Tag: meaningless

To be or not to be?

Jonah 3:10-4:11 Tennant_and_Tchaikowsky_as_Hamlet_and_Yorick
Philippians 1:21-30

“To be or not to be; that is the question” is a famous phrase from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and is spoken by Hamlet. He asks – what is better? To live; or to die? Back and forth Hamlet goes, considering the pros and cons of living or dying.

In our scripture readings today, both Jonah and Paul are considering living or dying, too. Considering if life is worth the effort to keep fighting for every second.

The word of God has come to Jonah and told him to go to the home of his enemies, to warn them if they don’t repent, God will destroy them. Instead, Jonah runs the exact opposite way. And runs and runs. And each encounter he has with death – storm, whale, desert – he doesn’t die. Finally he delivers the message half-heartedly to the city of Ninevah. Instead of killing him, as what happens to most prophets, the city immediately changes their way.

He’s the most successful prophet.

And yet, Jonah gets very mad, for now God won’t destroy the town. Jonah complains to God – “This is why I didn’t want to come! You, God, are too merciful and loving! You should kill me now! It’s better I die than I live.”

I wonder, what is too much for Jonah, so much that he wants to die. Is God’s mercy too much?

God’s care for the righteous and the unrighteous too much?

God’s love for all people too much?

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he’s saved his enemies. When he goes home, what will his neighbors and friends say when they hear that the Assyrians are doing just fine, even after all the murder they did to the Israelites, because Jonah went and preached to them.

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he feels his life has no meaning whatsoever. He knew from the very beginning that God wouldn’t kill all these people. So what was the point of even going?

God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be so angry?”

Jonah doesn’t answer, but goes out of the city, makes a little tent, and sits to watch and hope that the city doesn’t keep up their changed ways… or God changes God’s mind again. Jonah wants God to destroy Jonah’s enemies.

As Jonah sulks, God causes a bush to grow and give Jonah shade. Jonah goes from very angry to very happy. The next day, a worm eats the bush, there is no more shade, and now it is hot and windy.

Jonah tells God, again, to kill him. This time because he is suffering from the heat and dust.

God asks Jonah – is it right for you to be angry about the bush?

Jonah replies: “Yes! Angry enough to die!”

God replies back, “You didn’t plant the bush or cause it to grow. It just appeared and disappeared. I made people, and cause them to grow, and they’ve been here a long time. Shouldn’t I be concerned about Ninevah, with its 120,000 people who don’t know right from wrong, and all their animals?”

The book doesn’t record Jonah’s reply.

Maybe Jonah replied once again, “Yes, angry enough to die!” This would mean Jonah thinks God should be so angry when someone hurts people that God would be willing to die.

Or maybe Jonah’s answer is again, “I knew you wouldn’t harm them. Just let me die.” Jonah continues to sulk and miss God’s point and message of universal love.

I read, that for Jonah, life is cheap. He’s willing to give his life up out of anger over a bush; and he’s willing for innocent people and animals to die because he doesn’t like their leaders.

God, however, says life is not cheap. God tries to show Jonah again and again that even a bush has worth. People have much, much more worth.

Not a sparrow falls without God knowing. And we are worth many, many sparrows.

There are no lives that are truly meaningless. Somewhere, somehow, every person is called to bring good into the world. Some do this like Paul, with eagerness. Some do this like Jonah, begrudgingly. But we all have the call, the invite, to deep meaning and purpose to our lives.

Even so, death can be a sweet thought.

It is for Paul.

Paul is pretty much sitting on death row. He is accused of sedition, of encouraging others to be more loyal to someone other than Caesar… and he is very guilty. So guilty, he is STILL preaching against Rome through his letters to the young Christian churches. This letter today is addressed to the church in Philippi and full of messages such as “don’t be intimidated by your opponents” and they may destroy your body, but not your soul.

Paul also writes about considering death. How can you not contemplate death when you can feel it coming closer and closer?

Paul writes, “I don’t know which I prefer” living, or dying. To paraphrase, he says: If I die, I know I’ll be with Christ – and that is far better than any day here on earth. But if I live, I can help you all and encourage you. I guess, living or dying, I am with Christ. And living or dying, I gain.

