A Sermon for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 13C
Susan Russell – All Saints Church – August 5, 2007
I still have it in my file cabinet -- the 1995 TIME Magazine with the cover story entitled THE EVOLUTION OF DESPAIR. It described the increasing role of anxiety and even despair in our culture: where 15% of Americans have had a clinical anxiety disorder, depression runs rampant and suicide rates for even young people continue to rise. The article examined this reality through the lens of an emerging science: “evolutionary psychology” -- those who seek to understand where we are by looking where we’ve come from.
The TIME reporter wrote, “VCRs and microwave ovens have their virtues, but in the everyday course of our highly efficient lives, there are times when something seems deeply amiss. Whether burdened by an overwhelming flurry of daily commitments or stifled by a sense of social isolation (or both at the same time): whether mired for hours in a sense life’s pointlessness or beset for days by unresolved anxiety; whether deprived by long workweeks from quality time with offspring or drowning in quantity time with them – whatever the source of stress, we at times get the feeling that modern life isn’t what we were designed for.”
And then the “punch line” – in big, bold print across the page: EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY CONCLUDES: WE ARE DESIGNED TO SEEK TRUSTING RELATIONSHIPS. Now, I am neither a scientist nor a psychologist but as a theologian I wanted to jump up and down and shout “YES!” …. And guess who designed you that way?
I found a lot of value in the conclusions and connections arrived at by these evolutionary psychologists – explanations that make sense to me for some of the “why are we the way we are” questions. They may not be asking the same questions I do but their answers can inform mine if I’m open to them.
New information is not antithetical to faith. It is not “science” or “religion” – I don’t have to choose between Jesus and Darwin as some bumper stickers seem to insist upon. That’s the real gift of Anglicanism – historic Anglicanism as we have received it through the centuries … not hysteric Anglicanism currently dominating the headlines. (That’s a different sermon!) What I’m talking about is the tradition of using ALL our God-given resources in interpreting Holy Scripture, in discerning God’s will, in living out our faith. THAT is traditional Anglicanism – and when we claim it we also claim the willingness to live with unanswered questions as we seek answers together – to exist with ambiguities as understandings evolve.
Here are some more evolving understandings from the evolutionary psychologists: “Unpleasant feeling are with us today because they helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation. Anxiety goaded them into keeping their children out of harm’s way or adding to food stocks amid plenty. Sadness or dejection led to soul-searching that might discourage repeating the behavior that led to the failure. (I loved this example: “Maybe flirting with the wives of men larger than me isn’t such a good idea!”) The past usefulness of unpleasant feelings is the reason periodic unhappiness is a natural condition, found in every culture, impossible to escape.
What isn’t natural is going crazy – for sadness to linger on into debilitating depression, for anxiety to grow chronic and paralyzing. These are largely diseases of modernity.”
The magazine article concluded: “The one thing that helps turn the perfectly natural feeling of sadness or dejection into the pathology known as depression is social isolation. The world of our ancestors was very different than the world we know today. It was a place where life brought regular, random encounters with friends, and not just occasional, carefully scheduled lunches with them: where there were spats and rivalries, yes, but where grievances were usually heard in short order and tensions thus resolved. Where there was “community.”
Ah … Community! Community, it seems clear, is not a luxury but a necessity if we are to live whole, healthy lives – at least according to evolutionary psychology. And if at this point in you’re looking at your watch and wondering, “So where is God in all of this?” here comes the God part. “Human beings are designed to seek trusting relationships” is what the scientists tell us … designed that way by the One who continues to call us into relationship with God and with each other is what our faith tells us.
At All Saints Church we call it “turning the human race into the human family” – and a critical aspect of that transformation is seeking trusting relationships … not just with those across the street or up the block but across creeds and cultures and politics and theologies. And crucial aspect of that work building the relationships that make us “family” instead of stockpiling the “stuff” that makes us competitors.
My friend Liz – the priest who mentored me through the ordination process – taught me years ago that we were made like donuts – with a great big hole right in the middle designed to be filled by God. And yet the story of our spiritual ancestors – a story we inherit and continue to live out – is that we try to fill that hole up with everything BUT! The Hebrew people had their Golden Calf and the rich farmer in today’s gospel had his grain barns.
In our culture and we have a rampant consumerism which assaults us at all levels with this consistent message: “If you just have _______ you too will be happy.” And in our church we are have the rabid insistence that nothing short of “compliance” with a dictated set of doctrines and dogmas and creeds and theologies will gain us salvation – or communion – or relationship. Oh “vanity of vanities!”
And so the emptiness persists, the alienation continues, the anxiety grows. For in the end there are not enough golden calves or grain barns or i-phones or SUVs or doctrines or dogmas or Windsor Reports or Lambeth Conferences to fill up the need – the deep yearning hunger inside of every human being – for the relationship with the God who is the source of all being and who calls us into relationship with God and with each other.
Here’s the ironic reflection of one of the great theologians of our time – George Carlin –on this obsession we have with “stuff.” “All you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? That's all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore.” And on and on it goes … more stuff, larger barns, bigger house … and still that empty hole waiting to be filled.
“It is human nature always to want a little more,” writes psychologist Timothy Miller. “People spend their lives honestly believing that they have ALMOST enough of whatever they want. Just a little more will put them over the top – and then they will be contented forever.”
A reviewer of Miller’s work put it this way: “the instinctive but ultimately fruitless pursuit of MORE – the 60-hour work weeks, the hour a month perusing the Sharper Image catalog – keeps us from better knowing our neighbors, better loving our kin – in general, from cultivating the warm, affiliative side of human nature whose roots science is just now starting to fathom.”
Well, science may be just beginning to fathom it but Jesus had it figured out. The “fruitless pursuit of MORE” is something Jesus talked about over and over and OVER again … calling us to live lives faithful to God … not in pursuit of possessions that ultimately end up owning US. In fact, in the stories of Jesus preserved for us in Scripture Jesus talked about the role of possessions and giving – about stuff -- more than ANY other single theme … WAY more. Check this out: a tally of how many times Jesus talked about what in the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: Believing … 272. Prayer … 371. Love … 714. Possessions (AKA “stuff”) and Giving … are you ready? … 2172.
Two thousand one hundred and seventy two. It’s not even close. (And just for the record the number of times Jesus talked about sexuality is zero, zip, nada, never, not once.) Instead he talked about “stuff” 2172 times … because Jesus KNEW that letting go of the stuff that owns us rather than serves us is a crucial step in creating those trusting relationshps we’ve been designed to seek: with God and with each other.
When Jesus responded to the disciples when they asked "Lord, teach us to pray" he didn’t give them a shopping list to take to God. Instead he offered the words we all know and love -- those we often refer to as the words "our Lord Jesus taught us to pray" – the prayer we will pray in a few minutes when we gather around this altar to bless the bread and wine made holy -- "The Lord’s Prayer."It is important to remember that it is the "Lord's Prayer" not the "Lord's Secret Password" or "Lord's Magic Words." The point is not the precise WORDS our Lord taught us to pray -- words that indeed vary from translation to translation -- are revised from prayer book to prayer book. The fact is, if we become so fixed on the "words of God" and who's getting them right or wrong the we can lose sight of the "Word of God" and what it has to do with our lives and journeys: another kind of vanity!
I remember when my son Brian was about ten years old and he was shocked to find that there were people who did church "different" than he was used to –- he was horrified to find out that the prayers he'd proudly memorized weren't EXACTLY the same as he’d learned them. The final straw was when he was in a service where communion was offered by way of intinction: dipping the bread into the cup of wine instead of receiving from the cup like he was used to.
On the way back from the communion rail he could stand it no longer and said in a voice I'm sure he inherited from me; "You call this CHURCH? First they get the prayers wrong and then they won't let you drink the wine!"
Brian let his expectations about what the prayers were supposed to sound like get in the way of what they actually said –- he let the WAY he received the bread and wine get in the way of receiving the sacrament. And this memory from his childhood is one I think of whenever I'm tempted to do the same. Because I am. I think we all are. It is so very, VERY tempting to get so comfortable with how things are that we forget God is always calling us to work with God to make the world the best that it can be.
Scott Richardson reminded us last week that when we gather as God’s people we do so for two reasons: to hear again the Good News of God’s liberating love in Christ Jesus …
AND to be listening for how that liberating love is calling us to change. What it is calling us to change – what it is calling us to challenge – where it is calling us to go in God’s name.
So in the end, prayer is SOOO not about the “stuff” we pray for – or even about the words we say -- but about who we are who we are in relationship with the God to whom our hearts are already open, our secrets and desires are already known. “Designed to seek trusting relationships” STARTS with relationship with the one who designed us that way.
Both of our lessons today point to how easy it is to put our attention on the things we want instead of the things we need – to fill up our prayers with lists of the things … the stuff … we want God to give us rather than be open to how we want God to change us. As Jesus tells the disciples in the parable in today’s Gospel: “Your life is not made more secure by what you own” can’t you just hear the evolutionary psychologist echoing “your life is not fulfilled by the endless pursuit of MORE!”
And as we gather this morning in the shadow of a bridge tragically collapsed -- as we pray for the lives suddenly and so unexpectedly ended – the Gospel reality check that “we know NOT when the time” seems particularly poignant.
Yes, the God who loves us beyond our wildest imaginings wants us to have what we need to live life abundantly – but God also wants us to understand the difference between what we NEED and what we WANT … and understanding that difference is why we ask over and over again for God to teach US how to pray ... for ourselves and for the WHOLE human family! In closing, I want to share with you the words that helped me this week … words from one of the hymns we sang last Sunday and which ended up on a post-it note on my computer screen:
Come, pray with me the prayer I need this day;
help me to see your purpose and your will,
where I have failed, what I have done amiss;
held in forgiving love, let me be still.
Come pray with me the prayer I need this day. When we invite God to come pray in us the prayer we need this day … not the prayer WE think God needs to hear today … THEN we are praying the way our Lord Jesus taught us to pray … no matter what words we’re using! And then, my brothers and sisters, we are claiming the RIGHT "STUFF!" Amen