imag000.jpg imag001.jpg imag002.jpg
 

Taking Inventory

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Second Sunday in Lent
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 8, 1998


Readings

Isaiah 55 Why labor for what does not satisfy?

"Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen! Listen to me and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you: my faithful love promised to David. See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of the peoples. Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel; for he has endowed you with splendor."

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their way and the evil their thoughts. Let them return to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire, and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

"You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord's renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed."


Luke 14:25-33 Counting the cost

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, whether you have enough to complete it? Otherwise when you have laid a foundation and are not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule you, saying, 'This person began to build and was not able to finish!'

"Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.

"So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."


Arcana Coelestia #4599.5 Acquiring and using truth

If we were not aware of the inner meaning of the Bible, we could only suppose that in this passage the Lord was using comparisons, and that the expressions "building a tower" and "going to war" were not used to mean anything more. We would not realize that every comparison in the Bible has a spiritual meaning, and is symbolic.

Yet "building a tower" means acquiring deeper truths for ourselves, and "going to war" means fighting from those truths. For this passage is about the temptations experienced by people who belong to the church, who are here called the Lord's disciples. Those temptations are meant by "the cross" that each of us has to carry. And the fact that we cannot possibly overcome them by ourselves, or from our own power, but only from the Lord, is meant by "none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

If we interpret the passage this way, everything fits together. But if the story of the tower and the war are interpreted only as comparisons, without a deeper meaning, they do not fit together.


Sermon

Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, whether you have enough to complete it? Otherwise when you have laid a foundation and are not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule you, saying, "This person began to build and was not able to finish!" (Luke 14:28, 29)

As those of you who have worked in wholesale or retail sales know, keeping track of the inventory is a vital part of the business. If you do not know what stock you have in the store or warehouse, and how fast or slow the various items are selling, you will not be able to order the right items in the right quantities to ensure that most of the time, when someone comes in to buy something, you will have it on the shelves. And assuming it is not a special order item, if you don't have it on the shelves, your customer is going to find another store to buy from. Too much of this and you'll soon be out of business.

Many businesses these days have computerized inventory systems that help them keep track of their stock and order what is needed. But even these businesses must periodically take a manual inventory of their stock to make sure that the computer records match reality. A computerized inventory system cannot keep track of such "transactions" as goods lost to shoplifting, items misplaced on the shelves, and errors at the cash register. The only way to make sure the computerized inventory is correct is to send a human being up and down every aisle to check each item in the store.

This applies to other kinds of work, too. When I was in college, I worked in the college library. When things got slow at the desk, one job was always ready and waiting to be done: shelf reading. Shelf reading is a library's way of taking inventory. You walk along in the stacks holding a listing of the books in the order that they're supposed to be in on the shelves, and see if they are actually there and in the right order. There are almost always books missing or misplaced--and if a human being doesn't go around to check, the next time someone wants those particular books they will not be on the shelf where they are supposed to be, and the person will not get the book they wanted. So as tedious as shelf reading is, it must be done on a regular basis.

Our reading from Luke talks about a different kind of taking inventory: "Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, whether you have enough to complete it?" In business terms, this is usually called making an estimate or giving a quote; but it is the same idea as taking inventory. When we want to do some sort of project, we must first list--or take inventory of--the expected costs of the project: materials, labor, equipment, and so on. Then we must take inventory of our resources and see if we have enough to cover the project. If not, it's better not to start. Not only are we likely to get laughed at for half-finishing the project (though in these "polite" times, the laughing is likely to take place behind our backs), but we'll have wasted a lot of time and money on something that will not serve any use because it won't ever be completed.

The other type of "inventorying" that Jesus mentions could be even more critical to our survival. If we're in a situation of international conflict, we'd certainly better take a look at our ability to wage a war successfully and to deal with the consequences before we start rushing our troops and machinery into battle. If the costs of the war are likely to be more than we can bear, and if the likely consequences don't justify entering into an armed conflict, we'd better be sending diplomats instead of soldiers, or we might end out causing a lot of death and destruction for no good reason.

However, as Swedenborg points out, Jesus is not really talking about estimating our finances or counting our soldiers. It is clear from the prolog to these brief parables that Jesus was speaking in metaphorical--or correspondential--terms. Listen again to the opening verses: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."

Now here is a real challenge to the Biblical literalist! It's easy enough to interpret the Bible literally when we read things like, "Thou shalt not steal" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." But after everything Jesus said about love, how many Christians could really take this verse literally? How many Christians would insist that in order to follow Jesus, we must hate all of our family members? And if that were the case, what would happen to the commandment that says "honor your father and your mother?" Did Jesus really mean for us to break one of the Ten Commandments in order to be Christians?

