Tuesday, July 30, 2013

My First Sermon - Luke 12:13-21, "All That You Have is Your Soul"

This week is the 15th anniversary of the first time I ever preached. The lectionary texts are up this week. Here it is, my first ever sermon (back when I tried to combine all the lectionary texts into one sermon. What was I thinking?!)

Sermon  8/2/98

All that you have is your soul
            This year at school, I was fortunate enough to become involved with an exciting and fulfilling group on campus, the United Methodist Student Movement.  We met once a week to plan, fellowship, work, or worship.  One particular evening we were joined by the university chaplain, and he led us in a worship service to help us center and focus for the exams and papers that were coming in the week ahead.  With the lights out and candles lit, we sat in a circle on the floor, and the chaplain shared with us an early Methodist tradition.  John Wesley, in the first years of the Methodist Movement, developed many instructions and disciplines for spiritual growth among his followers. One of these practices was to open each meeting of the gathered Christians with the following question: is it well with your soul? In other words, how are you doing - are things right in your heart?  This inquiry would set the tone for the rest of the meeting.  After relating this to us, the chaplain asked each of us that same question - ‘Is it well with your soul?’  For the next two hours students shared tears, smiles, laughter, and quiet reflections in answering the question for themselves. As each of us thought of our gains, and losses of the past weeks, it became clear that those had nothing to do with the question at all. What mattered, what determined our personal answer to the question was the shape that our relationship with God was in right then.  Nothing else had so great an impact on the state of our souls. One student could have aced all his midterms; another might have been accepted at the grad school of her choice - these accomplishments couldn’t do a thing for their soul when push came to shove.  Likewise, the student who was having roommate problems, or the one who couldn’t make ends meet financially - these hard times had little to do with the students’ standing with God.  This morning I ask us to struggle with this question too - how is it with our soul?  Where do we stand? Does God have claim on our possessions - our time, our talents, our accomplishments, our resources? Does God have claim on our very soul? In this morning’s reading from Ecclesiastes, we get a taste of the frustration felt by one who realizes the vanity of working for the gain of possessions.  The man, identified as a preacher, poses this soul-searching question: ‘What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?’  Quite a difficult question to answer. This preacher was led to despair because he felt that all his hard work was for nothing.  He knew that he couldn’t take his success with him beyond his days on earth, and he despaired in the thought of some one else enjoying the fruits of his labor. Seeing no solution to these problems, only futile human actions, this man was left hopeless. We, however, do not have to settle for hopelessness.  As Christians, we are raised up with Christ in a new life.  We are a people of hope. God requires of us only one thing - our soul.  Amidst all of our other possessions and priorities that we have in our lives, it would seem that giving our soul is a small sacrifice in the scheme of things. After all, what is a soul in comparison with leisure time?  With paychecks?  With popularity? With success? With power?
Jesus alludes to a deeper meaning for us.  Consider his words: ‘for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions’.  Jesus does, however, promise us abundance of a different kind. In the gospel of John we hear his message: ‘I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.’  If our life is not abundant with possessions, exactly what is Jesus offering? How about an abundance of soul? Loving our enemy, serving our neighbor, opening our heart to God; these tasks are more easily done with the gift of an abundant soul.  Our soul can handle more that we can possibly imagine. The man in the parable was content with his store of possessions and felt secure and easy about his future.  His prosperity, he thought, made good food for his soul.  God, on the other hand, thought the man quite foolish. God knew that all the man’s labors for his own gain couldn’t be taken with him - only his soul did God require, and the man found that his soul was not so merry as he had intended.  Jesus concludes this story with a poignant statement: ‘So is the one who lays up treasure for one’s self, and is not rich toward God.’  Perhaps we do not often think of how we can be rich toward God. After all, what could we give to God, who is the Creator of everything that we know? Again and again Jesus gives us the answer. We can give God what should be our greatest treasure - ourselves, our souls.  