August 26, 2018 – Reflection: What Gets in the Way ~ Grief

August 28, 2018

Reflection: What Gets in the Way ~ Grief August 26, 2018
Mark 10:17-31; Psalm 51:10-12
Has anyone here heard of the Swedish tradition of Death-cleaning?” Yes, it’s a real thing. This is just one of the many trends in the movement to simplify our lives. The idea is that as we begin to get closer to the end of our days, we learn to relinquish much of the stuff with which we’ve filled it. The United Church Observer recently had an article about it. (June 2018: 5 steps to help you start death cleaning, By Fiona Tapp)
“1. Go through each room of your home and methodically attack clutter and mess.

2. Dispose of anything that sparks bad memories, such as angry letters or unwanted gifts.

3. Donate or recycle what isn’t valuable, useful or of sentimental value.

4. Consider giving sentimental items and family heirlooms to loved ones now.

5. Create a box or folder of essential information that your family may need upon your death. Include any passwords, account numbers or phone numbers for insurance policies and attorneys. You can also put personal letters to your family here and lay out any of your final wishes, which should also be reiterated in your will and legal documents.”
It’s all pretty good advice. Many of us have begun to do this in the process of down-sizing to move to a smaller home. That requires a lot of purging! Those who move frequently probably have this down to a science. What this sort of tradition does is take us beyond simple tidying and organizing to an actual relinquishing of things that may have been very important to us. One approach says that once you’ve found all of those sentimental items and heirlooms, pass them on to the people who want them, take photos of the rest, and then give those things away too. There’s an emotional component to this letting go, and unlike the Japanese version of this process promoted by Marie Kondo (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up), it may well spark grief as well as joy. We hold onto things for a reason, and the reasons are caught up with our emotions, our memories, our past and our thoughts about the future. Letting go of our “stuff” can be a process laden with sadness.
This was true in Jesus’ time too, it appears. In this story there is a man – a good man – who has kept the law of Moses his whole life and who is eager enough to learn from this new Teacher that he drops his dignity, runs up to him and falls on his knees in front of Jesus. This is a man who really, truly, wants to know what God wants of him. But when asked to let go of his stuff in order to follow Jesus, he is shocked – literally revolted! – and he goes away sad. We don’t know if eventually he makes the choice to follow Jesus, or if he stays in his familiar life full of things that were precious to him. Jesus’ heart goes out to him, because he knows that what he is asking is really, really hard, and he wants this man to find what he is looking for.
In Mark’s Gospel, there are no half measures. The choice to follow Jesus is a dramatic one, that means turning aside from everything one holds precious – family, possessions, money, honour, tradition. Jesus doesn’t ask for a percentage of our life, our time, or our resources – he asks for it all! Mark is letting us know that following Jesus is a total commitment, and that there will be loss along the way. We know that Mark’s story ends with a cross and an empty tomb – the ultimate in loss. Jesus’ words in these verses remind us that grief is one of the things that get in the way of following Jesus. Emotional investment in our stuff, even in our relationships at times, can become obstructions on the path that Jesus asks us to walk. That’s why it’s especially difficult for wealthy people to enter the kingdom of heaven: because those with wealth have that much more stuff to invest in, that many more opportunities to relinquish, and that many more connections, often, that might be damaged or lost through the decision to accept Christ’s invitation to follow him. By most of the world’s standards, this means us, though certainly, given all the money worries mentioned last week, it sure doesn’t feel like it sometimes!
So far this story doesn’t sound like good news, does it? But there is something here that hints at good news. The disciples are incredulous that the wealthy – who seem to them to have everything they want in the world, including a passport to God’s future – the wealthy are in danger of not receiving that “treasure in heaven” Jesus spoke of. This is almost incomprehensible to them! If not them, then who stands a chance? And Jesus answers, “For God, all things are possible”. Even those of us who struggle with letting go, who invest our emotion in places other than our relationship with God (and really, who doesn’t?), for us, it is still possible that we will receive that “Treasure in heaven”, which the rich man refers to as “Eternal life”.

But what is this treasure, this eternal life? The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) place it as something that will happen at the end of time, rather than at the end of life. John’s Gospel speaks of it as something that can begin now. Heaven is “where God lives” or “the life of God”, and in fact the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” means exactly the same thing as the “Kingdom of God”. One phrase simply honours the tradition that the name of God not be spoken aloud. Eternal life seems to be characterized by an unbroken relationship with God – one of great intimacy with nothing that separates us from the Divine: no sin, no pain, no sorrow. Unlike the undead of popular culture – vampires, werewolves and other beasties – this is not an eternity of endless suffering or monstrousness but instead great joy and peace. Treasure in heaven is God’s treasure – God’s gift to those who seek God and God’s ways.
We’ve got a double interpretive challenge for us contemporary Christians. We know that there is not a literal heaven as pictured by first century Christians – no place that dwells above the clouds with golden gates, marble streets or mansions built just for us. We’ve been above the clouds, and it’s not there (though as a child I used to look for it all the same). The other challenge is not turning faith into an endless quest for what cynics call “pie in the sky by and by” – spending so much of our energy looking towards the time to come that we don’t pay attention to what’s happening right here, right now! If we do that we end up “so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good”. Do you remember the old Johnny Cash song, “No Earthly Good”?
Come heed me, my brothers, come heed, one and all
Don’t brag about standing or you’ll surely fall
You’re shining your light and shine it you should
But you’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good
If you’re holding heaven, then spread it around
There’s hungry hands reaching up here from the ground
Move over and share the high ground where you stood
So heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good
The gospel ain’t gospel until it is spread
But how can you share it where you’ve got your head
There’s hands that reach out for a hand if you would
So heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good
If you’re holding heaven, then spread it around
There’s hungry hands reaching up here from the ground
Move over and share the high ground where you stood
So heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good
Songwriters: Johnny R. Cash
No Earthly Good lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, BMG Rights Management US, LLC

That intimacy with God described by some Gospel writers as available in the time to come and by another as available to us right now – well, that’s worth investing in. If we are citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom, either in this time or in another, that shapes our lives here and now. If we are anticipating full union with the God of all goodness, then shouldn’t our lives reflect that?
Jesus’ commandment makes it clear that this isn’t just “pie in the sky”. The man is told not only to get rid of his possessions, but to sell them to benefit the poor. If we’re hanging on to stuff that gets in the way of our connection with God and our willingness to follow Jesus –and especially if our hanging on to stuff is depriving others of the life they could have – well, it’s time to let it go. If it takes the form of Swedish death-cleaning, or reorganizing your finances, or re-evaluating your relationships, or something else entirely, so be it. If it can be done in such a way that others will benefit from your loss, even better! Don’t let the grief of letting go stop you from putting your mind on heavenly treasure and your good will into action on earth. And if you need help, ask for God’s strength and wisdom to do it! I know I need it!
With God, you see, nothing is impossible. Ask God what it is you need to let go of, what it is you have to say good-bye to, in order to be at home with God, in this life or in another yet to come. Ask God to put that “right spirit” within you, so that you can join the disciples of yesterday and today, and walk the path with Jesus. May this Scripture, this hope, be fulfilled, in you and in me. Amen.

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