My mind has been a slow moving vehicle over the last couple of weeks, so it's no surprise that it's taken a couple of days for me to mull over Sunday's Gospel lesson, about the rich young man who came o-so-close to following Jesus, then pulled away after counting the cost he was asked to pay.
Growing up -- in a respectable congregation of industrious farmers and split-level-dwelling middle-classians -- the spin put on this story went something like thusly, in my Cliff Notes version: Jesus wants us to be willing to give up everything, including our family and friends and wealth, to follow him. We don't want to do that because of our sinful self-centeredness. That God's grace is sure a good thing for us, huh? 'Cause otherwise we'd be toast. Thanks be to God. The end.
You get the general idea. I don't know about you, but my gut reaction to this hermeneutic approach consists of continued low-grade guilt -- how dare I care about my family and friends, and about not starving or freezing! Because if I were really holy I would really want to be an ascetic in a loincloth, completely indifferent to human relationships and needs of everyday life -- and helplessness -- Well, I just can't do that. Sucks for me. Write a big "L" on my forehead, God, next to the other ones.
(To any pastors reading this: Sometimes you really don't want to know how your sermons go over with the great unwashed in the pew.)
But last night, pondering the text, I was reminded of a family I knew when I left up north, two teachers/musicians and their gaggle of kids and animals who lived in a big old house in the city where I used to live. A family of extravagant generosity, and hospitality, and caring.
It was the kind of rumpled, anarchic, crunchy-granola family that made their Izod-shirted neighbors in the community's immaculately tailored subdivisions roll their eyes. Their house was described by one of my friends, who baby- and pet-sat for them on occasion, as "Pippi Longstocking's house, but with adults." This couple had, right from the beginning of their marriage, decided that their household was going to be one hospitable to kids and strangers, to art and music and nature and peace. And that's how it played out. Their house was the neighborhood congregating place for local children, including and especially the sad and neglected, who could always find a meal and a story and adult affection there. Their household was also a hub for the local arts community, and local peace and justice activists (a rare breed in northern Michigan.) The couple hosted foreign exchange students as well -- teenagers looking for the American experience, who instead found happy, creative chaos with a revolving cast of children and pets (including a hermit crab and a rooster who walked on a leash), musicians and storytellers and idealists. If you were stuck in a snowbank some blizzardy winter evening -- not an unlikely occurrence in this part of the world -- and somehow found your way to this family's neighborhood, chances were good that you'd be invited to have a cup of cocoa with the clan and pull out the sofabed for the evening.
It wasn't all fun and games with this family. They were castigated by some in the community for their involvement in unpopular social causes; their Woodstock-by-way-of-Salvation Army fashions tended not to blend in with their peers' preppy norm; the children, when young, had a reputation for being a little too free-spirited; the rooster caused some consternation in the neighborhood. But despite all this, it was apparent that this household held a lot of love and generosity and creativity.
I thought about this family -- intentionally, militantly poor in things but rich in spirit -- and thought about how maybe, just maybe, this is what Jesus was talking about when he invited the rich young man into the adventure of giving everything he had to the poor. It wasn't about undergoing an onerous journey into deprivation and disconnect from the rest of human life; it was about saying "yes" to living out a what-if of sharing in God's exuberent extravagance, "brimful and spilling over."