Religion and Faith   (Colossians 2: 20-22)

by | Oct 16, 2022 | Sermon Text | 0 comments

If you walked in the gymnasium at St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte, you would discover a large extension ladder with a huge crow’s nest atop it. You would also notice that it is chained to the wall. That chain is there because of my children. About twenty-five years ago, when my children were eight and six, Melissa was in Columbia on a late summer’s afternoon tending to her parents, and I had picked our three children up from school and given them license to play in the gym for a few minutes while I wrapped up some work that I deemed just had to be finished. I hadn’t been at my desk more than five minutes when suddenly, my son Mark burst into my office and said, “Daddy, Stewart just pulled down the ladder in the gym; it hit Clara.” As I sped down the hall I did not have the courage to ask if Clara was alive or dead. The extension ladder had a rope that when tugged lifted the crow’s nest to the ceiling, so to change light bulbs. Stewart had been responding to Clara’s urging to pull on the rope so she could see the crow’s next rise ever higher. But as he tugged the rope, a metal leg at the base of the ladder gave way and the great ladder fell. Nimble Stewart leaped to the side, but as Mark screamed “Run!” young Clara panicked and ran away in the same line as the ladder was falling. Had it fallen one nanosecond earlier, the crow’s nest would have decapitated her or severed her spine. Instead, it simply nipped her calf. I dared look through the slatted windows above the gym to see the ladder stretched out from the wall to half-court. Clara sat in a chair, rubbing her calf, crying.

Those who cannot conceive how God could simultaneously feel love and wrath toward us do not understand my state of mind in that moment. In the same breath I felt rage and immense relief. Stewart and Clara laughed as children do when they know that they’ve done something foolish, but Stewart knew exactly how fortunate he had been. “Daddy,” he said quietly later, “if I had killed Clara, I would have killed myself, too.” What do you do when your life has almost been shattered? After scolding them, all I could do was put my arms around them and say, “Let‘s go to a baseball game.” Amidst hot dogs, cracker jacks and peanuts, under a late–summer moon, I relished the presence of my children and the great grace of a near-miss. I also realized that I lived blinded by a grand illusion, an illusion grand in scope, not in character. And I trembled.

I think of Viktor Frankl, the young, brilliant psychotherapist, who was forced into the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Frankl knew that he had escaped the gas chamber, at least temporarily, knew that he was fortunate to be alive. But his chief concern was preserving a scientific document that he had been working on. He searched out an old prisoner and pointed to the roll of notes of paper in the pocket of his coat and said, “I want to keep this manuscript at all costs. Do you understand that?” A grin spread over the inmate’s face, first piteous, then amused, mocking and insolent, until he looked Frankl full in the face and said, “Shoot” – or something that sounded similar to “Shoot” — in that moment Viktor Frankl realized that he had been a man drugged by a grand illusion. In that moment he knew it was time to strike out all of his former life.

What is this grand illusion? Jesus illustrated it by means of a parable: a rich man’s land brings forth a harvest that exceeds even his acquisitive dreams. In fact, the harvest bounty surpasses even this rich man’s ability to house it. But the rich man’s solution is to vow, “I will tear down my barns. I will build bigger barns. Then I will have so much stuff that I will never have to work or worry again. Eat, drink and be merry –that will be my motto for the rest of my life.” But God says, “You fool. Tonight your soul is required of you. And what will all your possessions profit you?” The man lived under a grand illusion.

What is this grand illusion? It is the illusion of permanence. It is the illusion that all that we have and all that we enjoy will be ours to relish forever. It is the illusion that the structure of our lives always will remain in the balance that we expect, that the blessings we have enjoyed we will continue to enjoy in perpetuity. Certainly, I lived under that illusion. At the moment of that near-fatal tragedy I thought of my life as structured perfectly, enjoying the love of a wonderful, beautiful wife, delighting in the love of three healthy children, nurtured by delightful friends, pastoring a loving, progressive congregation – in many ways I considered myself the richest man on earth. Yet I was a split-second from living a nightmare. I was a millimeter away from having my entire life come crashing down forever. In a nanosecond, everything I thought I would relish as my inviolate possession was almost shattered. Likewise, one moment Frankl was fretting over his scientific manuscript; in the next he realized how petty was his concern weighed over against the annihilating evil of the Holocaust. One moment this rich man plotted bigger crops and bigger barns, in the next moment none of those things mattered to him. He was blinded by a grand illusion.

The grand illusion is based on the idea that life is about me. Look how much this story is about “I.” The fool says, “What shall I do? I don’t have enough room for my harvest. I will tear down my barns. I will store all my grain. I will say to my soul. . . . “ The man sees life totally in terms of himself and his comfort. He doesn’t think to share his bounty with the poor. He doesn’t pause to ponder how his abundance could enrich those around him. His fixation is upon how the harvest benefits me.

Our grand illusion is based on our misconceived notion that if we can just focus on the ephemeral world hard enough, it will give us a sense of security. If we can pour sufficient energy fixating upon the impermanent, we can gain a sense of permanence. If I fixate upon things that makes me feel secure, I will validate my illusion of achieving security. What provokes this parable from Jesus? One brother wants Jesus to weigh in on his side against another brother in an inheritance dispute: “Please, Jesus, make my brother give me what is coming to me!” He is sure Jesus will see the fairness of his suit and the injustice of his brother. Instead, Jesus sweeps away his claim and ignores the merits of the case altogether. Instead, Jesus strikes to the very heart of this man’s unhappiness. You are fixated upon the material as ultimately real – a fixation that has warped the whole of your being. “Lay up for yourself treasures in heaven.” I sometimes wonder if God peers into our lives and sees where our true priorities lie and toward what concerns we pour the bulk of our passion. I suspect that sometimes the Holy Spirit wants to say to us, ‘You fool! You are fixated on that which is impermanent, and ignoring that which really matters – you live blinded by a grand illusion.’

