“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” On Friday night, I saw the movie “First Man,” which tells the story of Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts who landed on the moon. It felt good, if only for a couple of hours, to be transported away from power outages, cold showers, downed trees, mountains of yard debris and the drone of generators.
My brothers and sisters, this has been a long week. Several of you are still without power. Many of our homes are damaged. Our nerves are frayed, our bodies are tired and our minds are burdened with many thoughts.
Yet as we gather today for worship, our hearts are also filled with gratitude. Let’s start with the cool weather. It didn’t have to be cool and dry. How many tropical storms and hurricanes have you been after which it’s hot and humid? Sleeping at night with the windows open has been wonderful.
We’re thankful for neighbors who love and care for us: the informal block parties that have taken shape, the way we’ve gotten to know people better. Meals around the grill, guitars and singing, the music of children’s laughter as they play in the backyard.
We’re grateful for those who have reached out to us from around the country to offer assistance and prayers. Rob Radtke, the head of Episcopal Relief and Development, got in touch with me all the way from the Philippines to check on us. Katie Mears, Episcopal Relief and Development’s U.S. Disaster Response leader, has been in touch with Mtr. Abi.
Our Diocese and St. John’s will be partnering with Episcopal Relief and Development in the coming weeks and months as we recover in Tallahassee and the region. As much as we’ve been through here, our hearts are breaking for people west of our city who bore the full brunt of Michael. The clergy and our Outreach team will be listening carefully to our neighbors in the area for the ways that we as a congregation can best respond.
Now is the time for first steps, which is my theme today. In reflecting on first steps, I keep returning to the courage of Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts who stepped off the lunar lander onto the surface of the moon.
There is a wonderful moment in the movie when Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, holds on to the ladder of the spaceship like a child who is learning to swim holds onto a pool ladder. One part of him wants to take that first step and let go, the other wants to hold fast to what is safe and known.
To be the first man or woman at anything is not easy. In the movie, we witness footage of President Kennedy’s “Moonshot” speech, when he declares to the world: “We will go to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.”
The reading you heard today from Mark’s Gospel is Jesus’ “Moonshot” speech. He tells his disciples that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it will be for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. This is Jesus’ way of saying that following him as a disciple will be hard, not easy. Entering the kingdom of God is like a spiritual moon landing. Today, we are all first men and women called by God to have the courage to take a small step into the unknown.
This summons from small steps to a great leap for humankind comes to us through the story of the wealthy man who encounters Jesus. This man genuinely wants to make it all the way to the moon. With great humility, he acknowledges Jesus’ authority and power as he kneels and asks: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Let’s begin with his question, which is heartfelt, but wrong from the start, like someone trying to get to the moon on a bicycle. It’s just not going to happen. So much of the spiritual life is beginning with the right questions.
An inheritance, by definition, is something that we receive. It’s not the result of what we do. A better question that he and all of us might ask of Jesus is this: “Who must we be to inherit eternal life?”
Being leads us to questions of relationship with God and neighbor, questions of character and our essence as human beings.
Jesus begins his answer by reinforcing the place of Moses’ law. He hasn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. “You know the commandments,” he tells the man and us. You have all the information you need.
Like Neil Armstrong and the astronauts, you’ve studied the physics of spaceflight in the classroom and you’ve practiced your mission over and over in the field. You’ve cared for others with kindness. You’ve been faithful to your spouse. You’ve resisted stealing from others and been honest in your business dealings. You’ve honored your parents. You’ve followed the right path since your youth, you tell Jesus.
Jesus looks at us today and loves us. Did you notice that little detail in our Gospel? He doesn’t stare down at the man with judgement or condemnation. Jesus, looking at us, loves us enough to say: “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor.”
The man goes away grieving, for he has many possessions . . . I’m a little embarrassed to tell you that the first of my material objects that I protected before the hurricane were my bicycles. If I had to part with them, it would cause me grief.
Which of your possessions would it be hard for you to let go of?
Here’s the interesting thing: if you’re like me, you’ve read this story in the past and just assumed that the man’s grief as he exits the scene indicates that he is unwilling to give up his possessions.
But what if his grief is instead a sign that he is going to give up everything to follow Jesus? He’s suffering because he knows that it will be hard to let go of his possessions, that it will require courage to take that first step off the lunar lander and walk on the moon of God’s kingdom.
It’s the same for you and me when it comes to spiritual transformation. Jesus, as the writer David Howell reminds, us, is the one who looks at us with love and invites us to take those tentative first steps into a new future with God.
The Christian life is never static. God never lets us settle for the status quo. We’re always being summoned to grow in maturity, to stretch in compassion, to deepen our love, to change our minds and stay open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ invitation is issued on the good days, when is going well, and on the bad days, when we say along with Job: “Today . . . my complaint is bitter.” Or as the writer of the 22nd Psalm laments: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
As we hear those words, we can picture our brothers and sisters not far from here whom are taking those first steps and beginning to re-build their lives.
We can imagine a toddler taking her first tentative steps into her father’s arms, the freshman in college struggling to make new friends and keep up with all his classes, the executive walking into her first Twelve-Step meeting, and the man beginning life over after a divorce.
Those initial, sometimes tentative steps, all of which require great courage, can lead to giant steps of spiritual growth. And here’s the best part: it’s not all up to us. Grace is the wind at our backs.
After Jesus tells the disciples that it will easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter into God’s kingdom, they rightly wonder: “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus, still looking at them in love, replies, “Humankind can’t make those first steps or giant leaps alone. If it was up to you, then making it to the moon would be impossible. But with God, all things are possible.”
Jesus is inviting us to have the courage today to let go of the easy and familiar and take hold of what may be hard or unknown. Each small step that you take with God can become a giant leap into the kingdom of heaven.
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on October 14, 2018.