We can hear today’s Gospel speaking directly to us, through the power of God’s Word – words first spoken by Jesus, words echoing down through the centuries, words which still call us today: Come, follow me.
Perhaps no story in Christian history shows the power of this Gospel more than the story of St. Anthony of the Desert.
Anthony was born in Egypt, the child of Christian parents, only 200 years after the first Christian churches were established. As a child Anthony loved to go to church with his parents, and he listened to the Scriptures read in church so carefully that he remembered them for the rest of his life.
Now when Anthony was about twenty years old, his parents died, leaving him with all their property.
A few months later, on his way to church, Anthony was thinking about a Scripture he had heard on a previous Sunday: How the first Christians had sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the Apostles for the care of the needy (see Acts 4:35).
Then, when Anthony entered the church, he heard this Gospel being read:
As Jesus was setting out on a journey,
a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him,
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing;
go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving,
for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
When Anthony heard these words, he felt they were spoken directly to him. So he sold the property he had just inherited from his parents and – setting aside some of the money for the care of his younger sister – he gave the rest to the poor. Then, taking only a wooden staff and his cloak, Anthony walked out into the desert, where he would spend the rest of his life.
Soon disciples were following Anthony into the desert, gathering around him to live with him and learn from him. (In later centuries other monks would call Anthony the “Father of Christian Monasticism,” because he inspired similar communities of monks, first in the Egyptian desert, and then throughout the Christian world.)
Now these are the words that inspired Anthony throughout his life:
Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.
At the end of a very long life, when he knew that his death was approaching, Anthony told his disciples to give his possessions away as soon as he was gone – 3 things in all:
his old wooden staff and two sheepskin cloaks.
In the end, that’s all Anthony had left – two cloaks and a wooden staff. Throughout his time in the desert, Anthony’s only wealth came from his love of God and from the Word of Jesus.
The Word of God and the Power of Wealth
So Anthony’s story is really a story about the power of God’s Word. But his story is also a story about the power of human wealth.
By the middle ages, even though they were founded upon the teachings of St. Anthony and those who followed him, many Christian monasteries had become fabulously wealthy because they held onto the money and possessions given to them over the years.
How hard it is to hear the Gospel in the face of wealth, even for those monks who heard it every day of their lives!
Wealth, in Anthony’s time as in ours, always has the power to drown out the Word. Unless the Word is planted so deep in our hearts – teaching us to love others, constantly calling us to share what we have – wealth can keep us from hearing the Word.
Wealth, in our time as in Anthony’s, builds up over the years; we can hold onto it and treasure it, and at the end of our lives we pass it on to our heirs.
And the Word, in our time as in Anthony’s, can enter deeply into our hearts, working there until it prods us into action. But the Word can also go right over our heads.
Some of us will hear Jesus’ words, but we think there’s no way we could follow them. (Some of us imagine that we, too, are being called to walk out into the desert with just a staff and a cloak.)
Others will make a practice of giving away some of what we have: from the ordinary giving of everyday people, to the extraordinary giving of some of the richest people in our country today.
But many who have heard Jesus’ words will still spend our lives collecting possessions and wealth. (Some of us can hear this Gospel, and even Anthony’s story, without really letting it speak to our hearts.)
So what did Jesus mean when he said, “Follow me?”
Anthony heard Jesus tell him to sell everything, and walk out into the desert.
The Way of Love
Very few of us are called to live in the desert; but all of us are called to walk the Way of Love.
The Way of Love will be different for every one of us, but those who have been taught how to love, and those who have learned how to share, can learn to resist the call of wealth.
In Anthony’s life, it was his parents who taught him to love Jesus, and to love the word he heard in church. In my own life, it was my grandmother, who showed me her love of Jesus, and taught me to share with others. Who taught you the Way of love?
The Word of God is the Word of Love. Love was the Word that hovered over the waters of chaos, at the very beginning of time. The Word of Love lived deep in the soul of Jesus, who looked on that rich young man and loved him, even though he knew that the man would not find the strength to follow him. And the Word of Love is still working through the Spirit, who breathes through us here today.
It is the Word of God, the Love of Jesus – who loves us all, and connects us all – who calls us all to share what we have been given.
My prayer for all of us today is that we will hear these words of Jesus, letting them penetrate deep into our hearts, helping us find the Way of Love, and helping us to share more of what we have been given.
And my prayer for Leela and her family today is that she will someday hear Jesus’ words, and remember Jesus’ words throughout her life: Come, follow me.
Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood – October 14, 2018
(and for Leela’s baptism)