A sermon preached at Fremont Congregational Church, in Fremont, California,
on Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Mark 10:17-21
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            It was early March and the parish priest had had one of those days.  He decided a bit a fresh air would do him good, and even though he lived in a less than wonderful section of the city, he stepped outside for a walk.  On one of the darker streets, a mugger accosted him, demanding his wallet.  The priest was beside himself with fear and, as he reached to his suit coat pocket, realized he hadn’t brought his wallet with him.  “I don’t have a wallet,” he said to the mugger, “but I do have this really fine Cuban cigar.” He held out the cigar.
“Father, I couldn’t possibly,” said the mugger.  “I gave them up for Lent.”

Yes, I know that’s not the best joke in the world, but it brings up the whole issue of “giving something up for Lent.”  Perhaps the mugger should have given up mugging for Lent?  “Giving something up for Lent” should get a little thought.

The three traditional spiritual practices of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  We will have an opportunity to give to those who are less fortunate than we are in the coming weeks through the One Great Hour of Sharing offering that will be received in our churches.  That money is used for disaster relief and development projects world-wide.  Being attentive to a prayer practice is straight forward enough.  Fasting – which often gets transformed into “giving something up for Lent” – is the traditional Lenten spiritual practice that is probably most foreign to us.

There are many reasons people fast.  And there are many ways one can fast.  The primary reason for fasting is to build awareness.  Perhaps we can call it an act of mindfulness.  By going without food for a period of time (the most traditional way to fast) one becomes aware of hunger, of the body, of desires, of beliefs about sufficiency and security, and so forth.  By going without something for a period of time (another way to fast), one can build a similar awareness.

Giving up cigars wouldn’t do much for me – since I don’t smoke cigars anyway.  But going without something that takes up lots of my time might help me see how much time I’m giving to that activity.  It would also free up time for God.  Prayer and fasting require time, something that we never seem to have enough of.  The process of fasting, of taking the time to go without, is only a real spiritual practice when we include reflection on the experience.

Our scripture for today is not a traditional Ash Wednesday scripture, but it seems an appropriate one to me.  Jesus is setting out on a journey.  I think that’s an interesting way to introduce these stories.  Mark is about to talk about possessions and love, and he starts out be saying that Jesus is setting out on a journey.

The stories that follow are familiar to us.  A rich man come to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Obey the commandments, Jesus tells him.  The man says he’s done that but he still feels like something’s missing.  Sell everything you have and give it to the poor and follow me, Jesus tells him.  Follow me – on this journey.  But the man doesn’t follow, because he can’t stand the thought of giving up all this possessions.

Then Jesus says that it’s hard for people with wealth to enter the realm of God, that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  Contrary to the medieval legend, there is not “eye of the needle” gate into Jerusalem.  Jesus is speaking in hyperbole.  It’s easier for the A’s to win the Superbowl than for a rich person to enter the realm of God.  Yes, I know the A’s play baseball and the Superbowl is a football event.  That’s my point: it’s easier for a baseball team to win a football championship than for a rich person to enter the realm of God.  You can’t do it on your own.  If you’re rich (and by world standards, all of us here tonight are rich), you can’t become part of the kin-dom of God on your own.  You must rely on God.

Yes, Peter, by the grace of God, you have left your past behind and are following me on this journey, Jesus says.  And when you’re on the journey, when you, by the grace of God, let go of your possessions and follow Jesus, the rewards are amazing.

I like to think of Lent as a time to focus on the journey.  We get these forty days to be intentional about following Jesus.  And we get these forty days to be intentional about reflecting on our experiences of the journey.


           This picture is an outline of the labyrinth on the floor of the cathedral in Chartres, France.

Chartres Labyrinth

This picture is of the labyrinth itself.  Dating from almost 1,000 years ago, the labyrinth was put into the cathedral floor to encourage prayer and meditation.  The Chartres cathedral became a pilgrimage destination.  I had the opportunity to go to Chartres while I was on sabbatical in 2010, and to walk the labyrinth.  I took lower picture while I was there.

Now, I know people have different ways of walking a labyrinth, but for me it was all about being aware, of noticing – and then reflecting on what I noticed.

I noticed that the stone of this thousand-year-old path was very smooth, but that it also undulated and I had to be prepared for that unevenness of surface.  I found in that observation and invitation to think about what I anticipate on my faith journey, and how I am prepared or unprepared for the unevennesses that come along the way.

I noticed that I sometimes came close to losing my balance especially when I came to a turn, to a change of direction.  I found an invitation in that observation to reflect on how I do or don’t balance my life – between work and play, between mental and physical and emotional and spiritual pursuits – and how changes in my life can cause me to lose balance.

I noticed that when I passed someone – as I was walking into the labyrinth and the other person was walking out (or the other way around) – one of us needed to step off the path.  The early Christians were known as “people of the Way.”  What does it mean for a person of “the way” to step off the path?

I also had an amusing observation.  Chartres is a tourist destination to this day.  Most people drive there or they come by train and walk up from the train station to the cathedral.  As I walked the labyrinth, I noticed another man walking the labyrinth, holding a map.  He had on his knapsack, as I did (I didn’t want to set it down for fear of it being stolen), but he was holding a map in his hand right in front of him.  Now, if you trace the labyrinth in the picture on the left, you’ll see that it is really one path that twists around on itself, leading into the center.  It is impossible to get lost.  Yet here was a man holding a map.

I assume he was holding the map as he walked up from the train station, and then he walked into the cathedral and walked right into the labyrinth.  He probably wasn’t even aware he was holding the map.  But I wondered, how often do I resist traveling on the journey with Jesus because I want a map.  I want to know where Jesus is taking me.  I want to know how things are going to work.  I fear that I’m going to get lost along the way.  And yet, if I’m following Jesus, I can’t get lost.

The invitation tonight is to be intentional about your Lenten journey – and to be reflective about your experiences along the way.  The first step is to think about what you need to pack for the journey – and what you need to leave behind.  So you’ll find in your worship bulletins two pieces of paper.  The green sheet of paper is for your packing list.  The pink sheet of paper is for your un-packing list.

As you prepare for these forty days of journey and reflection, what do you want to make sure you bring with you?  Write this down on the green paper.  I want to pack this cross, as a physical reminder of the season and a physical reminder of the invitation to reflection.  And I want to pack my journal and my favorite pen so I have a way to record my reflections on the journey.  And I want to pack an open heart and mind.

What do you want to leave behind?  Write this down on the pink paper.  I want to leave behind the book of maps I keep thinking I need, so I can be open to taking the twist in the path that Jesus suggests.  I want to leave behind anxiety and fear.

Take some time to think about how you’re going to pack for the journey during Lent – and what it would be helpful to leave behind.