The Lessons and Commentary of the Rev. David Gunderson, July 31, 2016

Father David Gunderson was on vacation. St. John’s observed Morning Prayer, along with Father David’s written Commentary.

Pentecost 11: The Lessons for Sunday, July 31, 2016

 The Collect of the Day

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

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? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity. 

Psalm 49:1-11

1          Hear this, all you peoples;

hearken, all you who dwell in the world, *

you of high degree and low, rich and poor together.

2          My mouth shall speak of wisdom, *

and my heart shall meditate on understanding.

3          I will incline my ear to a proverb *

and set forth my riddle upon the harp.

4          Why should I be afraid in evil days, *

when the wickedness of those at my heels surrounds me,

5          The wickedness of those who put their trust in their goods, *

and boast of their great riches?

6          We can never ransom ourselves, *

or deliver to God the price of our life;

7          For the ransom of our life is so great, *

that we should never have enough to pay it,

8          In order to live for ever and ever, *

and never see the grave.

9          For we see that the wise die also;

like the dull and stupid they perish *

and leave their wealth to those who come after them.

10        Their graves shall be their homes for ever,

their dwelling places from generation to generation, *

though they call the lands after their own names.

11        Even though honored, they cannot live for ever; *

they are like the beasts that perish. 

Colossians 3:1-11

If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! 

Luke 12:13-21

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.”

The Rev. David Gunderson’s Commentary

Two of the readings we have just heard, from Ecclesiastes and from Colossians, address one of the most basic forms of human suffering: the awareness of death.  Ecclesiastes speaks as one who has understood, at last, the inevitability of death, not in the abstract but as his own inevitable fate.  He understands: I cannot hang on to anything. Everything I am, everything I do, everything that I care about, will be swept away.  I will be swept away, and everything I have worked for will belong to someone else.  The world will go on without me, as if I had never been.  All generations will likewise be swallowed by the great maw which none can escape.  What’s the point of anything? It’s all pointless.  Absurd.  Vanity.

Ecclesiastes is like a chess player who tips his King to resign the game, even though there are moves left to be played.  But he knows the moves mean nothing.  He has seen the game and its singular outcome: checkmate.  Tip the King.  Resign.

There is no way to refute this insight.  From a certain perspective, it is descriptively true: everyone dies; they disappear, and leave everything behind.  The voice of Ecclesiastes must be recognized, however, as one limited human perspective.  It is the voice of the little self, the ego self, the self that wants more than anything not to be powerless, not to be uncertain, not to be mortal, wants more than anything to be more than human, and cannot.

This reading from Ecclesiastes should be a fundamental part of our Ash Wednesday observance.  Ecclesiastes would help us recognize, not just our mortality, but the temptation to despair to which our mortality exposes us.  We might also see the many and subtle “projects” at work in our psyches which are our hidden strategies for avoiding death,  cheating death, vanquishing death. These “life goals” are almost never something we’re aware of; these stratagems run unconsciously, and each of them is a symptom of an underlying fear, an underlying resistance, in relation to the reality of eventual death.

The spirituality that we hear about in Colossians is a direct response to this most basic human experience.  Colossians does not provide a way to avoid this confrontation with the inevitability of death.  Instead, it steers right into it, head on.

The basic Christian conversion is a symbolic death.  We know it as the rite of baptism.  In this transformational rite, what dies is the self of which Ecclesiastes speaks, the self that, in a sense, is already dead.  It is a pre-emptive surrendering to the reality of death—You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God—as a way of establishing the self on a new foundation.

The new foundation is simply a relation of trust and acceptance instead of fear and resistance.  The reality of which Ecclesiastes spoke does not go away; but the invitation is to accept the conditions of life as they are, and to draw no unnecessary conclusions about the meaning of this human experience.

The despair of Ecclesiastes is only one way of interpreting our human mortality.  It is not the only way, and it is not ultimately compelling. Colossians invites us to imagine the self who lives “below the surface” of our everyday life, in that place where there are no men or women, Democrats or Republicans, rich or poor, but only human beings in their relation to the Creator.  It is the place where, as Paul says, Christ is all in all.  It is the place where all creation is found to be both a great diversity and an absolute unity.

The price of entering into this new vision is the letting go of those concerns associated exclusively with one’s own little self.  This is the metaphorical “death” which is the path to an equally metaphorical “resurrection.” If you have been raised with Christ is spoken to those who are still alive, whose “raising” has been metaphorical.

But metaphorical does not mean unreal.  The new foundation of which Paul speaks is a real foundation, not merely imaginary, not a deceptive consolation.  But it cannot be proved.  It can only be lived.  Similarly, the option to despair is a choice that cannot be proved, but must be lived.  But what is the appeal of despair, except as a defense against disappointment?

These faith choices which so shape the course of our lives do not occur in a vacuum, but in the turbulence of our human hearts.  In that turbulence—the careless amalgam of family and cultural influences—we posit another influence, a “voice” or a presence.  This is the voice of our deepest self, the living point of our connection with the Creator, without which we would cease to exist.  This is the “still, small voice” within all creatures, to which we humans must tune our ear to hear the subtle language of belonging.

In the language of Colossians, it is “earthly” to ignore this inward voice of our deep belonging.  It is “earthly” to see things only on the surface, and from the perspective of one’s little and frightened self.   It is “earthly” not to recognize the underlying source of unity in the great diversity of creation.  And so the “earthliness” of which Colossians speaks is more than the “hot” sins listed by Paul: fornication, idolatry, etc.  The earthliness which most of us have to overcome is the earthliness of Ecclesiastes: his concern about his own death, his refusal to trust, his despair over his individual fate.  Again, all of these are the concerns of the little self, the self of which Jesus spoke when he said, If you try to save your life, you will lose it.

It is as if Jesus had said: If you try to hang on when it is utterly futile, you will lose the experience that can only come through letting go.  And it is only through letting go—truly accepting the conditions of human life—that the new self, the true self, can emerge.  This new self is sustained not by the illusory hope of cheating death, but by unconditional trust in the working of the Creator.  This is a human stance that arises, not from certainty, but from faith.

Do our little human lives have any meaning, or do we simply rise and fade in the blind surge of nature’s energy?  The hard truth is: we cannot know with certainty the answer to this most urgent of all our questions.  It all comes down to faith concerning a basic yet unanswerable question.  It is a matter of choosing the assumptions by which your life will be guided.

Ecclesiastes shows us one vision of things as they are, from the perspective of an individual enclosed within the bleak horizon of death.  The radical assumption of Colossians is that death can be redefined so that it becomes the door to our liberation.  We “die” to the anxiety of resisting the inevitable, and come alive in the experience of simple trust.  We cannot prove the legitimacy of our trust, except by the fruits—hope, faith, peace, love— which are our only knowing.




Categories News, Sermons | Tags: | Posted on August 1, 2016

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