Text: The Rev. J. Steven Musick's Baccalaureate sermon
The Rev. J. Steven Musick, associate pastor for outreach and pastoral care at New Providence Presbyterian Church, delivered a sermon titled “Forget About It!” during the 2013 Baccalaureate service. Here is the full text of his sermon:
The first time you got behind the wheel of a car, you did exactly what all nervous, anxious first-timers do. As soon as you stopped hyperventilating, you broke the operation down into small, manageable bits: sit down in the seat, buckle the seatbelt, check the mirrors, put the key into the ignition, turn the key, hyperventilate some more. You get the picture. You did it just like we all do anything for the first time. And every nervous, anxious second was a conscious attempt to safely move three thousand pounds of plastic, steel, and rubber down a public thoroughfare.
The last time you got behind the wheel of a car, unless something went tragically amiss, you probably don’t remember opening the door, sitting down in the seat, checking the mirrors, etc. You did it automatically. You relied on instinct derived from hundreds and hundreds of hours behind the wheel; and on muscle memory gained from repeated and coordinated motions of your head, hands, and feet. You may even have recently moved that three thousand pounds of rubber and steel down a public thoroughfare from your home to a familiar destination and you have no memory of how you did it. You just did it. Yeah, you’re that good.
Well, at least you’re that practiced; practiced enough to be able to pull it off. The Oriental traditions refer to this phenomenon as “no-mind” or “mind without a mind”. It is a mental state characterized by the absence of discursive thought and judgment; a state that leaves a person totally free to act and react without hesitation and without disturbance from such thoughts. “No mind” is the lack of anything that might distract you from losing yourself in the task at hand, whether it’s driving, hand-to-hand combat, making a clay pot, or sweeping a floor. Artists and athletes sometimes refer to this as “flow”, a state where instinct and muscle memory take over and conscious thought disappears.
In a recent edition of Bicycling magazine, Editor-at-large Bill Strickland wrote an essay called Exactly The Right Moment: if you think you’re riding well—or poorly—you’re doing it wrong. He tells of competing in a bicycle race and getting almost to the front of the pack by simply following, without thinking about it, the fastest guy there. “And it was that simple,” he writes. “That was all it took to be at the front of the pack in the first corner of the last lap . . . the annihilation of my thinking self.” It was a perfect example of “no mind”, a state of automatic, reflexive effort unencumbered by conscious direction. But suddenly, he remembers, there was another rider close and just behind on his left, and then another close on his right as they moved into a tight corner. Strickland writes that he could hear the left guy’s pedals ticking against his own spokes while the guy on the right leaned over onto him as they hit the corner, their handlebars clicking and clattering together.
That was all it took. Strickland thought about getting tangled with one or both riders and imagined hitting the pavement. And that was one thought too many, he reflects. He lost his nerve; he lost his momentum, and he lost his place in the pack. He finished 29th or something—he wasn’t sure.1
If only Mr. Strickland had been able to resist the temptation to indulge in thoughts of disaster. In one easy step he quickly went from “no mind” to stark, sheer terror. He let the fears of all that could happen short-circuit the trust in what his body and mind knew they could do. The best thing he could have done to stay safe and finish well was to forget about both and just go with the flow, letting his body and brain do what they knew how to do.
So we have this rich man, literally standing at a crossroads in his life, waiting for help. What had worked for him in the past clearly wasn’t working for him anymore. The value system that had served to make him a success no longer proved adequate. He was desperately seeking a new future, reaching out and crying for help. Material prosperity was amply his—he was rich, after all—but being rich no longer seemed enough. Now he desired something more eternal.
So when he saw Jesus approach, he ran up and just blurted it out. “Good teacher,” he wanted to know, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
This has to be one of the most absurd questions in the entire Bible. It is so wrong on so many levels! To begin with, getting an inheritance is never a matter of ticking off a list of “to do’s”. An inheritance is a gift, something that is freely bestowed by a benefactor, usually based upon the recipient’s character or relationship. If it is deserved at all it is deserved because a lifetime of virtues have won for the heir a beloved spot in the heart of the donor. It’s about the way the receiver “is” in the world and how he or she honors those around them that inspire the benefactor to honor the recipient.
If, on the other hand, the heir assumes that an inheritance is deserved, that he or she is entitled to the fortune, that person just may be indulging in the kind of arrogant, self-serving behaviors that should disqualify her or him in the eyes of the benefactor. You cannot deserve an inheritance on the basis of what you do, but only by who you are.
The question is also wrong in its appraisal of eternal life as a commodity, a thing to be obtained in exchange for some value of service. I am certain that, being a person with much wealth, this rich man thought everything had a price and could be bought with the right deal struck on the basis of the right offer. At that point, it becomes a matter of control, instead a matter of trust.
But Jesus was willing to cut the rich man some slack, since the guy may not have understood any of his previous teaching, and he simply responds with some easy advice: don’t murder; don’t commit adultery; don’t steal; don’t defraud anyone; oh, and take care of your parents. The rich man had a quick comeback: “Been there—done that. Been doing that since I was a kid.” Apparently, keeping the Ten Commandments were not his idea of a solution.
Everybody wants the easy answer. Retired United Methodist bishop William Willimon wrote recently “Lots of people in our world want a faith that they can put on a bumper sticker— three spiritual laws, six basic fundamentals, and four Christian principles to live by. Because in our complex and complicated world, it is too easy to feel lost and alone, abandoned to make our way all by ourselves.”
