Who Are We Without Our Stuff?

Who are we without our stuff? For those of us who are U.S. residents, we are citizens of consumption, mavens of materiality. We are American consumers more often than we are American voters. Americans are brand-identified. Our patterns of consumption define us, and project who we are. Some of us like to project success, and others of us like to project social responsibility with what we have purchased. We are PCs or Macs; Blackberries, Palms or iPhones; Nike or New Balance; fair trade or free trade. We are Toyota, Volkswagen or Ford car owners; we are supporting breast cancer research as we buy pink or AIDS research as we buy red. We know how cool we are based on whether we choose Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Explorer to surf the web. We stick to one preferred airline, with Southwest customers proud to feel the "luv" or fly JetBlue with its DirectTV at every seat and fancy T5 at JFK.

I'm not saying I am any different. I have my brand identification down to a science. I know which type of countertop I prefer, and I can justify my choice of big box stores. I know why I use the mobile phone service provider I do. I even know which fast food chain I would rather eat at. I buy as well as the next person. I just wonder who it is we are without our stuff.

The question raised first by the passage from the Gospel of Luke is: who are these people without their families?

The Gospel of Luke passage we heard gives a series of renunciations. "'Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." The first two are renunciations of family and of life. The third is a renunciation of possessions: "So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

My favorite aspects of the Gospel of Luke include remarkable inclusion of women as agents, and the fact that this portrayal of Jesus is of a guy who enjoys his food and drink. I can identify with that Jesus. Another characteristic of this gospel is the frequent mention of the need to give up or step away from material things. The disciples were told they would need nothing to go on their journeys. This makes me squirm. I like to be prepared, and being prepared usually means buying the best tent or water bottle from the right sporting goods store.

What I like to think of as the most awkward part of this passage is the whole hate thing - "hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters." Awkward 

I've already been thinking about the worst-case scenario. I'm thinking about people who leave their families and don't speak to them ever again because of bad experiences with abuse or rejection. I'm thinking about people who choose to cut themselves off, or are cut off because they have been abandoned or disowned. But before you join me in this devolution, I want to know what this "hate" thing is about. I find myself having a intercultural encounter with this text, written in a time when family/tribal affiliation was everything. Everyone was "son of" or "daughter of." Entire families converted, or didn't. Families provided access, security, inheritance rights, a way to make a living.

When I think about who in this vast and varied collection of Scriptural traditions had no family connections enabling them to navigate their societies, I think of widows and orphans and aliens in a foreign land. All these people were in such desperate disenfranchised straits because they did not have a family by which they were provided access to the means of survival.

Voluntarily stepping outside of the family structure seems, to be blunt, nuts. "Hate" is a strong word, my father used to say, probably trying to deter me from my hyperbolic tendencies. And to continue our intercultural engagement, it may be helpful to know that some scholars say this term translated as "hate" was not a rejection but a different understanding of priorities. To hate one's family was a way of saying that family would not be the primary affiliation or the only choice.

In the passages leading up to this one, Jesus has been speaking to potential disciples hanging out at the home of a prominent Pharisee. Those listening are described by Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock as "interested inquirers and admirers."  These were not committed disciples, these were the seekers of the day.

In contemporary evangelicalism, at least one school of thought believes seekers should not be stuck with the indignity of having to pass the offering plate. Financial support of a church belongs to the members. Here Jesus is speaking to people who are considering commitment, and it sounds like he wants them to have a sense of the import of such a decision. This text is hyperbolic, but it gets the point across. Discipleship comes first, before family, before life, and before your stuff.

Now Jesus does happen to have a strategic planning moment. There are couple of little parables embedded in the text about being able to follow through. Could you build a tower without first making sure you have sufficient funds? Could someone go to war without figuring out how likely it would be to win that war? Only in Luke is Jesus concerned with calculating the costs before one begins a new endeavor. One cannot enter into fairly pivotal ventures without planning ahead, thinking it all the way through.

One of my favorite radio shows is RadioLab, out of New York City's public radio station. RadioLab has a short episode called "Helicopter Boy" in which they interview a supporter who thanked the show for helping her deal with her son's injury. The story goes a bit like this: Over the period of a couple of weeks, this mother watched her 7-year old son try to solve the problem of flight. He started out trying to make little things fly. He rigged a tiny motor to run a propeller. He finally made the determination that if he could push the propeller himself, he could fly. He jumped off of a rock wall in a harness attached to a propeller, and swore that he hovered for just a moment.

One day, unbeknownst to his parents he pushed his hypothesis further. He jumped out of a tree. Not having yet conquered the physics of flight, he injured himself, and to get him to stop squirming while she attended to his wounds, her mother turned on RadioLab. Not only did this kid listen to the radio show for 45 minutes, he retained almost all the information of their show on parasites. His mother said to RadioLab she wished her son would retain what she told him about thinking all the way through the possible consequences of his actions, such as jumping from a tree. The hosts of RadioLab made a special segment for her son about thinking all the way through one's actions, RadioLab-style. In the words of the hosts, they made it "sticky" with audio props so he would retain the information.

A decision to follow Jesus requires thinking all the way through the possible consequences of discipleship. Jesus wants us to do a cost-benefit analysis and a risk assessment. And the Gospel of Luke makes this message sticky by giving examples of what could happen when people don't plan ahead, and by using the language of hate. This dramatic language makes a point: that discipleship is beyond most experiences. It isn't convenient. It might cost us everything. After all, if loyalty to Jesus comes first, then everything, even the fundamental social structures of family and things, comes second. This passage follows the parables where Jesus suggests to the host of a luncheon or dinner: "do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours," but invite "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind." Following through on inviting those who cannot repay you has to be dangerous.

Where I work, at the Fund for Theological Education, many of our former fellows have faced the real possibility of giving it all up. Nothing is beyond the realm of possibility, from inner city small churches to mission work in conflict zones, from seminary presidencies to leadership in advocacy for justice.

The passage states: "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Seriously, Jesus?

Yes, seriously. Because following Jesus is serious business. 

I like a challenge as much as anyone, but I'm not ready to answer this challenge with a definitive yes. What about a definitive maybe? How about a definitive I'll think about it? Perhaps the life of Christian discipleship is a work in progress. We may still be pondering these words of Jesus as we decide, each day, whether we will be disciples.

Who are we without our stuff? The question is, who are we when we define ourselves as disciples instead of the people of stuff? What might happen?

Let us pray.

Loving God, you created us to be more than just our possessions, but to participate in your work in the world. As we choose each day to follow the life of Christian discipleship, remind us of who and whose we are. Amen.