Proper 13, Year C, RCL
4 August 2019
If you go to a place like the Nelson-Atkins art museum, and take a wander among the paintings of the Renaissance period, you are likely to see at least one portrait or still life with a human skull set somewhere in the scene. This was called a memento mori, a reminder of death, both in art and in the scenes it represented — a reminder that we are mortal, lest we grow too arrogant and self-centered. Even in a painting like Holbein’s The Ambassadors, which is seemingly nothing to do with death, the artist put a skull in the foreground, disguised by optical illusion as a piece of driftwood at the explorers’ feet.
At that time it seemed like a very healthy thing, to remind ourselves that one day we will also die, not for the sake of being morbid, but for keeping a sense of perspective about things. And I think in our day and age, we could learn a little bit from that.
One of the reasons I think this is that we are, globally, suffering from the effects of our most deeply cherished — and false — religious belief. Regardless of what creed we hold to, or even if we hold to no creed at all, we all are steeped and stained in this belief. And that belief is that anything that happens to us is a thing that we deserve.
Oh, we pretend we don’t believe it. We write whole books asking why bad things happen to good people, and we know from our everyday experience that floods and fires, illnesses, accidents, random acts of malice, continue to happen to people whether they “deserve” it or not. We say we don’t believe it.
But we do. If we enjoy good fortune, ample money, relative safety, we tend to think that it’s because we’re just that kind of person: smart, industrious, centered, well-brought-up. And if something bad happens to us we become deeply haunted, not so much by the suffering itself, as by a horrifying suspicion that it happened because we’re the kind of person bad things happen to.
This belief has become so entrenched that we apply it to nearly any situation whether it is true or not. And, as humans do, we develop patterns for how misfortunes occur, automatically connecting illness with people who are overweight, crime or indigence with people of color, unintelligence with poverty, not as structures that catch people up regardless of their choices, but as indictments of the character of individuals we meet or hear about.
Why on earth would we persist in such a pernicious and demonstrably false belief? Why would we hold to it more dearly than even our belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Well, there’s one very good reason why, and that is that we can’t bear to grapple with the alternative: which is that Stuff can happen at any time, to any of us, and there is nothing we can do to prevent or control it. It’s just easier, sometimes, to face thinking you’re a bad person than that you can’t control the circumstances you’re in. It’s easier to think that it’s your fault than to contemplate what it might mean that it’s not your fault. It’s less scary to think that somehow it happened because we made it happen to us, that always some chain of our choices could have altered it, if only we’d known, if only we’d thought.
This is the kind of locked-in dichotomy that the memento mori was designed to counteract. And we see it throughout the scriptures for today. Our first reading comes from Ecclesiastes, which we tend to think of as a sort of existential text that doesn’t have much to do with religion. But the Hebrew name for this book undercuts that idea: the Hebrew Bible titles it Koheleth, “the Teacher,” “the Rabbi,” “the worship leader.” Tradition says it was written by Solomon, the king of Israel who had more money and women than he had time to enjoy them in, all because he asked God for wisdom instead. But if the book is any indication, the wisdom has turned to ashes in his mouth. “Useless,” he says, “useless! Everything is useless. No matter what good things I do, they could fall apart at any moment, and even if they don’t, I will die anyway, and the person who comes after me could destroy what I’ve built and I wouldn’t be able to stop them. What even is the point?” In another place in the text, the Teacher describes the flux of events that many people know from a song by the Byrds from the peace movement of the 60s, and the King James version of the text renders one passage in magnificent language: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
It’s not an accident that we think statements like that are an insult to piety. It’s not an accident that we think it’s against our religion to tell people it doesn’t matter if they try to be good. I mean, if people aren’t afraid of losing God’s favor, then how can we keep any order at all?
This summer we’ve been going through the parables of Luke, and all of them are designed to rile the authorities by getting in different ways at a single point. A father, who doesn’t care that his younger son squandered half the farm, celebrates his return in spite of the protests of his hardworking older brother. A man from a despised ethnicity takes pity on a man beaten on the side of the road without knowing or caring whose tribe he belongs to. Workers who only worked an hour get paid as much as people who were hired at the beginning of the day. Wherever Jesus goes, patterns are broken. A woman hungry for the Word is served the good stuff rather than being sent to the kitchen. A sinner is declared forgiven without permission being asked first. Everywhere you look, people are escaping their lot in life — and getting away with it!
When Jesus is on the scene, nothing happens according to what we think people “deserve.”
So, why is this important? Why do we care about this? Well, if your Facebook feed is anything like mine, it’s chock-full of this false dichotomy that I’ve been talking about. Every day some new cruelty, some tweet reporting or boasting the next atrocity — each one casually justified by saying that the people these things are happening to are the kind of people these things ought to be happening to. Mass extinctions, 100-year weather events happening daily, spray-painted swastikas, children in cages — a barrage of filthy chaos that gives us no respite from thinking that the only alternative to this being all our fault is our being utterly helpless to stop it. So we take up feeble arms against this sea of troubles, and post artful memes about living in the moment, appreciating beauty, checking out for a bit to take time for ourselves, cultivating tiny spaces of hope. Honestly, I do this a lot. “I just read this horrible tweet. So here’s a picture of my cat.”
But don’t we ache for a real escape?
What if we gave up even trying to make an argument that someone, or even we ourselves, don’t deserve to suffer? What if we stopped letting that dichotomy set the terms of the debate? What if we stopped wasting outrage on people who are outsourcing their own fear of death by inflicting punishments and deaths on other people? What if we stopped hoarding self-justification against a day when people might see us fall into misfortune and pass judgment on us?
What if we just dropped it. Right at the foot of the cross.
In our epistle reading for today, this is exactly what we are encouraged to do. “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.” Not only are we going to die for certain, in a real and non-trivial sense we have already died. We have descended into the extremity of helplessness, been looked upon with compassion by the eyes of ultimate reality, and been called blameless. And we have gotten away with it.
It is because we have gotten away with it that we are free to take action, to drop our pettiness, to be generous, to be angry without being poisoned by it, to take risks, to persist. We can and must reject all patterns that tell us who deserves what kind of suffering, because we are being renewed in the knowledge of the one who created our risen self. “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!”
And we can understand that “being generous toward God” is a paradoxical kind of generosity, because we are not hoarding up reasons to believe we are good people, but allowing God’s own generosity to us flow out in what we give and do.
If we as Christians intend to live and act in these times that we are facing, we need to ask ourselves: Who is our life? It’s a dangerous question to ask, because it strikes at the heart of the dearest religious belief outside (and inside) of the church. It’s also the safest question to ask, because if the ultimate helplessness of your human self is in the safekeeping of God’s reality, what can a false belief do to that?
Who is our life?
Who is your life?
Let us pray the Collect for today.
Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.