It’s that most wonderful season of the year, when we gather together all our financial information not only to meet with our accountants or tax preparers, but for those of us with college students, it’s time to do battle with the almighty FAFSA and its elitist cousin, the College Profile. Mind you, we are extremely grateful for the financial aid our daughter receives. Doing the paperwork is well worth the trouble in the end, but there are always moments in the midst of it when we wonder how anyone could be expected to keep track of all these things.
And we often reach a point of mild hysteria along the way.
This year it came as we researched the value of our cars. Kathryn drives a used-when-she-bought it 2001 Honda Odysse, thus called because the “y” in Odyssey long ago dropped off the back of the van. She asked, “Want to hear how much my car is worth?” “Sure,” I said. “$942.” Let that sink in. “And yours…” she said while typing, “is worth $517.”
“What?!??!!! That can’t be right,” I insisted.
I drive a 2005 Volvo V70. It has to be worth more than her Honda. The tires cost more than that!
I don’t think of myself as someone who gets wound up about the value of cars, but I didn’t like hearing mine be devalued. And as it turned out she had the year wrong; mine is worth a whopping $1702.
If we were to follow the counsel of Jesus to give up our earthly goods and use them to care for the poor, these two cars would not go very far, although at least they’re long since paid for. Would that be enough?
What *would* be enough?
This gospel story asks all of us that question. It’s a warning to the faithful, not scolding but loving. The riches of this world get in the way of our relationship with God.
It’s hard to hear that even when we consider ourselves to be fully committed people of faith, and it’s no coincidence that this is the story of a person who defined himself the same way, a striver in his religious practices who wanted to take it all one step further.
“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 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.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
He went away grieving. Jesus didn’t ask him to tithe a full ten per cent, or to set up an endowment fund for widows and orphans to be managed carefully by a board of trustees. He didn’t ask him to go to a state college instead of the Ivy League and give the difference to a deserving poor student. He told the man to sell it all and give the money away and follow him.
What would be enough?
One of the suggestions for a Lenten practice floating around on Facebook features a picture of a big black garbage bag, the idea being that you spend Lent picking out one thing each day from your closet that you no longer wear or need, then at the end give away the bag with forty items of unwanted clothing…
I’m not against giving away clothes to those in need, but please note the key phrase in that description is “no longer wear or need.” Give away your excess and at the end you will be rewarded with a more manageable closet! That’s a fine life practice, to pare down the unnecessary, but since this suggestion has been adopted by fashion websites urging people to get rid of their old and out-of-style clothing for their own sake, it’s easy to see how far from Jesus’ intent this can get, quickly.
Lent has traditionally been a season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We take on practices or try to give up habits with the intention of becoming closer to God, making space not between clothes hangers but for spiritual pursuits outside of our ordinary schedule. We make space for prayer and contemplation, space for cultivating a deeper awareness of God through some new or renewed spiritual practice, space for hunger and desire we ordinarily slake with chocolate or wine or whatever one’s pleasure might be. Perhaps we create space in our budget to save money and give it to those in need, even space created by the lack of the thing from which we fast. These activities come at a cost; we give up something we like or enjoy or even zone out on in order to make more space and time for relationship with God.
The first Sunday in Lent usually brings us a passage about Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness. Mark’s is the shortest:
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
It’s Peter he calls Satan later on, in a passage we read on Ash Wednesday. “Get thee behind me, Satan,” Jesus says, when Peter tempts Jesus to think of a scenario in which things are easier, an end to the story that does not result in arrest and torture and death. Peter wants to keep his beloved teacher with him. We can understand that. We are tempted by the things we want, the things that make us feel secure, our sense of the value of things we have purchased.
The other day we saw a “leaked” picture of the new Volvo wagon, a V90 described by one car website as “one hot family hauler.” It looks so shiny; the version pictured is silver.
I immediately said, “But it’s not just that it’s pretty. You feel so safe in them, with all the air bags.”
Get thee behind me, Volvo.
It’s a danger for preachers and readers that we want to narrow this story and make it only about the Rich Young Man. *He* had a lot of money, and clearly that was *his* problem. But that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus goes on to assure the disciples that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. How can anyone be saved, they wonder?
“…for God, all things are possible,” Jesus tells them.
Peter, who is never afraid to get himself into more conversational trouble, says, “But seriously, man, we already gave it all up to follow you.”
What *would* be enough?
Jesus goes on to say some things we may find a little obscure: he makes it pretty clear that following him in this life doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be poor and have nothing. That we should listen carefully is signaled by the beginning of this speech, “Truly I tell you.” Listen up! Here it comes.
“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
It all sounds great until we get to “persecutions.” We won’t necessarily be poor, or lose our families forever if we follow him, but there are going to be some ramifications, some consequences, some persecutions. If we accept the invitation to follow him, we have to be ready to lose what matters to us.
Jesus made sure the Rich Young Man knew the basics: we show love for God by following the commandments that keep us in good relationship with others. He looked at the Rich Young Man not with scorn but with love. It’s important to remember that. Then Jesus told him the deeper truth: he needed to do more than fulfill the basic requirements. Doing his best meant giving up the things and the status that made the Rich Young Man feel secure.
He just couldn’t bring himself to do it.
What *would* be enough?
Maybe it’s enough to try our best. We don’t know what that means for other people; sometimes it’s hard enough to know for ourselves. Trying our best means being prepared to be wrong sometimes, as Peter was. Trying our best means giving it all we have. Trying our best means giving up whatever keeps us from following Christ.
God took human form in Jesus and told us the truth: it’s going to be hard to follow me, but try your best.
We build it right into our covenants with God and one another. When we are baptized, or when we join the church, we affirm that we want to follow God, but because it’s hard we say, “I will, with the help of God.”
*That* would be enough. That would be enough.
And it’s a lot.
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.”
Thanks be to God, who is enough. Amen.
((A sermon for Lent 1, NL Year 2 – February 14, 2016 – Mark 10:17-31))