New Years Day B
December 26, 2011
Author: Scott Hoezee
Note: This text was also a Year A “Reign of Christ” lection about six weeks ago. So for this New Years’s Day service I am posting a full sample sermon of mine, a few portions of which I utilized some weeks back and so regular readers on the CEP site may have a sense of déjà vu here! But I hope this is helpful. Regularly formatted sermon starters will begin again for Sunday, January 8.
Since on this New Years Day 2012 the holiday season is now just winding down, it is likely that at least a few of us watched some or all of the classic holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life recently. In the story, a man named George Bailey despairs that his life is so worthless that it would have been better had he never been born at all. In order to prove him wrong, Clarence the guardian angel lets George experience what the world would have been like had the man George Bailey never existed. As most of us know, George discovers that his seemingly humdrum life affected far more people than he could have guessed. A myriad of little, and not-so-little, things that George had done over the course of his lifetime combined to make his hometown of Bedford Falls a better place. George just never realized all the good he had done, and all the bad he had prevented, simply by being alive and by being himself.
A similar point is made in Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town. The play’s central character, Emily, is given a chance, following her death, to view a scene from her past. She is told that it cannot be some obviously important day but should be a fairly ordinary time from her bygone life–indeed, she is told that re-visiting even the least important day of her life would suffice to teach Emily something very important.
Emily chooses to re-visit her 12th birthday, only to discover a vast array of things about that day she had completely forgotten. More than that, however, she is stunned to see how fast life moves and how little she or anyone paid attention to what was happening when it was happening. In the end, Emily cannot bear to watch. “I can’t. I can’t go on,” she cries. “We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed . . . Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” she asks. The answer is no. Instead, Emily is told, for the vast majority of people, what it means to be alive is “To move about in a cloud of ignorance.”
Emily didn’t realize. George Bailey didn’t realize. They simply were not aware of the larger meaning around them every, every minute of every, every day. A similar phenomenon plays a surprisingly large role in Jesus’ words about the sheep and the goats. Sometimes we mistakenly called this a parable, but it’s really more of a metaphor by which Jesus describes the end of history. There will one day be a kind of sorting out process, not so very different, Jesus says, from the way a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Most of the time sheep and goats can and so co-exist pretty well in a large flock. But sooner or later it’s time to sheer the sheep and milk the goats, and then it is a good idea to sort the animals so that each can go to the correct area for either sheering or milking.
Jesus throws out that then-familiar image in verse 32 but then never returns to it. Instead he dispenses with the metaphor altogether and proceeds to talk more straightforwardly about two different groups of people who will be similarly sorted at the final day. But whatever else may distinguish these two groups from one another, they do share at least one thing in common: both had lived their lives without realizing something. One group had, the King declares, ministered directly to Jesus himself while the other group had, essentially, directly snubbed Jesus. The righteous group is commended whereas the other group is sent packing; the first group is welcomed into a pleasant-sounding kingdom whereas the other group is shuttled off to a decidedly hellish-sounding location.
Strikingly, however, before that happens, both groups ask the exact same question: “When did all that stuff happen?” Jesus tells the righteous folks that he was grateful for all the ways they had nourished, welcomed, clothed, tended to, and visited him. But the righteous cannot for the life of them recall doing any of that for Jesus, and so they ask, “Well now, when did we do all that for you, Lord?” Conversely, the wicked cannot for the life of them recall ever seeing Jesus anywhere, much less in need of anything, and so they ask, “Well now, what day was that when we plumb missed seeing you, Jesus?” One group did the right things to Jesus, the other group failed to help Jesus, but neither realized it.
