First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 2Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 12I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. 2:18I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
Gospel: Luke 12:13-21 13Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus,] “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Do you ever come away from a sermon thinking, “I guess Pastor was having kind of a rough day…”? The book of Ecclesiastes is actually titled, “The Preacher,” if you want it in English, but I’m pretty sure we keep it in Latin because we don’t want to scare people away with all of the negativity that comes through so much of this book! One of my colleagues coming off from a vacation pleaded with us the other day about how to find some gospel in these texts, because all he could see was law. So I picked up on a much-repeated phrase from “The Preacher” for this morning and added a question mark: “All is Vanity?” Really? Is that all we can see?
I’ve often pointed to greed when trying to explain why people behave badly in this world. Another text notes that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10), but it’s not only money. We tend to want our own way. We believe we’ve figured out the best way to do things, and we can’t imagine why everyone else is so blind and cannot see it our way!
I’m going to share something that a clergy friend of mine shared, and I’m going to use his term, though I’ll not be revealing his name to you! Plus, I will tell you that I share in my life much of what he describes in his, even though I don’t use the same word to describe the experience.
My friend says that it just recently occurred to him for the umpteenth time that he was reared to be a chicken shit. He then goes on to define that term: Mind your own business. Follow all the rules. Color between the lines. Obey your elders. Don’t cause any problems for this family. Don’t get your name posted in the local paper, especially the Police Beat section. Keep your opinions to yourself. Don’t talk about politics or religion.
You may or may not be surprised that many other pastor colleagues said something on the order of, “Me, too!” Some mentioned how alcoholism played an additional role in the family dynamics. One quoted a parent: If you do anything to embarrass me, I’ll kick you out! So many of us—actually all of us—grew to adulthood in a world of dysfunctional systems.
Honestly, it feels to me as if we in this country— maybe the whole world— are living in reaction to having had to be good so that we’re doing things we’d never dared to do before. We’re using power not only to build a strong foundation for our own lives, but to tear down others so that our own lives appear to be better.
It’s an old story.
Think about the guy in Jesus’ parable. Forget for a moment how much like us that guy might be. Think instead about how he’s different. He’s not, after all, the head of a corporation, or even a middle-man. His system is likely more like slavery than capitalism. He’s not rich because he worked hard. He’s rich because it rained at the right time, and it didn’t hail or flood, and no tornado blew the crop away. He’s rich because the slaves got things planted and tended the crops well. He’s rich because he’s got the right people making sure that no one can steal any of it away. AND HE’S OH, SO POOR!
In the story God calls the guy a fool because all of the stuff that makes the guy rich and happy would go now to someone else, and the guy would have no control over where it went. It’s like the scene Dicken’s wrote with the people scrambling to gather in whatever riches they could after the death of Ebenezer Scrooge.
So the story is older than Dickens, it’s older than the parable Jesus told, it’s older than “The Preacher” of Ecclesiastes. Is everything really just vanity?
Last night, something messed up the timing of the television programs, and when things corrected and joined a “Family Feud” program in progress, the question was, “What occupation is most likely to get you into heaven?” I really felt like screaming, “It doesn’t work that way!”
As my friend described his rearing to create what he calls a chicken shit, my mind thinks of a goody-two-shoes, and it all seems to point toward that awful question from the “Family Feud” with the goal of behaving in a way that will get you to heaven.
That’s not what it’s all about. That’s just a threat people have piled onto their efforts to encourage people to behave well, telling us that if we’re bad we certainly won’t receive the ultimate present, the gift of God’s salvation.
So— what? Does that mean our behavior doesn’t matter one way or another? …that behaving well is no different than behaving badly?
Of course not! Behaving well matters for the people it affects today! We share with one another because then everyone eats well, and everyone is able to develop skills as we play with blocks, and everyone learns strategy playing games. We enforce consequences for bad behavior in order to improve today’s community. We resist the temptation to keep everything for ourselves because hoarding isn’t good for the larger community.
Way, way back, when Joseph interpreted the pharaoh’s dreams to store produce for a coming famine, they didn’t keep what they had accumulated all to themselves. They shared it with others who came begging. It wasn’t bragging.
Maybe the motivations our parents used in rearing us to be good people was sometimes suspect. Maybe our motivations are sometimes more focused on personal gain than on the good of God’s creation. We don’t claim to be perfect. We claim only to belong to God.
As God’s people, let us live not as slaves to vanity, slaves to economics, or slaves to political machinations. As God’s people, let us live to God’s glory, expressing love in God’s ways, dancing together, singing with joy, feasting in sacrament and fellowship. Let us be God’s light in world that is often filled with shadows. Let us be God’s people in Jesus’ name. Amen