Sermon for Year C, Pentecost Proper 18
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
September 8, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Jesus’ talking about loving your stuff and unfinished building projects
Got me to thinking about the actor/writer/director Orson Welles.
He was a man of expensive tastes and material extravagance,
And he started a lot of things he never saw to completion.
In the 1941 film Citizen Kane, Welles plays Charles Foster Kane.
Kane becomes hugely wealthy early in his life by inheriting the world’s third-largest gold mine.
He does what he can to spend his fortune in the balance of his time on earth.
He buys newspapers and reporters and magazines and radio networks
And he buys access to important people including a wife, and then another wife,
And when that wife isn’t working out, he buys her an opera house to sing in, to save face,
Only it turns out she can’t sing and no one’s happy about that,
But oh well and what’s another three million dollars down the tube?
So maybe money can’t solve all his problems.
But why should that stop him? Buy everything:
“Grocery stores, paper mills, apartment buildings, factories, forests, ocean-liners.”
Kane tries and tries to buy happiness, but it just eludes him.
No matter what he does, he can’t quite seem to find the key to feeling good about himself --
The innocence that was drowned out by money during his misspent youth,
The pleasure that was slowly strained out of him during his adulthood.
He becomes a shell of a man -- a hollow, gold-plated shell, broke in his own way.
He decides -- in a last, long, desperate act -- to build a house for himself and his marriage,
Which has been on the skids from the start.
He calls the house Xanadu, after the old place where Kubla Kahn used to spend his summers.
Xanadu, like in the poem by Rudyard Kipling:
“In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn a stately pleasure dome decree.”
And if you’ve ever been to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California,
You might have some idea of what Orson Welles was aiming for --
Only this is a movie -- fiction -- so Xanadu could be as outrageously large as Welles wanted.
Xanadu: on forty-nine thousand acres of prime Florida real estate.
A private mountain, built up from nothing, on which to house the great Gothic mansion.
A hundred thousand trees, twenty thousand tons of marble.
And the livestock! Someone tells us on a newsreel inside the film:
“... [T]he fowl of the air, the fish of the sea, the beast of the field and jungle --
Two of each; the biggest private zoo since Noah.”
A zoo, yes, but also an aquarium, and canals with gondolas, and a championship golf course.
And what to go inside this majesty of a house? The newsreel narrator tells us about that, too:
“... [P]aintings, pictures, statues,
The very stones of many another palace,
Shipped to Florida from every corner of the earth,
From other Kane houses, warehouses, where they mouldered for years.
Enough for ten museums -- the loot of the world.”
And what, finally, did Xanadu cost? The marble, the trees, the paintings? “No man can say.”
Despite all that, when we do look inside Xanadu, it is as empty as Kane himself.
Enormous, yawning fireplaces and long stretches of cold marble and mirrors.
A haunted house.
It emerges as being its own character in the film -- an accusing, lurking figure.
Even by the time Kane dies in this unfinished palatial estate --
Yes, he dies in the movie!, but that’s in the first five minutes, so no big spoilers --
Even by the time he dies, the place is already starting to fall apart.
Charles Foster Kane attaches himself to his stuff and won’t let go of it;
He derives his meaning in life from the things that he has surrounded himself by;
Then he dies, empty and alone, like his great crumbling house, still latched on to it all,
Trying to drag it into the grave.
Before he dies, he gets angry and smashes things and decomposes before our eyes,
Because his life has come to nothing -- he’s like a broken, empty vase --
And we all know it’s true, but most of all he knows it.
There’s nothing left of him -- not a twinkle.
No contentment, no miracle, no happy Hollywood ending.
Just an angry, bitter old man, dead in his magnificent bed, longing for the past.
This morning we hear an appeal to common sense by Jesus not to engage in this sort of thing.
He asks the question of what kind of a person would even conceive of making
Something he can’t afford, let alone go ahead and build the darn thing.
Kane can probably afford Xanadu, of course, since he has so much money,
And he needs a place to store his endless stuff.
It’s more the emotional upkeep, the psychological price, that’s killing him,
Which may be more where we find ourselves
In relation to everything we’re dragging around and can’t let go of.
Xanadu shows Kane how completely his infantile attachments have destroyed him,
Because it externalizes the problem --
That is, once he builds it, he has something to now mirror back to him
Just how unfulfilled, how dry, how lacking and pointless his life has become.
The vacant shadow inside him is plainly before him, mocking him; it’s shaped like a house.
