Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Trinity, July 9, 2017
“For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity.”
WHAT PULLS US in at the checkout counter? What photo of which recording musician or TV actress cunningly displayed on a magazine cover can get us to open up the pages and begin wading through sixty pages of ads? Television advertises television on television during the many breaks between vacuous sitcoms, melodramas and game shows, urging us to keep watching and, while watching, to be influenced in our buying of goods we don’t need or want. We have to be pushed and prodded to make those food choices that cause us to grow fatter, drugs that dull our senses, cars that tickle our egos, and politicians that promise what they can’t deliver.
As the son of a television actor, I have some perspective on the word ‘vanity.’ The Epistle today contrasts our hope for the manifestation of the sons of God—our being among that great body of living saints and future co-rulers with Christ—against the current dilemma that finds all creation ‘made subject to vanity.’ That almost sounds like a young lady at her makeup table or a teenager sporting clothes that shout the brand-name Nike with swooshes all over. But it’s just a shade darker than that.
Other translations render the phrase: ‘subjected to futility,’ or ‘frustration,’ or ‘failure and unreality.’ One reads: ‘all creation was subjected to God’s curse.’ We’re in trouble, however that’s rendered. What we do is useless. Our power is nil.
Vanity is a term frequently used in Ecclesiastes, where the preacher cries, “Vanity of vanities…all is vanity.” Ecc 1:2 Vanity: chasing the wind, a hollow sound, a fruitless branch, all show and no substance, an empty suit, a stuffed shirt, or—if you’re in Texas—just a big hat, but no cattle.
I’m not against television. I loved my father. He had a job, which was to touch the hearts of millions of American women seeking a love story that took twists and turns, catching them up in sweet desire and angst, vicariously living a larger life through imagination by watching others tear their lives apart on-screen. There’s power in pathos. And there can be no cure, no resolution, no answer for the characters on screen yearning and longing without fulfillment. You watch the program after a year of doing something else, and the people are in the same dilemma they were 13 months earlier. On my father’s show General Hospital, the doctor, Steve Hardy, and nurse, Jesse Brewer, married other people again and again, never themselves getting together, as viewers all knew they should, the writers wisely denying them the option, knowing that would end the show. It was vain to think otherwise. The program would pot-boil forever. It does still, with new faces and the same problems. Vanity—useless desire, endless frustration, chasing after the wind, Big hat: No cattle.
Why do we do it? Dad did it for a living, and I’m glad he was so constantly employed in Hollywood—a rare man in that industry. And he played a good man, echoing his true character, being a strong shoulder, a go-to person for anyone in trouble, a decent guy, and a gentleman. His Lee Baldwin wasn’t very far from the man playing the part. He did it for a living, and was glad for it, though the actor often wished for more challenging roles with a wider area for him to exercise his art. This message isn’t about soap opera. Soap opera is microcosm of our lives.
General Hospital, it will surprise you to know, was originally written about Chico, California with its Enloe Hospital. 7th floor nurse’s station was really about 3rd floor Enloe in the old wing, as the program’s first writers, Frank and Doris Hursley, lived right here. The daytime drama they created is the longest running entertainment series in ABC history. The truth of such programming is that it depicts people who are stylized versions of you and me.
Giti and I, years ago, sold our TV set, not intending to buy another. When asked what on earth we would do, not having a television, I answered: “You watch TV. The people on the screen: do they watch TV? Well, we plan to do the kinds of things they do.” That snide remark almost sounds like heresy. Americans watch television. It’s where we learn who we are.
It used to be in church where we learned who we are. I’m not competing with TV here, or calling it sour grapes, but this is true. Culture is taught at a few forums: the kitchen table, a classroom, in Sunday school and church, and at our entertainment. Church used to be a bigger part of that, but today the TV is the schoolmaster for kids learning how to speak, what to think, and who to be. That explains why we are a culture of insult, attitude, and showy clothing, why six-year-old girls dress like models. It explains YouTube and Facebook. It also explains why I haven’t a clue whose face is on most of the magazines, as I don’t watch the current programming. We learn the culture then live our lives modeling the values we’ve picked up. The culture is no longer taught to most young people through Christian ministries. Our new priest is a plasma screen and his sermon is a sitcom, a soap opera, a reality show.
