Scriptures: Psalm & Luke 12:22-28
Preached on January 13th, 2013 at United Presbyterian Church of Amsterdam, NY
I am going to be preaching a sermon series on the tenets of the Reformed tradition as I have come to understand it. We are going to begin today with the brokenness of life and next week we will look at the redemption of life and from there we will look at various aspects of the tradition. All my sermons are posted online if you hear something that you would like to reread or ask questions about later. Also, I am glad to give anyone who asks for it a copy of any of my sermons. So here we go.
There’s a hole. Within each individual, within ourselves, within creation. There’s a hole, in which all the stuff of life can be inserted but it will never, ever be filled up. There’s a hole which motivates all people to do the good and the not so good in life. It keeps all people restless and offers no one contentment. It is there when we arise in the morning and when we sleep at night, like a shadow never leaving our side. It constantly affects our behavior whether we realize it or not. It is the source of all discontent, all violence, all pain in the world and yet it can also be the balm in many wounds, the thing that drives all persons and all nations to better embody peace, and justice, and love. If one tries to look at the hole, he or she are immediately overwhelmed by fear and sadness, but are also pushed to overcome it, to fill it, to somehow move beyond it, and yet, it is there.
Thinkers in many times and places have sought to call this hole by different names. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the author of the second creation story in Genesis suggests that Adam and Eve found the hole and then found themselves out of the Garden of Eden. In the New Testament, Jesus knew all to well of the power and draw of the hole into which creation had fallen. He went as far as to suggest to people that in his death, one could find release from the hole. That in his life, death, resurrection, and new life one could see God’s power overcoming the effects of the hole that was found within creation. Paul echoed the same belief as he recounted the story of his own conversion in which he was overcome with feelings of guilt and unworthiness in the face of a loving God and resurrected savior. For far too long he had given his life over to the power of the hole until he found a new way to be, in short he found something new and more powerful with which to fill up the hole. The early church leaders knew far too well the devastating effects of the hole on the spirit. And so it was Augustine who, in a prayer to God, recounted that his soul was restless until it found rest in God. Otherwise, there remained the hole. Finally, we in the reformed tradition have spent the last 400 years thinking about ways in which to speak about the hole and its effects on creation. John Calvin determined that because of the hole, we were all hopelessly broken, never to be fixed within this life, always moving away from the will of God, always living into our fallenness, our brokenness, our hole. In C.S. Lewis’s famous turn of phrase, it is always winter, never Christmas.
But humanity also remains a beautiful part of God’s good creation. I walked outside yesterday afternoon in the midst of writing and I was blown away by the beauty of the land around me. As I looked out at the stunning beauty of woods covered in snow and the lake 100 yards under me, somewhere out in the woods in the midst of my walk I heard a creature moving through the snow and brush and simply being part God’s good creation, unable to do otherwise. And in the lake is 100 species of fish, cold though they may be, all created and beautiful, only living to live and also be a part of God’s good creation. I am struck by the idea that humanity is able to consider itself part of that good creation. In a world in which children go hungry, we are still created good. In a country in which classes are oppressed, we are still created good. In a world where we hurt each other, we are still created good.
But I want to use the hole metaphor because I think it speaks to the devastating effects of our sin, while also maintaining the hope that exists within creation. It speaks to the need of humanity to matter, to find things that matter. Too often, we place things in the hole that are transient, that are incomplete, that are going to fall away. We look to things like fame, or nationality, or success as things that will give our life ultimate meaning, that will make us matter. In a culture that finds beauty only skin deep, we look to our youth, our clothes, our hair to make us beautiful in the eyes of others and hope that that means that we matter. We stick our job into the hole and pray that in the end, it will give us the meaning for which we are searching. We place our money in the hole and pray it will give us the meaning for which we are searching. We place our appearance in the hole in an effort to feel God’s love and acceptance through our beauty, but bodies break down and clothes are worn and discarded until we are left again searching for meaning, we too often store up treasures on earth where moths and rust decay, or thieves steal, or it simply remains there in a world in need of the resources of the faithful to bring about change. But above all, we place ourselves in the hole, believing that if we put ourselves number one in all our relationships, place ourselves on the top of the pyramid, look out for number one, we will find meaning and peace. But in the end, the hole only consumes it and us and seeks more. It is here that we realize that eventually, our jobs will end, they will be no more and we will be left with our memories of past times to continue to give our lives meaning. And we realize that eventually, money goes away, that they things we have stored up will eventually whither away and we are only left with the falling away of material goods to give us meaning in our lives. And too our beauty, our youth, our appearance all falls away. So we look to ourselves, we all do, and we place ourselves at the pinnacle of creation, seeking to better our experience of life, to better our experience of ourselves until we realize that we cannot be the pinnacle of all things that, there are greater communities that will outlast our self, so we cling to nation-states and race and gender and ideology and class and sexuality and creed to somehow offer us the meaning that we are so desperate to find, and in the end, even those things will fall away, and the hole continues to consume.
