Colossians 3: 1-11 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 31, 2016
put us in touch with
the joy of your presence, mercy, and grace,
and let it disturb us to life.
As much as an election or even a church can be about politics and policy, they can also about personalities. What if we took the word ‘vanity’ in the reading from Ecclesiastes and replaced it with the word ‘ego’?
Ego of egos, says the Teacher, ego of egos! All is ego.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is ego and a chasing after wind.
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is ego. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is ego and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is ego.
Some of us might feel this way after watching either of or both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Certainly this Teacher identifies himself with a political figure and dynasty, the king of Israel. And throughout this short book of 9 chapters we see that he comes by his wisdom the hard way: by traveling down all the wrong roads of earthly pleasures and vices, material wealth and amassing power, sexual gratification, entertainment, but none of these satisfy. He has seen it all, the foolish things human beings do to be happy, to be fulfilled, and comes to the conclusion that all these things are fleeting, as is life itself. Wisdom comes from seeking after God and God’s ways rather than our own.
There once was a man who lived a similar journey, a very rich man, a millionaire by the age of 29. He was a lawyer and businessman who built a successful life for himself and his family. They lived in a beautiful home, owned cars, boats, a vacation home, and traveled to just about anywhere they wanted to. The man worked long hours to ensure the success of his company, spending too much time away from his family.
One day he came home to find out that his wife was ready to leave him. In response to his wife’s wake-up call, he packed up his family in the car and they headed toward Florida. On the way they met up with some friends in Georgia who introduced the man to Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms. After having lunch with Clarence, the man and his family decided they would stay on the farm. He then sold all that he had, gave it to the poor, and they lived on the farm for another 5 years. After beginning a housing ministry in Zaire, the man and his family returned to the United States to begin a similar ministry called Habitat for Humanity. The man was Millard Fuller.
Habitat became one of the most successful non-profits in the world. From 1976 to 2003, Habitat affiliates worldwide had built over 150,000 homes and were active in 92 nations. But in 2004 conflict developed over the future direction of the organization. As it says in Ecclesiastes, it’s not easy letting go of something you’ve invested your whole life in and handing it over to others. Both Millard and Linda Fuller had become identified with Habitat. They were its voice and its face. How does one entrust such a vital, important ministry into the hands of others? How could our egos not get involved?
Writing about the ego is a tricky thing. I feel more qualified to preach about its failings and tripfalls than how to avoid them. Just saying that feels like a trap. It seems like it would be a subject better heard coming from someone like the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa.
We all know what an ego run amok looks like. In his letter to the church in Colossae, Paul does a pretty good job of describing exactly that. We know the diva, the narcissist, the self-destructor, the control freak, the bully, the destroyer of worlds. We know what that ego looks like. Just read any of the stories about the Greek or Roman gods. These were indeed gods created in the image of human beings but with supernatural powers. What we would look like on a case of Red Bull and Robin Williams’ version of the magic genie.
But our egos don’t just convince us that we’re more important than we really are. The negative ego can do just the opposite. It’s that voice inside us that tells us we can’t do anything right, that the job is just too big, too overwhelming, that we’re not enough, that we’ll fail, that what we do doesn’t make a difference, that we can’t live without whatever it is we’ve convinced ourselves of.
My ego can get hooked either way. I’m a Leo, a pastor, and a soprano: a lethal combination if ever there was one. I’m a diva. I love attention, most of the time. I like being on the stage, I like performing, except when I don’t. I know that sometimes I can come on like a locomotive. Lucky for me someone had the courage to tell me what it’s like to be on the receiving end. I try to be aware of these things most of the time, and so I make an effort to temper my voice, to listen more, to think before I speak.
It’s the negative ego that trips me up more than not. It certainly didn’t make writing this sermon any easier. We can all be beguiled by the notion that there’s one right answer to whatever it is we’re seeking after, and if we just do that, we’ll be successful, find the right path, that everything will be okay, and we’ll be alright. If we just find the right way to be church, to be a good person, to be purposeful, to be secure; if we follow the rules and ensure that everyone else does; that the shaping of the future rests solely on our shoulders; that it’s hard to admit when we’re wrong.
We can be such ego addicts: overly confident or paralyzingly insecure, expect too much of ourselves and others or too little, blind to our faults or the faults of others or crushed by the weight of them. All because each day we’re trying to figure out who we are, what’s our purpose, what’s the meaning of it all, and where are we headed. Chasing after wind. All is vanity.
But Paul says that’s our old life, our old identity, a way of seeing ourselves and our lives that is no more. Now we have new lives, real lives, lived in and with Christ. Our story is now part of the Jesus story, which is God’s story of salvation and transformation. How we live in our bodies, now we also live in the Body of Christ. Our lives are no longer lived solely for ourselves, not only for those we love, but for the unloved and those who think themselves unlovable, even for those who frustrate us and antagonize us, those who hate and fear, those who suffer with pain. Now our lives are for seeking first the kingdom of God rather than only what’s in front of us. What once led us away from God now has the power to lead us back to God and to God’s way of compassion, forgiveness, justice, and unconditional love.
When our egos run amok or can’t find their way out of the maze of “I’m not good enough”, we need an ego even larger and greater than our own, the Ego of egos, the Vanity of vanities that creates life in its own image. But this ego emptied herself, lived among us, showed us true wisdom: how to live and how to let go, and how to live again in Jesus.
Whether we realize it or not, each day we hand off all that we’ve worked for, everything that’s meaningful to us, all our knowledge, wisdom, and skill, all our loves—we let go of them when we lie down and close our eyes. Which is why it can be hard to go to sleep. And each day we are blessed to pick it all back up again, not only for ourselves but for the kingdom, for wholeness, for hope, for goodness. There are no guarantees—only one day at a time to live life, to be who we choose to be, how we will be Church.
O God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.