August 4, 2019
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
August 4, 2019
Br. Juan Charles Valles, CG
Lessons: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 / Psalm 49:1-11 / Colossians 3:1-11 / Luke 12:13-21
In the name of God, purifier, sanctifier, and lover of souls. Amen.
How’s this? “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (NRSV) Better yet: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’” (NIV) Or, “Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher, perfectly pointless. Everything is pointless.” (CEB) One more? “It is useless, useless, said the Philosopher. Life is useless, all useless.” (GNT)
I hear this all the time: at work, I hear how insurmountable the problems of poverty, systemic racism, classism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia all seem to be. I sit on boards only to hear of the atrocities that are committed every day against people too poor to buy fresh, healthy foods or people fleeing rape and torture. I come here, and I hear how our voice of progressive, inclusive Christianity no longer matters. People are getting poorer, the earth is getting hotter, and nothing we do seems to make a dent. I get it: there are mornings when I have to fight with myself just to get out of bed.
Luckily, nearly everyone here is of an age when we wrote letters and cards to loved ones, so this analogy will make some sense. Just when things seem to be at their worst, Jesus sends us a love letter…Not the sappy kind we might have written in high school, but a note of deep, abiding love for each of us and for all of us. God’s word spoken to us today through the Scripture does just that. Jesus acknowledges that things of this world can seem so hopeless and vain, but he asks us to be better at discerning as to what it is that we should be so worried about.
Jesus offers a parable that I’ll offer again using the Easy to Read version of the Bible:
“There was a rich man who had some land. His land grew a very good crop of food. He thought to himself, ‘What will I do? I have no place to keep all my crops.’ Then he said, ‘I know what I will do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger barns! I will put all my wheat and good things together in my new barns. Then I can say to myself, I have many good things stored. I have saved enough for many years. Rest, eat, drink, and enjoy life!’ But God said to that man, ‘Foolish man! Tonight you will die. So what about the things you prepared for yourself? Who will get those things now?’ This is how it will be for anyone who saves things only for himself. To God that person is not rich.”
Let’s be clear: Jesus is not telling us not to save or to stock up just in case the big one strikes. We have jobs, families, illnesses, obligations: life in this world requires us to carry sometimes-burdensome responsibilities. It is not sinful or an affront to God to be mindful of our earthly tasks. it’s just that these things cannot be the sole purpose of living. Worrying about stuff and the stuff itself really is the vanity that Ecclesiastes talks about.
We all know people just like the man in our parable, and, truth be told, most of us can see a little of ourselves in him, too. This man presumably works hard to amass an abundant crop, but when his harvest is too plentiful for his barn, he plans to do something that might seem sensible at first blush. He wants to tear down his barn only to build an even larger one: only then will he be able to rest. Notice a couple of things: instead of sharing his excess, he decides to hoard his bumper crop. It causes me to wonder: has he been so preoccupied with toiling and working that he cannot see the need around him? Has he foregone human connection in the name of toil? Does he even have people near him with whom he could share his bounty?
And, as Jesus often does, he throws us a curveball: Fine, you may have spent all this time saving and ammassing, but it won’t do you any good. Tonight, you’re going to die, and then what? You can’t take it with you. Whether it’s saving the good china or that one bottle of wine for just the right moment, or waiting just to be thin enough to wear a swimsuit, or whatever thing it is that gets in our way of living, we spend so much time worrying about losing, breaking, making everything just right that we fail to live the kind of life Jesus wants for us.
So, what does Scripture tell us? Our Watchword is a start: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Again, there is no command to shirk off one’s obligations, but Paul reminds us to put these things in their rightful place. It’s all about developing a spiritual posture that looks up. Our default preoccupations cannot center on possession and dispossession, boasting or envying…These are natural consequences of an economic system that tries to trick us into believing that scarcity is the norm and that the rule of the jungle reigns supreme. These systems create divisions, ins and outs, us and them. To reject this system is risky: your openly calling into question any of these power structures exposes their fragility, and people don’t always like that.
I spent my first law school summer in South Korea, and I learned a delightful little phrase that perfectly sums up the risk of speaking and living truth to power: “The raised nail get the hammer.” Without delving into cultural differences between East and West, another false dichotomy, think about it: systems whether good or bad all strive for homeostasis and equilibrium and will do all in their power to eliminate offending elements. Think of our own bodies and illness.
So, what do we do with all this? Paul gives us a little insight: as a preface to one of the many lists that Paul loves to give us, he instructs us to “put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly.” God cries out to us to leave those habits of body and soul that lead only to our misery: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and, perhaps most importantly, greed, something that Paul equates to idolatry. Instead, because we are born and reborn in Christ’s love and goodness, it is our bounden human duty to “seek the things that are above.” In ways big and small, we instead need to retrain ourselves to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit (another of Paul’s holy lists): love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
“I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?” The things that our distortion of the world creates are the only things subject to rust and rot; however, we know that because we have been redeemed by Christ, the gifts and fruits of the Spirit will persist. This legacy cannot be misused or squandered by our progeny. We are called to live in a world in which we can joyfully turn Ecclesiastes’ whining on its head: I loved all the joy which I felt under the sun, knowing that I am able to leave it to those who come after me — and I know that they will be wise and full.
You will be called a Pollyanna, a hippie, or just delusional. You will be called unpatriotic or a commie or something worse. Those are words not of Christ. Jesus calls us to live into our humanity, and, especially in these times, it will not be easy. Bravery rooted in God is sometimes all we have. My prayer is that we hold fast to the words of the Psalmist, recounted to us through The Message:
So why should I fear in bad times, hemmed in by enemy malice, shoved around by bullies, demeaned by the arrogant rich? Really! There’s no such thing as self-rescue, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The cost of rescue is beyond our means, and even then it doesn’t guarantee life forever, or insurance against the Black Hole.