Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, 2015 – Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep (Psa 127:1-2).
“In vain”, Solomon, the titled writer of this Psalm says. Without God, vanity; emptiness. Whatever you try, whatever you do, however you exist—there must be God.
For without God, there is nothing. Nothing at all. Now there is always God, of course. But what we count as “something” is, without God, nothing. It is because there is God, and only because there is God, that we can we speak of “something” at all.
This is what we mean, in part, when we say that God is our Creator. God “calls into being something, that which is not anything”, as Paul puts it (Rom. 4:17). Creation is the nothingness that God has made into something. Without God, there is nothing.
This is the key point to the whole of reality. If this one thing is grasped – and it is a life’s work to grasp it, I sense – then the whole truth of the world and of your existence is unveiled: without God, there is nothing. With God, you are. But only with God.
So, in a sense, taken on our own terms, we are nothing. I realize people find the phrases built on this truth distasteful today: “I am a worm and no man”, says David in Psalm 22. A worm. It goes back to the opening of Genesis (Gen. 2:7), to the fact that we are made from “dust”, and “to dust we shall return” (Gen. 3:19). Worms and dust go together. So Abraham speaks to God, and realizing how odd it is for him even to address his maker, and he acknowledges how truly odd this is: “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I [who] am but dust and ashes”. How is it that we even exist in such a way as to have a conversation with that by who we exist at all? And when things go horribly wrong, over and over, and push you down, further and further into this fact that your existence is so mysteriously not yours, then, like Job, you look around and see how evanescent, how vulnerable, how like nothing everything is, and you say: “Behold, even the moon is not bright and the stars are not clean in his sight; how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!” (Job 25:5-6). This isn’t grovelling. Our culture is foolish to think so on this score, deeply so. The Talmud writes that the insects were created on the 5th Day, before human beings, for one reasons: to show that, as far as our importance goes, we are no better than flies. We are simply here because of the miraculous reality that God has let us be.
There are two sides to this reality, this absolutely staggering reality. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain”. In the first place, there is this nothingness side to who we actually are. And Christians, it has to be admitted, have twisted this in many ways over the centuries: hair shirts, fasting to the point of self-starvation, treating people’s bodies like dirt – which is what slavery ended up being, and what it remains today in all its consumerist forms. It is a temptation to treat nothing like nothing. But that would be wrong, horribly wrong! For though we are nothing, we are the nothing that God has made something! It is a strange kind of dignity, to be sure; but it is real. For it means that everything we are, everything we have, is God’s! “What have you that you did not receive?”, Paul asks his listeners in Corinth (1 Cor. 4:7). So you could say about us: shadows of God, reflections of God, rippling images of God’s own eternal and immovable Something – that is who we are too!
To the extent that we are, God is bursting forth, and what we have is all His, and marvelously so!
I wish young people could understand this! I wish old people could as well! All of us!
The problem is not that we think we are nothing; it is that we think we are something that lives in a world without God as He who makes nothing into something.
There’s a difference: if you think you are a “something” in a world where only your somethingness exists – rather than a nothing that God upholds into being something — then you are left always trying to keep that somethingness afloat. So much striving after self-assertion and self-affirmation! So much grasping about for meaning given by things that have no meaning! So much, ultimately, so much despair. “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil”.
For several years now, we’ve been told about the rapidly increasing levels of depression and dangerous behavior by our adolescents and young adults: study after study, including a recent major survey of [university] counseling centers has found that more than half their clients have severe psychological problems, an increase of 13 percent in just two years. Anxiety and depression, in that order, are now the most common mental health diagnoses among university students (NY Times, Julie Scelfo July 27, 2015). But it isn’t just young people. My wife Annette pointed out to me another Times article from earlier this week. “Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans”, the article said. “Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling…. driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes.. but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.” (Gina Kolatanov. Nov. 2, 2015). Why? “Laboring in vain”, as Solomon says. In fact, according to one account, “Nearly one in five of us — 18 percent — has an anxiety disorder. We spend over $2 billion a year on anti-anxiety medications.There are many explanations for these nerves: a bad job market, less cohesive communities, the constant self-comparison that is social media” (July 18, 2015 T. M. Luhrmann). Look: we all want to be something – school, work, family; Lord help us, even the Church! But the something we are can only be had –only, only,only – from the very hand, the power, the truth, the grace of God.
That’s one side of it. The other side is that, having this something that God’s making us from nothing, is having everything we could possibly ever desire. “For He gives to his beloved sleep”, that is, rest, fullness, satisfaction.
It is God who “gives”, and only God. What do we have that we have not received from God? If the answer is “nothing”, that means that we have everything.
“All things are yours”, Paul writes: “So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:21-23).
This brings us to the widow in today’s Gospel. It brings us to the real question of “poverty”: the widow is poor. She doesn’t give her money to the Temple because she is generous; she gives it because she is truly poor. “Blessed are the poor; the poor in spirit”, Jesus says earlier (cf. Mat. 5:3; Lk.6:20). She gives because, more than anybody else around her, she understands that she is nothing. Rich people are giving to the Temple fund, this and that; writing a cheque, doling out a fiver or two. The widow puts in a few pennies. It seems like nothing. But “out of her poverty she has put in everything she had, her whole living”, Jesus says; her life, her bios (Mk. 12:44). Being poor, she has everything available, the “everything-is-God’s” kind of availability.
There was a famous Christian (Saint-Cyran, in the 17th c.), who wrote that there is only one reason God would make someone rich: so that the rich person would give all their money away to the poor. That’s it. But there are at least six reasons why God would make a person poor. I won’t list them, but they all add up, one by one, to being able to show the abundant mercy of God in working for us life, the life most evident in the one who, as Paul writes, “though he was rich, became poor – that is, a worm — so that by his poverty, you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Those who are poor show forth, whether they like it or not, the utter “giving away” by God, that turns nothingness into something.
That is to say, the poor display abundance: the one who is nothing, and knows it, manifests the abundance of the One who makes us something where nothingness once reigned. Which is why they are blessed, and the whole world is called to offer the poor what the church has called “a preferential option”, a embrace beyond all embraces.
Now, I’m not telling you theology or doctrine here; I’m just telling you history: this is the “way things are”. Paul writes this: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:28, 30). All of this is history, not doctrine. All of this is what has happened, what is the case, how something comes from nothing.
But there is application here too: because of this history, there is “nothing”, literally, to fear. For all that is, is of God; and we are God’s. “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” His “beloved”, those whom he has made.
Nothingness is that which God has brought us out of. Nobody else can tell us who we really are; or make us into something we are not; or demand of us something that is not ours.
The truth is, this is a world where we are free from all such pressures and demands, that otherwise drive us to wretchedness. And so, we can give everything away, all of it, to whomever we will, to whomever needs it; for all that we are is of the abundant and infinite richness of God, who has made us from nothing. Whatever we give away – our money, our hearts, our hopes, and labor, the kinds of things so many of us hold on to tightly and strangle ourselves with in the process because people keep telling us that only in holding on to this or that are we something – whatever we give away, God has more and more of it to give back and keep giving. More and more. Beaten, crushed, tired, anxious – however you want to put it when speaking of yourself or the ills of the world: there is yet more and more to be uncovered and replenished. Abundant freedom: that is the divine motto of our being alive: “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Lk. 6:38) Nothing to fear. Nothing to hold back. Nothing; because God is “all in all” (Eph 1:23).