I was 17 when I had a faith encounter that changed my life. The story of the encounter was not so dramatic, but what happened immediately after was. At the time I was working in a professional summer stock theatre group at Tanglewood Park, outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I helped build sets mostly, but I also acted in a play, with professional actors, and did lights and sound for some of the productions.
At the time I wanted to go into theater as a profession. I wanted to be an actor, but ultimately I wanted to direct plays. I had been doing community and high school theater for years, and now that I was working with the big boys, I saw that I could hold my own with the pros, and and I wanted to turn pro.
But then I had a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, and all that changed. I still loved theater, but I knew that if I were follow that path, my faith was likely to be compromised. The promise I made to myself when I had the faith encounter was I was either going to be all in, or all out. There were too many things I loved that were not helpful for a life of faith, and if I was not all in, I knew these things could put me all out. I was doing the sound and lights for the second to last play of the season, and we were covered for the last play. I decided I would finish my commitment to the current production, and leave after.
The last night of the play I knew I had to tell the theater director that I was leaving. Before the show started he told me he wanted to see me after the play. I dreaded telling him, because there was no way to say what I wanted to say without sounding like a religious kook. “Sorry, I am leaving, but Jesus is calling me to a different path.”
I had no idea what I was going to say. I ran the lights, and the production ended, the cast took their final curtain call, and as I was dimming the stage lights, and bringing up the house lights, I saw the theater director in the wings waiting for me. I really didn’t want to have this conversation, but I knew I had to. There was something deep inside of, perhaps the Holy Spirit, that convinced me I was doing the right thing by leaving this thing I loved so much.
The director took me aside, and said, “I’ve got good news for you. We are going to get an equity card.” If you don’t know what that is, it’s an actor’s union card. You have to have one if you want to work professional theater, and they are really hard to get. And he was offering me one, the very night I was going to walk away from it all!
I thanked him, but in the end I did tell him that I was going to pursue other things. I didn’t say anything about my faith, because I didn’t really know how to, but I did walk away.
I did perform in plays later, but as a hobby. I knew that my life was heading in another direction.
The night I walked away, it was as if I heard Jesus say, I love and I accept you, but there is one thing you lack. Give away your commitment to theater, and come and follow me. And I did just that. And I never really looked back.
The young man in this morning’s Gospel lesson was faced with a similar situation.
I have to tell you, he does not come across well in this story, for a variety of reasons.
It all starts with his question to Jesus–What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Being two thousand years removed from the text, we don’t think that question is too strange. Christianity is, at a basic level, about eternal life. When people talk about getting saved, they mean they are saved for eternal life, hopefully an eternal paradise.
However in that context, this is a strange question. Most of the people that come to Jesus with requests have very specific, and very earthly needs. They want to be healed, or they want Jesus to intervene in a family dispute about money, or they want to know when Jesus is going to do his political revolution. Life was hard back then, and not a lot of people had the leisure to sit back and think about eternal life. They were just trying to get through this life!
But not this young man. Apparently he has all he needs for this life. While everyone else is wondering how they are going to feed their families through the winter months, or even how they are going to feed their family tomorrow, he comes asking about eternal life. Who’s got time for that? Well, this man does.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus’ answer is probably not he expected. First of all, Jesus is not affected by the flattery. No one else in all of scripture calls Jesus “Good Teacher.” They call him teacher, rabbi, but not Good teacher. That has kind of a smarmy effect.
Jesus calls him on that. “Why do you call me good?” He knew the guy was just trying to butter him up. “No is good but God.” Now being the Son of God, Jesus surely has claim to being called good. But there was something about the way this guy did it. It is kind of like when you get a phone call from someone you don’t know, and they start by buttering you up. I don’t know about you, but when I hear that on the phone, I know someone is trying to sell me something. But Jesus will play his game. He answers the question. “You know the commandments,” he said. “Don’t kill people. Don’t commit adultery, don’t steal.” Jesus rattles off the commandments.
