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.

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