Monday, August 1, 2016

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 13C/Lectionary 18C] - July 31, 2016 (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 and Luke 12:13-21)

It is summer, and so it is wedding season in my world, and I find that I’ve been spending a good bit of time with couples in pre-marital conversations. A lot of these conversations are designed around establishing some good patterns for life together, to talk about things like conflict resolution and healthy communication practices, and to work out who’s going to do the dishes and who’s going to take out the trash, you know…the kinds of things that make the conflict resolution part so important. One of the areas we typically touch on involves the nature of their spiritual life. The workbook we use walks us through some of the questions related to that—questions about which holidays are important and what they mean, whether church involvement is important or expected, what is the reason for giving gifts, etc. The last question in the workbook is, simply, “What is the meaning of life?”

Now, if someone had asked me that question when I was in my twenties or early thirties I’d be scared to know what I’d say. Sometimes I’m not even sure nowadays how I’d answer that question. When we get to that question in pre-marital conversations it often provokes silence. It’s interesting to watch a couple suddenly shift gears from discussing the more mundane things of life like how much they’ll set aside for savings each month to the question of what life is all about in the first place. To their credit, most of the couples end up bouncing a few ideas off each other, and even agreeing that it’s not something they’ve been able to reach any conclusions about. I’m left wondering about my own marriage and close friendships: would those I’m spending my life with see eye to eye with me on this? Does it matter? It’s so much easier to focus on who’s supposed to do the dishes.

It may come as a surprise to hear this, but Scripture never gives a succinct answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” If you were to go to the Bible looking for a nice, packaged response to that question, you’d likely be very disappointed. What you would get is a long, beautiful, epic story of God’s relationship with God’s people. There is one writer in Scripture, however, who pondered the meaning of life. We don’t know what his name is, but whoever it was goes by the name “Teacher.” Teacher is wise and teacher is observant and insightful. He watches people, he scrutinizes human behavior, and he looks for patterns and themes in all of the business of humans under the sun, trying to deduce what the point of living is. He has authority beyond his peers and he writes down his thoughts on life and human activity in a book that we know as Ecclesiastes. He contemplates the struggles of daily life and, like all wisdom literature, offers some advice here and there.

As it turns out, Ecclesiastes sounds at times a lot like that country music song on the radio right now by Chris Jansen:

I ain’t rich, but I darn sure wanna be
Working like a dog all day, ain’t working for me
I wish I had a rich uncle that’d kick the bucket
And that I was sitting on a pile like Warren Buffett
I know everybody says
Money can’t buy happiness

But it could buy me a boat, it could buy me a truck to pull it
It could buy me a Yeti 110 iced down with some silver bullets
Yeah, and I know what they say,
Money can’t buy everything
Well, maybe so,
But it could buy me a boat

In all of this, Teacher struggles with what the meaning of life might be. Like the song, he sees so many people practically break their bodies just to get by and he watches others work and work to gather up riches only to watch all that wealth get used and enjoyed by others after they die. He has a word for this: Vanity. He begins and ends his teachings with that word: “All is vanity!” It basically means emptiness, pointless, meaningless. “Everything is meaningless!” Teacher says. Now, in all my years of pre-marital counseling, no couple has ever said that! If they did I might say, “Let’s just go back to the part about cleaning dishes and conflict resolution.”

With the book of Ecclesiastes and the wisdom of teacher in the back of your mind, picture Jesus traveling to Jerusalem with his disciples when he’s approached by a man in the crowd who comes forward and calls him “Teacher.” This person is appealing to Jesus’ wisdom and sense of fairness. As it turns out, he’s there for some conflict resolution, himself. He wants Jesus, as the wise Teacher with special insight about life and living, to negotiate an inheritance dispute.

At some point I believe we all approach Jesus in this way. We know him as a Teacher, as someone with special understanding about the road of life and how to travel it. We ask him our questions and seek his wisdom. When Jesus answers this particular man’s question, however, we get as close as we ever do to Jesus’ own definition for the meaning of life. He does not tell us what the meaning of life is, necessarily, but Jesus does say what it isn’t. It doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions. It doesn’t involve the accumulation of wealth and things.

