(Ecclesiastes 2:13-17, 3:9-12, Gospel of Thomas 97, First Corinthians 1:18, 27-29)
Some 50 miles north of here, before the Palouse river joins the Snake, is Palouse Falls. An entire river plunges off the side of a cliff and falls 200 feet into the canyon below. Spectacular – in every season.
15-20 million years ago giant volcanoes in this region erupted over and over and poured molten rock over huge swaths of territory. It cooled into basalt – layers and layers over the millennia, of liquid rock roaring out of the subterranean earth and cooling into hard rock.
And then at the end of the last ice age, fast forwarding millions of years, there was this huge glacier sitting on top of the upper midwest and Canada. And on top of that glacier, as things warmed up, there was this giant lake. As things melted the ice dam holding in this water in would break and the entire lake would tear out across the region and carve these deep grooves into the basalt, exposing these layers that formed millions of years before.
So today when you go to Palouse Falls and witness this spectacular waterfall roaring down into this gorgeous canyon that stretches off into the horizon, you’re just getting a glimpse of the massive inhuman forces that formed this entire landscape, that’s now the stage for generation after generation of human life here. Catastrophic forces, catastrophic events, of destruction and creation, stretching from horizon to horizon, wrought by water and ice and fire and rock over millennia.
And all of this is but a glimpse of the scope and power of our God, the God who flows through and beyond all these cycles of creation and destruction and creation again.
There are short trails at Palouse Falls that take you into the canyon above the main falls, where the river is slower and there are smaller cataracts and pools and rocky flood plains. It’s easy to explore around in the cathedral of this canyon cut through the basalt.
There’s a rock face here on the trail where many people over the years have scratched their initials and these stupid little doodles.
After everything I’ve said about the magnificence of this place, doesn’t this just seem pathetic? You see this kind of graffiti in national parks in other kinds of places of spectacular natural beauty that get a lot of human tourists scurrying around …petty little humans trying to scratch out some false sense of permanence for themselves in the face of monstrous beauty – monstrous beauty.
It illustrates a self-centered-ness that people can slip into, which is frankly pathetic, if it’s not outright insulting before God to deface some natural ancient beauty.
But of course the joke is on us – very quickly we are erased, along with every sign of us, including skyscrapers and scratches on rock faces. As Pablo Neruda put it: “Everything changes. We, ourselves, with name and bones have soon gone.”
And that’s fine. Thank God we’re not gods. And life is better when we don’t pretend like we are. When we stop “chasing after wind” as the Book of Ecclesiastes puts it, when we stop clinging to things and puffing ourselves up as if we can gain some kind of something that’s permanent. When we let go of that kind of vanity, then we can become free – free to be here with those we love, free to not be afraid of the losses and deaths that are a part of life, free to have the toughness it takes to embrace both our strength and our fragility, free to keep a bigger view of things so we can have some good humor about it all, enjoy ourselves, not take ourselves too seriously, and especially not take ourselves so seriously that we have to go out and cause some tragedy for somebody else. This is about the freedom that comes when we are humble before God in a way that makes ourselves open to the great beauty of what is beyond us, and open to the flow of love through us and between us, love that flows through the generations, in families and communities, through all our tragedies and comedies.
This is why the Realm of God is like a woman who was carrying home a jar full of meal (Gospel of Thomas 97). When she got home she put the jar down to realize it had broken along the way and all the meal had spilled out. She was home with a vessel that was broken and empty. That’s what the Realm of God is like.
This little parable is a one of Jesus’ bits of comedy, or you could say tragic comedy. This parable, as best as I can make out, is saying, “Surprise! You gotta be broken and empty in order to be filled.”
The joke’s on you if you think you can keep what you’re carrying from spilling out behind you as you go. It’s trying to catch a waterfall in the net of your little scratchings on the rock.
When the woman in the parable came home, don’t forget that she came home to community. We need community to live in this way, where our emptiness and impermanence is an openness – family, however we can find it, can hold us in the ways we are broken and empty. That’s part of the value of a community of faith, part of our values as a community of faith.
We help each other grieve when life has slipped away and we return our dead to the earth and pray and sing as the soul returns to the great, breathing cycles of our God.
We help each other celebrate when we invite in new life, and when we enjoy the harvest at the end of a good season, or when we turn over a new leaf and bask in the sun of God’s love.
We help each other struggle to live by that light of God and do the right thing in the midst of adversity and tragedy, or in the trials of temptation. And through it all we as a community can help each other not take ourselves too serious, to keep a lightness and a sense of perspective and good humor as we make our way together through this life on this ancient stage before the grandeur of God … Our God, to whom we give thanks.