August 4, 2019 – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver

Proper 13, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-11
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

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There are a lot of clichés associated with this gospel passage, about how possessions don’t do us any good after we die. Fairly often we hear people say “You can’t take it with you.” Sometimes people facetiously say, “The one who dies with the most toys wins,” and presumably they don’t mean it literally but as a commentary on how empty that philosophy is. More creatively, there was a country song a few years ago that said, “You’ve never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch.”

Those clichés have value as far as they go. Death is a reality for us and we have to come to terms with that as human beings. Piling up possessions, for those who are able to do it, can be one way of trying to hide from our mortality. Life is short, and we don’t know when it will end, and we need to see our lives in the light of eternity.

And yet today I find myself unable today to find a lot of meaning in those clichés, at the end of a week where our culture’s obsession with violence and oversaturation with weapons has borne fruit in three more mass shootings. The week began with a terror attack in Gilroy. When I went to bed last night I thought it had ended with another at a Walmart in El Paso. When I woke up this morning I learned that even that wasn’t the end of it: late last night another nine people were killed by another gunman outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio.

So today it’s hard for me to be satisfied with a kind of conventional moral lesson from our gospel story today that simply says, be ready for death because it could come at any time. Sure: it could come at any time. But it’s not supposed to come like this. The kind of random, sociopathic hate we see in these acts of terror is something different. A healthy awareness of our mortality is one thing. Living in a society where a Walmart can become a war zone is unacceptable. It’s not the result of the ordinary fragility of existence. It’s the result of human choices. It’s the result of human sin.

What I think this story does have to say to us today is less about mortality and more about isolation. The man in this story seems to think he needs no one but himself and his things. The only person he talks to in the story is himself. He tries to create a universe sufficient to himself. And in the end it’s an empty one. That’s the same kind of isolation that we see so often in young, disaffected men who commit these horrific acts of nihilistic rage. It’s the lie that says that we are separate from one another, that my well-being isn’t bound up with yours.

Today we gather in community, (here at Incarnation, and then later others of us at Armstrong Woods) under the redwood trees, siblings in Christ from Incarnation and St. Andrew’s Mission. It’s a small act and a very unremarkable one. But just by gathering today we are doing something important. We are bearing witness to the fact that we exist most fundamentally not as isolated individuals but as a community. We need one another. As Christians we cannot be the Body of Christ alone. And we proclaim that human beings were not created to be self-sufficient. We are not worlds unto ourselves. We need each other.

I read an article[1] earlier this week about trees: about how trees in a forest, which look like separate organisms, are often actually interconnected at the root level. So deeply interconnected that some forests are less separate organisms than “superorganisms,” like a coral colony, where the distinctions among individuals blur together. The article was a study that found that even leafless stumps are sometimes kept alive by their neighbors, even though they can no longer create their own food by photosynthesis, and no longer contribute any to the rest of the system.

As Christians we believe human beings are something like that. We were created for connection. And we need one another. And that means that if one member of the human family is suffering, is excluded, is mistreated, that mistreatment ripples through the entire root system. It hurts us all. And it means we are called to support one another, to share what we have and care for others.

As Christians we also gather here today in the name of Jesus Christ. And as followers of Jesus one of our core beliefs is that death is not the final word. We believe we are held in the hands of a God who has conquered death, has conquered violence, and who is working even now through Jesus Christ, and through us, to overcome evil and heal the world.

What we do when we gather is unremarkable. But it’s also radical. Today we proclaim that we are members of one another and that our well-being is bound up with the well-being of all of us. That none of us will be fully free until all are free, and as Paul says in Colossians today, Christ is all in all.

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[1] “Tree Stumps Can Live On Indefinitely … With A Little Help From Their Friends,” The Economist (July 25, 2019): https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2019/07/25/tree-stumps-can-live-on-indefinitely. The article’s behind a paywall; for a similar, freely accessible article, see Russell McLendon, “Why Would Trees Keep a Nearby Stump Alive?”, Mother Nature Network (July 29, 2019): https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/blogs/tree-stumps-can-be-kept-alive-nearby-trees.