First Reading :: Ecclesiastes 1: 2, 12 – 14, 2: 18 – 23
Psalm 49 :: 1 – 12
Second Reading :: Colossians 3: 1 – 11
Gospel Reading :: Luke 12: 13 – 21
A month ago today, I returned from a year of missionary service in Argentina with the E.L.C.A.’s Young Adults in Global Mission Program (a very long title, that I will shorten from here on out to the very attractive acronym: YAGM). From the onset of our Chicago orientation last August, until our planes touched back down on U.S. soil, we were away from our homes, our families, and our cultures for just under a year. I had good friends living in both the desert of the Australian outback, as well as beside the Indian ocean on the coast of Madagascar; we seventy-six missionaries were spread across the world to do . . . what exactly? Well, as you might guess, we served in all sorts of different capacities: there were English teachers and office workers, resident assistants and chorus members, runners and cooks, but the word that tied all our forms of service together, coming from the Spanish acompañamiento was “accompaniment”. Accompaniment blossoms from a Latin American cultural custom, where in relationship with others you do not walk before them, leading them along, but neither do you walk behind them, pushing or taking second place. Instead you walk alongside one another, in equity – listening and learning what you can, and in that balance and trust lives the Holy Spirit. Christ between us, walking with us on the road to Emmaus as we disciples share the journey together.
My site placement for my year was serving at a small Lutheran congregation on Sunday mornings, and during the rest of the week, living and working as a live-in assistant at a home for 5 differently-abled adults: El Arca. In English, “The Ark”, is part of the global network of communities founded by a French-Canadian Catholic theologian named Jean Vanier, where volunteers live in close-knit community with those challenged by a wide set of physical and mental hurdles. Known in the rest of the world by its French translation, L’Arche poses an incredible set of trials before any volunteer who enters into one of its communities, not the least of which to two white Lutherans from the United States: myself and Tara, another YAGM, with whom I shared my year of service. Life at El Arca means sacrificing one’s privacy and independence, so that we might come to know and love others in ways we ordinarily might not. To wash another’s back and feet in the shower, to cut food and spread jam on bread for another at mealtimes, and to accompany yet another on their journey home from work – this was the ministry of El Arca. However, as you might guess, our normal spiritual customs, like Lutheran hymns sung with an organ, daily journaling and prayer, or even going to worship, were often not possible in our Argentine context. This meant finding meaning in new things, and worshiping in new ways. One of the most powerful for me, meditation, came from a Podcast called The Liturgists. Diving into the ways various parts of our lives related to science, art, and faith, the first Liturgists meditation I listened to was built on a few verses from Qoheleth, the Teacher, we find today in our reading from Ecclesiastes: “‘Vanity of vanities’, says the Teacher, ‘vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’” Or, in other words: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says Qoheleth. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’” How very chipper. I admit as I read this scripture for the first time this week, I panicked. Not exactly your easy-going sort of sermon material we guest preachers like to work with. But you know? I thought to myself, “no problem, it’s just the Old Testament reading – let’s see what the Psalm says.” So, I flip over to Psalm 49, and where to my eyes fall, but “fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others”. Awesome. Thanks lectionary, what an easy sermon this will be to write. So I flip to the New Testament reading: “On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.” And sweat now pouring from my brow, I turn to the Gospel for what I’m praying is my sermon’s salvation, and find “‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” You know, I admit the thought crossed my mind as to why David is out of town this weekend…
I looked around at my life, and at our world; at its chaos, its prejudice, at its corporate greed and the power of empire, and I couldn’t help but wonder “God, what is happening? Where do we turn in the midst of this storm?” And the words from Qoheleth, our optimist extraordinaire said to me, “Meaningless, meaningless . . . Everything is meaningless”, and I realized the connection to the meditation I heard nearly a year ago, titled “Vapor”. As I’m sure many of you know and remember, Apollo 8 in December of 1968, was the first manned mission to orbit our moon, only six short months before the first lunar landing, whose fiftieth anniversary we celebrated two weeks ago. From the command module, the men of Apollo 8 watched for the first time as our planet, the Earth, rose quiet and small above the lunar surface – Earthrise. This moment, just over twenty years later, prompted NASA to rotate the Voyager 1 spacecraft, as it left our solar system, back around to face its home world for the last time, to take another portrait of the Earth. That photograph, full of the dark blackness of space, is interrupted by one tiny pale blue dot: us. A “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Vapor. “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.”
