There's nothing worse than setting off for a long walk, all laced into walking boots and ready for the long haul, only to find there's a stone in your boot already and you're going to have to stop, take off the boot, maybe even the sock, get rid of the stone and then lace everything up again. Even more annoying is that, although the stone feels like a boulder when you try to walk on it, when you finally tip it out it's rarely more than a bit of gravel and you start to wonder if you've drifted into a sub-plot of “the Princess and the Pea”. However, carrying on with the walk once you've felt that bit of grit just isn't possible and it has to come out. All the readings set for today have the potential to be pieces of grit in our spiritual boots and once we've realised they're there they might be just as hard to ignore.
The first question to ask ourselves is what the readings are actually getting at. There's quite a bit in all the readings about weaknesses, trangressions, things which prevent us entering fully into the kingdom of God. Should this be cue for a rant against sin and a call to repentance? Well possibly, but if so the only proper response to the preacher would be “after you”. We need to be careful about telling our brothers and sisters what sinners they are because our own lives may not be anything like as virtuous as we like to suppose. That's not to say that we're necessarily deliberately hypocritical, just that we don't always have as much self-knowledge as we like to suppose and there can be a few unpleasant shocks lurking in the wings.
And it's self-knowledge that's the thing we can be avoiding if we settle for seeing the readings as an opportunity for a comforting session of self-abasement. A few minutes spent assuring ourselves and the Lord that we know ourselves to be miserable sinners can, paradoxically, make us inordinately proud of our humility and send us back to our daily lives unchanged in any way that really matters.
The readings today don't invite us to scrutinise ourselves – a task that's virtually impossible because our own egos usually block a fair proportion of the light – but to open ourselves to God's scrutiny and to invite Him to shed His light on our souls. Much more risky than a spot of gratifying repentance in which we keep control of the reins, but if we're serious about our Christian discipleship absolutely necessary. So how do we go about it?
The letter to the Hebrews suggests we engage with scripture, although again that's not as straightforward as it seems. It's not about the old trick of opening the Bible at random and sticking a pin in it to find an answer to a knotty problem There may certainly be times in which the Bible seems to speak to us every bit as directly as that, but to expect nothing more than answers from scripture is to recognise only one side of the coin. The Bible offers not only answers but questions – questions with which we have to engage fully and honestly if our reading of the Bible is going to be anything more than a pious fulfilling of a duty, the spiritual equivalent of washing our necks. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews knew that only too well “The word of God is active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”. Doesn't sound too comfortable does it? And it's not. Any thoughts about engaging with the word of God should remind us that it also involves engagement with the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and that can be even more unsettling.
Because, as the letter to the Hebrews goes on to point out “before him, no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account”. Being naked in the face of God's gaze is never, ever comfortable. It's as far from the pleasurable false humility of breast-beating as it's possible to be because the first thing we surrender is control. To open ourselves to the scrutiny of God doesn't mean cautiously turning over a few small stones and allowing the odd spiritual spider to scuttle out, but doing nothing whatever to shield ourselves from the searching light of love, being naked, vulnerable and utterly and willingly defenceless in the face of a light bright enough to leave no shadows and no place of refuge. It's not a thing to take lightly, but without it we'll live lives of self-deception and half-truth and our discipleship will be partial at best.
The story of the rich young man in today's gospel reading shows very clearly what the cost can be. The young man was shocked and went away grieving. Incidentally though, it doesn't say that he didn't sell all his possessions and follow Christ, merely that being told he needed to caused him distress. And that's something we should take note of because what's regularly overlooked in the motherhood and apple pie versions of Chrsitianity is that it is absolutely impossible to have a developing relationship with God and not experience grief. And the reason we experience grief is that God experiences grief, and a true relationship of love draws us into the heart of the other and their pain becomes ours: it's unavoidable. There's no room for a theology of comfort blankets in the face of encounter with God. And equally unavoidable is that part of the grief we'll experience will come about as the result of the things the spotlight reveals about ourselves, because just like the rich young man, we'll get a few unpleasant surprises. He was so sure he was OK and in many ways he was. A genuinely devout man who'd tried since he was very young to keep the commandments and who truly wanted to serve God better. So Jesus' response came as a grimly disorientating shock. Instead of being fine, he was confronted with the truth – that he carried a huge impediment to grace and holiness That's an experience anybody who's serious about engaging with God will come to recognise and we shouldn't underestimate the pain or the feeling of the world having tilted uncomfortably on its axis, because they're very real. But to be real is to be authentic, a true experience and one which can bring about transformation.
The point is that the moment of grief and desolation isn't the end but a beginning. Christ also experienced abject grief and loss. He's not wielding a stick and he's not demanding that imperfect creatures should be perfect. He only asks that we want to be changed and that we want to love. It's not constantly telling God how wretched we are that speaks of true humility, but acknowledging the transforming love and mercy of God for what it is – an absolutely undeserved free gift – and accepting it joyfully. That acceptance involves allowing God to love us, warts and all. and we can't do that unless we're prepared to be as fully and painfully open to Him as he desires. Maybe all of us need to ask ourselves how willing we are to do that, because to be serious about discipleship is to commit ourselves to nothing less. It's not an add-on for the spiritual first eleven but the very thing we committed ourselves to when we chose to follow Christ. That's not in question. The only thing that is in question is do we really mean it?