SJF • Proper 6b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
All of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.+
It is said that once in ancient times there was a great king who posed a challenge to the wisest people of his court. He challenged them to create a ring that he might wear on his hand, with an inscription on it. This inscription was to have an almost magical property: if you looked at it when you were happy, it would make you sad; and if you looked at it when you were sad, it would make you happy. The king promised a great reward and the wise ones headed out to see what they could find.
Six months later one of them returned and presented the king with a golden ring with an inscription. At the moment the king was quite amused, and in good spirits because he expected this ring would not pass the test, and he would not have to give the promised reward. But as he looked at the ring, the smile faded from his face. For on it was inscribed the short phrase, “This too shall pass.”
Some believe that the king in this story was Solomon — and that would certainly explain why the richest man in the world in his day, who delighted in wine, women and song, who built the kingdom of Israel to the furthest expanse it would ever encompass, would towards the end of his life write the bitter and regretful reflection of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” And, indeed, Solomon’s great kingdom did fall apart shortly after his death, and never regained its position on the world stage.
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This too shall pass — this is a reminder that everything changes, that nothing lasts forever; and that can be bad news when you are enjoying yourself, or good news when you are suffering. Some five hundred years after Solomon, a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, also known as a bit of a gloomy Gus, put it this way: “Everything flows.” Whether you want to go with the flow or resist it, the flow will win out in the end. However big and powerful you may think you are now, one day you will be a memory — and perhaps not even that, as time “like an ever-flowing stream, bears all its sons away.”
At about the same time as this gloomy Greek philosopher was meditating on the transient nature of all things, a similar idea came to the mind of the prophet Ezekiel. We heard him in today’s reading with his advice and warning to Egypt based on the example of Assyria, which the prophet compares to a cedar of Lebanon — a great tree with its branches reaching up into the clouds, which nonetheless ends up being chopped down. Empires, be they never so mighty, come to an end. The line of dominoes tumbles along: Assyria was felled by Babylon, Babylon by Persia, Persia by the Greeks (who also took down Egypt while they were at it.) But then the Greek empire built by Alexander the Great was divided at his death, and eventually fell to the power of Rome. Rome too divided, and was battled by barbarians at one end, and after it became Christianized, by the rise of Islam at the other end. And Christianity itself? Well, that brings us up to the present day — and more importantly — us!
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Because ultimately the question isn’t, “Will the church survive?” but rather, “In what form will it survive?” I think it will survive — we have God’s promise on that; but I don’t think it will do so by being a great empire. Great empires don’t seem to be too successful in maintaining themselves, perhaps due to the sin of pride that causes them to lose sight of the words on that ring: “This too shall pass.” It seems the more empires try to resist change, the sooner they fall — intolerance and clamping down on people brings about even greater resistance, division, and internal weakness. Empires may be big, but they are brittle. The great tyrannies of the last century, and those that have survived into this one, do not seem long for this world: the higher they seek to rise, the bigger they strive to get, the more viciously they suppress those who dissent, the sooner their fall seems secure.
Just as the little mammals were somehow able to survive while the giant dinosaurs were collapsing all around them, so too the church managed to survive, the church managed to make it through the collapses of Greek and Roman and European civilizations, not by being big and powerful, but by slipping through the cracks of history — squirreled away in the catacombs underground, or out in the monasteries or out in the deserts. And when the medieval church tried to seize secular power, and insist on central control of all of Christendom, it only served to hasten the Reformation. So it seems to me likely that the church will survive in this our time, and as time passes, not because it is big and powerful, or centrally controlled, but because it remains true to its faith in Christ; by placing its hope not in an everlasting earthly empire, but an eternal heavenly dwelling. It will, in the meantime, do its best work here and now in its own small way, not as a giant agribusiness, but more as a cooperative of small family farms — as the church in each place is a family.
For it isn’t about how big the tree is, or how expansive the fields — but about the fruit and the grain that comes at gathering and harvest-time. When the bough breaks and the tree falls, when the crop is harvested with a sickle, what do we have to show for it?
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It is to this distinction that the Apostle Paul turns. In his case, it’s not about trees or empires, but about bodies — physical and spiritual — though Paul speaks metaphorically in terms of earthly tents and heavenly houses. The earthly tent — this earthly tend — is going to be taken down and folded up — and Paul uses the rather uncomfortable analogy of someone being caught naked when their tent is removed! “This too shall pass” — our mortal flesh as fragile as grass, as passing as the flower of the field, will cease to be: ashes to ashes, dust to dust; as we are reminded every Ash Wednesday: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The promise is that a more durable dwelling is prepared for us, an eternal dwelling in the heavens. It is something for which we long and hope, groaning for that fulfillment, even while we are reluctant to let go of the tent which is our temporary shelter. We would rather, as Paul suggests, bring our tent with us and set it up within the new house prepared for us. But Paul assures us that we cannot properly be at home with the Lord while we are fully at home in the body — yet whether at home or away, the important thing is not the transient and passing, but the relationship we have with God, in our constant aim to please God, whatever our condition.
This too shall pass — our youth, our successes, our possessions. But this too shall pass — our weaknesses, our failures, and our fears. All that is mortal and transient will be swallowed up by life: and we will stand before our Lord and God, before the judgment seat of Christ, with all that is past laid out before us and before God.
And that is when we will face the final question, “What have we got to show for it.” Has our life been filled with an effort to accumulate those transient goods of wealth and fame and fortune; or have we stocked our tent with a supply of faith and hope and love? It is not how tall the tree grows or how lush the greenery of the fields appears — but how much fruit and how much grain they bring forth.
Let us strive always, my sisters and brothers in Christ, amidst the changes and chances of this temporal life, to hold on to what is eternal and lasting, and come before our Lord bearing a rich harvest of a life lived in hope of God’s guidance, by faith in God’s mercy, and for love of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.+