|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
September 10, 2017
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18
Binding and Loosing: Proper 18A
One day, a very rich man died. He was met at the gates of Heaven by none other than Saint Peter. Peter said, “Are you ready for a tour and for me to take you to your heavenly home?” The rich man, eyes wide open and filled with wonderment and joy enthusiastically replied, “Yes, let’s go!”
So the Saint took him in through the gates and on to a winding path paved with gold that lead him into a neighborhood filled with amazing mansions. Along the way, the rich man saw an awesome mansion on the hill. He asked, “Is that my house?” to which the saint responded, “No sir, that’s your maid’s house.” The rich man thought to himself, “Wow, if that’s my maid’s house I can’t wait to see how magnificent my house will be!” As they turned the corner the rich man saw another house, bigger and better than the first. Again, he asked, “Is that my house?” to which the saint responded, “No sir, that’s your limo driver’s house.” Amazed at the size and splendor of these heavenly homes the rich man was filled with excitement and wonderment as he thought about what his home in heaven was going to be like.
Just then they pulled up to a small, old, rundown swamp shack. The saint says, “Well sir, we’re here! Your home in heaven for all eternity.” The rich man’s jaw dropped and a look of surprise and confusion crossed his face. “This is my house? Are you sure this is it? I mean, my maid and limo driver had huge amazing mansions and now, you take me to this little bitty swamp shack? There must be some kind of mistake!” With all the grace the saint could muster he said, “Please forgive us sir, but we did the absolute best we could with what you sent ahead.”
Today we heard Jesus remind us that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” According to Jesus, our decisions and actions in this life have consequences that transcend this mortal life and carry forward into the life to come. What we do here matters in a way that connects to our experience of eternity. If during the whole of this precious gift of life we persistently hold on to things tightly and greedily and grudgingly, well then, we become the sort of people who will forever hold on to things tightly and greedily and grudgingly, and that doesn’t simply stop when we die. What we bind on earth is bound in heaven, and the opposite is true: the more we let go of things, the more we become the sort of people who let go of things, the sort of people who are not ruled or bound or constricted by them. The more loosely we hold things, the freer we become.
There was once a diamond mine in Africa that was having a terrible theft problem. It came as a great surprise to the mine owners because the diamond industry is among the most tightly regulated, tightly secured in the whole world, and sure enough, as the diamond mine owners investigated the string of thefts, they realized that there was no way it could be the miners who were stealing the gems. Finally, the mine owners realized who the culprits were: local monkeys. You see, many African mines are located in regions where there are large monkey populations. And in addition to being extremely intelligent, monkeys also have a fondness for bright, shiny objects. Apparently, the monkeys were sneaking into the mining camps and snatching some of the gems.
The first traps the owners tried failed miserably. And they decided they couldn’t hunt the monkeys with guns for fear of stray bullets. Finally, someone came up with an idea. They put a small pile of especially shiny objects inside a box and cut a small opening in one side of it, just large enough to see inside but not too big. The curious monkeys would see the box, check out the amazing, shiny contents and stick their hands inside to grab them. But when they went to remove their hands, the hole in the box would not be large enough for the monkey to get its hand out while also holding onto the shiny object it was after.
The monkey was faced with a choice. It could escape to freedom just by letting go of whatever was inside the box. All it had to do was release its grip on the thing it held and it would be free. But the monkey was completely immobilized by its unwillingness to let go of the object. It had every chance to free itself by simply opening its hand, by letting loose of the object, but it wouldn’t do let go. And so…it was ensnared.
We may like to think we’re a lot smarter than monkeys, but I don’t know that we are all that better at letting loose of the things that bind us and trap us. Jesus says that whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. This has to do with money and possessions, of course, because Jesus teaches again and again that our relationship with money is a major spiritual litmus test: what we do with our money reveals just how faithful and generous and obedient we really are. We do a whole lot of binding when we spend the overwhelming majority of our money on ourselves, rather than setting ourselves loose by giving significant portions of it away.
But the truth of this teaching by Jesus has to do with so much more than money, too. It has to do with all sorts of aspects of life, when we can either be bound up or set free.
It’s about forgiveness, and whether we’ll let go of the old hurts that we stubbornly carry around in our spiritual pockets. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” Jesus teaches us to pray, because he knows that it is possible to stay bound up by old wounds, bound up and prevented from accessing the forgiveness of God by our refusal to forgive others. If we want our own sins to be let loose by God, then we must be willing to let loose of the sins of others against us.
It’s about worry and anxiety, and the way we carry our fears around until they weave a suffocating web around us, strangling and constricting us and binding us. We can become habituated to fear and worry, and they can come to dominate everything about our lives, even though letting go of fear and worry is something Jesus calls us to again and again, something he wants desperately to loose us from.
And it’s about our compassion for those who are hurting and hungry and desperate. In Luke’s gospel (16:19-31), Jesus tells the parable of a homeless beggar sitting outside the gate of a fantastic rich man, and in the parable, the rich man’s callousness and neglect form a sort of chasm in the afterlife between him and the heavenly comfort God offers the poor beggar. The man created this chasm with the way he lived, by his choices and his actions, by his prejudices and preconceived notions. He created the chasm, Jesus says, not God. He created the binds that wound around him after his death, and what he bound stays bound.
God has given us the power to hold on and to let go, to bind and to loose, and we must not neglect to understand this power. Our choices and actions demonstrate who we are today, and they affect who are becoming. They demonstrate how God’s grace and love are acting upon us, how they are molding and shaping us in a way that will last far beyond our mortal lives. With all that is happening in this world these days, every day we are given enormous and defining moments to show that we take our faith seriously, that we are obedient to Christ, that we know that what we do here on earth ripples through eternity.
I want to read to you something Glennon Doyle posted yesterday. Glennon, as you may recall, is coming to Dallas in two weeks to talk about compassion, and it will be our privilege to host the event. She also lives in south Florida, in the path of Irma, and so she wrote this after evacuating to safety.
On Tuesday we packed our home, put the things we love most in water tight containers, gathered up the kids, and left. In that kind of sad, frantic process: you learn what you really value: my containers were filled with letters to me from my babies, my parents, my sister, and Abby. Abby’s containers had lots of shoes in them. To be fair: she has better shoes than I do.
Irma is going to hit Florida tonight. By all accounts, it’s going to be bad. People will get hurt. Some might die. Homes built out of love and sacrifice will be destroyed. The waters will rise.
It will also be good. People will help each other. Doctors and nurses will risk their own lives to heal their neighbors. First responders from all over the country will rush toward the destruction to save strangers. People will be gentle with each other, feed each other at shelters, hold each other’s babies, cry together. Folks will be especially tender with children and the elderly. Nobody, but nobody will ask about each other’s politics. None of that will matter in the wake of Irma. You’ll see. We will remember that we belong to each other. It will be terrible. And it will be beautiful.