Almost Nothing Lasts

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

Colossians 3:1-11

Luke 12:13-21

trial

When I was a moody teenager, I fell in love with existentialism. My high school English teacher explained to us that the core of existentialist thought could be summed up in a single sentence as, “Life is absurd and nonsensical and then you die.” I am sure that existentialists themselves would provide a more nuanced definition of their philosophy, but the way I heard it, it made sense. I was exposed to more heartbreaking images and stories with the Internet boom of the early 2000s. I was able to hear the the stories of my family’s struggles with more mature ears. As an adolescent I was growing in my understandings of injustices and wrongdoing throughout the world. I could not explain the cruel absurdities that led to the Holocaust and the murder of my grandparents’ family and friends. I could not explain the cruel absurdities that left millions and millions of people around the world starving or malnourished. In the months after September 11, I could not wrap my head around the cruel absurdities of life that allowed thousands of people to die in the World Trade Center attack and the ensuing War on Terror. “Life is absurd and nonsensical and then you die,” made sense to me.

After this English lesson on existentialism, I started reading existentialist authors on my own. I eventually read The Trial by Franz Kafka. In this story, the main character, known simply as K, has been summoned to appear at trial for a crime he has committed. K does not know what the crime was and he never finds out. He journeys through the land of bureaucracy being passed along from one suit to the next and the only thing they are able to tell him (after many frustrating conversations) is where and when his trial will take place. Everyone he talks to is quick to judge his personal character, but no one can find what crime he is being charged with. Even in the trial itself the defense lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge never say what K’s crime was, but nonetheless K is found guilty and sentenced to death.

The Trial certainly isn’t a warm and fuzzy kind of story, but it articulated what I was feeling in my adolescence and new learnings about the terrible things going on throughout the world. The cruel absurdity of the story reflected my own confused exposure to the cruelties of war, terror, disease, and poverty. It seemed like so many people in the world were being sentenced to death for a crime that no one could articulate.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is a sort of biblical existentialist.

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” he shouts. Everything is fleeting. Nothing lasts.

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes goes through his absurd journey to find meaning in the world. He searches for wisdom and concludes that it fades. He looks at good, hard work and concludes that it too fades. He explains that you will never see an end to your work and you will inevitably have to pass it on to someone else when you die and that person may very well not care about it as much as you did. He laments, “For all [mortals] days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”

If life is filled with so much suffering and our work seems to be vain and fleeting, why even bother? Why bother working at all?

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes says that the work and wisdom we seek in life is vanity or fleeting. This is both a somber statement about the cruelty mortals experience in life and it is a hopeful message that declares that suffering also is fleeting. Continue reading

Growing Weary in Doing What is Right

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 66:10-14

Galatians 6:1-16

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

GodsWorkOurHands_1

On any given night in the United States there are on average 564,708 people who are homeless. In our country there are 46.7 million people living in poverty– line up 20 random people in the U.S. and you will find that 3 of them live in poverty. 17.4 million people in our country are food insecure– never confident that they will be able to provide a meal for themselves or their family. And that is just in our country. The hard facts and statistics surrounding injustice and what I would call sin in our communities are overwhelming.

I firmly believe that one of the principle ways the Church is called to respond to the unconditional and abundant love of God that we have received, is to share that love with others. People need to know that they are cared for by God and God’s people. When you are homeless, hungry, neglected, or forgotten, it can be hard to believe that you are a loved and redeemed child of God. I am happy for the work that our denomination does to combat injustices around the world. We do great advocacy work through Lutheran-Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of NJ which is currently addressing the crushing cost of housing in New Jersey. Lutheran World Relief is tirelessly working to provide sustainable food sources and water to places in need around the world. Saint Bart is engaged in this good work too. We host the Share Food Program which provides low-cost food packages, we give out free clothing at the Clothes Closet, we send volunteers to work at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen each month, we provide food gift certificates, and we’re planning on hosting a Community Resource Fair to help people connect with other resources in and around the city. This is good work and I firmly believe that the ELCA and Saint Bart are making a real, positive difference in the lives around us.

That being said, I have to admit that I am susceptible to despair. When I think about the immense needs of the world or even just of our city, I have to admit that I sometimes feel like it is all just a drop in a cavernous bucket. 17.4 million people are food insecure in our country and once per month 3-6 of us from St. Bart head over to TASK to help provide one single meal for a couple hundred people. 46.7 million people live in poverty and we give some free clothes to 50 or 60 families. It is good work, no doubt, but I can’t help but feel a little hopeless at times. It feels like there is a tidal wave of injustice and sin crashing over our ship, and we are armed with only a ladle to bail out the water. Continue reading