Since I don’t know if I’m going to die and see Christ, or be released and see you, give me this comfort: live your lives in a manner worthy of the Good News of Christ. So whenever I hear about you here in Rome or there in heaven, I’ll hear you are standing firm together and striving together in the faith of the Gospel.

Paul is considering his death because it literally may be this afternoon, or tomorrow, or in years. But he can feel its presence. And he has decided – he is ready to die. Death no longer scares him. He welcomes death, even.

Have you ever met someone who is ready to die? It is unnerving. Every creature has a survival instinct that makes us fight tooth and nail to survive, to live. We abhor death, and avoid it, or try to make it pretty and sanitized. We say euphemisms – she passed away. He is in eternal sleep. They went to heaven.

Death is taboo.

But Paul is welcoming it. And sometimes, people we love welcome death too.

Someone I love recently told me she is ready to die. I wanted to protest and tell her I want her to see my daughter grow up. I want her to always be around in my life because she’s always been in my life. I want to know so much more about her childhood and have a million conversations I’ve put off or not yet even considered. I want…

And I realized, all my protests against my loved one dying are because of things –I wanted–.

I paused in our conversation, and I considered her life, and what she wanted.

She wants her parents, and siblings, and even some children, who are all long dead. She wants to converse with friends about times no one else alive remembers. She wants to be less lonely.

She wants to be in less pain and misery. Every day there is more of both as her body slowly dies and she knows there will be no more better days… only worse and worse days trapped in this fragile flesh body.

She wants to pass with dignity and grace.

If she gets her druthers – at home and in her sleep. Who wouldn’t want to go that way?

And if that’s not possible, then in a nursing home where there are people to care for her without being a strain on her family.

And she is ready. Ready to die.

I am not ready for her to die.

When I worked at Children’s Hospital, sometimes doctors or nurses or chaplains asked parents, “Who are you doing this treatment for? For your child, or for yourselves?”

Is it in the child’s best interest to do another round of chemo that likely will not work but which will make them very, very sick. There is a slim chance it will save their life… but the evidence in this case shows it is much more likely the child will spend their last month in misery. Is it better to go for this tiny slim chance, or is it better to have the child go home and die with grace and dignity?

What does the child want?

Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The refrain is “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He tells wise men, good men, wild men and grave men to fight for every single second of their lives and not to die gently, peacefully. The last line is addressed to his own father who he pleads for any blessing, any word — just don’t die and rage instead against death.

Who did Dylan write the poem for, and who was he considering?

His line to his father is: “Curse me, bless me… I pray.”

Sometimes, the most loving thing to do is to accept the person we love, that we are going to miss more than our own lives, is ready to die. Accept their choice, and help them go gently into the good night. Help them die in the manner they choose. Love them, as they let go bit by bit, of this world and step into the next.

Love them, and support them, when their wishes for their lives, and deaths, are counter to our own.

Love them, and support them, and know that death is hard work and as they go about the hard work of dying, we are called to be Christ for them. To walk along side them. To be their advocates, to give them agency, to give them dignity, and to help them depart to Christ.

It is actually a blessing when our loved ones jar us with mentioning their preparations for death. That panic we feel tells us how much we have left undone. Moves us to have those conversations we have put off and do those things we always said we’d do someday.

It is a blessing, because we can work on ourselves accepting our loved one’s desires… and when they ask for the permission to let go, to stop fighting, and go home… we can take their hands and say, “Well done, Good and Faithful servant, enter now into the joy of your Lord.”

“It’s okay to die.”

We know it is okay to die because it is not the end of God’s story. It is not the end of ourselves. Death is not the final word – there is a resurrection and a victory.

So… Is it better to be or not to be? That is not the question. The question is: In who’s interest am I acting? Whom am I considering? How can we face this transition together?

Amen.

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One Thing I Do Know

muddyhandsJohn 9:1-41
Ephesians 5:8-14

Why do bad things happen? It’s something we ask, again and again. And the people of the Bible ask it again and again. And just like we come to different conclusions, so, too, do our mothers and fathers in the faith. The most common conclusion back then, and today, is that a person gets what they deserve. This makes us feel good, and speaks to our sense of right and wrong and justice. Bad people get punished. Good people get rewarded.

It goes like this: why is a man in jail? Because he has bad morals and is guilty of a crime. Why is a woman poor? Because she spends too much money and doesn’t work hard enough. How do you be successful? By following the rules.

