The Connection between Money, Politics, and Love

Sermon for Reformation Sunday Oct. 28th, 2012,  on Amos 2:6-8, 5:12-15, 21-24 and Matt. 25:31-40

Amos 2:6-8, 5:12-15, 21-24

2:6 Thus says the LORD:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—

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7 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
8 they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed.
5: 12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
5:14 Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
15 Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
5:21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

Matt. 25:31-40

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,  33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

The Connection between Money, Politics, and Love

The First Issue of the Protestant Reformation

I was horrified when I learned about the things that were going on within the church before the Protestant Reformation.  It was all about money.  Some leaders in  the church were preying upon the religious sentiments of naive people in the quest for more money.  In those days the church was conducting a medieval version of a capital campaign to raise money to build St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.

Here’s how it worked.  They sent preachers around to spread the word that if people put money into the collection, they could buy an

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“indulgence” from the pope, by which their deceased loved ones could get out of purgatory.   This is classic economic exploitation.  Of course people, even desperately poor people, put money in the collection.  Who could let grandma stay there in purgatory one more minute?

Well this abuse horrified a young monk, a professor of theology in Wittenberg, Germany, named Martin Luther.  He wanted a debate about it – as all good professors would.  So, on October 31, 1517 he nailed his list of 95 statements we know as the 95 Theses to the door of the castle church, and waited for the counter-arguments.

Luther’s 95 Theses

Luther was a clever professor-monk.  He at least pretended to believe that the Pope  was ignorant of the abuse conducted in his name, and that he too would have been horrified if he knew what was being preached.  Listen to Luther’s Thesis #50.

Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the  indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.”

On this Reformation Sunday, we remember well the issue that got the Protestant Reformation started; economic exploitation.

A World with Little Love Lost

How would you like to have been one of those poor peasants back then?  We would never wish that world on anyone we loved.  In fact, we would wish the opposite for them.

If you love someone, what kind of world do you wish for them?  You would want people you loved to grow up in a world in which they had a decent chance to live decently; a world in which no one was abusing them or taking advantage of them.  You would want it to be the case that if they worked hard and were responsible, they would reap the rewards of their efforts and live a normal, happy life.  That is what you want for those you love.

Our Love-in-Action Story

Today, the subject is a love story.  It’s the story of a God who loves the people he made.  When we were young, we thought of love as a feeling; the feeling of closeness and affection we have towards family, and close friends.  But adults know that love must mean so much more than feelings.  Love is a catalyst; it produces action.  In the same way that love for her child compels a mother, not just to feelings of affection, but to tend and nurture that child 24/7 for years, so all loving includes looking out for the practical wellbeing of the beloved.

Baal

This is why it is so incredibly great to know God in the way that we know God.  Here’s why; ask yourself the question:  who did the gods of the ancient world love?  They loved only themselves.  They wanted humans to honor them, bow to them, offer them sacrifices to feed them; it was all about satisfying the love-needs of the god.   Marduk, Baal, Molech, they were all that way.

But our story is a love story about a God who loves, not himself, but us!  Not just theoretically or emotionally, but practically, as a mother loves her children.

The Way of the World and the Moses-Alternative

In the ancient world, most people were peasants, many were slaves in bondage to a very small royal family and a small class of land-owning gentry.  Most people had no chance to live a decent life.

But consider our story: Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, not just with ten commandments, but with all of Torah (which we call, “the law”).  Torah was a whole new re-design for common life.  In Torah, all the 12 tribes of Israel were on the same level.  There was no royal tribe, no servant tribes; all of them were equal before the law.

Each tribe, according to Torah, was given land, and each Israelite had the opportunity to work hard, be diligent, responsible, and productive.  That design is part of the love story we tell.  God, who created every person equally in his image, provided conditions by which all of their needs could be met. There was equality of opportunity.   That is what love means in practice.

Opportunity and Outcomes

But equality of opportunity is not the only way love looks in practice.  It cannot stop there, because even if everyone is equal before the law, with an equal amount of land and opportunity, there are severe inequalities that every community experiences.

