Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23 Psalm 49:1-11 Colossians 3:1-11 Luke 12:13-21
A local United Way office realized that it had never received a donation from the town’s most successful lawyer. The person in charge of contributions called the lawyer to persuade him to contribute: “Our research shows that out of a yearly income of at least $500,000, you give not a penny to charity. Wouldn’t you like to give back to the community in some way?”
The lawyer mulled this over for a moment and replied: “First, did your research also show that my mother is dying after a long illness, and has medical bills that are several times her annual income?” Embarrassed, the United Way rep mumbled, “Um...no.” The lawyer continued: “Or that my brother, a disabled veteran, is blind and confined to a wheelchair?”
The stricken United Way rep began to stammer out an apology.
The lawyer interrupted her apology, saying: “Or that my sister’s husband died in a traffic accident,” the lawyer’s voice rising in indignation, “leaving her penniless with three children?!” The humiliated United Way rep, completely beaten, said simply, “I had no idea...” On a roll, the lawyer cut her off once again: “...So, if I didn’t give any money to them, why should I give any money to you?”
We know by the heat and humidity that summer is upon us, but in the lectionary cycle the reading from Colossians strikes the tone of New Year’s resolutions. We hear the call to turn over a new leaf and live a new life in Christ. It unfolds into what we are because of our union with Christ. We hear it consistently throughout the passage – a time for ending bad habits and beginning again as a new self. What an incredible affirmation of God’s presence here at Grace. It shows us that God cares about the smallest of details in our lives. It shows us that scripture continues to be relevant to the events in our lives.
The reading from Ecclesiastes speaks of the dominant theme of the book – the vanity and futility of life. It is, with Proverbs and Job, one of the wisdom books. Written by Solomon and addressed to mostly wealthy men of that time. So many of those men and perhaps us, are grasping for the sweet – possessions, experience, power, and pleasure – and nothing of substance is found within. Life seems empty, meaningless,…and they despair. Solomon points us toward seeking happiness and fulfillment in God alone. But we first must hear the negative and pessimistic aspects of his human experience.
Like the reading from Ecclesiastes, Psalm 49 presents a rather pessimistic reading of human experience.
In Colossians, we are provided with a list of evils, distractions, obstacles to leave behind in our self-centered lives. We are to embrace our new God-centered selves. But the letter seems a bit harsh. Paul had never been to the church at Colossae (kol-oss-E), nor did he found the church. The letter moves beyond the normal language of change. Hearing that “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (v.3) and that for these reasons you should “put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly” (v.5) takes the conversation to the extreme. We, modern Christians may have a problem with that and in that struggle we may not experience our faith journeys as acutely or intensely as we could.
How are we to approach this transformation without getting tangled up in those unhelpful descriptions of our old selves – the list includes impurity, passion, evil desire and greed lived out in our anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language. We are to focus on the things above vs. things earthly, new self vs. old self. It is a time of reimagining creative opportunities for renewal and transformation.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul explains true Christian behavior – putting on the new self by accepting Jesus Christ and regarding our sinful earthly nature as dead. We can be transformed, we can change our moral and ethical behavior by letting Christ live within us, so that he can shape us.
For this to happen, we must make a conscious, daily decision to remove anything that supports or feeds those desires that take us away from God. In so doing, we rid ourselves of our “old life” and “put on” the new way of living given by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. “Putting on the new self” means that our conduct matches our faith. If we call ourselves Christians, then our actions should reflect that. To be a Christian means more than just making good resolutions and having good intentions; it means taking right actions. Every Christian is on a continuing education program. The more we know of Christ and his work, the more we are being changed, transformed. Because this process is lifelong, we must continue learning, growing, loving and stretching. It takes practice, an ongoing awareness, patience, and concentration to keep our will in line with God’s will. Paul tells us that the Christian church should have no barriers of nationality, race, sex, educational level, social standing, wealth, gender, religion, or power. Christ breaks down all barriers and accepts all people who come to him. Nothing should keep us from spreading the Good News. We, as Christians should be building bridges, not walls.
