Vanity of vanities



2Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,Fallen_leaves
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

This is the only Sunday in the three-year cycle of lessons that we read from Ecclesiastes.  It’s not the kind of book that lends itself to the way the Revised Common Lectionary uses the Old Testament.  Most Old Testament readings either match the Gospel in theme or serve as a foil.  So, this week, Jesus speaks about the folly of the rich man and the danger of possessions, and the despair of Koheleth (the voice in Ecclesiastes) at the futility of amassing wealth serves as backdrop.  But there is more to this work than is illuminated by using it as a set for Jesus.

Vanity of vanities.  The word translated ‘vanity’ refers to air or breath: fragile, insubstantial, fading, empty.  Doubling the word is a Hebrew form for the intensive.  So Israel’s holiest place is the “holy of holies,” and this term for utter futility means the greatest emptiness.  When Koheleth says “Vanity of Vanities!  All is vanity,” he cries out that life is completely meaningless.

It’s not a comfortable thought.  But sometime or other, we all think it.

We skip around in Ecclesiastes to pull out a set of verses to complement the Gospel.  What we skip is an observation that the world keeps on turning; the years run on; one life is replaced by another in a never-ending cycle; “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Human labor is a futility.  What we build passes away.  And the author struggles with that fundamental human question: “What’s the point?”

What’s the point of wealth if it passes out of my hands to another?  What’s the point of learning if we all end up in the grave?  What good are the pleasures of life – wine and song – if we are destined for dust?  Is there meaning in living only for the moment?  What good are we if the memory of our lives passes away forever?

Maybe this frightening despair, this profound questioning of all that occupies our daily life, is part of the reason we avoid this book.  Only it’s not just despair.  There is deep and disquieting truth here.  If we are living for work, for home, for family, if we aspire to fame or greatness, death robs us of it all in the end.  And sometimes before the end.  A career can crash and burn over a text message.  Tragedy can steal loved ones.  Fame is fickle.  Disease random.  And our recent flirtation with another great depression reminds us that wealth itself can be ephemeral.

Does it make life meaningless?  Do we therefore “eat and drink for tomorrow we die?”  Grab what pleasures we can and worry not about those left behind?

Or does it drive us instead to the source of life’s meaning: the God who created humanity and placed us in a garden to tend and keep it?  The God who showed his face in Jesus and bids us find in him our true life?

Uh oh, Jesus is talking about money

Watching for the morning of August 4

Year C

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

Incipit to the Gospel of Luke from the Book of...

Incipit to the Gospel of Luke from the Book of Kells, c. 800 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The assigned readings for Sunday have us skipping over the rest of chapter 11 and the beginning of chapter 12 in the gospel of Luke to take up what is commonly known as the Parable of the Rich Fool – so the common element in the readings is possessions.

What we bypass is the accusation that Jesus is driving out demons by satanic power; the message that no sign will be given to this wicked generation but the sign of Jonah; the reference to the eye as the lamp of the body and, if that eye is dark, how great the darkness within; the woes that Jesus pronounces on the Pharisees and the warning to beware of their teaching; and the encouragement not to be afraid when you are persecuted.  All of this reminds us that Jesus is on his way to that final showdown in Jerusalem.

When we arrive at this parable about the rich fool who built bigger barns to store his abundant harvest only to perish that night, it is set in a context of conflict between the defenders of the world as it is, with all its injustices, and Jesus message of what should be – and what will be.

Jesus’ teaching about wealth and possessions is not an abstract discussion – it looks out upon a community where some are very wealthy and others deep in poverty and debt and reminds us all of God’s declaration that he is the defender/redeemer of the poor.

“Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” (Psalm 68:5)

The Prayer for August 4, 2013

O God, from whom all good things come,
you have called us to live with open hands,
sharing what you provide with those who are in need.
Grant us humility to receive your gifts with thanksgiving,
and the wisdom and compassion to share them freely with others.

The Texts for August 4, 2013

First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” – The poet reflects on the meaningless of life in the face of death that renders all human striving meaningless.

Psalmody: Psalm 49:1-12
“When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.” – The poet is not troubled by the threats of the wealthy and powerful, for their wealth cannot deliver them from the grave.

Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-11
“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” –
Paul writes for us to put to death the deeds of our fallen nature and clothe ourselves in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 12:13-21
“Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” – asked to arbitrate and inheritance dispute, Jesus warns about the corrupting power of possessions.

Once more on prayer

Sunday Evening

Psalm 138

Vending machine

Vending machine (Photo credit: Paul Holloway)

3 I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart

Prayer often embarrasses us.  We want to believe that God comes to our aid, protects us in trouble, strengthens us in trial, guides us in decisions, opens doors and closes them, heals both hearts and bodies.  But we don’t quite know how to make sense of it all.  There are those nagging questions that come when one person is saved and another perishes.  Did God save us and not the other – or not save us like he did the other?  Was I not worthy of aid?  Why has her prayer for work been answered and mine not?  Or his prayer for a partner and mine not?  Or our prayer for a child and theirs not?  We quickly get lost in such haunting thoughts.  So we resort to a conviction of “God’s perfect plan” or our prayers become softly generic, “God be with so and so who has cancer.”

If we imagine prayer as access to some sort of divine vending machine, then we are going to struggle with it every time we don’t get the chips we want.  Did I not have the right change?  Did I not push the right buttons?  Is the machine not working right?  Why did it give me sugar-free gum instead of Cheetos?

Prayer is a deep mystery.  It is about the communion of our hearts with God.  God doesn’t want a relationship like a child at college – calling only when he needs more money, or not calling because she expects none.  God wants to know what’s going on with us, what we’re thinking, what we’ve been learning, what we’ve been experiencing, how we are growing, what we care about, who we care about. God wants to know what we need, wants us to talk with him about the challenges we are facing, because those conversations help us see what we need to do, help us gain from God’s wisdom and insight and character. God wants to be the loving parent who knows when to help and when to let us struggle through, because God is concerned with the person we are becoming – and with the world our world is becoming.

There is no embarrassment about such prayer, because such prayer understands that the goal of all prayer is for God’s kingdom to come, for God to govern my heart and our world by his Spirit.  Prayer opens that door.  When we come before God with all that we are (and all that we feel and fear and need) then the way is open for God’s Spirit to breathe into us and to breathe into our world.  Sometimes we get Cheetos.  Sometimes we get broccoli.  But always we get God’s good and loving and mighty Spirit.

8 The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.

+   +   +

(From today’s sermon, “Ask, and it will be given” – posted in Recent Sermons)

The point of the parable is that if we will do the right thing even to our “enemies” because of our sense of honor, how much more will God act honorably when we ask of him?!  As laughable as it is to think of a villager making silly excuses to deny bread, it is much more laughable to think that God will not come to our aid.

Why is this a powerful message?  Because they live with the idea that God doesn’t come to the aid of sinners.  Remember what the leaders say when they investigate how the blind man was healed in John 9?  “We know that God does not listen to sinners.  He listens to the godly man who does his will.”(9:31NIV)

Holy Spirit 29

Holy Spirit 29 (Photo credit: Waiting For The Word)

God is waiting to give us his Holy Spirit.  God is waiting to govern our lives and our world in his grace.  God is waiting to create in us generous hearts.  God is waiting to create in us true compassion.  God is waiting to create in us love of our neighbor and love of our enemies.  God is waiting to create in us his Spirit of reconciliation.  God is waiting to create in us a world where bread is shared.  God is waiting to create in us a world where swords are beaten into plowshares.  God is waiting to create in us a world where God’s Spirit governs every heart.

Strength of soul


Psalm 138

Con el menos fuerte al hombro. / David Ostlund...

Con el menos fuerte al hombro. / David Ostlund – a strength athlete from the USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3 On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.

 “You increased my strength of soul.”  The Tanakh translation published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1985 says: “you inspired me with courage.”  The New International Version originally said: “you made me bold and stouthearted,” and has revised it to read: “you greatly emboldened me.”  The challenge is the word here translated “increased.”  It’s hard to know for sure the meaning of a rare word used in poetry.

