God with us, in darkness and death

Lectionary 18 (10th Sunday after Pentecost)
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
Sunday, August 1, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

Let me tell you …. Pastor Scott [the Senior Pastor at my church] sure knows how to pick his Sundays off!
    These readings today … wow.
In our first reading we hear from Ecclesiastes,
    the only time in the church’s three-year calendar of readings
    that we read from this book.
And perhaps this is why –
    the author of Ecclesiastes considers pretty much everything
    to be an absurd, futile vanity, a “chasing after the wind.”
    And in an adjacent verse omitted from today’s reading,
        the writer admits that he “hated life” (vs. 17).
As if to confirm this pessimism, we read in vs. 13 that
    “It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.”
The Gospel for today is equally pessimistic.
Jesus tells a parable about a rich man whose land produced an abundant crop.
Not sure what to do with all his bounty,
    the man decides to tear down his small barn and build a larger barn,
    so that he can store his crops and ease into retirement,
        a plan not unlike the 401(K) plans many of us hold …
But God calls such a man “a fool.”

OK, the tone of the day persists in the psalm.
You, the congregation, just piously sang the sobering truths of Ps 49:10:
    For we see that the wise die also; like the dull and stupid they perish
        and leave their wealth to those who come after them.
Not too many warm fuzzies there!
Alright … I’m grasping for straws, here.  How about that second reading?
Yes, yes, the final verse of our reading from St Paul’s letter to the Colossians is comforting:
    there is no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised,
    barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

Quite nice, and I’m sure many a sermon will be preached on these worthy words today.
But … but leading up to these hopeful words of truth and unity in Christ
    we hear other words, words of warning in verses 5-6:
    Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly;
    fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).
        On account of these the wrath of God is coming to those who are disobedient.

Is there no hope for us who are earthly, impure, who harbor evil desires,
    and whose desire for stuff is idolatrous,
    a denial of God himself!
Oh, maybe Ecclesiastes is right!
    All is vanity, a chasing after the wind.
And perhaps like the man in Jesus’ parable, we’re all just a bunch of fools.

And despite the despair we might feel on a day like today,
    after reading what we’ve just read,
Sundays like this are great,
    because they force us to look in the mirror,
    face our reality,
    and fall to our knees before our God in prayer,
        asking for mercy, forgiveness, guidance, and strength.
Too often church and spirituality has become a pick-me-up,
    a Hallmark Greeting Card with a smiley face and a cross on it,
    a feel-good experience in the midst of a world
        that increasingly makes us feel not-so-good.
But that’s the wisdom in our readings today …
Our readings today are all too darned real, authentic, honest,
    things that are all too often lacking in many of our churches these days.
Despite what you might hear or see out there,
    faith is not about escapism.
Religion, when it becomes too much of a retreat from reality,
    risks becoming utterly irrelevant …
    not irrelevant to the latest trends
    – I couldn’t care too much about trying to stay relevant with the latest trends –
        but irrelevant to the very real and down-to-earth
        yearnings and questions and anxieties that we all experience in real life.
When the church becomes a place more known for fancy music or stained glass windows
    or pious platitudes or ivory tower theological musings
    than it does for speaking to the stuff of life, the sometimes mucky stuff of life,
    then we’ve failed in our mission
    and our transformation to cultural relic and time capsule has become complete.

Look in these texts, dear siblings in Christ ….
They are so stinkin’ real today.
    Psalm 49:10 – the wise, dull, and stupid will all die,
        and they can’t take their wealth with them.  That’s true.
    Ecclesiastes 1:13 – unhappiness is part of our God-given life.  That’s true.
    Ecclesiastes 2:23 – life is full of pain. That’s true.
    Colossians 3:5 – greed is idolatry, the worship of a false God. That’s true.
    Luke 12:20 – we who trust in our stuff are fools. That’s true.
Good luck finding grand symphonies written to these texts,
    or fine stained glass windows depicting these scenes …
But you will hear these stories and sentiments and anxieties talking with friends
    while sharing half-empty coffee drinks at Starbucks,
    and you will see these images looking at you dimly in the mirror every morning,
    and reflected in the brokenness and shadows
        revealed in the pictures of your family photo albums …
Indeed, we see a bit of this shadowy, glass-half-empty existence on the cross.
For on the cross we meet a God who is not very glamorous,
    a God who is beaten and bloodied,
    a God who cries out to his heavenly Father asking, “why?”
        and whose followers cower, scatter, and hide.
And that’s the thing with our faith …
    the ultimate moment of our God’s self-expression
    is less one of glory and might and power and majesty –
        though properly understood, the cross is truly all these things –
    than it is a moment of God’s utter identification with humanity and our plight,
        a joining of God’s realm with humanity’s realm
        in a supreme act of solidarity … a God-with-us moment,
            with us in darkness and death.
And so, when we read the pessimism that is found in part of Ecclesiastes,
    and when Jesus and Paul alike call us out on our greedy and idolatrous love of stuff,
    and when we nod in reluctant agreement to the uncomfortable truths of the psalm,
    it might not be a particularly fun or touchy-feely experience,
        but it is authentic and honest, very real.
Yes, the half empty glass of pessimism that is raised by the writer of Ecclesiastes
    is met by the half-full chalice of life-giving blood that is offered to us by our Lord
        during the prelude to his execution.
Two cups shared, filled with tension and realism,
    given to us to drink;
    one an antidote to the faux optimism that too often masquerades as spirituality;
    the other a drink that flows from death and quenches the thirst of life.

So, be glad this day … or, given what we’ve just head, at least dare to be content,
    for we who toil in the brokenness of this life
    have been joined in our broken lives life by our Lord,
        a Lord who bids us to lead a certain kind of life, yes,
        but who joins with us anyway even as we struggle to do what we ought.
Yes, it is even in our greed and selfish storing away of goods,
    in our pride and pessimism
    that our Lord comes to us to share a drink of life, even on the eve of death.
And in an odd way,
in a terribly honest way, that is Good News.

Published by C. Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

One thought on “God with us, in darkness and death

  1. Cool! I see some excellent srmoens on discipleship and some great doctrinal one’s, too! I had a thought that comes from a SS class we had a couple of months ago. We were supposed to be discussing the history of our church, but the overriding issue the group self-identified in our prayer time was How do I forgive someone who has hurt me? That would be good topic, too. These are great suggestions, brother, thank you!

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