Year B, Proper 8 June 28, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.”
Our Hebrew Bible passage for today is from the Wisdom of Solomon, one of those books of the Bible regulated to the ghetto of the deuterocanonical (belonging to a second canon) or apocrypha (hidden things). In the 4th century Pope Damascus charged St. Jerome with creating one authorized version of the bible for all of Christendom. The result was a translation into Latin called the Vulgate Bible (vulgate related to vulgar meaning common). As it turned out, St. Jerome not only had the Hebrew Bible, the accepted Jewish canon in the Hebrew language, but he also had the Septuagint, the version of those texts in Greek, which was somewhat larger then the Hebrew texts. Books like this one, the Wisdom of Solomon, were transmitted to us from the Septuagint and they are considered somewhat lesser; Jerome himself cited their lower status in his prologue to this section. That second-classness persists today and in some traditions it would not be appropriate to say “The Word of the Lord” after reading it in a ritual setting. I actually saw that when a more evangelical group said morning prayer at the Monastery where Windy and lived. While the apocrypha might be somewhat lesser, they can still be very, very good.
The Wisdom of Solomon was written somewhere between 30 BCE and 40 CE, so right around the time of Jesus. It was written in Greek, and probably came out of the Diaspora community in Alexandria, Egypt. The Jewish community there suffered through a lot of strife and persecution at the hands of the Egyptians, and this text exhorted the faithful to keep their faith largely because of the benefits of a faithful life. Chief amongst the benefits of adhering to the faith even in times of persecution is immortality, the heart of our little passage this morning. That’s a pretty big benefit. Being faithful, so the author writes, you live forever while the persecutors, the faithless, idolaters, sinners, well, they don’t.
This could come across as simplistic… the good live forever, the evil die. The whole idea of immortality just doesn’t cut the mustard of rational even reasonable expectations of the fruits of a devout life. But immortality, as the Wisdom of Solomon relates it, has a lot less to do with living forever then it does with the enduring nature of a right relationship with God, a relationship that is itself definitional of what actual life is. What is life but abundance? It is energy and light. It is joy and kindness, wholesomeness and peace. Mostly, though, life is awareness of yourself and the world you exist in relation to; which is just another way of saying that life is all about love, pure right relationship, that is what love is, and that, that is all about God. “For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome… For righteousness is immortal.” Life is good and it is what we care called by God to.
God created life, all that is good. And there is a hyper abundance of that good, no doubt about that, though if you read the paper it might be hard to perceive. There is a lot of good, and there is a lot of bad, too. A lot of evil. A lot of people making decisions that do anything but add to God’s wholesome generative creation. God created, and it was good, but something else slipped into the mix. “…through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.”
What is this all about? Well, let’s follow the text, for the Wisdom of Solomon contains, well, a whole bunch of wisdom. Verse 15 reads, “For righteousness is immortal.” The lectionary skips 23 or so verses, but we don’t have to. Verse 16 continues, “But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him (the devil) a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company. For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, ‘Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end… For we were born by mere chance… Our name will be forgotten, no one will remember our works; our lives will pass away like the traces of a cloud… For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.” Ouch. So for anyone who thought nihilism started with Nietzsche needs to think again. It goes on and on about what life away from God looks like and the conclusion is that life away from God is death. This is not death as we usually think of it, heart stopped and all eternity before us, but rather the text is telling us that living a meaningless life is itself a form of death.
What follows, then, is a catalogue of the fruits of a living death, the results of living a life given by chance, without meaning, devoid of relationship to the fabric of being. “Our allotted time is the passing of a shadow… Come, therefore,” it continues, “let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes… let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither… everywhere let us leave signs of our enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this is our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the grey hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.”
If we have a meaningless life, a life devoid of connection, of right relationship to God or neighbor, of some deeper sense of mystery then we live a meaningless life. So live a life of hedonistic frivolity whereby our every earthly need is satisfied, regardless of cost, because, why not? If none of this means anything why bother with moderation? Why bother conserving or preserving anything if it is all meaningless? Why not take advantage of others? Notions of right and wrong arise when we care about the world we live in, when we care about ourselves and those we share life with. So if none of it means anything, who in their right mind would care about anything? Does this resonate at all? Can you think of examples from our culture that might illustrate this point? _______ Riots after a sports championship. Invading a country on utterly false pretenses. Mining the tar sands. Horrific displays of evil like the one in Charleston where one man’s ideas became more important than nine people’s lives and brings terror in the hearts of millions that this could happen to you, too. These and many, many, virtually all instances of evil committed by humans is founded in just not giving a hoot beyond the tip of our own noses, our own tribe. Lacking any connection beyond ourselves, we treat the teeny-tiny, infinitesimal slice of reality that we can see as the sum total of reality, and we act accordingly, in intensely self-interested ways. Right here plug in the fear that Elizabeth spoke of last week. A perfect storm arising out of self-interest, meaninglessness and disconnect. So much of the rise in our collective interest in zombies is related to this, too. Talk about a living death, zombies exist in a fog of perpetual meaninglessness. There is some deep social commentary to be found in the rise of zombies in our popular imagination and it is right there in the Wisdom of Solomon.
The ungoldy goes on, “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he in inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training.” That’s good. Sins against the law implies sins against the way things are supposed to be, against the will of God or the natural order. And sins against our training, that means sins against what you have be taught and know to be right. That righteous man “…became to us a reproof of our thoughts, the very sight of him is a burden to us…” The ungodly concludes, “let us condemn him to a shameful death, for according to what he says, he will be protected.”
“Thus they reasoned,” the text goes on, “but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls; for God created us for incorruption and made us in the image of his own eternity…”
What is the point of all of this? Well, chiefly, the point is that all of this has a point. The vast majority of the pastoral training that I have received, be it in terms of very formal systematic theology, individual pastoral care and counseling, even the congregational development, how organizations work training I did last week, virtually all of that training in the end focused on one thing: meaning making. Sensing, feeling, interpreting the world around us, discerning the webs of relationship we exist in and then making meaning of it, discerning why? What does it mean? What does it mean to me, to you, to us, to the whole thing? That is what we do here. That is the entire church project: all we pray and think and do is a meaning making exercise, because, as the Wisdom of Solomon so clearly lays out, a meaningful life is a Godly life; and a life without meaning is the devil’s own death and virtually all of the evils of the world stem from living as if none of it matters. Through the historical faith of our ancestors we have had handed down to us lenses, patterns, questions, traditions, texts bearing a vocabulary and narrative trajectory of faith, the sacraments themselves, all of them begging us to pay attention, to see that there is more to all of it than meets the eye, to take your unique place in the creation and make meaning of it all, and to do that in relationships with each other, with the whole world as we perceive it and everything beyond, which of course is what we call God. Nihilism is death. A meaningful life is life, and life abundant. “God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity.” Go and do likewise. AMEN.