Summary: Thanksgiving Eve sermon 1989: We have a hard time giving up our attachment to things material. We do need to feel, however, that what we use makes a difference for someone -- a way to love them.
When we read that the city of Washington is going to get everybody out of an infamous homeless shelter by Christmas, because that shelter is no longer fit for human habitation, we have a variety of reactions.
Some react at the thought that we still have not come very far at settling the issue of homelessness ... that it is just too bad that our society cannot help these folks in a way that provides a permanent solution for them.
Others react with a touch of cynicism ... it’s just the mayor crying to repair his image, or it’s just the failed bureaucracy passing its malfeasance from one location to another, or it’s just another tacit admission that we are governing by whim and not by plan. Some, I say, react with cynicism.
And still others, I suppose, respond with a sour feeling about the whole business. Why is it public policy to house people who do not provide for themselves? Some would go so far as to say that the city government has no business trying to cure human laziness anyway.
There are bound to be a wide variety of reactions to the closure of that shelter. I am sure there will be just because most of us have not come to grips, fully, with what we feel about the intersection of material things and people needs. We are not able to be clear about our true feelings and values when we begin to work with what people want and need over against how we want to invest ourselves and our things, our resources.
To use a more personal illustration -- frequently people stop by the church or call and they have some kind of story of hardship to tell ... they have lost a job or they are out of baby food or they need bus fare to the next port of call – and I find that as long as I am dispensing the church’s funds to help these folks, I’m OK. I’m happy to do something for them. Now, did you hear? As long as I am sharing your money, all is well.
But let somebody catch me out on the street comer ... not approaching me as a pastor, just as a person out on the streets … let somebody ask me, not the church, for help, and I get a different feeling. I get all tensed up and defensive and look for all kinds of reasons to keep on walking. I tell you, I have mastered the art of not quite seeing that fellow whose hand is stretched out ... just find something over here so terribly engrossing!
Why? Because like most of us, I suspect, I have never clearly resolved my feelings about things and about people, about how and where I am going to invest myself and my resources, and about what sort of payoff I expect. I, like most of us, don’t yet have it clear where my values are when I am faced with a claim on my time, my energy, and my things.
I believe it was Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian of the 13th century, who said that it was the heart of sin that we love things and use people, when we ought to love people and use things. Let me repeat that for you: according to Aquinas, the heart and core of sin is that we prefer to love things and use people rather than to love people and use things.
I doubt whether we would get any argument about that tonight. That sounds perfectly obvious, intellectually. I doubt that many of us would argue that case very long ... if we just left it in the head, if it were to be just a head debate. But our trouble is, as I have already suggested, that it isn’t a head debate, it’ s a heart debate. It isn’t a question of what we know to be right or wrong, good or bad; it is a question of where our feelings and values are, it is a question of what is kicked up in our feelings when we struggle with how we are going to use things ... or love things ... or love people ... or, God forbid, even use people.
We just don’t know whether we can give up our attachment to things. And we just don’t know whether we can care for people to the point where it really costs.
The apostle Paul reached that point at one juncture in his life. Working in Athens, tied up with a monumental struggle to establish the Christian faith on a firm footing there, he could not leave. But he heard that over in Thessalonica somebody was saying to the Christians there, "Paul doesn’t care about you; Paul isn’t interested in you. Paul is spending all his time over in Athens, because he thinks the Athenians are sophisticated, witty, intelligent folks ... he likes them more than he does you." And Paul found himself anxious and afraid that the Thessalonian Christians would desert; he found that he had become very anxious about his investment of time and money and energy and emotion. Would these folks hold true? Would they remain faithful? Would his investment in them pay off? Paul in Athens had a terrific anxiety about what he had spent.