Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Corbet Clark

August 25, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Psalm 103:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Well, it’s that time of year when we’re thinking about Back to School. That may not be
relevant to all of you, but I’m going to suggest that perhaps it should be.

After having retired from teaching a year ago, I find myself getting ready to go back to
the classroom once more. This will be the start of my 57th year in school, as either student or teacher.

I’ll be teaching high school Religion as an academic subject. I think there’s a strong
argument for the importance of studying religion – because of its central role in the world today as well as for the skills it can promote, like understanding different cultural perspectives.

But I think the ultimate purpose of studying religion – as is true for math or science or
English – is exploring the nature of reality and our own human nature.

From a Christian perspective, teaching and learning is a divine practice, because if God is the foundation of all reality, and if we humans are made in God’s image, then deepening our understanding of reality means coming closer to understanding the truth about God and about who we are in relationship to God. And this should be a joyful activity for all of us.

Education as divine practice is something that Jesus models throughout the Gospel, and we have a fine example in today’s lesson from Luke.

Consider the story: Jesus frees a woman from a crippling infirmity on the Sabbath. Some of the people present, based on their concept of honoring the Sabbath prohibition against work, object to this. Jesus responds to them by asking them to reflect on their own experience, and the crowd, having done this, seems to come to a new understanding. The story ends in the people rejoicing.

The story’s message seems to focus on two things: freedom and transformation. For the
woman, her new freedom and transformation are physically obvious. But the crowd is also freed – from an inadequate understanding of the Sabbath and of what God wants from them. They are also transformed, because they gain new insights, through Jesus’
questioning, into God’s truth – and this becomes a joyful experience.

I occasionally encounter former students of mine, now in their twenties or thirties, and as we talk they sometimes say that they don’t remember anything of what they have learned in my class. But as I listen to them talk about the meaningful work they do now, how they serve others, how committed they are to social concerns, the loving relationships they are in, I think – that’s okay. They have grown since high school, they have been freed from some of their narrow-mindedness and teenage anxiety, they are growing into the kind of mature and thoughtful people we need. If my teaching has contributed even the tiniest bit to that transformation, then I don’t really care if they can’t remember the significance of the 14th Amendment, or why the Council of Jerusalem was important in early Christianity.

Sometimes, as a teacher, you do get to see a moment when “the light comes on,” when a student struggling with a difficult concept – whether how to solve a quadratic equation or how to use the preterite tense in Spanish or whatever – they suddenly get it. It’s a joyful moment for both student and teacher. They’ve gained a little deeper understanding of the nature of reality, and they may have gained self-understanding as well.

True learning is not about repetitive drills, studying for tests or endless assessments.
None of these produces true joy. True learning is about pursuing a goal of what the Greeks called “Sophia” or “wisdom,” which is a deep understanding that comes from reflecting on everything we’ve learned and experienced, which pulls together and integrates everything, which enables us to become the people that God has called us to be. And that is deeply joyful.

And this is a goal for all of us, whether in school or not.

So my hope is for this coming year to be a year of deepened understanding and joyful
learning – not just for kids in school but for all of us, that we may be on the path to Sophia, or wisdom, as a way to draw closer to God and to the image of God that lies in each of us.

AMEN

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost by Holly Puckett

August 5, 2018

Lessons:

Exodus 16:2-4,9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

This week’s readings are about a lot of things, but here are the big picture parts that I’m going to focus in on: faith that God will provide, we are all tied together with unique gifts as separate parts of a whole (the body of Christ), and Christ is the bread of everlasting life.

In the Lord’s Prayer it says “give us this day our daily bread” – so, in light of these readings, what is our daily bread meant to be? Is our daily bread faith from God? Is our daily bread the body of Christ? What does that mean? 

What does God want all of his people to be doing every day? Take care of yourself – eating a good diet, sleeping enough, eliminating stress through prayer, meditation and connection to community, and having some level of physical activity. That’s the daily bread. 

So, I want to talk about wellness thresholds, which is an idea by a doctor from the United Kingdom, Rangan Chatterjee. 

