Saint James Fordham • Proper 13c • Tobias Haller BSG
Above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
The late Methodist Bishop Edwin Hughes once delivered a rousing sermon on the subject of “God’s Ownership” of all that we think of as ours. It went over very well, except in the eyes of one particular member of the congregation. This man was one of the wealthiest in town, and the sermon simply didn’t sit right with him. So, rather than merely button-holing the bishop in the narthex or at the church door, he invited him to lunch at his estate. He was sure he could set the bishop straight. After the luncheon, he took the bishop on a tour of his lands, showing off his gardens, woodlands, and farm. Finally, he confronted the bishop, and said, “Now, are you still going to tell me that all of this land does not belong to me?” The bishop paused, and then with a gentle smile asked, “Will you be able to ask me the same question in a hundred years?”
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The wisdom of the bishop’s response is evident. If you’ve ever watched the TV shows about the great mansions and estates of the financiers and hotel magnates, the oil barons and stockbrokers, you know that with very few exceptions these great properties are now no longer held by the original owners, nor even their descendants. Whether Boldt Castle in the Saint Lawrence River, or Gillette Castle in Connecticut, San Simeon in California or Wave Hill right up in Riverdale, all but a few are now owned and operated by — guess who — the government, serving as parks or museums. Right here in the Bronx, Saint James Church is among the four oldest landmark buildings still in use for their original purpose — and all four of those buildings are churches — which may well give you a hint of where I’m heading with this sermon! For the church of God endures, while human possessions crumble and fade. All of the old private homes are now museums or parts of public institutions, whether the Van Cortlandt estate just a couple of miles north of us; or Gustav Schwab’s mansion — the only one even still standing from the founders of Saint James Church (he was the man who gave us the wonderful stained glass in our sanctuary) — but his own home is now a part of the Bronx Community College campus. or take another example connected with Saint James’ history: Peter Valentine’s house up in Bedford.
Our connection with it testifies to the transitory nature of personal property: Saint James Church is built on part of the farmland that once belonged to Peter Valentine, farmland that went from where Fordham Road is now all the way up into Bedford Park and from University Avenue all the way down to Webster Avenue, at the edge of Fordham University. Over the years, starting with his son, the land was divided up into smaller parcels, until there is no Peter Valentine estate left, and not a single farm (unless you count Ms. Stewart’s garden out behind the church!) and even Valentine’s home, on it’s little plot of ground, smaller than our front yard, is now the site of the Bronx Historical Society.
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Today’s Scripture readings address the same issue: the temporary nature of the relationship we have with possessions, with what we like to think of as “ours.” Both wise old Solomon and our Lord himself tell us that whatever we have, whatever we own, is ours only temporarily. Vain efforts such as that of the woman who was buried in her Cadillac only go to prove the truth of the old saying, “You can’t take it with you.” I mean, really, you can’t! Whatever we have of worldly goods are just that: of this world, and destined to stay in this world when we have left it.
Now this fact might fill you with pessimism and something very close to despair, as it did old Solomon; or you might react with horror, as the man in Jesus’ parable no doubt reacted when God’s sentence fell thundering upon him. Solomon sought joy in his wealth and power; he built a great empire, and gathered many possessions. Yet in the end he was left with bitterness; his gathered wealth could only slip through his aging fingers. He knew that he would have to leave it all to someone who would come after him, who might well be unable to appreciate it. He had built up Israel’s kingdom to the largest size it ever attained, and yet what use was it, since he knew that those who would follow him would be unworthy — and indeed, shortly after his death the division and loss began. Solomon was like a wine connoisseur who has amassed a cellar of vintage wines, but who knows he will have to leave it to his drunk of a nephew who couldn’t tell a priceless vintage port from a pint bottle of Thunderbird!
The rich man in Jesus’ parable, less wise than Solomon, can’t see what’s coming until God calls him up short. He gathers and gathers his goods, tears down small barns to build bigger ones, stores up his riches, and is just ready to begin enjoying them when God snatches his very life away.
In neither case do the owners actually enjoy their possessions: Solomon’s present joy is overcome in fretting about the future; and the rich man, who has taken no time to enjoy his goods but deferred his enjoyment in great plans for the future, suddenly finds he has no future left.
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So where is the good news? Is despair or horror the only answer to this dilemma, the fix of finitude and finality in which we find ourselves if we misunderstand the relationship between our selves and our possessions? Is there a way out of Solomon’s self-centered despair, that couldn’t bear the thought that someone less worthy than he might enjoy his wealth? Is there a way out of the selfishness of the rich man, who was so short-sighted he didn’t even consider his own mortality?
Of course there is, and Saint Paul outlines the key to liberation in his Letter to the Colossians. The way away from selfishness lies in discovering the new self, the new self that takes no delight in mere wealth, the new self that does not depend on things for its identity, but finds a new identity in the image of its creator.
The things from which this new creation liberates us aren’t just external possessions — though that is where liberation starts. Saint Paul begins by urging us to set aside such external things as the objects of greed, but then he also bids us set aside more internal matters of the heart, such as anger, wrath, and malice. It’s hard sometimes to set these things aside — you know that. Have you ever been angry with someone, so angry with them that even after they apologized you wanted to be angry with them just a little more, not able to let go of that anger because you’d gotten so comfy in it, so warmly and self-righteously indignant? But you know, sisters and brothers, that letting go of that anger is so much better, that joy and love is so much more pleasurable than even the most justified revenge.
Yet still it is hard to let go of these negative feelings, sometimes, and if that is hard, how much harder to let go of the other things from which Saint Paul goes on to offer liberation. In a bold move that must have astonished his hearers, Paul goes beyond the negative and hurtful things that we can put aside with God’s help, and assures us that in the new self we can even set aside aspects of our selves so intimate that most of us can’t help but see them as intrinsic to our identity. We are so used to hear talk of our “ethnic identity” — something as close to us as our skin. How many wars have been fought, how many lives have been ruined or lost because of the amount of pigment in our skins! How much wrongheaded pride, how much slavery, how much spiteful and irrational hatred has been focused on the color of human skin, down through our sorry history?
Yet Paul assures us that even our troublesome skin can be stripped off like a piece of worn-out clothing, whether white or pink or yellow, black or brown. There is no more Jew nor Greek, barbarian nor Scythian, slave or free, Saint Paul assures us, but only Christ. We can strip off this old worldly identity, and clothe ourselves anew in him, and assume a costume that reflects our true identity as his children. We can put on the new clothes of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. We can, above all, clothe ourselves with the new skin of love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And this new clothing, this imperishable identity, will never wear out, never fade, never be taken from us.
Unlike the fields that go to seed, the barns that moulder and collapse as year leads into year; unlike the stately homes, surviving for a while as museums of what was; unlike the old clothes that shrink or wear out; unlike the pride of place or rank or race, of status or of station, which must be left behind before we can stand before the judgment seat of God; unlike all of these transitory things, the seal of our new self in Christ will last for ever.
When we have put on the imperishable garment, the new skin of the robe of the newly baptized self, the gracious renewal of our selves in Christ, we will be prepared for eternity, properly dressed for the heavenly banquet. When we are clothed in Christ — in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, and above all when we are clothed in love — when we are clothed as we have never been, we will be clothed as we shall ever be.+