TORN PANTS AND RICH FOOLS
Recently I was in a book store and as I bent down to look at a lower shelf of books, from somewhere behind me I heard an ominous, disconcerting sound. You guessed it, it was the sound of the seam of my pants giving way (at least, I hope that’s what you guessed!).
This necessitated a rather awkward walk back to the car – walking as quickly and with as much dignity and composure as a six inch tear in the back of my pants would allow me to do (picture the way a chicken might walk after laying one too many eggs!).
Impervious might have described my way of being for many years. I almost never got colds – never missed a Sunday – I worked weeks without days off. Even when I had a heart procedure and was under anesthetic for 5 ½ hours, I was back in my office the following day by 10:00 a.m. – going directly from the hospital. I looked and acted the part of the competent, busy parish priest, and loved what I was doing, but unconsciously, I developed an ever so slightly superior attitude. I was proud of my strength and durability and commitment and tended to be impatient with those who seemed to give in to human needs and failings. Like the man in today’s Gospel, I was very focused on doing, accomplishing, building the kingdom.
Lately, however, I seem to be failing in all kinds of unaccustomed and potentially embarrassing ways. Sometimes I duck suddenly or raise my hand to protect myself as some object comes flying into my line of sight, but it’s merely another appearance of what my optometrist calls a “floater.” I’m getting used to it, but the effects on those around me can be a bit startling.
Sue and I will be sitting in the living room and there’ll be a strange sound, and almost automatically, I’ll ask, “Was that me?” It usually turns out to be just a passing truck or a coyote howling in the distance – a bit disturbing but no cause for panic.
Back in the 70’s, I used sing “I’ve got the music in me!” Now my song is “I’ve got the Mucil in me!” Meta Mucil, that is. And 50 shades of gray may be a racy novel but it’s also a pretty good description of my hair. I was remembering recently how my grandfather would often break into the song, “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” and I wondered what songs am I going to be singing absent-mindedly when I’m 85? Ruby Tuesday? Lady Madonna? Born to be Wild? Maybe Help! might become an appropriate theme song for me in my later years. And I wonder: will my grandchildren find that quaint and amusing or weird and disturbing?
I am coming apart at the seams, as it were! It’s all part of the distressing disintegration of our physical being that we associate with aging. I respect and appreciate the fact that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, as the Bible says, but the mechanism does eventually break down, and I am suddenly very aware that I am now much closer to the end than to the beginning of my life. I am suddenly conscious of irreversible signs of aging, and having to face the realization that the body I live in is temporary, and provisional, which in turn points to the need to become more established in the realm of soul and spirit, and to hope more fervently that what I have been preaching about eternal life all these years is in fact true!
What is true and real is always trying to assert itself, but it seems until we are vulnerable we have an amazing ability to pretend it doesn’t exist. We spend years building up an identity – an ego-structure. Much like the man building barns, we cling to all of that as though it were our life, but all too suddenly, we realize that much of it is pointless and useless, mere role-playing, a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Today’s readings are less about aging per se than about discovering perspective – priorities – living for what matters, and not being deluded into thinking that this life is all there is, or that it goes on indefinitely.
The Gospel today is Jesus’ parable of a man who realizes too late the need to start addressing himself to his soul – his real self. Instead, he has spent his life and energy building up his securities, and protecting himself from harm, but suddenly comes up against his own mortality and has no resources that can help him. He is sometimes referred to as the “rich fool.”
It’s not a sin to look to the future (think of the biblical patriarch Joseph and his storehouses of grain). I think the real issue is revealed in the fact that Jesus has the man addressing himself to his soul: “I will say to my soul . . .” He’s trying to convince his inner self that he has everything he needs, and he’s talking strictly in materialistic terms. The soul doesn’t care about externals and the soul is not fed by accumulating “stuff,” otherwise people like Imelda Marcos and Donald Trump would be our spiritual gurus. Despite what many corporations and their advertising would have you believe, materialism is not the way to satisfy the soul. The soul doesn’t care whether you are materially rich or poor, but about the kind of person you are – think of the way young children thrive in poverty-stricken environments as long as they are loved and encouraged. They don’t care if you drive a Porsche – they care that you make time for them and nurture them. The rich man’s comments reveal the degree to which he is completely out of touch with his soul – he talks to it but he’s not connected – it’s not real.
Looked at from an end-of-life perspective, a lot of things make more sense. Indeed, what if this was your last day on earth? How would you respond? For certain, it creates a different perspective.
St Paul, writing to the Church at Colossae, urges people to start putting their focus beyond things and the typical ways of identifying and distinguishing ourselves from others – the conventional ways of making ourselves seem like we are worthy or “better than.”
“Be on your guard against greed,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, “for life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Be on guard against identifying yourself with things, because what you own is not what you are. The parable warns about becoming possessed by our possessions, and Jesus suggests that if we knew close to our mortality we are, we would realize how little use all that stuff really is. Unfortunately, wealth and power have a way of distorting the truth and misleading us into a false sense of security. They eat up the time and energy that we might put in to cultivating our soul life. In our culture, life is defined almost entirely in terms of externals, and we have not only neglected the inner life of the Spirit and soul, but we also seem to have lost a sense of conscience and consideration toward those around us. Like the rich fool, people arrive at “moments of truth” with no preparation or awareness.