The reason is because Jesus identifies himself so snugly with the hurting of this world that whatever we do, or fail to do, in relation to those hurting people directly affects Jesus. But we forget. We don’t realize life while we live it. But we should at least try. That’s why Matthew 25 is here. We, as Christians, should be more aware of what is going on around us, where Jesus is to be found, and how we are to treat him. But does Matthew 25 really have that effect on us? Or is reading this a little like seeing a performance of the play Our Town? How many people have watched that play, understood its most basic lesson about life, but then left the theater as truly changed people? Even if theater-goers felt affected by the play and so said to each other upon exiting, “I really want to start living my life more deliberately every, every minute,” how many of them really followed through, really were able to penetrate that “cloud of ignorance” in which we all tend to live?
I would guess that very few found the wherewithal to make such big changes. But Our Town is, after all, just a play, a piece of theater. Matthew 25, however, is different (or it ought to be). This is the gospel. This is the Word of God. And it tells us that when our lives include service and ministry and outreach to the downtrodden of life, then whether we know it or not, we are serving Jesus himself. But if our lives are all about meeting our own needs, looking out for #1, and so doing little more than hoping that the poor, the sick, the impoverished, the imprisoned will find their own way in the world, then we are insulting Jesus just as surely as if we willingly spit in the Savior’s eye.
In our lives, do we see the marginalized of the world? And when we see them, are we moved to help them, however we can, even if it is through relatively modest ways of serving? Because notice that the words of the King in these verses do not point to some heroic life of magnificent or miraculous deeds. The kinds of ministries Jesus highlights are what we could call quite ordinary. He does not say that the sick must be healed by us but that it is enough to look after them. He does not say that those in prison must be liberated by us but that it is enough just to visit them in prison. The other items are likewise matters of common sense and decency: when someone is hungry, you do what you can to get her food. It’s basic. A thirsty person needs water. Someone shivering in the chill of a Michigan winter afternoon could use a coat. Those who have no place to sleep or rest or call home could use a shelter from the elements. It’s all basic. It’s logical.
Jesus isn’t ordering us to solve complex inter-relationships of global economics. He is not asking us to come up with a cure for cancer or AIDS. He’s not requiring that we design a huge political initiative that might solve the world’s problems with one fell swoop. Such grand things, if we can do them, are important, too, of course. But in Matthew 25 Jesus is taking us down to the street level of both seeing and then ministering to ordinary situations. Jesus is saying that poverty and social dislocation are present in life and are likely to remain present so long as this current order of the cosmos goes on.
No matter what we do, no matter what kind of political system we live under, no matter which party is in the White House, somehow for whatever reason there will always be hungry, thirsty, ill-clad, homeless, sick, and imprisoned people. That’s what’s out there, Jesus says. How will you respond? It’s a vital query because somehow they are all Jesus.
But we forget. We don’t realize life as we live it. Then again, in this particular situation, realizing the Jesus-connection may not even be necessary. Remember: in Matthew 25 both groups say they didn’t realize that the poor of the world all represented Jesus. Both missed that connection, but that ignorance doesn’t matter.
But if so, then suppose that those who had failed to do ministry were to ask the King a counter-question. First they ask, “When did we brush you aside, Lord?” and the Lord replies, “You did it every time you brushed them aside.” But suppose these folks countered by asking, “Well, how were we supposed to know that? If we had known it had been you all along, Lord, why by jiggers we would’ve acted differently!”
At some point we’ve probably all watched a TV show in which a character behaves rather rudely toward some stranger only to realize at some point that this person is someone famous. The waiter at a restaurant is being rather snappy with the person who seems to be having trouble deciding what to order. But then the waiter realizes that this hesitant diner is none other than Clint Eastwood, and instantly the waiter has all the patience in the world as he fawns over the famous man.
Couldn’t the wicked say something like, “Well, dear Lord, why didn’t you tell us it was you all along? We would have done things different if we had known.” What might the Lord’s response to that be? Maybe it would be along the lines of this. “You didn’t have to know it was me all along–the righteous didn’t either. It should have been enough to realize no more than that this other person was a human being created in the very image of God! If you had known no more than that (and you did!), that would have been enough. You didn’t need to know it was me. Had you simply acknowledged their humanity, their God-likeness, you would have been led to do the right thing.”