But strength of soul we understand.  When God breathed into the first human being he became a ‘soul,’ a living being.  There are times in life when that life force within us seems worn and weary, when we are tossed by events rather than riding high, when we are tentative, unsure, unwilling to assert ourselves, unwilling to stand for what we know is right, when we have lost the energy to fight the good fight – when we are uninspired, un-spirited.

Perhaps David sings this psalm in response to some battlefield victory, acclaiming the God who “inspired [him] with courage,” made him “bold and stouthearted” – a battlefield victory that makes all the kings of the earth take note of the God of Israel, the God who looks upon lowly David and lifts him up for God’s purpose.  But the battlefield is not the only field of battle, victory over kings not the only victory we seek – and placed now in the psalter it is no longer David’s prayer; it is our prayer.

Most of our prayers are for strength in time of trial, help in trouble, healing in sickness, protection when vulnerable – for us or for others – but, as for David, the gift in every prayer is strength of soul.

We use our friends and family this way.  When trying to make a decision, when trying to build up the courage for what is right, when facing a challenge, we turn to them and “borrow” some of their psychic energy.  We use their strength to bolster our own to do what needs to be done.

This is one of the liabilities of living alone, and the sorrow of a family when the partners diminish each other rather than support and call out the best of each other – we lose that opportunity to borrow “strength of soul.”  It is what parents most need to give their children as they grow, to help them build their own strength of soul.  Our strength gives them strength to learn to do the right thing, especially when it is hard.

In prayer we are not asking God to solve our problems; we are asking God to lend us his strength of soul in the midst of them.  We are asking God to inspire us, encourage us, strengthen us, sustain us and guide us in doing whatever needs to be done.

Our hearts often want God to make the problem go away – and God is not beyond the occasional wonder.  But mostly God is in this business of lending us his Spirit, for this is his true delight for us: that we would be filled with his Spirit.

“When you pray, say: ‘Father, …’”


Luke 11

Aboriginer från Australien

Aboriginer från Australien (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Our first prayer should be “Lord, teach us to pray.”

We talk about prayer as if it is something everyone knows how to do, but the followers of Jesus ask him to teach them how to pray.

It seems odd that they should make this request.  These are men and women who recited scripture and prayers every day.  There were prayers for rising in the morning and prayers at the close of day.  There were prayers for the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine.  There were prayers for the slaughter of animals and the planting of seed.  There were prayers for childbirth and for dying.  The incense in the temple represented the prayers of the people continually rising up to God.  So what are Jesus’ students wanting to learn?

The assumption is they want a prayer that would identify them as followers of Jesus – like a team slogan or fight song.  Go Blue.  O H – I O.  “Teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”  “Give us a prayer that will mark us as members of the Jesus party.”

What Jesus gave us wasn’t supposed to become a team prayer.  It wasn’t supposed to be a convenient way to mark the end of meetings or the conclusion of a pastoral visit.  It was meant to teach us how to pray.

What we need to learn about prayer is not a set of words, or a particular technique.  Learning to pray isn’t about learning to fold your hands and bow your head, nor memorizing words to recite.  What we need to learn – what Jesus teaches us – has to do with the spirit of prayer.

How do we pray?  We pray to God as to a dear parent not as to a king.  We pray knowing we will be heard not hoping to be heard.  We pray confident of a father’s love, not hoping for a royal courtesy.  We pray simply and directly, without the need to fawn and court favor.  We pray sincerely, not trying to manipulate.  “When you pray, say: ‘Father…’”

It’s not as easy as it sounds.  Many of us have a hard time learning to pray this way.  We find ourselves conscious of our own words rather than conscious of the one who loves us.  We feel like an adolescent on his first date rather than the easy exchange of a small child resting in the arms her father.

With that simple word ‘Father’ Jesus transformed the idea of prayer.  We are not speaking to power; we are speaking to love.  What has to be learned is to trust that love.  We have to get beyond love as a concept (“God is love,”) to love as a living reality (“God loves me”).  We have to get past the idea of God far off and understand God near at hand.  We must get let go of God as an abstract reality and let it become a living relationship (“I am my beloved’s and he is mine”)

Prayer the way Jesus teaches is more like riding a bicycle than learning to walk.  It doesn’t come naturally to us.  But when we have learned it, the whole world is opened to us.