Some people are born strong and healthy; others are born with physically, mentally or psychologically challenging conditions.  Accidents happen.  War or diseases can take away a family’s breadwinner.  The book of Ruth is the story of a family who, through no fault of their own, experienced both famine and the deaths of all the male breadwinners.  Equality of opportunity alone does not produce good outcomes for any of these kinds of problems.  What does love do about that?

The Torah of Moses included provisions for people like Ruth and Naomi.  Gleaning laws meant that they would have sources of food in every harvested field.  The Sabbath year laws meant that debts were forgiven, so a permanent poor class would never develop.

The Jubilee every 50 years meant that land would return to its original owner, restoring the possibility of every family to begin again, as productive citizens.

Tithe laws set aside funds to help the poor and the needy, typically called “the widow, the orphan and the resident-alien.”  This is how Torah works-out love in action.  So this is a love story.  Love in action is economic, and it is political because it involves the well being of the entire community.

The Dark Side of us
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But we humans have a dark side.  The ones with the advantage quite often take advantage.  It happened in Israel.  Israel became a monarchy with a royal class, the rich acquired the land of the poor and turned them into debt-slaves.  Large estates gobbled up peasant farms.  Corruption in the law courts, cheating in business transactions, oppression of workers – it all became common (there are no new ideas).

This is what Amos said that God was so upset about.  Instead of being a community based on love-in-action, Amos said the Lord was angry with them because:

“… they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; …so that my holy name is profaned;” (Amos 2:6–7)

And the truth was that since God was not like the other gods of the pagan world, loving himself only, wanting religious ritual just to satisfy his own ego needs, he didn’t even want any religious practice from people who were exploiting the poor people whom he loved.  Amos quotes the Lord as saying,

“21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,  I will not accept them;and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:21–24 )

Love in Action = Justice

God loves us so much that he wants our good; our practical good, our economic wellbeing.  You cannot love someone and put up with their neglect, abuse or exploitation.  These words of Amos have become famous:

“let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

What is justice?  It does not only mean equality of opportunity, it means addressing grossly unequal outcomes on behalf of those who are hurting.  We are called to be a community that promotes both disciplined responsibility and productivity, and that shows practical, meaningful love to people in need.

Does this have economic and political implications?  Sure it does.  Love always does.  Love cannot wish a world of suffering, exploitation or deprivation on anyone.  Love looks at the facts, and responds.

The Love Story Conclusion

Our love story, like every serious love story, has a powerful conclusion.  The Lord Jesus asks us to think of it as a world-wide moment of

watch the video on First World Problems on Youtube http://youtu.be/fxyhfiCO_XQ

reflection.  It comes at the end, when the Son of Man comes in his glory.  Everyone gathers before him, rich and poor, able-bodied and challenged, caucasians and all others, all of the people he made in his image and whom he loves.

He has a question that everyone must answer.  Like all of the pagan gods, he asks, “What have you done for me?”  But unlike any of the other gods, he counts, as correct answers, only the practical love that they have shown to others.  To the righteous who have shown this kind of love-in-action to others, he says,

“35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matt. 25)

This leaves them confused.  They ask,

“‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’”

But it’s not meant to be tricky nor a surprise at all. He answers,

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

A moment’s reflection leads to the conclusion that the only possible world that a God of love would wish upon the people he made is one in which they all show practical love to each other.

Of course he would want them to live in a world of justice, with equal opportunity, but he knows that every community experiences tragedy; every community knows pain, and every community of humans like us, with our dark sides, knows plenty of man-made inequality and evil.  And so a God of Love would, of course, also want a community that addressed outcomes, so that, justice could,

“roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

All that rolling, overflowing, streaming water is bound to make a pretty wet world.  Well, maybe that is exactly the world that the community of the baptized prefers.  A world in which the waters of grace, of mercy, of redemption that we were born from, are the waters of love and justice that we lavishly splash around, until everyone is soaking in them.

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Shalom in Exile

Sermon for Oct 21, 2012,  the 21st Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, 10-14

1  These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles,

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and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

10   For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.  11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart,  14 I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

1Pet. 2:11-12

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.  12 Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.

Shalom in Exile

Where is home?  We used to tell our boys that wherever daddy and mommy live, that’s home.  We needed a flexible definition.  During our time overseas we lived in seven different places – each one, in turn, was “home.”  But of course, in another sense all seven were places that to us, as Americans, were away from home.