Threshold effect is the idea that we all have a personal level of things we can handle before we become unwell. You were born, let’s say, in perfect health and we can deal with multiple insults to our health – up to a point – and remain okay. The fact we don’t move very much, a job we don’t like, a relationship fall apart, lack of sleep, a diet that isn’t great. You might have a person come to the doctor and say that all was going great. All was fine and then I got a new boss and now I have an autoimmune disorder. But if you look at that person’s history you see, things were not alright. We are resilient and we can deal with lots of stressors, until we can’t. The straw that breaks the camels back is a misnomer. Sure, look at the last stressor that tipped you up, but there were lots of things that got you to that point.  Because there’s a whole host of things to look at in how you build your life. We can juggle one ball, two balls, three balls, but if you chuck that 4th ball at me, I’m going to drop all of them. Everything falls down. So don’t look for the one thing that it is. No one answer will help you. Of course we need a more holistic approach to improving our lives. It’s not about perfection, it’s about balance. Take the pressure off – it’s not a diet that’s perfect, or a gym routine that’s perfect that will fix everything. You just need something for your sleep and something for your stress levels, and try to be sure you are moving ENOUGH and your diet is good ENOUGH. You’ve heard the 30 minutes before bed, shut off all the tech, Or how 10 minutes of meditation will improve your life.  So, here’s my suggestion, although, looking at the people here today, you might already all be doing this: commit to 5 minutes of prayer a day if you aren’t already. That’s an easy one. You will sleep better and feel less anxious in your waking hours. This is accessible and achievable. Good health is much more than food. What works in our real lives? I don’t want to come across as a lifestyle blogger who has this all figured out and is doing all these things perfectly, who is now standing here and bossing all of you into doing these things, too. Done is better than perfect. Something is better than nothing.

People have very powerful attachments about why they do certain things. Sometimes you know that your choices aren’t good for you, or healthy, and you know that your choices are not serving you. Those “bad” choices on some level DO nourish you – if you are lacking something in an aspect of your life, you can feed those comfort path ways by eating a sugary treat or watching lots of netflix every day instead of alternating those hours with other hobbies. We know that on a deep emotional level that we need to take care ourselves. Is it a comfort food, or a social connection that will feed us in the long term? 

Food is a big thing. We have to eat every day to nourish ourselves. Give us THIS DAY our daily bread. We can’t re-eat the food we ate yesterday, and we can’t eat the food for this Thursday today. 

Documentary How to Cook Your Life Edward Espe Brown talks about the biscuits of today, and this is what he says. We pay a lot of money not to cook. Not to confront a potato. What am I going do with this? How am I going to cook it? And, when we do cook it, we have a tendency to want to turn it into something unlike itself. You know, I can’t make it taste like those McDonald’s french fries, no matter what I do. Now our whole sense of taste is skewed. I can make biscuits but they never come out right. I tried more butter, less butter different kinds of fats, with water, with milk, eggs, not eggs. I tried a lot of things and you know after 4 or five tries at biscuits and they aren’t coming out right, I thought right compared to what? I realized that when I grew up in my family we made pillsbury biscuits from a can – you have that can that you peel open or bang on the counter and twist out of the can and put them on the pan and bake them. You know what, maybe we ought to just taste the biscuits of today and see what they are like. So I made biscuits again and tried them again and it was so good. It was buttery and flaky and wheatey with whole wheat flour that tasted like the earth, like the sun, and like water. There’s poetry and the possibility of connection with other life in those biscuits. We try to make our lives look like cosmopolitan magazine or on sitcoms – who are those people? Why would you want to be like them, where you know, you have to have the right smile and the right clothes and then eventually you can fit in or something? Are we going to have some standard to measure up to, or can we be the biscuit of today? 

For different people, we need different things. Do what’s achievable. No perfection is needed in any of one these areas. Just a little something in this whole array of areas.

Food – people who are struggling with diet, remember – you just need enough for today. 

Movement – there are some people who neglect their bodies. Get outside and praise God for the sun and the flowers.

Sleep – is the most undervalued thing about health. If you aren’t prioritizing it, you probably aren’t getting enough. The majority of people who have sleep problems are doing something they don’t know is having an impact on their rest. Like being on screens before you go to sleep.

Relax; do something about your stress levels – 15 minutes for yourself – or 5 minutes of prayer as I suggested earlier, for you and you alone, not involving your smart phone, and you are not allowed to feel guilty about it. 

Be still in this modern life. It’s counter cultural and valuable to sit in silence and do nothing for a time.

The key to me is “give us this day our daily bread” – not tomorrow’s bread. We get up each day and start all over to do just what’s required of us in this day. 