About twenty years ago there was a popular book entitled, Tuesdays with Morrie, a nonfiction account of a celebrated sports writer who re-established contact with his old mentor Morrie upon learning that his teacher was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The sports writer was reluctant to renew the friendship, knowing that he was no longer the young idealistic altruist he once was. The professor has sensed the change. The professor one day said to him, “Mitch, can I tell you something? The truth is, if you accept that you can die at any time – then you might not be as ambitious as you are. The things you spend so much time on – all this work you do — might not seem as important. You might have to make room for some more spiritual things.”

According to the Scriptures we live within a dialectic of two great truths, neither of which we want to acknowledge. The first truth is, our lives are grass. Our lives are ephemeral and impermanent, evanescent. Life provides ample notice that this is the case. We age, things rust, paint peels, bones break, seasons change, years pass, loved ones die – we acknowledge all of this, yet we hold to the illusion: death will not happen to me. I can’t tell you how many ninety-year-olds I have pastored who died without a will. Their health may have been imperiled for years; they may have weathered crisis upon crisis – but in their inner being they refused to acknowledge their mortality. Yet the Scriptures cannot be more emphatic: “The grass withers, the flower fades – only the Word of God endures forever.”

We are grass. That is one truth. Yet the other truth is, we are God’s grass. We are God’s creatures. We are an expression of God’s intent. We are God’s creation, and God has nurtured us, God has sustained us, God has redeemed us, and ultimately God will call us unto God’s self. Yet our lives are marked by a profound illogicality. Just as there are students who pay for classes and then do not attend them, just as there are businessmen who will pay exorbitant fees to physicians to rebuild their health rather than invest time each day in the discipline of maintaining that health, just as there are cherished relationships that define our lives, yet we do not take the time to invest in them, so, too, though we know that God is the One from whom we have come and the God to whom we go, we spend relatively little time cultivating a relationship with the one Reality that ultimately endures. That is why Jesus says, “Cultivate for yourselves treasures in heaven. Orient your lives around relationships that last.”

I remember a winter week many years ago when I had a rare hole in my calendar. I had two days with no appointments, no funerals, no speaking engagements or slated responsibilities. I grabbed my sleeping bag, my tent, my sermon materials and my Bible and took off for a favorite camping spot. It was cold, in the 20s at night. But the next morning I hiked up the trail about forty-five minutes to a large, trout-filled pool. I donned my wetsuit and my snorkel and mask and dove out into the water. I watched the trout swim. I felt the piercing cold make my bones ache. I beheld the cataract created by the waterfall at the head of the pool. Under the noon sun I sat on the warm rocks and watched the steam rise from my wetsuit. I beheld the sun’s rays slanting through the filtering trees, giving the water an olive tint – hence its name, “The Emerald Pool.” I knew why I had come. I was thirsty for communion with the Eternal. My soul hungered for contact with the “real Real.” I needed to break away from all other voices to hear the voice of God. As I felt God’s presence I thought of how reluctant I had been to break away from my “pseudo real world “in order to experience afresh the “real Real.” And now, reveling in the Presence of the “real Real” amidst this blessed quiet, I knew how reluctant I would be to go back to immerse myself once again in the “pseudo real.” And I faced the more difficult question: how could I structure my life and discipline myself to find more time amidst the “pseudo real world” to commune more intimately and more frequently with the “real Real?” Do you ever pause to ask yourself a similar question?

We find ourselves at church this morning. And often we talk about church as if it were a business, but it is not a business. The church is meant to be an Emerald Pool where we come to clarify our values. The church is meant to be an Emerald Pool that reminds again what is really real. The church is meant to be an Emerald Pool where we allow the filtering rays of Christ’s love to create within our soul the ability to purge ourselves of the pseudo real and commune with the real Real. How often does the church truly serve as the place of communion with the eternal God? How often does church allow us to disengage from voices that only serve to bolster the grand illusion under which we often labor, so that we can hear once again the voice of the living God from whom we have come and to whom we will go?

Either our life is meant to be a conversation with God, or it is a pilgrimage to nowhere. Either this entire universe and our individual life is an expression of God’s intent or all of life is happenstance and biological accident. If the rich man in Jesus’ parable, with his Godless fixation upon the material world was right, if his fixation upon accruing more and more impermanent goods was the correct way to live, then his life and his death was simply sad. But if, as Jesus suggests, this man was a fool, and his life was misspent focusing upon treasures for himself and not treasures in heaven, then his life and his death was tragic. How much of our lives is truly spent cultivating a relationship with the Divine? How much of our lives is truly a vibrant conversation with the real Real? Millions of people believe that there is no God and believe that those who live to serve God live an illusion. I believe the reverse is true. I believe God is indeed the real Real, and we are meant to live our lives cultivating a relationship with the Divine. Only then can we escape the tragedy of living under a grand illusion. Let us hear again the words of Jesus: “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Those are hard words to hear – infinitely harder to implement. But to do anything else is to live a grand illusion.