Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23 | Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11 | Luke 12:13-21
Draw near to your servants, oh Lord, and answer their prayers in unceasing kindness that, for those who glory in you as their creator and guide, you may restore what you have created, keep safe what you have restored. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
The last line of the gospel we just listened to stuck out to me in this way. It’s a great question. What is it that really matters to God? What does he really want? What would please him the most if we had a chance to talk to him directly and you said, “Okay, here’s my life. Here’s what I’m doing.” I guess you always want to say this to someone as big as God. “And so how am I doing? What do you think?” That piece of music I just read is one of the main themes of the whole Old Testament, and it’s this idea of taking people from slavery and bringing them into freedom, leading them on a journey that leads them from that which is not satisfying and that which robs them of their dignity and their value into a place of milk and honey and life and beauty. So I think God’s answer would be something like this. “What matters to me is you. What matters to me is exactly who you are and who I created you to be, and I want you to be that. And I want you to be in an environment, in a place where that thing that you are, that gift that you are to the world, can flourish, be fed and be shared. I want you to be in the kingdom.”
Like all religions, the Judeo-Christian religion has so many different ways in which people are being told that this is what matters to God, and the thing that I think I can look back on my life and say I was duped and fooled and lied to, in a sense, is that, when I was growing up in my Catholic faith, I was told over and over and over again that what mattered to God was whether or not I did what he told me to do, whether I obeyed him. It’s amazing. I’ve looked back over my life these last years, and what’s so clear to me, as I look at my life in a family, growing up in — I was born in Kentucky, a suburb of Cincinnati, and then lived in Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Texas. I moved around a lot, but I remember one thing that was so clear to me in my family of origin is the way I would find favor with my parents was to always do what they told me to do. Back then, in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, there was a pretty common feeling about children that they are needing to be trained, and the thing you wanted to train them in most was that they would always do what the parents asked. There was nothing more disrespectful than not to say please and thank you to your parents and not to always do exactly what they said, and I learned early that, when you do that, they have a tremendous sense, or I had a sense that they really did like me more than maybe my brother who didn’t always — well, it wasn’t that he did bad things, but I decided obedience, if that’s good, well then, how about if I decide that I’m going to take care of my parents? If they enjoy me more because I have done what they say, then there’s other ways I could figure out to please them, and so I started figuring out ways to do it. So I was always trying to be the extra-helpful, loving, little boy, both to my teachers, to my parents. I wanted so desperately to be perfect, because that was the key to being loved.
That was in my family, but it was also so much in my religion, because I remember so much listening to the way in which God responded to me as I was taught by the nuns in my Catholic schools. They basically told me that it wasn’t so much, they said, he doesn’t like you if you’re bad exactly. It was worse. They said, “No, he’ll burn you in hell if you die and you’ve been bad.” Well, that — burn in hell? A seven-, eight-, nine-year-old, what do they think that means? He’ll destroy you, cause you incredible pain. So with the motive of, “I don’t want to be destroyed, I don’t want to be in pain,” I would say, “All right. I’ll figure a way to make it in this world. I will do everything I can to please adults.” And in a way, it worked for a while, until I realized that that became the way I loved, and that’s the way I lived my life. Then it became something I deeply resented.
So let’s look at this set of readings, because one of the things that is so interesting about the first reading, from Ecclesiastes — it’s such a weird book in a sense, but it goes into all the things that people tend to do to make their life better. “I want to be rich. I want to have a large family. I want to be successful. I want to be seen as wonderful. I get caught up in a thing called possessions.” What’s so bad about possessions? Jesus warned the rich man that he had too many possessions. Ecclesiastes is saying, if you’re trying to work for possessions, you’re just wasting your time. It’s a no-win deal. It’s all vanity. It’s in vain, because they won’t ever produce what you think they will produce. So what is a possession? It’s a thing that you strive to achieve that gives you some kind of value and worth, which presumes that you don’t have any real value or worth, the most — I think, fullness of the revelation of Judeo-Christianity is in Jesus, and what he said to the people is just amazing. He told us that we were loved because of who we are, not because of what we do. He told us we had to respect each other, have reverence for each other and never judge, never criticize, never condemn, never punish in the sense of revenge. Why? Because he’s trying to say that you have such value and dignity as you are, not in what you possess or how well you act. There was nothing in my youth that ever gave me the sense that I, myself, no matter whether I was good or bad, would be loved — nothing. And look at the way we often think about our value. If you are doing — this is what Ecclesiastes is so worried about. If you’re spending your whole time stressed and worried about improving the way you look, what you have, who you know, where you go, if all of that is any way caught up in your psyche, that this is what makes me special, then you’re caught in what Kohelet — that’s the writer of Ecclesiastes — says is just wasted time — wasted time. What you have, what you possess, even though it gives you a sense of wellbeing at the moment you have it, it’s not going to work, because in a sense, at the end, you don’t leave this world with anything other than your dignity, your value, your worth and whether or not you made other people, or helped other people be aware of that very same thing, their dignity and their value as a human, not as a beautiful human or a wealthy human or a human of the same worth as you, in terms of the way the culture sees different races. It’s so hard for me to believe that we had a — my homeland — I’m from Germany, and we had somehow decided, not that long ago, that the best thing that any — that the best thing God ever did was produce the Aryan race, and anything less than that was not valued and could be actually exterminated. That sounds so horrendous. At the same time, we do that to races, to genders, to people. We say they’re not valuable, because they aren’t the way we are. They aren’t believing the way we are. They need to have these possessions that give them value.
Where do you find the ability to have real reverence for everyone? How do you do it? Well, it seems like the only way you can do anything as radical as that is to embrace the radical message of Jesus, because that’s exactly what he was trying to teach. It’s not about what you do. It’s not about your actions. It starts with the essence of who you are, your dignity, your value as one created by God that is eternal, that came into this world — and I want to say this without any judgment against anyone. You walk into your culture, into your family of origin, and you pick up a whole lot of stuff that’s not true. It almost seems to me that the reason you’re here then is to work through that stuff so it doesn’t get passed on to the next generation, lies upon lies upon lies. Stop lying to each other, as Paul says.
So where’s the hook? Why does this happen so often in religion and families? It’s because of one thing, I think. I know this is what I learned. Maybe you didn’t have as big a dose as this. It’s the one thing that pleases God is perfection. He loves perfection. Paul says think about the things of heaven, the things above. Whenever you hear in scripture about the things of heaven and the things of earth, the difference is not that heaven is so perfect and earth is so bad. It’s heaven is truth, and the earth is filled with lies. But the earth is, in a way, a source of such life for us. The earth resonates energy, life into us, each other. We resonate life and energy into each other because of our being, not because of our performance. So perfection is a really difficult thing for us to comprehend when it comes to is that what God wants, perfection. You know the famous quote everybody uses. “Well, it says in scripture be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” And if perfect means without flaw, without any trace of anything human, like weak or selfish or self-centered, if you have anything like that, you’re trash in the eyes of God. That image of perfection is all wrong. No, it’s be perfectly who you are. Be perfectly human. When Jesus, who was God, came into the world and perfection, absolute, total perfection was the goal of God being in a human being, and when God was in Jesus, Jesus was fully who he was intended to be, he wouldn’t have made enemies. He wouldn’t have failed. He would have done everything perfect. If he wasn’t human, he could have done that, I suppose, but being human is struggling, working through our shortcomings. And our shortcomings teach us how to deal with the issues that are there, and I just can’t imagine what my life would be like if I wasn’t dedicated, at least midpoint in my life, to paying attention to my darkness, my shadow, my weaknesses and starting to deal with those and learning about them and where did I connect with them and what is the lie that made them seem like a positive thing. You do that work, and you find you unravel something, and it’s like, “Oh my God, I’ve been lied to. I’ve been cheated. I’ve been told that the goal of my religion is not authenticity, being honest and true to who you are. No, it’s about cleaning up your act and making sure it isn’t in any way, shape or form imperfect.
And listen to the two things that Jesus made his primary ministry. Stop judging, and start forgiving. Now why? If perfection is the goal, you don’t criticize each other for being imperfect. You don’t punish each other for being imperfect. Well then, where is perfection going to go? It’s going to just turn into something that is just like, “Doesn’t matter. You can be anybody you want.” Why do we do that? Why do we make things either/or? Either you’re perfect, or you’re just horrible. No, we’re constantly struggling with imperfection, and I love the opening prayer, because it said something like this: please God, whatever you’re restoring in us, protect what you restored. Well, what an interesting thing to say to someone when you’re teaching them. You don’t say, “Listen, I want to teach you some things. Well, actually what I want to do is restore you, like almost reboot you back to your original, core self,” like you’re not damaged like we sometimes think we are because of some event that happened in the past. No, we come into the world with some history, yes, with a kind of memory, ancestral memory of the way life is. Yes, we have that, and then we enter into our family, and we have that to deal with. And I’m not trying to say that life is always going to be something that is negative, that every experience you have is going to be negative from your parents or ancestors. No, you’ve also learned from them everything that is good. All your ancestors learned, you got that too, and yet it needs purification — purification.
What’s the difference between perfection and purification? Well, purification is an ongoing process of continually turning things around, looking at them again. It’s called conversion. You realize things as you get older. It’s the wonderful thing about getting older. You start seeing patterns that are destructive, and the biggest pattern that this set of readings seems to be implying is that you’ve got to be careful about too much stress and worry and pressure about being somebody you’re not, about being some perfect being. Jesus will look at you and say — well, all you’re going to do is just be stressed your whole life. You’re never enough. What a horrible thought, to be in a way of life that you’re never enough. How do we get that reverence back, reverence for who each of us is and will always be? We will always be gathered into the arms of a loving God who said, “I made you, and I want you to experience who I made you to be. And you’re wonderful.”
Father, this gift, this ticket you’ve given us to a new life, a fuller life, is your love for us just as we are, imperfect, broken, lost at times, even mean to each other at times, but you look at us always and see the essence of who we are. It never overshadows the beauty of what you created. You know that, and we have such a hard time seeing that. So bless us with the eyes that you have awakened in us, opened in us, restored in us so we can see the beauty of everything you create and have deep respect and reverence for one another as we are on our journey to become more and more authentic. Amen.