Some of us feel a strong connection to the home we were born or raised in as children, even after long years away.  But most of us have had the experience of returning as an adult to that childhood place and finding it odd; either it changed, or we changed, or both, and now it’s not home anymore.

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Almost all of us have come to live here from somewhere else.  Is this home?  It should be; this is our country, America, and this community is where we live now, so in those ways it’s home here.

So then, why do we feel this sense of not being fully at home?  Maybe we could ask, is there anyplace in which we would feel fully at home?

This is part of the human condition.  Our story of origins, our foundational story in Genesis is a story of a perfect home from which we were quickly exiled; Adam and Eve left the garden, never to return.  They and all their descendants have lived as exiles ever since.

The Prophets and the quest for home

Many of us have been involved in the project of reading the whole bible in 90 days.  Now we are in the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  We are newly aware that their common theme is the problem of home.  For the people of Israel, the promised land was meant to be home, but it was complicated.  They understood that their homeland was a gift that could be withdrawn.  They fell prey to mighty empires that drove them from their land.  They became exiles, living on foreign soil.

One of the key words of the prophets of the exile is “return.”  The people who are living as exiles longed to return home.  But it was not only the people who had left the land, so had their rightful king, the Lord their God.  In one of the saddest scenes in the Old Testament, after the one about Adam and Eve leaving the garden, is the one Ezekiel saw, of the glory of the Lord rising up from the ruined temple and leaving.

In Exile at home

By the time of the New Testament, the Jews have returned to the land – but it’s not their own.   It is under foreign occupation.  They consider themselves exiles; it’s not home as long as the Romans rule.  The Lord, their rightful King has not returned in triumphant victory to Zion, as they had hoped; at least, not yet.  They longed to hear a voice, crying out “prepare the way for the Lord, build a roadway in the wilderness” so that the Lord may return to Zion as king; then it will be home.

In many ways we are like aliens and exiles, as 1 Peter says, even here in our community. Our culture is hyper-individualistic, whereas we

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believe in the common-good.  Our culture wants to define humans beings as “consumers,” but we insist on being defined as bearers of the image of God.  Our culture thinks economic success is the only valid measure of worth, while we maintain that the most important values are ones that cannot be measured: love, compassion, friendship, loyalty, purity, faithfulness, and mercy.

Options in Exile: Culture wars

How do we live in exile?  Let’s consider the options. We can consider ourselves at war with the culture of our exile.  This means taking every opportunity to fight it, oppose it, protest it, and condemn it.  This is what the zealots of Jesus’ day wanted: fight the evil occupiers to the death.  Cleanse the land of bad-guys.  Re-take the homeland.  Should that be our quest?  Should we be culture-warriors, famous for anger and judgmentalism?

Re-make Eden

Another option for exiles like us is to try to re-make Eden on earth.  Some of us may remember Joni Mitchell singing “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”  She was channeling  the Adam and Eve narrative, but at that time, 1969, the quest of her generation was to remake the garden of Eden, on earth.  The song was called “Woodstock.”

It turns out that the Woodstock festival was not the Garden of Eden after all – especially not after the rain.  Neither Woodstock nor any other

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human attempt at establishing a utopian community on earth has succeeded; in fact, most are quite short-lived.

Religious communities that try to establish a new Eden for themselves in their culture of exile often turn inwards and become isolated.  They, like the Essenes of Jesus’ day who moved out to the desert to found the utopian Qumran community and copy the Dead Sea Scrolls all day, (in between their obsessive ritual baths), seek to become the isolated “righteous few.”  And nobody notices them.  They become irrelevant to the rest of the world.  Should isolation be our quest, here in exile?

The Letter to the Exiles

Is there another option for exiles like us besides culture wars and isolation?  Is there a third way?  Yes there is.  It comes to us first from the prophet Jeremiah.   The text we read is from his letter to the exiles who had been deported to Babylon.

4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Instead of sharpening swords and planning the mother of all battles against the bad guys, or attempting a utopian community of isolation, Jeremiah has a vision of an alternative way of living as an exile, away from home.  God’s will, he says, is to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.”

