We live in an era of great fear, worries surrounding us most of the time. We worry about local problems, world conflicts, a critical environment. It doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum, there’s some person or group, able to wind you up to a pitch of doomsday anxiety. We may try to have some control – by turning off the radio, or spending our time with those who agree with us. None of these strategies actually work, because there’s more anxiety floating free in the world than our protective steps can soak up. Where are we to turn?
Since we are here in church, you may suspect that I’m going to bring God and faith into this. And so I am. The Bible contains numerous repetitions of the sentence, “Do not be afraid.” It would seem to be something that God tries repeatedly to convey to us, although we may be a bit tone-deaf. Again this morning, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”
The Kingdom of God is not a place, not a state of mind, not a doctrine. It is the world of human flourishing, as it shall be when the will of God triumphs over every evil. It has already begun among us with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; but it is not yet wholly fulfilled. This description of the Kingdom is often stated as “already, not yet.”
What do we need to do to fully bring in that Kingdom? More prayer? More good works? Memorized Bible verses? We do love a good project. But it turns out that the coming of the Kingdom is not something for us to accomplish. It is, as Jesus says here, entirely a promised gift, arising from God’s pure delight in the giving. God longs to give us all that is good, and full and complete. And while we can’t bring the Kingdom by our efforts, we can seek after the reality that is already present. We can stay awake and be alert to notice its manifestations. But how pay attention?
Jesus has an immediate answer. “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” Now why did he have to go there? He must know that this is the hardest thing for us to consider.
Surely he remembers what happened when the rich young man came asking him how to receive eternal life. The man knew scripture, he prayed, he gave alms. What more was needed? When Jesus told him that the one thing he lacked was to sell everything, give it to the poor and come follow him, the young man became deeply sad, turned and walked away.
So why does Jesus bring up the subject again, knowing how we tend to feel about our possessions? There must be other ways we can be faithful. Then again, why is this the area of life where we most resist God’s words? Perhaps it is because we are deeply fearful of what would happen if we stripped ourselves of the status, prestige and acquisitions that we think we need in order to protect ourselves.
Then hear the words of that great prophet, comedian George Carlin, about our possessions, which he calls ‘stuff’: “Here’s all your house is – a place to keep your stuff. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. And when you leave your house, you’ve got to lock it up. You wouldn’t want to have somebody come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. So your house is a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. Sometimes you’ve got to move – got to get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff. You’ve got to move all your stuff – and maybe put some of your stuff in storage.”
This riff surely describes the box in which we are caught. Maybe the reason Jesus brings up this subject again, has to do with the ways in which our possessions tie us to the world as it is, keep us from seeing the flashes of that Kingdom whose fulfillment we have been promised. Our response to Jesus’ teachings about wealth tends to be a frantic attempt to find some other way to approach God. Like people with spiritual ADD, we run from one project to the next, seeking one that will make the world at least a little better, decrease injustice a bit.
But Jesus has no intention of tinkering with the system here and there. Rather, he preaches a radical shift in the way our lives are ordered, away from power, success and security toward complete dependence on God. And when he tells us to sell our stuff and give it away, he doesn’t suggest that we write big checks to needy groups. Rather he says that we should ‘give alms’.
That is a very different kind of giving, one in which we cannot stay at a distance and send our money out to do good things. Rather it refers to close community with those in need, a solidarity that saves us from being wealthy benefactors, and creates a connection that makes giving creative and mutual.
This year marked my seventh trip with St. John’s to the same village in Guatemala. We all spend a fair amount of our own money to make these trips, so I suppose it comes partly under the heading of ‘sell what you have and give it away’. But by now it comes much closer to the ‘giving of alms’ which involves our presence with the people there. We were working with them to build more road and re-paint the school, because the pueblo wants to make a good impression when they host the School Drum and Bugle Corps exhibition next month.
For me, the great thing about these work trips is the chance to talk again with the people of Nuevo Providencia and the San Lucas Mission. It has become more possible to talk about things that are real to all of us, and not just polite “thanks for all that you do to help us.”
I conversed with some of them about what they fear or hope for in their presidential elections held just yesterday. Romeo, one of the men driving our pick-up truck transportation, asked me what I thought about our president. After a few pithy descriptive words, I said something about the mess created on our southern border, which has come to involve Guatemalans very directly. Romeo looked at me, pointed to his arm, and said, “He doesn’t want anyone whose skin is this color.” And we were able to talk at least a bit about what that meant to him and his neighbors. This is the solidarity with the other which we are encouraged to seek in the world.
Jesus taught us to, “Sell your possessions, and give alms.” We are fearful of such radical steps. But they can lead us to solidarity with all our neighbors, the community of God’s Kingdom. They are the steps leading to a way to life on a more solid foundation, to a security that ultimately saves us from our anxieties, alienation, and sadness. When we let go of our constant work of self-definition, and self-creation, we can at last receive our true name and identity in the reality of the God who deeply longs to give us everything.