The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13C)
31 July 2016
O Lord, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church, and, because it cannot continue in safety without thy succour, preserve it evermore by thy help and goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Ecclesiastes 1:12-14, 2:18-23
Years ago, Jacalyn and I were on a flight back to Boston from London and the approach and landing were really quite harrowing: lots of turbulence, what was clearly an aborted attempt at a final approach, and silence from the cockpit. Once safely on the ground at Logan, the pilot came on the public address system and broke the tension by stating, quite plainly, in his confident British accent, “That was terrible, wasn’t it?” Well, to quote my pilot all those years ago: that was terrible, wasn’t it?
The last ten months have been extremely difficult for our community here at Saint Ignatius. They were full of uncertainty, misinformation, and financial hardship. As I return to the parish today after this period of leave, which was not, as I and the wardens had told you back in October, a sabbatical, I stand before you humbly and faithfully as your rector and priest ready to embark upon the next chapter of our ministry together. There will continue to be questions, and I encourage you to ask them. We will, with all honesty, give you the best answers we can.
In the time I was away from the parish, I never lost my faith in the God whom we identify as Love, who sent his Son into history to be incarnate, to share our flesh and our human nature, and to reconcile us all in Love to that very God. I never lost sight of the reality that my task, our task, is to get on with the work we have to do, cooperating with God in that ministry of love and reconciliation that is the purpose of our lives here in this world.
Indeed, today’s lessons beg the very question of why bother with our work here on earth, why we bother to do the things we do with our lives, even when it seems hard or futile. In the passage from Ecclesiastes, the “Preacher” takes rather a dim view of the whole enterprise: “it is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with.” He goes on to conclude, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” Now, I don’t really agree with that myself, although I can’t blame him, or the people in our own violent and conflicted times, who do. Sometimes it seems like all our best efforts either turn out for nought and that we are fighting a losing battle against forces we can not turn back. What is it all worth if we are just going to die in the end and what we do will not have made any difference?
For others, they worry is that the fruits of their labours will only be enjoyed by others and not themselves. Perhaps this was the view of the rich man who built those bigger barns for all his stuff and who said to himself, “you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” Perhaps he wanted to be sure that he could enjoy what he amassed and not just leave it for those who came after him. Now on some level I really don’t blame him for this view. He was doing what his culture and ours say we are supposed to do: work hard and save up for retirement and reap your reward. But, of course, that isn’t where the story ends, for “God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” All that hard work, all that preparation for an easy retirement, and he dies, unable to benefit from his labours, just like he may have worried. In the words of the “Preacher” in Ecclesiastes, “this also is vanity.” Jesus puts it to his listeners slightly differently and says this is the predicament of one “who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” The question for us seems to be where did he, and where do we, lay value in life and what do we think the reward really is? Is the value in how much we make, save, have, or is it in what we do with the life we make? In short, the Gospel is telling us that a person's life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.
This is the point: we are called to focuss on doing the best we can and using what we have, in the time we have, in cooperation with God’s loving purpose, in order to help incarnate into the here and now the most Love. The meaning of our life is not summed up by how much (or how little) we have. The meaning of life is found in orienting our lives towards Love and using the resources at our disposal to make the most love we can. Because wherever we act in Love, God in Christ becomes present with us in that moment.
We have a life that has been given us and that life is a gift. This gift is meant to be lived out in relationship with all the others who have been given the same gift and the same world to share. We can not squander this gift. We have to make the most of it to do the best we can to use and share the gifts of creation in accordance with God’s loving purpose as we lead our lives in our several occupations and activities, in our relationships, and in how we treat this earth. This is our answer to the problem placed by the Preacher in Ecclesiastes: our lives are not futile, our work does not have to be vanity, our lives and our actions no matter how great or small, have the power to be a part of God’s redeeming work of reconciliation and are themselves incarnations of God’s love into the here and now.
The letter to the Colossians places the task before us quite plainly: “Put on then ... compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” We will always get it a bit wrong. We will miss the mark. But as long as we are doing the best we can, acknowledge our mistakes and make amends, and get back to the task at hand, we are on the right path. And that is not vanity!
Andrew C. Blume✠
Mary and Martha of Bethany, 29 July 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume