A Homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who blesses us with more than enough. Amen.
I didn’t want to listen at first. My sister told me to. My brother-in-law told me to. And eventually I was pressured into it. Suzanne gave in and then got me hooked. Three years ago, we started listening to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Hamilton. (Yes, this sermon will be full of references and quotes, which is about what it’s been like to live in the Lewis household for the past three years.) It tells the story of an orphan “dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor” who “grow[s] up to be a hero and a scholar” and traces this oft-neglected Founding Father as he goes from a “young, scrappy, and hungry” immigrant to war hero, cabinet member, and political wunderkind. From drinking in rowdy pubs with other young leaders in the American Revolution to the climatic duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton is determined to “rise up” and leave behind a legacy.
In the midst of the Revolutionary War, though, young, cocky, womanizing Alexander Hamilton meets one Eliza Schuyler at a winter’s ball. From a prominent and wealthy New York family, she is “never…the type to try and grab the spotlight.” And as Hamilton’s quest to “fly above [his] station after the war” inevitably gets him into trouble, he returns home to his pregnant wife, who tells him:
Look at where you are.
Look at where you started.
The fact that you’re alive is a miracle.
Just stay alive, that would be enough.
And if this child
Shares a fraction of your smile
Or a fragment of your mind, look out world!
That would be enough.
…So long as you come home at the end of the day
That would be enough.
After the war (af-after the war), back in New York, Hamilton begins his meteoric rise to the top, as a lawyer, then a delegate to the constitutional convention, author of the vast majority of The Federalist Papers, and eventually as Washington’s Treasury secretary and advisor. On his way out the door, Eliza implores him to slow down, to stay home, asking him to
Look around, isn’t this enough?
What would be enough
To be Satisfied
Isn’t this enough? What would be enough?”
Hamilton’s brash manner eventually lands him in hot trouble with his long-time friend and adversary Aaron Burr. Our hero wakes up early that morning to write his final letter to Eliza, who finds him sitting at his desk in the darkness. She implores him one final time, “Come back to bed. That would be enough.” And I should note that when I finally saw the production at the Fox last summer, I started crying during this scene and didn’t stop ‘til the curtain call because, as you may recall from history class, Hamilton didn’t return to bed. He met Burr on the dueling ground, was shot, and killed.
As the bullet races towards him, he confronts his impending death and the legacy he has tried to build, he questions, “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see,” and looks to the friends and family waiting for him on the other side.
Ultimately, this poetic and compelling take on America’s founding story is a tragical history in line with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth – narratives about great but flawed leaders who prove to be their own worst enemies and, because they are still merely men, meet the common end of all humanity. Hamilton’s drive proved to be his downfall because, unlike Eliza, he wanted more than enough. In the end, all of his accomplishments fell by the wayside until a young rapper stumbled upon the story, “put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain” and wrote out the refrain. Before that, Hamiton’s legacy was, in Hebrew, hevel havalim.
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” But there’s something off about the translation. The Common English Bible renders it this way: “Perfectly pointless! Everything is pointless!” Or better yet, as the Jewish Publication Society translates it, “Utter futility! All is futile!” But even this doesn’t quite capture the Hebrew: Hevel havalim, “Vapor in the air! Everything is as impermanent as vapor!”
Traditionally ascribed to Solomon, Ecclesiastes is a long meditation on the impermanence of life. Like Hamilton, Caesar, and Macbeth, the former King has come to the end of his life and realized that none of his plans, his knowledge, his greatness, none of it will keep him from the grave. And, unlike the cheery and optimistic voice behind Proverbs, the author of Ecclesiastes wants to make you painfully aware that you too are impermanent – a grim theme picked up in the medieval motif called the danse macabre, where Death personified drags kings, knights, bishops, and paupers to that place where they will all be equal.
Have you devoted your life to the Academy? Do you sign your name with a litany of degrees, have you published your every thought, is your spot secure in the ivory tower? You shall perish. Did you drop out of school to work with your hands, toiling under the sun in the field, building a connection with the earth? You too shall perish.
Are you wealthy? Do museums in every major city bear your name? Do you own a palace? You shall go to the grave, moths shall destroy your art, and rust will take your home. Did you take a vow of poverty to live as a monk? You too shall return to the earth.
Were you a decorated general, a war hero, medals stacked high upon your chest? Or were you a pacifist, peacefully protesting the use of arms? Were you a constant optimist, always looking on the bright side, or were you dour and keenly aware of your mortality? None of it will save you from the common grave that awaits us all, for we are all vapor chasing after the wind.
So it is with the rich man in today’s parable from St. Luke’s Gospel who, upon harvesting a bumper crop, opted to store it up in large bins. Self-satisfied with his new and expanded wealth, he sat down to enjoy a life of luxury only for the Lord to kick in his door and tell him, “This very night your life is being demanded of you,” and you cannot take these large stores with you.
How tempting it is, dear ones, to chase after wealth and power, to build larger silos, to store up as much treasure in this world as we can. Ours is a culture that says no amount will every be enough, that we need more more more more: a bigger house, a nicer car, finer clothes, more stuff, more power, a more impressive legacy. Maybe then I would be satisfied, maybe then life would seem a little more meaningful, maybe then the grave wouldn’t be quite so bad.
But nothing in this world, nothing within our own power will ever defeat that inevitable and common end of all humanity. Nothing we can purchase or save, no amount of political persuasion will ever be enough to save us from the grave.
What then shall we do? What hope is there? Only this: First, trust in the one who has conquered the grave and saved us for the Kingdom of God. And second, obey his teaching to love God and neighbor.
This means we must boldly confront the truth: that none of this is ours to begin with. Not our bank accounts, not our possessions, not our power. Rather, it is all from God, and we are entrusted as stewards of it. As Sant Basil the Great once preached:
You are the servant of the good God, a steward on behalf of your fellow servants. Do not imagine that everything has been provided for your own stomach. Take decisions regarding your property as though it belonged to another.
Possessions give you pleasure for a short time, but then they will slip through your fingers and be gone, and you will be required to give an exact account of them.
“What am I to do?” It would have been so easy to say: “I will feed the hungry, I will open my barns and call in all the poor. I will imitate Joseph in proclaiming my good will toward everyone. I will issue the generous invitation: ‘Let anyone who lacks bread come to me. You shall share, each according to need, in the good things God has given me, just as though you were drawing from a common well’.”
My beloved sisters and brothers, we have been entrusted with much. We are stewards of the Kingdom of God as it erupts into this world around us. Let us not chase after hevel havalim, storing up for ourselves trinkets and prestige that will disappear like vapor on the wind. Instead, let us “seek the better part,” using what God has given us to care for Jesus when he comes into our midst in the form of our kindred. We are, as people set free for the Kingdom of God, free feed our neighbors when they are hungry, clothe them when they are naked them, and offer them refuge when they come to us seeking safety. God has entrusted us with more than enough, if only we trust God enough to not store up for ourselves treasures meant for all humanity.