Let me give you an example. Every couple of years, we as a nation engage in the process of, on a national level choosing our leaders. And this is an important process in the life of a nation. It is important to have well-informed conversations about the best way to be a nation, to maintain our relationships both at home and abroad. It is important especially for the faithful to intentionally listen for the will and word of God to speak to us and guide us in the direction that we should push our leadership. I was a political science major in college and I still greatly enjoy the political process and yet. And yet, increasingly, we allow ourselves to be tricked into the belief that there exist those in the nation who are less than human because they have a D or an R after their name. We allow ourselves to define our relationships to the other strictly through the blinders of partisan political language. We allow ourselves to take our nation-state and divide it in half in a competition between the good guys and the bad guys like some kind of story from Dr. Seuss about Star-belly sneeches and non-having star-belly sneechess. And it happens because we are desperate to find ultimate meaning, to find something that will fit tightly in that hole in our being and never ever go away, but eventually all things fade away, all things are consumed, all things disappear into the darkness of the hole and it just keeps going.
Jesus spoke to those gathered around him, and he offered these words to try and relieve the pressure that is put on all of us, by the hole. And he warned his followers as he continues to warn us today. Do not worry! Do not worry about the things that you will eat or what you will wear, God will provide. And do not worry about amassing great possessions that you believe will save your soul and make you mean something, God will provide. And do not worry about whether you matter in the eyes of the world, you matter to God and God will provide. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourself that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” There your heart will be also.
This passage is not about money. It can concern money, but it is not about money. Jesus gathered his disciples and asked them, what do you care about, what moves you, what or whom do you love? Because the thing that you care about, the thing that moves you, the thing that you love, will always be the thing that you serve. Jesus understood, perhaps better than anyone, the allure of the hole, the allure of mattering. And yet, it is he who asked his disciples to determine what was the most important thing in their life, it was he who asked, to whom or what will you give your all. And it was he who chose for himself, the path of one who would die for love of God, for love of humanity, for love of creation. This passage is not about money.
As a minister in a church, I am often given the unbelievable gift and blessing of sitting with people in their times of greatest desperation. I am given the opportunity to help people put their lives back together after they have been shattered apart. And above all, I am asked to help people in the midst of turmoil find some sense of peace in the world. But as a church, we are called to be a family both for those within these walls, but also for those outside as well. To find those who live their lives in quiet desperation and to be with them, both in their desperation and in their hope. In their daily tragedies and their daily triumphs. But we must be clear about who and what it is that we serve, that we love. Just as Jesus asked his disciples, what matters to you, so to must we ask ourselves, what matters to us? What or whom do we love? The way we answer questions about meaning and love will offer us ultimate direction as we proceed from this place.
I said earlier that the hole caused great discontent in the lives of individuals and in the life of humankind as a whole. But it also causes us to evolve and transform. As we begin to better live into devotion to God, we become aware of the brokenness, of the hole in other persons’ lives, in other communities lives and we want to be there in the midst of that. As we receive greater glimpses into that peace which surpasses all understanding, we want others to offer it to all whom we encounter as well. Frederick Buechner, the often quoted, though rarely cited, patron saint of the Presbyterian sermon, once wrote that a call was one’s greatest talents meeting the world’s greatest need. What is your greatest talent? What is our church’s greatest talent? And what do we want to do with it? Do we want to reach out in our community as both a source for sustenance and advocacy for the poor? Do we want to use our vast resources to reach out across our borders and effect change in some of the most destitute places on the planet? Do we want to sit with new young mothers who are unsure of how to take care of their new baby? Do we want to stand with communities of people who have been oppressed for far too long? Our resources offer us an incredible opportunity to take seriously the words of Jesus when he commanded those who would follow him to go out to all the lands and make people aware of God’s love and in that way make them followers of Christ. To visit the sick and the weak, the imprisoned and the desolate. To seek out the stranger and make them welcome, make them family. To find those who hunger and thirst for food and for God and to offer both.
There’s a hole. And in this hole we come face to face with our brokenness and our sin. We are aware of the things that we do and the things that we leave undone and we are humbled in their presence. There’s a hole into which we try to force all the stuff of this life to find meaning and peace in the things in creation which are tangible the things that we know exist. But faith demands something more from us and the hole demands something more as well, something more lasting, more permanent, more Divine. And so we believe, in spite of all evidence to the contrary in God and in love. And we believe that if we peer down into the hole deep enough, at the bottom we will find a light, and that that light will be the life of all creation. And so the search continues. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.