Once again I am honored to host a sermon by my friend Bruce.
preached at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Wichita Falls, Texas
The Rev. Bruce Coggin
August 1, 2010
Lordy, look at those lessons today!
Have we ever got a bunch of Bible to gnaw on for the next little while. The lesson from Ecclesiasticus—the author is either the Preacher or the Teacher or Qoheleth, depending on how you translate or don’t translate, which means we really don’t know who wrote it—is a favorite of nihilists and pessimists and was sure enough a favorite of mine when I was a card-carrying existentialist on the campus in Austin about a half a century ago. The passage from Luke’s gospel reports Jesus laying it hard on our backs for being greedy—or so it’s usually preached, though I think it runs just a whole lot deeper than that. And in Colossians we are in the realm of high Christology, the writer trying to get people’s eyes off the temporal and on the eternal and throwing in some behavior pointers as lagniappe. For what it’s worth, the Psalm could be hooked up to any or all of them, as could today’s Collect—but then we get off into liturgics and all that, and we’ve got enough to deal with without too many sideshows. So let’s get down to it.
The theme the writer of Ecclesiastes harps on goes way back in the Bible. Poor old Abraham—né Abram—all his threescore and ten used up and no children, or none by his Number One Wife, just one teenage boy that we know of, got on his concubine Hagar and not eligible to inherit the old man’s considerable flocks and tents and other chattel. He complains, “Eleazar of Damascus will be my heir!” That was the conniving foreman, likely a sleazy character, foreigner, lurking and rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the boss’ demise. God, of course, stepped in to prevent that, but nothing so dramatic happened to the Preacher/Teacher/Qoheleth. Life is a dreary business, sez he, lift that barge, tote that bale day and night—and then you die and somebody else comes in and enjoys everything you worked for, some sorry wastrel who did not turn a hand for any of it! How can anybody call that fair? Vanity, all vanity. A straining after wind.
Well, have you ever felt that way? Heavens to Betsy, how many people leave wills—notice that noun, made right off the verb, I will have it my way!—that cut their kids out dramatically or otherwise keep unworthy hands off their dragon hoard? You read about it all the time. Of course, you don’t have to die to know that feeling. Have you ever had a job where you started out with nothing or worse and absolutely gave yourself to it heart and soul, you and the enterprise fused, a blue-white flame of purpose—and then for some reason life takes you elsewhere, and in no time flat the folks where you once rode sky, wide, and handsome act like they never heard of you? I’m fond of saying that I’ve spent most of my life cleaning up other people’s messes, just as fond of whining that when I go back ten years later, nobody knows I’m a hero. If you’ve ever known that experience, well, you tend to sympathize with the . . . let’s just say the Writer. We work hard, most of us, and we are told we must be in control and exercise a kind of black-belt stewardship over whatever falls into our possession. Possession. An illusion in the long run. What’s the joke? “Didja hear? Old man Gotrocks died last night. Lord, the money that old man had! How much do ya reckon he left?” And the answer is, “Y’know, I reckon he left all of it.”
Whatever’s the case, the Writer of Ecclesiastes locates a pain a good many people feel, and the passage we have today brings no relief, just confesses the pain and admits there’s not a thing to do about it. I suppose that explains its popularity with young people discovering life’s Big Injustices for the first time. When I was reading Camus and feeling the weight of the centuries pressing upon me, Ecclesiasticus was the one piece of the Bible my crowd loved to allude to. “See there? Even the Bible says life is meaningless! So get depressed, dang it!” And it is pretty depressing on the surface. When Kitty finished reading and said, “The Word of the Lord,” I half expected you to come back with, “Thanks be to God. Not.”
