by Rev. Scott Summerville
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess…. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” Deuteronomy 30:15-16,19
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Luke 14:33
I recently gave away all my possessions. I mean that literally. Every single dollar to the last penny. Every piece of clothing. My car, my shoes. I don’t own a house, but I gave away all the furnishings. I gave away my books. I gave away my iPod iPhone iPad laptop desktop flatscreen – gave away the microwave, the pots and pans. Pencils, scotch tape. Extension cords lamps. Four desks, multiple filing cabinets. Beds, chests of drawers. Everything in the refrigerator and freezer. My camping gear. Plates and silverware. Every last scrap and shred. Gave it all away.
I know what you’re thinking: “There stands the most extraordinarily generous man I have ever met.” Modesty prevents me from embracing such a superlative description of myself. (I should perhaps disclose that there will be a waiting period before the actual turning over all these belongings; that is, according to will I have signed, all of these worldly goods will not be transferred until my death. Nevertheless, am I not a generous man?)
You might point out that I have no choice in the matter, because whether or not one has a will, whatever one has accumulated, every cent and every shred – even the very cells of our bodies – are ours to possess for but a short time.
It is much easier to talk about giving away my possessions when I’m not here. It would be much more challenging to talk about what to do with my possessions while I am here.
“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple
if you do not give up all your possessions!”
Darn it! The Bible keeps talking about giving stuff away while we are alive. That is not a comfortable subject. Christians have generally gone to great lengths to talk their way out of that particular commandment of Jesus. You just don’t run into many dispossessed Christians. Even in the Bible Belt, you just don’t run into people on the streets or at the mall [or even in church!], wearing their only stitch of clothing, with no wallet or bank account or permanent address because they have given it all away. Come to think of it, I have never met a single one. Truth be told, most of us Christians are just as acquisitive as the next person.
I mentioned last Sunday upon our return from vacation that our travel plans this summer took an abrupt turn when we discovered less than twenty-four hours before our scheduled departure for Halifax, Nova Scotia, that our passports expired in 2013. We therefore lost the tickets and deposits on various reservations for the trip we had planned. Nevertheless, we hopped a plane for New Mexico and spent ten days there. In Albuquerque we met up with an old friend Bill McNeil, former president of the trustees of this church, who sends his love and regards.
The highlight of our visit was the trip we took to three historic pueblos. The term “pueblo” has come to mean a tribal group and also a city or village connected to a particular tribal community. We visited the Acoma Pueblo, the Taos Pueblo, and the Bandelier National Park where there are spectacular remains of a once inhabited city built into the cliffs. The Acoma Pueblo and the Taos Pueblo are still inhabited.
The Acoma Pueblo is known as Sky City, for it is set upon a freestanding column – a mesa – 365 feet high. It is breathtaking to stand below and gaze up at this city built 1,000 years ago, and it is breathtaking to be in the city in the sky looking out the beauty of the valley below and the mountains bordering the horizon.
Our guide us we were taken on tour of Sky City was a young woman of the Acoma people. She informed us that sky city is the oldest continuously human settlement in North America. Toward the end of the tour she took us to the oldest street in the town, where the houses date back 1,000 years. She pointed out several houses that were the oldest of the oldest houses, and informed us that her grandmother owns one of those houses, and that her family regularly gathers there. I asked her, “Has it occurred to you that your family may be living in the oldest inhabited dwelling in North America?”
In the Sky City there is no running water, plumbing or electricity. The Acoma people generally live in villages in that region of New Mexico. They have a system in which at any given time five or ten families will be living in their ancestral homes in the sky, keeping up old traditions, and welcoming visitors.
The same is true of the Taos Pueblo outside of the city of Taos, north of Santa Fe. Our tour guide at the Taos Pueblo informed us that the Taos Pueblo is the oldest continuously inhabited human settlement in North America. Apparently there is some competition for the bragging rights to that designation. No exact dating has been made, and the two communities date from approximately the same time – 1,000 years ago. There, too, representatives of the people of Taos Pueblo residing vicinity take turns living in the ancestral homes, cooking in the large public ovens, and welcoming visitors.
It is very different experience to go to the Bandelier National Park and walk through its ruins and imagine the people who live there for approximately 1150 CE to 1550 CE. They built homes carved from the soft volcanic “tuff.” They farmed and hunted and lived in relative peace in that valley for four hundred years.
Perhaps population pressure or climate changes led them to abandon that site long before the European conquerors arrived. It is not entirely a cliff city. There was a large town with a wide-open square the base of the cliffs and then additional houses built into and onto the cliff face.It is an awesome thing to walk the streets of their city, observe their sacred sites, and actually climb ladders and enter into the dwellings carved into the soft stone of the cliffs where once these people lived.