Then he says we must hate even life itself. Do we have to commit suicide in order to be a Christian? It would be ridiculous to interpret the passage in this literal way.

And finally, to follow this to the end, how many Christians go around carrying a big cross over their shoulders all the time? A few do at religious festivals, but that's about it.

It is obvious to any open-minded reader that Jesus did not mean these statements to be taken literally. In another Gospel (Matthew 10:37; 19:29), Jesus does say what we expect him to say: that it is when we love father and mother, sister and brother more than we love him (Jesus) that we are not worthy to be his disciples. But here Jesus says we must hate our family members in order to be his disciples. And we are still left with the question of why this passage about hating our family members leads into two stories about taking inventory before starting a project or a military campaign.

As Swedenborg points out, if we don't look for the deeper meanings within this passage, its different parts simply don't go together very well with each other, or with the rest of the Bible. But when we do interpret it spiritually, we find that the passage has nothing to do with our literal family members, but instead is about taking a fearless moral and spiritual inventory of ourselves.

In our lives here on earth, our family has a greater influence than anything or anyone else in shaping who we are as a person. Our character is a unique blend of traits and habits that come from our parents and their parents, and so on up the line. When we are young, we pick up our parents' attitudes and mannerisms without even realizing it. In fact, it is common for us to spend a number of years denying that we are anything like our parents. Sometimes it is only when we get to the age our parents were when we were growing up that we realize with a shock that in so many ways, we are just like our parents!

In this passage, Jesus is referring to these inner personality traits that we have derived from our parents, our brothers and sisters, and yes, even from our spouse and our children. He is referring to the character that has been built up within us--to all the desires and motivations, all the beliefs and attitudes that form the inner "family" that we live with each day. These attitudes and motives are the spiritual "mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters" that we must be willing to hate if we are going to follow the Lord. For all too often, the attitudes and motives that we call our own (and cling so tightly to as a result) are in conflict with the Lord's teachings about how we are meant to be as Christians.

This is what Jesus was driving at when he said, "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." He wasn't talking about giving up material possessions--though for some people who are overly attached to worldly wealth, it may be necessary to give up that wealth. But what Jesus really meant was that we need to give up our spiritual possessions: our attachments to everything that we claim as our own within ourselves. In psychological terms, we have to give up the false and destructive ego that has built up within us if we wish to let the Lord into our lives to re-form us in God's image.

Once we recognize this, it is time to take our spiritual inventory. Just as a shopkeeper must periodically send someone through the aisles to take an inventory of everything on the shelves, we must periodically walk down the "aisles" of our minds and hearts, taking inventory of what we find there, and noting what is missing and what is in the wrong place so that we can "order up" a new stock of the spiritual virtues that we need in our inner storehouses. And Lent is just the time to take this kind of a spiritual inventory!

When we understand the Lord's words in this way, we can see that counting the cost before building a tower means taking a look at ourselves and seeing if we have learned what we need to know in order to set up a new structure in our minds and hearts--in order to "restructure" ourselves so that, like the tower in the parable, we reach up toward heaven instead of merely clinging to the earth like an average house. And when we have learned enough of the Lord's teachings to do this, are we willing to wage the battles of temptation and struggle against forces that seem to be twice as strong as we are? Do we have the firmness of resolve to stick it out through thick and thin? This is the inventory we need to take.

Yet there is a positive side as well. It is not all about sacrifice and struggle. For there is also a great reward when we are willing to take a fearless moral and spiritual inventory and make a new commitment to the Lord's way for our lives. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. The prophet Isaiah points us in the right direction. He writes, "Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen! Listen to me and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare." There is a promise of joy and goodness and delight if we will take this inventory and consider what it is that really satisfies--that it is not sticking to our own, often mistaken, ways, but following the Lord's commandments of love and care for each other.

Isaiah continues, "Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their way and the evil their thoughts. Let them return to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon." There is mercy and forgiveness from the Lord. The wrongs of our past--and of our present--can be righted; we can have a new life free from so many of the sorrows that we have all too often brought upon ourselves, or that we have inherited from our families. And even in the sorrows that we cannot change, we can find comfort and hope if we are willing to set aside our own preoccupations, and turn to the Lord for help.

Then, says the prophet, "You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord's renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed." Amen.

Read this sermon's sequel: The Divine Standard


To Easter Index


Music: Conversations with my Soul
1999 Bruce DeBoer

 

 
imag006.jpg imag007.jpg imag008.jpg