The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter
Comedian Lily Tomlin says, “The problem with the ‘Rat Race’ is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
We are created human and that means that we are created by the intent and in the image of God. There is a purpose to our humanity and there is spiritual essence to our being. We belong to God whether we submit or not. “All souls are mine, says the Lord. But the soul that sins [separates from me] shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). Without this understanding of our being, without this basis of faith there is no wholeness to our being. Without God a life may appear attractively animated, but it will, unquestionably, be spiritually dead if it is not open to the nurture of God through prayer, service, worship and faith.
To live the fully human life is to know that our purpose may not be necessarily related to our jobs or occupations, nor to our political party, social class or our economics. Rather, in a divinely and wondrously created world overshadowed by grotesque clouds of greed, injustice, violence and indifference; in a world that is fallen far from the intent of its Creator, our Christian purpose is to live lives that in some way reflect the rays of divine light. Rays of compassion, hope, peace and justice. Rays of faith that proclaim that God is alive. But without faith our lives are like stained glass windows in the dark.
Sin distorts this truth like a cloud blocking the sunlight and diminishing the full potential of our humanity. We are not rats, scurrying over each others, consumed with survival. We are human beings, created in the image of a loving and eternal God. We are created for God’s glory, for God’s purpose and for all eternity. This is the light of the Christ, the revelation of God in Jesus. The light that must shine in the dark places of this world: homes, schools, workplace, social circles. Without this light, there are millions who will never know that this life is about more than dreams and obsessions with wealth, pleasure, success and power. Nor will they be freed from sloven slavery to the mundane task of daily survival.
Oh, there is a radiant beauty in life that transcends all that we can know, experience or possess; and it brings us to the joy of a full humanity. As the psalmist invites us: “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8). Yes, we are made for God! We belong to God! St. Augustine prayed, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
This is the truth of our true humanity, which sin distorts and denies us. And it is the message that Jesus is trying to communicate to us in today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 12:13-21). The sin that Jesus addresses in today’s Gospel lesson is greed, a particular type of greed; we call it “covetousness.” Jesus said, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness for a one’s life does not consist in the abundance of ones possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Greed is an obsession. Covetousness is the obsession with possessing something that belongs to another. Jealousy, as a type of greed, is the obsession of wanting something like or on the level of what others have. Those of us who have been responsible for adolescent children have heard something like, “Mother they all have one, and if I don’t get one I’ll just die.” (Of course, adult equivalents are “Keeping up with the Jones” or being in the “Rat Race.”)
On the other hand most of us have observed or experienced trying to pacify the tantrum of a young child who wants the toy of another. No matter what you give that child—even things of greater value or apparent attractiveness—the tantrum only accelerates because the child wants nothing other than that specific toy: “I want the one that Tommy has!!!” This is covetousness, the obsession to possess what belongs to another.
The Rich Man in Jesus’ parable was considered a fool by Jesus, not because he was wealthy, but because he believed that his soul belonged to him. He lived his life in denial of God’s claim on his life. His obsession is clear in that he seeks to add wealth to wealth, never mentioning how he might use it to serve anyone but himself. His reason for existence—his raison d’être—his life’s obsession, was to reinforce his assurance of creature comfort and security. Nothing else, no one else, not even God, mattered.
But it is not the rich man’s obsession with wealth that is his primary offense but that he believes that his soul, his spiritual essence, could be nurtured and secured by material resource. He does not talk to God; God is not relevant to his life’s discourse. He speaks only to himself. “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take ease, eat, drink, be merry.”
Does this sound at all familiar? Are we obsessed with daily slugging it out on the gridiron of life hoping to someday to take it easy, eat, drink and be merry? Is this all that there is to our humanity?
In that wonderful book of spiritual insight called Jonathan Livingston Seagull, there is a poignant scene when Jonathan is called before the elders of the gull flock. As you remember, with much daring and practice Jonathan Livingston Seagull had discovered beauty in what had been mundane. Instead of simply flying he learned that a gull could soar. A gull fly with beautiful creativity and daring splendor. As Jonathan said, “How much more there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there a reason to life!… [We can be] creatures of excellence…. We can be free! We can learn to fly!”
But when he shared the good news with the Council there was incredulity and anger. “Stand to Center for Shame,” said the Elder. “[Someday, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, you shall understand that] we are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long as we possibly can.”
How many of us live this way, “slogging forth and back to the fishing boats” of our lives as though there is nothing more to this life than eating and staying alive as long as we possibly can? Where is the divine light that makes radiant the colors of our lives? When and where will we make an opening for God?
