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To Love Things Heavenly

  • September 22, 2019
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 22 September 2019

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             1 Timothy 2.1-10; Psalm 113; Luke 16.1-13

Title:               To Love Things Heavenly

“Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly.”

So we prayed in the Collect appointed in the Prayer Book for this week. And so we need to ask ourselves: are we anxious about earthly things? Or is our attention wrapped up firmly in the love of things heavenly?

Oh my friends, in case you don’t know, the world is flooded with anxiety over earthly things! Anxiety is a defining mark of our age.

I am sure that you know this, that you experience this. And if you are anything like me, then you also feel the struggle of continually working to pull our attention away from the craziness of what we humans are doing here on planet earth.

In direct contrast to all this craziness and anxiety, we have this calm and gentle counsel from the First Letter to Timothy. “I urge that …prayers …be made for everyone…so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”

In case this makes you think of Mr. Rogers singing, “Who are the people in your neighborhood”, as if this is a simple encouragement to just be nice to everyone, let me assure you that there is much more to it than that.

Remember, in that day everyone was required BY LAW to pray TO the emperor, not FOR the emperor. So praying for the emperor to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, praying that the emperor would act in a way consistent with the teachings of Christ  – this was, in fact, a radical action.

The emperor was declared to be the real mediator between the earthly and the heavenly realms, but the church was having none of that nonsense. These people knew that their real hope was found in the redemption offered by Christ to all.

A note about these gender references in First Timothy. This letter is one of those places in the Bible that is a flashpoint of debate and dissension over how to properly  understand biblical texts about men and women and their respective roles.

Some have wanted to turn these into law, binding on all Christians at all times and in all places. Others have been so frustrated by such texts that they have wanted to throw them out entirely and never read them again.

But we must remember that context is everything. In that context, the household of God is in trouble there in Ephesus and the writer is super concerned to calm things down and get things back in order. One of the tools used is a call for the church to move beyond what is perceived to be the typical stumbling blocks of each gender.

Look again at the text and you will see this clearly implied. “I desire that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument.”

Because what is the typical trap that men fall into? Anger and fights and arguments, ego and bravado! Has anything really changed?  So the teacher calls the men away from these foolish things and into a life of prayer and holiness, seeking God “who desires everyone to be saved.”

And what about the women?  “Also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.”

Again, what is the typical trap that women fall into? Obsession with beauty and vanity and jewelry and fashion.

Sure, these things are not true about all women nor all men. It is a generalization, stereotypes used as a simple teaching tool to remind these believers of their primary purpose: to seek after God, to do good in the name of Christ, to pursue life in the kingdom of God.

And believe it or not, THIS is also the primary emphasis in our bizarre parable today from Luke’s Gospel. “I tell you”, Jesus said, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

We do not know exactly what this means, but we DO know that Luke is remarkably consistent in his teachings about money and wealth.

And Luke’s emphasis is always on extravagant generosity. Immediately preceding this parable is the parable of the extravagantly generous father who welcomes back the son – who did what? Who “squandered his property”, exactly the same as this manager.

In that parable, it is the welcoming father who is the real prodigal, and in this parable, the shrewd manager is commended for his extravagant generosity. This is NOT a difficult lesson to understand, but it IS a difficult one for us to hear.

Wealth, money, riches – however much has been given to us – it is always entrusted to us for one God-ordained purpose: so that with it we can bless the lives of others.

It is never given to us so that WE can enjoy luxury. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who seek to be a disciple of Jesus ought to avoid anything that could be labeled as luxury.

That is not why we are here on planet earth. We are not here for ease and comfort, for luxury and pleasure.

My friends, we are here to train ourselves for eternity.

Look, I know that this might sound like an old-fashioned way of thinking. And perhaps I am a bit old-fashioned, but just consider this for a moment. If it is true that death is not the end of our lives…if it is true that our lives continue in some meaningful way beyond the grave…if it is true that eternal life begins now, while we are here on earth, and that it continues without end…if it is true that there is some kind of judgment, some accounting of our lives that affects what happens for the rest of eternity…IF all of this is true, then, my friends, it means that our lives here on earth have one primary purpose.

And that one purpose is to prepare ourselves for eternity.

Now, we all know the arguments against this way of thinking. That a focus on the afterlife makes people sloppy and careless about life here on earth. That it makes people ignore the real struggles of life on earth.

It has often been stated that we Christians must never be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good! And that is true. But it is equally true that this is a false dichotomy. When we are no longer anxious about earthly things, when we love things heavenly, THEN we are actually set free to do the most good in this world.

But clinging to our lives, clinging to this world with anxiety is a kind of prison. A mental and spiritual prison that has often been called the house of fear.

But letting go of our lives, letting go of our need to stay alive, this is freedom to move into the house of love. Which IS the house of God.

One of the great elders in the deserts of Egypt in the fourth century was a man named Arsenius. He had previously been a highly-esteemed teacher in the imperial capital of Constantinople, serving as private tutor to those next in line to the throne. But Arsenius heard God calling him to leave all of this worldliness behind him and to strike out into the desert to follow Jesus in a simple life of prayer.

Arsenius was not forgotten, however, back in Constantinople. Once a senator died and left Arsenius a very large part of his estate. A military messenger was dispatched to find Arsenius in the Egyptian desert and to hand him a copy of the will that showed this exceedingly large gift of money.

Arsenius took the will from the messenger, looked it over, and began to rip it apart. But the soldier quickly yelled out and fell down at his feet, “No, please! I beg you! Do not tear it up! If you do, they will cut off my head!”

(The Romans were well known for their brutality and harshness in punishment.) So Arsenius relented, and he told the soldier, “I died before he did.” And he gave the will back to him, dispatching him with a note certifying that he accepted no part of this gift.

I died before he did. My friends, can you see it?

He says, I am already dead to this world system that demands that we crave after money, that requires us to push and fight to get whatever we can.

Our Teacher asked his disciples this question: “If you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

We might wonder about what exactly is meant by “dishonest wealth”, but the meaning of “the true riches” is as clear as can be. These are the heavenly things, the treasures that do not wear out, which no thief could ever steal and no flood could ever wash away.

The great spiritual writer, Henri J.M. Nouwen, explained it well when he wrote:

“Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life…all of our life.”

THAT is why we are here! To give away whatever we can! To take this stuff of earth and to bless others and so to create heavenly treasures.

So how we are doing in this regard? Are we anxious about earthly things? Or have we become enraptured by the love of things heavenly?  And are we generous enough to prepare ourselves for eternity?

May it always be so among us. Amen

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