Our scriptures each week are tied together through the lectionary by common threads, and while at first glance this shared meaning may seem a disheartening one, I find peace through Qoheleth’s words. They can certainly be a depressing set of ideas; the transience and impermanence of the life on this earth we share, but it can also be a beautiful one. How often do we become caught up in partisan bickering in our government? How often are we heartbroken to hear of migrant boats overturned at sea while seeking refuge? How often are we frustrated by the car in front of us who decides not to use the turn signal before welcoming themselves to our lane? All of these things sit with a weight on our heart, feel so large, and looming. But now, if I take my arms and outstretch them, and that distance were to represent all of Earth’s geological history, and if then I were to file off just the edge of one of my fingernails, I would have just erased all of human history. Dust. Vapor. Meaningless. We preoccupy ourselves so much with the “things of Earth”, in Paul’s words today in Colossians, that we forget the transience of all this pain, this strife, this humanity. We are not meant to hold onto this brokenness, because our minds and bodies were never meant to bear it. It’s for that very reason that we were given that Lutheran grace, the Christ who came to Earth and bore that burden for us.
However, brothers and sisters, this line of thinking, this newfound peace may leave us with a new problem – some of you may already have realized it. If we ponder Qoheleth’s words, the Psalm’s theme of death as the equalizer, and the words of Jesus in the parable of the rich fool. If we let our preoccupations for this world cease, we might find ourselves doing little to better it. Our scriptures, our Gospel, do not encourage apathy, no, quite the opposite. To see it, we look to the last sentence of our reading from Luke, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Richness towards God is the key to this lesson, and at first it may seem simple: prayer, thanksgiving, confession, communion – perfect, I can knock all of those out each Sunday! But God’s rebuke of the rich fool is for not giving tangible offering to God, the fruit of his labor: the harvest. Yet, how can we give, truly give, to God – the time of burnt offerings and Passover has well… passed. Where does God reside among us? The answer here of course is Christ, but we quickly find ourselves in the same dilemma. Christ’s body has not walked the Earth for thousands of years, how can we give – truly give our harvest to him? We can find the answer in Colossians, for Paul writes we “have been raised with Christ”, and our lives are “hidden with Christ in God”. We strip off our old selves – not a jacket, but our way-of-being, and clothe ourselves with a new way. Humankind has the Spirit and Christ living within us. We had this bestowed upon us, in all of us, whether we asked for it or not, through the death of Christ on the cross, and now it is our challenge to seek and to serve that Christ in others through God, that God being composed of the most true and intimate love. And that Christ exists with in us regardless of nationality, of our bodily make-up, of our past, our culture, or our alliances. Paul writes “Christ is all, and in all.”
So yes, the universe, this life, and this world are vapor. Meaningless, and transient. But they are only transient because of the infinite love and existence we share with our Creator. The challenge then, is to use this fleeting moment of life lived together to boldly and radically share that love and joy for acting and creating with others. To be with Christ is not placing a check-mark in a box at birth, baptism, confirmation, or membership, but as Luther and our church attest, and as we read in Colossians, a constant renewal “in knowledge according to the image of its creator”. The weight which hung heavy on my heart after returning to the United States, the realization of all that there is to do in the world. How far humanity continues to fall, and how blind we are to so much injustice. The fear of that evil is washed away in Qoheleth’s words of transience, and replaced instead with a joy of action found in the Gospel – albeit an oftentimes anxious and frantic joy of “Lord, I adore sharing your love, and your service, but am I enough in the midst of this storm?” And the Lord answers with Martin Luther’s words that “this life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but is actively going on. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.” So go, reform, love, and above all, do.
I gave this sermon at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Salina, KS this Sunday morning, and decided to share it with you all on here.
Peace, love, and action,
Anders, William. Earthrise. Time Magazine, 1968. Photograph.