11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 4, 2013
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
When I was 10 years old, my family lived in Athens, Georgia where my father was chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Georgia. It was the height of the behaviorist movement in psychology and I remember that his graduate students had spent months building an elaborate apparatus to study and train rats. The apparatus was about 4 feet high and 4 feet wide. It consisted of various landings, ladders, levers and stairs. They then carefully trained a white rat to climb to a landing, press a lever which lowered a ladder to cross over to another landing where the rat pushed a button to open a door to go into a chamber with another ladder, and so on. The rat ended up performing a number of complicated maneuvers to go from the bottom to the top of the apparatus. At the top, the rat pushed a key on a toy piano which raised the Confederate flag. The graduate students proudly named their rat Rodent E. Lee.
Although psychology has thankfully lost its obsession with behaviorism and conditioning, it is still true that all animals, including us, can be conditioned fairly easily. We are creatures who learn quickly to avoid pain and do things that bring rewards. We don’t need those rather crazy graduate students to carefully plan ways to make us do things we wouldn’t otherwise do and to create blinders for other possibilities. Our culture does a great job of this. We are consciously and unconsciously conditioned by our parents, our schools, our media and advertising industries, and even our language.
We are conditioned from infancy to see some things as “real” and others as fantasy or unreal. And it is the human condition that the world of material things is what appears the most real. This view has been reinforced since the enlightenment in Western civilization by science, one of our current idols. When it seemed that life itself could be explained in terms of molecular movement, the concept took shape that everything is material. All our internal, subjective experiences, emotions, thinking as well as external experiences could be explained in term of material concepts alone—atoms, molecules and chemical reactions.
And it is also part of the human condition that reliance on this materialism and inability to see beyond it leads to a deep pessimism and despair. Our cheery readings this week are about this. Let me do a paraphrase with the help of Frederick Buechner….
People are born and people die and the sun goes up and the sun goes down, and first the wind blows from the north and then it blows from the south, and if you think you’re seeing something for the first time, just go ask your grandmother, and if you think you’re seeing something for the last time, just hang around for a while, and the whole thing is pointless and endless and dull as a drunk singing all six dozen verses of Roaming in the Gloaming and then starting in from the beginning again in case you missed anything. There is nothing new under the sun, with the result that everything that there is under the sun is both old and, as you might expect in all that heat, stinks.
If you decide to knock yourself out getting rich and living it up, all you have to show for it in the end is the biggest income tax in town and a bad liver; and when you finally kick the bucket, the chances are that your dimwitted heirs will sink the whole thing in a phony Florida real estate deal or lose it at the track in Saratoga. If you decide to break your back getting a decent education and end up with a Columbia Ph.D. and an adviser to presidents, you’ll be just as dead when the time comes as the high school drop-out who went into sausage stuffing, and you’ll be forgotten just about as soon.
The psalmist joins in:
For we see that the wise die also;
like the dull and stupid they perish *
and leave their wealth to those who come after them. ..
Even though honored, they cannot live for ever; *
they are like the beasts that perish.
Even Jesus joins this chorus of woe: You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?
Gloomy words indeed, and important ones to hear because we know they are true. We all are here this morning because we are looking for more—more depth, more beauty, more meaning—something beyond the material world. We want a world that is beyond appearances, that is even beyond death, the world that Jesus promises. We long for a much deeper and more meaningful reality, right here, right now.
Where do we find this world of light and life and meaning? We most certainly don’t have to wait till we die and hopefully go to heaven. Jesus, the mystics of the ages, and even contemporary quantum physics tell us that it is here and now if we can escape our conditioned mind and open to it. Jesus talks about becoming like little children, before we were so thoroughly conditioned. The author of the letter to the Colossians talks about stripping off the old self and clothing ourselves with the new self. This new self, this childlikeness is unconditioned mind.
How many of us can remember that magical sense in childhood of magic and wonder and being a part of it all? Or perhaps as an adult you’ve had those experiences. They can happen in deep meditation, in nature, or even at church. We suddenly know and see that there is a reality, ever present inside our conditioned reality that is full of light and love and holiness. We get a glimpse into the realm of God. Unfortunately, our conditioned minds (or the minds of those around us) are likely to say we need to grow up, to face “reality”, to become productive, to stop dreaming. Even worse, we are told that those states are just our minds being stimulated in certain ways so that we think we experience God. To such thinking, I would reply much worse words than BALDERDASH if I weren’t standing in a pulpit on a Sunday morning! These are the responses of minds who think that reality consists of pressing a key on a toy piano and raising a Confederate flag; minds that have not dared to question their own conditioning!
For we become conditioned just as much as Rodent E. Lee was. We learn that certain things are acceptable to see and others are not, just as some things are acceptable to say and others are not. Remember that Rodent E. Lee was not just conditioned to do certain things, but in doing that, he was conditioned NOT to see the world beyond his Confederate apparatus.
We have one big advantage over Rodent E. Lee. Rodent E. Lee was content with his life as far as I could tell. He raised that Confederate flag and got his treats and seemingly enjoyed his rat-ly fame. When he retired, we took him home as a pet and when he died of old age he was given a stately funeral and buried beside the compost pile in the back yard. But we are not content with that life. We find such a life ultimately meaningless and empty. And we have the ability to become aware of the forces that condition us and become free.
Let’s dare to become rich toward God.
Let’s dare to examine and go beyond the way the world conditions us.
Let’s dare to enter that luminous reality overflowing with the unconditional love and peace of God, where all is wonder and all is magic and all is One.