On to the gospel lesson. Somebody in the crowd makes a fairly reasonable request in a culture where law and religion were fused, very much the way they are today in some Islamic societies. Jesus is a holy man, a wizer, and the man asks him to make a decision about . . . a will! An inheritance. We don’t learn. At once Jesus turns the question aside—I’m not about to make your decisions for you!—and seizes the opportunity to teach about the folly of loving things inordinately. My Greek’s too rusty for me to tell you if greed translates the word Luke used, but we’re talking not about asceticism—the rejection of the world’s thinginess and things—but rather about letting things get between us and God. Jesus tells the sobering parable of the successful man who quite reasonably takes steps to secure his hard-earned wealth. He identifies the problem. He weighs his options. He plans. He executes. He succeeds. Why is he not justified in celebrating all that? Why not eat, drink, and be merry?
Well, why not indeed? Don’t we all behave more or less that way? Or maybe I’d better hedge that bet. Don’t Episcopalians act that way? I mean, we’re a church of Elder Brothers, folks who get things done, who comply with requirements, who answer duty’s call, who manage what comes into our . . . possession. Oh, yes, that again, drat it, but don’t we deserve a little down time, a little R&R, a little party? Isn’t that Jesus’ favorite image of the Kingdom of Heaven? Well, yes, all that’s true. But let’s go back to possession and the Rest of the Story. That night at the banquet, our successful entrepreneur gets a little too far into his cups maybe, stows away a supersized hunk of roast lamb, and keels over in a fit of apoplexy. “Thou fool! This. Very. Night.” I regret that this translation says his life will be demanded of him. The Bible Jesus used in Sunday School says, “This night thy soul will be required of thee.” If it’s only life, the guy can die and be done with it; if it’s soul, then Jesus is talking beyond death and into eternity.
Let me point that difference up a little. Luke uses greed to translate what Jesus warns against, and you can bet your bottom dollar that most of the time you’ll hear this parable trotted out about the time we ask people to sign pledge cards. The parable’s twin elsewhere in the Bible—“Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt”—was enshrined exactly where in the Prayer Book for centuries? Why, right before we “took up the offering,” a real trivializing of what the eucharistic offertory is all about. To reduce this parable to a little teaching on being generous to the church ignores its far larger message. This parable does not say, “Be nice and share, especially with the church.” This parable says, “They don’t ask for your bank statement at St. Peter’s Gate, y’know. Things have their place. Keep ‘em right there.” And a lot more beside, but let’s move on.
The writer of Colossians is at great pains to help newly converted Christians understand a mystical perception of considerable sophistication. The letter comes along a couple, three centuries before the church got the doctrine of the Holy Trinity all hammered out, but it deals with the mystery of who Jesus was and how being Jesus’ own means being caught up in the eternal mystery of God’s urge to make himself thingy, to take our flesh and become one of us, to be born of a human mother, to rejoice and suffer as one of us, to die as one of us, an urge that should still make us shake our heads in a mixture of puzzlement and gratitude. The theologians who rassled the problem to the ground as much as it can be, the Ante-Nicene Fathers, never did reach unanimous consent. It is, as is just about everything about God, a mystery to be lived and apprehended, not information to be comprehended. To believe it, you have to see it, and you see it in Jesus first, then in those who are his by baptism. The writer reminds us that our baptism does a lot more than convey church membership. It reveals our eternal destiny which is to be caught up in God’s enjoyment and love of us and all creation and to share his life and his love forever.
In response, Colossians urges Christians—you and me in the lot—to do our best not to be distracted by things that don’t count in the long run and—and this is even more critical, I think—not to be discouraged in what is going to be a troubled life here on earth. The things, the facts, that take our eyes off our union in Christ and with each other—things like nationality, race, gender, religion, social caste—do not count in God’s eyes. God’s purpose is to bring harmony from our disharmony, shape from our chaos, joy from our moroseness, to take us all to his breast where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one unspeakable fire of love, three personalities united in one passion of self-giving and delight. And along the way, the writer hands out some pointers on behavior, but that in a minute.
Now, as quickly as I can. The first two lessons reveal two familiar human experiences which most humans, religious or not, likely know: the love of life in its abundance and the rejection of life in its harshness. The Writer and the cheated heir both must have loved their lives at least in part, else why work, why dig and delve, why waste time and energy getting and holding on to things? The Writer and the cheated heir also rejected their lives because . . . well, it ain’t fair! In the long run, all the things you dig and delve for let you down, turn to dross, leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. Vanity. Unfair. Those experiences are likely universal among us.