This is an easy answer to why bad things happen, and it is usually the first answer we concluded. So-and-so had something bad happen because they caused it to happen to themselves. The Bible goes further and some authors conclude that even things like blindness, sickness, and death are caused by moral failings – caused by a person sinning. Some interpretations of Genesis? Adam and Eve ‘earn’ death because of their sin. Plenty die in the Bible because they ‘ired’ God. Today, AIDS is often called the ‘gay disease’ and called a punishment for homosexuality. People with opiate or painkiller addictions are often accused of being thieves, druggies, addicts – others say their whole identity is their addiction.

This reasoning gets tricky when we see bad things happen to good people; or good things happening to immoral people. This threatens our notion of right and wrong, of justice. See, Job was righteous – yet terrible things happen to him. Jesus is literally SINLESS and yet horrific things occur to him. We know people who would give the shirt off their backs to help another, and yet they can’t seem to catch a break. And we know of cases, like my own daughter, where a child dies before they even take a breath. Who, then, is to blame? Surely you can’t say the baby sinned. Surely you can’t say Jesus sinned.

Over the centuries, some came up with the idea of Original Sin – the idea we are all born sinful. So even brand new babies carry sin – and that is why bad things still happen. In our scripture today, some of Jesus’ disciples assert the stance that parents’ sins are passed on to their innocent children. These aren’t outdated conclusions. Both Original Sin and parents’ sins are active conclusions nowadays on why bad things happen.

It’s why so many want their children baptized super young – to wash away that Original Sin.

It’s why we always ask, “Was her mommy a druggie?” or “What did the parents do wrong?” when we hear of young babies dying, or miscarriages, or stillbirths. Someone, somewhere, sinned. Someone, somewhere, is to blame.

If we don’t have someone to blame, our sense of right and wrong, our sense of justice, is thrown out the window. We don’t like to see innocents suffering, but it makes more sense to us if we can reason their suffering is because of their parents, or grandparents, or Adam and Eve… or any sin somewhere. It lets us still say that what people get, they deserve.

Today – Jesus’ disciples ask: did this born blind man sin, or did his parents? Who do we blame for him being blind?

Jesus replies: neither. The blame doesn’t lie on the man nor his family.

Why is he blind, then? The NRSV adds the words to the scripture, “he was born blind.” The original reads, “So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of He who sent me.” Our translation into English with its added words say the man was born blind SO THAT Jesus could show God’s work. Our translation adds in blame, and places the blame on God.

The Greek original doesn’t do this. Jesus doesn’t add blame. Doesn’t say blame the man, nor his parents, nor God. Jesus skips the blame and says if we want to see God, we must help this guy. No judgment. No placing morality on the blindness. Just saying – bad crud happens. Help each other out, and you will see God in the helping.

So Jesus does as he preaches.

And you see the result – the blind man comes to testify Christ while the whole town goes about finding someone to blame. Someone must be to blame for the blindness! Some blame Jesus – who worked on the Sabbath. Some blame the man, for secretly harboring sin. They call in his parents to try to blame them for doing something that caused their son to be born blind. In the end – they toss the man out of the town. That is easier than admitting…

… sometimes… terrible things happen… and no one is to blame.

God’s will? Maybe. Primordial chaos left over from God placing order and making creation? Maybe. Result of Original Sin, or just sins? Maybe. Just meaningless? Maybe.

Jesus doesn’t offer the answer. He says don’t worry about placing the blame, instead, do something to help the situation. Don’t fret about if the person who is addicted has an ‘addictive personality.’ Be their friend and support now. Don’t fret about if parents didn’t eat right while the baby was in utero – comfort them now. Don’t fret about if a beggar has a job, or is getting food stamps, or deserves a hand out, or what they’re going to use that cash for… just help them out, now.

Jesus isn’t amoral. He isn’t advocating let everyone do as they please and let there be no consequences. He isn’t saying sin isn’t real. Jesus picks up John’s message telling us to repent and turn to God. However – Jesus is way more concerned that we live our lives helping one another than blaming one another.

Look at how much of this chapter is people blaming each other rather than helping the blind man and his family!

Look at their final action – tossing the formerly blind man out of the town – rather than rejoicing he now has sight!