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

Teach us to pray


Luke 11

My parents are so crazy, I just can't help lau...

My parents are so crazy, I just can’t help laughing… (Photo credit: Ed Yourdon)

11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

I don’t want to answer this question.  I like it as a simple rhetorical question.  Of course no parent would give their child something harmful when they ask for food.  And if we wouldn’t think it, how much less would God?!

But the question is haunting.  Sadly, we live in a world where some human beings are so bent out of shape, so distorted from that image of God in which we were made, that they will harm their child.  Sometimes they make the national media circus; more often it is hidden in secrecy and shame.

I have heard these stories, felt the anguish, seen the tears of these children who in adult life finally break the silence.  Such actions seem unthinkable to me – which is precisely the point.  It is unthinkable for a parent to do evil to their children. Why would we think it of God?

It is not God who is responsible for the sorrows of the world; we are – we who have fallen so far from God’s image that evils happen.  I promise you I understand the question “Why does God let this happen?”  But it is not God who walked away from Eden.  It is not God who slew Abel or vowed 77-fold revenge.  Jesus talked about 77-fold forgiveness.

The suffering of God is not Jesus crucified, it is that his children are so quick to crucify.

In this broken world, with our bent human hearts, comes the reminder that if even we, the broken, consider it evil to do evil to our children, how much more unthinkable would it be for our heavenly parent to cause evil to us?

God is not interested in doling out punishments (or, for that matter, rewards); God is interested in pouring out his Holy Spirit.

It is God’s Spirit that God is eager to give.  God’s spirit of compassion.  God’s Spirit of truth.  God’s Spirit of mercy.  God’s Spirit of love.  God’s Holy Spirit.  The Spirit that was present in Jesus.  The Spirit that was breathed out by the risen Jesus.  The Spirit that was poured out on Pentecost.  The Spirit of Life.  The Spirit of all that is unperishing.  The Spirit that shaped humanity when we dwelt in harmony with God in the garden we call Eden.  The Spirit of peace, wholeness, reconciliation, joy.

When we pray, it is right to bring before God every human need.  But  our greatest need is for God’s Spirit to shape our spirit.  That’s what Jesus teaches us to pray for.  That’s what Jesus reminds us God is waiting to give.

Interceding for Sodom


Genesis 18

Abraham. Russian icon. 198 x 89 cm. Andrei Rub...

Abraham. Russian icon. 198 x 89 cm. Andrei Rublev Museum of Early Russian Art, Moscow, Russia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

23Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

So many are so willing to look upon the Old Testament as if it were filled with a vengeful God and warring people.  Yet here, when God approaches the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, renowned for their abuse of the poor and vulnerable, Abraham dares to argue with God to spare them.  Jesus isn’t making it up from nowhere when he tells us to love our enemies.  He is not asking us to feel warm and fuzzy about them; he is asking us to act in their best interest, to treat them as we would members of our own household, to recognize that they are human beings whom God would gather with all into his grace and life, to argue with God for their protection and well-being.  Those who pray for God to wreak vengeance on the wicked are expressing understandable human emotions, just not the thoughts of God.

Jonah ran from his prophetic responsibility lest the hated Assyrians might repent and God forgive – but God chased him down and sent him back to his task.  And what Jonah feared came to pass; God spared Nineveh.

When Elisha brings the captured enemy army to the king, the king asks, “Shall I kill them, my father?  Shall I kill them?”  Elisha tells the king to feed them and he sets before them a banquet, bringing an end to the cycle of violence.

There is violence in the world and there are times to take up the sword to protect the weak and vulnerable, but the God of the scriptures is not a warrior god.  For the truth of this, one need only consider that there are times God sides with Israel’s enemies against his own people because they have forgotten justice and the care of the poor.

So Abraham prays.  He prays for the wicked cities.  He prays not that they will be shown the error of their ways and become like Abraham, but that God will spare them in the day of judgment.  He argues that the few good men and women there make the whole city worth saving.  He asks God to act in a manner consistent with God’s character.  “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

Abraham asks God to show faithfulness and mercy even as God has asked it of us.

