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Evanescent

September 21, 2015

“Evanescent” James 3:13-4:3, 11-17 © 9.20.15 Ordinary 25B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The universe is 13.8 billion years old. Earth, 4.5 billion. Our genus, Homo, including the newly discovered Homo naledi, appeared about 2.5 million years ago. Modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, didn’t take the stage until recently in geologic time, around just 200 millennia in our past. When conditions were right and the time was ripe, like a mist we formed, and like a mist, we will disappear one day. We are but a breath from the nostrils of God, hanging in the cold air of eternity. Quickly fading. Evanescent.

We consider someone who has lived to 90 or 100 to have had a long life. And in relative terms, compared to those that perish at birth or in childhood or young adulthood or even make it to 50 or 60, that’s true. But such a life is still just a spot of paint on the vast canvas of endless eons. As the psalmist put it, we are soon gone and fly away. Quickly fading. Evanescent.

Part of the wonder of being human, sentient, is knowing we are alive. But with that awareness comes also the knowledge that sooner or later we will die, whether in a timely or untimely way, by accident or disease or violence or simply stopping. And we can’t control any of it. We have had such awareness since time immemorial. We joke about our mortality, saying nothing is certain except death and taxes. But our humor only masks our fear of dying and death. Religion and ritual developed to provide assurance and comfort in the face of our mortality. We know now that even one of our ancient cousins, the aforementioned Homo naledi, buried his dead. His ritual was not rational; he had a brain the size of a baseball. Instead, it was something inborn, instinctive, the innate spiritual part of us that makes us who we are as much as the appearance of our bodies or the tools in our hands.

Though we’re certain we will die, we keep denying it. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English literary figure, was once asked “But is not the fear of death natural to man?” He replied: “So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thought of it” (James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson).

And indeed we do our best to keep from admitting that we are nothing but a brief mist or to change the metaphor, dust in the wind. It’s well known that teens and young adults believe they’re invulnerable and immortal. We may have been disabused of that notion, but we still look at ads that tell us how we can make our faces and bodies look younger or revitalize our love life after 50. Facing our own demise or the loss of a loved one, the classic, though never quite so neat, order of dealing with it is anger, then denial, followed by several other stages. The funeral industry even tries to sell us expensive vaults to keep water out of the buried casket and prevent our bodies from decaying. Denial thus extends even beyond the end of life.

But there are more subtle ways we deny our mortality, reject the idea that we are merely mist that will disappear when conditions change, just as warming of the air causes water droplets to become gas again. James points us to at least two of those.

One is the way we deny our mortality by acting superior to our neighbors. James refers to severe conflicts in the community as well as instances of judging others and speaking “evil” against them, by which the author means slandering. If we can set ourselves up as judge and jury over others, if we can tout our position on an issue as better than anyone else’s, then we can build up our self-esteem and reinforce our sense of ourselves as special cases, who perhaps can even cheat death. Says one commentator: “[T]o assume the right to judge and condemn another is to claim a privileged position of superiority over that person…. Slander serves both to lower the neighbor and elevate the self; it takes away status from another and ascribes it to the one doing the slandering, who poses as the superior judge. It is, in microcosm and in secret, the perfect example of life as competition. Slander, therefore, is a form of arrogance that seeks to assert the self by destroying another” (Luke T. Johnson, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XII: 215).

But death, says the proverb, is the great leveler. Yes, others may be more or less educated than we, with more or less money, popularity, looks, influence, and on and on, whatever it is we crave and either have or don’t have. But none of those differences mean anything in the end. We at root all share the same humanity, which means mortality. We all fade away like the mist. The question we should ask of anyone, including ourselves, who sets himself or herself up as judge is “Who do you think you are? How and why do you think yourself superior to another?”

The same day last week I was writing what I just said, I read the story of a 103 year-old woman, a Mrs. Biggs, in Georgia who had been sent a letter forbidding her to set foot on the property of her church “for any reason whatsoever.” She has been a member of Union Grove Baptist in Elberton for 92 years, having joined when she was 11. She served as church secretary for 40 years. But now, when she and two friends who had also been banned, tried to attend the church, the members called the cops, who refused to intervene. They were not about to keep a centenarian from going to church.

You see, Mrs. Biggs doesn’t agree with the pastor’s style of preaching or worship, which is not Baptist, but Holiness, with a good bit of rolling on the floor and speaking in tongues when congregants get filled with the Spirit. “We’re Baptist and we don’t go that way,” she said. But one of the deacons of the church claimed that the lady’s long membership “don’t mean nothing” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-this-103-year-old-woman-was-banned-from-her-church_55f9acbee4b0e333e54c351f?ir=Religion%253Fncid%253Dnewsltushpmg00000003).

Imagine! A pastor and members so insecure, so frightened that they have to assert their superiority by keeping an elderly woman from the church she loves. At the root of that conflict and of every disagreement, lawsuit, competition, and act of violence is the drive for power and control, and behind that, the fear of death, the denial of mortality. Somehow by denigrating our neighbor, adding status to ourselves, we feel we can stave off the inevitable, turn this mist we are into a solid mass that cannot be moved. Dream on.

