Thank You, God

Sermon for Sunday, October 13, 2019 || Proper 23C || Luke 17:11-19

This summer, I went to the place where that Gospel story happened. We were heading back to Jerusalem from Galilee, and we stopped in the West Bank town of Burqin, just like Jesus did – except he wasn’t riding an air-conditioned tour bus. We walked up a hill to a church that commemorates the healing of the ten lepers. Preserved there are the ancient underground caverns – holes, really – were people with skin conditions were set apart from the rest of society. I climbed down into one, and I can’t imagine being there for more than a few minutes.

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Sermon Reconstruction: Abundance and Generosity

For this past Sunday, I chose to deviate from my normal sermon preparation (sit in my chair writing and polishing until the full text is presentable) in favor of an extemporaneous style which I do once or twice a year. This less common style is the one I grew up listening to, as my father* (who was on the radio before becoming a priest) is very good at holding an entire sermon in his head and stringing his thoughts together with nary an “um” to be heard. While my father and I share a lot in common, preaching style is not one of them. I’m a writer through and through.

So it came time to preach on Sunday. I had a few notes written down. I preached. I recorded it through the church’s sound system. I was about to post the recording, and then noticed my digital recorder’s battery had run down. Long story less long — what follows is a short reconstruction of the thoughts in the sermon. It’s not exactly what I said, but here goes. (Check out Luke 12:13-21 before reading on.)

Jesus often talks about priorities, specifically about reorienting our priorities so they line up better with the order God yearns for us to adopt. For us today, the two priorities that need lining up are possessions and relationships. So, show of hands: who think Jesus would put our possessions above our relationships.

(No one raised his or her hand here. I went to sit down, saying that I guess I didn’t need to finish the sermon. A bit of laughter. Then I continued.)

Right. For Jesus, relationships always trump possessions. In today’s Gospel reading he says: “For your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” But have you ever stopped to wonder why relationships are more important than possessions?

That's my guitar at a concert back in 2008.
That’s my guitar at a concert back in 2008.

The answer starts with how relationships and possessions differ. We possess our material goods. We own them. We paid for them or they were given to us. My most prized possession is my 2006 Taylor 410e Fall Limited Edition acoustic guitar, which was a present for my ordination to the priesthood from my home parish. It is a beautiful instrument and it makes a beautiful sound. It also makes me want to write songs as often as possible, which was not the case with my previous guitar.

So if for some reason I had to give up my guitar, would I be able to do it? If the answer is “no,” then I cease possessing my guitar and the instrument begins possessing me. The moment I can’t let it go is the moment I cede my sovereignty to the object. I become its vassal. It becomes my idol.

Our possessions have an uncanny ability to lead us down this life-denying path. Just think: when you were three years old, were you able to let the other kid play with your firetruck? I didn’t think so.

But possessions differ from relationships because other people cannot be possessed. The history of the United States is tarnished by the evil of trying to possess other people, and the legacy of slavery still reaches its cancerous tendrils into modern society. While one set of people thought of another as property, I can’t imagine that those subjected to the dehumanizing nature of slavery ever thought of themselves as possessions. People can’t be possessed, and when we try, evil is the result.

Since we cannot possess others in the same way we can possess objects, our relationships teach us how best to prioritize our material possessions. A relationship flourishes precisely when we aren’t trying to possess it; therefore, sustaining life-giving relationships helps us practice the kind of emotional letting go that we aren’t good at where our material goods are concerned.

Each of us is blessed with an abundance of possessions, but abundance becomes a blessing when we pair it with generosity. Generosity turns our possessions into the resources which fuel new relationships. As we give away the things that we might otherwise bow down to, we come into contact with the recipient of those things and discover the opportunity to form a new relationship.

Thus generosity catalyzes a virtuous cycle: generosity spurs new relationships. Generosity in relationship helps it flourish. This flourishing teaches us to be generous with our possessions and turn them into new relationships.