“You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and you’re your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons [and daughters] of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and send rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)


Watching for the morning of July 28

Year C

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 12 / Lectionary 17

Our Father ........

Our Father …….. (Photo credit: Ms Reflections)

The psalmist sings a song of praise for God who answers prayer.  Abraham intercedes with God for the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.   And Jesus teaches his followers how to pray.

In a world where deities were approached in much the same manner as one sought the favor of the wealthy and powerful – with fawning obsequiousness – we hear of a God whose ears are open to the lowly and who asks to be called father.

The Prayer for July 28, 2013

Faithful God,
you teach us to call upon you
in every time of need
as a child speaking to a dear father
and promise to answer us
with the gift of your Spirit.
Give us confidence in prayer
and hearts that seek
for your kingdom to come
and your will to be done
in our lives and in our world

The Texts for July 28, 2013

First Reading: Genesis 18:16-32
“”Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” – Having hosted the three visitors and escorted them on their way, God informs Abraham of his intention to discern the truth of the cries that have come to him about the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham intercedes on their behalf, urging God to save the cities for the sake of the righteous who dwell there.

Psalmody: Psalm 138
“On the day I called, you answered me” – The poet praises God for answering his prayer and care for the lowly.

Second Reading: Colossians 2:6-19
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit.” –
The author moves to a central theme, urging the community in Colossae not to be led astray by teachings other than the message of Christ they received.

Gospel: Luke 11:1-13
“One of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’” – Jesus teaches his followers about the content of prayer, giving them what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.  Then he urges them to faithfulness in prayer assuring them of God’s eagerness to respond to their cries with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

One Table

Sunday Evening

Colossians 1

Russian Orthodox Icon of Jesus

Russian Orthodox Icon of Jesus (Photo credit: freestone)

20 through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Jesus didn’t come to establish an ecclesiastical institution.  He didn’t come to create a competing religion to those already in existence.  He came to reconcile all things.  He came to bring the peace of God.  He came to gather all humanity around one table.

People marching in the name of Trayvon Martin gives evidence of the rifts that still divide us.  The violence between Sunni and Shia, the war for power in Syria, the conflicts in Egypt, the dead beneath the floodwaters in India or shoddy buildings in Bangladesh, the wars of the drug lords and the happy American market for those drugs reveal only a portion of how fractured the world is.

For all the frailties of Christian congregations throughout the world, for all the sins of leaders and members, for all the cold hearts and petty conflicts, yet each Sunday – sometimes in spite of ourselves – we bear witness that there is a God whose purpose is to reconcile.  We bear witness that the power at the heart of the universe is a will to gather all people to one table.

+   +   +

(From today’s sermon, “The Good Portion” – posted in Recent Sermons)

“Jesus loves Martha as much as he loves Mary.  Jesus honors Martha’s work as much as he honors Mary.  Lots of other teachings of Jesus suggest that Mary should help her sister.  And lots of other teachings in scripture tell us not to be anxious.  Neither of these are the point of this text.  That’s not what makes this text explode off the page.  What makes the text jump off the page is the audacity of Mary’s behavior.”

“The point isn’t that Mary chose the good portion; the point is that the good portion has come.  The good portion is here.  And it is here now, for you and for all.  No one who comes to sit at Jesus’ feet will be denied.”

“The good portion has come.  It is the one thing needful.  It is the true banquet of God.  And we are invited to sit at Jesus feet, to feast on his word, to live in his Spirit, to taste the life of eternity now.”

Only One Thing


Luke 10

"Christ in the House of Martha and Mary&q...

“Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” by Jan Vermeer, 1655. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus is being playful.  Martha is preparing a proper banquet for Jesus.  There will be many dishes.  “But,” says Jesus, “there is need for only one.”

The double entendre lies in the interplay between the declaration that they do not need a banquet but a single dish, and the scriptural text “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Only one thing is needful: the voice of God.

Martha is not being rebuked; she is being teased towards the kingdom.  There is a twinkle in Jesus’ eye.  Peace does not come to earth because the banquet is done well; it comes in the hearing of God’s Word.