August 4, 2019

New Selves

Proper 13c • Church of the Advent
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth

A wise old bishop once delivered a rousing sermon on the subject of “God’s Ownership” — in part inspired by today’s readings. It went over very well, except in the eyes of one wealthy member of the congregation. He was one of the richest in town, and the sermon simply didn’t sit right with him. But rather than merely button-holing the bishop at the church door, he invited him to a tour of his estate, showing off his gardens, woods, and farm. Finally, he confronted the bishop, and said, “Now, are you still going to tell me that all of this does not belong to me?” The bishop paused, and then with a gentle smile asked, “ Will you be able to ask me the same question in a hundred years.”

The wisdom of the bishop’s response is evident. If you’ve ever watched the TV shows about the great mansions and estates of the financiers and hotel magnates, the oil barons and stockbrokers, you know that with very few exceptions these great properties are no longer owned even by the descendants of the original owners. All but a very few are now owned and operated by local governments, serving as parks or museums.

Today’s Scripture readings address the same issue: the temporary nature of the relationship that we have with our possessions, with what we like to think of as “ours.” Both our Lord, and wise old Solomon, tell us that whatever we have, whatever we own, is ours only temporarily. Vain efforts such as that of the woman who was buried in her Cadillac only go to prove the truth of the old saying, You can’t take it with you. Whatever we have of worldly goods, are just that: of this world, and destined to stay in this world when we have left it.

Now this truth might fill you with pessimism and despair, as it did old Solomon; or you might react with horror, as the man in the parable no doubt reacted when God’s sentence fell thundering upon him. Solomon sought joy in his wealth and power, building up a great empire, and gathering many possessions — yet in the end he was left with bitterness, since he knew that he would have to leave it all to someone after him, who might well be a fool unable to appreciate it. The rich man in the parable, less wise than Solomon, can’t see what’s coming until God calls him up short. He gathers and gathers his goods, stores them up and is just ready to begin enjoying them when God snatches his very life away. In neither case do the owners actually enjoy their possessions: Solomon’s present joy is overcome by his cynicism about the future; and the rich man, who has taken no time to enjoy his goods but deferred his enjoyment in great plans for the future, suddenly finds he has no future left.

But are cynical despair or outraged horror the only answers to this dilemma — this dilemma brought about by misunderstanding the relationship between our selves and our possessions? Is there a way out of Solomon’s cynical selfishness, that couldn’t bear the thought that someone else less worthy than he might enjoy his wealth? Is there a way out of the rich man’s myopic selfishness, so short-sighted he didn’t even consider his own mortality?

Of course there is, and Saint Paul outlines the key to liberation in his Letter to the Colossians. The way away from selfishness lies in discovering the new self, the new self that does not delight in mere wealth, the new self that does not depend on things for its identity, but finds a new identity in the image of its creator.

The things from which this new creation liberates us aren’t just external possessions — though that is where liberation starts. Saint Paul begins by urging us to set aside external things like idolatrous greed, but then he also bids us set aside more internal matters of the heart, such as anger, wrath, and malice. Then, in a bold move that must have astonished his hearers, he goes even further, and assures us that in the new creation we can even set aside aspects of our selves so intimate that most of us can’t help but see them as intrinsic to our very selves.

We are so used to hear talk of our “ethnic identity” — something as close to us as our skin. How many wars have been fought, how many lives have been ruined or lost because of the amount of pigment in our skins! How much wrongheaded pride, how much spiteful and irrational hatred has been focused on the color of our skin, down through humanity’s sorry history? And in light of yesterday’s horrors, only the most recent in a continued string of outrages: how much misguided nationalism has undone whole nations. Has any nation ever really prospered — in the long run — because of xenophobic nationalism? It isn’t just morally wrong; it is objectively wrong, in that it doesn’t achieve its own objective!

Yet Paul assures us that we can shed even our skin — and how much more easily, our nationality, which is after all only a fictive identity based on the circumstance of where you are born, and makes no real even skin-deep contribution to your reality — all of this can be shed and stripped away like a piece of worn-out clothing. For there is no more Jew nor Greek, barbarian nor Scythian, Saint Paul assures us, but only Christ. Just think how shocking that sounded to those Jews and Greeks to whom he wrote and spoke, people for whom these terms were central to their whole way of life. Now let him speak to us and say, There is no more Mexican nor American, no European, Asian, or African, but only Christ. We have stripped off this old worldly identity, and clothed ourselves in him, and assumed a costume that reflects our true identity as God’s children — citizens of no nation but the kingdom of heaven. We can put on the new self, be clothed in Christ in our baptism, the clothing that hides all our peculiarities, so that only our Christ-likeness remains visible. And this clothing, this new self, this imperishable identity, will never wear out, never fade, never be taken from us. When we are clothed in Christ, in the image of our creator, we are clothed for ever. ✠