Fatigue and the Beginning of Wisdom (sermon)

Preaching is a genre of speaking, where our goal is—through Scripture—to learn about God, the world, and each other. Preaching should be edifying. And preaching should ultimately be about the Good News of God in Christ.

So given this description of what we might expect a sermon to contain—sort of the baseline qualifications, it’s perhaps understandable that you might wonder why today’s sermon is about the reading from Ecclesiastes.

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

Things continue to go downhill from there, really. The Teacher writes that even though he was king, and had access to all the wealth and education that might make it possible to find wisdom, he’s got nothing. No lasting wisdom, just frustration, and some exhaustion to boot.

All is vanity, and a chasing after wind.

After all, he continues, all of this work he does isn’t going to do him much good. He’s going to die. Just like everyone else. And who knows if the kids or grandkids or great grandkids are going to be wise or foolish? Is it worth it, really, to work work work all day and night, knowing that death is coming?

So as you can see, this is an incredibly uplifting reading. We’re all going to die. So what’s the point of wisdom or of a “good” or “productive” life?

What’s going on here? Why is this text in the Bible at all, and what are we going to do with it, on this Eighth Sunday after Pentecost?

This week, I was reading an article which called out some of the human rights abuses occurring in our country, and in our common political life. And in the midst of this impassioned discussion, one particular paragraph stood out to me. In this paragraph, the writer said that “Protesting in the face of such outrageous abuses of power, of such true horrors, can feel overwhelming.”.

This writer goes out of their way to name that this work is exhausting, even while arguing that it should be done. If you read a lot of work on social justice activism, you’ll know that this feeling of overwhelm actually has a name—“activism fatigue”.

Activism fatigue. Or maybe, you know it as work fatigue. School fatigue. Social media fatigue. Or just plain exhaustion at the hectic pace of life.

So when I read this part of Ecclesiastes, I hear this same sense of fatigue. Exhaustion at having tried just about everything.

Perhaps, for our Biblical author, it’s a frustration that no matter how hard we work, no matter how desperately we seek wisdom, it all eventually feels like nothing. Perhaps, it’s that, as the author says later in the book, “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (8:14). The text describes this as “vanity”, but you could easily substitute the words “ridiculous”, “unfair”, or even “sinful” or “futile”. ‘Unfair. This is all just unfair’ (I’m sure you’ve heard, or said that before, right?).

This is all unfair.

The lectionary today has this incredible contrast between Ecclesiastes and the Gospel. In the Gospel, we find the parable of the man who thinks he has it all. Wealth, food, drink, a good harvest. Jesus tells us God’s response to this—“you fool!”.

I don’t know what God’s response is to the writer of Ecclesiastes, but I wonder if it might be the opposite? “you wise one!”

We find in Ecclesiastes, someone who has toiled under the sun. Who is exhausted. Who says that “all is vanity”, all is meaningless.

But we also find someone who is willing to recognize that he is not the greatest. He recognizes, like our psalmist, that our “graves shall be [our] homes for ever/ though [we] call the lands after [our] own names. He recognizes, unlike the rich man of the parable, that there is a season for everything, and that we are limited in what we are able to accomplish.

And most importantly, the conclusion of this book of the Bible is a reminder of what should center our limited, joyful, complex lives: he says in chapter 12 that this is “The end of the matter… fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone”.

The end of the matter. Live according to the commandments of God. This is not vanity—in fact, any mention of vanity is gone by this epilogue.

Fear God and live according to the commandments.

This is, as the Gospel might say, being rich toward God.

This is our whole duty.

So if you walked in this morning, perhaps able to empathize with this writer in proclaiming that “all is vanity”, that “this world is unfair”, I hope you know that these words are enshrined in Scripture… for you. For us.

Because so much is unfair. There is so much pain, so many needless, senseless deaths—from guns and wars and our own inability to live together, to love each other. And I don’t know about you, but I feel the fatigue of this reality weighing down upon me this morning, in the wake of yet another shooting, this time in Texas.

This is also vanity.

So what do we do now?  

Christ tells us the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

This is not a platitude.

This is to fear God and live according to the commandments.

