Who do you belong to? I don’t mean by that who is your spouse or your parent, or with whom do you feel a sense of connection. Those ties are important, but not what I’m talking about. Nor do I mean belong in the sense that people say they belong to a particular gym or alumni association. I mean, who do you belong to? Whose property are you? Who owns your life, your very being?
I’m sure there are more than two, but there are at least two for profit businesses in Champaign-Urbana that have positioned themselves as selling opportunities for spiritual growth. Neither of the two I’m aware of is led by someone with any actual formal training in theology, and neither of them has the safeguard of being accountable to a disciplined school of thought like Buddhism or Christianity or Judaism. They just select free-floating activities and themes to market to potential customers. It’s hard for me not to be worried about the possibility of serious spiritual malpractice happening. But you know, the most visible of these for-profit places already has more Facebook followers than most of the houses of worship in Champaign-Urbana.
But honestly, that’s not surprising, because they frame the spiritual life as something that it isn’t, but that is much easier for a contemporary American to understand. Places like these, that let people select their preferred "spiritual" activities divorced from any context, just feel right in a way a parish no longer does. Because if we know how to be anything in 2019, it’s consumers. We know how to be in control of what we choose to own. We know how to graze through offerings and select the thing that seems most attractive, enjoy it for a short time, and then go on to the next option that catches our fancy.
Now, since the spiritual life is not like that – it’s not like that in any historic religion, and it’s certainly not at all like that in Christianity – presenting what it IS like has gotten harder and harder. If someone can frame Christianity in a way that makes it sound like a consumer good that you can access by your own power on your own terms on your own schedule with your own demographic according to your own preferences, way more people suddenly get interested. I’ve seen it over and over, and not only in the Episcopal Church. Present the spiritual life as something it fundamentally just isn’t, and you’ve got more Facebook likes than the mosque and the cathedral right away.
I’m used to this, of course, but it still makes me sad for the restless, hungry people whom it is leading further away from the time-tested truths and habits that could help them so much more. I read a book last week called The Death of Expertise, which is about the way folks now are more confident – even abrasively, aggressively confident – in random things they read on Twitter or something a celebrity said or the general sense they got from skimming YouTube videos, than they are in answers from qualified, balanced experts who have studied and worked in an area for their whole lives. We clergy jokingly call it the “my Google search is as good as your theology degree” phenomenon.
So feel free to prefer your Google search, but I’m going to draw on my theology degree, as well as on 40 years of following Jesus Christ and listening to other people who have followed him longer and better than me, to tell you something. I mentioned that spirituality suddenly seems way more attractive to us when somebody frames it as another example of the instinct for acquisition and enjoyment and self-enhancement that drives the rest of our lives, and there is a reason for that. It is because we are sinners. We are deeply deceived about what’s good for us and how the world works because we are disconnected from the One who made us for himself. And somewhere near the very root of our sin is the chronic assumption that we are our own, we belong to no one but ourselves, we create our own identities and our own paths.
Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven, said Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.
I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul, wrote William Earnest Hensley.
I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar, sings Katy Perry, while Denzel Curry raps I am ultimate, behold my awesomeness.
And of course there’s Frank Sinatra: I faced it all and I stood tall, I did it my way. (Philosopher Peter Kreeft calls this song the national anthem of Hell.)
Who owns you? Who is the master, the captain, the champion, the ultimate? Who do you belong to? As long as your answer is “myself,” most of the joys and challenges of a true, mature spiritual path will remain closed to you. Not because anybody slammed the door – no, Jesus is standing at the door, knocking to try and get you to open up so you can step out of your prison and enjoy the acres of openness and love and possibility that lie just over his shoulder. And it’s all free, as long as you let him be God, and stop trying to earn your way and make your path.
And that is why unlike today’s spiritual coaches, we don’t run Emmanuel as a for profit business. We could certainly do that. Rather than depending on you taking the step out into discovering how much God gives you, and being so delighted that you want to give back to him, we could turn parish life into the kind of individualistic quid pro quos that make sense to people now. We could publish a price list. Say every Sunday Lectio Divina group costs $10 apiece, and next week’s film night is $25 per family, and a communion visit to your homebound dad is $50 for a half hour session but only $75 for an hour (price break!) Each Sunday Mass, maybe $100 plus another $20 if you want to hear the sermon and another $25 if you want to receive communion. I mean, gotta allow a little overhead, right? Wine costs money! Staff time and printing and sack lunch ingredients and electricity for the pulpit mic aren’t free. We could define every person in this room not as a child of God, but as a sovereign consumer, and sell to them like everyone else does.
But if we did that, it would be a massive lie about who God is and who we are. It would undermine the possibility of Emmanuel being a Christian community because it denies all that Jesus has done. It would teach, far more powerfully than anything I could say in the pulpit or we could dig out of God’s Word in Bible study, that Christianity was not good news of free grace given through the Cross, but just one more quid pro quo. Thank God that’s not true. Thank God that we are not the ones in control, that we don’t get to choose on which isolated spiritual products we prefer to spend our money. There isn’t even any such thing as our money. There is no such thing as our life. It’s all a gift from God.
Every one of us will be forced to find this out one day in a hospital bed or at a graveside, when the for-profit illusions of all the free-form spirituality coaches will have deserted us completely. But we can also find it out now, when we still have time for it to do us an immense amount of good. When it can set us free to live as what we are, God’s creatures, made for his love by his love.
Most of you probably already received in the mail the October Messenger with a copy of this month’s Wonder in All inventory, inviting you to look around Emmanuel and name ways you have seen God at work here. We’ll be enjoying that inventory all this month, so that as many of us as possible to stop and look for God and take the risk of naming him as the initiator, the owner, the center of our parish life. The display board in the Great Hall is there for you to share your field work, with cards and stickers representing areas of God’s activity among us.
Wonder In All comes from our Baptism liturgy, which is when God claims us not just as his creatures but as his adopted children. We ask him then to give us another gift in addition to all the ones he already gave. Of course God gave us life and breath, skills and talents, this earth, this place; he adopted us in Christ, he clothed us with the Spirit, and a thousand other generosities, and we dare to ask for one more thing in our Baptism liturgy – we ask for “the gift of joy and wonder in all his works.” We ask God to please, please not let us buy into the lie that it’s ours, that we made it, that we are the center. Please, God, don’t let us harm ourselves that way. We ask him for the gift of lifting our eyes from all the messages that say we are the master of our soul and we should do it our way, and instead noticing God, who he is and what he has done. And when we look steadily at that, the joy and wonder come naturally. And we are set free to affirm, freely and happily, what the emotionally and spiritually healthy servant says in the very last line of today’s Gospel: we’re merely servants! When we give our time, our money, our dedicated efforts, we’re only doing what we were meant to! This is the way life works!
Oh, the weight that takes off our shoulders. He is God! We are not! He owns us and all that we are and have. If only we could remember it all the time, then we’d know: I don’t need applause. I don’t need a visible return. I don’t need to prove myself. I don’t need to hoard my resources to make sure I can get what I want. I don’t need to work myself silly. I’m merely a servant. God’s got this. He’s got it.
This Wonder in All process, which will go on until November 3rd when we offer our giving goals for next year to God on his altar, is designed to get us to look up and notice what context we actually live in. The world is not our property. Our lives are not our property. We are not our property. That’s not the way life works. A generous and loving God has revealed himself, and is giving himself, and is longing to help us answer his knock on our door so he can set us free. Free. On his terms -- which I guarantee you are way, way better than ours.