January 21, 2018, 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
Year B, Epiphany 3 January 21, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For the present form of the world is passing away.”
Last week we talked about human sexuality. About our sexuality. About sex. We talked about how sexuality is a gift from God, a site of intimacy and connection, of pleasure, sometimes of creating new life. Our sexuality is powerful, like fire, life giving, but untended, can be life taking, too: yours and others. As with all of God’s gifts there is a shadow side, a sinful side and we can do great harm to ourselves and others with our sexuality, as with all of our appetites; they sustain and delight us, but we can become enslaved to them. And the basis of it all being that what we do with our bodies, matters. It matters to you, and your being. It matters to your neighbors, those you share this world with, and it matters to God, to your relationship to God and to God in God’s self, the creator, redeemer and sustainer of humankind. What we do with our bodies, matters.
It does matter; what we do with our bodies. That doesn’t mean that it matters only in how our body interacts with other human bodies, it means that our interaction with the whole creation, anything in the created order, matters. A key Anglican tenet is that the world is good. The God of Hosts created it; Jesus dwelt amongst us in it; the Holy Spirit enlivens it. We call it incarnational theology. That is why we strive for such beauty and elegance in our liturgy, for we are attempting to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” as the psalmist indicates. The world is not God, but God, our rock, our fortress, our stronghold created it, and animates it, and lives in and through and with it, and loves it and us. This, all of this, is not nothing. It is not just suffering. It is not some grand delusion. It is not some dread place to trudge through on our way to the sweet by and by. This is the day (and the place) that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it, all of it. What we do in this world, impacts this world, impacts the world that God created; that is why it matters.
The creation is good, very good, it could be, should be perfect, but it is not. The world can be a perilous place. We’re not going to get too deep into the doctrine of original sin, but basically it’s purpose is to account for the fact that it is not all good. When faced with a choice between good and evil, we can, and too often do, choose the evil. Why? Why don’t we always and instinctively choose good? Ain’t that a question for the ages. The idea of original sin is less as a way to explain why that is true, why we choose the wrong way too often, (it is not, I repeat NOT Eve’s fault), but rather this doctrine points out that it is true, that in fact the world, we, don’t line up nearly as often with the way we could be, should be, as God intended for us to be. I think we can all agree on that, or maybe you missed the paper this morning? It is not all hunky-dory.
So how do we live in a world like this? A world that is good, is of God and for whatever reason we so readily can twist and distort, so that the same desire that leads you to connect with the one you love in the holy intimacy of sexual union can be bent into the seedy, sordid, sometimes predatory and violent realm of lust. Or the pleasure of the table, sustaining our bodies and satisfying our palates with food, rich food filled with marrow, well-matured wines strained clear, that good can be bent into gluttony, giving us 40s of Steel Reserve Malt Liquor and supersized Big Mac meals. Oh how we can convince ourselves that we are satisfied when we have everything we want and nothing that we need!
How do we live in a world like this; one that is full of the good and the evil, with nearly every good thing either having a shadow side or that we have the ability to pervert or distort it or our relationship to it? How do we live? Lightly.
Between last week’s lection from 1 Corinthians 6, and this week’s from the 7th chapter, St. Paul is teaching the church specifically about this, about how to live in a fallen world. Last week we read “All things are lawful for me…” This means that earthly things, he mentions food and sex, these are not inherently bad, they are lawful, “The food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.” I could imagine him saying that parts of us are made for sex and sex for parts of us, not a bad thing at all, as natural as birth and death. But then he goes one, “…but I will not be dominated by anything.” “…I will not be dominated by anything.”
Then there is a long teaching on why it is better to be celibate but if you can’t help yourself get married and how to handle married life (I am glad that is not in the lectionary), but then we come to this week’s reading, and we hear him speak of the time growing short, “For the present form of the world is passing away.” He says that married people should “be as though” they did were not married (obviously Paul wrote from a male-centric world view, we can help clean up his act and include women). He said also that those who mourn should be as though they were not mourning, and the same for rejoicing and buying things and dealing with the world, we should “be as though” we did none of these things because “the present form of the world is passing away.”
This is the kind of passage that got folks like Marx very upset, because it can easily be read as saying to ignore the world, that it is meaningless, that none of this matters. That’s the opiate accusation, that we are biding our time ‘til the sweet hereafter, that we focus only on the fullness of time, allowing us to ignore the suffering, injustice, oppression and other fruits of capital and empire right here and right now.
That is not a completely unwarranted critique. Part of the problem is that Paul was convinced that the world was ending, and soon. Christ’s return was imminent. And the early Church took it specifically to mean take comfort not in worldly things because your consolation was right around the corner, “the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe…” That still stands, His return in immanent, although most of us understand that the timeline for Christ’s return is less pressing than it seemed in 53 this letter was written. Still, Paul’s teaching remains valid as how we ought to live in this world.
But to be crystal clear, Paul is not saying to ignore the world around us. OK? He is saying “do not be dominated by anything.” When he says that we shouldn’t live as though we are married, or as though we mourn, or as though we rejoice, or buy things, or have dealings with the world, maybe he is not saying to reject all of it, to become celibate, though married; callous or numb in the face of loss or joy; to buy though you have or want nothing; or to just not deal with the world, maybe he is saying don’t be dominated by those things. He’s not even saying don’t get married, or don’t mourn, but he is saying don’t live like it, don’t live like everyone else who thinks and lives as though all of this, the material world is all that there is. It isn’t. It is important, is matters and what we do matters, but it is not the only thing, not the most important thing. Don’t let any of it, this world, the things in this world, our relationship to things in this world, don’t let that, any of this become the most important thing to you. Because it is not.
