“Sharper Than a Two-Edged Sword” Mark 10:17-31, Hebrews 4:12-16. Donald Dotterer, PhD, 10/14/18.

 

          In the world of sports, an all important factor is depth. Mike Sullivan, the coach of the Penguins says of the 2018 version of his hockey team, “We’re certainly deeper this year.”

          What he means by that is that the team has good players on all four of the lines they put out on the ice.[i]  A team needs depth in players because inevitably players get hurt and need to have capable replacements.

          In sports, the players that the coach puts out there needs to be good from top to bottom.  That is how a team achieves depth in sports. 

But what about our lives?  How do we learn to live life with depth and meaning, with purpose and satisfaction?

Adam Crowley writes that depth is one of the most coveted attributes in human living.  Whatever vocation or interests we have, we aspire to have a depth of knowledge.  Many people both young and old search for the deeper meaning of life.

          But how do we make our lives count for something important?  That you might say is the $64,000 question. Everywhere around us we hear voices calling us to live shallow and superficial lives without depth or purpose or meaning.  The advertising industry exists to entice us to buy products that will make us happy and admired by others.

          I currently drive Hondas.  Honda bases some of its commercials on dreams.  Maybe you remember the one about the little boy playing with toy cars watching his dad wash their boring family sedan in the driveway.  The boy dreams about driving a glorious racecar.  The message:  buy a Honda and your dreams will come true.

          Well, they’re good cars.  But they haven’t made my dreams come true.  Not yet, anyway. Commercials for cars and clothes and jewelry, perfume and cologne and a multitude of other products proclaim that these things of the world will satisfy our hearts’ desires. But the stuff of this world will not do that.  Not even 21st century things.  Never has and never will.

          Not that any of things in themselves are bad.  It’s how they can distract from what is really important.  It’s about keeping things in perspective. 

Deep in our hearts we know this of course.  But the ads still affect us. hose companies aren’t spending those millions of dollars on advertising for nothing.

We see this superficiality everywhere we go.  Our political conversations on social media and other places are so often shrill and shallow and lacking in facts and in truth.  We find ourselves avoiding conversation about serious and important issues because we are afraid of the conflict.  After the 2016 election it was reported that many people were avoiding Thanksgiving Day dinners with family because of the fear of heated, unpleasant arguments.  We avoid the important problems that need our very best thought and discussion and action

          This is time of year when people are getting into Halloween.  It used to be just a fun time for elementary kids to have parties and go trick or treating.  But Halloween has morphed into an adult holiday—but that’s not to say that the behavior is adult.

          Did you know that after Christmas, Halloween is the most decorated holiday of the year?  Some people really go all out don’t they?  I always say think what we could do if those people would get that excited about church.

          That’s not to say we shouldn’t have some fun.  But shallowness and superficiality are all around us, and they threaten to render us useless in a world that needs depth and meaning and purpose. So what is the antidote?  What is the cure?  As always, we can find the answer in God’s Word.

           Let’s look first of all at the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.  The preacher says to his congregation, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword . . . .And before him (that is before God) no creature is hidden . . . .”

          What that means is this--that we may be able to hide behind the superficiality of the world.  We may be able to wear a mask in front of other people. 

But the word of God—that is the voice and work of Jesus Christ and God’s Spirit--is alive and it is active.  And that word penetrates to the very deepest part of our souls.  God sees who and what we really are. 

          The active, living word of God goes to the very core of who we are as human beings.  There is no hiding from God in Jesus Christ.  And what will God find when he goes to that place deep inside of us?

          I believe that the two-edged sword is an excellent metaphor to get at the heart of who we are as men and women.  When we speak of a two-edged sword in secular language, we are talking about something that has or can have both favorable and unfavorable consequences.

          I came across this story from the Associated Press.  It reported that 2018 has been a banner year for the spider population in the town of Aitoliko, Greece.  Fueled by a huge increase in the numbers of lake flies which spiders like to eat, the spiders have reproduced unusually fast.   They have covered trees and bushes and ground vegetation with blankets of thick sticky spider webs.  Some are over 300 meters in length.

Ugh!  How creepy is that!

          But there is a good side to the spider infestation.  Local residents say that the spiders and their webs have had the unexpected advantage of keeping mosquitos away.[ii]  Which just goes to show that there are two sides to almost everything in life!    

          That’s a two-edged sword.  And our lives are like that, are they not?  We all have those spiders and cobwebs inside and outside of us.

But there is a good side to us as well.  Everyone is a mixed up combination of the good and the bad.  And sometimes the bad within us helps us to recognize what we need to change and the outcome is the good.

          On the one hand when the eyes of God penetrate our souls, God will see the bad part of us, the selfish, greedy, hurtful side of us that we fight to suppress.

          We all need confession.  That is why it’s part of our communion service.

          But on the other hand, when God looks at us he will also see the side of us that is good and kind and generous.  The word of God pierces the soul and reveals what is at the very core of us, both good and bad.  There is no hiding from God in Jesus Christ, nothing that God cannot see.

We see this truth illustrated for us in an unforgettable way in the story of the rich man who came to Jesus asking a legitimate question.  The man asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

          Not a bad question, right?  Isn’t that what we’re all hoping for?  Eternal life at the end of it all in this life?