Seek the Shalom

The word “welfare” is a translation of the Hebrew, “shalom.”  Shalom is a huge word, meaning welfare, in the broadest sense.  It also includes peace, well-being, wholeness, and wellness.  Seek the total well-being, the shalom of the place of your exile; this is our mandate.

What does this mean in practice?  Notice all the active verbs: “Build houses, live in them, plant gardens, eat what they produce; have weddings, have babies, multiply and increase” – participate in the life of the community.  This is the opposite of the strategy of opposition and the opposite of withdrawal and isolation.  This is about active engagement, even to the extent of bringing the concerns for the well-being of the place of our exile before God in our prayers:

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7 But seek the welfare (shalom) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf….

And this admonition comes with a promise:

“for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” 

or as it says literally,

“for in its shalom, you will find your shalom.”

Instead of seeking a conflict or withdrawal, we seek shalom; peace; well-being for the place of our exile, and in its peace, in its well-being, in its shalom, we find our our peace, well-being, our shalom.

Christians as Exiles

Does this apply to us, today?  Yes it does.  We Christians, like the Jewish people of faith in exile in Babylon, are also to consider ourselves aliens to our world.  Peter calls us “aliens and exiles.”

The crucial question is, in what way are we to be oriented to our world as exiles?  Neither as in a permanent state of conflict, nor of withdrawal, but rather we are an outpost community from another kingdom, living according to that kingdom’s values even while away from home.

As an engaged outpost community, we neither allow ourselves to be seduced by the  dominant cultural values that are at odds with our core beliefs, nor do we retreat.

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.  12 Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God” (1Pet. 2:11-12)

Honorably” and “honorable deeds” translate a word that means goodness in its deepest sense.  It is another way of saying, seek the shalom of your place of exile.

How to seek Shalom: follow the pain

How?  Simple: follow the pain, and be a part of the solution.

Where has the culture of selfish individualism, greed, consumerism, and entertainment-ism caused suffering?

Where has the culture of discrimination and hostility to those who differ from the main-stream majority damaged people?

Where have people been ignored, cast off or neglected by the glamor or athlete  standards of our day?

Where is the pain, the lack of well-being, the lack of wholeness in our community?

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Where is the need for shalom?

Are there homeless people?  Seek their shalom, for in their shalom, we will find our shalom.

Are there hungry people?  Seek their shalom, for in their shalom, we will find our shalom.

Are there unemployed or addicted people?  Seek their shalom, for in their shalom, we will find our shalom.

Are there people who have been excluded or marginalized because of race or disability or sexual orientation?  Seek their shalom, for in their shalom, we will find our shalom.

One concrete opportunity

This is the promise, and this is our mandate.   We need look no further than down the street at the children in our schools.  Some have special needs, some have only one parent at home, or are living with relatives who are not their parents.  Some need extra help with their school work.

Why are we here?  Why are we on this planet, in this neighborhood at this time?  To seek the shalom of those children.

God is at work in the world right now.  God is at work, by the Spirit, putting in our hearts the desire to be a part of seeking the shalom of our community.  What can we do?  Some of us can tutor children.  All of us can, as Jeremiah said, “pray to the LORD on [their] behalf.”

After this service, I hope you are planning to stay.  We will have an open conversation about new and creative ways we can be engaged in seeking the shalom of our community, made possible by a generous donation from someone who knows a lot about seeking and finding shalom.  This is part of what God is doing.

Let the last words be the Lord’s words through Jeremiah:

11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

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Discernment

Mo Ranch, Texas, October, 2012

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I hiked up the road to the outdoor “Chapel on the Hill,” looked out across the valley below, and at the circling birds, and thought, O that I had wings; even turkey buzzards make it look so easy. Then I wondered,  would I glide like that if I had wings? Or would I turn into the wind to fight it – if I had wings – if I were a turkey buzzard in Texas?

It’s windy up here.  I think of the wind as ancient, as if the same wind that blows today blew on the dinosaurs, if they ever got up here.  The wind must have seen it all come and go.  Probably it could tell stories. Some say that they hear the wind speak, as if it had a voice.  I think I could say it howls, but not much more than that.