Just here is perhaps as much our challenge as anyone else’s in this world. Can we see the true humanity, the image of God, in the needy people of this world? Do we take care to remind ourselves of that fundamental, basic identity of the poor and the marginalized? It seems that too often we are content to talk in generalities–in broad strokes that conveniently lets human specificity fall away . We lump problems and people together: the homeless, the welfare class, welfare queens, the Third World, the mentally ill, the unemployed.
We summarily size up, categorize, characterize, and sometimes dismiss literally millions of people via a blanket label. We reduce all the homeless or all the unemployed to one basic sub-heading. We assume every person in a given category is more-or-less the same. But can we put a name or a face with anyone who actually lives in one of those segments of life? Or are we content with acknowledging no more than that this or that problem area of life exists? And if so, might it be the case for me and for many of us that we sooner or later start to forget that the people who are homeless really are people, God’s very image among us?
Someone once suggested that it would be a good spiritual discipline for all of us to go to your average supermarket, sit down somewhere, and just watch the people go by. You maybe know up front what you’ll see: you’ll spy the harried mom with three little kids under the age of 6. Two of the kids are hollering or begging for this or that toy, the mom is snapping in anger and maybe even being a bit profane. You’ll spy the rather obese person who lumbers along short-of-breath as she piles her cart high with Twinkies and cheap beer. You’ll see the more well-to-do person waiting in a checkout lane behind the young couple in tattered blue jeans who are furtively paying their bill with food stamps. You’ll see a little bit of everything eventually. But in your heart, it would be a good discipline to say of each person, “Jesus died for you.”
Jesus died for him, for her, for that skinny one, for that chunky one; for that stressed-out mom and that arrogant-looking teenager because each one of them, somewhere under all that exterior stuff, is made in the likeness of Almighty God himself. We dare not reduce them to statistics alone. The writer Jonathan Kozol, who has devoted much of his career to studying children in places like the South Bronx, says that he is now embarrassed to remember some of the ways by which he himself once talked. Kozol says that he used to march up to Capitol Hill in Washington to advocate for more money for good programs like Headstart. And when he did, he’d say things like, “Every dollar you invest in Headstart today will save the country $6 later on in lower prison costs.” But now, Kozol confesses, he’s ashamed he put it that way, all in terms of dollars and cents and the public interest in revenue and bottom lines. Now he says, “Why not invest in them just because they’re babies and they deserve to have some joy in life before they die!?”
We Christians can do better than that: they’re God’s kids, chips off the divine block as surely as any one of us. Kozol also notes that he has run across people on the East Coast who spend upwards of $30,000 per child each year to send the child to an upscale private school. After giving speeches in which he has advocated for our pouring more resources into poor areas of this nation, Kozol has been asked by some of these people if he really thinks spending more money will solve the education problems of the poor. His reply is, “It seems to do the trick for your children, doesn’t it?” The difference is that they don’t see real children as inhabiting that broad category of “the poor,” but they have no difficulty recognizing the value, the worth, the sheer humanness of their own children.
Jesus is not suggesting that we innovate excessively creative programs, that we do the social equivalent of a circus high-wire act or that we perform miracles. He simply asks us to see God (and by extension, Jesus) in the people around us. And so perhaps it would be a useful exercise for us to try, as often as we can, to say an actual person’s name whenever we are dealing with broad categories of social problems (as inevitably we will do).
When someone begins talking about “the homeless,” say the name Juanita to yourself, because maybe she’s a precious person you met one night when volunteering in a homeless program. Whenever you hear people speaking generally about the education deficits of innercity youth, speak the name of Jeremy, because maybe you met Jeremy when volunteering as a tutor or as a helper at some innercity mission. When you hear someone talking about kids on welfare, summon to your mind and to your mouth the name of Selena–see her pretty little face, recall the sweetness of her voice, and act based on the knowledge that every kid out there on welfare is like Selena (and so like God and like Jesus).