I share with you two things I heard from the lips of the native people. One comes from one of the elders who speaks in a video clip at the visitor center at Sky City. The other is what was said to us by the young woman who was our guide as we walked the streets of Sky City.
I thought some of you oldsters might appreciate the comment of this Native American elder. In the video the tribal elder, a woman, was asked, “How do you know when you are an elder?” She answered, “When one day there is no one else to turn to, you know that you have become an elder.” I have been pondering that poignant comment.
The young woman who was our guide explained that she is a college student. I asked her what she was studying and what her plans were. She said that she was studying psychology, and that her plan is to return to her community and counsel young people, because of the prevalence of suicide among them. Such a large thing for a young person to take on her shoulders.
The Native American communities that we visited expressed to us that they are trying to preserve something that is sacred. They have not turned away from the modern world. They have their homes with TV and microwaves; they have their cell phones and cars and trucks, and all the paraphernalia of consumer society. At the same time they are trying to preserve physically and spiritually a tradition that is very different from the society that was imposed upon them and that has become our modern consumer culture.
The sacred tradition that they are trying to sustain is one oriented by nature, by constant awareness of sky and earth. It is a tradition of people living closely in community with daily lives entwined. It is a community infused with art and ritual, drama and chant, hospitality and honor. It is my sense that the Native Americans live with the permanent sense of disruption; after all, an ancient way of life was upended violently by outsiders who saw no value in their traditions; indeed they were required to abandon their most sacred traditions, even under penalty of death. I can only guess at the tensions that must lie in the soul of many Native American people as they live with this sense of disruption and loss, desiring to hold onto and celebrate traditions that were threatened, and at the same time as they are drawn and pulled by the things that consumer society holds out to us all.
Some are able to negotiate this complicated spiritual territory in beautiful ways, living amazing lives enriched by all the sources and influences that surround them and by the awesome natural beauty of their land. But obviously many are not able to find their way, and this is so tragically reflected in the suicides of their young people. You might say that suicide is the ultimate act of giving up one’s possessions. To take one’s life is to give away everything one has, even life itself.
But how do we understand the message of Jesus, the message that there is a way of giving up that yields for us abundance, greater love, and fullness of spirit? I find it fascinating that in the Scriptures today we are given two apparently conflicting messages:
In the scene in the book of Deuteronomy our Hebrew ancestors had nothing; they were refugees. They were in the desert of Sinai. They were hungry, thirsty, badly clothed, wanderers in the wilderness. What they longed for was the land of promise. They longed for prosperity. They longed for the milk and honey they had been told awaited them when they left their slavery in Egypt.In a way they had fulfilled Jesus commandment before it was given, they had given up everything to follow where God would lead them. But they lived with the hope that their deprivations would cease. They lived with the hope that they or at least their ancestors would drink the wine of their own vineyards, feast on the bread for which they would happily toil, enjoy peace and contentment with their families, and entertain guests with all the rich hospitality of Middle Eastern custom. One part of our Scripture today repeats the promise of prosperity for a people who lives in faithful relationship with one another and with their creator.
The other promises blessing to those who surrender everything to follow Jesus.
I promise you prosperity. I ask you to give up everything you own.
I ask you to give up everything you own. I promise you prosperity.
Interesting contrast, isn’t it?
Fortunately it is not my job as the preacher to make all this sound simple or to resolve all these paradoxes. This certainly is one of the great paradoxes that we have within the covers of our Bible: a message of promised prosperity balanced with the dire warning for humanity that does not live in sacred balance with the earth and with God. At the same time the Bible contains this call from the lips of Jesus to give it all away. There is a tension here that we must live with, and it can be a creative tension.
I have known a few people in my ministry who gave too much away. They injured themselves in ways that they need not have done in their spontaneous unreserved giving. I have only known a few such people over these many years. The greater temptation for most of us is clutch at what we have, and therefore to hold back resources that could be released for works of love and for ministries of service, blessing others and blessing ourselves.
I find myself thinking about this tension in a different way after spending a couple of weeks in a part of the country where you can see to the horizon, and after spending this time with people who in a unique way live in the tension between the spiritual and the material – the ancient and the new – timeless earth and mortal human life.
We need to return to those deep sources within our Scripture and tradition that celebrate creation and that invite us to live within God’s ecology – that invite us to choose life by living in balance with one another and with God and with Earth, mindful of the blessing and the warning given to us millennia ago but freshly real for us today:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…”
Unless humanity chooses wisely and chooses life, we face great calamity. We must find creative balance between the prosperity we desire and that spiritual detachment that allows us to see all material things as only very temporarily within our grasp. We must center our lives in the love of Christ, in love for creation, in love and respect for humanity in all its variation. In the midst of what often feels like the chaos of this world, we must find balance, a sacred balance. Our being together here gives us an opportunity to support and embrace one another and to encourage one another to find and to struggle to maintain that sacred balance.
Grace and peace to you