One of the bible verses we heard earlier today said:

“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

The message of my sermon is this: take care of yourself, because God loves you. Jesus told you to eat the bread of life, and to really do that well, I want to invite you to really get in there, every day and be deeply reflective about what your daily bread looks like.

 

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

 

August 20

Lessons:

Isaiah 56:1,6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:10-28

 

A Canaanite woman came and knelt before Jesus, saying:

Lord. Help me.

Jesus answered:

It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

She said, Yes, Lord.

Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.

Then Jesus answered her:

Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.

And her daughter was healed instantly.

Like many of you, maybe like almost all of you, I watched the events in Charlottesville last week with a sense of horror and helplessness.

Here in America, where we celebrate the triumph of what is sometimes called the Greatest Generation over the Nazis, we saw swastikas and Nazi salutes and slogans borrowed directly from the Third Reich. Here in America, where we keep Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we saw unapologetic and unvarnished white supremacy; any veneer or pretense that what we were looking at was actually about states rights or free speech or preserving history or whatever was gone: this march was about how white folks – and white men, in particular – are superior to everybody else and about how violence is justified in maintaining that superiority. Here in America, where we celebrate democracy and opportunity, we saw street fighters (again, notice the echoes of the Nazi thugs out in streets of Germany in the twenties and thirties) ready to club anyone who sees the world differently and, in the case of at least one young man behind the wheel of a car, ready to kill anyone who sees the world differently.

What do you do when you see something like this? What do you do as a citizen? What do you do as a Christian?

Part of me is nervous about venturing any kind of answer to those questions. I am an absurdly privileged white guy who lives on the other side of the country from Virginia. What can I say that is anything other than clueless and out of touch? But another part of me, a bigger part – the part that is trying hard to the listen to the still small voice that Elijah heard on the mountaintop – says that I am not allowed to remain silent on this one, that I need to risk the possibility of saying something foolish or something offensive because saying nothing represents my quiet approval of those guys in the street with their torches and their Nazi salutes and their shouting about blood and soil.

So, here is the best that I can do. We are in a church. And so I want to encounter what happened in Charlottesville – and, in turn, what is happening across our country and across the world – by listening with you to a story from the Gospel. Thanks to the gift that is the lectionary – thanks to the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next – the story that will guide us this morning sees Jesus speaking about and with a bunch of religious officials followed by Jesus speaking about and with a woman of another culture.

The religious authorities come to Jesus, and they ask him a question. (This meeting takes place at the start of Chapter 15 of Matthew, ten verses before where we started reading this morning.) They demand to know why Jesus’ disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat. To be clear, the authorities’ question is not about hygiene in the 21st-Century sense of that word: modern germ theory is not going to show up until Louis Pasteur and friends demonstrate it in the 1880’s. The authorities, in other words, are not worried that Jesus and friends are going to get E. coli at the church picnic.  Rather, their question is about tradition or piety.

The longstanding, inherited practice, the practice of Jesus’ elders and ancestors, is to wash their hands before eating. Washing your hands before eating – like dressing in a certain way, like going to the temple, like observing dietary rules – is an act of reverence, it is a way of honouring your ancestors, honouring the past, honouring God. And therefore, not washing your hands before eating is to risk defiling your ancestors, defiling the past, defiling God.

But far from being contrite, far from telling his disciples that they had better get out the soap and the body wash, Jesus responds to the authorities’ question in an abrupt way, maybe even in an angry or an accusatory way.

This is where we pick up the story this morning:

Listen and understand,

Jesus tells the authorities,

It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person. But it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.

The disciples are flabbergasted, they are scandalised, by this response. It is as though they are in Grade Three and watching a classmate lip off at teacher. They come up to Jesus and, glancing over their shoulders, they whisper:

Jesus! They can hear you!

For the disciples, in other words, Jesus’ response is shocking. And it’s a pretty good bet that for the audience that first heard Matthew’s telling of this story, Jesus’ response was shocking as well.

That shock is worth remembering as we consider this tale this morning. Because most of us who go to church in 2017 are pretty used to seeing Jesus tear a strip off of the Pharisees, we’re pretty used to scripture casting them as Jesus’ adversaries. It doesn’t shock us at all. By contrast, a lot of us are thoroughly shocked by the harshness with which Jesus – whom we know to be merciful and kind, especially to those in need – will talk to the woman in just a moment:

It is not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.

But for this story’s original audience, the surprise or shock was likely the other way around: dumping on people of high status from your own culture was bizarre and dangerous; dumping on a person of low status from another culture was normative and to be expected.

