“A life shaped by the Gospel”
Sermon preached by the Rev Dr Zachary Guiliano
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
We have just heard sobering words. A ruler came to Jesus, asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And he heard that, for him, “there was … one thing lacking” in his obedience to God.
“Sell all that you own, and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.
This man — Matthew’s Gospel says he was “a young man” —found he couldn’t follow the call. He couldn’t give up his possessions. He couldn’t renounce the world, or become a disciple of Jesus. His failure points to something very real, which we ignore at our peril, namely this:
Living a life shaped by the Gospel, becoming a disciple of Christ, requires us to confront our deepest fears and our temptations, the peculiar ways we are each liable to fail and fall. However faithful we have been or are, we must confront whether there is something “lacking” in us and in our obedience.
That encounter with Jesus and with the radical call of the Gospel is not something we can avoid. We will all face it, albeit in a manner unlike that recounted in our reading. And this young man — full of promise, largely obedient, even asking the right questions (It’s always dangerous to ask the right questions) — reminds us of the possibility of failure.
Many of us, when given the choice, might turn away. We would run away from faith, from God, from eternal life, if it means we must also face our fears and sins.
What terrible news. But, thankfully, our encounter with Christ can go another way. We are reminded of this fact by the very person we celebrate today at our patronal festival, as we marvel at the grace of God evident in his life.
St Benedict: Do you know his story?
In many ways, he is the antithesis of the rich young ruler, an image of our Gospel tale told otherwise, with a different, happier result. Benedict was born into a good family, a wealthy one. He was sent away as a child to study the liberal arts; he got a good education. But while still a young man he abandoned his schooling for he saw that knowledge made many arrogant. And he gave up everything, all his possessions, to set off into the wilderness and seek Christ there as a hermit. He gave up everything: a life of prosperity, the advancement of his education, probably a marriage back home — all the components of a good life, perhaps even an easy one. And for what?
Benedict gave up everything because he heard that call of Christ, as surely as the rich young ruler in our Gospel reading, and he obeyed.
It is wonderful to have this example, one great encouragement from that cloud of saintly witnesses that surrounds us. It is possible to lead a life of faith and obedience. We need not be sunk in the mire of our own doubts and fears. It is possible to confront our weaknesses and our darkest sins. It is even possible to give up everything, if need be. St Benedict shows us that.
And do you know what else his life shows us? It shows us the wonderful result of repentance.
This call to repent, hard as it is, does not lead to diminishment; it’s not meant to make us shrink into a spirit of mean cheapness; it is not anti-life. St Benedict didn’t shrink and shrink until he became nothing. Quite the opposite.
Over many years, as he lived in a cave near Subiaco, Benedict became known to those living near him: as a teacher, as a miracle worker, as a man of prayer and discipline and holiness; in a word, as a saint, in his own lifetime.
Instead of shrinking, he grew greater in spirit and in generosity, and God then used him in many ways: in founding monasteries and churches, in taking care of his monks and his neighbours, in teaching and preaching all across central Italy. He wrote his Rule as a treasury of wisdom for the ages, he served the poor. And he has been recognized as a saint for nearly 1500 years, admired by many, inspiring many, his intercessions sought by many. Someone even had the crazy idea of founding a church dedicated to him in the half-civilized fens of an East Anglian market town.
Benedict led a life he could hardly have imagined, when he was just a young man in Rome, disillusioned by money and the behaviour of his peers. He grew greater than his imagining. This is the potential, the power of a grace-filled repentance, of listening to the true call of Jesus. He grew greater; he did not shrink.
It is inordinate attachment to our possessions that shrinks us. I’ve been considering what might be a good image of this, and perhaps because of been reading the Lord of the Rings again recently, I feel I have one ready to hand. J.R.R. Tolkien’s great fantasy epic, as well as the mythology around it, is concerned with what happens when we desire to exercise mastery or power over the world or other people, when we seek to possess and hoard. Almost all of his villains and tragic figures exhibit this tendency: his Satanic figures, Melkor and Sauron; smaller villains like the dragon Smaug; fallen heroes like Boromir and Thorin. All of them become dark and twisted by the desire to possess.
If you know the stories, you probably know which figure I’m going to settle on as a figure of diminishment: Gollum, who begins life as a light-hearted creature, but whose chance encounter with the One Ring of Sauron drives him to madness and murder, again and again, as he seeks to possess and retain it. Over long years, his body becomes grey and loathsome, and he creeps into a hole deep beneath a mountain, hiding out in a dank underground lake, eating raw fish, and killing anyone he encounters — even as he is consumed by his lust for the ring he has come to possess.
Here, we see how our desire for possession can overcome us, can come to possess us. Here is diminishment.
All this leaves us with a challenge, of course.
What will we do?
If we are young – whether in years or in the maturity of faith – will we listen if the Lord points out to us that “one thing lacking” in us? Whatever it might be?
It might be preoccupation with our possessions. We live in one of the most prosperous cities of one of the most prosperous countries on earth; even those with few things are far more comfortable than most of our ancestors.
It might be our desire for power, however petty. Even in one intimate relationship, it is possible to wreak diabolical damage. And our desire for power over ourselves can contort too.
Or it might be prestige: an obsession to be better than others or to attain some high status. But in truth, it could be many other things as well. Human sin, despite its banality, is diverse.
Some of us might be in another situation, however, and we should ask ourselves: If we have grown wise over many long years of practicing the faith, will we go forth into a greater obedience? To what heights of holiness might we ascend? What depths of love for God and neighbour might we exhibit? To what lengths might we go in serving or in travelling to preach the good news?
New acts of service, greater responsibility for our neighbour and community, deeper love, a continual adventure of faith — these are the fruits God desires for us all. They are the fruits St Benedict showed until the day of his death.
A rich man came to Jesus and asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He received his answer, and we have received ours. So let us now decide which way we will go: Departing from Christ in sorrow, or turning to him afresh in joy and thanksgiving, and walking in that way trod by St Benedict and all God’s holy ones, the way to eternal life, even Jesus Christ our Lord.