          This fellow generally gets a bad rap because he could not do what Jesus said he needed to do, and that is to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. I find it interesting that Jesus doesn’t ask this man to give up his money.  It’s his possessions that he needs to part with.

We are told that the poor fellow—well, he was a rich fellow, actually—was “shocked.” We are told that he goes away “grieving, for he had many possessions.”

          We aren’t told why this grieved him so.  Maybe it was because he wanted to leave all his stuff to his kids.  Who knows? In any event, Jesus asked him to give up his stuff.  How many of us are ready to do that?

There are some days when I feel like I could do that right now and never look back.  I don’t know about you, but we’ve got so much stuff we don’t know what to do with it.

          I don’t know how it even happened.  It just grew and grew and grew over the years.  I wouldn’t even know how to go about selling my stuff if I wanted to.

          As one of you said to me last week as I was bringing stuff in for the rummage sale, “Some days I’m ready to call Goodwill and tell them to just take whatever they want.  No, they can just take it all.”  Maybe that’s what Jesus is talking about here. But seriously, we do spend a lot of time and energy taking care of our stuff, do we not?  Imagine what life would be like if we were free from all of that maintenance and detail work and responsibility.  Food for thought.

Well, anyway, this fellow was a good man.  He was a righteous, upstanding citizen.  He’s the kind of person we would love to have join our church. He had kept the Ten Commandments.  He had done everything that he had learned in the synagogue that he should do.

          But he had a lot of stuff.  And for some reason he just couldn’t let go of it.

          It is interesting to see how Jesus spoke to him.  Jesus didn’t speak to him harshly or critically.  Jesus isn’t angry with him because he is rich.

Indeed, we are told that Jesus looked at the man and “loved him.”  Jesus loved him.  And Jesus gave him gentle advice on what he needed to do.

          The connection I make here is this.  Jesus was looking at him with that two-edged sword, that is, with the eyes of God.  Sometimes soft and kind words can cut deeper than someone yelling at us.

          Jesus could see what was in this man’s heart.  Jesus could see both what was good in the man, and he could also see what was lacking.  Jesus could see that it was this fellow’s stuff that was keeping him from finding true happiness in God, which is the eternal life that he was so desperately seeking.  And that was really something to grieve for.

          A week and a half ago I attended a lecture on leadership.The speaker said that in his opinion there are two sets of qualities that good leaders have.

          On the one hand, good leaders combine kindness and toughness.  A good leader is caring and compassionate, but at the same time he or she must be able to make hard decisions and deal with tough situations.

          But kindness and toughness need to be held in balance.If you’re either too tough or too kind you will fail as a leader.  If you’re too tough people won’t tell you what you need to know. If you’re too kind then people will think you’re soft and will try to take advantage of you.

          The other side of leadership needs to balance confidence and humility.  People don’t like it when a leader is overconfident, and they will hesitate to follow because they don’t trust him or her.  But being too humble can lead to not making the best use of one’s gifts and graces.  Again, too much of one or the other can lead to failure. In a commentary on this gospel lesson, Heidi Haverkamp asks the question, what if this passage is about humility and not this man’s possessions?  What if this story is not really about the rich man’s stuff?  What if it’s about the need for the man to re-think his purpose and place in the world?  What if this story is about how this man can find depth and meaning and purpose in his life? Pastor Haverkamp says that what this passage teaches us that Jesus is not a spiritual drill sergeant.  Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t about following a rigorous set of rules and regulations.  It’s not about checking off boxes.  It’s not even about accomplishing things.  Maybe the eternal life that Jesus offers means emptying ourselves and our lives rather than doing things.[iii]  Maybe it’s about getting rid of attitudes instead of getting them.

          Finding eternal life, which is the spiritual life, is simply this--it’s allowing Jesus to look at us in love and to penetrate our hearts and help us see what is our true heart’s desire.  Jesus’ question to the man is simply this—what is your deepest heart’s desire?  Really?   Do you love your stuff more than you love God?  Then that’s your problem. What’s getting the way of your following Jesus?  It may well be possessions, the desire to accumulate bigger and better things.  For other people it may be something else.  It may be working too hard and too many hours, more than we need to make a living, trying to get ahead.

          It could be a grudge that we hold against someone that we just can’t let go of?  It could be a bad memory or a disappointment that we hang onto like a dog with a bone. So friends, let me ask you, what is your heart’s deepest desire?  What is keeping you from wholeheartedly following Jesus?  Do you have enough confidence in Jesus, do you have enough humility to give up whatever it is that is keeping you from finding depth and meaning and purpose?  That may well the message in this lesson.

          One final word. There is a story about a rabbi who always carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one paper he had written, “For my sake, the world was created.”  On the other paper he wrote, “I am but dust and ashes.”

          Both statements are true.  They are a two-edged sword.  Both can be channels for God’s love and redemption in our lives.        

Humility reminds us first of all that we need each other and that we need God.  And secondly, humility reminds us that God loves us regardless of how good we are.[iv]

          Thanks be to God, Amen.

 

[i] Adam Crowley, The City Paper, 10/3/18, p. 38.

[ii] Associated Press, 9/21/2018.

[iii] Christian Century, 9/26/18, p. 20.

[iv] Heidi Haverkamp, Sunday’s Coming, Christian Century online, 10/8/18

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