And however hopeless or terrifying or strange things may seem—however much work and exhaustion we are in the midst of—this is our whole duty.   

In our limited, complex, and even joyful lives, this is our whole duty: to love God and neighbor, and live according to the commandments.

May we remember this on our good days and our bad days—our call is to be faithful.

This is not vanity. This is faithfulness.

Why should we believe God this time?

Sarah and Abraham have been on a long journey. They’ve left their home in the land of Ur, they’ve left their home in Haran, because God said “I will make of you a great nation”.

They’ve left most of their family behind, said goodbye to brothers and sisters and cousins, because God said “I will make of you a great nation”.

But, you see, in order to become a great nation, you need to have children. There’s no democratically elected nationhood happening in the ancient world—to be a nation, to be a people with a leader, that leader must have children.

It’s easy to see what the problem is, right? No children means no nation. And even though Abraham and Sarah have made it through famine, Egypt, tons of family drama… there’s still no son.

God keeps saying over and over again “I will make of you a great nation”, and that “your descendents with be numerous”. But does God keep God’s promises? Will God keep this promise?

It’s easy to read what happens just after this lesson ends, you know that bit where Sarah laughs as she overhears all of this, and she’s chastised for doing so, like “what, you don’t believe God?”. It’s easy to reduce this to disbelief

But would we really believe God after all of this? Promises of nationhood, repeated over and over again. This might just be another promise, no follow-through.

Scholar Valerie Bridgeman makes a compelling case that instead of asking why they didn’t believe God’s promise, the question really is “why should they believe God this time?”.

Why should they believe God this time?

We might be able to ask the same question about our Gospel lesson—the famous Mary and Martha story. In a world of wandering prophets and oppression, why is Jesus any different from the last one? There’s plenty of prophets and and rebels in Judea. Why should Martha believe that Jesus is the one, this time?

Yes, sure, they’re described as friends of Jesus, but maybe Jesus is one of those friends who has ten new ideas per minute, “hey guys, I have a great new business idea, listen to this one! This will be the one that wins big!”. We’ve all known, or maybe we’ve been someone like this—lots of energy, lots of ideas, and the idea doesn’t always translate to action. Maybe Jesus isn’t really any different.

Why should they believe God this time?

I wonder if you’ve ever thought this. Why should I believe God this time? Why should I believe this promise in scripture this time? Or perhaps a more familiar question: does God actually hear these prayers? Why doesn’t God do something? Why should I believe that God will do something this time?

I know I’ve thought all of those questions before. Many times.

It’s hard to see the death and pain and oppression in this world and not wonder why we should believe a promise of hope and mercy this time.  

It’s hard to get the diagnosis, to sit with a suffering loved one, and not wonder why we should believe a promise of relief and healing this time.

It’s hard to pray with our feet and feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and aid the refugee in the face of unrelenting need and divisive political policies, and not wonder why we should believe a promise of care and new creation.

Why should we believe God this time?

And I will admit that I’m not standing here with the right answer, or even an answer to this question.

But what I do know is that we are not the first people to ask this question.

And if we look at the stories of Abraham and Sarah, and Mary and Martha, people who might logically ask why they should believe God this time, they both do one thing, regardless of their skepticism.

They offer hospitality. A place for the three men to sit, bread, milk, curds, the fatted calf. Abraham literally ran out to invite the them in, like “come, come, just have a little bread”, and instead of an appetizer, he prepares a three course meal. “Come. Eat. You are welcome here.”

Mary and Martha offer the hospitality of their home. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, his disciple, listening to an honored guest. Martha prepares food, which as Jesus points out, distracts her from his teachings, but this work is also the work of hospitality.

Mary and Martha, Abraham and Sarah, offer hospitality to Jesus, to the Lord, from the ordinary space of their daily lives.

They don’t know that any particular transformation will take place.

They don’t know if this will be the moment when everything will change.

Should they believe God this time? Perhaps not, but nonetheless, they make space for the presence of God in their lives, and by doing this, they allow for the possiblity of transformation.

Hospitality allows for the possibilty of transformation.

