A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise on March 1, the first Sunday of Lent.
We talked about questions the other night on Ash Wednesday. Jesus’ disciples had questions for him. But they were too afraid to ask them.
Here, it is a whole different story. We have questions all over the place.
Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Do you get the sense that the man thought he knew the answer to that question before he asked it?
Jesus gives him a list-
You shall not murder;
You shall not commit adultery;
You shall not steal;
You shall not bear false witness;
You shall not defraud;
Honor your father and mother—
and the man says “super! I’ve kept all of those rules since my youth. I’m golden! I win!”
Every time I read this passage, I think, “liar. I haven’t even kept all of those commandments since breakfast, there is no way you’ve kept them all since your youth.”
Luckily, that wasn’t Jesus’ reaction to the man. We’re told that Jesus, looking at him, loved him. He saw the insecurity, the anxiety, the worry, that leads someone to delude themselves about their own ability to save themselves, he saw the man’s humanity, and he loved him.
Lent is the time to acknowledge our dust-ness, our mortality, our inability to be our own saviors.
No matter how many rules we have kept since our youth.
Jesus, looked at him, and loved him, because he got how hard it is for us humans to acknowledge our own limitations.
And then I wonder if Jesus wondered if the one thing that might shake him out of it might be money. ‘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.’
It is easy to preach this text as a warning against accumulating wealth. And it is. Yet I know it is a sermon I need to hear as much as Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg, or Scrooge McDuck needs to hear.
But in this context, I think it is also a bigger statement about how we use money as a savior. We think that if we just have enough money to do X, Y, or Z, we’ll be saved from our fears and worries.
The man, hearing that, was shocked and went away grieving, probably regretting his decision to open his big mouth to ask the question in the first place.
And we don’t know what he finally decided to do once he got over his grieving. He may have given it all away and followed Jesus.
Do you think he did?
I want to believe he did. I know there are people who have done that, given up earthly treasures and wealth, to follow Jesus.
The disciples, who overheard the conversation, don’t seem to have very high hopes for that man’s chances, or for theirs.
‘Then who can be saved?’
At least they aren’t afraid to ask anymore, right?
Jesus says, “wrong question, mortal. You are still dust. This isn’t about your own ability to save yourself. And your money wasn’t going to be the agent of your salvation anyway. Who can be saved isn’t the question.”
For mortals it is impossible. For God, everything is possible.
It sounds so simple.
It is simple, actually, but it is not easy.
“Look, Jesus. We’ve done that. We’ve given up everything and followed you.”
Peter may not be wrong about that. I’m sure the disciples’ friends and family were questioning their decision to follow an itinerant preacher around the dusty countryside, and the truly financially questionable decision to set aside their fishing nets and their commercial fleet of boats.
We’ve given up everything and followed you.
What Peter is missing in this conversation is that even giving up everything doesn’t keep you from thinking that it is the giving up, as an act, that saves you.
Peter and the disciples have done well to give up everything to follow Jesus. And it still won’t save them.
Because even enlightened disciples who do the right thing are still dust, are still mortal. For mortals it is impossible.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t follow Jesus’ instructions and try to let go of the things that keep us from God and each other. We are called to do what we can do to follow him
It just means we need to be clear that all of those good works, practices, and renunciations will not save us. For mortals, it is impossible.
For God, nothing is impossible.
Because God is not dust.
Listen to how Jesus answered Peter, after Peter pointed out how self sacrificing they had been:
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, 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. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
We get persecutions, which I could do without. But we also get a hundredfold of brothers and sisters and mothers and children.
Which suggests to me that what we get when we give up our self-focused pursuits is we get reminded of our connectedness. Our connectedness increases a hundred fold when we follow Jesus.
If you follow Jesus, you don’t have just one family—everyone is your family.
If you follow Jesus, you don’t have to worry just about your own field, the success of everyone’s field matters to you.
If someone else is being persecuted, but you’re safe and warm in your own home, think again. Their persecution affects you too.
It makes justice work exhausting, in truth. If I only had to pay attention to the issues that affect me, I’d have more free time. And we can’t give our time to every issue that comes for us. But we need to be sure we are being good allies, in support of other people’s challenges.
I volunteer for Planned Parenthood, because when I was facing an unplanned pregnancy in college, they took care of me and helped me place my son for adoption. It’s a personal issue. I want other people to have the same choices, access to healthcare, and support that I had.
I try to be a good ally for the LGBTQ community not because I am lesbian or trans, but because I want everyone to be safe, because I see everyone as important to the flourishing of our community and the church.
If we’re only caring about the problems that affect us immediately, Jesus would look at us, and loving us, would tell us we lack only one thing.
And sometimes in this work, we think we’re doing it to help other people, and then we realize it is about our families, and we realize we are the ones being helped as we are connected to our other dust-created people.
Taking care of the earth, advocating for kids on the border and kids in Ada County, giving kids backpacks full of school supplies every summer as the PW does, delivering food to the food bank, as the youth group will be doing today—there are lots of ways we show our connectedness. z2
We are dust. And one piece of dust doesn’t amount to much. As it starts to gather, you might want to clean the house.
But dust can be powerful.
Some of you remember the dust bowl, or remember hearing your parents talk about the dust bowl. Someone who was a member of this church when I first got here said his family moved here during the dust bowl, everything they had packed in a truck, including him and his siblings. They got to Caldwell, hoping to head to Portland, but his mom turned to his dad and said they had enough money to buy gas for the truck or to buy a bag of flour to make food. And so they never made it to Portland. His dad got a job on a farm in Caldwell.
Dust can be destructive or dust can combine to be powerful and give light. Stars and planets are made of dust and gas. 100 tons of cosmic dust falls on earth every day, which makes me feel better about the dust in my house.
Jesus’ reminder to Peter is that when we follow him, we become reminded of our dust-ness, of our connectedness. It’s easy for us to forget. Remember the man at the beginning of the story? Jesus asked him to give what he had to the poor. Jesus asked him to remember that the needs of the poor were related to him.
Maybe the journey of Lent, as we walk with Jesus as he makes his way to the cross, is the slow process of unmaking God in our image and the slow process of remembering that everyone else on our journey is also made in God’s image.
God is quite skilled with dust. Thanks be to God.