But suppose you find you can’t do that. You can’t repeat the name of a hungry child because you’ve never met one. You can’t see in your mind’s eye the face of a homeless mother or father because you’ve never spoken with one. That alone may indicate the first thing you need to do, and I also can hardly claim that for any category you might name, I myself have a batch of real names ready-to-hand. We all have work to do, it seems, really to know and then care for the other in our midst (who is also Christ in our midst).
If we take Matthew 25 seriously and more-or-less at face value, then we cannot help but be reminded of the famous line from St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” We know that we are saved by grace, and not by what we do. The Jesus who speaks in Matthew 25 knows that, of course. It is his gospel, after all! But he seems to know also that the faith and the salvation that come from divine grace create new perspectives. Grace opens eyes to see things that we maybe would miss otherwise. Grace begins, already now, to give us a preview of the end of all things. Grace lets us know that if one day we ask the question, “Lord, when did we see you?” Jesus’ answer will quite probably be, “When not?” Amen.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Most of the passages in Ecclesiastes are hardly the stuff of counted-cross-stitch wall hangings. Indeed, I once read the striking observation that had Friedrich Nietzsche merely referred readers to Ecclesiastes at some point early in his writing career, he could well have spared the world much of his nihilistic blatherings! True enough, which is probably why in the run of church history there have been precious few hymns based on Ecclesiastes. The average church hymnal contains at most one or two songs based on this book. Ecclesiastes just does not sing well.
Except, of course, there is one really famous song that emerged from this book. It was released in 1965 by the rock-and-roll group The Byrds under the title “Turn, Turn, Turn.” With the addition of just six words to the end of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, The Byrds were able to transform these verses into an anti-Vietnam, pro-peace song. Following the last couplet of “a time for war and a time for peace,” The Byrds added the little phrase, “I swear it’s not too late.” Thus did Ecclesiastes enter the mainstream consciousness of the counter-culture.
It’s a quirky thing, of course, when atheists, rock bands, and counter-cultural types find more resonance with a biblical book than Christians sometimes do. You are more likely to read Ecclesiastes in a Norton anthology of world literature than you are to run across it in a daily devotional book; you are more likely to hear “Turn, Turn, Turn” on an oldies radio station than an Ecclesiastes hymn on a Christian radio station.
The chapter we’ve read on this New Year’s Day 2012 is a reminder of why we shy away from this book. Ecclesiastes 3 contains lines which are, at best, upsetting. For instance, who among us would send one of our children off to college with the words, “Just remember, Johnny, that the best thing you can do is eat, drink, and be merry! Have fun while you can!” Yet the Teacher expresses similar sentiments in verses 12-13. We don’t have much going for us except what this present moment offers, so carpe diem, seize the day, gather your rosebuds while you may.
What’s going on here? Well, let’s do a quick review of the famous chapter, pausing eventually on especially verses 10 and 11 as the place where the Teacher gives more than just a small hint that even he suspects there is more to us human beings than there is to the average cocker spaniel or wildebeast.
The first eight verses set the stage for this chapter by focusing our minds on time. On one level those couplets about “a time to be born and a time to die, a time to search and a time to give up” are merely a reflection of the way life goes. There are moments when you will cry your eyes out and other times when you will laugh your head off. They are not typically the same moment, however. One comes, the other goes. But these verses are more than that common sense observation. As part of the wisdom tradition, these verses are a call for us to figure out which time is which. The wise one always knows what time it is.
It’s not just that now and again a war comes up and that in between wars there is peace. Wisdom calls us to figure out what is worth fighting for and, hence, when it’s time to go to war and when it’s time to just let certain things slide. Similarly, Ecclesiastes 3:7 is not merely reflecting the obvious fact that sometimes we will be talking and other times we will be quiet. This is instead wisdom’s call for us to discern when we are best off listening in silence as opposed to filling the air with our own speech. There are occasions when you can speak a word which will really help. But there are other occasions when no matter what you say, you will make matters worse. Wisdom can tell the difference.