Hopeful hospitality says that maybe, this will be the time. Perhaps it will be this time, and this space.

I don’t think they knew that it would be the moment of change in their lives. Sarah didn’t think that she’d have a child after all this time. Mary didn’t wake up that morning planning to take up the role of pupil, a role very much for men in that culture.

Friends, we don’t know when we can stop asking the question. We don’t know if this moment, this Sunday in church, this Eucharist will be the moment of transformation. We don’t know if this prayer will be followed by good news.

But perhaps we might find our hope in hospitality. Hope in the practice of opening the ordinary moments in our lives to the possiblity, to the probablity that there will be grace and transformation in this time. In hospitality, the tradjectory of the world and our daily lives collides with God’s presence and promise.

And one day, we will find ourselves like Sarah and Abraham and Mary and Martha, face to face with the promise fulfilled—the promise of a new creation, the redeeming love of the cross that cannot help but fold the world in an embrace.

And we will find ourselves, saying as the poet Wendell Berry writes, “here, as we have never been before… our place Holy, although we knew it not”.

Lectionary: Genesis 18:1-10a, Luke 10:38-42

Recording begins around sentence six in the manuscript.

Preparing the way

Do you remember learning to write a story, when you were a child? Perhaps you remember painstakingly practicing your penmenship until you could write it perfectly. Or perhaps you remember filling out worksheets, sort of mad-libs, fill in the blank style that taught you a bit about what makes a compelling story tick. Or perhaps, like me, you remember the incessant chant that your teacher or your mother would keep saying—”who, what, when, where, why, and how”?

Who. What. When. Where. Why. How. These are the pieces of information that make even the simplest short story make sense. And this is true for not just short stories—novels, series, t.v. shows, any good public relations statement… we need to know who, what, when, where, why, and how. It’s part of what makes us tick.

And this gospel lesson from Luke certainly has all of those pieces.

Who? Jesus, and 72 disciples.

What? Jesus sending 72 disciples in pairs.

When? Now, already. Get a move on it!

Where? To every town and place where he was going.

Why? Because the harvest of the kingdom is plentiful and the laborers are few.

How?  No purse, no bag, no sandals, no idle chitchat, with urgency, with purpose and focus.

And from there, the story feels like it goes into a list of instructions: here’s how you interact with people who want to hear the good news. Here’s how you respond to people who will not hear what you have to say.  

“The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’”

What do you hear?

When I read this, I keep coming around to that unmistakable, sinking feeling that this is just one giant to-do list. Yes, it’s a great story, and it tells us who, what, when, where, why and how. But there’s so much detail here that I think it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

And you know, I think the reason I feel overwhelmed, and perhaps you do to, is because it feels like there’s just so much to accomplish. There’s so much to do. So many people to share the good news with. So many people who are not going to be interested. So many people who might be interested if perhaps we could just muster up enough courage to say something. And so many requirements—no purse, no bag, no extra pairs of shoes, no other distractions.

Part of me just wants to give up right now. Lord, you have the wrong person. I can’t do all of this.

I can’t do all of this.

But I wonder, if that’s not the whole point. I wonder if acknowledging the fact that I can’t do all of this is, perhaps, the right response.

I think it’s really easy in an individualist culture to hear a lesson like this, and feel overwhelmed because I can’t possibly, as one person, manage all of this. If our filter, the lens through which we see the world is set on applying everything as personally as possible, then of COURSE this feels like too much.

Because it is too much for one person. And we might say, yes, of course. That’s why the 72 were sent out in pairs. But it seems like an awful lot, even for seventy-two people divided into pairs.

It’s too much because it wasn’t meant to be done alone. It wasn’t even meant to be done just in pairs. “The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”

He sent them on ahead of him to every place where he himself intended to go.

I’ve read this passage so many times over the years, and I’ve never noticed that little line. In the midst of telling this important story about telling the good news, and what it means to be a disciple and an evangelist, Luke thinks it’s important for us to know that Jesus only sent the disciples to where he intended to follow later.

He sent them on ahead of him to every place where he himself intended to go.

