"Eat, Drink, and Be Merry"
After 7 short months, let me give you an interim progress report on retirement.
Here's the upside: Kathy and I finally have some time together, even though it's still split between some ongoing volunteer commitments we each have and a seemingly endless need to work on a house we've pretty much neglected for 15 years. So far, so good.
Another upside to retirement is that I now have the time to engage in leisurely, cultural pursuits. I have time to binge watch a number of TV shows I previously neglected: Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Americans, and the greatest of them all, Friday Night Lights. I probably care more than I should about the problems of Coach Taylor and the Dillon Panthers, but hey, rooting for a fictional football team is probably healthier than caring about office politics.
Here, however, is the real downside. I've always been a political junkie, and without a day job to go to I spend far too much time watching news on cable television. I think of Joe, Mika, Chris, and Rachel as my actual friends. I am too invested in the daily machinations of our presidential candidates to do myself or anybody else much good. I’m so grateful those conventions are over. (Talk about dystopia!) I couldn’t have taken one more day. And then, when something violent or horrible happens--Orlando, Dallas, Nice, any of the traffic-stop shootings--I seem to spend endless hours obsessing about those who have suffered and died. The killing of Father Jacques Hamel in a French parish church last week nearly did me in, as did the dismissal of all charges in Freddie Gray’s death. This summer's events have made me both heartsore and heartsick.
This has been a particularly difficult summer for all of us. Not only have we witnessed a seemingly unprecedented amount of violence both here and abroad. We've also been exposed to a particularly virulent strain of ugly social thought in our public life, and the looming general election campaign promises to be at best an unedifying spectacle and at worst a WWE smackdown. Where can we go for comfort? How do we get our bearings?
A rich man builds a big barn to store all his crops. He has so much grain and so many goods that, by his calculations, he can now sit back, relax, and binge watch Real Housewives of Nazareth to his heart’s content. When he says to his soul, “And then the tables turn: the full barn wasn’t his guarantee of anything. He died, and his riches went to someone else. Not exactly a comforting story for a recently retired person, but an apt parable about the fragility of human life.
Although the multiple stresses of the modern world can make us think that we are the first people on the planet ever to live with anxiety, consider the situation of those who came out 2,000 years ago to follow Jesus. They were poor Palestinian Jewish peasants. Their country was occupied by imperial Rome, an empire that impoverished its colonies in two ways: it taxed them mercilessly, and its standing army ate most of their food. So the Palestinian Jews of Jesus’s day were usually both hungry and broke. Being hungry and broke can make one anxious. And when we’re anxious we often retreat to a hording mentality. The rich man with his barn is a good example. He thinks: “I’m going to get enough for myself and ride out the storm. As long as I’ve got mine, the rest of the world can go to hell.” Not a beautiful sentiment, but we say that to ourselves all the time. We have bought in to the shared illusion of control. We think that our relative affluence will protect us.
When people came out to follow Jesus they were usually poor, starving, and often sick. How did Jesus respond? First, he healed them. Then he invited them into a community of sharing, compassion, mutuality, and hope. Jesus helped frightened people do exactly the opposite of what their first instincts told them to do. He taught them that the way out of anxiety was not through hording but through sharing. Each New Testament gospel has an account of the feeding of five thousand people with a couple of loaves of bread. What are those stories but examples of the truth that, when we pull together rather than apart, there is always enough to go around?
You and I have a lot in common with Jesus’s first companions. We live in a world characterized by oppression, inequality, and violence. And we have even more in common with the main character in the story he tells, the man we call “the rich fool”. As developed world people, we are all relatively affluent. Our prosperity brings with it a lot of privileges, but it also wraps us in a dangerous web of illusions. One of the things I learned in my years in Malibu, Bryn Mawr, Bloomfield Hills, northwest Washington D.C., and (yes) Pasadena was just how isolating affluence can be. Your investments may bring you some creature comforts, but they won’t protect you from global warming, the rage of those suffering gross inequality, or the depredations of illness and age. Why are we surprised that our politicians talk about building walls when so many of us live in gated communities?
If you are like me, and if you and I are like those who followed Jesus, then we are heartsore and heartsick about so much going on in the world and in our nation right now. Our first response is almost always to retreat to an imagined place of safety where think we can be in control. If it does nothing else, Jesus’s parable of the rich fool reminds us that we are not, finally, in charge. And Jesus’s whole life and ministry reminds us that not being in charge isn’t really so bad.
The hard news this morning is that you and I do not control events. The good news is that someone else does. That someone else is the one Jesus calls his Father, the one who makes the sun shine and the rain fall on the just and the unjust, the one who clothes the lilies of the field and feeds the birds of the sky. The basic point of Jesus’s life and ministry is this: despite all of the real pain, suffering, and injustice in the world—and believe me, Jesus knew just how real pain, suffering, and injustice could be—despite all that, the deeper truth he shows us is this: reality is friendly to us. The way out of suffering, as our Buddhist friends tell us, is to give up on the illusion that things could be any way other than how they are.
For those of us who follow Jesus, this means relaxing not into our affluent privilege but into the knowledge that the world we inhabit is God’s. This knowledge doesn’t insulate us from our fragility. We will continue to suffer and struggle personally and socially, and we will always be vulnerable just when we think we’re not. But knowing the world is God’s and not ours frees us to open ourselves and reach out to others, to make common cause with every other human being of whatever description who knows they too share our finite, vulnerable human condition.
The rich fool thought salvation lay in reclusive isolation. Jesus knew that the abundant life is all tied up with living, eating, praying, and working with others for justice. There’s the white knuckle ride of the control fantasy, and there are the open arms of mutuality and love. The choice is yours. Take your pick.
This choice does not come without its risks. Remember that the one who offers us abundant life is the one who died on the cross. Life will always be what it is—abundant and stressful, peaceful and dangerous, free and oppressive. But those of us who follow Jesus come to know something else: we come to know, through our engagement with each other and the world, that the only peace worth having is an engaged peace, a peace that faces into and responds to the pain, injustice, and suffering known by others. The world may feel dangerous, but it is finally safe. We are in the grasp of one who knows and loves us as we are and will not let us go, no matter what comes toward us. Our security lies in accepting both our personal fragility and our cosmic security and then using them as a platform from which to reach out in love to others.
You and I are not in control. It wouldn’t be all that great if we were. Let us learn from the example of the rich fool. When our lives are required of us, what will we have to show for them? I hope we leave more than only a full barn. I hope, instead, for a shared legacy of justice, love, and peace. Amen.