A SERMON FOR THANKSGIVING
OCTOBER 11, 2009
You know by now I will often reference movies, so let me begin with an obscure movie reference: “Let us take life by the throat and make it give us what we want.” It’s from the movie Conan the Barbarian, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even though it’s a quote from a barbarian, something only a barbarian would say, it seems to have become a philosophy of life for many people.
In a similar vein, there is a book called The Secret, which is now approaching three years on the best seller list here (!), which encourages people to do just that –– seize life by the throat and make it cough up what we demand. The book is based on the premise that spirituality is all about getting what you want out of life, and discovering how to make the universe comply with your wishes. So if you don’t have a multi-million dollar home or a Maserati in the driveway, you just aren’t properly focused. The whole program to me seems to be an exercise in focusing our most childish and selfish desires as un-self-consciously as a child looks at the Christmas Wish Book. Small wonder that for many adults, the image they have of God is very much like Santa Claus!
But as we celebrate Thanksgiving, here’s a thought, something to ponder: What if the secret of life is not what we gouge out of it, but what we create, what we give or contribute? And what if our primary attitude toward life is to not be greed or ambition but gratitude?
In today’s Gospel a man approaches Jesus and he wants to know the secret of eternal life. He obviously believes he has arrived, that he has lived a perfect life, and that he’s entitled. So he wants to have it all, you might say. And Jesus, instead of patting him on the back – instead of being flattered that this impressive guy has come to him for advice – sets him back on his heels. First, Jesus corrects him about his definition of “good” (“Why do you call me ‘good?’– God alone is ‘good’”). As Jesus reminds him, there is only one ultimate good and that is God. He draws the man to the awareness that human beings are all too quick to label certain things good and others bad, from their own limited viewpoint at the centre of their own little universe. How do you know what’s good? Jesus seems to say. In other words, we don’t get to decide that, and there’s a certain arrogance in thinking so. No doubt the confrontational response knocked the man back on his heels a bit.
Jesus quotes from the Commandments, relating to how we deal with others. The young man protests that he’s been doing that since he was a child – a bit of a know-it-all, it appears. “I can do it all,” he seems to be saying. And then Jesus fires the knockout punch to this apparently sterling young man: he tells him the one thing he lacks is not something he has to gain – it is something he has to give, and needs to get rid of, before he can progress any further. You’re deficient in only one thing, Jesus tells him. Just one? The young man must have thought, “Boy, I’m closer than I thought.” Just one little thing: “Sell everything you own, and give it to the poor, and come along with me as a disciple.” Of course, the man is stunned, and, saddened. Rejecting Jesus’ offer to mentor him, he goes his own way.
Maybe some of you are like this – we want the kingdom, but we want it on our own terms. Martin Luther said, “If there is no humour in heaven, I don’t want to go there.” I might be tempted to say, “I’d love to go, but if I can’t take my golf clubs, I’m not so sure.” We have some pretty crazy ideas about such things, and again, we need to get the Santa Claus idea of God out of our heads. But the kingdom is not just some distant reality after we depart this life. In Jesus’ terms, the kingdom begins with how we choose to live now, how we relate, and how we are oriented to life. That is the choice which Jesus presents to the young man.
As the story progresses, we see that the young man was not ready for the kingdom, not ready for a life of compassion, gratitude and generosity. When are we ready? Many in the ancient world believed the basic message of the Gospel and loved the promise of redemption, but delayed their baptism until they were on their death beds, so they could supposedly have all the benefits of salvation, without the inconvenience of having to live the Christian life in the meantime! One of the things about today’s Gospel is that it makes the point that God is in the process of actively inviting people to enter a life of active discipleship – Jesus being the herald and the embodiment of a new spiritual way of relating to God, creation and to other people. And the Gospel today reveals an ironic truth – that some people’s spiritual life is more an act of avoidance of God than a way of coming closer to God.
Many people lack that “one thing” – they lack a focus beyond their own immediate cravings which would enable them to see others in their own right, and to begin to make a contribution to life, not just drawing from it, as a leech sucks the life out of its host. The young man’s example parallels many modern people’s “smorgasbord” approach to spirituality – they want to “have it all,” as long as it’s all coming their way.
