Sunday, August 05, 2007

Pentecost 10 - Year C

“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!” shouts the teacher. A little cynical, don’t you think? He might as well say, “life’ tough…then you die.” Not exactly a hopeful message, is it?

This teacher is quite the whiner, isn’t he? He says that he worked hard his whole life to help his people grow deeper in wisdom, only to see them through it all away. Why even bother? He seems to be saying.

Maybe you teachers, on your bad days, in the congregation can relate. You work your fingers raw trying to get into the hearts and minds of our young people only to see them waste their time and talents on PlayStation and third rate underground punk bands. Or their parents’ ambitions for their children were decidedly smaller than the talent you saw blossoming inside them. Despite your best efforts, some folks just didn’t get it.

I wonder if Paul worried about the same thing in the second reading. He had his knickers in a knot about something in this passage. But then again, when WASN’T Paul angry about one thing or another? Is that what Paul does best?
When I was in seminary, it was hip to hate Paul. They said he hated women, he was too full of himself, he was homophobic. Some folks thought they had better theology than the first apostle to the gentiles.

I never really understood the animosity toward the guy who articulated the whole “grace through faith” thing, but if you can’t be sanctimonious in seminary, when can you be sanctimonious?

It was passages like this one in today’s second that got peoples’ shorts in a bunch. Here is Paul at his rhetorical best, or some might say worst. He trots out the biggies, the sins that that some thought were the worst of the worst. He seemed to hate everything that gave life flavour, anything that made for a good movie. If it was fun, Paul was against it. It’s like he wanted us to be pure disembodied souls instead of real, live, flesh and blood human beings.

Fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed? Put to death whatever is earthly? Wrath for the disobedient? For those trying to condemn Paul, there’s a lot to work with here.

And they wouldn’t be alone. You don’t need to know the bible to be uncomfortable with this passage.

If a person just walked off the street they’d probably ask an usher if they were bold, “What fascist wrote that little piece of moral instruction?” If they were unsure about this whole Christianity thing to begin with, they’d probably sneak out the back door when nobody’s looking.

If they knew a bit about Christian history, they’ll probably say, “Here it comes: I’m going to Hell because of all the good things in life. Typical Christians, draining the passion from human existence.”

That’s certainly what it sounds like, doesn’t it? Paul comes down pretty hard on the sensual things of life, as if he wants us to live a life that’s plain as an Amish breakfast.

And I would imagine that Paul letter caused quite a row in the pews of the Colossian church. Just like it does today.

We don’t have to go any further than the recent controversies over homosexuality in our denomination to see that Paul can still get under peoples’ skin.

On the one side of the issue: let’s call them “liberals” or, as they like to be called “progressives,” for lack of a better term. We hear some say, “Keep your puritanical beliefs about sex to yourself. The issues facing the world are economic. People around the world and in this community are starving to death and you’re worried about sex. The earth is overheating and is driving human existence to extinction and you’re worried about how two people love each other. You can’t tell me who I can have sex with, but I can tell you what to do with your money.”

On the other side, the “conservatives” for lack of a better term, we hear, “Sexual issues are at the heart of who we are as human beings. Personal morality is what keeps us from chaos. The economic issues are a smoke screen concealing the real problems facing the world. When AIDS is destroying Africa because of promiscuity and adultery, when sexual free-for-alls are creating disorder, don’t you talk to me about my wallet. Don’t tell me what to do with my money, but I’ll tell you who you can and cannot have sex with.”

Two VERY different ways of looking at the world.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. But I think it contains a kernel of truth. Each side can use today’s bible readings to justify their position. But thankfully it doesn’t end there. There’s enough in today’s second two reading to annoy just about anyone.

Jesus goes after a prosperous farmer for committing the crime of – O Horror of horrors – being prudent and responsible. He was condemning the rich man for planning for the future, putting a little something away for a rainy day. He was coming down hard this guy for having retirement savings, first century investment plan. He says this kind of financial planning is being “greedy.”

It sounds like someone is out of touch with reality.

Did the rich man get his money by dealing dirty with folks? Did he make money for money’s sake? Did his vast wealth take God’s place in his life?

We don’t know. Jesus just says he’s greedy.

But I think that, neither for Jesus nor for Paul, can life be separated so easily. For Paul and Jesus there is no separation between the personal and political, the micro and the macro, individual sexual ethics and global economic realities.
In other words, the world cannot be sliced in pieces too evenly. Everything is connected. Every action has consequences beyond ourselves.

So, Paul wasn’t just trying to suck the joy out of life, and Jesus wasn’t just trying to be difficult. Both of them were reminding us what the Teacher said at the very beginning, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”

To say it another way, “life is frail. All our accomplishments and acquisitions mean little or nothing in light of eternity. So focus on the things that will last, not the momentary pleasures that last just a moment then die.

It’s easy to stand here and tell you to ‘remember the important things in life.’ It’s quite another to actually do it. It’s easy to talk about it, harder to live it.

But I’ve noticed that it usually takes a tragedy to remind us of what’s important. A parent’s death. A traffic accident. The baby’s born but not breathing. These stop us in our shoes and shift our eyes toward those treasures that only God can keep from perishing. Our shelf life may be limited. But God’s isn’t.

At the end we realize that the lives we lead are not our own. We forfeited our lives when we were baptized. Paul reminds us in Galatians that it is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me.

For some, that might sound like a chain around the neck. But for those who’ve received a second life in Jesus, it spells Freedom.
May this be so among us. Amen.


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