Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity 2019

The vice which constantly seeks more possessions.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian

Sunday, 4th August 2019 at 11.15 AM

In March this year, the UK Government Statistical Service released the UK’s statistics on waste. Given the state of our environment and the urgency of the climate emergency, some of this information is reassuring. The recycling of household waste was up in 2017 to 45.7%. However, in 2016, 24.4% of the nation’s waste – that’s 52.3 million tonnes – went to landfill. Much remains un-recyclable, and those figures do not include the 41.1 million tonnes of commercial and industrial waste disposed of in the same year.

The sad truth is that we are still a throw-away society. Some of that perhaps can’t easily be helped, and factors including population growth and the cheap plastics industry have simply aggravated an issue which has always demanded strategic and careful response throughout history. No doubt the limiting of single use plastic bags and bottles is tremendous and to be strongly encouraged, but the global picture is poor and depressing. The other side of our throw-away culture – perhaps almost ironically – seems to be the inordinate value we place on accumulating “stuff.” Now, it is not my intention to attack the material: far from it. Christians have got themselves into all sorts of mess down the ages through falling into that trap! But we have a peculiar relationship with matter: we hoard it, but we also dispose of it often without a moment’s notice. Cost over quality and longevity, function over beauty, sometimes even crude use over dignity.

In today’s Gospel, through a parable, Jesus teaches his listening crowd to be on guard against a very particular thing: the vice which constantly seeks more possessions. Possessions are not themselves – necessarily – the issue. The problem is rather that devouring characteristic which always seeks more. In our own culture, yes, more that can be hoarded, but also perhaps more that can be bought, consumed, chucked and replaced. The parable ends with a warning for those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich towards God.

In today’s second reading from St Paul’s letter to the Colossians, this vice is very explicitly linked with the ultimate biblical sin, that of idolatry,[1] placing things or people, or concepts, in the place of God. The fool in the parable, who has much stored up for many years, may have invested in a temporal future, but on the night that his life is demanded of him, these goods will neither satisfy nor save him. Idolatry is a subtle vice – it is not often the worship of a statue or a person, although both of these have been known in human history. Rather, as in this parable, it is about what sustains us. Here, it’s food: grain, and goods. “Eat, drink, be merry.” But idolatry’s subtlety allows it to slither into all sorts of corners. We will all be aware of those little habits or dispositions we’re slightly addicted to – “they’re not a problem”, we may say – but we know them nonetheless, and we know they diminish us. The lesson we are meant to learn is the same as the lesson learned slowly but surely, again and again, by the Israelites in the wilderness –that the hand which feeds you will ultimately be the hand that owns you. Ultimately, as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes puts it, “all is vanity”. None of it really matters in the end – unless it gets in the way, and replaces what St Paul calls “the things that are above” and therefore stops the new self from emerging. It is that identity, we are told, which is renewed according to the image of its creator. In other words, which takes on something of the fiery and ultimate energy of God.

And so, be rich towards God. Leaving behind our accumulated idolatries, the stuff we drag around, will hurt. It may leave us confused, feeling alone, or bereft. But as C. S. Lewis memorably put it, “if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”[2] Richness before God is rooted in an awareness of our own creaturely reality and fragility. It also relativises everything else. When all is said and done, we are creatures of the dust of the earth made in the image and likeness of God. Made for a glory which has been revealed in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, rather than any glory we could manufacture for ourselves.

We need to keep an eye on what we accumulate, and what we rely on, because that which we value can often become that which we worship. Our “stuff” will ultimately become waste, whereas the richness cultivated in the great project of love of God and neighbour leads to the consummation of our Christian calling, a great harvest of love which will endure eternally. Value systems are, by definition, not neutral, so Jesus’ warning against hoarding might also relate to our accumulated assumptions, prejudices and suppositions, as much as our possessions. It is, after all, our “life” which will be demanded of us, as God reminds the man in the parable.

The opposite of an idol is an icon. Those of you familiar with the eastern Christian pictorial traditions will know that an icon is a window. We look through the picture in order to establish a relationship with the person, or event, depicted. If we try to hone this habit, we are less likely to fall into patterns of idolatry. Such a pattern seeks the giver, not the gift; it looks to be formed by the Holy Spirit given to us, not grasped by us. In the beautiful economy of God’s grace, we receive the gift when we earnestly seek the one who is at its source.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death in 1964 of the American author, Flannery O’Connor who also wrote a  very moving spiritual journal. O’Connor was aware of the danger of the idolatry of the self, which could lead to our being cut off from the love which eternally seeks us in Christ. She wrote, in 1946,

“Dear God, I cannot love thee the way the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and myself is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self-shadow will grow so large that I block the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.”[3]

Our “self-shadow” needs to be kept in check, not least so that we do not judge ourselves by our own rules, frequently too harsh as they are sometimes too lenient. In putting to death that which is earthly within us, we will discover the new humanity offered by Christ, where we do not need to justify ourselves by grabbing more and more, but simply – and radically – by learning how to receive the gift. Let it begin again, here, as we offer what we have to the Father, and receive into our very hands and mouths the life which will save us.

[1] Colossians 3: 5 relating to pleonexia

[2] C.S.Lewis The Great Divorce REF

[3] Written in January 1946 whilst a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop