Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Heb. 13:1-8, 15-16[1]
I’ve had some pretty amazing mentors in my life. My Grampa was the first. He taught me how to treat all people with respect and dignity. My Uncle, David Simonds, modeled what it means to be a father for me. My Scoutmaster, Ed de la Cruz, gave me the day in and day out encouragement to try new things and venture out. My Band Director, Ron Welborn, impressed upon me the importance of seeking to do what is right. I’ve also had professors who were mentors to me—Frankie Rainey gave me an unforgettable example of the compassion of Jesus Christ in action. James Brooks, whom I served as a graduate assistant for 3 years, was probably one of the most important mentors for my professional life. Even though he had taught the same class for decades, he still felt compelled to spend time in the office every day preparing for class (while other professors would use their time to write their next book).
If we took the time, I’m sure we could go around the room and recite name after name of those who shaped our lives by their personal example. In a very real sense, that dynamic is what has sustained the church through thick and thin for centuries. Not official hierarchies or enforced doctrines, but the living, personal example of mentors who shape the next generation of faithful servants. We can find a great deal of emphasis on the importance of personal example as a means of passing on the tradition of faith and life that developed among those who followed Jesus throughout the history of the church. In many contexts, it has “codified” into an official statement of dogma that was considered to be the “rule of faith” to guide the faithful.[2] There is a balance to be struck here—sometimes traditions develop just because people do things the same way they’ve always been done. Just because everybody, everywhere always believe something doesn’t make it true. [3] There are times when Christian faith calls us to strike out and blaze new trails; there are times when it calls us to stay on the well-worn path.
In our context, we have many resources that we can use to walk that path, to access the tradition of faith and life handed down to us by those who have gone before. In a very real sense, much of what we do comes from the witness they bear to us about their faith—through hymns, prayers, stories—these gifts they left for us continue to bear witness to their faith. One of the ways we can access the tradition of faith and life is by using our Book of Confessions as a guide. Using the confessions puts us in touch with the rest of the Body of Christ as we seek to define our faith and our life.[4] As we use the resources left for us by those who have gone before, we can follow them in their faith.
Now, of course, the opposite extreme is the one that approaches the Christian faith and life as if we all have to start from scratch or re-invent the wheel. I can tell you from personal experience that is a very confusing road to travel. When I was a young minister learning faith and life for the first time, a lot of people told me I should have a “quiet time” every day that consisted of reading the Bible and praying. What I always wanted to know was, “How am I supposed to go about reading the Bible?” and “What am I supposed to pray?” There are, after all, many ways of reading the Bible—there’s the random, pick-and-choose method; there’s the “cover to cover straight through all the begats” method, neither of which really work very well. The random method makes “gobbledy-gook” out of it all (that’s a theological term), and the “cover to cover” method bogs down about 1 Samuel (if you make it that far). I had never heard of the lectionary, or that there was a systematic pattern for reading the Scriptures that the church had developed centuries ago and that the vast majority of Christians follow today! Following that pattern of reading the Bible gives us a place to start in learning how to read the Bible for ourselves.
And there are also all kinds of ways of praying. In the context where I was at the time, you would never merely “read” a prayer that someone else had written. In that context, the only way to truly pray is to just “say what’s on your heart.” And there is some truth to that. But I’ve also found that only praying in such a “spontaneous” way can lead us to dwell excessively on me, myself, and I. We have a tradition here that can guide us as well. Our Book of Worship developed out of the tradition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which was compiled first in the 16th century. So in and of itself, that tradition of prayer and liturgy goes back almost 500 years! But many of the prayers and thoughts and encouragements and expressions of faith in the Book of Worship and the Book of Common Prayer represent a tradition that goes back even farther than that; in some cases all the way back to the early days of the church.[5] Praying with the saints through the ages gives us a place to start in learning how to pray on our own.
This theme of following those who have left us a personal example seems to have been important to the apostle to the Hebrews. In the midst of the difficulties they faced, he urged them to “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Heb. 13:7). And the reason for that is, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” In a very real sense, when we choose to obey Jesus’ call to “follow me,” we will find ourselves standing up to the “powers that be” on behalf of the disenfranchised—and that means facing the inevitable backlash that comes when we dare to rebuke those who see themselves as beyond reproach. The “Hebrew” Christians addressed by this book were facing some of that. And the apostle to the Hebrews tells them and us that the way to get through it and out on the other side is to follow those whose pattern of living we have seen firsthand.
I’ve had some amazing mentors who have taught me a lot about life. At that same time, and this may come as a shock to you, but I’ve also always been an incredibly independent person. I have a strong tendency to go the way that seems right to me, even if everybody else is going a different way. You might say I’m something of a “maverick.” My wife might even say that I’m stubborn! But that doesn’t mean I have never followed anybody. I guess I’ve just been pretty “selective” about those I choose to follow. I personally think that’s what the apostle to the Hebrews has in mind. We have all kinds of paths we can follow—even within the community of faith. It seems to me that, as we seek to complete our contest of faith, we should actually follow the paths we know to be reliable by following those whose lives we have witnessed firsthand.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/29/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Augustine viewed the “analogy of faith”—the faith expressed in the Scripture as interpreted by the tradition of the Church—as the standard for all biblical interpretation. Cf. Johannes Quasten, Patrology, IV:425–26; Robert Grant & DavidTracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, 80; Anthony Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 115. While this is understandable, because the rule of faith provides a “boundary” within which one can be assured of being “safe,” it does not answer every question that believers of different times might ask.
[3] Cf. Duncan Ferguson, Biblical Hermeneutics, 20-21: “the assumptions and attitudes of faith will always be influenced by temporal concerns”; therefore faith must be constantly tested over against the content of Scripture.
[4] Cf. Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, 50-53. We use the confessions of faith as guides because they represent the consensus of the church in various times and places. As human documents, however, they are also inevitably prone to error. That is why we need a collection of confessions that guide our faith. Cf. also Karl Barth, Homiletics, 106: “For and understanding of the bible we need particular guidelines which like buoys in the sea mark off the channel, and sometimes detours as well, but always serve to protect us against running aground through ignorance or negligence.”
[5] Cf. D. E. W. Harrison and Michael C. Samson, Worship in the Church of England, 29 et passim; Kenneth Stevenson, “Worship By the Book,” in The Oxford Guide to The Book of Common Prayer, edited by C.; Hefling, C. Shattuck, 9-20.

Selective Listening

Heb. 12:18-29[1]
Anybody who has spent any time at all around teenagers knows the phenomenon called “selective hearing.” It’s what happens whenever adults open their mouths to convey important information. You know the drill—Teenager: “The teacher gave me a message and she said it’s important.” Parent: “Okay, what is it.” Teenager: “I dunno. I forgot.” Or there’s this one—Parent: “Did you clean up your room.” Teenager: “No—you didn’t tell me to.” Parent: “Yes I asked you to do it this morning.” Teenager: “Oh. I forgot.” As a parent, you know that it’s not a matter of “I forgot.” They didn’t even hear you in the first place. They were exercising their “selective hearing.”
To some extent it’s a skill we all have to develop in order to navigate the (post)modern world. We are bombarded with so much information from so many competing voices that we simply cannot possibly process it all. We have to tune some of it out; that means we have to choose which of it we will pay attention to. We have to develop the skill of “selective listening.” But it seems to me that “selective listening” is not only important for surviving the information explosion. It’s also something we need to keep our faith vital and alive. In the midst of all the competing voices in our world—voices of fear and anger, voices of hatred and violence—God calls us to a different way of life with the voice of joy, and love, and justice, and peace.
But our “selective listening” is even important if we want to make sense out of the Bible! Our lesson from Hebrews for today recounts the story of the people of Israel at Sinai. It was an experience that was terrifying for them; even Moses was afraid! And the voice that came to them was a voice of warning: “Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death.” (Exodus 19:12). The gist of the message was clear—don’t you dare try to get close to God, or you will die. But the apostle to the Hebrews encourages his audience to do just that—to draw near to God—on another mountain, Zion, the place where God’s promises of salvation are realized.[2]
While there is a lot going on behind the scenes here, what I want to point out is that the apostle to the Hebrews encourages some “selective listening” on the part of Christians who need help holding onto their faith. He doesn’t want them to take the warnings at Sinai as the “final word” about God’s demeanor toward them. He doesn’t want them to run away for fear that if they get too close to God, they will die. Rather he wants them to draw near to God through Jesus Christ.[3]
This is the essence of my class on “Reading the Bible in a Decent and Orderly Way”—we all engage in some kind of selective listening when it comes to Scripture. Of course, the question arises whether we just “pick and choose” in this process. While some people definitely do—and it usually seems to be those who insist the loudest that they take the Bible “literally”—that is not going to help us make sense of Scripture. In a very real sense, we must discern the principles within the Bible itself for this process of selective listening. They include:
· The Bible’s message is conveyed through the plain sense of the words.[4] That means we don’t need a supercomputer to find some hidden “Bible Code!”
· The Bible’s message must be sorted out from the setting in which it was spoken.[5] That means not every word of Scripture reflects enduring truth!
· The Bible should be read under the guidance of the Spirit and in the context of the church.[6] This means we have to go beyond just “that’s what it means to me.”
· The Bible teaches us that we are to live with justice, mercy, and love.[7] If our reading of Scripture produces actions or attitudes that are not consistent with that, we need to go back and read it again.
· The Bible’s message is focused on the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Living Word of God.[8] In a sense, I think we can apply a version of “what would Jesus do” here—if what we think is the “truth” of Scripture is something we cannot envision Jesus endorsing, then we have missed something.[9]
These are just the most obvious principles for our selective listening, but if we use them to develop this art and skill, I believe, and it has been my experience, that it can help us keep from “missing the forest for the trees.” It helps us stay on track with our faith and our lives, if for no other reason than it reinforces the conviction that God is a God who is working to bring grace and mercy and peace into all our lives. A good dose of “selective listening” helps us tune out some of the voices of fear and anger in our world, and hear the voice of God speaking words of life to us.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/22/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] See Craig Koester, Hebrews, 550; cf. also Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, 140: from the perspective of the apostle to the Hebrews, “not only is there but one God; astonishingly there is actually only one mountain. Sinai and Zion are the same place: the dwelling of the Holy God. … Mount Sinai is transformed into Mount Zion—if we go there with Jesus.”
[3] Cf. Koester, Hebrews, 549: “The voice at Sinai warned people not to draw near, while the voice of Christ’s blood conveys a sense of grace through the new covenant, encouraging listeners to draw near.”
[4] Cf. Jack Rogers, Reading the Bible & the Confessions the Presbyterian Way, 35: “If we are going to read the Bible, we must read the Bible as it is given to us, not just look for what we wish it said.”
[5] Cf. Rogers, Reading the Bible, 37: because of difficulties of interpretation, we cannot “just pick up the Bible and read it as if it were written today.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Homiletics, 76: “From first to last scripture says the same thing, but it constantly says the one thing in different ways.”
[6] Cf. Herbert W. Farmer, “The Bible: Its Significance and Authority,” The Interpreter’s Bible, I: 26-29, where he elaborates principles to guide “the duty and the right to discriminate” the message of Scripture, though he adds “always … from within the fellowship of the church and under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit.” Cf. also Rogers, Reading the Bible, 40: “The Scriptures are always to be interpreted by and in the community of the church, the Body of Christ.”
[7] Presbyerian Use and Understanding of Holy Scripture, 20: “No interpretation of Scripture is correct that leads to or supports contempt for any individual or group of persons.”
[8] Cf. The Theological Declaration of Barmen (Book of Confessions 8.11): “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” Cf. also The Confession of 1967 (Book of Confessions 9.27).
[9] Cf. Rogers, Reading the Bible, 33: since we all tend to read the Bible through the lenses of our own cultural assumptions, the only way to avoid the temptation against using Holy Scripture to justify one’s own prejudices (slavery, subordination of women, etc) is to “look freshly at all of God’s Word through the perspective of the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.”

Finishing is Everything

Heb. 11:29-12:2[1]
Our culture is obsessed with winning. How many times have you heard someone say “Winning is everything.” We are equally obsessed with “winners.” How many ways do we prostrate ourselves before the “winners.” But there are some endeavors where the very contest itself shows that the real victory is finishing, not winning. I think perhaps the “mother of all endurance races” might very well be the “Ironman” championship in Hawaii. You swim 2.4 miles, then you bicycle 112 miles, then you run a marathon. All under 17 hours. In my mind, just finishing one of those endurance contests is “winning.” I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to finish one, only to turn around and do two more!
I think this exposes the folly of our obsession with “winners” in that, while there is only one “winner” of the Ironman championship, it would seem to me incredibly absurd to call someone who “merely” finished, even just before the 17 hour time limit, a “loser.” In fact, the “Ironman mantra”—“just finishing is a victory”—was inspired by Julie Moss, who in 1982 collapsed just yards from winning the women’s championship and literally crawled across the finish line!
