16-9-12 St Stephen’s in Bryndwr Proverbs 22:7 & Mark 8:27-38
Being bound in order to be free
Sermon by Mart the Rev
Last week as part of one of the readings we heard the proverb: ‘The poor are ruled by the rich, and those who borrow are slaves of moneylenders.’
I was waffling on about something else that day and didn’t pay it much attention, but it stuck in my mind all week. What really brought it home was what happened on Thursday after the very Big Wednesday Lotto draw was made and someone in Tauranga won the $27million first prize. Apparently the odds of winning the first prize of the Wednesday Lotto is quite a few several millions to one – it is easier for a Cinderella carriage to turn back into a pumpkin than it is to win Big Wednesday! But still people try. They really do try! On Thursday and Friday, various media reported that scores of people turned up at the Tauranga Lotto outlet that sold the winning ticket – not just to check their tickets, but also to purchase new Lotto tickets because of the belief that a lucky shop for someone else might turn out to be a lucky shop for them. The odds of two winning tickets in a row from that shop are probably tens of millions to one, but to the shop the hope-filled people flocked. I wonder whether these impulses in people are in themselves forms of enslavement while also being the long-shot hope people have of finally forever ridding themselves of the burden of debt and the struggle to make ends meet. I admit that I have occasionally given into temptation and purchased a Lotto ticket. I have to say though, that I don’t like what happens to me when I do this. Strange ideas start to dominate my mind. I find myself distracted by the ‘what if?’ I begin to invest in that ‘what if?’ All kinds of crazy ideas pop into my head. Many of the ideas are around how to be generous, but others are quite selfish. After kicking myself back into reality I also begin to imagine the nightmare of it. Would the changes it would bring into my life be worth it? What if people found out – would they ever let me be me again? Would I have to move away? In what ways might I lose myself – my sense of vocation, my immersion in reality, my basic happiness and well-being? I wonder where God would be in it all – would my faith be at risk as Jesus warns it is at risk with people who are rich? Studies on lottery winners are quite universal in their findings – people with big wins are not any happier – they have just replaced their old worries with new ones. Their friendships change. Their families change. They become disconnected from the very things that once satisfied them. In these studies, the people who seem to have managed the best are those who don’t let the money change them – the ones who keep their jobs, keep grounded, who give most of it away, and who work hard to keep what happened to them a secret. But even keeping such a secret is a stress and a burden. One way or another, almost everything around the whole Lotto thing has an element of enslavement to it: the addiction to and investment in a weekly magic wand-like hope; the basic dissatisfaction and sense of entrapment that motivates people to try to beat the odds in order to change their lives; and the dynamics that then engulf people who do actually win. Look at the words I have just used in that last sentence: addiction, dissatisfaction, entrapment, and engulfing. They are all enslavement words – words that depict the loss of freedom. Lotto is just one of many powers and forces that rob us of our freedom. For many the Lotto thing might be a minor force in their lives – a quiet little habit. Be careful what you wish for, for it can also be a monster! Can you think of some of the other monsters that rob us of freedom?
This week Valerie Adams, the NZ Olympic shot-put champion will be receiving her gold medal. The Belarusian winner of the gold medal on the night, who subsequently failed the drug tests, has finally handed over the medal. I wonder how deep the circle of lies is that surrounds her. Is she yet able to face the truth? To what degree is she enslaved by the desire to win and the culture around her that seeks to win by cheating?
Enslaving is a strong term – we would quite rightly make a distinction between slavery as in the barbaric process of uplifting people from their homes and lifestyles in order for them to work for you for nothing (as in the slave trade) and enslavement in terms of a debt burden like a mortgage. But there are some parallels as well – the sense of powerlessness we can have when we are against forces and agencies we cannot control, the being at the mercy of others, and the disempowerment that we often experience when people or institutions exercise a measure of control over us. What has enslaved you in your life?
There are many possibilities, here are two that come to mind, captivity to unforgiveness and domination by television.
