Heaven and Earth Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Last Friday night in Ladner, 22 seniors watched in grief as their apartment complex burned up. One witness spoke poignantly of how terrible it was to see these people watching their lives go up in smoke. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. It wasn’t their lives but their possessions – their things – that were lost.
If you read today’s Gospel a certain way, your response might be, “Well, that’s OK, their material possessions aren’t that important anyway. It’s not good to be too attached to things. Easy come – easy go, right?” During the traditional (Book of Common Prayer) funeral service, we quote the Book of Job (improperly, I think), saying, “We brought nothing into this world; it is certain we can carry nothing out, the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” When we have just had something or someone very dear torn from us, typically our first reaction is not gratitude. And while we know that we live in a materialistic society, which often does place possessions and position and power above people, we know that is not the whole truth.
St. Paul, when he says “you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self,” (Colossians 3) seems to be referring to ancient Baptismal practice. Christianity has always presented itself as transformational – as a bridge into a new life. In that new life certain qualities and values emerge, others, naturally, diminish. Ancient forms of Baptism required an almost complete letting go of the former life – a willingness to die and be re-born – and the ceremony enacted in ritual form the drowning and death to the old way of life, and also the re-emergence and re-birth into a new way of life. Candidates were often required to strip naked before entering the water to symbolize the letting go of any former attachments or values, so as to be free to embrace the new. Baptism was offered as an act of liberation – an opportunity to step out of a way of life that led nowhere and into a new life that had direction and purpose.
I struggled with the readings this week, because they so obviously originate in such different circumstances that they are hard to identify with, and hard not to interpret as bad news, rather than good news. Christianity was born in an apocalyptic era, a time when many believed the world was doomed and in its final days. So there was a strong sense of “sink or swim,” of abandoning the corrupt world and seeking rescue. Many came to believe that if you were not baptized (as a Christian) you were automatically doomed.
From the beginning, this created a stark either/or kind of scenario for followers of Christ, and Paul articulates the many forms of denial and rejection that the new life entailed. That sense of stepping away from some kind of evil entity, sometimes categorized as “the world, the flesh and the devil,” arose out of a situation in which people like St Paul and others believed the world was condemned and that “God’s wrath is coming.” Despite coming to terms with the fact that their prophecies were all wrong, in almost every generation since, that sense of foreboding has continued to hang over our message and our practice.
St Paul went so far as to suggest that, in light of the immediacy of the end, people should focus on spiritual things, therefore Christians should be celibate (although he grudgingly made allowances for those who were already married). He said such extreme things because he believed the end was imminent. “Set your minds on things above, NOT on earthly things,” he says.
Because many ancient religious people perceived the world as a dangerous, evil place which compromises and pollutes us, you could understand why Christians could develop an attitude of rejection – of animosity – toward the creation itself, including any aspects of ourselves that seem tied to that creation. The historical put-down of women and the denial and condemnation of our sensual and sexual nature was all part of the same mentality.
Reading certain passages of scripture out of context, you could easily get the impression that Christians are supposed to have no possessions, and that we should make no plans for the future. Jesus says: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” and in his parable seems to condemn those who are anxious about the future, or careful about their possessions. It might seem like we are supposed to be like some austere and extreme Buddhist monk, and that our goal is to detach so completely from life that we are unmoved and indifferent to everything.
We have inherited an unnatural split between things perceived as good and things perceived as evil. It is so deeply ingrained it is virtually unconscious, instinctive. But I don’t think life works that way. Actually, our heart breaks for people like those seniors who have lost so much, as our hearts break for those in extreme poverty or deprived of their rights. Jesus did not proclaim, or live, a poor, sterile and indifferent kind of life. I think we can live with a realistic sense that this life is not permanent, without having to embrace a life-denying, nature-hating, escapist kind of religion. Many have rejected Christianity in modern times precisely because of its nay-saying approach.
