Jesus taught his followers saying, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
In response, pastor Melissa Earley asks the question we all are thinking but don’t have the chutzpah to utter, “Did [Jesus] really say that? Is this one of the handful of statements Jesus really said, or one that was merely attributed to him [after the fact]?” She hopes for the latter, of course, and drawing a coveted theological “get out of jail free” card. As do we all. As do I.
A sermon based on Luke 14:25-33.
I have a lot of possessions. If you—or two or three or four or six or eight of your friends—need a tent, I’ve got you covered. Countless books are scattered in at least a dozen locations between the rectory and my study simply because they make me happy. There’s a box or three of old electronic cables tucked away on the shelves of my desk in the off chance I need to recharge my Motorola Razr flip phone. Every Autumn I forget that I own at least six fleece jackets, or vests, or pullovers, so I grab one more when they’re on sale. I like to be outdoors, surely it’ll come in handy.
Possessions, Jesus? Absolutely, and then some. But you didn’t really say that I needed to give up all that stuff, did you? It was just merely attributed to you after the fact by some overly ambitious killjoy, amirite?
Hearing nothing, let’s be clear: Jesus pushes hard in these verses. Unless you hate family members, you can’t be my disciple. Unless you carry your cross, you can’t be my disciple. Unless you give up all your possessions, you can’t be my disciple. That’s a tough ask. “Certainly is,” says Jesus. “You need to consider the cost if you really want to follow me.”
And this makes us uncomfortable at best. So we go looking for escape clauses telling us what we want to hear. What’s a preacher to do on “Welcome Back Sunday”? Go down the path that will make us all breathe a sigh of relief? Or take the harder road and sit with Jesus’ difficult teaching?
Messrs. George and Charles Merriam along with Mr. Noah Webster define “possession” in this way: “noun. the act of having or taking into control.” I have and control many, many things, but at what cost? Perhaps the question isn’t what do I possess, but rather what possesses me? Which way does the relationship go between me and my stuff? And what about that signifies my ability to follow Jesus?
I enjoy reading essays about people coming to a realization in life about what’s truly important. Often these involve a hard path through an illness, or a struggle with a career choice, or the loss of a relationship. People encounter the wilderness and then begin to peel back the layers of what has possessed the bigger part of their lives recognizing that there is so much more that is truly important. So many relationships needing their attention. Lives they hope to impact and change. They recognize that these are the important aspects of a life well-lived.
But our society spins it hard the other way. That it’s more about the stuff. They try to convince us that if we buy the latest fashion or gadget or outdoor gear that it’ll enhance the quality of our lives. That things—and especially the product their shilling—will strengthen our relationships and our yearnings for goodness, but that’s because they know that we’re suckers for that kind of story. So when I get the latest Backpacker Magazine, I see images of guy waking up to a gorgeous sunrise in some backcountry mountain local in a new and lighter tent. If only I could add that tent to my already excessive collection, then I too could experience deeper peace and joy within myself and with those with whom I love waking up outdoors. So imagining this awesome new story, I head over to our local REI and grab that tent. On coming home it’ll go downstairs with the others I already own.
Here’s the thing, it’s really easy for me to define myself by the plethora of things I possess. By the car I drive. By the latest MacBook Pro that I own. By my updated decor or the house I live in. Add to all that the pride I gain from my family or spouse, or the way I perceive myself based on my career or education. Family, possessions, accomplishments, far too often these all stand in for who I am really called to be.
I think in these verses Jesus is really asking us to lay aside our false selves. To not define ourselves by what we own or where we work or what our family name is, but simply and fully as his disciples. You want to know the cost of following Jesus? You’ve got to give up everything you hold dear and by which you find meaning—by which you inflate your ego—you’ve got to let it all go and only then can you truly follow him. Before that it’s just lip service.
Political writer David Brooks in his most recent book The Second Mountain recounts his moving from what he describes as the First Mountain of life–when we are centered on ego and identity and what we think will bring us happiness–to the Second Mountain where we find greater meaning through recognizing that it’s not about us but about service to others. In the midst of a harrowing season of his life following a painful divorce, he describes his slow encountering of God. He describes a hike up a mountain in Aspen, Colorado one day when his thoughts and emotions were swirling. As he hiked he “composed a [mental] list of all the things [he] would have to give up to God if [God] actually existed:” his work, his reputation, his friendships, his life, his loves, his family, his vices, his bank accounts. (The Second Mountain, 232). As he reached a mountain lake, he sat down and pulled out a collection of Puritan prayers that he had brought along with him, and read these words:
Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness, thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow, thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty thy glory in my valley. (From The Valley of Vision)
In that moment Brooks unexpectedly experiences what he describes as a “deeper understanding,” an “opening [of] his eyes to see what was always there, seeing the presence of the sacred in the realities of the everyday.” (233) And so he began to let go of all he held dear.
What does it cost to follow Jesus? More than we could ever imagine. But if we do follow him, the life we uncover in return will lead us to our true home. I hope we can be brave enough to let go of all that possesses us and to trust that in so doing, we will find ourselves held by the unfathomable love of God. Amen.
Photo Credit: Phil LaBelle