The other way James suggests we deny our nature as transient and fleeting creatures is by the amassing of wealth. Or more precisely, making money and heaping up goods as a hedge against tomorrow, as a way to secure the future on our own terms. The author criticizes sharply businessmen who believe they are in control. These are people who assume that by their ingenuity, scheming, risk-taking, and talent in making deals they can count on a steady stream of profits from uninterrupted production and marketing of goods and services. They believe they live in a closed system, run on their terms, and they boast of their accomplishments. The word James uses for the actions and speech of these men is a common one of the day. They are loud-mouthed foolish braggarts. (All of that is in one Greek word.) The money is nice, but what they really want is prestige and with it, power. As the saying goes, “The one with the most toys wins.”

This behavior is no isolated characteristic of the crowd James criticizes. Anthropologists along with sociologists who work in the field of terror management theory regard the acquisition of goods and money as a frenzied attempt to gain magical power over death. In their essay “Lethal Consumption: Death-Denying Materialism,” Sheldon Solomon and his co-authors observe: “…from the birth of ‘civilization’ 10,000 or so years ago, as we moved from small groups of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers to permanent town dwellers primarily dependent on agriculture and domesticated animals for our livelihood, humans have been obsessively preoccupied with conspicuous possession and consumption, relentlessly striving to accumulate money and lavish materials in vast excess of what is physically necessary to survive and prosper.

“Our basic thesis is that conspicuous consumption is a direct result of the uniquely human awareness of mortality and the pursuit of self-worth and death transcendence that this awareness engenders. For Mary Poppins, ‘Enough is as good as a feast,’ but this nominally sensible approach to life has never been embraced or practiced by the human race. For humans, enough has never been enough; and avaricious acquisitiveness has rendered human history a giant plundering shopping spree…

“[C]onspicuous possession and consumption are thinly veiled efforts to assert that one is special and therefore more than just an animal fated to die and decay. Spending eternity in a heavenly afterlife is a quaint and attractive prospect…but ultimately intangible and empirically uncertain, whereas large piles of gold, enormous mounds of possessions, and lavish consumption are ineluctably real and symbolically indicative of immortal power” (Kasser and Kanner, eds., Psychology and Consumer Culture: 127-128, 134). Or as Tennessee Williams has Big Daddy say in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “The human animal is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting” (quoted in Solomon, et al: 136; see also https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/69862-cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof).

But James contradicts any notion that gold and goods bring certainty. We don’t live in a closed system, but in an open one, where the unexpected happens, both welcome and unwelcome. There are no guarantees. And most of all, we are not in control. God is. Hence the author’s recommendation to say with sincerity, not just as a pious platitude, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” James is echoing Jesus: “Do not worry about your life. Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? But strive first for the kingdom of God…” (Matthew 6).

So do we give up our portfolios, our life insurance, our savings, our retirement fund, and anything else that we have whose purpose is to provide for tomorrow? No. James’s problem, Jesus’ problem, is not with possessions in themselves, but with an attitude that assumes having, heaping, hoarding is the ultimate goal of life and that we can stave off the inevitable by having our 401(k) and our IRA and stock dividends and real estate, our clothes and cars and homes, our heirlooms and musical instruments and furniture and whatever else. The problem is boasting, arrogance, forgetting that like the mist, we and our possessions can be gone when conditions change. Indeed, we don’t need to read the Bible to know that. Just watch the news, with its disasters, accidents, terror and violence. Look at your investment statement, and how money is lost or gained depending on what happens in places like China or Greece or in our own national politics and economy.

This brief life is not for heaping, hoarding, and hollering, but for helping, hearing, and hallowing. We are always to live as those prepared to die. We are to be those who embrace the beautiful, peaceful wisdom that is “pure…gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

Say what you will about former President Jimmy Carter, but he has exemplified how a wise person of faith faces mortality, acknowledges that he or she is but a mist. When he announced that cancer had gone to his brain, Carter said he had one wish, which was to live to see the day the Guinea worm was eradicated. His Carter Center has been working to get rid of the painful parasite, common to remote regions of Africa. When the Center began its efforts, there were 3.5 million cases of the disease annually; so far this year, there have been only 11. Helping, healing, not hurting.

The columnist Leonard Pitts said of Carter right after the cancer was revealed: “For all its loudness, all its exclusion, violence and ubiquity, the faith that is modeled in the public square is often not particularly affecting. It is hard to imagine someone looking on it from outside and musing to herself, ‘I’d like to have some of that.’ What Carter showed the world, though, was different. Who would not want to be able to face the unknown with such perfect equanimity?

“Carter presented an image of faith we don’t see nearly as often as we should. Which is sad, because it is also the image truest to what faith is supposed to be—not a magic lamp you rub in hopes of a private jet, not a license for our worse impulses, but, rather, an act of surrender to a force greater than self, a way of being centered enough to tell whatever bleak thing comes your way, ‘So be it.’ Even fearsome death itself: ‘So be it.’

Pitts goes on: “The heat and hubris of human life are such that that state is difficult to conceive, much less to reach. Our lives are defined by wanting and by lack—more money, new car, new love—and by the ceaseless hustle to fill empty spaces within. Media and advertising conspire to make you feel ever incomplete. So it is hard to feel whole within yourself, at peace with what is, whatever that turns out to be.

“But who, gazing upon the former president, can doubt the result is worth the effort?

“In faith, terrorists kill the innocent. In faith, televangelists swindle the gullible. In faith, so many of us hate, exclude, hurt, curse and destroy. And in faith, last week, Jimmy Carter told the world he has cancer in his brain.

“And smiled as he spoke” (“Jimmy Carter, the true face of faith,” http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article32397690.html).

Effervescent.

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