Vanity, Adulting, and Being “Rich Towards God”

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Lake Ossipee, Camp Calumet

Sermon given at Camp Calumet
Freedom, New Hampshire

Luke 12:13-21

People sometimes find hanging out with pastors weird.

Our fearless leader, Bishop Hazelwood, highlighted at my recent installation how pastors don’t often want to freely tell strangers what they do for a living, especially in an enclosed space like an airplane. ‘Cause if I’m sitting next to you on an airplane and I tell you I’m a pastor, depending on your history of religion, you might feel weird. Then I feel weird for making you feel weird. Then we both feel weird.

Or even better, a person might give me their whole history with the church, or confess their sin, or you’ll tell me their real feelings about organized religion.

And all I really want to do is read my book.

But people tend to feel uncomfortable with us, I assume, because no one’s ever told them the big secret: that most pastors are really, exactly, just like everybody else. (I say “most” because, like any other demographic of people, some of us are admittedly a little strange.)

I often wonder if it’s because most people, especially people who aren’t regular church people, see us in the huge moments in their lives: births and baptisms, marriages, deaths and funerals. They’re used to seeing us in big moments. They know that we’re often kind of like midwives in these big life moments, easing the processes for everyone, facilitating, helping things to happen, caring for people in the midst of what’s happening, whether it’s joyful or painful.

I love the TV show Nurse Jackie. In one episode, the main character, an ER nurse, is talking to a police officer and remarks how both of them see people through some of the worst moments of their lives. How you can be at work right next to someone whose life has just changed forever but for you, it’s Tuesday. And I think that’s part of why pastors are regarded as somehow set apart — in the same way doctors and nurses and police officers are.

But I think there’s more to it, because pastors do more than help people through big moments — we think about the spiritual side of things. The deeper meaning of life and death. The things we often hide our faces from. So I think that sometimes people regard us as weirdly set apart is because they want to keep that existential dread far from them.

One of my favorite cartoons recently was entitled “Adult Life.” It showed several different panels of a cartoon human “buying a new tie,” “working out,” “making dinner,” and then the next panel says “don’t let the existential dread set in.” In the next panel the character is breaking into a sweat: “Don’t let it set in…”
Then it abruptly goes to the next panel: “Vacuum the rug.”

One comedian I saw recently talked about how every spare moment, if we don’t have something specific to do, we tend to look at our phones. He posited that it’s to get away from our own thoughts about mortality, our own worries about what life is for. I don’t think he’s wrong.

Today, the writer of Ecclesiastes lays it right out there: “Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity!” “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”

Wow. Uh, I thought the Bible was supposed to be encouraging…?

Now, you have to know that I have a special relationship with the writer of Ecclesiastes. He’s the grumpy, “get off my lawn” teacher, the one that reminds you that everything is pointless. He’s the cynic, but the cynic that makes you (or at least me) laugh with all of his bitterness about the futility of life.

“Vanity, vanity,” may seem like a negative cry, but I wonder if the Teacher in Ecclesiastes isn’t trying to free us from something: from trying to earn our own worth. 

In the Gospel lesson, this guy comes up to Jesus and asks him to make his brother give him his share of the inheritance. That’s right — he didn’t just tell Mom, he told the Messiah on his brother.

And Jesus says something I think is kind of hilarious. He says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Let’s recount: the Son of God, who we believe will judge all humanity, just said “Who made me judge?”

Uh… you did?

But Jesus goes on to warn him against all kinds of greed, telling him that storing up riches out of anxiety, in reality, doesn’t make us any less mortal. Nothing we can store up or save or accomplish can make our lives any longer, or make us worth any more than our birthright as children of God.

And then he goes on in the next passage to talk about how we should not worry about our lives, how life is worth more than food and clothing and stuff.

But stuff feels safe to us. Sure. Certain. If we can store up enough food, or the means to make money, then we’ll be safe, we think.

But Jesus reminds us that we are not safe from mortality, and that in the end, stuff just distracts us from what really makes life full: relationships with God and one another. The joy of providing company to one another. The beauty of loving and being loved. The beauty of this place and these people. These things, my friends, are free.

Instead of stockpiling money and stuff, Jesus calls us to be “rich towards God.” The Greek there is an actual motion towards — to put, and to find, your riches in God. In love. In relationship. To find your worth there, not in your bank account.

Your worth, my friends, is not something you earn or stockpile. Your worth is your birthright. Your worth is in being exactly as God created you, in loving other people and allowing yourself to be loved in return.

When Jesus refuses to settle this man’s dispute, he’s not saying that he’s not qualified to be the judge. He’s dismissing it out of hand because he knows that that’s not where true worth is found for humanity. We are made and meant to do more than stockpile riches and die.

Living this way requires some type of faith. Of jumping out into the unknown, letting go of having so much secure-feeling stuff. Of putting resources and energy towards others, instead of just ourselves. And we have no absolute promise of safety.

This week, we will be exploring in Bible study the value of learning to walk in the dark, to put it in author Barbara Brown Taylor’s words. To look headfirst into the darkness of human experience and find the strength of the human spirit. To look into the darkness and find God’s presence. And so you are invited to come and learn with me, starting tomorrow, as we walk through the dark together.

It’s my hope to use and continue to use my role as a pastor, as one who is there for people’s biggest moments, to continue to help them find God in those moments. To be, instead of a strange seat mate on an airplane, someone who teaches people to walk in the dark, even through their anxieties, to enjoy life as God has given it, to realize how truly beloved each of you are.

And this week, no matter what, may you find rest for your souls. May you let go of your worry, if only for this week, let go of your existential dread to put your energy towards enjoying yourself, enjoying this beautiful place, enjoying all of the people that God has brought here to be with you. That, according to both Jesus and the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, is what it means to be rich towards God — to be full of life is to be full of love.

So may you live, and love, this week – it is what you were created to do. Amen.

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