THE NEEDLE’S EYE
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church October 10, 2021
Texts: Amos 5: 5-10; Mark 10:17-27
It’s that time of year again when we start getting those catalogues full of stuff to buy. This past week I received at least four clothing catalogues from such purveyors as L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, J. Jill, and I forget the names of the others. I used to look at them and think, gee, that’s nice or isn’t that lovely? Wouldn’t that be nice to wear to court? But even a year and a half after the lockdown, most hearings are still being held either telephonically or on video.
I have to admit that I really have appreciated the radical changes in court appearance. I rarely have to wear a suit; in fact, it’s delightful to wear comfy slacks, cushy socks, and some kind of shirt with a sweater. I probably look more like a college professor than a sharp-suited lawyer.
I am careful to make sure that I use slacks rather than jeans when I do a video hearing, because if I have to stand, then the bottom half will the pandemic show. I don’t need to have a judge berate me on not showing respect in my duds like the lawyer in Florida who forgot that when he stood to turn around, he didn’t have any duds on at all. The video caught him in -- shall we say – his birthday suit. Needless to say, the judge was not amused.
The pandemic has taught many of us lessons about how we live. Many of the extraneous things that were important in our pre-pandemic lives have lost the luster of importance. Clothing is just one example. In fact, it’s almost amusing to see upscale business outfit companies come up with the so-called proper work from home attire. The rich have many possessions.
The pandemic has also made many of us reconsider what is really important in our lives. For me, it’s certainly books, but as I look around my study I see more. There are those items my Latino friends call recuerdos, something of greater value than a souvenir but, in the end, not really useful per se. The little vase from Ireland, the rickshaw piece my late husband had that sits on top of the bookcase, the hand carved olive wood figure of Ruth from Bethlehem -- those are recuerdos.
Then, there are, of course, the photos of people and places I love. They clutter my bookshelves. Those are the recuerdos that speak to me more than anything else. When I read of people who have lost their possessions as the result of a storm or tornado, I think about those photos, the possessions that can never be replaced.
The young man who walked away from Jesus’ admonition to sell what he had and give to the poor was caught in the dilemma that faces many of us. What is it that we need to do with our possessions, our wealth?
We usually read this kind of admonition and spiritualize it. I mean, really, what would happen if we did give all our possessions to the poor? None of us have sold everything to give to the poor; we don’t live like many of the people and saints who are held up as our models.
We, here in the twenty-first century, say to ourselves, well, Jesus was in another time and another place. The early Christian communities that shared everything lived in other times and other places. Yes, that is true, but there remains a gnawing feeling that comes when we hear Jesus’ words.
We tell ourselves that we are not wealthy, and, in truth, compared to people like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, we personally are not. We’re not even as well-off as many of the people who live in the McMansions dotting our landscape. But wealth is really more than simply possessing things.
Our wealth as a society is clear. We don’t even need to look at the disparity in health care between us and the Third World. We just need to look at the disparity between our own middle class existence and other parts of our own state of New Jersey.
There are people who do not have medical care because they do not have insurance. The ACA helped but didn’t solve all our medical insurance needs. And even people who have what are touted as really good plans can find themselves knocked for a loop with the exclusions, which are not few.
This uncomfortable passage tells us that we have choices to make about our lives. Jesus here is telling us about the limits of riches. Unlike our earliest ancestor, the Jews of Jesus’ time did not bury people with recuerdos but only wrapped the body in linen. Orthodox Jews today carry on this custom with a simple white linen shirt and pants or dress -- no pockets since you can’t take it with you.
When I was in Jerusalem, I asked a guide for the location of the gate known as the Eye of the Needle. For the last two centuries we have been told that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle through which a camel could not pass unless it stooped and first had all its baggage first removed. After dark, when the main gates were shut, travelers or merchants would have to use this smaller gate, through which the camel could only enter unencumbered and crawling on its knees!
Jesus’ comment draws a parallel of coming to God on our knees without any of our baggage. There is no such real gate -- at least not in Jerusalem today. The expression was a common one in the ancient world for the difficulty of doing something. The rabbis of Jesus’ time and afterwards used the same expression, sometimes using elephants rather than camels, as a metaphor to state the impossibility of something for us humans. But there is a lovely midrash on the Song of Songs that says, The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle's eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and [camels?] In other words, with God nothing is impossible.
We have to ask ourselves, if with God nothing is impossible, is it possible that we are able to put aside our preoccupation with things and concentrate on the real stuff of life? You know, like caring for others, being in community with each other so that we are brothers and sisters in Christ? We talk about ourselves as being “members” of a church, not brothers and sisters in a community.
The Latino Pentecostals I know regularly refer to each other as hermano or hermana -- brother, sister. There is a strong sense of community among them, that they are part of a family, the family of God. They are much poorer than we are but I often see a richness in their willingness to share with each other that I feel at times puts me to shame.
How we express our essential humanity, that divine spark given us by God, is at the heart of whether we will continue to exist. We are faced at this time with basic existential questions about our lifestyle, how we live. It’s more than recycling water bottles; it involves a fundamental shift in values and how we live those values.
Living more creatively means consuming less and sharing more. We nod our heads in tacit agreement but this has been a country and a society of more. We’re still being urged through our print media and television to consume, consume, consume. There has to be a better way to live than just to buy and stuff our houses and closets, not to mention satellite storage units, with stuff. At least the flower bulb catalogs are about enhancing the beauty of God’s creation rather than just stuff.
Let us pray: Eternal and Holy God, who called us into being and gave us your divine spark of life and creativity, help us to live creatively so that we care for all of your creation including the human family to which we all belong. In the name of him who shows us how to be truly human, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.