Several years ago, there was a commercial that aired a lot during the holiday season that I’ve never forgotten. It was an advertisement for a watch company (I can’t remember which one), encouraging people to purchase a watch as a Christmas gift. At the end of great shots of fancy watches, the invisible narrator said: “because your watch is the most important thing about who you are.” They were totally serious!
As ridiculous as that sounds, in some ways it’s just an honest account of what we’re being told all the time. Who you are is often associated with what you buy and what you have. If you buy this kind of car you belong to this tribe, if you shop at this store you are part of the refined crowd, if you want to be young and hip you buy Apple products, because the commercial clearly teaches that only old squares use PCs. For all of us, there is both some ridiculousness and truth to all of it.
So I wonder: what is it that makes you who you are? For most of you, I suspect it’s not your watch. Is it your job, or your house, is it your family, your school? What makes you who you are?
That’s the question that is at the core of today’s gospel lesson. It’s an easy story for us to overlook and dismiss. It sounds like a run of the mill crazy demand from Jesus. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Who does that?
But think for a minute about the real issue here. The man in the story, like all of us, has a lot of possessions. I don’t know what kind of watch, or car, or computer he had, but I imagine they were important to him. They reflected who he was and what he had accomplished. Selling it all and giving the money to the poor doesn’t just change his net worth, it changes who he is. Jesus is saying inheriting the kingdom of heaven isn’t just a matter of following a bunch of rules, it’s about giving ourselves away.
Here’s what following the way of Jesus has taught me: what really makes us who we are is not what we have, but what we give. The things we give ourselves to make us who we are. In my own case, a big part of what makes me who I am is being a dad.That requires constant giving. That constant, daily giving for the sake of another has, even in five short years, shaped me into who I am. I am so different now than I was five years ago because of what I have given, and who I have given myself to.
From start to finish, the Bible reminds us over and over that we are created to give ourselves away for others. That’s why we human beings do things like marry, and raise children, and spend lots of time around other people. None of those things are easy all the time, in fact a lot of it is quite hard; but if we are honest, the ways we give ourselves away for others are the most meaningful parts of who we are. Today’s gospel lesson reminds us that our lives are saved by giving them away. That is how God moves toward us, and it’s the path through which we will find life, and peace, and joy.
We’re right in the middle of our annual giving campaign here at Trinity. You all are going to be receiving a mailing this week that asks you to make a financial commitment to Trinity in the coming year, alongside the generous commitments so many make of time and energy. There are a few reasons we do this every year: as the dean of this cathedral, I and the Chapter have an obligation to ask you to give because what we do here costs about $800,000 every year. We have an endowment through which previous generations continue to give, but we need to raise about $400,000 from our members and friends in the next year to continue living into our vision: expanding programs with children and families, reaching out to the poor and marginalized, and offering transformative, beautiful worship in the best of the Anglican choral tradition.
But as you pastor, as someone who really loves you and who has made promises to care for your soul, I want you to give because it is what we were all made for. The central truth of the Christian faith is that giving ourselves away is what saves our life and sets us free. Bringing our gifts to this table makes us a new family. I know that because I’ve experienced it. When I first started pledging to a church years ago, giving about one percent of my income, it hurt to write that check every month. But now, as I’ve gradually tried to increase that percentage each year, I still feel it for sure, but where I give my life reminds me who I am. It reminds me that this community of people who follow Jesus is my family. My heart, like all of ours, follows my energy, my time, and my money. Giving to this place roots my heart here.
What is it that makes you who you are? For me, it is most profoundly the things and people in my life that I have given myself away to. When we give our whole lives and our whole selves to Jesus, when we practice that moment by moment, day by day, and week by week, we will find that who we are is a people set free from fear, a people who agitate for justice, a people who welcome and embrace everyone, a people whose lives are marked by that great love that can turn hatred into peace, sorrow into joy, and death into life. Amen.