16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 12, 2021, Psalm 116:1-9, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas
The greatest stories of the Bible, in my estimation, involve wandering away from one’s place of origin in an effort to find one’s self. Sometimes it is divinely initiated, as in the case of Abraham wandering from his home in Haran. But more often the urge to wander is regarded as sinful, as when Jacob fled the wrath of his brother Esau after robbing him of his birthright (Genesis 27:41-45); or when Israel was cursed to wander forty years in the wilderness for failing to believe that the land God promised them was safe to inhabit (Number 14:26-35); or in the parable of the prodigal son, who had to lose himself in the squandering of his waywardness to find his way back home (Luke 15:11-32).
We are all wanderers, captive to sin, but what is sin? Sin is a conditioning and addiction that places one’s self and self-interests over the needs of others.
As Christians, we attempt to see ourselves and others as integrally connected in the world household of God who, according to the parables, sees humanity as coins so precious in value that, if lost, would light a lamp and search every inch of the house until you are found, and then rejoice at your redemption. (Luke 15:8-10)
The difference between the eyes of God and the eyes of the world is that, while God views you as precious and priceless, the world sees you, and we each other, as expendable and disposable.
We need help in escaping this conditioning of mind and behavior, this addiction. We need to submit ourselves to a new discipline and lifestyle which, like any twelve-step program, begins with an admission of one’s enslavement or captivity to an addirction, and the need for help.
“From where does my help come?” is the rhetorical question of the psalmist, to which the reply is, “My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2) Therefore, the psalmist continues, “Put not your trust in rulers and mortals…Happy are they…whose hope is in the Lord their God…who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The Lord sets the captives free.” (Psalm 146:3-7)
So, who is our Lord, God, and Master? From what are we freed, and to what are we liberated? The biblical images we have of God are often those of single beings – Lord or Master, King or Ruler, Parent or guiding Shepherd. And we, as subjects, are forced to choose what power we will serve. Our spiritual wanderings amount to experiences that enable us to determine what God and form of servitude we prefer. What is God to you?
Martin Luther, defined God as “that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress. He further said that “many think they have God when they have money and possessions. They trust in them and boasts of them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one.” He concludes that: “Money and possessions, on which we set our hearts, are the most common idols on earth.”
And so, the most common dichotomy by which Jesus contrast the world’s definition of God with his evolves around earthly and spiritual treasures. “What will it profit,” he says, “to gain the whole world and forfeit your soul?” (Mark 7:36) “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” he says, “where neither moth nor rust consume…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:20-21) There you will also the heart of God.
Allow me to pose a rather controversial, even heretical, thought. God is not a single entity we might imagine or objectify, but a sacred principle of being from which we and all life are created, defined and spiritually connected. “In the beginning was the Word,” says the Gospel of John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) Apart from that loving, compassionate power and principle of being, nothing Godly can exist. This is why Moses and Abraham challenged the divine expressions they encounter when they fail to live up to this Godly principle and promise. And this is why spiritual seekers seek God elsewhere when the church fails to live up to this principle and promise of compassion and unconditional love.
Not long ago, my middle child Ethan, who had often been disillusioned by the church, returned from a cross-country road trip, during which he had time to think about who he was, what he was, and where he wanted to be. He returned with a greater appreciation of New England, but also with a sense of direction he had long resisted. “Dad,” he said, “I think I’m ready to explore ordained ministry.”
As human beings, we are prone to wander, it is part of our spiritual makeup and quest for truth. But as the church of God, I believe we should take our lead from Christ by preparing a place for all inquiring souls and seekers of truth, who may often wander and stray from their place of origin, but will nonetheless be always informed sacred whispers of God within them saying, “Return, O my soul, to your rest.” (Psalm 116:7) Amen.