1. Captivity to unforgiveness. Some people seem to be so chained to the deep hurts from their past that they are unwilling to forgive or even bring these issues out into the light. Does unforgiveness hold us captive and manifest in certain behaviours that are unwelcome? I am interested in one part of the response of the United States President this week to the shocking story of the storming of the US embassy in Libya and the murder of several embassy officials including the ambassador. President Obama declared that justice will be done. What does he mean by justice? He probably means that the perpetrators of the violence will have to be captured and brought to trial. But does he also mean that the US will try to get even? ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ When I hear people talk about justice – and many Christian people included, I wonder what they really mean. I don’t think they mean forgiveness. I don’t think they mean forgiving seventy times seven like Jesus taught. I think they mean redressing the balance in favour of those who have suffered injustice. In my mind, the difference Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness makes as opposed to the ‘balancing the scales’ idea of justice is that forgiveness completely wipes away the idea of the scales altogether. There is no getting even with Jesus, and therefore there is no possibility of the tables being turned and injustice being meted out on those who once oppressed. To what degree are we enslaved by the notion of getting even? I think that it is a big player in the lives of many people.
2. Domination by television. A 2011 survey concluded that the average American watches a minimum of 150 hours of TV a month. One 1960’s writer described TV as ‘voluntary enslavement’. Does TV really enslave? Most certainly some people are predisposed to addictive behaviours and television can feed those addictions. But others do find themselves organising their lives around television and don’t cope all that well if they are interrupted. What about the way that TV breaks down our resistance… the way it seduces us and alters and determines our world-view, our thinking and our values? What about the role TV plays in developing consumerist tendencies in us – the way that advertisers bombard us with products and lead us to thinking that we really can’t do without whatever it is that they are promulgating? What about the way TV spreads gossip without a care for the facts; the way it takes down and dehumanises some people (did TV One really have to call the released child abuser ‘The Beast of Blenheim’ each time they had a news item about his release in Wanganui?); and what about the way TV postures itself as the purveyor of truth when in reality the whole programming is determined by advertisers and the ratings that can be achieved so that the profit margin is sufficient for investors to be satisfied? Are we, unwittingly, entrapped by this television device? Not only is it a colossal time-waster, look at the pride of place the TV has in our living rooms and the way that every chair is tilted to it while at the same time we have witnessed the steady demise of the dining table as the central way that people gathered and conversed and related. To what degree are we being systematically disempowered and dehumanised by television?
The gospel reading offers up an image that could very well look like enslavement – Jesus’ call, in Mark 8, to take up our crosses and follow him. In it Jesus begins telling his disciples what he believes will happen to him: “The nation’s leaders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law of Moses will make the Son of Man suffer terribly. He will be rejected and killed, but three days later he will be raised to life.” What is it about Jesus that this would happen to him?
Was it that he was truly free? Did his fearlessness before those who struggled with him came from his sense of being unfettered and free? When you think about it, he was not beholden to anyone yet he gave of himself for everyone. He was not enslaved by institutional obligations or religious rules, yet he lived faithfully to God’s call.
It was all too much for some people. Peter, we are told, took Jesus aside and told him to stop talking like that. But Jesus turned and rebuked him: “Get behind me Satan! You are thinking like everyone else and not like God.”
What is behind that rebuke of Peter? What does the Satan represent here? Could it that the Satan here is the crowd? Is the Satan the collective power of the people who are caught up in a destructive and ungodly cycle of obligation, running with the crowd, unthinking obedience to things and systems and ways of being that entrap them into certain behaviours and reflexes? Was Jesus, the only truly free human, the one who could both spot it and name it for what it is?
Carrying on with the reading we hear that Jesus then told the crowd and the disciples to come closer, and he said to them: “If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me.”
What a strange notion! Doesn’t taking up a cross represent the complete opposite of such freedom? Jesus seems to be saying that if we want to be free, then we must give ourselves away, surrender to him, bind ourselves to him, and let him lead us. Jesus, the one who is truly free, is emphatic: “if you give up your life for me and for the good news, you will save it. What will you gain, if you own the whole world but destroy yourself? What could you give to get back your soul?Don’t be ashamed of me and my message among these unfaithful and sinful people!”
Jesus teaches that for us to not be enslaved we need to be bound to him. It is a rich irony – to not be enslaved we have to be bound. I guess it comes down to what we choose to be bound to – the things that entrap, make us dependent, and tie us (and these things are not that hard to identify!), or to be tied to Jesus, the one who is truly free. “…if the Son sets you free,” says Jesus in John’s gospel, “you will be free indeed.” [John 8:36]
The first from Thomas Merton… My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
The second from Charles de Foucald: Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures. I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father. Amen.