“It’s time to quit your job and start living the life you’ve always dreamed of!”
I heard someone say that on an advertisement this week and it caught my attention. Why? Well, I’m learning, once you reach a certain stage in life, you start to think more about things you never gave a thought to before: things like bills and college tuition, equity and retirement projections. These thoughts nag, influencing decisions about material possessions so that we’ll feel safe in this shifting and treacherous world.
It makes me look with new eyes at someone like John Freyer, who, frustrated with his inability to downsize enough to fit into his small Manhattan apartment, invited his friends over to price every item in he owned and list each one for sale on EBay.
From a winter coat to personal photographs, a half-used bag of sugar, his contact lenses, his tube of toothpaste . . . everything he owned was listed for sale on EBay. It became a challenge in the end, and turned into an art project featured at the University of Iowa Museum of Art. John Freyer’s determination to sell everything he possesses continues on his website: www.allmylifeforsale.com.
But in this middle part of life, I’m finding, possessions represent a sort of security they never did when one was young and carefree, and sometimes thinking about giving up that security scares the daylights out of me. In that context, the thought of just up and quitting a job—a job that provides things like health insurance and retirement benefits . . . it all makes me think: “No, thanks. I think I’ll keep my job . . . and take a pass on the life I’ve always dreamed of.”
Our gospel lesson for today from Luke 12 is a continuation of a litany of sayings of Jesus that left his followers scratching their heads. It’s beginning is yet another of Jesus’ teachings on money and possessions…one of many. Jesus talked more in the gospels about possessions, wealth, material accumulation than any other topic; he seemed to think that our attachment to material possessions has a direct impact on the wellbeing of our souls. Sometimes Jesus spoke about these matters with nuance and generality, but not today. Today’s passage is blunt and to the point.
Here’s exactly what Jesus said: sell all your possessions.
To those who were listening to Jesus that day, hearing him utter those words, clear and uncompromising, sell your possessions translates 2000 years later to something just as ludicrous as quit your job—it involved for the folks listening to Jesus the abandonment of the security they’d worked for and eked out, the layer, if thin, of protection they felt from total and complete insecurity, from falling through the cracks in a society that had no safety nets.
So I think it’s perfectly reasonable that the people listening to Jesus and even that you and I hear this passage with a healthy dose of skepticism.
What could Jesus possibly have meant? Those people needed what they could save and accumulate to make sure they were providing a secure future for themselves, for their families. And we need that 401K for the looming costs of retirement. Who will take care of us when we get old, and how will we know our families have enough to live? Surely Jesus, if he were here, if he understood the insecurity that nags at us every day, would never say anything to us like: sell your possessions or quit your job!
And so we read this passage and we look for deeper meaning, for some way to explain Jesus’ words in more esoteric terms. I hate to say it, but I suspect that when Jesus said “sell your possessions,” he actually meant . . . sell your possessions.
He did not say, in other words: hold a garage sale and get rid of the extra stuff in your basement and don’t forget to give a percentage to charity. Or, make a point of regularly going through your closets and giving away the skinny clothes that, let’s face it, we all know you’ll never wear again anyway. Or even, try your best to downsize, to be thoughtful about your consumption, okay?
He said: sell your possessions.
Some expressions of Christian practice over these 2000-plus years have, in fact, equated poverty with holiness; it is possible to do the unthinkable . . . to sell our possessions, to quit our jobs, to reject the accumulation of things and money—just look at John Freyer and his radical downsizing art project. But there are not a lot of us who are setting up websites to sell our worldly possessions or just up and quitting our jobs. We are consumers of the highest order who work ungodly hours, contribute faithfully to our 401Ks, hoard money and constantly redefine the list of what it is we “need” because we so very desperately do not want to be left with no security.
So this morning we’re faced with the question of what to do with this troubling passage, with Jesus’ direction to his first disciples to “go and sell all your possessions”?
As is the case with most biblical texts, it would be a serious mistake to pick out little pieces of this text and use them as brushes with which to paint broad strokes. As we know, Jesus’ words can easily confuse the casual reader. With a difficult biblical text like this, we can often get to its core meaning when instead of asking “what did Jesus say?” we go a little deeper and ask: “why would Jesus say such a radically difficult thing?”
Look carefully with me.
Jesus begins with these tender words: “Do not fear, little flock, for your father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” . . . and then follows with the gut-punch: “Sell all your possessions and give to the poor.”
Did you hear that?
Do not fear . . . God is pleased to give you the kingdom . . . so, sell all your possessions.
I think perhaps we find the key to Jesus’ teaching not in the message of prosperity, where we follow Jesus for the sole purpose of benefiting materially (God is pleased to give you the kingdom), and not even in the message of asceticism, where we endeavor to live like John Freyer, selling everything we have and living with nothing.
