31 July 2016
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
The old church stands along the road, resolute and firm, as it has for decades. Its tower, like a great finger pointing to the heavens, reminds all who pass by to “think of what is above.” And from within, the God of all creation whispers: “Do not forget me. Do not forget me.” But there, on the road, the traffic passes on by, day after day; forgetful and unthinking.
Even we, who see the tower and hear the whisper of God, don’t always see and listen. Do we think of what is above; do we remember God . . . for more than an hour a week? Once a year, every year, each of us is smeared with ashes on our forehead, and we’re told to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We hear it, but do we listen? And do we remember it—not just on Ash Wednesday, but every day of the advancing year?
The old church stands along the road, resolute and firm. Its tower, like a great finger pointing to the heavens, reminds all who pass by to “think of what is above.” And from within, the God of all creation whispers: “Do not forget me.” Do not forget that “all things are vanity,” except those which are of God. If we don’t want our life to be lived in vain, then “think of what is above,” and do not forget God.
Sometimes I look at my calendar at the end of the day, and I think about all the meetings that happened, and all the decisions that were made, all the thinking and planning and worrying, the budgets, the policies and procedures to be put into place . . . I think about all that and I wonder, “Does any of it really matter?” In the end, does it really matter? What is the meaning and the purpose of life?
The American author, Edward Albee, put the matter very succinctly when he wrote: “What could be worse than getting to the end of your life and realizing you hadn’t lived at all?” What could be worse than that? To realize, as you lay dying, that you never really lived; that all the work you’d done really wasn’t that important. And that question—that fear—moves people to live at any cost. That’s one response.
All those people who pass on by the church tower, who don’t see that finger pointing to the heavens, who don’t hear the whisper of God . . . maybe they’re too busy “living life” to be bothered. Maybe. Maybe not. But it sure is easy to be busy with life, that we forget to live. Just imagine the life of a squirrel. They live to gather nuts; they make it their main concern to gather them and store them, so they’ll have food for the winter. It’s easy to be like that.
Or to be like that farmer who was so excited about his bumper crop, that he built more barns, and bigger barns, to hold all of his harvest. In our drive and excitement for life and abundance, it’s easy to forget that “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We humans, and most living creatures, have the instinct for “self-preservation.” We’ll do whatever we can to live; whatever we can.
Of course, some people are very aware of the brevity of life; they ponder the meaning of life because they, too, want to live. In the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau left the city and went to nature. He writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” For Thoreau, the whirl of everyday life was not where life was to be found. He found life’s meaning in the simplicity of nature.
And when he was near death, it’s written that his friends were amazed at his tranquility. And his aunt asked him, “Have you made your peace with God?” To which he replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” And that’s more to the point of why he faced death with peace; because he knew he had lived; he’d gone in search of “what is above” and, with God’s help, he’d found real life. And that kind of life exists on both sides of death; here on earth, and there in heaven.
And so, as we’re going about our daily work, we might wonder: “Does it really matter? Is this what life is supposed to be about?” Sometimes the answer is no. And sometimes, yes. It depends on what our frame of reference is. And Saint Paul gives us our reference point. He says, “If you were raised with Christ, then seek what is above; think of what is above, not of what is on earth. Put to death the parts of you that are earthly, since you have taken off the old self and have put on the new self.”
If we ever wonder if what we’re doing in life is “worth it,” then look to “what is above” and say, “Does this matter to you, God?” The Will of God is our frame of reference. If we want to be rich in life, if we want a life that’s real, one that isn’t just being busy so as to avoid death, then we need to be “rich in what matters to God.” Do possessions matter to God? Not really. Does money matter to God? No, not especially. Do good looks and popularity matter to God? No.
What about balancing the budget? What about having an up-to-date flow chart for the parish? What about making sure our worship and our prayer are correct? Do those things matter to God? Maybe. It depends on our frame of reference; it depends on our motivation. If our joy and happiness is in having a balanced budget, then it’s probably not that important to God, and it’s a waste of our life and our time. And Saint Paul would say, “Then, put it to death.”
But, you know, if a balanced budget helps us to love God and our neighbors, then it’s important; it is meaningful. Does our motivation come from within us, or does it come from God and from what’s “above?”
In 1989, the movie “Dead Poets Society” was released. It takes place at a boys academy in the 1950s. And it was a place where “tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence” meant everything. And, even though they went to chapel, God wasn’t really there. And, even though they studied the liberal arts, knowledge of “higher things” wasn’t really there. The spirit of the academy was hollow; nothing really meant anything. There was no life there.
Like so much of the spirit of society today; the busyness is all just busyness; there’s not a lot of life in it. There can be; but it’s not just going to happen. In the movie “Dead Poets Society,” the Latin phrase carpe diem becomes the motto; carpe diem—seize the day. Don’t live life half-dead and asleep. Seize the day. And to that we would add: “Look to what is above. And do not forget God.” Seize the day, seize life . . . take hold of God, and let God take hold of you. There walking with God, loving others as God, we’ll know real and lasting life.
And if we forget, don’t worry. The old church stands along the road, resolute and firm, as it has for decades. Its tower, like a great finger pointing to the heavens, reminds all who pass by to “think of what is above.” And from within, the God of all creation whispers: “Do not forget me. Do not forget me.”
Be rich in what matters to God; love God, love your neighbor. Then, someday, as we lay dying, we’ll realize we have lived. And that’ll be a glorious day, then, because we’ll see that real life just goes on and on, there “above,” with our God and all the faithful who also lived and loved well. On that day, we’ll finally understand that a life of faith, hope, and charity isn’t lived in vain; rather, it’s the only life to live.