First Presbyterian Lafayette, LouisianaWhat comes to mind when I say the word “possessed”? For many of us who grew up after the advent of such horror films like “The Amityville Horror” or “The Exorcist,” the word possession can bring up some uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Perhaps if I ask the question a little differently it might change some of your reactions. What if the word is instead “possession”? Now what comes to mind?
Year C, Ordinary 18
Year C, Ordinary 18
We live in a world defined by things, for the most part, or by the activities that result in things. Our identities are often more attached to achievements than relationships. Sure, we begin conversations with “What kind of work do you do?” But chances are that those conversations aren’t going to go very far unless the “doing” that is described has some kind of value to us. This is nothing new, literature and social commentary about this goes back to the origin of society and recorded history.
John Calvin talked about our greed and self-centeredness as idolatry. On the surface you could say that we worship things. We say things like, “Isn’t that adorable?” or “I would give just about anything for that!” And on a deeper level, we are not just worshiping things. We are worshiping our own desires. We are worshiping ourselves.
In 1960, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote about our culture as pantheistic, because we have so many different places that we turn to as a center of value (and that was before the internet, twitter, and facebook). A center of value is something we orient our decisions around. Niebuhr felt that when it came to making decisions about priorities, we use different things that seem to have some moral value on their own to justify doing what we want.
In the language of addiction, we value something so much that we think about it when we are not with it. We plan our activities around the opportunity to consume it. Our priorities become focused on an object or activity in a way that we cannot feel valuable unless we are connected to it. This unbalanced type of relationship can happen with any of us, and our drug of choice can be work, family, our social activities, or a computer as easily as it can be cigarettes and substances. I do not mean to down play the severity of substances. Instead I am suggesting that the struggle of holding onto God as a center of value is a human struggle, and that sometimes we even use our faith to justify our desires over God’s.
That’s what the man in the crowd was trying to do. Jesus had just finished condemning the religious leaders for their use of the law for selfish gain, and immediately an enterprising young man saw his shot. Now, it may seem odd that Jesus is using this guy’s request to divide up the family estate as a way to tell people not to be greedy. Isn’t the older brother greedy? He’s the one with all the family goods? The difference is that they lived in a society where the older brother had been entrusted to care for the younger. Trying to get his share before his time meant that he was trying to look after himself, regardless of anyone else.
So Jesus tells a story, reminding us of the difference between possessions and relationships. If you have not been to the new C.U.P.s building, perhaps you have not seen the “Bumper Sticker Theology” wall. It is a bulletin board filled with bumper stickers that make faith statements. Verse 15, where Jesus is reminding us that life is more than possessions, reminds me of one that I saw some time ago. I’m not sure if this one made it to the wall, but I remember it clearly from a bumper. It simply said, “Your stuff will own you.” Jesus is reminding us of the difference between our stuff and our identity as children of God.
As I looked through this passage I was particularly struck by verse 21. The verb for “store up” can also be translated as “placing in tomorrow,” and the phrase for being rich can be translated as “being rich into God.” It seems that the emphasis is on the location of our intentions. Do we place our hope in something we have placed into the future, or do we place our trust in God? How silly it is that we try to place things of today into tomorrow. For we live only the days we have to live, and our value is never found in the things we do or do not have, but only in who we are. When I consider the idea of possession from this perspective it reminds me of breakfast. Not just any breakfast, it reminds me of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”
For those cinematic sinners who have yet to see this triumphant film about modern life, it is the story of two young adults trying to find meaning and love in the early 60’s. Audrey Hepburn plays Holly Golightly, a young woman who moves in between social circles and won’t let anyone pin her down. More than a shrew, she is an enigma, and her greatest fear is being defined, named, and owned by someone else. She won’t even name her cat because if you name it you own it, and it loses its identity and becomes a thing.
In the final scene her love interest, Paul, calls her bluff, “You know what's wrong with you, Miss Whoever-you-are? You're chicken, you've got no guts. You're afraid to stick out your chin and say, "Okay, it's a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that's the only chance anybody's got for real happiness." You call yourself a free spirit, a "wild thing," and you're terrified somebody's gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you're already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it's not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It's wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.”
The idea that we are independent is a myth. In truth we are, if anything, interdependent. We are interdependent because we need each other. We need the resources of the earth, and we need a way to experience God’s presence. We understand God’s presence most fully by loving and being loved. I’m not talking about mushy, gushy Hollywood love. I’m talking about the love of deeply knowing someone and being known, named, and claimed.
Love chooses us. Love befalls us, binds us, and gives us a sense of meaning. God is the origin of love. We are not the object or possession of God’s love. We are the subjects God has created to be in a relationship with. We are subjects with our own wills and desires, and the relationship we have with God through Jesus Christ provides the opportunity to align our passions with God’s.
Because God wants to be in a relationship with all of creation, then so must we. Our true North, our center of value, must be God’s will. That’s what it means to “be rich toward God.” God’s desire is that our treasure, our comfort, our ultimate sense of security be in the knowledge and presence of God’s love.
I hate to say it, but that is a lot harder to do than it sounds. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that I can tell you what it looks like on a daily basis. The extension of the logic is that we should just give away our possessions, work only when we have to, and expect God to take care of things like retirement, health care, and poverty. Does God really think that savings and insurance plans are corrupting us and making us deny God’s love and providence? Surely not, though I would imagine that it’s not out of the realm of possibility for us to become so focused on saving ourselves that we might forget who our Savior is. That’s why we come to this table, to remember who our Savior is. We get a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all are forgiven, all are cherished, and all are claimed, named and loved.
I heard a story not too long ago about a group of church members, C.U.P.s volunteers, and some folks they just did not want to leave alone who stayed at the church during Hurricane Gustav. As Leigh tells it, five guys from Illinois just happened to show up with a bulldozer asking for shelter and preparing for clean up work from the incoming storm. During the course of the event one of the walls was ripped from the old C.U.P.s building, and those five guys from Illinois jumped in to help. Apparently they still come through from time to time and check on C.U.P.s. John is the name of the crew leader, and because of the shared experience, there is a relationship there.
You can call it luck or fate if you want to. I’ll just give thanks to God that it happened and call it providence. That’s what happens when we set our minds on things that are beyond our reach but resting gently in the arms of God. That is what it is like to live in this world of uncertainty with a sense of hope and peace that is not manufactured by our efforts, but is dependent on the mercy, grace, and providence of God. So come, again and again to this table, and taste and see that the Lord is good. And to God be the glory, both now and always, Amen.