Sunday, August 28, 2016

Proper 17 C - Aug 28, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Peter RostronOHC
Proper 17, Year C - Sunday - August 28, 2016

Jeremiah 2:4-13
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Gandhi spinning yarn. What is our simplicity?
With all sorts of news about the presidential campaign swirling about, I recalled the well-known aphorism: All politics is local. Whatever the sweeping visions or inspiring slogans,­ if any, ­in the end, people tend to make their decisions on the smaller things, things that affect their daily existence. Such as having enough food on the table, being safe on the street, having a decent place to live, getting a good education, and having access to quality health care. Yes, there can be bigger principles at work in people’s decision­-making, but a prerequisite is the fulfillment of fundamental, local needs.

This principle is also at work not just as we think ahead and make choices about the future, it also applies to the trajectory of the past that brought us to this present moment. The grand themes of history that we look back at, and study and learn from, only emerge out of the accumulation of many lesser, individual events and decisions that were made over time with no knowledge of what the future, or what the big picture, would be. Likewise, the grand arc of our individual lives is the accumulation of the many small choices that we make along the way. Thus, little things matter. All the small decisions that we make matter. They add up to who we are.

So it is in today’s gospel. Where do you choose to sit? It seems like a fairly inconsequential decision to make, yet it is not. It is a reflection of how you regard yourself in relation to others. If you choose to sit in the highest place, there is an assumption of being important. It implies that you want and deserve the best, that you don’t have much concern about what might rightfully belong to someone else. 

On the other hand, sitting in the lowest place makes space for others to be ahead of you or to receive more than you. And that involves a letting go or a doing without. It embodies a level of poverty. Poverty, I imagine, is not a word most of us in this room might associate with ourselves. On the surface, I don’t think of myself as being poor or as living in poverty. Yet, for me and for my brothers, poverty is embedded in the component of our monastic vow in which we commit to conversion to the monastic way of life. And for you seated in the congregation, if it isn’t already, poverty, and an awareness of it, can become part of your spiritual practice.

But, what is poverty? Most simply, it is being without, lacking something. Something material or emotional or spiritual. It does not necessarily mean, however, that you do not have enough. It can mean having only what one reasonably needs and living simply, without extravagance. The more we possess, the more energy we must devote to caring for and protecting those possessions, and the less energy we have to be mindful of the needs of others, to love our neighbor. Our Founder, Father Huntington, expresses this in his rule when he says:
we are, then, to look for the riches of God to be given us more fully as we depend less upon the riches of the world. 
And Jesus exhorts us in the gospel of Matthew, 
Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal; but store up treasure in heaven... For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
We can choose to do without material things in order to make more room for spiritual things.

There is another manifestation of poverty for us as Benedictines, which is common ownership. As put forth in the book of Acts, 
The whole company of believers was united in heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of his possessions as his own; everything was held in common.
Benedict includes this in his Rule, where he says, 
... no one may presume to give, receive, or retain anything as his own, ... not [even the free disposal] of their own bodies and wills.
So, rather than being individual owners of anything, we instead are stewards of commonly­ owned things. We are responsible for their care and use while they are in our possession, but we, as individuals, do not own them. I have on occasion been given something here in the monastery and been told, “Here, this is for your use,” not “Here, this is yours.”

Beyond the notions of intentionally doing without, or with less, or of sharing possessions, you can also experience a form of poverty that stems from the loss of something that you really do want, something precious, and for reasons beyond your control. Things such as good health, or a happy marriage, or the love of a lost parent or child. That form of poverty can be a source of pain, sorrow, regret, bitterness, or resentment. It can fuel jealousy and animosity. It can cause us to close in on ourselves and condemn or neglect others. In his book, Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen writes, 
When we are not afraid to confess our own poverty, we will be able to be with other people in theirs. The Christ who lives in our own poverty recognises the Christ who lives in other people's. Just as we are inclined to ignore our own poverty, we are inclined to ignore others'. We prefer not to see people who are destitute, we do not like to look at people who are deformed or disabled, we avoid talking about people's pains and sorrows, we stay away from brokenness, helplessness, and neediness. By this avoidance we might lose touch with the people through whom God is manifested to us. But when we have discovered God in our own poverty, we will lose our fear of the poor and go to them to meet God.
The avoidance or denial of poverty, then, in its various forms, can lead to separation, from others, and from God. You could be avoiding the “desirable” poverty of simplicity or shared ownership and instead, be living with a sense of privilege and with a focus on accumulating and holding on to lots of nice things. This puts you at risk of becoming self­absorbed and inwardly focused, becoming disconnected from those around you. On the other hand, you could be carrying your own painful, emotional poverty. Denying this puts you at risk of denying the needs, even the very existence, of others who are suffering, because that might resonate too much with your own woundedness. 

Either way, our own poverty ­ material, emotional, and spiritual is significant and worthy of careful examination. Do you have more things than you need? What consoles you when you are stressed? What issues of the world concern you? What activities and things enliven and enrich you? Your honest answers to questions such as these can suggest how poverty exists in your life,­ what forms it takes, how you understand and relate to it, what your intentions are around it­ and that in turn can shed light on the ways that you engage with, or separate from, those around you.

So now, back to the simple question prompted by today’s gospel, one of the many small decisions that add up to your life. Where do you choose to sit? Do you choose the highest place?

That is, do you choose to insulate yourself from others, to detach yourself from your own humanity in favor of other seductive but false attachments? Or, do you choose to sit in the lowest place? There, you can embrace your poverties and enjoy the freedom to be open and honest and loving with those around you, no matter their place in the world. We heard Paul say it today in his letter to the Hebrews: 
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers... Remember those who are in prison... Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.”
It is then that we can be filled with the ultimate treasure: God’s love. And, by living in such Godly poverty, we will be able to realize what Paul expressed so eloquently to the Corinthians: 
As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: poor yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

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