Proper 18C – St. Andrew’s
Are you possessed? Possession isn’t just something that happened to a few sorry souls in Jesus’ day. That’s really what’s going on in alcoholism or other addictions. People are driven by the need to get something and maintain a supply of it, and sometimes they’re willing to do almost anything to satisfy that need. That’s being possessed by something less than God.
Our relationship to food in this country often looks like possession, and a good bit of it seems to be fueled by prepared and packaged foods with increasing amounts of sugars and fats. They quite literally build an addictive response in our bodies – perhaps by design.
Many people with cats say their cats own them. Dogs seem to exhibit the opposite behavior, happy to be possessed by people who will feed, walk, and play with them regularly.
What possesses you? Preoccupation is a hint of it – letting something take center stage and much of our attention. When I think about moving, I realize that I am possessed by a whole lot of books – and I remember how freeing it was to give away lots of stuff when I moved to Nevada!
We can be possessed by things that don’t seem terribly destructive – like the kind of collecting that begins to take over one’s life, until it becomes hoarding. I know a man whose money, boredom, and lack of healthy human relationships lead him to buy expensive cars – way more than he needs or can use. Most of us have some urges like that, encouraged by advertising and a culture focused on consumption.
We all know about family relationships that exhibit various degrees of possession or possessiveness, though we usually call it codependence, control, jealousy, or abuse.
There’s a new movement to deal with another kind of possession. “Digital detox” is something like summer camp for adults, designed to disconnect you from your electronics so you can focus on your interior life. It reminds me of the old story about a competition between Jesus and the devil. They were assigned a major computing problem with a short deadline, and each started typing away until a great thunderstorm erupted. Boom! Crash! Who won the competition? … Jesus saves. [the devil doesn’t]
All relationships – with drugs, food, human beings, stuff, and particular activities – have the capacity to be warped in unhealthy directions, down paths that don’t lead to more abundant life but ultimately only to diminishment and death.
That’s what Moses is talking about – ‘choose life, pay attention to the holy and life-giving ways that God has given and taught you, and you will know what it is to live in peace.’ This isn’t a prosperity gospel that says you’ll get rich if you do or believe certain things. This is about abundant life – full measure, pressed down, and overflowing. When Moses tells his people that they’ll live in the land God has promised, it’s not so much about specific acreage as the kind of nation that God intends, where all people live abundantly because nobody is hoarding, or afraid, or going to war, or abusing neighbors and kin. The promised land is that ancient vision of a society of peace with justice – shalom, a beloved community, the Reign of God. That older term, kingdom of God, might work better, because it implies both a physical territory and an ethic of governance. Choose life, and live in a community that knows all its members are God’s beloved. Choose life, and know whose you are. Knowing yourself as God’s treasured possession makes being owned by someone or something else far less attractive. And God’s role in our lives is not domineering – we are free to respond or not to this wondrous love that is beyond our imagining. We are invited to choose that relationship – we are not coerced.
That’s what Jesus is talking about when he says hate your family and count the cost or don’t bother following me. Being his disciples means not fooling ourselves about what is most important. We can’t ignore the need to dispossess ourselves of everything that has slid and slithered onto the center stage of our concern.
Maybe this seems like an odd theme for this time of year – more suited to Lenten fasting, perhaps. Yet it is the central theme of Christian living – love God with all you are and have, and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s what the world is wrestling with when it comes to Syria – how do we best love our neighbors across the seas? Is it by doing what we can to ensure abundant life for all the people of that land? Will a violent intervention help to end the raging violence there or will it unleash even more? We see only in a very dim mirror – just as much today as in Paul’s day. Jesus’ reminder that kings and generals have to count the cost before they go to war seems eerily apropos. What is the best way to sue for peace? And what is possessing each of us as we struggle to find a loving and reasoned response to that tragedy?
When Jesus says you have to hate your family in order to follow him, he means we can’t put their opinions or demands of us above God. That kind of pressure doesn’t just come from blood relatives – plenty of others would like to own us, starting with our peers. Think of the destruction that comes from bullying among teenagers. Consider the desire of corporations to possess our business, or direct our consumption. What about the political machinery that seeks to influence voting? Much of the communication that comes our way is ultimately about ownership and possession by the less than godly – and much of it is grounded in fear: fear of being devalued as a person, or being excluded, fear of losing something. The ground of our faith insists that in the presence of godly love, fear evaporates.
When we’re afraid, we can respond in a variety of ways, if we’re awake enough to notice the fear. That may be why Jesus uses such challenging language – hate your mother, hate your brother, give up all your possessions. It is a way of prodding us to notice that sometimes our fear of what Mom or Dad (or somebody else) will think keeps us from doing the most life-giving thing, from loving with abandon, from loving more fully and perfectly.
There are immediate examples all around us. In addition to the challenges of the Middle East, this nation is consumed with fear about immigration, about health care, and about economic issues. Fear is driving the public rhetoric about those who live here already, as though recognizing God’s children in our midst is going to deprive some who’ve been here longer. What is that fear that owns so many of us? Fear that descendants of European immigrants are no longer going to be the majority? Is it a deeper fear or shame about those who’ve been here longer than Europeans? Even beginning to name the fears can bring us closer to a more rational discussion and loving discernment.
What about health care? The fundamental meaning of salvation is healing and wholeness. Think about salve, a balm, like the balm of Gilead – that’s another vision of the healing kingdom of God. Yet initiatives to provide healing for more of this country’s people continue to generate enormous amounts of fear. What in that conversation owns us strongly enough to hook into the rhetoric of fear? What are we really afraid of losing? If I already have some access to healthcare, will any expansion of the healing pie mean I lose? G od’s economy doesn’t work that way. It keeps expanding when the gifts of creation are well-used. All can live in abundance when no one is hoarding.
That economic question about hoarding and greed is another big public conversation. The disparity between rich and poor continues to grow wider in this nation. Poverty rates are growing, especially among children. In spite of what it says on our nation’s money, we do not trust in God. Too often we let ourselves be owned by the fear of scarcity, rather than by the God of abundance.
At the beginning of another school year, maybe the students of Jesus might look to give up some possessions – particularly the willingness to be owned by fear. There is good news in knowing that it’s easier to do in community, with the support of brothers and sisters in Christ.
A breath prayer can help. As you breathe in, draw in the awareness that you are God’s beloved, treasured possession. Breathe out, and let go of what possesses you. Help us remember your loving presence, as close and constant and life-giving as our breath.
Breathe in – love. Breathe out – let go. Love and let go. Keep breathing.