Let’s turn our attention to that woman from another culture now.

She walks onto the stage of our tale and Matthew introduces her as a Canaanite.

Now, if you read the Bible closely, you’ve likely noticed that the Gospel Mark also tells this story. Most scholars figure that Mark is the oldest Gospel, and that Matthew and Luke read and drew from Mark in writing their own books about Jesus. Matthew’s telling of the story is almost identical to Mark’s, except that Mark refers to the woman as a Syrophoenician.

Why does Matthew change things up and call her a Canaanite?

We don’t know for certain: when our ancestors gave us the Bible, they didn’t include footnotes. Any answer, therefore, is going to contain an element of speculation. Here is the speculation that I find most persuasive. It is drawn heavily from the work of Paul Nuechterlein and Brian McLaren.[1]

By the time that Jesus lived, the term Canaanite was an anachronism, it had not been in regular use for several centuries; calling someone a Canaanite in the First Century would be a bit like meeting someone from Norway today and calling them a Viking. That suggests that Matthew’s goal in using this term is to make us think about the past, the stories of the Old Testament, and in particular the stories from the Book of Joshua, in which Israel invades the land of Cana and defeats the people who live there.

The Book of Joshua, not to put too fine a point on it, is a story of genocide. It is a story of coming to understand other people as so radically subhuman that murdering them is not merely morally acceptable but might even be reasonable and necessary. As such, like many of the hardest passages in the Bible, it is a story about the darkest parts of humanity, about what happens when we spectacularly misunderstand who God is and who God is calling us to be.

One of the things that magnifies the connection between this passage in the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Joshua is that “Joshua” and “Jesus” are actually the very same name. The name “Jesus” comes to us via a Greek text, whereas the name “Joshua” comes directly from the Hebrew. But odds are good that if you hopped into your time machine and met Joshua and then met Jesus, the two of them would say their names more or less identically, something like: Yeshuah.

What we have before us in Matthew, therefore, is the contrast between two Joshuas or two Jeshuas or two Jesuses. One who understands people from Cana to be subhuman and beneath respect. And another…

…who understands people from Cana to be subhuman and beneath respect.

At least, that’s how the story begins.

Look how Jesus starts the encounter. He first ignores the woman – the way that you might ignore an insect in a room or a homeless person on the street – and then, when she keeps on asking for his help, he responds with a brutal slur: he calls her and her people dogs.

Jesus, in other words, is behaving just as his culture has taught him to behave, as tradition has taught him to behave. He reaches for the slur in the same automatic and untroubled way that a slave owner reaches for his whip.

But then something extraordinary happens. The woman gives Jesus the gift of pushing back. Her response is both amazingly clever and amazingly humble and amazingly subversive. And as a consequence, her response is able to penetrate Jesus’ armour.

Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table.

Jesus stands there with his mouth hanging open, his eyes wide. And in that instant he realises that the very thing that he said to the religious authorities a minute ago – the thing that he said about the stuff that comes out of ours mouths being what defiles – applies to him. He has been acting in a way that defiles. He has been speaking in a way that defiles.

And so Jesus repents. He allows himself to be transformed.

Here is the final contrast between Joshua and Jesus: Joshua defeats the Canaanites; Jesus permits himself to be defeated by the Canaanite woman.

With the Canaanite woman’s help, Jesus recognises that he has inherited something that is broken and wrong. To be clear, that isn’t to say that everything that Jesus has inherited is broken and wrong: not at all! Jesus lives his entire life as a faithful Jew, he will remain a faithful Jew for the rest of his days. Jesus never rejects Judaism, this story is not about how he leaves Judaism in order to do something better, in order to form the church. Rather, this story is about the how his very faithfulness demands a willingness to critique his tradition when it defiles, to resist his tradition when it defiles, to change his tradition when it defiles.

That expectation of resistance, by the way, is built into Jesus’ praise of the woman: Great is your faith, he says to her. And her faith, as we have just witnessed, is not just her persistency, but it is also her choice to push back when Jesus falls into the bigotry that he grew up with, the bigotry that, up until this moment, he had left unquestioned.

What does following Jesus’ example mean when we encounter Charlottesville and its aftermath?

I bet you have your own answers. Here’s but a couple to get us started.