Jesus was obviously a very astute observer of human life. Numerous recent studies done out of University of California (Berkley), and the University of Toronto, and published across the U.S., seem to support Jesus’ warning about the potential loss of your soul as you become more materialistic. These studies have established an unmistakable link between wealth and self-serving, entitled, dishonest and inconsiderate behavior. The wealthy – those who pay primary attention to building their own barns, as it were — are apparently four to five times more likely to cheat or lie to get their way, or to run you over on a crosswalk, and much less likely to contribute to charity or the community’s well-being. The study concluded by saying “upper class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.’” Therefore the rich are also, you might say, four to five times more in need of attention to their soul than ordinary people.
An article in Psychology Today says: “Michael Kraus, a researcher at the University of California, whose study was published in the journal Psychological Science, concludes that wealthy people are less adept at reading others’ emotions in comparison with uneducated and poor people. Kraus concluded that people from lower economic backgrounds often have to rely on others, whereas wealthy people don’t ask for help often. Like the man in Jesus’ parable, they act on their own, and for their own benefit. Kraus argues that wealthy people may be “less concerned and less perceptive of other people’s needs and wishes. They show a deficit in empathetic accuracy.” The UCal study’s co-author, Dr. Dacher Keltner, says that the rich tend not to see what’s obvious and may not even understand the suffering of the people below them.”
About 2800 years ago, the prophet Hosea came to believe that he was being called by God to marry to a prostitute. What a risk to his status, and how improper for a servant of God! But he eventually realized that his gesture was meant to serve as a sign of God’s love for the misfit – the outcast – the despised. Perhaps it was also intended to help Hosea discover for himself that even prostitutes can embody God’s grace and love, and to oblige him to learn that being a servant of God is not meant to make you aloof to real life. In today’s reading (Hos. 11:1—11), Hosea expresses a breakthrough moment, an amazing insight in which when he suddenly realizes God is not just about perfection and punishment. It’s like a turning point and a moment when the light goes on and the realization is there that God is really about compassion.
When the myth of our invulnerability and superiority is dispelled, we can break through to a new level of reality and intimacy with God and others. Jesus invited his insecure disciples to touch his wounds, so they in turn might be capable of touching the wounds of others. It is not until we have touched those wounds that we can effectively touch the wounds of others. We normally don’t want to get close to suffering or death, especially our own, but one of the things about aging is that we eventually realize there is no choice about that.
Wealth and power take us in certain directions, and fill people with an empty replica of hope, but St Paul at one point expressed gratitude for his human failings, because it is in weakness that we discover the power of God. It also tends to make us kinder and more considerate individuals.
We can come closer to others in those moments when we fail – those moments that expose our humanity. Think of how people suddenly break out of their self-absorbed shells and rush in to help when people have suffered accidents or disasters. I think of scenes of dozens of people helping the injured after the Boston Marathon bombing, or the thousands of people who volunteered in Calgary during the recent flood.
Life has a way of tearing down our silos, and thank God for that! Ironically, and unexpectedly, we seem to come closer to God in our failings – in our weakness and vulnerability and imperfection — than when we feel we are self-sufficient, close to perfection or to having it all like the rich fool. What an interesting bit of counter-intuitive logic – putting less trust in what you can see and more trust in what you can’t!
One of the gifts of years is the gift of humour – of no longer having to take myself so seriously, or ask others to, without relinquishing the right to respect or consideration. Age eventually brings the capacity to transcend the self-consciousness of youth, when incidents like tearing your pants seem to be life-threatening, rather than a source of amusement, or an opportunity to learn something about ourselves. I think humour and humility must be closely related because they both convey the ability to drop the pretenses and deal more generously and openly with reality.
We need to be grateful for those moments that expose our humanity. As I reflected on my torn pants, I began to realize that it is a gift to be able to open up to what a moment like that might reveal to us – to explore what possibilities it might open up — instead of being consumed by anxiety and fear of ridicule, and of what it might do to our image or status, which are ultimately illusions anyway.
Many of our ego accomplishments create barriers and keep us at a very superficial level with people and with life in general. I am grateful for the example of elders who are obviously at home in their own fragile, temporary and failing bodies, who have learned to love life and to cherish its profound and simple gifts.
Looked at from a more spiritual point of view, the tear in my pants is a metaphor, a sign perhaps, that I have grown out of one way of being and need to embrace a new reality. The tear in my pants could be seen as a paradigm shift, and likened to some tearing in the fabric of my universe – my invincibility and juvenile certainties coming apart at the seams. I could choose to see it as the tearing away of the veil obscuring my true self, an opportunity to break out of a restricted way of life and break through into a new way of being. That brief moment held much potential to open me up in a new way to myself and those around me.
I know that’s a lot to see in a six inch tear in my pants, but in my business, sometimes the most unusual things can speak volumes. May it be so for you as well.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
RCL-appointed readings for Pentecost 12: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 107:1-9, 43 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. For he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things. Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the LORD. 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 12:13-21 Someone 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.”