I think this points us to a lesson that applies to life in general, particularly the life of faith. We tend to think of faith in terms of what we get out of it, or maybe even in terms of setting a good example for our children. But the apostle to the “Hebrews” reminds us that faith is not a matter of calculating a cost/benefit analysis and determining the best outcome.[2] In the great chain of witnesses he recounts, some of them found that their faith gave them the victory, and some of them found that their faith brought suffering.[3] Perhaps this is part of the reason why, in the midst of some fairly intense difficulties of their own, the “Hebrews” found themselves questioning the value of faith.
Perhaps they made the mistake of thinking that faith would enable them to escape from the hardships of life; perhaps they thought it would secure God’s special favor for them and their loved ones. Perhaps they made the mistake of embracing the view that Christian faith in and of itself brings success and happiness. Perhaps they embraced the idea that they already had all the benefits of the kingdom of God right here and right now—what we might call the original “prosperity gospel.”[4] By contrast, the apostle to the Hebrews calls us to a faith that follows our savior on the path to the cross.[5] Instead of success, the believers he was encouraging found themselves struggling with opposition and hostility and even at times physical violence. They found themselves in the middle of an endurance contest that left them exhausted and frustrated and confused.
It would seem they were asking themselves how they could hold on to faith in the midst of such fierce opposition. It’s a question that is still relevant for us today. We experience the difficulty of maintaining our faith in this culture that is obsessed with “winning” in various ways— from the struggle to attract new members in face of the lure of the prosperity cult to having the church building torched, and everything in between. And the answer that the apostle to the Hebrews gives relates to our situation as well as theirs: we finish the contest of faith by taking a longer look than just “what’s in it for me?”
In essence, the apostle to the Hebrews portrays the life of faith in every generation as a part of a great chain of witness. When we follow the example of the witnesses who have gone before and run the race of faith that is laid out for us, we are in a very real sense taking up and completing their work. So in part, we keep going because we believe what their lives were about was important enough for us to carry on. But when we run our race of faith we are also preparing the way for future generations of witnesses.
So in response to the quandary of faith that by this world’s standards doesn’t always “win”, the apostle to the Hebrews calls us all to do our part to keep the chain moving forward until we all reach the final goal together. And what is the goal? It seems to me that the goal is that the great chain of witness remains unbroken and continues to move forward in the cause of God’s grace until that work comes to completion by renewing the whole face of creation. [6] And when that happens, we all cross the finish line at the same time!
For those of us who determine to make the crucified Christ their example, I think we will find the life of faith challenging at the very least. But part of what keeps us going is the memory of those influential people who left a mark on us by their very character. The best way to honor their memory is to take up their work and finish it by living out our faith despite all obstacles. And part of what keeps us going is that we all have those about whom we care deeply and for whom we feel a special responsibility in terms of shaping their lives. When we continue to run and finally finish our race, we are setting an example for them. We are preparing them for their part in the great chain of witness. Honoring the memory of those who have influenced us; and passing that influence on to the next generation—I think those are some pretty good reasons to make the effort of continuing our life of faith despite all obstacles.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/15/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Craddock, “Hebrews” XII:146, “faith does not calculate results and so believe.”
[3] Craddock, “Hebrews,” 145: “that they did not receive the promise is not due to any flaw in their faith; rather it was due to the unfolding purpose of God.”
[4] Theologians call this a “theology of glory.”
[5] This is called a “theology of the cross.” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 361: “The church is apostolic when it takes up its cross.”
[6] Cf. Long, 126, where he envisions the community of faith in terms of “a great unbroken cord of faith that stretches all the way from the beginning of human history all the way to the heavenly sanctuary in the City of God, where the cord has been securely fastened and anchored by Jesus.” He continues, “the links are formed by faithful people, hand in hand, generation after generation, holding fast to each other and to ‘our confession.’”

Friday, August 13, 2010

Helping Our Unbelief

Heb. 11:1-16[1]
It seems to me that we live in a world that trains us to be “unbelievers.” Everything from shopping to listening to the news to financial planning conspires to make us skeptics. The familiar warning, caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware,” could be translated into just about every aspect of our lives. “Wary” seems to be the standard operating procedure if you want to survive. Even when it comes to seemingly simple activities such as networking with friends over the internet, you have to essentially withhold trust from anybody you don’t know, because it seems like everybody out there is trying to take you for a ride! Given this reality of (post-) modern living, it would seem that “unbelief” is the wisest approach to take.