Psalm 14:1 says, “Fools have said in their hearts, ‘there is no God.’” “In their hearts,” the psalmist says, not necessarily with our lips. But by the way we think and live our lives. This is what some theologians call “Practical Atheism” (Peter Rhea Jones, The Teaching of the Parable). Practical Atheism lulls us into an arrogance that we can live not only without God but without considering the matters of God. Do we live as though our lives belong to us?
We live as practical atheists when we do nothing that feeds the soul and strengths our relationships with God; or open ourselves to that which inspires us to serve and love others.
Practical Atheism is also to live without a sense of thankfulness to God for all that we have, no matter how limited or how great our resources. So often we offer the grace at meals, “All things come from Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee” (1 Chron. 29:14b). What does that prayer mean to us?
Practical Atheism is practiced when the purpose of our lives reflects more the sterile ambitions and values of Wall Street, Hollywood or Capitol Hill than those of the Kingdom of God. It is when we believe that life is more about money, pleasure and power than compassion, hope and justice.
Another sign of Practical Atheism is the lack of a prayer life. One way we deny the being of others is to ignore them; deny them interaction with us. The Rich Fool was so arrogant in this story that he talked only to himself. He does not talk to God; God is not relevant to his life’s discourse. He is his god, master and caretaker of his own soul. So he speaks only to himself and gloatingly so: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take ease, eat, drink, be merry.” There is nothing to worry about. The lack of a prayer life—time for reflection and conversation with God—is not about being too busy. It is a sign of Practical Atheism. Our full humanity is only know in relationship to God.
I have been reading a book by French journalist Franz-Olivier Giesbert called Dying without God. It is a book on François Mitterrand’s last days and his reflections on living and dying as an agnostic. Mr. Mitterrand, former president of France, was a celebrated intellectual and agnostic who died in l995 of prostate cancer. He allowed his friend and mentor, Mr. Giesbert, to share his last months of life, his thoughts, his reflections as an agnostic and intellectual realist.
Giesbert tells of this distinguished world leader who also lived for every sensual pleasure. He particularly notes a “predatory passion for women.” He wrote that his conversations with his mentor revealed a man who was not one obsessed with wealth itself, but one who was obsessed with “[the understanding] that money was the best friend of power, to which [Mitterrand] sacrificed everything—his life, his work, his morality…. Money [Mitterrand believed] protects, purifies, and exalts” (p. 36). A great intellect, but God as an idea was too irrational to have a claim upon his reasoned soul.
Near the end of the book the author writes of one of his last conversation between them. It was a phone conversation. The former president was very weak, still obsessed with sensual pleasure and intellectual realism; but also slightly revealing the ultimate emptiness of such faith. When asked how he was doing, Mr. Mitterrand said, “I’m here in my sheepfold, sitting in an easy chair looking out the window…. My dogs are lying at my feet. In a few minutes I’m going to get up and go over to my desk, and write down what I’m thinking at this moment. Who could ask for anything more? I think I’m happy” (p. 155). I think I am happy???
Some of us will die while pursing our obsessions. Others of us will acquire the distinction and security we seek. But without God we all will ask, Am I happy? Is there anything more? Is this all for which I was created: to eat, to stay alive as long as we possibly can?
As it was for the Rich Man, one day each soul here, including mine, will be recalled by its maker. What words do you wish to describe your dying day. What will those you leave behind choose to celebrate the essence of your life? Invitus? That you were the Captain of your soul? Or, one might prefer a popular chorus such as that very celebrated Sinatra tune, proclaiming, “I Did It My Way”?
Perhaps the choice will be more philosophical, a bit intellectual realism such as Wordsworth’s beautiful Ode: Intimations of Immortality.
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever take from my sight
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
Will the only words of meaning and comfort left by your immortal soul be simply and totally what you have left behind?
Hope with me, Christian. Let us live that the words heard at our requiem will be words of eternal faith. Words of faith that do more than affirm the life we have left behind but more importantly have the grace and power to inspire us and those we leave behind into the glorious hope of eternity with God. Listen these words of Christian faith; the anthem of hope spoken at the requiem of souls that have lived in relationship with God.
I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall has life,
even though he die.
And everyone who as life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my waking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.
For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s possession.
HAPPY(!) from now on
are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit,
for they rest from their labors.
(Resurrection Anthem, BCP p. 491)
God grant that such words will celebrate our humanity and our eternity. Amen.