When we prioritize possessions over relationships, we become lonely misers like the foolish man in the parable. His foolishness is not that he’s wealthy. It’s that he desires to share his wealth with no one else. God blesses us with abundance, but God also blesses us with the ability to turn abundance into blessing when we pair it with generosity. So what does a life full of God consist of? Not the abundance of possessions, but the generosity of relationship.

* You can hear my father, The Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas preach at balconyperspective.com.

Total loss

On Sunday, I was driving home from a soccer tournament — a bit worse for wear and sore, but in the good way. We were losing light quickly as the game drew to a close, and by the time I was on the road, dusk had suddenly become full darkness. The darkness didn’t bother me, because I’ve driven back and forth on Route 9 dozens of times since I moved to West Virginia. Every time, I lament the fact that the the DOT hasn’t finished the bypass (and probably never will). On Sunday, my lamentation was justified.

A tenth of a second before the deer hit my car, I saw it flash in the headlights. I heard the impact before I felt it — the sound of someone beating the dust out of an oriental rug, except the rug was metal. The deer collided with the front, left edge of the car, and the force of the impact pushed me off the road. Pumping the brake, I drove through several lawns before coming to a halt. The deer skidded off in the other direction — a rag doll carcass — and came to rest on the shoulder on the far side of the road.

A sheriff’s deputy, who happened to be driving by a minute after the collision, stopped to help me. The driver’s door would not open, so I crawled out the passenger’s side. I was limping, but, I assured the deputy, the limp was a preexisting condition from the soccer tournament. He walked around the car, shining his flashlight and making official sounding grunts. Another officer unceremoniously dragged the deer fully off the road and left it there. I called Triple-A. An hour and fifteen minutes after the collision, a tow truck driver loaded up the car and took me home. Country music played on his radio.

The next day, I called the claims representative. He read through the online report I had filed when I got home the night before. “There’s a better than good chance that this will be a total loss,” he said. A total loss, he explained, happens when the cost of repair outstrips the value of the vehicle. If a total loss is filed, I’ll never see the car again. The insurance company will send me a check, less my deductible. “So take all your stuff out of the car and remove the license plate just in case,” he advised. Apparently, most deer strikes end in total losses. I’ll find out in the next few days.

The phrase “total loss” keeps ringing in my mind. I can’t help but think of Paul’s writing to the Philippians: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:7-8). Paul is talking about his position before becoming a follower of Christ. He was a Pharisee, blameless under the law, a prime specimen of the people of Israel. And he gave it all up when the scales fell from his eyes after being struck blind on the road to Damascus.

I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Notice the use of the word “regard.” The surpassing nature of Christ reorients Paul’s perception of himself and the world. Jesus changes Paul’s attitude and outlook, in order that Paul might not mistake the insignificant for the consequential. The world around Paul has not changed, but he no longer views it as he once did.

This reorientation is such a wonderful part of being a follower of Christ. If we keep our eyes and hearts open long enough, we might just notice Jesus pointing us towards the right path, the most effective service, the best attitude. On Sunday, as the car came to a rest and my heart kept right on beating down Route 9, I found myself unexpectedly overcome by my own reoriented spirit. I might have adopted a why me, God? attitude. I might have raised my fist and cursed God’s apparent punitive capriciousness. But, by the grace of God I didn’t. I closed my eyes and thanked God that I was not injured. I thanked God that no one else was involved in the collision. I thanked God for the presence of the deputy.

It is so difficult, in a world that stumbles over itself attempting to remind us of the scarcity that supposedly dominates our lives, to notice Jesus reorienting us towards the abundance that marks the truth of our existence. But the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ opens our eyes to the beauty of this abundance. Everything else is loss. Total loss.

Note: I’m still dealing with the fact that I killed a deer. I’ve never been hunting, never shot a gun, and I never want to. I am aware that, as part of humanity, I am responsible for the deaths of countless innocent animals. I’m not sure what to do with this greater context. But the immediate incident keeps replaying in my mind. It’s just different because there’s blood and fur on the mangled hood of my car It’s different because I saw the deer alive one split second and utterly dead the next. I keep seeing it out of the corner of my eye. I keep seeing it tumble away, limbs flailing without purpose, glinting in the glow of my smashed headlight.