Even those of us who call ourselves Christians and who make a practice of attending to matters of faith in our daily lives tend to approach our faith to all intents and purposes as functional agnostics. If we’re honest with ourselves and each other we have to admit that within our faith there are great helpings of unbelief. You may find this shocking, but I’m not sure that we’re all that different from believers of every age and time. Even the first Christians struggled with faith. Even the people who followed Jesus, who walked with him and talked with him and ate with him and learned with him, struggled with faith.
It would seem that the “Hebrews” to whom our lesson today was addressed were not all that different from us when it comes to faith. Like “believing unbelievers” throughout the ages, it would seem that they struggled with the fact that faith is incredibly ambiguous. It deals with “things hoped for” and “things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). In the midst of some fairly intense difficulties of their own, it would seem that they found themselves up against the hard reality that faith is something inward, subjective, mystical and mysterious; it is something impossible to wrap your hands around and get a firm grip.[2] As a result, like many of us, it would seem that they found that the life of faith leaves you feeling like you’re hanging in mid-air at the end of a rope and you have no idea what that rope is attached to![3]
And yet, the apostle to the Hebrews insists that there is something more to faith than just a subjective feeling of trust. He calls it “the substance of things hoped for.”[4] And in case anybody out there wanted to dispute the “substantial” nature of faith, he provides them with a summation of some of the greatest acts of faith in the history of the people of God. Through the stories of people like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Rahab, the apostle to the Hebrews demonstrates the nature of faith. But he does so not with an abstract metaphysical treatise, but with a lengthy rehearsal of very tangible actions that faith inspired in the lives of the great witnesses who have gone before: setting out on a journey, bearing a son, hiding a baby, enduring suffering and imprisonment and even death. The conclusion he impresses upon the doubters of his day and ours is that faith takes place at the intersection of “what is not seen” and very tangible, concrete, visible actions in real life.[5]
Because of the inherent difficulties surrounding faith, we should not be surprised that it doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere. It is something you have to cultivate; and yet, how do you cultivate something as elusive as faith? The place to start is to realize that we are all always in every aspect of our faith in the constant position of praying “I believe, help my unbelief.” The place to begin is to admit that we do not believe—at least not always![6]
But I think beyond that the apostle to the Hebrews gives us a clue when he recounts the faith of those who have gone before. In a very real sense, the only way to cultivate faith is to take the risk of plunging in to the life of faith. We cultivate faith when we recite the prayers and confessions of faith and sing the hymns, when we encourage and support the community of faith, and when we give ourselves away in service to others.[7]
You might say that it sounds like a vicious circle: the only way to learn faith is to have faith. But how do you cultivate what you don’t have? I don’t think it’s really that cut and dried. I think that what the exemplars of faith in our lesson show us is that, like many aspects of life, faith is a matter of learning by doing. In other words, we all have to strike out on faith without really knowing where we’re going, or whether we even have faith. But in the process of doing those things that faith would have us do, we discover despite our unbelief the seeds of faith growing in our hearts.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/8/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2:156, where he says, “Faith is ‘the conviction of things not seen,’ of things whose truth lies in God alone. Hence the believer who builds his life on such things has God alone and nothing else as his support and basis.” Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 15 where he says, “To have a religious sense of life is to long with a restless heart for a reality beyond reality.”
[3] Barth, Dogmatics 2.1:159, says that the life of faith involves a feeling of as if we are “suspended and hanging without ground under our feet.” From this perspective, it’s no wonder that for many of us our lives are a matter of “the flight from faith.”
[4] Cf. Fred Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” New Interpreter’s Bible XII:131; he says that the term hypostasis or “substance” “points us to a reality that does not owe its existence to human awareness.”
[5] Cf. Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, 113, where he says that faith as an inward reality sings “We shall overcome,” while faith as an outward reality marches on Selma!
[6] Cf. Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 323.
[7] Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 325: “Faith in God is only possible when we live by faith.”

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Heavenly Minded

Col. 3:1-11; Lk. 12:13-21[1]
We’ve all heard the saying that someone is “too heavenly minded to do any earthly good.” When we say that, I think we have several things in mind. First, we tend to say that about a person whose “spirituality” is so excessive that they seem to have a hard time relating to real life. But I think there is also the notion lurking somewhere in there that, while it’s good to be a “little spiritual,” you really shouldn’t be too spiritual. There is a mystical element to spirituality that is difficult for us to get our heads around. In fact, it can seem so strange as to make us uncomfortable in the presence of an “overly spiritual” person.
