In the summer of 2005, I worked at a Boy Scout camp in far northern Maine as a canoe river guide. My job was to take crews of scouts was from point A to point B on a river in ten days’ time. It was great, the single greatest summer job I ever had. I mean, it sure beat selling candy bars at the country club pool, which I had done the summer before.
Now, the tricky thing about a canoe trip is that you only have so much space for all your stuff. Think about what you absolutely need for a ten day canoe trip: food, cookware, tents, lifejackets, paddles, maps, sleeping bags, and toothbrushes. That stuff takes a quite a bit of space in boat that’s just 14 feet long. Not to mention the two people that actually have to paddle the thing. Then there is some important stuff that you want to take but that you could probably live without for ten days. An extra shirt. An extra pair of shoes. A spare tarp. Then there’s the stuff that you want to take but you really don’t need. I remember reading Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” on one trip. But by the end of the summer, I got so stingy with space and with weight, that I was using a frisbee for plate. Eat, play, double duty.
But I’ll never forget those nights before a trip. It was like Judgment Day, sorting out what you needed, what you would like, and what you were going to leave behind. And as I packed, the pile of stuff that was going to stay behind steadily grew. Extra batteries for the flashlight? Nope. A sweater and a rain jacket? Nope, just pick one. And so on and so forth until I could pack it all without worrying about my canoe riding too low in the water. What you need, what you would like to have, and what you leave behind. And I’ll admit, there was a part of me that just loved telling those young scouts, “sorry, but you’re going to have to leave your pillow and toe nail clippers behind.”
What you need. What you would like to have. What you can leave behind. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off;” Jesus says, “it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell” (Mark 9:43-45). Now, I don’t think that Jesus is talking about actual hands, feet, and eyes. I think he’s using this startling imagery to get his point across, like he does on a number of occasions. I think Jesus is saying that there are some things we need to leave behind in order to fulfill our mission, our purpose, our goal. Some of those things might be good, they might be fine, but they might also be holding us back from a full life with Jesus. Radical though the imagery may be, this is the cost of discipleship.
Sure, I could take everything I wanted to in that canoe. But it would’ve made for a terrible trip. Riding low in the water. Having to carry all that extra stuff around the waterfalls. And at the first set of rapids, my canoe would have turned right over. I’m not sure I could have made it from Point A to Point B with all that stuff. Sure, Jesus says, you can keep all the stuff that is causing you to sin, but life will be a lot heavier that way. When trouble comes, it’s only going to weigh you down. You may not be able to fulfill your mission, your purpose as a disciple. And in Jesus’ time, the trouble was coming very soon indeed. Just one generation after Jesus the people of Israel revolt against their Roman overlords. They go to war and it is as bad as you can imagine. The city of Jerusalem is razed to the ground. The ancient Temple is torched. What Jesus is getting at is that the Jews of the time were losing their sense of mission. They were clinging desperately to laws for the sake of laws, and in the process they had lost sight of their purpose. They had forgotten that they were to be light of the world and the salt of the earth. They were carrying all this other stuff and it was weighing them down. And at that first set of rapids, at the war with the Romans, their canoe was as good as sunk. They went down in figurative and in literal flames.
This whole passage about chopping off your hands and plucking out your eyes sounds like a bizarre, ascetic ritual. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is getting at. It is a call for us, who would claim to be his disciples, to discern what we need, what we would like to have, and what can stay behind. Even if those things are precious to us. Even if those were the ancient laws that held the Jewish community together. It’s a call to a higher purpose, it’s a call to remember that we have a mission, and that we should only take with us what will actually help us get down the river. We can only take so much in our spiritual canoes.
And you know, the church does this every year. We do it in our annual pledge campaign and we do it in our budgeting process. We sort out what we need, what we would like, and what has to stay behind. But that whole conversation, that whole process, must be driven by the eventual goal in mind. It’s not enough to just pack the canoe. The canoe has to go somewhere. It’s not enough to just build a church budget, the budget has to do something. We can’t just have a church, the church has to have a mission. And if we try to take everything with us, well, the canoe will flip over; the whole thing will go down in flames. All because we didn’t have the courage to leave behind what we need to leave behind. So the money we give to the church – it’s not just a symbol or a tax break – it’s got to have a purpose. We must give with the vision, the mission of the church in mind – to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
And it is the same in our personal lives. Our personal finances – our credit card bills, our bank statements – are moral documents. Show me your what you spend your money on and I’ll show you what you worship. It really is that simple. And all too often we convince ourselves that we need a lot, so we try to pack it all in. We don’t know the difference between what we need, what would be nice, and what’s just dead weight. And you know what ends up happening? Our canoes sink in the water; we never make it down the river. When the crisis comes, we are weighed down with all the literal and figurative stuff. I tell you – it is better to cut it off now than to go down in those flames.
I know this sounds like a dire message. And I really don’t mean to preach brimstone just to get in some pledge cards. So I want to do is to flip the whole scene around. Imagine, imagine how beautiful life would be when you only have just what you need. Imagine how beautiful life would be with Jesus, trusting in him and him alone. Imagine how beautiful it would be to paddle down the river unencumbered by all the stuff we bring along. Imagine how much more beautiful, how much stronger, how much more we could do and be as a church. That is the vision, the hope that Jesus has in mind for us.
In your mind’s eye, in your prayers, imagine all your stuff before you, like you’re packing for a long trip down river. Look at the all the stuff in your life. And I hate to break it to you, but you can’t take it all. To make it through life you need to leave some of it behind. Have the courage to chop it off so that you can live unburdened, so that you can live freely with Jesus. Take that honest look at your finances, at your credit card statements, at your bank accounts, at your last will, and your estate, and ask yourself what you need, what you would like to have, and what you can leave behind.
And finally, at the end of the river, at the end of your life, well you can’t take any of it with you. As one of my favorite bands sings, “I’ve never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch” (“Just Visiting” by Wookiefoot). All this talk about money and pledges to the church, it’s not just about the church. It’s not about our budget. This is about you – this is your opportunity with Jesus to figure out what you really need in life so that you can really start living without all that stuff weighing you down. Chop it off so that you can experience the abundant, free, generous life in Jesus Christ. And as you paddling down the river of life you’ll discover that what you really need has already been given to you. All you really need in life is the Lord Jesus.