Jesus isn’t answering our theodicy questions; he isn’t telling us why bad things happen. Instead, he’s giving us a way to respond to the bad we see — respond with love. Not judgment.

As the formerly blind man said, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” No need to decide is someone is a sinner. Just be able to see them—help them, know them, love them.

Vanities of Vanities

auction_bySheltonReality.jpgEcclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Luke 12:13-21

Have you been to an auction? I used to go all the time with my dad. It was our daddy-daughter bonding time. I remember this one auction very well: it took up the entire farmhouse yard, went into the barnyard, and into the two barns AND the house. There were tables of tools, boxes upon boxes of pots and pans, antique furniture around every corner, and enough holiday decorations to decorate the White House. The front lawn had a long line of folding tables divided into lots — lot 1, lot 2, — and so forth. Whatever was in your half of the folding table is what you were bidding upon.

I stood at the head of one of the tables and looked in the boxes. It was photo albums. Book after book of black and white photos; book after book of Polaroids; and Christmas cards with photos and address books with photos. About half were carefully labeled ‘Danny’s First Christmas’ ‘Hannah and Chuck’ ‘Whitehall, 1960’ and so forth. Weddings. Birthdays. Picnics. Men ready for war. Women holding little babies. Kids in bathing suits.

I suddenly realized a woman, an elderly woman, had died. We were rifling through her possessions. Soon we would be taking some, giving her family or her medical bills money, and then all she owned would scattered across the state.

These weren’t extra dishes. These were the dishes she ate with every day.

This table she had toast at, and fed her children.

These were the clothes she washed, wore, repaired, for decades.

And here, these photos in my hands, this is her nice cursive handwriting detail the people she loved. What would be done with the photos now? No one here even knows who Danny or Hannah or Chuck are. Would the buyer throw the photos away and reuse the antique albums? Who collects old color out of focus Polaroids? Why didn’t the family take these?

… Maybe she doesn’t … didn’t… have any living family left.

The auctioneer began his fast pelt of questions and calls and the people around me began to nod their heads or flick their little paper numbers. But I was lost in thought looking at that stack of albums. It made me begin to wonder about this dead woman I’d never met, and, what it will be like when I am the dead woman some day. What will I leave behind when I die?

Another death. Nuns and monks have their own private rooms although they share a big house. A UCC minister told this story of her aunt who was a nun. One of the nuns passed away, and, eventually, the sisters needed to clean out the deceased’s room. When they opened the door to her bedroom, they found it was completely stuffed with things: maps and books, little nicknacks and silk flowers, photos and paintings and everything you can name — all piled into that little room. I think it must have looked like my closet when I was a kid: one of those ‘Open Only If You Dare’ situations. It took days to clean and clear out.

Later, the minister’s aunt herself was diagonsed with incurable cancer. The minister was called by her aunt to come visit. When she got there, her aunt handed her treasures: her favorite painting, little ceramic cats the two played with, and pictures the minister had made her aunt when the minister was a little girl. The minister knew her aunt treasured these things, and was so surprised she was parting with them. But the aunt was adament, “I know you’ll treasure these like I do. Take them.”

When the aunt died, the sisters gathered one day to clear out her room. They found it was completely empty but for its bed, nightstand, and dresser. The aunt had given away everything.

The minister realized then that STUFF is for the living. We can’t take it with us at all. By giving away things, the aunt had seen all the people she loved one last time before passing away. She knew what true wealth is, and how to share it.

The writer of Ecclesiasties sets out to learn what is true wealth. He wants to know: what brings lasting happiness? What brings lasting joy? What is worthwhile to do? How should one spend their life?

And in woe, he finds that most things we do are meaningless in the big picture of the world. Every joy and every meaning is fleeting, is a vanity, a puff of smoke or is dust in the wind. Like cleaning the house, or weeding the garden, our toils never end and just seem to come to nothing.

He writes that if we work really hard and build up something to pass on to our kids: wealth, a furnished house, a business, or even photo albums labeled and organized… we have no guarantee what they’re going to do with those things. They might not appreciate the money and blow through it. Or they may not want to live where we have the house. Maybe they don’t want to work the business. Maybe they don’t want the photo albums.

