sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13C), July 31, 2022
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
Vanity of vanities! cries the teacher. All is vanity! When we die, those who come after us take everything of ours—both our possessions and the projects we’ve worked so hard to construct. We leave it when we go, and then we will never control it again.
Such is the resigned energy of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Having attained maturity, a teacher of Israel decides that everything is pretty much pointless. Nevertheless, he concludes, serve God and do good things for one another. What else can we do?
This is true wisdom from the heart of the wisdom literature section of the Bible. But there’s something about this resignation that feels to me like just another form of anxiety. The teacher’s world-weariness doesn’t make me excited to experience the true joys in life. That said, world-weariness is far more mature than pursuing our own comfort and security apart from the needs of everyone else.
Today Jesus gives us a parable about a rich man who seems to assume he will live forever. He hoards his possessions and just keeps building bigger barns. Who will get your money and possessions when you’re gone? Have you made this clear? It’s not up to Jesus to divide your inheritance. This is why you get a will. And you can do that for free right now through the resource linked in the weekly Shepherd’s Crook email!
But maybe the finer points of inheritance law are not Jesus’ point. The “rich fool” has all these possessions socked away that are not serving anyone, and he’s not making any decisions about sharing them. Are you sharing from what you have now, so that you’re not just greedily hoarding? This is clearly the main point of Jesus’ parable, but he doesn’t stop there. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” Jesus warns. Beyond your material possessions, what does it mean to be “rich toward God”?
Let me speak for a moment specifically to those who feel a deep investment in the church. Who will get the church when you’re gone? Are you as clear about this as you are about your money?
It’s commonly remarked that children are the church’s future. This is nonsense. Children are not the church’s future, but the church’s present. If you are a child, we are in relationship with you right now, and if you have been baptized, you are a full member of the body of Christ in this moment. God is calling you to do good work in the world with all the rest of us—given opportunity and guidance by the loving adults in your life.
Well, if children are not the church’s future but the church’s present, there’s a corollary to that. Elders are not merely the church’s past! No matter our age, if we are baptized and breathing, we are the church of the present day. Perhaps we are actively doing stuff—producing, performing, preserving old traditions and trying new things. Or perhaps we are not doing the things we used to do, either because they have become too difficult, or because nobody seems to want these specific things anymore. That doesn’t make us any less valuable.
I’ve heard it put in a prayer this way:
Lord, we know not what this day will bring forth, but make us ready for whatever it may bring. If we are to stand up, help us to stand bravely. If we are to sit still, help us to sit quietly. If we are to lie low, help us to do it patiently. And if we are to do nothing, let us do it gallantly.
I can’t tell you how many elders I’ve known who, as their bodies slow down, get increasingly frustrated that they can no longer do exactly what they used to do. This must include many of you. It’s not instinctive to imagine that simply being present and sharing wisdom with younger people is sufficient. Yet this is the work of willing the church to the next generation.
What if your life were demanded of you tonight? Are you ready to pass the church on? Who knows whether they will be wise or foolish with it? You can’t control that. If these concerns make you feel anxious or resigned, I’m not surprised. But the task is to do what you can with love … and then let go. Someone else will either take over for you and do it differently, or decide that the work you have done no longer needs to continue. It’s easy for us to feel possessive of our ministries. The higher call is to surrender them gracefully and watch with delight as the next generation reinvents the church.
Yet those who have been involved in the church over the course of a lifetime can become pretty nostalgic. This includes me, at the tender age of 49! The longer we spend in the church, the more we may come to believe that at one point, we had it really good, and it’s terrible that it’s not the same anymore. We may also come to believe that if we could just get everybody back to an earlier understanding and previous expectations, all would be well.
This, too, is vanity and chasing after wind … though I certainly understand the emotions behind it. I have felt them. But if there’s one positive thing the pandemic has done for us, it is to drive home the fact that we never get to go back to the past.