An icon of the Parable of the Rich Fool. On the left, the laborers hastily build
bigger barns. On the right the rich fool dies in his sleep.
In order to elaborate, he tells a parable about a man who does just that. This man is a landowner who, because he enjoys a few years of bumper crops, decides to tear down the barns he has and build bigger ones so he can store it all. But, just like the writer of Ecclesiastes says so often happens, before he can enjoy any of this excess, he dies. God doesn’t kill the rich man because of what he’s done. There is no element of punishment here, as if God despises wealthy people or penalizes people for how they use their possessions or not. It’s just that the length of the man’s life, like everyone else’s, is unpredictable and he just happens to die right after he’s surrounded himself with all that he has.

The story may sound extreme to us, but all parables are, aren’t they? Jesus the teacher is trying to drive home the point to this man who is only using Jesus to gain more wealth. If there is a meaning to life, Jesus believes it revolves somewhere around being rich toward God. It has something to do with being drawn deeper into relationship with the giver of all that we have, of hearing this ongoing story of God’s love for what God has made and knowing you have a place in it. We can see a clue to the rich man’s mistake in the way he speaks only to himself when he is contemplating how to handle his wealth. When the money starts rolling in, he thinks only to himself, and when he comes up with the idea for bigger barns, he actually consults his own soul, rather than seeking wisdom from someone else or from God. There is nothing wrong with eating, drinking, and being merry…or with buying a boat and a truck to pull it. That is actually a quote straight from the teacher of Ecclesiastes. But when someone has so surrounded themselves with possessions that they can’t even include the neighbor or God then it really is meaningless, vanity.

I’ve been moved by the life and witness of a man named Xavier Le Pichon, who is considered the founder of the modern understanding of plate tectonics, which the science of how the earth’s crust is structured and how it moves around and shifts over time. Le Pichon was born in what is now Vietnam when it was still a French colony. During World War II his family was rounded up and he spend a few years as a child in a Japanese concentration camp. Eventually he ended up in France where he became the world-famous scientist that he is now. He was the first person to explore the bottommost reaches of the ocean and was the one to figure out that Japan was getting closer to Hawaii by eight inches every year. He understands more about how the earth has been created and how it is evolving than probably anyone else on earth, and he is also a commited Christian who attends Catholic mass every day.

Le Pichon had in 1973 what he calls a crisis. He explains how he was so entrenched in his research and his successes that he felt isolated from the world’s suffering. He resigned all of his positions and went to Calcutta as a 36 year old to work with Mother Teresa for a while. And while he was there he had this experience where he had to feed a child who was dying of hunger. Le Pichon states, “this experience [revealed to me] the founding experience of humanity, which is discovering through empathy that you really are one with the man who is suffering. You identify yourself with this person, and this can be so strong. So I made, at the time, the promise to the small child that I will try, from now on, not to ever turn away my eyes from somebody who is suffering. And that was a turning point in my life.”[1]

Nowadays Le Pichon is still a scientist, but now his understanding of the way plate tectonics works—that is, how the fragile places in the earth’s structure give it new life and ultimately make it stronger—informs his faith and his own definition of the meaning of humanity. The point of life is to engage those who suffer so that God may be met. He and his family live in community he founded that provides retreat for families with people who are mentally disabled. Every day he is surrounded by people with great needs, the most fragile neighbors around. There is encounters people who deepen his own human experience and who can use the gifts and skills. He does this when he could otherwise store his great talents in bigger barns for himself.

As inspired as I am by Le Pichon, I’m not sure I have a nice answer for the meaning of life, although I have learned that it should inform how much I set aside for savings each month and who needs to do the dishes. Jesus never offers a succinct answer for the meaning of life, either. But he does keep walking. He keeps journeying towards Jerusalem, reaching out to the fragile and the suffering. He is more bent on giving meaning to our lives than he is philosophizing about it, offering his own fragile body up as a way to draw us into a life-giving relationship with God our maker.

He is a teacher, but he also a Savior, and his message is that our lives, too, are demanded of us, each and every moment. Each and every moment can present a crisis wherein we can either become more aware of the way he is present (and suffering) in those around us…or not.  When we only ever speak with our own souls, when we seek wisdom only from within and ignore out the needs of the world, when we are bent on being rich in relation to others or to our own benchmarks, life will become vanity.

But as we walk the journey with Christ, that vanity turns into beauty, our toil turns to being merry, and death turns into life in this long, beautiful epic story of God’s love for God’s people.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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