Yet we want to have lives that MEAN something. If we can’t trust even our own kids to pass on our mark, our stamp, our memory, on the world, what can we do? Is life a vainity? Is life meaningless?

The Teacher in Ecclessiasties struggles with this. In the end, he concludes that the truest meanings of life we mortals can’t know. God alone knows. So, while we are living, live well: relax, eat, drink, be merry, enjoy time with your family and friends. Whatever you do, do with joy. Obey God and the commandments, for whatever life is, (a test? a dream? a proving grounds? a place to learn?) and whatever death is, we can ask God once we have passed away. What is certain is, he writes, “Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.”

Our second reading echos, refers back to, Ecclesiasties. Did you hear it?

A man has come to Jesus and said, “Tell me brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” You see, each son was entitled to some of their father’s wealth when their father died. Usually Rabbis could step in and use scripture to chastize the greedy one not sharing.

But Jesus turns the tables, and warns everyone: don’t be greedy at all! Sure, this boy deserves his share by the law… but the real issue is that greed — greed of the older brother and younger brother — is tearing the family apart. One’s life does not consistent in the abundance of possessions. What you own isn’t who you are.

I can’t tell you how many families I’ve seen torn apart when somebody dies. My own included. Countless. Theft during funerals; hiding or changing wills; hiding possessions; changing locks; lawyers and police and decades of hurt feelings. Over what? Possessions. Jesus reminds us that who is right and who is wrong in these situations isn’t going to make us happy. Getting a laywer or a judge or pastor to say, “You’re right!” doesn’t knit the family back together again. Guard against all kinds of greed. It tears us apart.

Then Jesus tells the story that echoes Ecclesiasties. He says a rich man had land that made him even richer. He had so many crops they didn’t all fit in his barn. So he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Then, like the teacher of Ecclesiasties, he chose to relax, eat, drink, and be merry. However, the Teacher told us to enjoy time with our family and friends, and to honor and obey God. He also told us that wealth is meaningless. The rich man chose to hoard his wealth all to himself. He didn’t share it with family and friends. He didn’t honor and obey God by sharing with the stranger and the needy. And God called the man a fool, and that the man was going to die that very night. “All the things you prepared, whose will they be?” All that toil was in vain. All that hoarding was in vain. The man didn’t need barns of food after he died. So who owned them now?

Greed tears us apart. Clinging to poscessions tears us apart.

Poccess your poccessions. Don’t be poccessed by pocessions.

When you store up treasures, store them up for God- not yourself! Store up good deeds, good memories, fun times, prayers, times of comfort and sollace, times of generosity, times of worship; store up heavenly treasures. Store up love for others — and share that love abundantly.

The treasures we hoard for ourselves all alone, without others enjoying or God invited, these we lose.

The Teacher writes in chapter 5 of Ecclesiasties:

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them?
The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether they eat little or much,
but as for the rich, their abundance
permits them no sleep.
I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners,
or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when they have children
there is nothing left for them to inherit.
Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
that they can carry in their hands.
This too is a grievous evil:
As everyone comes, so they depart,
and what do they gain,
since they toil for the wind?

Wealth – financial stability – comes and goes. Work – what we do to survive – should never consume our whole lives. Our lives are meant for more than labor. No matter if you have no income, a fixed income, make $30,000 a year, or 50, or 100, or a billion dollars a year… you always will think you could use a bit more. So instead of worrying about money, enjoy what you do have – and share it with others. In the sharing we find we all have enough to go around.

Jesus economics are like garden economics. This week I have so many cucumbers I beg you to take some and use them. Next week, you’ll have so many tomatoes you’ll beg me to take some and use some. By sharing, we all have richer summers, richer relationships, and richer lives. We store up in heaven our love for one another.

When we apply this to money, it means that some years of your life you’ll have more income than you need. Then is the time to share, because in later times of your life, you’ll not have enough. And there is no shame in taking tomatoes or cucumbers. There is no shame in taking offered finanical assistance.

For while one has more money than they need, another has more time, another has more skills in gardening or cooking, another has abundant repair skills, and another abundant stories. We each are blessed with more wealth than we can ever count. And together, when we share it, we always are an extrememly blessed community.

Where is your treasure? Stored somewhere fading and passing away; or stored in our heavenly home? Amen.