We are in this very real world. We are not taught to renounce, to flee to the desert like the Essenes, or New Hampshire like the Shakers and renounce the world. We have monastics and hermits and anchorites, but they are specialists called to special ministry. We, most of us, are called to live and love, to serve God and neighbor and live our lives, have friends, maybe meet and marry and make a family, build the church, live in community AND we need to remember that this, all of it, the good, the bad and the ugly is provisional. Temporary. Perishing. That is what Paul is saying. “Detached involvement” with this world. That is how one commentator characterizes how Paul is instructing us to live.
Why? Why should we assume a stance of detached involvement? “For the present form of the world is passing away.” Which means what, that the end is near repent and believe? Yes. That doesn’t have to mean that the world will end; it can also mean that the world as it is now will end. The Kingdom of God is near, meaning that the world redeemed, reconnected with God, purged of that original sin that sets us to often on the wrong path, on the lusty side of desire, the gluttonous side of hunger, that world will come to an end, that form of the world is passing away. That is possible, a world like that. Not only possible, but immanent, the redemption of the world; that is the most basic and fantastically hopeful heart of the Christian story.
So when we live “as though” (that is a key phrase that Paul repeats five times in this sentence), when we live “as though” things of this life are important but not dominant, an eschatological freedom emerges for us. If we understand that the present form of the world is in fact passing away, we might begin to internalize the truth that this is not all there is to concern ourselves with, and we can find freedom from being “trapped by the world’s structures and institutions.” We are trapped by them if we live as if they held the final answers. They don’t. God does.
Is the air feeling kind of thin? Or hot from all the theological hot air? Living “as though…” Do not be dominated. “Detached involvement.” That and 5 bucks will get you a large mocha. This all is as profound a teaching as we have; that we shouldn’t become attached to this world as it is, that we should not follow the perishing. But how then shall we live, those of us with a maybe a spouse, children, responsibilities, rent or a mortgage to meet? Leave it all?
No. And that is not what Paul is teaching. His focus is not on renunciation, but the blessed assurance that God intends to bring order to this chaos, this suffering, sinful and chaotic world, a new order. The Reign of Christ, the Kingdom of God is near! As soon as we get our act together, poof! It arrives. So we try not to be dominated, we try to live “as though” we are not trapped by all of it, by the material world as real and important as it is.
Hold onto this world lightly. A few weeks back I talked about that beautiful chenille sweater that Windy spilled bleach on, remember? I had just left the corporate world and wouldn’t be affording something like that again. And I could have been really upset. (Well I was, but I’m dealing). But really, as gorgeous and soft as it was, it was just a sweater. Or I came here because I was laid off. I loved my job at the monastery, and there were implications for my ordination and my relationship with my bishop. It was hard on my family. I was so upset that I had a back spasm that sent me to the hospital. But it was just a job. Most people lose a job at some point in their lives. It was real, there were consequences. We had to get out from under a house, and find work, and reorder our whole lives, move, and??? We weren’t close to any edges. We weren’t in existential danger. A loss like that can be dangerous, can threaten some futures, and demand emergency action. But though it sometimes seemed like that to us, it wasn’t. Holding the world lightly is taking things for what they really are, assessing actually how important something is.
A large salary, standing, professional prestige, success, being successful by conventional standards… none of that is actually important. Making a living that lets you contribute to the commonwealth, and support yourself and those you are responsible for, and not doing it in an evil way: that’s important. Living in just the right house in just the right neighborhood while wearing just the right clothes is not important: everyone (EVERYONE) having a safe, clean, warm place to live and having any decent clothes to wear is. Being the one in charge (as much as some of us love it) is not important: the fact that a by most accounts sexist, racists, classist megalomaniac is president of this country is, the world matters. The present form of this world is passing away, and us resisting the likes of our President and his faction is one of the steps in that direction. He is attached to this world with every fiber of his being. That is what it looks like when attachment to this world is brought to its ultimate conclusion. Its ugly. And wrong. That is what Paul is teaching us.
Hold this world lightly. Lovingly, yes, but gently, lightly, don’t grasp or cling to things that are not important. And what is important? Well think about what was important to Jesus and the disciples and the early church; that is a good place to start. Maybe ask about what the saints teach us in their lives and deeds? Or what is important in the Mass; where is our attention directed? There are clues in there. Imagine what God might think is important, if God thought like we do. Or imagine what is important to a woman near to giving birth, or her child when they come fresh and new to the world, or that child’s great-grandmother as she nears death. What is important to them? Or to a teenager living in Aleppo, or Mogadishu, or San Salvador, or Nogales? Or in a car off of Seneca. What is important to them? Or to an ancient tree in Fall Creek, or one of the 250 North Atlantic Wright whales that are left, or the Great Barrier Reef as it bleaches into oblivion? Imagine what is important to the tens, hundreds of thousands who marched yesterday in the Women’s marches around the world. All of these are clues to what is truly important. Hold those things, lightly. The rest, it will pass away. “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.” AMEN