The young man smiles. This is the answer he was expecting. He’s got this down. “Teacher,” he says, omitting the “good” this time, “I have been doing this since I was a youth.” It’s a lock. He has everything he needs in this life, and now he has just heard that he is set up for eternity! He’s about to walk away, but Jesus isn’t finished with him yet. He looks at him. You’ll notice that I have been a little contemptuous of this man. Not Jesus. Mark tells us, he loved this young man. One thing you lack, he says, with love. One thing. The man listened, sure it would be some small act of kindness he could perform, and maybe, he assumed, Jesus was going to ask him to support him in his ministry. One thing you lack said Jesus. “Get rid of your money. Give it away. You don’t need it. If you are really interested in eternal life, let go of the things that are keeping you nailed down in this life.”
Everyone standing around watching this exchange was shocked. This was the last thing the man had expected to hear. This was the last thing anyone expected Jesus to say.
In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings, If I were a rich man…. In the song he dreams of all the things he could do if he were rich. He would build a great house, he would have a yard full of chickens, he would hire many servants for his wife, he would be respected by everyone in the town. But best of all, he sings:
If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray,
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall,
And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men
Seven hours every day
That would be the sweetest thing of all
For Tevye, the only way to really grow close to God was to have the time to leisurely read the holy books, instead of having to scratch for a living day by grueling day. This man that comes up to Jesus, has all the time and leisure he needs to pursue the godly life. If anyone can be saved, it is this man. So really, when he came up to Jesus to ask him how he can come into glory in the afterlife, he thought he knew the answer. He was pretty sure that if anyone was going to inherit eternal life, he would. He had inherited everything else he needed in this life–so why not the afterlife as well?
On thing you lack, said Jesus.
One thing you lack, said Jesus.
And it was exactly the one thing the young man was not willing to part with.
One thing you lack.
This man did not lack anything. At least not in a material sense. He had probably never heard those words before. “One thing you lack.” He had everything. And ironically, what he had was exactly what he lacked. He thought all his wealth would somehow assure his place in heaven. Imagine how surprised he was to learn it was the one thing keeping him from heaven! Surprised and sad, because the one thing we had to give up was the one thing he could not give up.
If Jesus were to say to you, “You are doing really well in life, but one thing you lack,” what might that one thing be? For some people, God is calling them to give drugs or alcohol, or gambling, or some other kind of addiction. For others, it might be a something else they cling to, something else they think will give them security, and perhaps it does give earthly security, but not heavenly security. We might cling to our dignity, to our possessions, to our ability to get our own way. We might cling to things that seem strange to cling to, like our insecurities, our fears, our anxieties. We might even cling to our notion of what religion is supposed to be, unwilling to let it go even in the face of Jesus’ call to let it go.
We cling to things because we think they will get us through this life. We think they will save us. Letting go of some thing is like letting go of hope.
When Jesus told the disciples that the rich would actually have a harder time getting into heaven than the poor, the people were astonished. “If the rich, who have the leisure to do all the things God requires cannot be saved, then who can be?” Everyone knew that the Rich had a much better chance of getting into heaven than anyone else. But now Jesus is telling them different, and if they rich cannot be saved, then who can?
With God, all things are possible, said Jesus. It is not about how much you have. It is not about all the things we do. It is not about being the best person or the most holy person or about the being the person who is in church the most. With God, all things are possible. It is God who saves us, it is God who assures our place in eternity, it is God who acts to save us.
We cooperate with what God is doing. We keep ourselves open to the work of God in our lives. That was what Jesus was doing with the rich young ruler. He was trying to help him be more open to the work of God in his life. But he was ready to do that. Not yet.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had ignored that voice in me that said, “One thing you lack–walk away from the theater.” I would certainly not be here today. I would not be a pastor. I would not be doing what I love. I’m pretty sure that my faith would not have survived a life in theater, even if I was able to succeed in it.
In short, had I not walked away, I would have been a poorer person. I did walk away because I wanted to be a pastor. I had no idea what I wanted to be, but I was pretty sure that I did NOT want to be a pastor. I walked away from theater with no idea what I was walking toward. Well, that’s exactly true. I knew I was walking toward Jesus. And they say if you take one step toward Jesus, Jesus takes three steps toward you. That has been my experience in the 43 years since that night.
Sometimes I have wondered what my life would have been like if I had ignore that voice, but I have never regretted what I did that night. If the young man in the story had heeded Jesus’ voice, I think he would have found himself a richer man. There are times when God calls us to some hard things. But in the end, those hard things lead to an easier life of faith.