It’s almost as if, in my individualist desire for self-sufficiency, and a checklist of who what when where why, and how to get this evangelism job done, I missed, really, the entire point of why I was going to a town, or city, or neighborhood, or friend’s home in the first place.

What’s important here is that the disciples are not only sent out to do this work, but that reporting back to Jesus and checking the evangelism box is not the end of the story. The seventy two evangelists, as we might call them, go out knowing that the work they do is important, but they do it knowing that Jesus will soon follow them into the same place, the same village, the same city and neighborhood.

I think what’s sometimes intimidating about the idea of evangelism is that we have to do it all ourselves. That we have to grab a friend and put on suits and knock on doors. That we have to go stand on a street corner and figure out what kind of sign to carry. But in reality, evangelism is more than just doing these things. Evangelism can be entering the spaces that you already inhabit, the neighborhoods that you already visit with intentionality.

Intentional evangelism. That’s what Jesus is giving instructions for—to be aware of who is willing to hear, who is curious. To be aware of who isn’t ready, and to respond without anger. To be focused, ready to share. And most importantly, to walk into wherever you’re called to be knowing that it’s not all on you. Because Jesus is following us. And our work, as evangelists–and yes, you are an evangelist—is to intentionally find ways to engage this story—this marvelous insane story of Christ’s love—in the places we find ourselves.

So as you prepare to go out into the world today, consider what spaces you’re called to be an evangelist in. Where are we preparing the way for Jesus to enter?

What wondrous love is this? (Maundy Thursday Sermon)

Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”

Portion of reading from John 13:1-17, 31b-35

When I read this story, I know who to root for. I know in the back of my mind that Peter is just being ridiculous, that he should let Jesus wash his feet. Peter doesn’t know what he’s saying when he’s saying no, this is part of how the story goes, Jesus is supposed to wash the feet of his disciples. You and I know what’s coming—the crucifixion, the resurrection, the rest of the story. This is just part of the story.

But Peter, after all, knows that Jesus is Lord, even if he doesn’t know quite what that means, so what are we to make of the fact that he says no to this simple, servant-like gesture? What would we say if we were faced with Jesus kneeling at our feet, insisting upon washing them? Jesus, this isn’t where you’re supposed to be.

When Jesus kneels at my feet, I don’t know what… to do. It is uncomfortable, Jesus you’re not supposed to be here. It’s too close, it’s too intimate, it’s all too much for me. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

The Christ, who kneels at my feet and at yours too, begs to move beyond the boundaries that we have for where he is allowed. Outside of the box that we have so neatly put him in, outside of Sunday mornings, beyond the grace at meals. And if, like me, you find this terrifying… you are right. The radical, wondrous love offered to us, or even foisted upon us can be completely overwhelming. It can be a little too much, a little too close, a little too intimate. Maybe we too want to say, Lord, you will never wash my feet. I’m not ready. It’s all too much.

As we walk through Holy Week, through the Triduum, perhaps you may find that it at some point becomes too much. Perhaps it will be the footwashing, the Christ in your neighbor washing your feet. Perhaps it will be the Eucharist, the story of how he, who “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end”. Perhaps it will be the stripping of the altar, or the silence of Good Friday. Perhaps it’s been a long week and church is just another thing to check off the list.

Be gentle with yourself. With others around you. And when, if that moment comes, allow yourself to be caught up in the overwhelm and mystery. We’re not always ready, but sometimes, the Lord will wash our feet anyways, and in response, the only thing we can ask is the question–what sort of love is this?

What wondrous love is this, that says “this is my body, my blood, given for you”? What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord to lay aside his crown for my soul?

What wondrous love is this, who washes the feet of the disciples, a servant, not in power, but in humility?

What wondrous love is this, who took up his cross, to give his life as a ransom for many?

What wondrous love is this, that brought us here tonight, to share this meal with one another?

And if we find ourselves caught in this moment like Peter, seeing the Christ who asks to love us, to be let out of the words on the page and into the deepest parts of our lives… If we find ourselves in this place, consider lingering there. For it is Christ who knocks at the doors of our hearts and homes. And sometimes, the only response we can sing is a question: what wondrous love is this?