Possession with purpose
The Reverend Jane Sinclair Canon of Westminster and Rector of St Margaret's Church
Sunday, 21st October 2018 at 11.00 AM
I was two years old when my brother was born. Compared with me, Andrew was a good, rather quiet baby who quickly took to sleeping soundly in his cot. My mother was keen that Andrew should have the use of a baby’s eiderdown that I had been given two years previously. So early on, the eiderdown was taken from my bed to Andrew’s cot. But I was having none of it. As soon as I realised that the eiderdown had gone, I snuck over to my sleeping brother, and wriggled the eiderdown between the bars of the cot until I had it to myself. When my mother came in to the bedroom to check that Andrew and I were asleep, she found a rather chilly Andrew with only a sheet and single blanket for warmth; and me, snuggled with the eiderdown underneath me in my bed. It was my eiderdown, not Andrew’s; and I was not going to share it – brother or no brother.
What does it mean to be possessive, as a person of faith? There are some interesting lessons to be learned from the story of how the Israelites came to take possession of the promised land.
You may remember the story as it is told in the book of Joshua. The Israelites had spent many years wandering in the wilderness, gradually heading towards the land which God had promised to Moses they would occupy. Moses died within sight of this promised land, so it was Moses’ successor Joshua who had to lead the Israelite tribes over the river Jordan into the land itself. Joshua initially sent spies across the Jordan, to find out the state of the opposition. Some fifty years or so after the Israelite tribes crossed over the Jordan we are told that promised land had been apportioned to various tribes of Israel. At that point one of those early spies – Caleb by name – asks Joshua to give him and his family land in the area of Hebron. Joshua agrees to do this and, ‘Hebron became the inheritance of Caleb … to this day, because he wholeheartedly followed the LORD, the God of Israel’.
Questions about the ownership of land are always tough questions, especially in the area of what we know as Israel/Palestine. Those of you who have just returned from your pilgrimage will know this all too well! These lands have been fought over for thousands of years, and are still being fought over today. And it is not just in the Middle East that land ownership is fiercely disputed. In the United States of America the native American peoples were displaced by incomers from Europe over several hundred years. Much of their traditional land was re-assigned to European settlers, with scant compensation, if any. In Scotland, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wealthy landowners destroyed the ancient settlements of the clans, in order to graze sheep in highland pastures traditionally farmed by crofters. In Australia, in South America, in Africa – the question of who owns land has been the focus for conflict from time immemorial.
Claims to land ownership have been made on the basis of demonstrating the length of time the land has been inhabited by a family, clan or people. Sometimes the land has been held in common – for the common use of a clan or tribe. Sometimes the land has been passed on within a family or clan by inheritance. Here in the United Kingdom today, claims to land ownership are usually made on the basis of purchase or of other legal contract. And normally nowadays, conflicts about the ownership of land can be sorted out with reference to the Land Registry or ultimately, in courts of law.
But there is one category of claim to land ownership which is the most difficult of all to handle: the claims to land ownership made on the basis of divine command. This land has been promised by God to these people, and not to those. It is our land by right because God has given it to us. It is this divine claim which Caleb is using to appeal to Joshua: God promised to give Moses this land, for our use. It is land promised by God to God’s people.
Of course, the claim that land has been given to someone by God was, and is still, hotly contested. The Israelite tribes did not simply walk in to the promised land and occupy it; they fought with those who already farmed the land, but also settled among them. As we are told only a few verses later in the Book of Joshua, ‘The people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day’ (Joshua 15.63).
And the question of land ownership is still violently contested, with new Israeli settlements being built on land occupied for many generations by Palestinians. Who has the right to the land? Who has the right to make a judgement in respect of land which, according to some biblical texts, was promised to the Israelite tribes by God some three thousand or so years ago?
The question of what it means to possess something – be it land, money, housing, education – that question of possession is a very challenging one for people of faith.
Christians claim that all things come from God. In the words of the Prayer of General Thanksgiving, we thank God for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life. We are encouraged to be good stewards of all that has been entrusted to us. In short, our ‘possessions’ are always a matter of divine gift. We may work hard to earn a living, we may create and manufacture wonderful works of art or music, we may be cleaners or secretaries or volunteers or homekeepers or bankers or mechanics or whatever – but all our skills, all our time, all our energies and all that we use and own – all of these are ultimately God-given gifts. To put it bluntly in words from the book of Job: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there; the LORD gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’ (Job 1.21) All is divine gift.
So, in a profound sense, we ‘own’ nothing; but we are tasked with being good stewards of all with which we have been entrusted. Skills, land, our bodies, wealth, opportunity.
And all that we have is given us for a purpose: to be shared, to be made available for the well-being of our neighbour, and especially for the well-being of those who are vulnerable and in special need.
For that is the very nature of God – to give into our care the vast riches of creation, land, water, air, energy; to give us love, mercy, and hope; to give salvation in Christ, and the gift of life itself – to give all this, that we in turn might give to others ….
We are given these gifts not to possess them simply for our own benefit. We are not to hold our possessions close, to wall them in, that we might feel secure. We are not to hoard, not to be driven by our selfishness and fear. No – we are to share, to be generous, to enable others to live; and to be open to receiving the generosity of others in return.
In our own generation, we face very specific challenges. It is not only the possession of parcels of land which ultimately matters, but the whole relationship between humanity and the earth itself. Maybe you have read the recent United Nations report on the frightening rapidity of climate change; or perhaps you saw the horrifying TV programme Drowning in Plastic a fortnight ago. Our possessiveness, our selfish failure to curb our wasteful behaviour is having dire consequences for our environment. We must learn to co-operate willingly with our neighbours world-wide if we and other living creatures are to survive and thrive. Here in the west, we need to learn a tough lesson: enough is enough.
The care of the land, the care of our environment, the care of our neighbour in need: they are our God-given responsibilities. We have been given so much by a generous and loving God. Can we show ourselves to be responsible stewards before it is too late?