Missed opportunities. We live our lives saying, “Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda.” I “woulda” visited my grandparents more, but it was just such a long drive. I “coulda” done better on that test, but I wanted to hang out with my friends. I “shoulda” devoted more time to service, but I was always so tired after work. Many times our “woulda-coulda-shoulda” moments pass practically unnoticed, but at other times, we go our whole lives regretting one poor decision; something we “woulda” done better, something we “coulda” done better, something we “shoulda” done better.
Today, we hear the story of the rich young ruler. Here is a man who is ready to move through life with no regrets! He wants life and life abundantly, and he wants it for all eternity. So the young ruler runs up to Jesus with a burning question on his mind. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It seems like a simple enough question, and quickly, Jesus gives a simple answer, which basically amounts to “obey the law.” The response of the young man is equally enthusiastic to his question, “I’ve done that since I was a child!” And already, we can see that the rich young ruler is way off the mark. You see, the problem is that the young man is too focused on the word “do.” This tiny little word represents one of the greatest and most persistent failures in religion and ethics. Jesus came so that we might be released from the power of this word and all its crippling effects. Jesus came and did to keep us from having to do! Like the rich young ruler, we miss the mark when we think that salvation, eternal life, is something that can be won by “doing” any one thing, or even any number of things. “We inherit eternal life by being lifted up out of ourselves by a devotion to God so great that it will snap all chains which hold us back” from following Christ in spirit and in act.
So what does devotion that so lifts us toward God look like? For the rich young ruler, devotion meant giving up the greatest pride of his life, that wonderful privilege of riches; selling it, giving the money to the poor, and then following Jesus. Is Jesus’ demand of the rich young ruler about money? Sure it is! Should we do all that we can to give from our abundance to those with nothing? Absolutely! But Mark’s story of the rich young ruler is about more than money; it is about more than any one thing that we can or should do to inherit eternal life. You see, the gospel tells us that it’s never too late for the sinner to come home; it’s never too late to join in the banquet table of grace. But that is cheap grace if not for the fact that every now and then a window opens in life, and there is God present and active in the world; there is our chance to be a part of that work, to be the human we are called to be. But then the window closes and it’s too late. In his words to the rich young ruler, Jesus reminds us that when that window opens, we have to run through just as the young man ran to Jesus. We have to put Christ first. The story of this young man is about an all-out devotion to Christ; being “sold-out” for Christ; putting God above all else in this world.
The rich young ruler thought he had done that. He thought he had it made. When he asked Jesus that question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life,” he was probably just seeking affirmation. He thought he was in. But Jesus told him otherwise, and he couldn’t handle the truth. So the rich young ruler walked away. You can almost see it in your mind’s eye; head drooped, shoulders sagging, feet dragging; quite the opposite of his rapid entrance a few moments before. And I imagine that years later that man was sitting on his throne feeling empty, unfulfilled, and thinking, “If only I had listened to that man Jesus all those years ago.” Woulda-coulda-shoulda.
I suppose the rich young ruler was a good and decent man; a fair ruler. It would only seem logical considering his self-proclaimed faithful adherence to the Jewish law. But adherence to the law does not gain salvation; only devotion to Christ can do that! And this is precisely what we practice during this season of Lent; purging our lives of those “things” (whatever they may be) that disrupt our devotion to Christ. Our greatest weakness as individuals and as a church community is that fact that we can be upright, decent citizens of society without ever going on to become disciples of Jesus Christ, with his peculiar flavor of love and costly self-giving. We have a choice. We can devote our lives wholly to Christ, putting aside all that hinders our devotion, or we can be “decent citizens,” never quite able to go “all-in.” So we shuffle away; heads drooping, shoulders sagging, and a great chasm opens between us and Christ. Woulda-coulda-shoulda.
About a month ago, as a part of a continuing education event for United Methodist Clergy in this Conference, I heard Professor Tom Long preach. Dr. Long teaches Preaching and Worship at Candler School of Theology at Emory in Atlanta. I want to share with you a portion of his sermon.
Professor Long shared a story of a couple in a nursing home. “There are many people in this nursing home who are plagued by the loss of memory. [Yet], there is one man in this nursing home who is plagued by the inability to lose memory. His name is Art, and he has just lost his wife of 60 years, and he is tormented by memories of failure in their marriage. He remembers when they were newlyweds and she accidently dropped the frying pan and he cursed her. ‘If I could have her back,’ he said, ‘she could drop a hundred frying pans; I wouldn’t say anything.’ He remembers an argument that went on 60 years in their marriage. She wanted him to tell her more often how he felt about her; that he loved her. ‘I wasn’t raised that way,’ he said, ‘I don’t like to talk about it; I just like to show it.’