The wind that the buzzards circle on so calmly makes everything move in this hilltop sanctuary; tree limbs lurch in gusts, like drunks do, but are similarly unfazed by it.  Lone weeds, that made the effort to poke up through the rocks, get knocked around mercilessly, but don’t seem any worse the wear.  Even the rocks up here look worn down; though it occurs to me that the same wind that diminishes, also smooths them some.

I’m trying to take in the view.  This scene will outlast me.  I’m up here for a brief moment.  I don’t want to be here as an intruder, or an exception to this state of nature.   “Okay,” I want to say, “so let this be my moment to sync-up my heart to this episode, in which I am a bit-player in the story of this wind on this hill and that valley.  May it be told – if anyone tells – that on this small day, at least for this morning, all was as it should be; and that on this day too, as on all the others, without me up here, though I’ll have to walk back down from the chapel without wings, I was also without resistance; and that the wind that nearly tipped over my water bottle and flapped my notebook pages didn’t just blow my hair around, but entered me, and that I took a deep breath; and that I was open to it – even enjoyed it – though it told me no secrets, if it had any to tell, of how the story would go tomorrow, in this wind, up on this hill top, or in that valley.

The Irony of Wisdom from Solomon

Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Oct. 7, 2012

Proverbs 1:1-7
Solomon

1  The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: 

2  For learning about wisdom and instruction,for understanding words of insight, 

3  for gaining instruction in wise dealing,righteousness, justice, and equity; 

4  to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young— 

5  Let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, 

6  to understand a proverb and a figure,the words of the wise and their riddles.

7  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

James 3:13-18

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.  14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.  15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.  16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.  17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

What makes life meaningful?  How do I know if I have lived a meaningful life or an empty, one?  How do I know that I didn’t wast my life?  What constitutes true happiness?

Experimental Philosophy: the 2 Maria’s

I want to share a fascinating account about how people assess meaning.  There is a budding new field of research called Experimental Philosophy.  One of the founders of this movement is Joshua Knobe who is a faculty member in Yale University’s Program in Cognitive Science.  He set up an experiment in which he gave participants one of two scenarios to evaluate.  The first group heard this:

“Maria is the mother of three children who all really love her. In fact, they couldn’t imagine having a better

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mom. Maria usually stays pretty busy taking care of her children. She often finds herself rushing from one birthday party to the next. And is always going to pick up some groceries or buy school supplies.

“While Maria has been preoccupied with her children, she does get to see her old friends occasionally. Almost every night she ends up working on some projects for the next day, or planning something for her children’s future.

“Day to day, Maria usually feels excited and really enjoys whatever she’s doing. When she reflects on her life, she also feels great. She can’t think of anything else in the world that she would spend her time doing and feels like the success she’s had is definitely worth whatever sacrifices she’s made.

And these participants were just asked a simple question: Is Maria happy?

Scenario 2

The second group of participants get this scenario:

“Maria wants to live the life of a celebrity in L.A. In fact, she’s even started trying to date a few famous people. Maria usually stays pretty busy in trying to become popular. She often finds herself rushing from one party to the next and is always going to pick up some alcohol or a dress. Maria is so preoccupied with becoming popular that she’s no longer concerned with being honest to her old friends unless they know someone famous. Almost every night she ends up either drunk or doing some kind of drug, just like the famous people she wants to be like.

“Maria usually feels excited and really enjoys whatever she’s doing. When she reflects on her life, she also feels great. She just can’t think of anything else in the world that she would spend her time doing and feels like the success she’s had is definitely worth whatever sacrifices she had made.

“And these participants were then given the same question. Is Maria happy?”

It turns out consistently that people agree that Maria, the mother in the first story, is truly happy, just as she describes herself as feeling.   But people are unwilling to say that the Maria in the second story is truly happy, despite the fact that she claims to be, using identical words.

Most people seem to be aware that a truly happy life can only be the consequence of a life lived meaningfully.

Wisdom Literature on the Good Life

This is exactly the kind of reflection about life we find in literature that spans many centuries from a variety of different cultures.  It shows up in our bibles in the works of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  Wisdom literature is the name given to texts  that contains these kinds of reflections.

Many of us have been involved in the project of Reading the Bible in 90 Days.  We have already read the books that give the story of king Solomon, and just this past week we have read the wisdom books credited to him: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

The story about Solomon in the book of Kings tells us that he was very wise – even that he had a world-wide reputation for wisdom.