Following Jesus’ example means listening. For white people in particular, it means listening to people of colour and to others whom our culture has historically marginalised: Jewish folks, GLBTQ folks, Palestinians. (I read a fabulous article a couple of days back written by an African American woman in response to the many white folks who had asked her how they could be better allies[2]. Her advice? Among other things: White people, stop talking so much. You’ve had the microphone early and often, she said. It’s time now to do some more listening.) In particular, I want to suggest that white folks are called to listen to and to believe People of Colour when they tell us that, while the racism in Charlottesville was overt and unapologetic, it was neither new nor unusual. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Racism is as old as this country, it is woven into a country’s fabric. So let’s listen to those who have been so often unheard.

Following Jesus’ example means being willing to critique the tradition and the culture we have received. Again, a critique is not a rejection, I really want to underline that: this is not a binary place where recognising the racism in our country means that we can’t love our country, that we aren’t patriots. To the contrary, this is one of those instances in which a critique of our country is a profound act of patriotism. Sometimes, you love someone or something so much that you can’t help but critique them or it; every parent in the world will tell you as much. When applied to the question of Civil War statues, a critique of our tradition means acknowledging that the statues of confederate leaders are not harmless examples of history but, rather, they are deliberately racist symbols. They honour people who fought to preserve slavery and they were overwhelmingly erected during the worst days of Jim Crow and of lynching. Their purpose is and always was to keep black people afraid and in their place. Thus, their removal is a moral necessity.

At its simplest – and at its hardest – following Jesus’ example means being open to being transformed, even when it’s hard, even when it hurts, even when it means surrendering certainty and privilege. It means being open when the Canaanite woman speaks to you and me. It means being open to being defeated by God’s love.

[1] I am indebted to Paul Nuechterlein’s wonderful online resource, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.

[2] Courtney Ariel, For Our White Friends Desiring to Be Allies, Sojourners.com, August 16, 2017.

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-11
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

 

The Franciscan priest and teacher, Richard Rohr, often writes and speaks about what he calls The Shadow Self. The Shadow Self is a concept that originally shows up in the work of Carl Jung. Rohr and his colleagues have developed and evolved it further. What they are referring to when they speak of the Shadow Self is that part of ourselves or that part of our culture or society that we struggle to see, that we consciously or unconsciously keep out of the light, that we hide or deny.

One of the big ways, Rohr and friends suggest, that we can discover the nature of our Shadow Selves is to pay attention those things that sadden or frustrate or anger us in other people: we are frequently most upset when we encounter someone who, whether we realize it or not, is holding up a mirror to us or to the tribe to which we belong. Think, for instance (and this has showed up so often in the news in the last ten or fifteen years that it has almost become a cliché), about the violently homophobic pastor who turns out to be gay. Think about soldier at war whose love for his country and hatred of his enemy is almost perfectly duplicated in the one against whom he fights. Think about you and me when, in a time of conflict in our family or at work or at church, the person who really gets our goat turns out to be suspiciously similar to us in our tendency towards sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness or triangulation or whatever. Think about – well, think about just about anything in this political season, and the bile that we direct towards those who intend to vote differently that we do.

Think about what the people whom we don’t like have to teach us.

Rohr and his friends are keen to emphasize two things about our Shadow Selves. First, our Shadow Selves aren’t something that we can get rid of. They aren’t devils sitting on our shoulders that we can exorcise. To the contrary, having a Shadow Self is an inescapable feature of being alive. To be human means that, when you go out in the sun, you will cast a shadow.

Second, our Shadow Selves, in and of themselves, aren’t evil or broken. Rather, they are necessary and integral components of our personalities, sometimes even of our very best qualities. Being stubborn or inflexible is often the shadow side of being determined or committed; being distant or aloof can be the shadow side of being calm; being a pushover is sometimes the shadow side of being compassionate; being impatient or judgmental can be the shadow side of having a passion for justice. Rohr puts it this way: Our shadow selves aren’t evil. But they can allow us to do evil without noticing it or naming it. Our task, therefore, is to become aware of our Shadow Selves, to shine a light upon them.

Across his ministry, Jesus tells stories about our Shadow Selves. Jesus is talking about the Shadow Self when he says that we complain about the specks in other people’s eyes but we can’t see the logs in our own eyes. He is talking about it when he tells the story of the religious official who goes to the Temple and prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people”; Jesus then contrasts him with the tax collector who looks straight at his shadow, who wrestles with it, who says, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” And he is talking about it today when he tells the crowd a folktale about a wealthy man who is planning on building the best barns ever.

