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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Grace & Gratitude, Part V: Acknowledging Ownership
March 12, 2015

Last week we discussed the inseparability of being claimed by God’s grace and our living in gratitude. We explored how gratitude forms the essence of authentic Christian worship. Today we consider how gratitude toward God leads us into a particular way of relating to the material world in which we live.

The earth is the Lord’s! All of it! So the psalmist exults, pointing to the act of divine creation as the foundation of this claim. (Psalm 24:1-2) God has given humanity the holy privilege of tending this God-created, God-suffused, God-owned world. It’s not ours to exploit, it’s not ours to trash, it’s not ours to modify. Earth-altering activities such as environmental pollution, removal of non-renewable resources, and accumulations of waste, are not only economic issues but theological ones, because the earth belongs to the Lord, not to us.

I’ll never forget the first time I borrowed a car. It was the most valuable thing I had ever been loaned, and I went to great lengths to return it in better condition than I received it. Before giving it back, I washed and vacuumed it spotless, I filled the tank with gas even though it wasn’t full when I got it, and I changed the oil even though I had no idea whether it needed it. I guess the lesson drilled into me from early childhood had lodged well – when you use something that belongs to someone else, you return it in the same condition, or even better if at all possible.

Readiness to trash something that doesn’t belong to us, because it is no loss to us personally, demonstrates a cavalier disregard for ownership in general, and for its owner in particular. Some folk so disrespect rightful ownership that they willy-nilly claim for themselves what rightly belongs to others, even justifying themselves in the process. “Squatter’s rights” sounds a little more justifiable than simple “theft,” but either way, it’s claiming for ourselves something we did not earn, simply because we can.

If the earth is the Lord’s, it doesn’t belong to me. A critical measure of my gratitude to God is how I receive and handle that which God has entrusted to my care. Will I seize it as something that belongs to me? Is there anything on earth that I can claim as rightly “mine” if the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it? Is there anything in creation, from my personal body to the bodies of oceans and continents, that I can rightly treat as though it were mine to seize, hoard, or trash if I so wish?

When we claim to own anything that belongs to God, we forget the great grace of God by which we are created, claimed, sustained, and granted inheritance in the riches of God’s economy. When I am gripped by grace, I know that it ALL belongs to God. My body? My home? My things? My vocation? My money? My land? My church? None of it is really mine at all.

Of course, this flies in the face of my pursuing the American dream of acquiring and accumulating things – land, home, friends, church – as “mine” to do with as I please. And it goes against the grain of much “gospel” preaching that proffers (usually implicitly, but sometimes explicitly) Christian faith as the pathway to owning more and better things.

Lent stops us cold each year, mid-stride on those well-worn pathways, reminding us that Jesus extends the invitation to follow him not in terms of what we’ll get out of it if we do so, but in terms of our need to lay down all that we have and are if we wish to follow him. Followers of Jesus can rightly claim but one thing as their own – a cross. It’s a sign of radical self-giving, of utter self-emptying.

Living in gratitude is our only appropriate response to the grace of God that has claimed us. Such gratitude is demonstrated by the lightness and care with which we hold all that God has entrusted to us. Whatever God may choose to give us or to take away from us, it all belongs to God in any case. My willingness to let go of things that worldly reasoning says rightly belong to me is a direct indicator of how deeply I have embraced the grace of God as my only hope in life and in death.

And one more thing – when we finally realize that this stuff we’ve been entrusted with doesn’t really belong to us, it frees us immeasurably. Paul puts it this way: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty… I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13). Grace leads us to gratitude, which is manifest in resilient contentment through thick and thin, in plenty and in want. Here lies the heart of true and abiding gladness.

With gratitude to God,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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