He’s right—we all crave a plan, a map to chart our way; something easy and systematic that we can grab and go with. We want something that will show us the way to secure safety.
Wouldn’t it be great, though, if we could find all the assurance of eternity we need in those displays at the end of the aisles in Wal-Mart or Target? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if TomTom made a spiritual GPS with a voice that said “Temptation ahead 400 feet on the right”? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to pick up some peace that passes all understanding at Kroger on the way home? Or stream some eternal bliss from Amazon on our laptop tonight?
“But,” Willimon writes, “our God is so much more interesting than that. Jesus is so much larger than that, and life is so much more demanding.”2 That’s not the way life is or has ever been. There is nothing we can order from Amazon to help us deal with the pressure of getting the right grade the first time; or with medical diagnoses that mean watching the long and painful decline of people we love; or managing pain with medications that compromise our ability to contribute to what is going on around us; or trying to find a way to connect with an estranged child or parent; or sweating out the next round of exams and term papers.
So, the rich man came to Jesus desperately seeking to acquire something he didn’t have. And Jesus just looked at him, and in looking at him had compassion for him, and loved him. Jesus saw directly into the heart of this hopeful, needy soul and knew exactly what he really needed. Jesus took the rich man and his inquiry seriously. He didn’t mock or ridicule the guy, like he had with so many of the scribes and Pharisees. He understood that this man came to him out of deep and honest need, one that deserved a deep and honest answer. Well, that and a radical reorganization of his life and priorities.
So Jesus reframes the man’s question and tells him that the answer is not about getting or doing anything. Rather, he pointed out something the man didn’t have: the courage to change and try a new way of life.
How do you tell someone who has every advantage in this world that what is required for moving on in life is to give up all the advantages in this world. Jesus is in effect saying you can’t do anything to get what I have to offer. You can only receive it like a little child who is completely dependent on a greater, higher power for each next thing. If you want to inherit eternal life, Jesus is in effect saying, forget about it! No, really—put it out of your mind; don’t focus on it at all. An inheritance is something that is given by the benefactor, not requisitioned by the heir. And it’s already yours. So just forget about it!
Just trust. All the stuff we would need to do to go out and get for ourselves that blessed state of bliss eternal would cause it to slip from our grip like some ephemeral dust. Our faith is tricky that way, since its precepts are all based upon the example of a God who gave up life itself for our benefit. So, here’s our dilemma: do we take advantage of that largesse and exploit it, or do we emulate it? If we do either, or both, in order to get something for ourselves, don’t we kind of defeat the self-giving purpose of the gift from the get-go?
But Jesus doesn’t let the man go away without hearing the secret he longed for. He said “go” . . . “sell” . . . “give”. These things were not about the rich man arranging or acquiring for himself the assurance of salvation on his own. These actions were about moving into a new reality, a new paradigm, one only discovered by moving down the road free from all that kept him tied to that moment he longed to escape.
No wonder the rich man walked away shocked and grieving. To take Jesus’ answer seriously meant the end of his life as knew it. He could have what he desired, but only if he gave up everything to receive it. He could become the person he longed to be, but only if he gave up whom he was. This was what Jesus saw looking into the man’s longing heart, and loved him enough to share with him the real secret, the actual life saving words of hope: “Then come, follow me.”
Every moment for the rest of our lives is another potential crisis, yet also another potential venture in growth and maturation. We cannot leave this moment and stay the same people we are now. That is what Jesus said to the rich man in the street. When we return to Maryville College for our significant reunions five, or ten, or twenty years from now we will evaluate and be evaluated on the degree to which we, and others, have changed, or have stayed stuck in this moment.
All we have is to follow the Christ in this moment, here and now. The blessings of heaven are ours but only if we do not seek them, do not think about them, or at least do not make them our aim. Jesus’ love and compassion for that rich man should have illustrated that the promises of the Kingdom of God were there for him. They were not, however, something he could acquire or arrange for himself. Oh yes, they could be his, just like they can be ours, but only by putting aside wanting them. It will require a kind of practice of “no mind”, because as soon as we make getting into heaven or staying out of hell our aim, we have inserted ourselves—our needs, our priorities— into the goals of heaven itself.
There is a course offered here at Maryville College called Psychology 222: Adult Development and Aging. Associate Professor Jason Troyer teaches it every year, and near the end of the semester, Dr. Troyer convenes a panel of mid-life folks who provide their life’s stories and the opportunity for students to learn what this stage of life is about. One young man once asked a panel participant, “When do you become an adult?” After brief pause for reflection, the panel participant responded, “When you realize that you are loved unconditionally by significant others and a Higher Power, and that you are entitled to and deserve nothing is when you become an adult.”
Here’s the Good News: we can forget about procuring for ourselves the stuff that makes life most meaningful. We get to fall back upon and trust that what we most need will be provided. We are free then to concentrate on what is our responsibility—to love God, others, and ourselves though not always in that order. We are free to pursue the highest qualities and opportunities life on earth has to offer. It’s like that Jackson Browne song, the one that’s kind of a salute to the best we can be.
Here's to lights and virtues.
Here's to truths yet to be known;
Knowledge to light the darkness,
The search for things of your own.
Here's to lights and virtues.
Here's to reaching higher ground;
A life of hope and purpose.
Here's to strength yet to be found:
Honor - though it goes unrecognized,
And truth - though liars abound;
The pleasure of love and friendship,
The courage to be alone.
Are you ready to take a risk, to move forward? Jesus just gave us the best advice we could ever get to get ahead. He said, “ . . . then come, follow me.”
Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2014 semester was 1,213.