Sermon Archives

Sunday, August 7, 2016
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14, Year C)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
Orientation Matters

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The most treacherous portion of the climb was behind them.  At 29,029 feet they had summited the highest peak on earth and, with a storm approaching, the decent begun.  Now, with less than a quarter of a mile, no more than a 1000 feet remaining, the blizzard set in.  Conditions became so forbidding with winds reaching nearly hurricane speeds; but worst of all, visibility is lost and all orientation sets in.  Within that small party three die and a fourth barely makes it back to camp after surviving the night exposed on the Everest mountain side.

Orientation matters.  For a mountaineer, orientation can mean the difference between life and death.  Had this group braved the blinding conditions and walked the last 1000 feet perfectly on track, they would have found themselves in the center the small campground.  Had they gone 10 feet off track, they not only would have missed the camp, but likely fallen to their deaths. 

Now, few if any of us have attempted Everest, however, we can all appreciate the importance of orientation in the great out of doors.  Who amongst us, on land or sea, have gone for a long hike or sail without a compass.  This simple tool, no larger than the palm of our hands in many cases, has one primary purpose – to keep us oriented!  The sole purpose of this small devise is to keep us moving in the direction we set out to go.  If we want to head west, it will tell us whether we are or are not on track.  And if we choose instead to head east, it will tell us that too! 

Of all the myriad tools – matches, a mirror, iodine tables, among others – that backpackers consider essential, a compass is certainly among the most valuable.  While other tools will help you survive where you are, this alone will help you get home. 

We don’t think of it often, but orientation matters for all of us as well.  In fact, we are surrounded by constant aids to orientation.  Of course GPS is ubiquitous in our lives – reach in to your pocket or purse and you will find one the greatest orientation tools ever created, your phone!  Signage, too, abounds in modern society.  Walk anywhere and you will find signs helping you to find your way from where you are to wherever you are heading. 

However much the current abundance of orientation aids says about modern society, it says even more about human society in general – ancient and modern:  we need assistance in the orientating of our life.  True, the consequences of disorientation in modern society may not be as life-threatening as they are on the top of Everest or in the wilderness of Yellowstone, yet, the need for reliable orientation is no less real.  Few have the ability to perfectly orient themselves without any external aids (there is, fascinatingly, a tribe in Australia, I believe, that actually, always self-orientates – to the degree! – but that’s another story).

We need aid.  We need direction.  We need it on the mountain top, on hiking trail (or off), and on the water.  We need it also in our daily lives. 

What is true in our everyday lives, of course, is often if not always true in our lives of faith as we well.  We need direction here, within these walls.  We need orientation tools to aid us in living well our life in Christ.

Fortunately, if we look closely enough, we are given ample, if not easy, aid.  To begin, the Evangelist provides us with a stark challenge:  “Sell your possessions, and give alms.”  Like so many verses in scripture, these words may be quickly interpreted, yet demand much greater attentiveness than we often provide.  The quick read, the plain meaning if you will, would say that we should do just that, sell everything, sell these buildings, sell your homes, divest of your portfolios, and give it all away in service to the poor.

Such a quick response, however, quickly proves inadequate.  For starters, neither Jesus’ disciples, nor Jesus himself, actually sold everything.  In fact, the Gospels remind us that our response to the poor is much more complex.  Remember for a moment the encounter between Jesus, his disciples and a woman from Bethany:

While Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.  But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way?  For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’  And they scolded her.

This woman has come to Jesus with a great gift, yet he and she were chastised by those who felt that she should have sold the nard and given the proceeds away – “sell your possessions and give alms.” 

Yet Jesus response is quite difficult:

‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.’

No, to easily read these words from today’s Gospel lesson as an admonishment to truly sell everything that we possess will miss the true thrust of the passage and the end result would be to simply increase the census of the poor. 

On the contrary, today’s lesson stand as a tool of orientation – they are like a large signpost along the journey of faith to remind us that our orientation must always include the poor and the dispossessed.  Our hearts must ever be re-oriented away from their natural course and inclination – that is away from ourselves; away from our natural inclination toward possession and security – and toward the stranger in need.  The heart of the Christian must constantly be re-oriented to the neighbor who stands at our door and toward the poor and beaten-down who lie half-dead along the pathways of our life. 

Certainly, the causes of dispossession and poverty in modern society are complex and multilayered, but the demand for our re-orientation is no less essential.  To where are we headed?  To whom are we oriented?  Not merely to ourselves, I pray; but to the poor and the suffering within our midst and within the world about us.