Sunday, September 09, 2007

Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, September 9, 2007

In the collect for today we call on God to grant us the ability to trust in God with all of our hearts. And the lessons today really push at the issue of trusting in God, particularly when it comes to the many things we tend to have in our life in the United States. When we are surrounded by so much it is sometimes easy to forget where we should place our trust. Even that very thing in which so many people falsely place their trust, money, reminds us of where that trust should really be. Look at any paper currency in your wallet or purse. What does it tell us? “In God we trust.” But do we live into that trust with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength?

There is nothing like today’s lessons to drive this point home. The words of Jeremiah may force all of us far from what is comfortable in our understanding of how God can choose to work in the world. The prophet Jeremiah hears from the Lord that God can do just about anything God pleases with the people of Israel. But the end of this passage is the usual plea from God for the people of Israel to turn from their evil ways. They are called to turn from evil and return to God before God takes action against them. That has always been God’s nature, to warn and then to call us back to the God who never gives up on us.

In the passage today from Philemon, Paul is trying to point out that there is something more important than ownership. Paul is trying very hard to get Philemon to understand that while he may indeed have possessed Onesimus, he does not own him – God does. Paul pulls out every stop to try and protect this wayward slave from punishment and explain how God has completely changed their relationship.

But even more chilling, is the final line of the Gospel today in which Jesus told his listeners that none of them could become Jesus disciple if they did not give up all their possessions. How many of us are willing to do that? While some might accuse me of trying to soft sell this hard passage, I would offer a different, and less literal, understanding of what it means.

First of all, this final comment comes in the context of the stories told before in this lesson. Those stories talk about counting the cost of actions before taking them. It is indeed the wise person who takes the time to count the cost of any endeavor. The passage points to the foolishness made evident when people fail to perform the duty of counting the cost.

Discipleship, following Jesus, can be, will be, a costly path to walk. It has cost some their lives, others their fortunes, and some their families. In light of this Jesus calls us to weigh is our willingness to make sacrifices to follow him. Discipleship also calls us to avoid those things detrimental to our walk of faith. We all have choices of make. And Jesus is well aware of the danger which money and possessions can pose to spiritual health and well-being.

There is an interesting point in this regard found in Jewish theology. In Jewish theology there is a strong belief in a "difference between possession and ownership. Ultimately, all things are owned by God, creator of the world. What we possess we do not own – we merely hold it in trust for God."[1]

You see this reflected when the nation of Israel is instructed to go in and possess the land. Possess not owned. It is an outgrowth from the creation story in which humanity is giving the responsibility of stewardship, not ownership of all of creation.

Now this truth of possession rather than ownership may be hard to live out in the world today and it probably was no easier in the time of Jesus. Today we tend to think of ownership and possession as synonyms. Two words that mean the same thing. But I think this important distinction was what Jesus was speaking about in the passage in Luke. Jesus was not calling all of his followers to adopt the monastic model of refusing ownership of anything in order to follow Jesus. With one possible exception we don’t see that kind of idea anywhere in the Christian Scriptures. What we do find in the Scriptures are warnings of the dangers of wealth. Jesus was trying to get people (and that includes us) to count the cost of what ownership really means.

If we believe that we actually own everything we have, it changes our attitude. Our focus can easily shift to our things and the need to protect what we have and to accumulate even more. Those things can so easily turn our minds and hearts away from God. But if we believe that everything we have is really owned by God and that we are mere stewards, entrusted with a sacred trust to care for and appreciate the gifts from God then that is a very different thing. As stewards we are still called on to care for that which has been entrusted to us by God, but the burden and the danger of ownership is lifted from our shoulders.

The giving up Jesus is calling us to, is a giving up of the need to have complete control and custody of all of that we own. It calls us to live into the truth that everything we have, our money, our cars, our homes, absolutely everything, really does all belong to God.

Our prayers over the gifts at the Eucharist are an extension of this thought. The prayer we primarily use at St. Peter’s begins with “Father we offer you these gifts which you have given us.” That is a powerful statement if we truly believe it and live it.

So the next time you take a bill out of your purse or wallet, take a close look at the back of it. “In God we trust”. Do you really believe it? Do you live your life like you believe it?

[1] Jonathan Sacks, ­The Dignity of Difference, p. 114.

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