No, I think perhaps we start understanding the why of Jesus’ declaration right there at the beginning: “Do not be afraid.”
Strange he would say that, isn’t it? The other times these words are used in the New Testament Jesus and his disciples find themselves in scary, life-threatening situations, like powerful storms on the Sea of Galilee, or going to sleep one night and meeting an angel in your dreams, or running for your life because evil people in power are trying to kill you.
None of those dramatic or life threatening events are looming in this case, yet Jesus says do not fear. Jesus knew that the accumulation of possessions was something we do to create a sense of security, to numb our fear. Before Jesus said, “sell your possessions,” he first asked his disciples to do something even harder: do not be afraid.
On a recent road trip I finally got caught up with past episodes of NPR’s This American Life. On an episode called Captain’s Log, I heard the fascinating story of a little group of Girl Scouts—called Girl Guides in China, where this story takes place. The motto of Girl Guides, an international organization like the Girl Scouts, is “A guide smiles and sings under all difficulties.” Who knew that this motto would be tested to the extreme when a group of elementary school aged girls, children of missionaries and ex-patriots from countries all over the world: Canada, the United States, Belgium, would be captured and imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp for four years during World War II?
The day after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese soldiers showed up at Chee-fu, the girls’ boarding school, and shipped the whole school to a concentration camp called Wei Chen.
The teachers at the school were taken prisoner along with the girls. They packed up Brownie uniforms, musical instruments, and as many books as they could, and they set out with determination to insist that the girls live up to the foundational principle of Girl Guides: “A guide smiles and sings under all difficulties.”
And the difficulties were considerable. There was very little food; many starved to death. It was bone-chillingly cold in the winter-time, with no coal to heat their living quarters. They witnessed unspeakable brutality and violence. But the teachers ran their little part of the camp like any other troop. They required each girl do at least one good deed every day. They insisted on excellent posture and good table manners, even as they sat down to eat a gruel made from animal feed. And they sang. Every day, in any occasion they could, they sang.
At this point in the story I was listening to, the NPR reporter interrupted his narrative and said that he just couldn’t believe what he was hearing—not possible. So he looked until he found a survivor of Wei Chen, one of the girls in the Girl Guide group that had been imprisoned for four years. Her name is Mary Previte. She’s 82 years old and she lives in New Jersey now.
Mary remembers the hardship of the camp, but she remembers even more how their teachers kept insisting they show kindness and try their best and sing their hearts out. Though later she tracked down some of her former teachers who said they lived in terror of the violence all around them, Mary says the girls “lived a miracle where grownups preserved our childhood.”
“One of the things that we sang when the Japanese were marching us into [the] concentration camp was the first verse of Psalm 46: ‘God is our refuge, our refuge and our strength…. In trouble, we will not be afraid.’”
First thing in the morning the teachers would lead the girls in songs set to bouncy camp melodies. “It was like you weren’t going to be afraid if you could sing about it. We would sing [every night] ‘Day is done. Gone the sun from the sea, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest. God is nigh.’ How could you be afraid when you’re singing about all is well, safely rest, God is nigh? How could you be afraid…?”
“All of these words just sung into our hearts,” Mary remembers. “I am safe. I am safe. I am safe. That was just profound.”
On August 17, 1945, American soldiers liberated the camp and rescued the girls, their teachers, and the other prisoners in the camp. For the last 20 years, Mary Previte has been on a mission to meet all the soldiers who rescued them. A few weeks ago, she met the last one. In China.
Jesus said: sell your possessions, but he’s talking about changing much, much more than the inventory of material possessions that we own.
Jesus is talking about taking an honest look at our lives and noticing what it is that motivates us. Because Jesus knew when he said those words, that you and I often live our lives pushed and bullied, tricked and manipulated by fear.
We make decisions that keep us chained to jobs we hate, possessions that encumber us, relationships that poison our lives. Because we’re afraid, we’d never, ever have the courage to let go of everything and trust God. There are bills to be paid, after all.
What is it that defines your life, that fuels your decision-making, that takes its place in the forefront of your mind? Are you scared? Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” And Jesus also said: “Perfect love casts out fear.”
The fact of the matter is, after all his work listing his whole life for sale on Ebay, John Freyer has not been able to stop accumulating stuff—he just continuously turns around and lists his acquisitions over and over again, selling everything he has in an effort to live with nothing. And here’s the worst part: so far, for everything he owns, his whole entire life . . . he’s only made a little over $6000.
Jesus said sell your possessions, and he meant it. So, today you could hear these words of Jesus and go out to sell everything you have (hope you’d make a little more than $6000). You could even go in to work tomorrow and quit your job. But whatever you do, hear the deeper message of Jesus and don’t live your life shackled and wrestled down by fear. “I am safe. I am safe. I am safe. That is profound.” Indeed.
Thanks be to God!