication, I was having at least one panic attack every day. By the time I got that particular chemical imbalance sorted out, I’d missed deadlines for grad school applications and had to pull out of a class I would have needed to be competitive for grad school. While I was lucky – incredibly lucky – to still be able to graduate given the circumstances of the year, I did so without any idea what to do with myself and a resume that no longer fit any realistic career path, at least an immediate one.
I am at a bit of a loss to describe how that all felt. I had defined myself as a successful academic for so long that when I lost the ability to perform to my and other people’s standards, it felt like I was losing myself entirely. My perceived intelligence and standard of academic output was so completely wrapped up in my identity that my brain’s malfunction felt like a betrayal of my being.
I never knew what I’d be capable of on any given day, I didn’t know who I was without those capabilities. I had been a smart student for most of my life and I suddenly found myself a student no longer and without any guarantee that I could even use my smarts, such as they were, any more.
It was this version of myself that found me coaching debate at a high school. A version of myself that was haggard, intellectually and emotionally, unsure of who I wanted to become and even less sure how to get there.
Much like the rich young ruler, I thought I knew what it meant to be me. I had a vision of how to enter the kingdom of heaven. And, quite suddenly, I found that vision wanting.
You know the cool thing about sunflowers? They follow the sun. Like, they move. Over the course of day, they track the sun’s movement in the sky. They don’t just face one way, all certain-sure of themselves; they keep turning, every day, towards the thing that gives them life.
I think there’s a sense in which that’s Jesus’ answer to the rich young ruler. The rich young ruler says,
‘I’ve achieved everything I think I should be. I am the best me that I can be, I’ve picked the best direction to face. How can I make that better?’
“Jesus, 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.’”
The rich young ruler comes to Jesus asking what else he can do, since he’s already good. And Jesus makes him question what goodness is in the first place. The rich young ruler says,
‘what can I add to myself now that I am such a wonderful rich young ruler?’
And Jesus says,
‘you’re asking that question because you think that the ‘rich young ruler’ is all you are. Can I invite you to a better way of being?’
I want to be clear; I think Jesus is definitely actually telling this man to divest himself of privilege and give his money to the poor in the most literal sense. I just also think he’s asking for more than a one-time thing. I don’t think that this command would be fulfilled with one day of generous, even extremely generous, giving. It’s not like he could sell everything, then hoard wealth for the rest of his life and Jesus would be like ‘cool.’
No, the point is that Jesus invites the rich young ruler into a new kind of relationship with others, a new way of understanding goodness and what it means to be good. He opens up the possibility of a version of identity that’s not based on how many good actions he’d done in the past, instead based on right relationship with others, as messy and changeable as that is.
That’s what I mean by the sun.
The rich young ruler walked away from this exchange shocked and sad – and why shouldn’t he? I’ve had my identity uprooted the way that Jesus was asking this man to uproot his – and it hurts. But it did give me the chance for something better.
See, when I was coaching debate, something occurred to me. I’d spent so much of my life thinking I was going to do something ‘big and important.’ I thought I was all those big and important things I was going to do. And I realized, one day, that I had had a measurable, tangible, meaningful effect on my students’ lives. Not a huge one, mind you. But not nothing either. I had made others’ lives better in some capacity.
And I realized that that was enough. That if that were the sum total of what my life ‘accomplished,’ that would be ok. That maybe, instead of winning, I could focus my passion for life on that.
Meaningful relationships give me life. They are where my faith manifests. I see God in the faces of the people that I love and I feel in touch with the Divine when I try to make others’ lives better.
Jesus asked the rich young ruler to stop being rich, yes – but he also offered him something in its place. A being based in his relationship to others rather than what he held over and above them. A being based around things that give life rather than everything this young man thought made his life.
And Jesus asks me to do that every day, to keep turning away from all my self-serving, grandiose ideas of myself, from the idea that I need to be successful enough, smart enough, good enough – and towards being in right relationship today.
This turn gives me hope. Like the sunflowers that inspired me, I keep turning towards the sun.