What You Can Take With You
My friend Nancy's father died last summer at the age of ninety. He was a big man, with big strong hands, but those hands could do surprisingly delicate things. He did counted cross stitch and decoupage, and made small, delicate jewelry boxes. Everyone in the family had something he had given them that was the work of his hands. On the day of his funeral, each of them brought one of the "works of his hands" and laid them on the communion table. In her reflection on her dad's life, Nancy talked about the things you can't take with you, the things we leave behind, the legacy of our lives. "Prosper the works of our hands," the psalmist says in Psalm 90. "Prosper the works of our hands."
We spend so much time and energy on those things, the works of our hands. Some, like the things Nancy's dad made, are crafted with love and care. Others are accumulated through the use of money we earn by our work. We put value in all that stuff. Some of the value comes from the emotions we invest in it - the things our parents and grandparents pass down to us, the things that remind us of a fun vacation or a special place, the things that remind us of an accomplishment we earned. Some of the value comes from the status the stuff gives us - the clothes with a certain label, the nice house with the latest updates, a car that is a bit more than basic. But the time comes when you have to take inventory of what you have and ask, "What do I need to keep? What do I need to leave behind?"
Often those times for inventory come at moments of transition in our lives - when we pack to leave for college, when you no longer have preschoolers in the house, when you're moving from one place to another, when you have to downsize for financial reasons or because you're moving into a retirement community. We sort through stuff and the piles get bigger. What can we get rid of? What do we need to keep? What are the criteria you use as you decide?
Sometimes those sorting moments come at times that aren't times of physical transition but times of spiritual transition. I wonder if that isn't what was happening to the man who came to Jesus in this morning's gospel reading. He came to Jesus not to challenge him, as so many questioners in the gospels do. He came with respect - he kneels to Jesus, and calls him "good teacher". He asks what he should do to gain eternal life - a strange question Mark's gospel, much more abstract than what most people ask Jesus for. He's led a good life all his life, kept all of the commandments, as he tells Jesus, but he has a sense there's something more, something he's missing out on. In modern terms, he's what we would call a seeker, someone whose looking for something deeper in life but doesn't quite know where to find it.
"Then go, give your stuff to the poor, and follow me." Jesus says. And, Mark says, "the man went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions."
It's easy to be judgmental about this guy. "Oh, he's so connected to his wealth that he can't give it up. What a materialistic person." But I think we need to back off a step before we do that, partly because this might be a case of removing the log in your own eye before you deal with the speck in someone else's. If you've ever had to move, you know how hard it is to let go of the physical things that fill and enrich your life. Jesus isn't asking him to do something easy. But the primary reason I think we need to hold back on judging is because Mark tells us that Jesus looked at this man and loved him, the only time that phrase is used in the whole gospel. This is a person of worth, a person worthy of Jesus' love. So maybe if Jesus loved him so much, our first step shouldn't be to point a finger, but to be glad about God's grace both to him and to us.
Notice, though, that even though Jesus loves this man, he still doesn't let him off the hook. He looks at him and sees what is getting in the way of his moving forward into God's kingdom, and tells him about it. This is not what Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace. He still has to act, he still has to make a choice before he can move ahead.
For this man, what is getting in the way of moving ahead into God's kingdom, into following Jesus, is all his possessions. For others of us, it may be other barriers that we struggle to cross. Taking that first step toward real transformation can be incredibly difficult and painful, whether it's attending that first AA meeting, picking up the phone to call a marriage counselor, or maybe even hearing a call toward ministry and leaving behind a career and possessions to follow Jesus. It's so hard that the man in the story can't, as far as we know, do it. Mark says, "He turned away, grieving, for he had many possessions."
If you stop there, you miss the other side of the story. Yes, it is hard to leave our possessions and the other things that hold us back behind. It's so hard that we can't do it on our own. But not by our own ability, but by the grace of God, for whom nothing is impossible, we can make that change, and step ahead to follow Jesus. And when we do, we receive gifts of far greater worth that nothing, not even death, can take away from us. So when Nancy's dad, who was a man of faith all his life died, he left behind all his material possessions, but what he took with him was the faith that had guided him all his life, his comfort in the love of God and the assurance that for him, death was not the end, but a new beginning.
One other man who learned the value of what Jesus has to offer in comparison with the world's wealth was St. Francis of Assisi, whose name was taken by the current pope. n Franco Zeffirelli's beautiful film, "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," a turning point in the story comes when Francis of Assisi, born and raised in a wealthy and privileged (and religiously observant) family, stands before the entire town, including the local bishop and his parents, strips off his clothes, and walks off into the mountains to live among the poor as a beggar. Francis is responding to a call that has troubled him since he returned, ill with fever, from the adventure of fighting in a war between petty nobles. His life before the war no longer makes sense, and he feels his soul being pulled toward a different way of living, a radical giving up of everything that would have been easily his, a turning away from the comfortable path that has been laid out before him. Francis was not just ill; his heart was hungry and thirsty and lost. His conversion experience came in the midst of suffering and uncertainty. He left much behind, and the road ahead was not always easy. But it was filled with a new awareness of God's presence in all things, of God's love for "the least of these", and deep joy. Francis' step came at a time when the church was sorely in need of renewal. His step served as a model for others who would also take their own steps to follow Jesus and rebuild his church.
We too live in a time when the church needs rebirth. As we consider Christ's call to us, I wonder what it is he is asking us to leave behind, and what new and wonderful thing we might discover if we are able, by his grace, to give away what we no longer need, and step with light and hopeful steps into the future he sets before us.