How could we be more rich toward God than by returning all that God has blessed us with possessing? All that we have to give is our soul - a treasure which God earnestly awaits receiving. Unfortunately, it seems that we are more intent on laying up treasures for ourselves, hoping in vain that our pursuits will fill our souls.  The folly of this, Jesus tells us, is that we begin to lose the distinction between what we have gained and who we have become. When we equate what we have with who we are, our souls become lost in the jumble.  In a workshop that I attended a few years ago, I was given a worksheet on setting priorities that were in line with God’s will. The worksheet listed the average amount of time that a person aged 70 will have spent on each activity. The figures are a little unsettling. The average 70 year old has spent 20 years sleeping, 16 years, working, 7 years playing, 6 years eating, 5 years dressing, 3 years waiting for someone, and 1 year on the telephone.  This accounts for 57 years out of 70 passed.  It certainly makes one think.  Of the thirteen years remaining, how much time is spent on one’s relationship with God? One year? Two? How much time is spent on preparing one’s soul through prayer, study, worship, and service? Three years? Is this enough?  The man in the parable found that he had spent a little too much time preparing for his own pleasure and not quite enough time preparing his soul.  Jesus warns us not to make the same mistake. ‘Take heed’ he says, and his words echo in our hearts today.  Recently, I came across a song, written by musician Tracy Chapman, and I would like to share some of the lyrics with you this morning. The song is entitled ‘All that you have is your soul’, and the words go like this: ‘oh, my momma told me that she said she learned the hard way. She wants to spare the children. Don’t ever give or sell your soul away cause all that you have is your soul.  Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple. Don’t you eat of the bitter fruit. Hunger only for a taste of justice. Hunger only for a world of truth cause all that you have is your soul. Well I had dreams, I had high hopes, but what I high price I paid.  Why was I such a young fool? Thought I’d make it straight, thought I’d make something that could be mine forever. Found out the hard way that you can’t possess another cause all that you have is your soul.  Well I thought that I could find a way to beat the system, make a deal, and have no debts to pay. Take it all, take it all and run away, leaving myself first class and first rate. Here I am I’m waiting for a better day. A second chance, a little luck to come my way. A hope to dream, hope that I can sleep again, and wake up with a clean conscience and clean hands cause all that you have is your soul. So don’t be tempted by the shiny apple. Don’t you eat of the bitter fruit. Hunger only for a taste of justice. Hunger only for a world of truth cause all that you have is your soul.’ The woman portrayed in this song thought that she could somehow earn happiness and peace of mind.  She sought only to bring herself comfort.  She learned the hard way that her soul was all she truly possessed - and that justice and truth were the rewards of a clean conscience and clean hands. Do we all have to learn this reality the hard way? What price are we willing to pay? Christ came to plead with us to mend our ways before it is too late. It was too late for the man wanting larger barns. It was too late for the woman who wanted to be first class and first rate. It is not too late for us.  All that we have is our souls, and as Christians, we are instructed to nourish these souls, to fill them with truth and justice. Our reading from Colossians is filled with imagery that speaks of keeping our souls focused on the pure and good.  We are encouraged to reject those earthly things which stand between ourselves and God.  ‘If then, you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above’. All that you have is your soul. ‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’. All that you have is your soul. ‘When Christ who is your life appears, then you will also appear with him in glory’. All that you have is your soul. ‘Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry’. All that you have is your soul. ‘On account of these the wrath of God is coming’. All that you have is your soul.  ‘In these you once walked, when you lived in them, but now, put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth’. All that you have is your soul.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator’. All that you have is your soul. ‘Christ is all and in all’. Is it well with your soul? It is all that we have. Fortunately, it is all that is required of us. Are you ready to give your soul to God?

Please pray with me: Awesome God, we know that we can never truly experience contentment outside of your will and your love.  Help us to be prepared to give you our all - our very souls  - that we might know real happiness in the safety of your loving arms. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.


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