‘Well, I know, sweetheart, but sometimes I need to hear it,’ she would respond.
‘No, no. It ain’t my way. It just ain’t my way.’
The last week of her life, she went into a coma and he sat beside her bed saying over and over, ‘I love you. I love you. I love you.’
‘She never said anything back, she never forgave me.’ The hour that she died, he was sitting in her room watching the television, and he said, ‘Haha! Look! The Red Sox are losing again!’
‘I would’ve liked it,” he said, ‘If she had died in my arms.’”
Some of us know about this very personally. Tom Long goes on to tell a story of his own experience. “I cannot believe, I cannot believe that when I was a young father I actually got on that airplane and flew somewhere to give a speech to people who no longer remember me or what I said instead of going to the Father-Daughter Campfire Girls Banquet that my little girl, Melanie, begged me to go to with her. I can’t believe I did that!
Now that I’m older and a little wiser, I know I made a bad decision, and I am now ready to go to the Father-Daughter Campfire Girls Banquet; to which my daughter would say, ‘Oh Daddy, it’s too late. I’m not that little girl anymore who needed her father that night.’
The window opens; there is a chance to be a part of mercy and grace;” to follow Christ and experience his blessings.
Long continues, “A friend of mine was watching television with her teenage son recently. She was folding laundry, they were watching some program. During the program, her son said something smart-alecky and she didn’t like it, and so she scolded him a little bit. He didn’t like being scolded and so he smarted off to her, and she really didn’t like that. So she took off after him and he slammed his fist down on the coffee table, ran upstairs to his room, and slammed the door. She said, ‘Well, you can just stew in your juices!’ But then, something told her there was nothing more important in the world right at that moment than making peace with her son. So she put down her laundry and she put down her pride, and she went upstairs and she made peace.
Don’t miss it. Don’t miss it!” (Thomas Long, “A Great Chasm,” 2/22/2009, audio on First Presbyterian Greensboro, North Carolina, http://www.fpcgreensboro.org/sermons/audio.html website accessed 3/11/2010
That rich young ruler needed something far more than affirmation of what he already knew, or even instructions on how to inherit eternal life. He needed the blessing of God that only Jesus Christ can give, and he missed it. He missed it! There it is, the blessing of God, in a simple call to put aside that which absorbs our attention and to follow Christ whole-heartedly. Why did he miss it? The same reason we do, he’s too rich; too self-sufficient; too proud; too self-absorbed; he didn’t need anybody or anything, and he walked right out of the presence of God.
“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” The rich young ruler did not want to hear these words, and I don’t think we much want to hear these words either. Yet, on this journey to hope, our promise from Jesus is that what we can put in God’s hands, we will still possess. When we give what we have in God’s name, eternal life is offered in return. But we cannot miss the opportunity that is right before us; we cannot walk away from the offer that Christ makes to us. If we want our Easter celebration this year to truly be a celebration of the eternal life that Jesus Christ has made possible for us, then we have to use this time, this season of Lent to get those things out of our lives that are distracting our attention. And I’m not talking about chocolate, and red meat, and coke. For the man, Art, in the nursing home, it was the need to tell his wife more often that he loved her instead of watching the baseball games. For Tom Long, the young father, it was the need to go to that Father-Daughter Campfire Girls Banquet with his daughter instead of speaking at a conference. For a mother with an angry teenager, it was the need to lay aside her pride and to make peace with her son. For the rich young ruler who first approached Jesus, it was the need to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow Christ, so that he might know Christ’s blessings.
What is it that we need to lay aside? What opportunities might we be missing because we cling so strongly to something so empty? For some of us, it is money. For some, a tendency to workaholism. For others, an inclination to seek revenge rather than forgiveness.
Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, once said, “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all; but whatever I placed in God’s hands, I still possess.” Like the rich young ruler, we can hold on to what we have, and spend our lives saying, “woulda-coulda-shoulda,” or we can let it go, and we can turn and follow Jesus. When we let go of all the distractions; the riches, the pride, the grudges, and we can put that over in God’s hands; when we devote our lives wholly to God, then we will know blessings beyond measure. We will know what it is to have life abundantly, and we will be able to lift our voices in jubilant praise when the Easter Day dawns! Thank God for that opportunity! Don’t miss it!