Who Do I Belong To

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on May 13, 2018.

“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”  St. John 17:16

So who do you belong to? Jesus said, “They do not belong to the world.” He’s talking about his followers. He’s talking about us. He’s saying, “We do not belong to the world.” So who do we belong to?

There was a time when millions of Americans belonged to slave owners. It was pretty clear in those days who belonged to who. I’ve just finished writing a biography of James McCune Smith, a man who lived in the first half of the 19th century, a black American born in slavery in New York City when it was still legal in New York State to own slaves. As the battle over slavery heated up plantation owners would often argue that the slaves had a better life than the factory workers in New England. But Smith wrote an essay suggesting that there was no record of a New England factory worker fleeing south to become a slave. “There is not,” he pointed out, any record “of a single free black, who has gone down South and offered himself a candidate for the enjoyment of slavery. There is no impediment in his way. He has merely to go as far South as Baltimore, walk about the streets, and hold his tongue; the law will do the rest, and he will become a slave. No one has gone.” On the contrary, Smith pointed out, a thousand slaves a year were escaping to the North, but it is “a well-known fact,” he wrote, “that men, whatever the color of their skin, will not in their thousands run away from a good living.”

Who owns you? Who owns us? Every now and again I have to get to an early appointment and I walk down 19th Avenue between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning and I see fifteen or twenty young men and women dressed alike in tight blue jeans and jackets leaning against a wall studying their iPhones. And suddenly an enormous bus comes up and scoops them up and off they go to the salt mines of Silicon Valley. Sometimes I’ll be walking up or down the street late in the day and see the same bus come back and let them out again still studying their cell phones.

Who owns them? What would Jesus say or James McCune Smith about who they belong to? What would they say of themselves? They might tell you that they own that iPhone in front of their face, but maybe not. Maybe it owns them. It certainly seems to control them. I don’t imagine they pick cotton in Silicon Valley. I imagine that they’re free to walk away from their work at any time, but who do they belong to, what purpose do they see for their lives? What is their vision? Is it to create the next big thing in the world of silicon chips or to make payments on a small house in suburban Oakland or Santa Somewhere. What’s the vision?

I doubt most of you are waiting for the morning bus to Silicon Valley but what are you waiting for, what treadmill are you on? To what are you committed? Jesus said, “You do not belong to the world.” But who do we belong to? And what difference does it make?

I’ve been asking myself these questions with a new urgency in recent months. Two or three things have changed in my life that have made me look again. First, I was asked to take on the writing of memorials for my college class. My college alumni magazine publishes short memorials 200 words or less for deceased classmates. We were upwards of 700 60-some years ago, but we’re down to less than half that now and new obituaries arrive in my on-line mail box almost every week. It makes you thoughtful. John Jones, graduated from Princeton, went on to earn an MBA from Harvard, worked for a giant investment firm for forty years and retired to Florida. Why? What difference did he make? Maybe he worked tirelessly for the local soup kitchen, maybe he left his millions to UNICEF. Sometimes the obituary notices such things; more often not. Who will write what about me? As I said, It makes me thoughtful.

And then, as many of you know, my wife died last fall and my life is changed in a fundamental way. I made decisions 60-some years ago about who I belonged to and I was ordained and I was married. And I think those were good decisions. I’m still committed to both of them. But I began to think last winter that I ought to think again about who I was, who I am, who I will be, and one way of looking at it is in the gospel this morning: Jesus said of his followers, “They do not belong to the world . . .”

That’s good. I have no desire to belong to this world. So who do I belong to and how do I live out that belonging? Yes, I belong to my wife – still do – but not visibly and physically and yes, I belong to God’s church and am still able to do ministry and then there’s all this writing I do and I’m an officer of the retirement home where I live and my family is evolving and changing – nothing ever says the same from one day to another – and who am I and is God still the center? And who do I belong to? Who controls my life? How do I establish priorities?

I was thinking about all that last winter and thinking I needed to find some time to be quiet and prayerful and deepen the relationship with God that a priest can take too much for granted and I happened to see an ad in a Christian magazine for a Trappist monastery in South Carolina that was offering the opportunity to be a monk for a month, and I thought, “That’s what I need.” So I wrote to them and they wrote back and I leave for Mepkin Abbey at the end of August. I have every intention of coming back. I plan to be back at the end of September. No small voice is telling me to stay longer. Not yet anyway. Though one should never say never. But the program is daunting: Up at 3 am for two hours of prayer then breakfast and more prayer and eucharist then three hours of work then lunch and an optional siesta than three more hours of work. They raise mushrooms, and I had a big garden and orchard for twenty years and worked with a tractor and chain saw, so mushrooms should be easy – even for six hours a day. Then comes supper and vespers and compline and bed at 8 pm. The Trappists are also an order renowned for their keeping of silence. What they call the “Grand Silence” extends From 8 pm to 8 am but they cultivate what they call “A general atmosphere of silence.” The point is to be able to listen and to let God speak. That’s what I’m looking for: to be able to listen and be clear about who I belong to. I won’t pretend not to be nervous about it. But I think it provides what I need right now: a chance to be quiet and to ask direction and think and pray about the big questions: Who am I? And what do I really know of God? And is my life really centered on God? Who owns me? Who owns my life? St Paul says in another place: You are not your own; you were bought with a price. I do not belong to the world. No. I think, I believe, I belong to God. But am I sure? Or have I need running away? Isn’t it maybe time to take another look?

Now, I’m fortunate because I have this opportunity. I couldn’t have done it ten years ago. And it’s not for everyone – I’m sure it’s not – but it is, I think, a benchmark for everyone. If not that, then what? When did I last ask myself serious questions? When did I last look carefully at my pattern of life, at my relationship with God, at my commitment of time and talent and treasure – the traditional three T’s. Do I truly “not belong to the world” and what am I doing to control the world’s claim on my life?

I read an article in last week’s New Yorker about a man who had worked for the CIA doing various things in Afghanistan and then transitioned to a private-sector intelligence analysis firm advising corporations and governments on matters of geopolitics and risk. But he began to feel like a fraud because he could see the flaws in other societies but he didn’t know his own neighborhood. Savannah, Georgia, where he lives, has one of the highest crime rates in the country, so why, he asked himself, was he worrying about Afghanistan. So he quit his job and joined the local police force taking a pay cut of over $100,000 a year. That’s not a decision you make if you belong to the world. It’s a decision you make if you see yourself as being responsible for the life that is given you for a purpose.

If you belong to the world you measure your life one way; if not, there are other concerns – and it’s not my comfort or my security or my convenience. If I belong to the world, the world shapes me; if not, I look for ways to make a difference. The Gospel this morning tell us – Jesus tells us – “You – I – do not belong to the world.” My home is not here. There is nothing I can’t live without except Jesus. I can say that easily enough but I’m not sure it’s true and I want to find out. I pray that you do too. For a slave in the cotton fields of Alabama it was clear who they belonged to and if they could they ran away, they boarded the underground railroad and headed north. For us, it’s usually not as clear but often our lives are shaped by priorities that have not much to do with an eternal purpose. And I think that requires some thoughtfulness: am I using what God has given me in talents and possessions to make a difference? Do they own me? Does the world own me? Or am I finding ways to give my gifts to serve others, to make a difference? Am I, you might say, willing to keep on picking cotton, or am I willing to take the risk of heading for freedom in an unknown country where I could make my life count for something? Does the world own me or does Jesus? These are questions I think we need to ask ourselves from time to time.

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