Our relationship with God is something like a human relationship. It grows and deepens to the extent that we pay attention to it – by taking time, spending time in it, attending to it. It’s about longing and prayer and worship – that’s how we center in God. To center in God and not in all the other things that we could center in is to grow in our relationship with God.
We are all God’s family. The parable of the rich fool is only found in Luke. It is a story pointing out the folly of coveting, the failure to see the distinction between what one has and what one is. To covet is to violate the law of Moses (Exod. 20:17), and the teachings of the prophets (Micah 2:2), and it seems to be a widespread problem in the early church, not that it isn’t a problem today. It comes in many forms, from desiring something that belongs to another, to wanting to accumulate more when we already have enough to meet our needs. You can just hear the rich fool saying, “We’re going to need a bigger barn.” But does he? He seems unable, like so many of us, to know what is enough until he reaches the point of too much. This craving to hoard as a guarantee against insecurity is not only an act of disregard for those in need, but it puts things in the place of God. Luke calls it not being “rich toward God.” Paul calls it worshiping and serving “the creature rather than the Creator.”
The man is not a criminal. He did not steal from his neighbors. His land produces bountifully; the soil, sun, and rain join in making him a wealthy man. He makes an economic decision and replaces his old barns with larger ones. He is, after all, not wasteful or careless. If, then, he is not unjust, what is he? He is a fool according to the parable, because he lives completely in and for himself. He dies suddenly, and “the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Again and again, Luke will raise the subject of possessions, holding up as the standard for the Christian community - the voluntary sharing of one’s goods. This was the message of John the Baptist, and of Jesus and was the practice of early Christians. And it continues to be the practice of a community of faith. The story forces us to ask ourselves what our definition of “enough” is. How much do we need before we have enough to live? If life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions, what does it consist of – family, friends, influence, country, church? Does it consist of love, compassion, empathy, community? Our lives thrive in our relationship with God and how that plays out in our work, our play, our words and our ways. Perhaps the most important question to ask ourselves today is, “How do we show our definition of a faithful life in the way we live our lives?” Where are you storing up all that makes life, life – in our garages, our wardrobes, our heads, our hearts? For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21).
I have seen Grace’s heart, looking back on acts of mercy and compassion. People giving freely when we heard of Mitchell McBee’s death on the Brunswick Highway several years ago. No one to pay to have him cremated. We began a fund to help folks like Mitchell without funds or family to help. John Turner and Gloria Ammons benefitted from that giving. I have experienced it in moments of celebration and in times of sorrow. I have heard it in the acts of kindness with folks giving to the discretionary fund during times of particular need. We have grown in sharing these experiences. Perhaps, together we can newly discover God’s abundance in each of us – in our hearts, our friendships, our lives and perhaps our pocket books. Christ’s love gives us the power to live for him now, and he gives us hope for the future. In opening our hearts to create new selves, our God-centered selves, all manner of things shall be well. Amen.
Colossians continues in verses 12 to 14 with “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
My prayer for Grace continues to be for clarity, hope, healing and wholeness, God’s desire for all of us. We must pray for others, welcome them, embrace them, and forgive them - we are to build bridges of reconciliation, not walls of rejection and isolation.
We are to put on love, love which binds all virtues together in perfect unity.This reminds me of one of my favorite hymns, especially – there’s a wideness in God’s mercy.That wideness can encompass any and all of my foolishness, my self-centeredness, my inadequacy, my mistakes.Mercy is compassion in action.It belongs to parenthood.Mercy protects, endures, energizes, and heals.Grace is mercy’s helper.Grace belongs to God’s magnificent power.It raises, rewards, and always exceeds what our love and labor deserve.Grace is evidence of God’s abundance, God’s generosity, and God’s wonderful kindness.Grace comes from God’s abundant love and transforms our numerous mistakes into holy joyful living.