Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
October 13-14, 2018
Rev. Annie Watson, St. Stanislaus
He was naked. In broad daylight. In church. He had taken off all his clothing—in front of the local bishop, in front of his neighbors and peers, and in front of his angry father. He now stood before them all. “I shall go naked to meet my naked Lord,” he said.
We know him as St. Francis, but at that moment he was just Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, a young man on trial in the portico of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Assisi, Italy. Standing there self-exposed, he must have seemed more like a candidate for psychiatric care than elevation to sainthood.
His father was a prosperous merchant of fine fabrics; a growing business in a time and place where “dressing up” was becoming more and more essential for those wishing to ascend the socioeconomic ladder. He had accused Francis of selling some of his merchandise to raise money for a church renovation project.
Since that fabric had indeed been sold and the proceeds invested in Francis’s mission, Francis had nothing to offer in restitution. So he gave his father everything he had, his money, the shirt off his back, and the rest of his garments, saying, “I give you not only my money, but also my clothes.”
As Brian McLaren, in his book Naked Spirituality tells it, “Francis stripped off this earthly identity and clothed himself in a more primal and primary identity as God’s unclothed creature, God’s naked and vulnerable child.”
This wasn’t Francis’s only experience of public nakedness. Once, as the story goes, Francis commanded his colleague Friar Ruffino to go preach in the Assisi church “naked, save only for thy breeches.” When Friar Ruffino complied, Francis felt ashamed for issuing such an extreme command, so he went and joined him in naked preaching (we’re not sure whether the “breeches” were included).
Years later he stripped naked again and went out in the snow to make snowmen—this time in an attempt to deal with his sensual desires (a 13th-century version of a “cold shower).
So, it should be evident to all of you by now that I am not asking anyone to take off their clothes in worship today. No one wants to see that. However, I am suggesting that God strip away or cut away that which we use to try to cover up our true selves.
The Letter to the Hebrews points this out very clearly: “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.”
One thing to note: the “word of God” mentioned here is not a reference to the Bible. If it is a reference to the biblical writings, this could only include the Old Testament because the New Testament had not yet been produced. The writer of Hebrews, a book included in the New Testament, did not know that his or her book would be included in a canon of Holy Scripture.
What is important here is the meaning of this paragraph. Hebrews is telling us that God is able to pierce through our exterior trappings in order to see what is on the inside in our hearts and minds. We are spiritually naked before God. We can’t fool God. Our true motives and intentions are “exposed” to God.
One person who tried to fool Jesus (if not God as well) was the rich man in our Gospel lesson from Mark. On the exterior this man seems sincere. He finds Jesus and asks him what he must do to “inherit eternal life.” The word “inherit” suggests that he was unwilling to do his part for eternal life. He wants it given to him, much like he likely was given everything else in life.
My theory is that Jesus didn’t have much patience for this rich spoiled brat, so he tries to slough him off by saying, “Do the commandments and you will be fine. Now, excuse me, I have a plane to catch.”
The man persists, claiming that he has indeed kept the commandments his entire life. Jesus senses that he’s not going to easily rid himself of this pesky man and says the one thing that will expose him for what he really is: a spoiled rich brat. He says, “Well, actually, you lack one thing. It’s a little thing you might have overlooked, and it will likely give you heartburn: Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”
For this man, this was “the word of God” that “is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” This was “the word of God” that left him feeling “naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.”
This was “the word of God” that stripped him of his beautiful outer garments of wealth and possessions and laid bare his true intention: to inherit the kingdom of God without any effort or involvement on his part whatsoever. So the man “went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
Jesus was already late for his flight, so he decided to speak about this further, to make this a teachable moment for his disciples. He famously says, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The “eye of a needle,” by the way, was like a small doorway in a house. I don’t know about you, but I have a very difficult time getting my camel in and out of my house. That’s how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God. Of course, it’s not impossible because all things are possible for God.
Still, for some, like the man in this story, getting naked before God is not a pleasant experience. It is hard to seek God’s grace and mercy when you know God can see right through you. Like St. Francis of Assisi discovered, we have no other option but to “get naked” before God. We can’t fool God with what we have on the outside, because God knows what’s on the inside. So why even try? Amen.