Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
4th Sep 2016
Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity Year C
“None of you can be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions”. Luke 14.33
Our understanding of the life and death of Jesus Christ lies in a key Greek word ‘kenosis’ which allows us to understand the whole offering of his life as a self-emptying one. In Paul’s Letter to the Philemon we have a moving account of how Paul, even while a prisoner in chains, is prepared to send away his most beloved and trusted helper for the good of the Church. And he describes this helper as ‘a part of his own self’. In Christian terms, we come to understand the relationship between the offering of love with the bearing of burdens and the renunciation of self that comes with it. No love was ever real without the life of love being in the words of a Shakespeare sonnet ‘borne out even unto the end of time’. If Christ’s ministry was to be at all effective and lasting, then the teaching of Christ had to be more than just prescriptive or gestural, it had to communicate itself to the deepest levels of human consciousness and it had to be borne out in the action of Christ’s own suffering and death.
It is within this context that the challenge to give up our possessions is being made. And the example of Christ carries with it a call for us to take stock of what we possess and how he have possess it, what we use and how we use it, and what we seek to possess apart from those considerations of how this will affect our relations with others. And this is seen in the rise of a 21st century call to be responsible as consumers for the life and the health of the planet and of the planet. More than ever, my actions, and the way I consume, effects the life of the planet and of my fellow men and women. The reach is global and communal. The self-emptying of Christ is not an individual act on his part, but one which has a direct bearing upon the life of the world. And the call to dispossess lies side by side with the call for live more communally and less selfishly. Today will mark the canonisation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In our own time she, more than any other has embodied the giving of self to the other in costly and committed service. One of the drivers of her service lay in the ability to ‘see’ Christ in the eyes, the face, the life of the other.
I am just of the generation which looks back on a primary school education in which many of our teachers were unmarried women. “Please, Miss!” was meant literally. And my first teacher’s name was Caroline (or as I later came to know her) ‘Carrie’ Peat. Miss Peat, who told us wonderful stories, gave us months old sweets from an old glass jar if one of us deserved commendation, awarded us sticky coloured or even silver or gold stars, and who went to church. Years after my infancy this same Miss Peat would, we all knew, walk two miles to church, come rain or shine, well into her early eighties. Never failing, walking with the elements. A woman who had remained a spinster, who lived alone, and walked to church, and yet a bright, shining, faithful and vigorous spirit. One of a breed of indomitable spirits from that generation. And I can see her walking as a prayer of active service and as an act of heroism. Walking in all weather, sometimes in driving rain. A challenge to the complacency that is in us all to commit ourselves to something other than that which is simply convenient. A challenge to the prevailing idea of church going as being occasional, and if at all possible convenient.
The teaching of Christ comes to us through the energy and the example and the meaning of his own self-emptying, and calls us to that same willingness to offer the whole self to God in worship and service and not just the remnants of our nervous energy.
Some time ago, I read a ‘Times’ headline which said “Religious leaders say prayers as glacier begins to slip away”. Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Shinto and Jewish leaders had offered joint prayers from a ship moored a few hundred yards from The Sermeq Kujalleq glacier in the Arctic Circle, the probable source of the iceberg which sank the ‘Titanic’, and which is now melting, moving continually at 2 mph southwards and a powerful symbol of the speed at which global warming is advancing. It seemed strange to say prayers over a melting glacier but of course something else is going on here. The melting glacier speaks to us of the planet earth become strangely vulnerable to its own elements. If it were a sick patient, the problems would be manifest in liver and kidney trouble, heart murmurs and high blood pressure. All symptoms of an unhealthy lifestyle and a poor diet. And yet it is also remains unbelievably beautiful and we have learnt to love it. And so the prayers are being said in the space between the awful realities of holes in the ozone layer, ruptures in the ice cap and earthquakes and for the earth which to which we owe so much. And the prayers are said for us to wake up; to take on a new responsibility for what we consume and how we consume it, of how we relate to ourselves in relation to the world around us.
What is being called for is a new and spiritual consciousness of our surroundings and a real will to empty ourselves of lives based on conveniences which are all too easily bought and consumed but which yet have a ruining effect on the larger environment and which widens the gap between the world’s rich and poor. And as with the planet so with the lives of men and women everywhere. Lying at the heart of Jesus teaching is the call to dispossess ourselves of those things whose possession limits our own lives and the life of the wider community. Above all else we must learn to forgive. The self-emptying of Christ is no empty gesture, but one which is vital to our understanding of human interrelationship and interdependence – he gives himself so that we might have fullness of life in one another. In the dispossession, the letting go, the self-emptying, lies the pathway into renewal of life; of the finding in the giving away of these things the experience of a new kind of freedom. We stop being merely consumers either of goods or religious experiences and become instead active contributors to the life of the world which sustains us. Always and everywhere you will find yourself within the life of the community in a way you will not through the studious possession of your own chattels or the privatisation of your own desires.
We can only truly possess in life what we have already learnt to dispossess. This is what scripture tells us. Here lies one of the many paradoxes which belong inexorably to a Christian understanding of life. This is brought to us in the self-emptying Christ, It becomes ‘the pearl of great price’ and ‘the treasure hidden in earthen vessels’. These, it is suggested, are to be bought at a different cost and in a different market. They belong to what is lasting and ultimately, real.
“None of you”, says Jesus, “can be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions”.