Sermon Pentecost 15, Proper 13
July 31, 2016
Washington National Cathedral
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. 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?
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Good morning and welcome. It’s an honor to be with you in this beautiful Cathedral and with those watching online. I give thanks for all who feel called by God to be a part of the Cathedral and its ministry, and with you extend a special welcome to our visitors and guests. Thank you for your presence and prayers.
I take the place of this pulpit in our nation’s spiritual and public life seriously and have given considerable thought what I might say, in light of our sacred texts, about the political conventions of the last two weeks and the issues before us as a nation. The events of this summer require our prayers and thoughtful action. But I’ve come to the conclusion that, for today, a change of subject might be helpful, or at least a change of perspective, another lens through which to see our place in world and how best to live.
So I begin with a story from another time and place in our nation’s history. The setting is Brooklyn, 1945. At the center of this story is a teenage boy who watches as his father’s life becomes consumed with an overwhelming task. The father has raised his son alone, for the boy’s mother had died shortly after he was born. They’ve shared a good life as devout Jews in the tight knit community of their neighborhood synagogue. But they’ve also known suffering, both personally and in light of the war in Europe, the progress of which they follow closely. The long awaited news of Hitler’s defeat comes at last, and for a short time the boy and his father share the euphoria of the war’s end. But then the ghastly reports of mass killings in Europe are confirmed, and with Jews throughout the world, father and son are overwhelmed by grief. The father decides that the Jewish people can no longer wait for the Messiah to come; they must take their fate into their own hands. He dedicate his life to the establishment of a Jewish homeland, working himself to the point of collapse. The son worries.
The father sees his son’s concern and realizes that he is no longer a child. One evening, he speaks to him from his heart. “Human beings do not live forever, Reuven,” he said. “We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value there is to a human life. What does it mean to live if our lives are nothing more than a blink of an eye?”
“But I learned a long time ago,” he continued, “that while a blink of an eye in itself is nothing, the eye that blinks is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that life, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. But man must work to fill his life with meaning; meaning is not automatically given.
He paused. “A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. Do you understand what I am saying?” The son nodded, feeling cold. It was the first time his father had spoken to him of his death.
If we all knew how close we are to our final moment, when the blink of an eye that is our life is over, it would impossible to live. Thankfully, we are mostly spared from that knowledge.
But then something happens to remind us of how precious and precarious our lives are. We might be among those caught up in any given disaster that receives a flurry media attention until the next disaster strikes. While the public moves on, we are left and forever changed. Or it could be a something far more personal—the unexpected diagnosis, the loss of a friend, or job, or dream.
Anything and everything can be taken from us in a blink of an eye. We know this, but we can’t really know it until it happens. What can we possibly say in the face of such truth? Reuven’s father said: “A span of life is nothing. But the person who lives that life is something. A person can fill his or her life with meaning.”
Jesus said, “Be on your guard against all manner of greed,” and then told a story about a man who had wasted his life. It wasn’t the abundance of his crops that made him greedy; it was his assumption that the bounty was for him alone. It apparently never occurred to him to share.
Greed is a harsh word. I don’t like to think of myself as a greedy person and I can’t image that you do, either. But Jesus’ definition of greed isn’t reserved only for those we would describe as greedy. He’s talking about a way of thinking that measures our lives’ worthy by what we possess. When he warns against greed, he’s referring to the ways we can fret over the things we have, or want, or envy others for having. Greed, for Jesus, is what causes us to value people for what they can do for us rather than who they are. Greed is what traps us into believing that our worth, our reason for living, is bound up in possessions, or accomplishments, for that matter; or status or appearance. In themselves, these things are not bad, but they aren’t the highest good on the scale of life’s meaning. We go astray; we waste our lives whenever we think and act otherwise.
Anxiety serves to distract us in the same way. Jesus could just as well have said, “Be on your guard against all kinds of anxiety.” For when we’re anxious, we’re easily swayed by the opinions of others. Like greed, anxiety keeps our focus on external things rather than internal qualities. When we’re anxious, we are readily manipulated by forces that would keep us small.
Now before going further, I’d like to put in a good word for storing our crops into barns. There’s nothing greedy about being prepared for the future; for having reserves, both personally and collectively, that we can draw upon in hard times. Remember how Jesus, in another parable, commended the one who took the time to build his house on solid rock, instead of on shifting sand.
It isn’t greed that drives us to manage our personal finances well, for example.That is prudence, and self-care, and a form of love, because with financial stability we can live well and have margins upon which others can depend. Nor is it greed that moves us to build strong communities and the structures communities need, such as schools, health care systems, safe streets, secure housing, and churches. That too, is love, the most forward-thinking kind of love that anticipates needs and meets them in advance, allowing one generation to take for granted what another sacrificed mightily to achieve.
That’s the difference between love and greed, between love and anxiety, All that we have, all that we’ve stored, is ready not for our use alone, but also generously shared.
You fool, God says to the man who built a barn to hoard everything for himself. Your abundance wasn’t just for you. And now your life is over and others will enjoy all that you stored. What you missed was the joy of sharing, the joy of giving, of seeing another person’s need met from your generosity.
Who among us wants to face our final moment sorry that we didn’t spend everything on ourselves? Who wants to be like the weary cynic whose voice we heard in the reading from Ecclesiastes, resentful of all who will receive the fruit of our toil after we’re gone? Who wants to be that person?
Jesus could not be more clear: If you want to live well, he tells us, be rich towards God. That is to say, to put God first. And when we put God first, God in turn says to us, put people first. Always put people first—over possessions, accomplishments, status, and even personal comfort. And not just other people: put your own soul first, that part of you of priceless worth. Hold yourself before the light and ask, “What can I do with the blink of time that is mine? With what meaning can I fill my life?”
One way to fill a life with meaning is to be on hand, able and willing to help when crisis occurs. Still another is to work to prevent crises from occurring. Still another is pray for acceptance of all that we cannot change. Still another is to build capacity—resources, relationships, opportunity—from which others can draw life.
There are, in fact, so many ways to fill a life with meaning that only in God will we know which path is ours to walk. Only in God can we discern what we are to do and to become, no matter what others might say or do to cause us to doubt ourselves. That’s why Jesus encouraged us to be rich in God, so that God can help us discover our purpose, our life’s meaning, our ways to give.
And so I urge you to make conscious room in your life with God. Take a bit of time each day to sit quietly, or to walk and pray, or to drive in silence, so that you might hear God speak. Let God’s grace fill you, God’s love challenge and inspire you. Hold your life before the light of Christ.
Someday, in the blink of an eye, your life will be over. And in that moment, what will matter isn’t what you’ve accumulated, but who you’ve become. What will matter are lives you’ve touched; the grace you’ve known, and the love you’ve shared.
In the end, you will give everything away, and so will I. So don’t we start practicing now? What better way to fill our lives with meaning?