So those first eight verses set up this chapter in two senses: first, these words bend our thoughts to the entire matter of time; second, these verses also remind us that time is not just what happens around us–time is something to which we pay wise attention so that we can know how to act in various seasons of life. Both ideas are key to the rest of this chapter.
Because the rest of Ecclesiastes 3 is also about time, and specifically about the limited, fleeting, “Phhht” nature of time (“Phhhht” is my translation of the Hebrew hevel often translated “vanity” or “meaningless” in this book). We are quite definitely finite, limited creatures. If we are alive, that means we were born; and if we were born, that means we will die. Period. The entire interval between the delivery room and the cemetery is a kind of “in the meantime” scenario. What will we do with the life we’ve got in this meanwhile phase before we die? In a simple sense the Teacher’s answer is that we enjoy ourselves, find some form of work we find meaningful and which will put bread and wine on the table, and then for heaven’s sake enjoy the bread and wine!
Do what you can with what you’ve got while you’ve got it. If everything comes from God, then these things come from God, too. So indulge a little, laugh when you can, and just try to be satisfied with having enough. Because time defines us. Finitude is, for now, a constitutive element of who we are as humans. It is the denial of time’s limits which represents folly, not acknowledging finitude. The question with which the Teacher is wrestling is this: given the common lot we share with all other animals, is there anything special about humanity? Who are we? Is there anything more to us than to the average cat?
Curiously, today there are at least some people who are more interested in wondering how to make computers more human than they are in figuring out what it means for us to be human in the first place! As Stanley Grenz once pointed out, a central motif of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation was the ongoing attempt by Mr. Data to gain an ever-greater humanity. Mr. Data is a robot, an android. He’s just a metal frame covered with fake skin and filled with circuits and yet was designed to be able to grow, to feel, and so perhaps one day to achieve a kind of humanity. Data’s struggle to become more human occupied a central place in a good many of those Star Trek episodes.
Again, weirdly enough you could probably generate more discussion among some people by asking what would make a robot human than by asking what exactly it is that makes us human! Lest you think this is merely science fiction, you should know that right now in places like MIT scientists are attempting to create androids that could some day be called human in nature. These scientists even have a full-time theological advisor to help the MIT folks with the religious and ethical aspects of their research. According to this theologian, a key question they grapple with is, “Will there come a point in developing a robot when it would be unethical to turn it off? When does a robot gain its own right to life?” But even this theologian seems to have a hard time describing what makes real humans human, much less what could make a robot human. In a recent interview this theological advisor could seem to get no further in defining true humanity than saying that what makes human beings human is their ability to be social.
As definitions go, that’s pretty weak. Ironically some of the same people who worry about the ethics of unplugging a robot simultaneously avoid including death in the definition of what it means to be human. Listen: as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes knows, whatever being human is all about, it includes death. If one day we were to succeed in making a Mr. Data who seemed human in every respect yet who needed only a good battery to keep on living forever without having to die, that very fact would count against Mr. Data’s being human. Death has to be factored into the human equation. (Of course, in the final Star Trek movie, Mr. Data did “go offline” by sacrificing himself for the sake of his crew. Data did not technically die but his demise was regarded as every bit a self-sacrifice as any human heroic could ever be!)
The Teacher knows that and yet senses that even so there is something else. Verse 10 speaks of a “burden” God laid on humanity alone. The very next verse makes yet another comment on time but then suddenly throws in the Hebrew word olam which means “everlasting” or “eternity.” This whole chapter centers on our finite time and yet smack in the middle of it all comes the word “eternity.” And this sense for the eternal is not “up there” in the clouds, it’s right here in the human heart.
We human beings are in time, we’re defined by its limits. But from the midst of time we have a sense for eternity. We have inklings of something more. We hear echoes from a far country. We now and again catch the sound of a few notes to a tune we’ve never really heard in its entirety. And yet we have the feeling that were we one day to hear the whole song played from beginning to end, we’d recognize that melody instantly. We are quite certain there is something more beyond just us, our watches, calendars, day timers, and history books.