When Jesus invites the young man into his presence, into his community of disciples, the young man refuses and goes away. For early Christians, here was a perfect example of how the offer of God’s own life, offered in the person of Christ, is refused by supposedly spiritual people. Jesus didn’t condemn the young man — it says Jesus loved him – which speaks to me of the fact that whether or not we are ready for deeper discipleship, God still loves us. But there is a sense that this person has just missed his one big moment, the watershed opportunity of his life. Carpe Diem! It was his one big moment, and he said NO! I am sure Jesus saw in him the earnest desire, the yearning for perfection, and much potential, if he could just channel that energy and desire in a more meaningful direction. But he chose to avoid the moment and the opportunity for transformation that went with it.
Another part of the message of today’s Gospel must be that we don’t perform good deeds (whether that’s going to church or serving the poor or recycling our paper) in order to get God to give us things, or to create a sense of entitlement or special favour. The young man’s spirituality is very performance oriented. His motivations are wrong — he does religious things, but really just for his own benefit. There’s no element of social justice in his spirituality, no real concern for others – it’s all about himself, and about what he has to gain. Jesus sees through his pious “credentials,” and makes him aware of how limited and incomplete his faith journey actually is. In a way Jesus reminds the young man of the scriptures he supposedly follows. Deuteronomy says “Never say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ Always remember the Lord your God, for it is God who gives you power to succeed . . . ”
Put the following two messages side by side and think which would be more appealing:
The Secret: “Discover how to become a magnet for the creation of personal wealth.”
Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Secret makes money the means – the primary focus – of our spiritual life, so it fits very well with our materialistic consumer society. But in Jesus’ terms, wealth is actually an obstacle to achieving a truly meaningful life. As Jesus puts it, if not for God’s almost incomprehensible grace, no rich person could begin to hope to be saved. In Jesus’ vision of life, for one person to be living a life of resplendent self-indulgence while someone lies starving at his/her gate is a ticket to hell, not heaven. (Luke 16: 19 –31)
In this very materialistic time, Christians are often confronted with significant moral dilemmas, and very hard choices, and to choose the Christian way can separate them from friends, colleagues, and even their own children. And the truth is that much of our life in our particular culture encourages us to cling to things, and to identify ourselves by them, because the constant barrage of advertizing and mass marketing of consumerism makes envy, greed and possessiveness seem like virtues.
The Christian spiritual tradition is not anti-materialistic – poverty is not the ideal way of life! I don’t believe God wants everyone poor, and Christianity is not opposed to the enjoyment of life. Certainly Jesus did not condemn every rich person he encountered. Happiness looks good on anybody’s face as far as I am concerned. As Jesus said: “I have come that you might have life, and have it in abundance.” As I have said before, the best things in life aren’t things. When you think about it, we do receive so much and gratitude may be seen as a beginning on the way toward a new awareness and orientation to life.
The Christian Way reveals a very different approach to life, one that keeps us conscious and aware that we are not alone on this planet – that we have responsibilities and that we are accountable. And Christianity makes it much more personal than that, by teaching us that other people are our brothers and sisters, that all are made in the image of God, and therefore we are to be as concerned about “neighbour” as we are about ourselves. God does not wish to deny us a certain quality of life, but indifference to the quality of life we are creating around us is a sign of wilful ignorance, and spiritual poverty.
Just this week someone phoned here to see if we are a parish that gives Thanksgiving hampers to the poor. I informed her about our Food Bank, but had to direct her somewhere else for the hampers. On one hand, I was sorry to have to say No, but on the other, glad to know that people still assume that this is a significant aspect of what churches are about, and here was a woman willing to engage that and be involved.
By definition, a secret is something most people don’t know. Christians own their own “secret” about life, and it’s worth sharing. So as Christians, as people who made the choice to live as disciples of Jesus, let’s let it be known that the real “Secret” to life is: Life is not just about getting and hoarding; it’s also got to do with giving, and not focusing only on what you are getting out of it. The real secret to life is in taking the focus off your ego and moving about in the world with a view to what you have to offer. It is painfully obvious that this is something about which many people are oblivious. In our time we have totally reversed the giving ßà taking equation and I think we as Christians have something to contribute to a more balanced way of life.
This is the true secret of life: that love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbour – this is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Think about it: if union with God is our ultimate aim, what would make us more like God our Creator? Rabid greed and consumerism or generosity and graciousness? That’s the choice, that’s the question the Gospel leaves us to struggle with. May God give you courage to realize the right answer.