This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Owner.


Psalm 24.

I.
            “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world, and all those who dwell therein.”  I say these words almost every week prior to the offering.  I say them to serve as a constant, nagging, annoying reminder that the earth does not belong to us.  It is not ours to dispose of as we please.  Rather, it all belongs to the God who made it.  We are just caretakers, stewards, tenants, custodians, as in several of Jesus’ parables.  We are managing this property, this planet, for Someone else.  And this management has to be done according to the wishes of that Owner. 
            In terms of our stewardship we should not so much ask ourselves how much of “our” stuff we are going to give back to God, but how much of God’s stuff can we justify keeping for ourselves?  What is our fair share of the produce, based on the quality of our stewardship?  Have we managed the vineyard well?  Is God’s intention that the produce of this garden be shared among all people equally being met? 
            Or do we come before God with a deficit?  Have we mismanaged it in such a way that some very few people have far, far more than they need, and many, many people have much, much less than they need?  Have we tried to fix this inequity; or do we just make excuses, and even justify it? 
            Have we managed the garden responsibly, or have we threatened to ruin it?  Have we depleted resources, have we poisoned ecosystems, have we flooded the system with our waste so profoundly that it doesn’t quite work the way it is supposed to?  In the last 13 years we have now had 4 storms of the severity that we used to expect maybe once per century, 2 in the last 2 years.  When I was a kid we had hurricanes… but they didn’t bring flooding to Vermont and blizzards to West Virginia.  That’s new.  I’m just saying….
            How many species have been driven to extinction during the time of our stewardship?  How many marvelous, magical, and miraculous voices that God designed to praise him are now silenced?  How well have we served as agents of the Creator?    
            When it says, “He has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers,” the Psalm remembers that God created the earth by carving a space for it out of the waters of chaos at the beginning.  God continues to protect and uphold the world in safety. 
            Science gives us rather a different cosmology, of course.  But even there, the earth is such an amazing blue jewel in the vast hostile chaos of space.  The natural systems of gravity and the atmosphere protect us from radiation and vacuum.  Our world is indeed held together by God’s will and plan and design.  It is a marvelous and unique garden in the infinite expanse of space, and we should treat it as such.

II.   
            This primary confession about who created and owns the Earth is something the worshiper has to make as a prerequisite to going up to the Temple.  The Temple was designed as a small model of God’s creation.  Before entering this comparatively little house, you had to affirm that you know whose house it is, and by extension whose house the whole world is. 
            It is this fundamental truth one has to understand before coming before God.  If you don’t affirm that God made the earth, the world and all living things, and it all belongs to God, then don’t bother trying to come to the Temple that represents that earth.  There would be no point.  You’d just be a tourist or an observer, not a participant.
            The next part of the Psalm makes it even more clear who is eligible – or recommended – to come into God’s presence.  Only those with “clean hands and pure hearts,” who “do not lift up their souls to what is false,” and who “do not swear deceitfully.”  These are the moral requirements for entrance into the Temple.
            These requirements flesh out the previous confession about the earth belonging to God.  That confession is not empty or theoretical; it has specific content and consequences.  We express our conviction about who owns the earth by the way we live our lives.  Every minute of every day we are demonstrating by our actions our belief about to whom the earth belongs.
            To have “clean hands and a pure heart” means that our work expresses a single-minded intention to live in harmony with the will of the Creator who owns the world.  It means that we do good work relative to God’s creation, which is everything and everyone.  It means we do not defile ourselves with actions that express the view that the earth belongs to someone else… like us, for instance.
            Are we acting like people who know themselves to be guests in someone else’s house?  Or have we arrogantly trashed the place in search of something we can use or sell?  Have we treated the Owner’s property with respect and care?  Or have we made it our religion to consume as much as possible?  Have we made our hands clean by our work in the service of the Lord?  Or have we soiled them in the muck of our own self-interest and greed?
            Have we worked for the betterment of all God’s people, especially those at the bottom of the social system?  Have we worked to ensure that the benefits and produce, the resources and the gifts of creation, are shared equally among all?  Do we recognize that, given how the godless powers have skewed things, this means redistribution of wealth, from the top down, as the Law of God advocates?