But let’s add God to the mix. People of faith and wonder also know those experiences, but let’s rename them. Let’s call the first a spirituality of integration, the second a spirituality of alienation. The spirituality of integration moves us to find our place among all the wonders of God’s creation—to love the people we know, to love a song, to love a place, to love just living and breathing and . . . well, to see life as a big dish of macaroni and cheese (not Kraft’s), a glass of buttermilk for me, a glass of chablis grand crû for you. “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing, sez I, so long as it’s tempered properly; because like everything else, that nectar can clabber. The spirituality of integration can degenerate in a hurry to a religion of smug self-satisfaction, can let us see life as a safe place where we can sin safely, a kind of ethnic religion that corroborates all our prejudices. There’s a good bit of that going around these days if you haven’t noticed. To keep that from happening, we need also to know that second spirituality.
The spirituality of alienation is also all over the Bible, most notably among the great literary prophets who wrote at a time when the Jews had it made, had the clabber of temporal success, a religion that justified everything the eating, drinking, being merry people—especially the ones at the top of the pile, the ones who counted—did. Then and only then did the prophets stand up and utter the great prophetic No! to all of it. No, says Amos, to people who do in widows and orphans. No, says Hosea, to people who keep God in his place. No, says Isaiah, says Jeremiah, to those who think that God’s favor means entitlement and not humility and self-sacrifice. Hard talk and true, and did they ever pay for it! And just like a spirituality of integration, the spirituality of alienation can clabber too. Think of the hippies. Though they might be surprised to hear it, they operated out of a spirituality of alienation, raised in abundance which they found cloying, tasteless, without purpose and value. That doesn’t mean for a minute every hippy was a prophet. Some were just spoiled brats. Nor is every crank who puts on a sandwich board that says THE END IS NEAR! a prophet. Most of the time we’re dealing with someone who rejects the world because it hasn’t turned to him for The Answer. There’s a good bit of that going around today, too.
As you no doubt know by now, I’m making for balance, a sane and holy balance between the love of things and people and life, the spirituality of integration, and the rejection of things and life in the raw, the spirituality of alienation. But I’m not a taoist. The balance I mean, the balance I think today’s Bible lessons point us to, is a balance with a preference, the balance Colossians teaches. Look at Jesus. A party boy. Loved his wine. Loved good company. Loved crowds. Loved kids. Loved like a champ. And at the same time a dadgummed troublemaker. Calls a lie a lie. No tolerance for hypocrisy. Disturbs the peace. Would rather die than fight the fire of hatred with its own weapons—and does. And wins in the end without boasting but rather with gentle compassion, assuring those who trusted him that they were and will be his forever, will enjoy the kingdom prepared for them before the worlds began. Colossians brings all that right down to earth, doesn’t it? When we learn to see the world that way, to pray that way, then instead of treating the thinginess of life as an invitation to get and keep and control, we see the thinginess of life as a gift from God that humbles us and gives us hearts to become our brothers’ keepers. No more greed (which is idolatry), no more putting each other down, but rather compassion, kindness, meekness, humility, patience.
Those are complicated lessons. They teach us things about ourselves that are both wonderfully comforting and utterly terrifying. Our souls, our spirits, our lives enlivened in God’s life, are part of the whole mystery of God. Yes, it’s in this thingy, thingy world that we learn to love. Creation is God’s school of love, and it’s so lovely at times that our weakness, our foolishness, our wickedness lead us to let it all get between us and our destiny. But the upward tug of the Holy Spirit’s hand in ours turns our eyes again and again to Jesus whose example teaches us to love the world without trying to own it, to cleave to him only, to let him clothe us in himself, so that at the day of our death when things are no more, we who are baptized into his death will live with him where truly Christ is and always will be all in all.