On the other hand, “I live to shop” is not an adequate purpose or vision of life. Certainly, greed and materialism divide, creating vast distances between people and many injustices, ultimately destructive not only to relationships but to the planet. Clearly, without values, without some sense of vision, life can very quickly disintegrate into a dog eat dog, or first-to-the-trough mentality. And for many people, that seems to be the only thing really driving or motivating their life.
Certainly, we do need to examine ourselves and reflect on whether we are too identified with things and tied to the status that goes with them, but many of our attachments are good and are the reason we live as embodied beings and not pure spirits.
“Out of Egypt I called my son.” The ancient message from Hosea proclaims that God can liberate us from those places where we are stuck, trapped, enslaved or addicted – even when it’s our own stupid fault. Even when we are stuck in bad theology or ideology or mindless conformity, the Spirit can speak to us, Moses-like, and offer us a vision of a new freedom and different possibilities.
In today’s Gospel Jesus asks: “What is your life?” It’s a good question, and it is good to remember that things can change very suddenly – such is the nature of life. But I think it is a call not to take things for granted – to appreciate what we have — and to live in the present rather than trying to control and contrive the future.
Somehow, the earthy, human aspects of Jesus’ embodied life got lost in the shuffle, and he was projected as a perfect, non-sexual, primarily heavenly being. I think that was an interpretation, part of a theologizing process that accompanied the experience of late First Century disciples. Unfortunately, that process tended to distort and even misrepresent the life of Jesus. Ascension 1, Incarnation 0.
I think the separation between spiritual and natural, sacred and secular is actually a distortion and the life of Christ proves it. I associate Jesus with joy and gladness. I see him celebrating at weddings, meals, and other celebrations. Throughout the teaching of Jesus there is an obvious reverence for the creation, a call to pay attention to what it teaches, and a sense that God’s kingdom is in the here and now, not just in the hereafter. Far from the right/wrong, good/bad preoccupation of much religion, Jesus embraced and included anyone and everyone. Today, as thousands of people march and celebrate in the PRIDE parade downtown, I have to believe his great compassion would include gay people.
In the social sphere, Jesus was not just a life-denying ascetic. He did spend time in solitude and silence, and he obviously had a profound spiritual life and sense of connection with the divine, but he was also accused of living it up too much, of being a drunk and a blasphemer and not religious enough. This Jesus, who called himself Son of Man, not Son of God, and who accepted the baptism of ordinary humanity, I can see dancing at weddings and drawing people in with his joy and laughter and enormous spirit. And maybe what he would be laughing at is the ambiguity of life – the way it doesn’t fit neatly into a program or a formula or script or recipe; the way it eludes the control of Pharisees of every age, and overflows the banks of our morality, our culture and our imagination.
We live with that tension, that awareness that we are in-between, that we are a kind of living blend of the earthly and the spiritual, and I don’t think we get anywhere by ignoring or condemning either end of the spectrum. I think it is good to live with an awareness of the tension – the pull between extremes – the push and pull between our higher aspirations and our human nature.
Christianity is a vision of life that both embraces the goodness of the creation and also sees beyond it to a higher purpose – a greater fulfillment that is not possible through accumulation of wealth or property or control over others. It is not materialistic in that it doesn’t suggest that the meaning of life consists of acquiring and having things or power or control.
In the Christian vision, things and creation itself, though they may reveal something of God, are not absolute; they are not ultimate. There is something more to us, which we call the soul. There is another life, which we call the Kingdom of God – but the two are NOT mutually exclusive! Today’s reading from Hosea portrays God as changing his mind – shifting from an attitude of wrath and vengeance to one of compassion and mercy. If it is possible for the Divine to have a change of mind, certainly it is not beyond the Church to change its collective mind and shift toward a theology of compassion and gratitude.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers
RCL appointed readings:
Hosea 11:1-11 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.
Psalm 49:1-12 Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together. My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp. Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave. When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own. Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.
Colossians 3:1-11 So 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 12:13-21Someone in the crowd said to him, “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.”