III.   
            Jesus Christ shows us what is good.  He demonstrates the attitude and approach of a faithful and trustworthy guest and steward.  Jesus walked lightly on the earth; he exhibited nothing but respect and love for the world made by his Father.  He even said we can learn from sparrows and lilies.
            Jesus also exemplifies purity of heart, which is a single-minded devotion to the Owner and obedience to the Owner’s will.  For the Hebrews the “heart” refers to the whole person: body, soul, and spirit.  Purity of heart means we have surrendered our whole life in submission to God’s Word, Jesus Christ.  It is a life without distraction, a life of which there is no part where we are responding to other influences, powers, authorities, and words.  It is a life in which it is our deepest joy to please and glorify the Owner, the Maker, God.
            God calls on us to be single-minded in our discipleship.  We are not divided or distracted, we are not compromised or procrastinating.  We follow Jesus in everything we do, in every decision we make, in every opinion we have, in every relationship.  There is no aspect of our life in which we do not ask how what we are doing reflects and expresses our faith. 
            We don’t follow Jesus on Sunday, and Baal the rest of the week.  We aren’t holy disciples when we’re doing church stuff, and heartless, cut-throat, thugs when we’re at work or driving on the Parkway.  We can’t be Christians at home, while everywhere else we act like Ebenezer Scrooge or Gordon Gecko
or some other selfish, godless barracuda.
            The divided and conflicted heart is in a way an expression of idolatry because instead of following God in our lives, we are wandering off after other pied pipers, or we are attracted by other shiny objects, or tempting promises.  So we lift up our souls, or at least parts of our souls, to what is false, to what is not God, to what doesn’t participate in God’s truth.
            And not swearing deceitfully means not just doing the truth but speaking it as well.  How often has this been a silly division between Christians?  Some are good at speaking the truth in evangelism, but they fall short in actually doing it.  Others do the truth very well in terms of mission and service to others, but they are reticent to put in words why they are doing these things!
            Our faith is made whole when we live in service to others and say that it is because… “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.”  Our doing of peace and justice is a matter of obedience of the One who made all things.  The doing and the articulation of why we are doing what we are doing are aspects of the same devotion to the One God.

IV.
            The last part of the Psalm is kind of a liturgy.  There are two parts that answer each other like a responsive or antiphonal recitation.  It imagines the Lord, the Owner, returning to the creation.  It looks ahead to the Day when God appears.  This is anticipated liturgically in Temple worship. 
            The return of the Owner is a joyful event… for those who have kept the moral life indicated in the affirmation that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell therein.”  But Jesus and other parts of the Bible are very clear that for those who do not make this affirmation, for those who have made it their business to trash the creation and exploit people, this return of God is not good news.  The bad and destructive and selfish stewards receive not reward but destruction when the Lord comes.
            And the Lord always comes.  We can view this as something that happens only at the end of time, and therefore render it effectively irrelevant to us.  Most of us live our lives as if there will indeed be a tomorrow. 
            But God does also enter human life and society all the time.  God enters our life especially when our mindless fantasies, our idolatries that lead to injustices, hit the wall of reality.  When we live for too long the lie that the world belongs to us, we eventually discover that this is unsustainable.  The Owner returns and blows that falsehood away.
            Jesus talks about his teachings being true, real, solid and dependable like rock, so that anyone who follows them will not collapse when the rain and wind and floods, the challenges of life, come.  If you build your house on the sand… we know what can happen.  Unfortunately and tragically we have seen this literally this week.  And our hearts and hands go out to all our neighbors whose lives were ruined by the storm. 
            Jesus, of course, is not giving architectural advice.  He is using a well-known fact to illustrate the importance of keeping to his teachings.  His words tell us what is real, what is true, and works.  They tell us what is strong enough to base our life on, as opposed to the flimsy, shifting, immaterial, vapor that is everything else we have dreamed up that we would rather base our life on.

V.
            If we build our lives upon the confession that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all that dwell therein,” if we shape our lives according to what it means to have clean hands by doing good work with single-minded intensity, avoiding falsehood and lies, and telling that truth all the time, we will find ourselves able to welcome with joy the coming of the Lord.  We will be able to see the Lord’s coming as profoundly good news for the earth and all people. 
            The creation does not belong to us.  We are guests, tenants, stewards, caretakers, custodians.  We should act like it… and treat this house and all its inhabitants with care, respect, and love, as the Maker intended and instructs. 
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