When I was about 21 years old, I travelled to a different country on my own for the first time. I landed at the Heathrow Airport in London and hailed one of the square black cabs. The driver was an older man who had been driving a cab for many years.
He asked me a bunch of questions about living in America. He also gave me some good advice about my time in England. He told me to be careful about going to the pubs with new friends since those kids had been drinking in pubs for many years (although it was probably not advice I really needed since was not much of a party animal even then). He also told me not to tip in restaurants or after cab rides—since it isn’t customary in the United Kingdom. He said that some cabbies didn’t tell American guests about this difference in national customs.
When we got to our destination, I realized that I didn’t know enough about the currency of the country to know what to pay him. I offered him a stack of coins and bills in my open hands and he carefully picked out the right amount for the fare. Then he carried my bags up a big flight of stairs and I started my 12 week adventure in England.
It reminded me of a novel that I had read in Literature class the previous semester. It was a dystopian science fiction novel written by Ursula Le Guin called The Dispossessed. The main character left his own planet, which was called Urras, to go to an anarchist planet sister called Anarresti where everyone lived in community, owning nothing. He said that when he came to the planet Urras he gave a sign of greeting to those he met, gesturing to show his open hands to show that he owned nothing. In the book, he explained the history in this way:
“Because there is nothing, nothing on Urras that we Anarresti need! We left with empty hands, a hundred and seventy years ago, and we were right. We took nothing. Because there is nothing here but States and their weapons, the rich and their lies, and the poor and their misery. There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart, on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into, and fear of loss, and the wish for power. You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is ‘superior’ to the other, or trying to prove it. You cannot act like a brother to other people, you must manipulate them, or command them, or obey them, or trick them.”
Together, these two things, this experience of offering the cab driver all the money I had and trusting him to take only what I owed and of reading this book about letting go of ownership has stayed with me because it taught me something about this morning’s Gospel. Jesus encounters a man who wants the secret of eternal life. First, Jesus reminds him that all good things come from God…and then he tells him to follow all the commandments. The man says that he has done that all his life. Hearing this answer, the scripture says, Jesus loves him and invites him to become a disciple—to leave what he has, to give away his wealth, and to be part of building the kingdom of God. The man turns away, sad, because he owns many things.
Basically, this man has lived a faithful life by refraining from doing things that have been forbidden, that are harmful to others. He has attended to the “Thou shalt nots….” Next, Jesus invites him into something even more challenging—to start doing things in the name of God, to give up, not just wealth, but also time, power, privilege, safety, security, rank, status, and even influence. Not only that, but this man will be giving all of this up and continuing to live in a world where these things are valued, where other people continue to follow a different set of standards.
He is asking the man to come to God with open hands and an open handed attitude of “All that is mine belongs to you, so use it to do your will… to build the Kingdom of God. “
What a terrifying thought. When I sat with it, I had all sorts of questions:
- What if there isn’t enough left over for me?
- What if the rest of my family gets angry at this idea?
- What if God asks me to give up something I really, really want to keep?
- What if it means that I don’t have what I need to be or look successful?
- Isn’t it possible to keep my stuff and serve God?
If we can let go of the fear, though, its interesting to think about what could happen when we lean into this idea, if if we believe, as Jesus told us this morning that “for God all things are possible.” New questions emerge then:
- What if there is a sense of wealth that goes beyond the physical?
- What if we could let go of fear and worry by opening our hands to God?
- What if sharing what we have changes the world in ways we can’t imagine?
- What if this exercise makes us more of who we are meant to be?
- What if we don’t need as much as we think I do?
In the past couple of months, a dear, long-time friend of mine has been going through a rough time… leaving a marriage, renting a new place to live, and starting to build a new life. In the wake of this shift, I found myself looking at my own home with new eyes… I realized that I had enough stuff and more—so I started to gather together blankets, sheets, towels, kitchen implements, and other items that everybody needs. I put the word out and more items came in. Then my friend looked on Craig’s list—and found that there were people giving away furniture and appliances… so she made a few calls and she found people who were downsizing after retirement or moving or replacing items and had serviceable and even beautiful items that they were willing to give her.
Now, after spending only $200, the new home is entirely furnished and cozy. Better still, she told me that as she looks at the items in her new home she remembers all the good wishes and caring that came with them. She remembers the retired man who offered her the beautiful desk that he had worked at for most of her career. She remembers the young man who saw her struggling to move a couch and ran to help. She remembers the people used their trucks to help move furniture, who thought of her and brought house plants, provided art to hang on the wall, and other things that make a home come alive.
Her reflections on her experience reminded me of some important things. Letting go of what we have does not diminish us. God doesn’t pry our hands open and wrest things away from us. Love opens our hands. Compassion opens our hands. Really seeing those around us opens our hands. In the end, this kind of giving doesn’t diminish us at all…but rather builds us up and helps remind us of that truth that we need to remember when we start to feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
The novel I mentioned before, the Dispossessed, summed it up: “Nothing is yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.”
In our faith, we are invited to be disciples, to offer what we have, to share it and use it, and, in the process, to follow Christ. That’s the invitation: Come to God with open hands and see what happens.
Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in San Carlos on October 14, 2018.