Pentecost 19, Proper 23 October 11, 2009
St. Christopher's Episcopal Church Rev. Paul Moore
I recently read a book by an 18th century theologian named William Law. When I first got into the book my response was, "This man is a Puritan in Anglican clothing!" He argues for strict adherence to daily prayers at dawn, at 9, at noon, at 3, at nightfall, and just before going to bed. He only lacks one for the 7 monastic hours. And he gives you a theme for each time, arguing the suitability of it for that time of day. He recommends chanting the psalm, because of what it does to your soul. He's very persuasive.
He argues for the godly use of money: Anything over what it takes to live a decent life should be dedicated to caring for the poor. It is God's requirement that we use our resources to care for the needy, for in doing so we care for Him. He argues for the godly use of leisure: Dances, parties and the playhouse are all wastes of our time, they distract the soul, and put into our heads ideas and values that are not godly. The last chapter is, perhaps, the most commanding. He takes on the argument that religion is for the weak of constitution and intelligence. He argues that if you had a benefactor that supplied what you needed, would you not take care to cultivate your relationship with that person? If you had someone who cared for your physical wellbeing, would you not hold that person in high regard? If you had a prince who demanded good from his subjects, would you not obey? How, then, do we not hold our relationship with God, who is our ultimate benefactor, care-giver and King, the highest level of importance in our lives? The name of the book: A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
Jesus is constantly making a serious case for a devout and holy life. A young man comes up to Him just as He is about to leave on a trip. Apparently it didn’t seem like that much of an interruption, all he wanted was a quick and easy answer. We do that to things of secondary importance in our lives. The man asks Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?” Quick and easy answer there—we all know the answer to that one, right? "Whoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" Paul says it in Romans 10:13, giving voice to Psalms 38 and 116. But Jesus doesn't give him that answer, because he knows it. What the young man doesn’t understand is that knowledge and action must be connected or it's not really knowledge. In other words, Jesus is setting the pattern picked up by William Law.
So Jesus sets the trap: “Why do you call me ‘good?’ (as if to quickly and easily ascribe to Me something you don't understand?) What do the commandments say?” But the man gets defensive: “I've done all these things since my youth.” The man is obviously either lying through his teeth or he's in serious denial. Jesus gives him the simple answer which is also the hardest one. Go, rid yourself of the one idol that rules in God's place in your heart. Sell your rather substantial estate and give it to the poor, and let Me reign in your heart instead. One of the saddest lines in the Bible follows: The man went away sad, for he had many possessions.
The disciples are astounded. In a world where possessions were an indication of God's favor and poverty was evidence of God's curse, to choose poverty as the path toward godliness ran against everything they thought about God's favor. But God is not money, and the lack of money is not the lack of God. The one who is serious about a spiritual walk will always seek to debunk the idol that so quickly steals onto the throne of one's heart. No wonder many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
The serious call to a devout and holy life is the call to the stewardship of one's soul. It recognizes that one cannot separate the outer actions that express our stewardship of life and the effect those actions have on our inner life. In fact, that inner life is the source and foundation of our outer life. If the inner life is not right nothing on the outside will be right. Good works will be done in pride, not faith, they will help the one helped, but not the one who helps. Gifts to the Church will be done selfishly, rather than generously. The church will benefit, but not the giver. Learning will be done in order to lord it over others. The truth will be known, but it will be of no avail. Prayer will be made as an attempt to get God to do what one wants. The time with God will only mitigate against the substance of the prayers made.
Being a steward of one’s soul is to be on a conscious process of integration of the Gospel into one's innermost being. It requires the discipline of awareness, of becoming aware of what one is really doing, and then digging down to the real reason why.
Here are some guiding questions that can help you probe each aspect of your inner life. Consider that you can divide your life into these three categories: Your time, your possessions, and your relationships. About each of these ask yourself these three questions:
1. Why do I spend my _______ as I do?
2. What does that tell me about what is really important to me?
3. How does that square with the demands of Christ?
Stewardship of the soul is not just about prayer, it is about the whole of life, for just as Jesus said, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34.) So also, out of the abundance of the heart the soul prays, serves and worships. Perhaps William Law has something to say to our day, too.