So here we have a “myth” that would seem to be true. But I think it depends on what you mean by “heavenly minded.” If it refers to a person who has used spirituality to escape from life, then we could probably come up with lots of examples to prove the point that those who are too “heavenly minded” are not able to do much earthly good. But if being “heavenly minded” means that we like St. Paul see “the starting point and source” of our life in the resurrected Christ (Col. 3:1-4), then it seems to me we have it backwards. [2] It seems to me from this perspective that being “heavenly minded” means seeking to establish the peace and justice of God’s kingdom. It means striving to follow the example of Christ in every aspect of our daily lives. It means taking our cue regarding our attitudes and actions from the spiritual wisdom of the Scriptures. Notice how St. Paul moves from being “heavenly minded” to an all-encompassing concern with how you live your life here and now—including purity, respect, honesty, and compassion (Col. 3:5-11).[3]
From this perspective I would argue that those who are the most heavenly minded are those who are able to do the most earthly good.[4] We can all think of people who were both deeply spiritual and at the same time deeply involved in life. Christian history is filled with examples—we call them “saints,” and the Christian calendar is punctuated by remembering the lives of those who were both deeply spiritual and deeply involved in life.
By contrast, our gospel lesson shows us an example of the opposite: a person who is too earthly-minded to do any heavenly good! Here is a person who is convinced that his life consists of his possessions. The compulsion to acquire more “stuff” so consumes his life that it is impossible to imagine that he ever gives a second thought to “the peace and justice of God’s kingdom,” let alone lift a finger to do anything about it.[5] But the tragic lesson that the “Rich Fool” learns is that, if our lives consist only of what we have, then there really is nothing much more to it than death and taxes!
This story illustrates one aspect of the great folly in the myths that bind us—when we are stuck in the rut of looking at life through these myths, we are incapable of looking past what our eyes can see and our hands can touch to see that there is more to this life. Those who have bought into this way of looking at things really believe that winning is the only thing, that might makes right, that you only go around once, so you’d better eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you may die! It is an outlook that is fatalistic—a tragic way of life resigned to a bleak and hopeless reality. It is pessimistic—essentially cynical, distrustful, and dispirited about life. It is nihilistic—from this perspective, there really is no meaning to this life. And it is narcissistic—all that really matters is satisfying my own pleasures. Life really is just one huge “rat race,” full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It makes me want to ask, “if this really is as good as it gets, then what are we doing wasting our time here on Sunday morning?”
It seems to me that one of the many flaws in that outlook on life is that it leaves no room for there to be a reality that is beyond what we can see and hear and taste and touch. It leaves no room for serendipity—that mysterious coincidence in life that seems too perfect to be mere coincidence. And it seems to me that the equally tragic result is that this approach to life leaves no room for love or joy or kindness or community.[6]
We may all agree on that, but it would seem that the real question is how we cultivate a way of life that is heavenly minded. How do we orient our frantic lives so that our relationship with God becomes a resource for discipleship? The answer is simple: that is one of the major purposes of worship![7] Worship—both public and private—is where we are reminded that there is much, much more to life than death and taxes. That’s what we’re doing here on Sunday morning! Worship is where we are reoriented toward a way of life that seeks the peace and justice of God’s kingdom. Worship is where we find the inner resources to follow the example of Christ in our daily lives. Worship is where we become “heavenly minded” enough to be able to do some earthly good in this world.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/1/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. A. T. Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI: 638.
[3] Cf. Lincoln, “Colossians,” 640: “heavenly mindedness is not to be understood as a form of absentmindedness about ordinary life or social and economic conditions. Having a heavenly reference point is, instead, the very thing that should drive believers on within their social situation to pursue justice and fairness.”
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 281-82: “It is only self-forgetful trust in the faithfulness of God that creates freedom for selfless service for the world’s liberation.” He continues (282), “The hour in which the church prays for the kingdom … swears the church to faithfulness to the earth.” See further, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:580.
[5] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible IX:256.
[6] Cf. Culpepper, “Luke,” 257; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, 972. Cf. also Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 42: “the underside of this self-reliance is loneliness, isolation and a constant fear of not making it in life.”
[7] Cf. The Book of Order 2010-2011, G-3.0200, 0300: the worshipping community is “a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ”, a visible demonstration of the good news that “God who creates life, frees those in bondage, forgives sin, reconciles brokenness, makes all things new, is still at work in the world.” Cf. also Lincoln, “Colossians,” 639-40. See further, Robert McAfee Brown, The Bible Speaks to You, 202; cf. also ibid., 214-217.