The lead character in Jesus’ folk tale doesn’t have a name. When students of the Bible speak of him, they refer to him by the title that God gives him at the story’s end: this is The Rich Fool. Notwithstanding this pejorative name – and notwithstanding the reality that The Rich Fool is a type or even a caricature– there is actually lots that is good about him, there are a lot of things about him that I like.

I like the way that he gets out his graph paper and dreams up plans for barns. I like his imagination, his enthusiasm for the future, his optimism. I like his goal of relaxing; of eating, drinking, and being merry. (I’m about to go on vacation: my calendar for the next two weeks says, “Eat, drink, and be merry.”) I like that he talks to himself, that if you see him walking down the street on his own, there is a good chance that you will notice his lips moving. And I love – love – that he has a name for himself: it is evidence of Jesus’ comedic brilliance that, in the middle of the Rich Fool’s self-directed monologue, Jesus has him lovingly address himself as “Soul.” You can picture him hugging himself as he speaks these words

But – and like every folk tale, there is a “but,” there is a moral to Jesus’ story – because the Rich Fool is entirely unaware of his own shadow, he allows his really good characteristics to manifest in really destructive ways. He allows his imagination and his optimism and his love of himself – all of them laudable and important characteristics, in and of themselves – to turn him entirely inward, to make him smaller. Notice that the Rich Fool’s every sentence contains either the word “I” or his name for himself, “Soul.” Notice that his plans are thoroughly selfish: Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”: the Rich Fool’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What am I doing for me?” As he stocks his overflowing barns, he makes no mention of anyone else.

There is an aphorism that says that sin is its own punishment. And it seems to me that we see that truth illustrated in the Rich Fool’s life. Because while we may deduce that the Rich Fool isn’t the best neighbour, that his radical self-absorption makes him kind of exhausting and boring to be around, that he takes more from his community than he gives to it, the deep and real cost of the Fool’s way of being in the world is to the Fool himself. Because, in his frantic efforts to accumulate money and stuff (and this is the moment when it becomes apparent that Jesus’ story could have been written yesterday) he has utterly lost track of the reality that his life is precious and fleeting, that he is called to live with holy urgency. Listen to what God says at the story’s end:

You’re going to die. You’re going to die way sooner than you think. You’ve got the biggest and best barns in the neighbourhood. You have three cars. You have a flatscreen TV in every room. And tonight, tonight the heart attack or the accident or the galloping undiagnosed infection is going to cut you down.

When that happens, what are you going to with all that stuff?

Over the last few weeks, we have been reading through the Gospel of Luke more or less in the same order that it is found in scripture. A couple of week back we heard that celebrated parable that we know as The Good Samaritan. Last week, we heard the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” And I’d like to suggest that Jesus gives us the folk tale of the Rich Fool in light of those previous readings. Contrast the Samaritan, who is turned outwards towards his neighbour, with the Rich Fool, who is turned inwards, towards himself. Contrast the prayer that Jesus teaches us, which is addressed to the Father, with the prayer of the Rich Fool, which is addressed to his own soul.

The late physician and writer, Oliver Sacks, tells the story of a patient who was struggling to sleep. She was haunted by a dream night after night in which she was chased by a monster. She ran from that monster in terror.

So Sacks asked his patient: What does the monster look like?

The patient explained that, as she ran, she had never turned around to look.

And so Sacks said: Next time, look. Look at the monster. And the patient said that she would.

Sacks doesn’t tell us what the patient saw when she turned around and looked. But he does say that she never had the dream again.

Confronting our shadow selves is as amazingly difficult and as amazingly simple as turning around and looking at the monster. Like a lot of Christianity, like a lot of being alive, there is nothing particularly complex about this work. And nor is there anything easy about it. It is work that we can only do in community. It is work that we can only do with God’s help.

Because it is so hard, it is tempting to put this work off, to postpone it indefinitely. As long as we focus on building more and bigger barns, we can maintain the illusion that we are safe and that we are in control, that death is distant, that running out of time is something that happens to other people, that we have years and years to eat, drink, and be merry.

But fighting through the temptation is worth it. There is joy in fighting through it, in escaping the illusion, in telling the truth, in turning outwards.

Shining a light on our shadow selves frees us. It frees us to discover a whole world around us. It invites us into communion: communion with creation, communion with our neighbour, communion with God.