Saturday, February 6, 2010

Failure to launch? Oct 11, 2009

Text: Mark 10:17-31

Last Saturday, as I was driving back to Olds from Edmonton, I was listening to Rock Radio 94, and a live report came on air about a Food Grains Bank combining event just outside of Lacombe. I had first heard about this event at the September Presbytery meeting at Sylvan Lake. And I thought, "Wow! Imagine hearing something reported live on rock radio that I had first heard at Presbytery!"

It has been different for me this year getting ready for Thanksgiving in an area where the harvest is so evident. Before the cold snap this week, I could often smell the grain when I first stepped out of the house in the morning. Driving between Didsbury and Olds in the evening, I would sometimes see combines working late into the dusk with big headlights on. In Central Alberta, you can't miss the harvest.

However, as I mentioned earlier, many Canadians no longer have any direct connection to the harvest -- and some no longer even understand where the food in grocery stores comes from. We all used to be farmers; but now less than 4% of Canadians live on farms. This shows that our farms are much more productive than they once were; and it also means that the possibilities facing young people today seem limitless. But it also means that some of us suffer from a lack of roots; and many of us need direction as we grow up into a world filled with opportunity and danger.

In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus talks about leaving home. "No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the good news will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age." However, the whole passage is best known for the tough metaphor: "it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

This reading comes just before the third and last prediction by Jesus of his suffering and death. All three of these predictions are similar and can be read together. In the first, Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah -- the long-awaited King. Jesus agrees, but says that he is a king who will be rejected, and suffer and be killed before he rises again. Jesus adds that to save one's life, one must lose it, and he urges his followers to take up their own cross. In the second prediction of his Passion, Jesus says that whoever wants to be first must be the very last and the servant of all. And on this third and last occasion, he says that to follow him means giving all of one's wealth and possessions to the poor.

Taken together, these three readings give a very difficult picture of the Way of the Cross: lose our lives to save them, take up our cross, become the servant of all, give away all of our wealth, and put ourselves last instead of first.

I suppose that it is almost possible to follow these statements literally: perhaps one could  become a monk with a begging bowl; or find work with the wretched of the earth as Mother Teresa graciously did in India. But there are also other ways to look at this central message.

Jesus, I believe, is stating a hard truth about the human condition. We come into this world with nothing, and we leave it with nothing. No matter how ambitious, hardworking, and successful we are in worldly terms -- no matter how rich we become, how much power we gain, and how wonderful our families and friends are -- in the end, we face the end of our life without those things. We face it with God alone.

This is not to say that we should not follow our desires and our ambitions. Particularly when we are young, it is important and inevitable that we build up our lives; that we try on different identities; that we have a wide variety of friends and experiences; that we sample different jobs; and that we learn how to love and to build families and communities. This is the very stuff of life, and we could hardly avoid it even if we tried. In this "launch" phase of life, the Gospel offers us help for Jesus says, "I have come so that you might have life and have it abundantly."

But the Gospel also says that the arc of life has another side to it. It is the side where our hearts get broken, where ambitions are thwarted, where jobs disappear or farms fail, where illness occurs and loved ones are lost. In this part of life, Jesus as the Christ also accompanies us. He offers us a deep wisdom that is unworldly and counter-cultural: in order to save our lives, we must lose them; in order to be free from fear we must remain aware of the seeming futility of life. Jesus promises us that the fullness of life is found equally in empty, painful and difficult times as much as in times when the harvest is full and health and wealth abound.

On Monday, my mother and I were talking about the challenges facing young people today as they try to launch into adulthood. The evening before, we had had dinner at my younger sister, Catherine's place; and and my older sister, Jean, her husband, and their three children were there as well. These two nieces and a nephew are all now 20 or older (which is hard for me to believe.) Mom is especially close to these three grandchildren since they lived most of their childhoods in the same small town, Cobourg Ontario, where my Mom and Dad retired. We all had a great evening and I was encouraged about how my nieces and nephew are handling everything.

It seems to me that the task of launching into adulthood becomes more complicated with each passing generation. This is not to say that the news is entirely bad. Many things seem better to me today than when I was young. Most people no longer smoke or drive drunk. Levels of violent crime are lower today than they were 20 years ago. There is greater equality between men and women.

But in other respects, I don't envy the task of young people trying to figure out what to do as they leave home. There are the big social dangers of climate change, war, and economic problems. There is the violence that is so prevalent in pop culture. The work world is difficult to figure out for many of us. Families are often broken and far-flung.

My mother and I talked about two different ways that families can try to help their children find their way into the wider world. One is to be strategic and smart about the job market, to speculate on what might be needed in the economy in a few years time, and to work hard to get the best credentials in school. And all of that makes sense and seems unavoidable to me.

The other tack is to focus on relationships: relationships within the family, within oneself, and with the wider community. The job of staying balanced in an ever-changing world is a life-long struggle. And the kinds of skills we most need are not those we learn in school. They are skills like how to react to a bully without being either a victim or a bully yourself; how to calm your fears when doing something new; when to ask for advice and when to go for it by yourself; how to handle yourself when you meet someone you are attracted to, or when someone expresses attraction for you; how to recharge your batteries on days off when there are so many options for recreation, and so on. Above all, I think we need to learn how to build wide social networks filled with people who respect and help one another.

In a world that changes quickly, none of us can be sure what jobs will be available in 10 years time or what social crises or opportunities will confront us then. But if we can learn, with grace, a bit more each day about how to love the people in our lives, then I believe that we will have the grounding we need to thrive no matter what.

Church can play a key role. We come to worship here each week to remind ourselves of what is important in life. And what we value is not achievement, money, or power. Instead, as a community we value love, peace, supportive relationships, creativity, compassion, family, tradition, and openness to the unknown wonders of the future.

Jesus says, don't worry about your life, your place in the community, or your wealth -- after all, these will be stripped from you eventually. Instead, he helps us to embrace that eventuality so that we can live life more freely -- a life of love, service, and building community. It is not an easy path, following Jesus, but it is the the path we most value; and so we come here to reflect upon it week after week.

On this Thanksgiving, we give thanks for the bounty of fields and farms, for the work of farmers and everyone else, for families that embrace us with unconditional love, and for much else. In particular, here in Didsbury we can give thanks for Knox United and the people who worship here. Worshiping and learning together each week, working with children and youth, going on the Great Pumpkin Hunt together, serving at the Thrift Shop and the food bank, and welcoming each other as companions on the wonder-filled and difficult journey of life, we try, with God's help, to live out our creed -- "We are not alone."

I don't know Knox all that well yet, but in many different ways I have already experienced the presence of Christ here. From what I can see, this seems like a great place in which to get help in launching one's life as a young person; a great place to return after worldly adventures, and a gracious place in which to lose one's life in loving service and in which to gain a new life in Christ.

Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again! For this, as on every Sunday, we give thanks, and  say, "Hallelujah!"


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