Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist 31st July 2016 Proper 13C

If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above...Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth
That sounds like pretty clear advice – and indeed, Paul is a past-master at viewing the world in black and white binary terms...As he addresses the Colossians, he is asking them to draw a firm line between their former selves and their true selves, those selves that are hidden for now, only to be revealed when the Kingdom breaks in in all its fullness.

The only trouble is that, when I look at my own life, that opening “IF” feels like quite a significant word.

Yes – I was baptized as a baby, went through that symbolic drowning of all the old order, the original sin, if you like...and what's more my parents went on to honour the baptism promises, doing everything in their power to help me realise that to be a Christian was to live a different kind of life. And yes, of course I long to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, strength and to love and serve my neighbour selflessly...And I take the call of God on my life, and the joyful obligations of priesthood very seriously indeed but (oh, goodness, why is there ALWAYS a but?) that IF brings me up short every single time.

IF I have been raised with Christ – then surely my life should look very very different.
If the only evidence there is for a Christ-like transformation is the way that I spend my Sundays and the institution that employs me, then I rather think I'm doing it wrong. Please don't think that I'm fishing for compliments if I say that I don't honestly think there is very much that distinguishes me from my atheist friends, whose lives are every bit as moral, every bit as free from Paul's catalogue of evils as, on a good day, I aspire to be.

So – if my transformed life is hidden like buried treasure, then sometimes it feels as if it's buried rather too far down. And that can feel discouraging, to put it mildly.

However, Paul uses another picture too – something that sounds rather like a kind of spiritual equivalent of a Trinny and Susannah style makeover.

Strip off the old self – that's stage one. Let go of the past and its failures if you can...
Let go of those thoughts, words and deeds that point to an uncompromisingly earth-bound way of being.

Give yourself a long hard look and ask – is this what you'd expect to see in someone who has been raised with Christ, who is striving to live as a sign of the kingdom here and now? While you might not choose, any more than he did, to join Pere Hamel in the ranks of the martyrs, it's fair to say that being ready to lay down our lives is, in all honesty, part of the deal.Are you up for that? If you feel small and scared, as I do, then acknowledge itbut nonetheless, aspire to choose a different way, “clothe yourself with the new self”. It's unlikely to be easy or pain free but it really is the only way.

I'm reminded of a passage in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. Eustace, who has been living a far-from transformed life,becomes so fixated upon the beauties of a dragon's horde that he becomes a dragon himself. After some time he comes before Aslan, the great lion who represents Christ, and discovers that he can be restored to himself only if he trusts Aslan to strip away layer after layer of dragon's skin

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. ...he peeled the beastly stuff right off – And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. . . .”

It's a process, becoming your new, true self. You won't manage it all in one go, and you certainly won't manage it alone...but help is available, if you're sincere in your commitment to a new way of being..

So, strip away the old self and then clothe yourself with the new, which is BEING RENEWED according to the image of its creator.

In other words, keep on trying on new outfits, new habits of mind and patterns of life until you actually look and feel RIGHT...until what you see in the mirror matches God's vision for you...your best self...And know that this process of renewal and restoration will take a life-time – but you really shouldn't settle for anything less.

It is a choice, though. IF you have been raised with into your new identity and adjust your priorities accordingly. Think, for a moment. What are yours? There's a principle at work in business and society that dictates that we count what is important, and then what we count becomes important.

In our gospel, Jesus makes it quite clear what it should mean to have our minds set on things above. The rich farmer of his story isn't altogether BAD. He hasn't accrued wealth by dubious means – but he has failed to consider anyone but himself. There's no thought of a staff bonus, or a community feast, still less any plan to share with those who are struggling ..and there is something grotesque and chilling in that little conversation “I will say to my soul, Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years”. This is the voice of a miser. There's simply nobody else to ripple the surface of his unblemished self interest...

What he counts is supremely important to him - and it's all completely pointless.
All his wealth cannot, will not, save him from the common fate of all humanity.
THIS VERY NIGHT he will die – and discover that while his material wealth was vast, when it comes to the things of God, he's poor indeed.
Rather a contrast, there, with Pere Hamel, I think....

So, what do we count?

Do we count how much we earn? Or how much we save by way of bargains, or put away for a rainy day? Do we count how many hours we enjoy with family? How much we give away? Those moments of joy and blessing which are pure gift?.

We count what is important and then what we count becomes important.

I've shared before that I'm prone to worrying that there won't be enough, somehow...not enough money, not enough time, not enough security for myself or those whom I love. It’s understandable when you think about it, because every day we're assaulted with that message. TV commercials, billboards, Facebook – everywhere we turn we get the message that we are insufficient, incomplete, not quite good enough. It's so easy to be believe that money will give us control of our lives, enable happiness and security...even when experience and common sense tell us a very different story. If only we had the money, we could buy more of the things that count and that would make us happy.

But you know, that doesn't sound much like a transformed life, does it?

IF you've been raised with Christ, try another way...and don't be a fool.
Perhaps a couple of stories will help. One concerns the Wendel family, whose wealth grew during the 19th century so that by 1900 it was estimated at $50,000,000. To keep it intact, John G Wendel II, kept five of his six sisters from marrying and the whole family dedicated themselves to spending as little as possible of their huge fortune. When the last sister died in 1931, her estate was valued at more than $100 million. Her only dress was one she had made herself, and she had worn it for 25 years. They were so attached to their riches that they lived like paupers, imprisoned and possessed by the abundance of their possessions.

In contrast, another snapshot.

One fall day I visited the Sheldons in the ramshackle rented house they lived in at the edge of the woods. Despite a painful physical handicap, Mr. Sheldon had shot and butchered a bear which strayed into their yard once too often. The meat had been processed into all the big canning jars they could find or swap for. There would be meat in their diet even during the worst of the winter when their fuel costs were high.
Mr. Sheldon offered me a jar of bear meat. I hesitated to accept it, but the giver met my unspoken resistance firmly. "Now you just have to take this. We want you to have it. We don't have much, that's a fact; but we ain't poor!"
I couldn't resist asking, "What's the difference?"
His answer proved unforgettable.
"When you can give something away, even when you don't have much, then you ain't poor. When you don't feel easy giving something away even if you got more'n you need, then you're poor, whether you know it or not.”

We count what is important and then what we count becomes important. If being able to give is what makes you rich, then you are already living by the upside down values of the kingdom, where the last is first and the meek inherit the earth. A life rich towards God is a life that focuses on the things that are above, that trusts and hopes and lives in the resurrection power and faithfulness of God’s love here and now. “It is a kind of Christian defiance [of culture] which sometimes sings, sometimes weeps, sometimes knows anguish, sometimes does not have all the answers, but keeps believing....It may be a life that doesn’t have much material wealth, but it won’t be poor in what matters.

If you have been raised with Christ – this is the life you can live, beginning here and now with your own transformation, as a sign of that day when everything – EVERYTHING – will be transformed.