I want start by talking about an idea out of early Christianity. Early Christians (up to about the 5th century) were concerned about something called vainglory. Now we would lump vainglory in with pride or vanity. They saw vanity primarily about having to do with physical appearance, an overarching concern with beauty or being physically attractive.
Vainglory had to with getting wrapped up in one’s own achievements or abilities. It is the urge to have people notice what you have accomplished. This is one of the reasons that the group of Christians that are known today as the Desert Fathers and Mothers sought solitude in the wilderness. They didn’t want other people to see them seeking to be holy for fear that they would be acknowledged, praised and become vainglorious. You have these circular arguments where someone achieves a great sense of humility but then becomes proud about how good they are at being humble and has to relearn humility.
We do not seem to live in a culture that has a problem with vainglory. We hear plenty of vainglorious statements like, “I have the best words.” But even as a pastor when someone tries to pull out the, “I have been a member here for 30 years so you need to listen,” is a form a vainglory. Pay attention to me and you need to pay more attention to me than someone who has been here a shorter time. Those who get involved with social media are in many ways set up to be vainglorious. Look how many friends I have. Look how many likes that post received. Look how many people are following me. Look how many people are paying attention to me. Vainglory.
We live in an achievement-centered culture and that creates a problem, a moment of disconnect, as we listen to Jesus. He keeps telling stories and sharing images that end with a tagline like we heard today, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” or “the last will be first and the first will be last.” That is not how we live. In our culture, those who exalt themselves are often exalted by others and those who humble themselves are often ignored as irrelevant.
American religion seems to flow in the direction of the culture. We want a God who forgives and forgets the bad things and mistakes we do but we also want a God who remembers and acknowledges the good things that we do. We want a God who responds to our good deeds; a God who recognizes our faithful actions that prove our trust. We want a God whom we can impress in some way. I’m not sure that this is the God Jesus proclaims.
To be fair, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about going to pray in your room in secret and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. But that is mostly a passage about praying for the sake of your relationship with God and not so that others will notice you. I would argue that the acts of prayer, fasting and giving are their own reward (but that is a different sermon).
This is where a Christian concept of mindfulness comes in. Two Sundays ago, I mentioned that mindfulness in the Christian tradition is about being aware of the presence of God in any given moment, whatever the circumstance, the idea that we are dwelling in the infinite love of God. The Christian journey is about becoming more and more aware of that reality, paying attention to that reality. God’s love is infinite and there is very little that you can do (nothing that you can do) to affect infinity.
So here is the part we like. Jesus proclaims a God who does in fact forgive and forget the worst things that you have done. Imagine that the worst thing you have done in your life is a bucket of red dye that you pour into this infinite sea of God’s love. When you first pour it in it will be very noticeable, but after a few moments it will be pink cloud. In a few more moments it will be so dilute that you would never know it is there. This is the power of real confession and promise of forgiveness. So often we walk around with our red buckets saying, “I can’t give this to God. God can’t handle it.” Even the biggest bucket you have, the biggest mistake you have made, won’t affect the infinite. I think this part of the message of the crucifixion. Even the worst things that humanity can do cannot stop the infinite power of life.
But here is the part you won’t like. Imagine the best thing that you have ever done in your life, your greatest triumph, your gold-star, gold-medal, good doobie moment. Imagine your most faithful moment. Imagine the moment when God should pay attention to you and the world you stand up and take notice as a bucket of yellow dye. Pour that into the infinite sea of God’s love. For a few moments it will be a pale, yellow cloud and soon it will be as if it were never there. And we walk around not truly wanting to give that to God because, “Hey. I deserve some credit here. I don’t want this to disappear.”
The good news is that you are loved as you are, where you are and who you are: successes and failures, faithfulness and faithlessness, red buckets and yellow buckets. All of it dissolves in the great sea of God’s love. You are loved as you were before you made your first mistake. You are loved as you were before your first success. You are loved at a fundamental level that is not dependent on what you have done or failed to do. The blank canvas on which we paint our lives is love. The stillness from which our song breaks out is love. The empty page on which your story is written is love.
When you wake up knowing that you don’t have to earn God’s love today; you don’t have to impress God today; you cannot lose God’s love today, it doesn’t matter where you are seated at the banquet table. Take the lowest spot, because love will be there. As you become more aware that the fundamental place where you and God intersect is love, you can’t help but love God and love others because it is who you are at a basic level.
If religion has a task in this day, I think it is to set people free from that achievement-centered life that many of us have been taught is so important. I think it is our job to release people from the need to be impressive, to be honored or at least to avoid shame. It is our job to remind one another that our basic purpose, our reason for being, is love. Pay attention to the love of God that is all around you. Pay attention and dive in.