December 2/15, 2019
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ. What does it mean to follow the Lord Jesus Christ? All the martyrs, apostles, and saints through the ages have provided a pattern for being disciples of Christ. The rich young ruler in today’s Gospel asks the age-old question for the would-be disciple, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Lord who knows the heart and sees its true intention perceives that the man is not genuine in his search. He first rebukes him for his flattery in calling him “good teacher” without recognizing his divinity. Then he issues the same call that he did to all disciples, “sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.” The man who only wished to ensnare the teacher with his question became suddenly sad for he was very rich.
Is this our understanding of riches that they bring sadness? The Lord says elsewhere that riches take away the life of him who possesses them (Luke 12:15), and Ecclesiastes promises sleep for a laborer but says that “…the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.” (Ecclesiastes 5:12) If this is the true nature of riches and possessions, why do we Americans spend our life in pursuit of them as a key to happiness? We make our lists and check them twice of all the things we want for Christmas. Among our desires for that new toy, that new car, that new house we forget the cost of owning these things. Could it be that the people we love need our spiritual presence more than these material presents? The command to give everything to the poor frees us from deceptive worldly desire which takes away our life.
The saint we remember at our festival today, the Virgin Martyr Lucia, obeyed this commandment of the Lord. It did not make her sad but rather glad to forsake an earthly husband, give away her entire dowry to the poor and betroth herself to Christ her heavenly bridegroom. Her generosity and radical hospitality angered her father who betrayed his own daughter to the local Roman governor Paschasius. The governor tried burning her at the stake but when the flames did not harm Christ’s holy martyr, he ordered a soldier to slay her with a spear. She left all behind and with all the saints discovered that the secret of inheriting eternal life lies not in the possessions of this life.
And so who are the poor? Who is this man named Lazarus lying clearly by our gate whom we have overlooked in our urgent shopping trips? The other teacher of the law several weeks ago in the parable of the Good Samaritan asked a similar question, “Who is my neighbor? How do I get acquainted with one whom I have overlooked or perhaps even scorned for such a long time?”
A recent movie explores the theme of who is my neighbor. In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers a children’s television show host who for several decades taught children everywhere how to take wonder in ordinary things and be totally and completely present to their neighbor. Lloyd Vogel is a journalist in the movie assigned to do in exposé of the man loved the world over as Mister Rogers. Vogel is top in his craft and has been very successful in investigative pieces which have uncovered the darker side of public figures. His skepticism of Fred Rogers’ genuine nature compels him to get to the bottom of his supposed act. From Vogel’s first phone interview down to the final piece which his editor runs as the cover article, it is clear that Rogers practices what he preaches. And the successful, jaded journalist undergoes his own personal transformation. He begins as the skeptical, rich young ruler and ends with the rediscovery of all the neighbors he has overlooked in his passion for truth telling.
The greatest scene in the movie comes when Vogel meets Rogers in a restaurant at a moment of personal crisis where confesses his brokenness. Mister Rogers recommends a healing practice that he has given many times to his TV neighbors: Quiet yourself for one full minute and recall all the people who have loved you into existence. Then in a very rare cinematic moment, the din of the restaurant settled, the camera focused on Rogers, and after he glanced silently at Vogel, his gaze turned for the rest of that pregnant minute at the audience of the theater. It was unnerving but at the same time enlightening as the actors broke the fourth wall to make the message universal.
What possession or list of things is keeping us this morning from eternal life? Or perhaps it is not material riches but a desire for worldly status: that elusive career move which will finally bring fulfillment? Or, if we are older, a preoccupation with our legacy, how future generations will remember us? This morning’s Gospel reminds us that we inherit eternal life by letting go of the cares of this one. In this season of Advent, we’re not called to shopping but to selling and giving away. Who is the poor neighbor in your vicinity? Give him your goods and inherit eternal life, the best gift on anyone’s shopping list.