Vanity. Fruitless, unreal, futile, useless and under God’s curse. Chasing wind. Big hat: no cattle. Is it any wonder our culture is lost?
This concern, addressed by St. Paul 2,000 years ago, was couched, however, in a message of hope. He wrote, “What we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.” The sons of God. Rom 8:18-19 We are, right now, subject to this vanity, but “with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay… we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.” Ibid
The current culture teaches vanity, but that’s nothing new. Paul faced a world ruled by madmen in Rome who declared themselves gods and sent out crushing armies to subdue all nations and bring peace through oppression and cruelty. People all around Paul worshipped gods of marble and gold, owned slaves and kept many wives, cursed Jehovah and Jesus, ate and drank to excess, and died of venereal diseases. Not much different than today, and just as slick. The man-made wonders of the world were all standing and new. To trouble that world with the news that a man that Rome condemned to crucifixion had risen again to life was to invite rejection and imprisonment. Paul did so, and faced death repeatedly.
Troubles come. Let them. Paul knew that “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” Rom 8:28 Don’t despair. This world has been lost since long ago. The inventions of any age fascinate its people until their day is over and another fad takes center stage. Television has peaked while newspapers are almost gone. Computer screens fill our eyes with unlimited access to anything, but already new frontiers of technology promise a portable virtual reality, custom-made, answering every urge with pleasure. As in pagan Rome, all things will be bought and sold, “cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men.” Rev 18:13
T. S. Eliot once wrote: “The Universal Church is today, it seems to me, more definitely set against the World than at any time since pagan Rome. I do not mean that our times are particularly corrupt; all times are corrupt… The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.”
Is suicide truly our World’s current threat? What stops it? In the pews and Sunday schools we once learned that our souls are eternal, that God created us, and He had a purpose for us. We are not biological freaks, but creatures specially fashioned with a divine destiny, made in God’s image. We are important to the universe and we should cherish our lives and one another.
Today, children from the youngest age are taught the doctrine that science can prove we are nothing but intelligent dirt, without meaning or cause, or destiny, but accidentally living for a mere lifetime, then we turn to nothing again. Our lives have no ultimate meaning, so they are what we make of them. The great existentialist issue, for any honest atheist, is always suicide: whether to end the pain of existence yourself, or let the world, or your bad habits, do it for you. There is no meaning in your life, so what does its culmination mean to anything or anyone?
St. Paul faced just as pagan a world as we have today, but he didn’t face such fully calloused cynicism. An existential despair grips a generation, and you and I, with likeminded Christians, hold the only answer for them, the antidote to a culture of death. This is no longer a choice of entertainment, but a path into or out of a swamp of horrible annihilation. We call every life precious, and every life is. Our message is love, and love is the only power that can win against this tide of fruitless, of useless vanity. Fill your lungs with the sweet air of truth while here, before you plunge back into that smog outside, a smog not of air pollution, but spiritual pollution. Keep your minds clear, and don’t let the drug offered you through your eyes catch but your briefest attention. Stay on the course. You are our world’s antidote from the poison that is slowly killing our culture. Do your best to deliver your life-saving dose.
All is not vanity. Solomon wrote that in despair after he’d married 700 women and built temples to 100 pagan gods, buying peace with compromise. Of course he felt vanity everywhere. He’d tried everything but God. He left the Sunday school of his famous father’s sheepfold, and bowed to the spirit of his age. But we need not be troubled by it. That was 1000 years before Christ. We live 2000 years into the age of Christ. And His church is growing still. Just not right here.
Bear the banner with dignity. We carry our precious Lord into a hostile world, but a hungry one. We bring words of life. Tell it and bear up under the opposition. You are standing with the greatest of saints. We must be subject to vanity, while we are in this world, but our hope is secure. We know where we are going. We know where we are, and we know where we are going.