And let’s be honest: the past wasn’t working anyway. These days I hear a lot of hand-wringing in the Episcopal Church and Christianity in general from people wondering where all the young people have gone. It’s no secret that most of them find the church either oppressive or irrelevant. I share your frustration, because I don’t believe Good Shepherd is like that at all. We’re a well-kept secret that we don’t exactly know how to share with the world around us.
Well, speaking to those whose adult children and grandchildren are not connected to the church—and I know that includes many of you—do let go of this anxiety. You did the best you knew how to do, and many significant cultural factors were also involved. Most young people today have very little exposure to the church outside of its loudest, most intolerant representatives.
But within the Episcopal Church, our biggest problem has been resistance to change. The problem is not that we have centuries-old traditions. As the world changes faster and faster, many young people are looking for exactly what we offer: traditions that have stood the test of time, set in a context that embraces and incorporates present-day knowledge. The problem is that those of us firmly ensconced in the church for decades often can’t tell the difference between the essential and the merely familiar—between the core elements of the Christian faith, and traditions whose time has come and gone. Our nostalgia may lead us to prefer “the way we’ve always done it” than to continue learning new ways of understanding the Bible, or theology, or prayer and worship.
Passing on the Christian faith to the next generation doesn’t happen by guilting busy people into doing things “the way we’ve always done it.” It does happen by making careful but creative decisions and letting go of many things. It happens by being in continual discernment about what is “of earth” and what is “above”—by embracing humility, curiosity, and a spirit of adventure. It’s how we share what we have now—not just building bigger and bigger barns.
Most especially, though, it happens by building caring relationships with younger people and learning what stokes their longing and makes their hearts sing. How many authentic relationships do you share with someone of another generation—specifically, somebody not related to you? If you want young people in the church, that means getting to know young people, and then inviting them in to learn with us and do good work with us. We need to teach well, and we need to learn well, and we need not to cling. The church may have lost a lot of wonderful people, but God loses nobody.
Now let me say a word to newcomers and those who are more vicariously connected to Good Shepherd. We’re not likely to become a booming, bustling, gigantic congregation; if we do, we’ll credit that to the Holy Spirit, not ourselves! Our goal is not to collect you and cling to you, but to befriend you—to meet you where you are and come to understand what’s going on in your life, regardless of what happens in the next generation. There are so many ways we could learn, grow, and serve together—if, indeed, you find that Good Shepherd provides you with a healthy balance of comfort and challenge. Here we believe that God calls all the baptized to ministry. To what ministry is God calling you today?
If we truly believe that the church is God’s primary way of involving us in the work of the Holy Spirit—and I do, indeed!—then we can have faith that God isn’t yet finished with the church. We hear today in the Letter to the Colossians that if you are baptized, you have died already, and your true, eternal life is held securely in Christ’s arms, in God’s very being. So what is there to fear? The church faces challenges today that seem insurmountable, and some of them probably are. We will often fail, but we can decide that failing together is better than succeeding separately. After all, to the casual observer, Christ failed completely. His supposed failure was only the beginning.
Let me close with a hopeful story. A college student active in the Episcopal Church was terrified that a poor grade in one of her core classes would jeopardize not only her major but also her future career. She shared her fears with an 80-year-old member of the congregation, and then he told her about the seven careers he had held in his life. Suddenly the student felt so much better! When she came to college, she had not gone looking for intergenerational friendships and wisdom. But the church is one of the last places in our society where such things can really happen. This young student didn’t know what she needed until the church provided it.
Vanity of vanities! cries the teacher. All is vanity! When we die, we surrender all control of our most beloved projects. When we die, the church goes to the next generation, to do with it what they will. Behold! God is making all things new, all the time, in every generation, and we have no idea what’s coming. World-weariness comes from what is true, so it is certainly no sin. But we can pray for the Holy Spirit to help us set our weariness within a far greater hope, that in loving one another, we can become “rich toward God.” Amen.