There is something else out there–we know it because, the Teacher claims, God has dropped this into our hearts. The Teacher may say in the end that he does not know whether there is a beyond-the-grave difference between animals and us, yet you have the feeling that he thinks he does know. It’s just that he cannot prove it, see it, or lay his hands on it . . . yet.
Ecclesiastes faces us with a stark choice. Time will not stop. We will die. And there are no two ways around it: that death for each of us will either be the end or the beginning. If death has meaning, so does life. If death has no meaning, neither does the life that leads up to it. You cannot coherently claim that life can be rich and meaningful in the short-run even if in the long-run every life will disappear into the cosmic ether, never to be remembered by any God anytime, anywhere, ever. Suppose one evening you watched someone enjoying a delicious steak dinner only to then watch this person die because the steak turned out to be laced with poison. Would you then say, “Well, at least it was a richly good meal along the way. At least it tasted good at the time. That’s something, isn’t it?”
A few years ago one of the artists who helped create a controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts used her NEA grant money for what she called “sculpting in space.” She rented an airplane, bought some cartons of crepe paper, and then threw various colorations of the crepe paper out the airplane from 10,000 feet over the ground. Most people would probably agree that this art form cannot hold a candle to the Mona Lisa or other tangible works of art. But that’s just in the short-run, just for this time while we get to look at a Mona Lisa as opposed to crepe paper fluttering to the earth in a heap. But if in the long-run there is no God to remember or preserve the Mona Lisas of this world–much less the people who paint such things and enjoy such art in the first place–then in the end it’s all crepe paper in a heap. And it is death that focuses this issue for us.
In one of her stories writer Annie Dillard shows a family gathered sadly at the grave of their mother smack in the midst of a very large cemetery. At one point during the graveside committal service the minister intones the familiar words, “Where, O death, is thy sting?” to which one of the mourners, having lifted his eyes to glance around, responds in his head, “Where, O death, is thy sting? It’s just about everywhere, since you ask.”
Viewed from just this side of the grave, there is virtually no way to tell whether the spirits of people rise up to God or just sink into the abyss of time like the animals. Except for that inkling of eternity in us. What we do not yet know, what we cannot yet see, what we cannot yet fathom from the midst of a life hemmed in by time and destined for death: all of that is what makes our eternal sense burdensome instead of only joyful. But by God’s grace we do have this sense! And with our New Testament knowledge of Jesus, of the eternal One who entered our time and space, we have a mighty advance on this sense for the everlasting. We still cannot understand “what God has done from beginning to end,” as verse 11 puts it. But we can handle that a little bit better because of our acquaintance with him who is the Alpha and the Omega of all things.
It is faith that clarifies our eternal sense. Ecclesiastes 3 is not just about the passing of time or the “turn, turn, turn” of life’s cycles. It is also about wisdom, about a wise discerning of time and of how we are to react to the different occasions that come our way. One such occasion is death. But even then, though burdensome in a time when we so grievously miss those who have died, we sense this is not the end of the story. Even grief, someone once noted, is God’s gift to us. The tears we shed over death are God’s way of reminding us that this is not right and that neither is it the last, gasping word on everything.
We still cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. We cannot fathom the death of people we love. As we begin a new calendar year of 2012 this day, we know this year will be no more free of death and tragedy than the year gone by or any period of human history ever. There are no easy answers. There are no sugar-coated aphorisms that make life all better. If nothing else the Book of Ecclesiastes is the Bible’s loud “No” to such pious pollyanna. But we are called to go on in faith, enjoying what we’ve got while we’ve got it, and giving thanks to the God who gives us good things. But with eternity set into our hearts, we are also called to move forward in life listening for that eternal melody from God’s far country, singing along as best we can as we hear snippets of God’s life-affirming music. There is a time for everything but there is also an eternity for everyone. This is not an easy or obvious thing to sense. But we render God our thanks that we sense it at all. Amen.