32 He [Solomon] composed three thousand proverbs…. 34 People came from all the nations to hear the

Solomon’s wisdom: “split the baby”

wisdom of Solomon….”  (1 Kings 4)

When we read the book of Proverbs which Solomon is given credit for writing and compiling, we read many common-sense observations about everyday life; it’s full of “folk-wisdom.”

“Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but one who rejects a rebuke goes astray (10:17)

“Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense. (11:22)

“The lazy person does not plow in season; harvest comes, and there is nothing to be found.”  (20:4)

Oddly, (given the enormous size of Solomon’s harem) there are many proverbs that warn against infidelity:

“Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?” (5:20)

We also read reflections of a broader, more philosophical nature:

“By justice a king gives stability to the land, but one who makes heavy exactions ruins it.” (29:4)

Who wrote that?

This is bitterly ironic.  The book of Kings tells us that Solomon organized (or rather re-organized or dis-organized) the tribal territories of Israel into districts for the sake of heavy “exactions” – which means taxes – in order to support numerous  building projects and to finance all the people at his court on a lavish level:

“Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of choice flour, and sixty cors of meal,  23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl.” (1 Kings 4:22)

It turns out that Solomon’s building projects included providing shrines for the gods of all of his 700 foreign wives, whom he eventually joined in their pagan worship (1 Kings 11)

As for his supposed knowledge of justice, we read:

“King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men.”  (1 Kings 5:13)

In the end, it is only possible to read the description of Solomon’s “wisdom” as completely ironic. He ends up looking like an Egyptian Pharaoh.  He compromised every core value that Moses voiced.  Every reason for leading the people out of slavery in Egypt was scuttled by what he foolishly, selfishly did.

The direct result was that the moment Solomon died, the ten Northern tribes split away.  He left his kingdom in the hands of a son no wiser than himself, and began a downward spiral that destroyed everything he had built.

Solomon’s self-conclusion

In the book of Ecclesiastes, also credited to Solomon, he reflects on his whole life’s work and concludes,

“18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19 —and who knows whether they will be wise or  foolish? …This also is vanity.  20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun,  21 …This also is vanity and a great evil.”  (Eccl. 2)

Solomon concluded that he wasted his life.  Like the Paris Hilton-type Maria in the second story, no one would call him truly happy.   What good were all the wisdom-sayings he collected and wrote?  He did not live a wise life.

The Good Life as per James

This brings us to the New Testament reading from the book of James, which shares many features in common with the

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Wisdom literature tradition.  The “good life” is not about acquisitions and achievements, it is about living a life that is good.

13 “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” (James 3)

James describes the wise life further:

17 “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

Life for Others

All of the qualities of a wise life are directed towards others.  None of these is self-oriented.  Wisdom means that you know that the purpose we are on this earth is not   for ourselves, it is for others.

And let us notice that being here for others means others who are similar to us and others who are not like us; wisdom is behaving “without a trace of partiality” James tell us.

On this world communion Sunday, we recognize that there is no basis for partiality before the God who made every person of every race, every tribe, and every language in his image, and whose son, Jesus, gave himself for the entire world.

Maria in story number two lived completely for herself.  Her life was vapid; empty.  We all know that one day she will wake up and discover that for herself, though much damage will have been done, and perhaps it will be too late.  By the time Solomon made that discovery, it was much too late.

The call to us

It is not to late for us.  If reading the bible has any effect on us at all, let it be that it calls us to live as God created us to live: not for ourselves, but with and for each other.  Let us learn, albeit ironically, from Solomon, even from his mistakes and his final despair about the nature of a life of “vanity”, to live, instead, a life of meaning; a life of wisdom.

This is not just about being a bleeding-hearted do-gooder.  This is about “getting it” at a wise, deep level, that the essence of life cannot be that I got through it with minimal pain, many pleasures, and lots of nice things.  What is the point of that?

No, rather the life we are called to live is a life that shares the values and dreams of our Creator, who made each of us in his image, and takes it personally when we give ourselves for others.  As James has said,

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:26)

This is the Jesus-shaped life, for as the gospels tell us,

“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

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