Sermons That Work

Born in 1496…, Proper 18 (C) – 2004

September 05, 2004

Born in 1496, John Colet was an English priest on the cusp of the English Reformation, the son of the Lord Mayor of London. He took an M.A. degree at Oxford before traveling to Italy to study canon and civil law, patristics, and Greek. He belonged to a group at Oxford known as the Platonic Circle—a group that included Thomas More, William Latimer, and Erasmus, one of the most famous scholars in Europe at the time.

Colet became dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1505. In 1515, he preached at Wolsey’s installation as cardinal and served as chaplain to King Henry VIII. His most famous sermon was one he delivered to the clergy of England in 1512, in which he soundly denounced the church for its corruption and abuses.

Colet is best remembered, however, for what was in his time a radically new way of teaching. When he returned from Italy to Oxford, he began translating the letters of Paul from Greek into English, and delivered lectures based primarily on the texts themselves.

At that time, the medieval style of interpretation of scripture had concentrated on identifying an element of church doctrine, enumerating it point by point, and developing a supporting argument through the use of selected biblical texts and quotes from Church Fathers. In contrast, Colet began with the biblical text and developed a direct interpretation of it. He focused on the writer of the text and its context, rather than focusing on doctrine and tradition.

The Roman Catholic Church at that time held that the teachings of Christ and Paul were so mystical they were not to be interpreted by the common man. Colet disagreed. He felt that the teachings of scripture could be taught in such a way as to be easily understood by almost anyone. His approach was to read a whole unit of text, as opposed to an isolated passage. Then he tried to discover what the original writer had tried to say. In Colet’s hands, the Epistles of Paul were not a string of riddles but the letters of a real man. Colet wanted to understand for himself, and to help others understand, what that real man intended.

As the dean of St. Paul’s, he continued his teaching habits. Within six months there were 20,000 people packed into the church to hear him, with an equal number outside trying to get in.

Though his primary impact on the church as we know it today was not in the political aspect of the Reformation, Colet had tremendous influence. Along with Thomas Linacre he helped produce the first Greek grammar book printed in England. Translating scripture into English for his Oxford students was an action strictly forbidden by the church. He carried that one step further in his tenure as dean by actually having scripture read in English, instead of the authorized Latin, which few could understand.

Colet’s approach to scripture, beginning with the text, is a valuable part of our Episcopal heritage. The assumption that words spoken thousands of years ago can shape joyful, productive lives today is vital to our spiritual practice. In the light of that tradition, let us see what scripture has to say to us today.

In Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to people who have known only a nomadic life. Their 40 years in the desert have seen the aging and death of those who walked to freedom between the parted waters of the Red Sea. They have come to depend on God’s daily bread, the manna that they find on the ground each morning, and they have drunk water that poured forth from rocks in a dry place. There has been nothing “virtual” about their reality, not only in the previous 40 years, but in the generations of slavery in Egypt they endured before the Exodus. Those times are over but a decision confronts them.

The choice is clear: life and prosperity or death and adversity. God stands ready to deliver the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The question is whether this nation, gathered along the Jordan, will claim it with their faithfulness to God’s invitation.

Colet’s method of listening closely to the “speaker” or writer and trying to place himself—and his own congregatrion—in the audience is comparatively easy to apply here. Our imaginations tempt us to think this choice must be simple. Given the option of continuing to wander dependently in the desert or to take up residence in a land described as flowing with milk and honey, who would choose the desert?

So many of the stories of the Bible are stories of God’s efforts to encourage his human creation to claim the full promise of the abundant life made possible by God’s covenant.

To Adam and Eve, God offered the perfection of Eden. With Noah, he washed away all that was corrupt and made a new beginning. In Abraham, he found a faithful man who would follow God’s lead to a new home, and form a household around God’s way of living. Deuteronomy is an explicit, detailed outline of both the choice and its implications for living. These descendents of Abraham, the people whom God has chosen as a witness to the world, are being given still another chance. Listen to the language here.

If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your hearts turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish.

Move forward several centuries and, as Jesus speaks to his followers, we can hear the faint echo of the aging Moses. The language is somewhat different, more specific this time. The audience is not the nation on the verge of claiming power. Instead it is people subject to Rome, a nation whose power is far greater than theirs. Those gathered around Jesus are again a captive people, citizens of a fairly insignificant corner of the Roman Empire. The promise is not nearly as attractive. Jesus calls them to walk away from family, all that holds their place in society and provides security. Instead he actually expects them to carry a burden for life. Further, he proclaims that unless they give up their possessions, they cannot be his disciples.

Since Moses spoke to his followers, we have moved from the promise of prosperity and power to an offering that looks very different. Yet, it can be argued that the promise is the same; it is the context that has changed. And the context has changed, and the covenant offered, largely as a result of the actions of the people themselves over the hundreds of intervening decades.

Thanks to Colet and others, we have long been able to read scripture for ourselves and to decide what we hear it saying to us. A current Bible study method developed by the Native American community in the Episcopal Church, known as Gospel Based Discipleship, uses three questions to understand and to apply to today’s disciples the words Jesus spoke to his first followers. These are the questions:

What word(s), sentence(s) or idea(s) made the strongest impression on me?
What is Jesus saying to me?
What is Jesus calling me to do?

Listen again to Jesus’ closing words today.
None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.”

It seems painfully clear. Consider what it sounds like when we hear it today. Citizens of the United States have more possessions than any people that we know of in the history of humanity. The intriguing thing is that along with more money in our pockets than any previous generations, we also owe more money than ever before. More “stuff” is still not enough stuff.

At the beginning of 2004, consumer debt in the United States had climbed to $1.98 trillion, up from $1.5 trillion three years ago. This figure represents credit card and car loan debt, but excludes mortgages. It translates into more than $18,000 per household in the United States.

Average credit card debt has climbed to more than $12,000 per household. Americans are now carrying $686 billion in revolving credit card debt. This is the total of the amounts that show up every month in the “balance due” space on millions of credit card statements across the United States. According to a report by Cambridge Consumer Credit, a research organization, 47% of the people who paid less than the full amount of their credit card bills in a recent month made only the minimum payment due. In fact, only 13% of Americans with an outstanding balance could afford to pay more than half the balance.

For those making only the minimum payment, depending on finance charges, it can take as long as 30 years to pay off a balance. And, the total amount of finance charges paid over that time period, could be as much as four times the amount of the original charge.

The result of increased debt is an ever increasing number of bankruptcies, with an estimated one family in every 100 families affected in some way.

The reason for the debt is our desire to acquire. The pursuit of “stuff” has become the national obsession. We can see this phenomenon in new housing construction. New houses are bigger. We are building bigger houses and having smaller families. Over the last 20 years, the size of the average house has grown from 1,500 square feet to 2,800 square feet. Why do we thing we need bigger houses? We need someplace to put the stuff.

More stuff is even a selling point. An August ad for a national retail chain proclaimed in bold type, “Never enough stuff.”

Let us conclude with the modern question of biblical interpretation: What is Jesus calling me to do?

Christ offers to deliver us from greed and commercial addictions. He invites us to become, as Paul describes himself, prisoners, but prisoners of an enduring, life-liberating love. This day, may our prayers for ourselves and for each other be to find ourselves walking in love as Christ loved us, and, thereby, discovering the true fulfillment of God’s eternal promise.

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Christopher Sikkema


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