A husk of a man lives in a husk on the hill.
The secret word here, I think -- and we’ve already used it -- is attachment.
Kane is latched on to his stuff; it’s where his energy’s going; and it’s draining him:
He thinks his money and his relationships and his success in life will all make him happy,
But these things are fleeting and toxic;
The Happy Train has left the station, and he’s smart enough to know that,
Only he can’t detach himself from all this stuff and change course;
If he can’t get happy one way, he’ll get it another,
But in the end, one way doesn’t look much different from the other.
Contentment is always out of reach.
Now: does this seem too remote? Are you wondering what this has to do with your life?
... When Jesus says that you have to hate your family to be his follower,
And that you have to calculate the cost of following him if you want to do so, ...
It’s the word “hate” that poses the problem for us.
“Hate” in this usage, the way it’s rendered to us from the Greek --
It’s not supposed to be a term of emotion.
It’s not about how you feel in your heart about your family or your stuff.
It’s not about how Charles Foster Kane felt about his money or his house or his relationships.
Rather, it’s about how you hold these things, or don’t; how you regard them, or don’t;
And if you’re willing not to be defined by these things,
But instead be fully defined and owned by the grace and mercy of God.
More specifically, it’s about how you hold onto things, or whether you feel the need to.
The Bible translator chose the word “hate”: that is,
“[H]ate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself,”
And then you can be my disciples.
Such a translation is neither helpful nor healthy.
How, for example, can I be expected to hate my father and mother,
As our translator has rendered it,
And honor my father and mother as we know we’re told to do in the very same Gospel?
Here’s the spirit of what I think Jesus is saying:
Whoever can’t let go of whatever it is that defines them can’t be his disciple.
Whoever can’t detach can’t be his follower.
Note, please, that letting go and detaching
Does not mean we get to check out of reality, as many Christians have done.
Checking out from reality:
As many Christians have done, and are doing, and are teaching many others to do.
Every day many Christians are building themselves bigger and better Xanadus, and checking out.
There’s a strain of Christian thought which suggests that God is mysterious and hidden,
So why not just embrace the hazy mystery of it all
While turning away from the very real pain that the world is in
And while I just sort of work on myself, and to hell with the world.
There’s a strain of Christian thought which suggests that since Heaven is our true home,
Let’s just go ahead and do mountaintop removal and strip-mining and burn fossil fuels
Since we don’t need this old earth anyway
And besides the earth is in submission to man ‘cause that’s how God made things.
There are strains of Christians who can’t leave this world fast enough,
And think that by their actions and their cunning they can hasten the Second Coming
And trick God by their reckless faithfulness to get their tickets punched faster
And then get on to the real party.
There are strains of Christians who turn away from their bodies and shun them as dirty
Because, they reason, the physical body is really just a bad curtain
Covering up the true glory of our sanctified souls.
There are strains of Christians who detach from other Christians,
So that they alone have the truth and everyone else is apostate.
These are all counterproductive forms of detachment and letting go.
These are ways to use the name of Jesus to run away from our problems.
People will mostly take just about any chance you offer to get away from their problems,
Even if they have to go to great lengths and rationalizations to do it.
But we don’t get to live out such luxuries and contradictions.
So hate is not hate like we think of it; not today, not for Jesus;
It’s more like letting go, but only in ways that build up the Kingdom of God.
The way of Jesus is the way of healthy detachment from things and even people.
He says that whatever presents an impediment to our allegiance to him has to be let go of.
That we can’t love God less than any other thing, person, or idea.
That nothing should encumber us from following him.
How does that make you feel?
Guilty? Scared? Angry? Joyful? Some combination?
And we might well ask, too, just how we could possibly calculate the price of following Jesus,
Especially if it’s our whole lives we are talking about,
And how could we know what the future might bring?
There’s a lot of room for doubt and uncertainty; for fear and anxiety.
The preacher is not here today to settle everything and calm all anxieties.
The gospel demands today that we be unsettled; that this feel unfinished, and weighty.
But do hear these graceful and powerful words of comfort and assurance from God’s word
That following Jesus, while costly, is the way to life.
From Paul, writing to the Romans:
“I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities,
Nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth,
Nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God,
Which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
From Jesus, in the Gospel According to John:
“Those who love me will keep my word,
And my Father will love them,
And we will come to them and make our home with them.”
And remember, finally, this promise:
Come and follow me, “all you who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest.
For my burden is easy, my yoke is light.”