Intro to: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23

The title of this book Ecclesiastes is the Latin transcription of the Hebrew Qoheleth, often rendered as Preacher or Teacher.   Literally it is one who speaks to an assembly.  The writer takes on the pose of a king in Jerusalem looking back over a long life and career of searching for wisdom and meaning in life and work.    The book barely made it into the Jewish canon because of the negative and pessimistic tone.  Most of us like the section that begins in chapter 3, “For everything there is a season…” but the central theme of this writer is captured in the phrase, “Vanity of vanities.  All is vanity.”

Shakespeare captures the idea when MacBeth says:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.

Out, out, brief candle,

Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more.  It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.” [MacBeth, Act 5, Scene 5]

The word translated as “Vanity” refers to anything that is superficial, ephemeral, insubstantial, enigmatic, inconsistent, or contradictory.  It cannot be grasped or controlled and is fleeting like air or breath.

Perhaps the role of this interesting piece of wisdom literature is to give honest voice to the reality that we die, and even our good works, not to mention a life time of labor may not mean that much in the scope of things.   Such acknowledgement, however, is the place where we give up our idolatry of self and materialism, and surrender in faith  to trust that life is holy, given to us as a gift to enjoy.  It is the beginning place of conversion from life lived for self to a life lived toward “God”, in holiness.

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

Intro to Psalm 49

Psalm 49 is a teaching psalm, seems to echo the dire word of Koheleth, the Teacher, that death is the fate of all and the futility of work or riches to stave off that fate or offer ultimate meaning.  But I found a fascinating commentary based on the line in the Psalm that says:  “I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.”   Jeremy Begbie, a professor at both Cambridge and Duke, suggests that music “destabilizes the conclusion of the transitoriness of human life”, and explains (as many of us who love music know):

“Music …subverts the assumption that transience is harmful, that fleetingness is intrinsically irrational.  Music offers an extremely vivid and particular embodiment of fruitful transience….Music depends heavily for its meaning on finitude at every level.  Tones give way to tones.  Music is constantly dying, giving away.”

Not long ago, someone asked me why we sing so much at church.  This commentator on the psalm answers that the “psalmist…

construes the silence as a musical interval and waits for the next note, waits for the resolution that the music insists must finally be played….The singer does not trust in his or her own faithfulness; rather, the singer simply trusts that God is not yet finished.  The song is not finished, and death has no music to perfect it, but God, who is the author of life and ultimate composer of all the music, will not fail to complete the tune.”  [Patrick J. Wilson, Feasting on the Word, Proper 13, Year C, on-line commentary]

There is only one reference to God in the Psalm.  Against the knowledge that one cannot ransom one’s own life with possessions or wisdom, the Psalmist who sings to his harp knows that God will ransom his life.  Perhaps only music can give us that answer.

Psalm 49

Gospel:  Luke 12:13-21

A week or so ago,  I got involved in a Facebook argument with a high school classmate over the issue of the inheritance tax.   My classmate said to me:  Surely, Jesus would not say it is ok to rob the grave of an honest and righteous man.   I pointed him to this Gospel reading for today.  Essentially, Jesus says he is not an arbiter about who deserves what when it comes to who will get what of what is left behind of our accumulated wealth and possessions when we die.  He clearly refuses to accept such a role, and also adds a wise warning, that most of us know already, that we should be “on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”    We know, with Oscar Wilde, that ordinary riches can be stolen, but real riches cannot.   And you and I know people who live with few possessions who seem to have an inner peace and a rich quality to their lives.  We might even know a few folks who have LOTS of possessions, and a lot of material wealth, who do not count that as the source of their joy or their wealth.

All in all, the rich man in the parable might not have been an evil man who cheated, or took advantage of others, to get his wealth.   He may just have been one of those fortunate people who benefitted from good luck, from being at the right place and the right time, and having the fortitude to go after what was possible.

The trap that the rich man falls into   is one of thinking that everything has been his own achievement. He believes that he can relax in security that has been self generated.  In other words, the rich man, whom God calls a fool in this provocative little parable, may protest that he always believed in God, but when it comes to managing his life, dealing with possessions and planning for the future, he lives as though there were no God.   Alan Culpepper, in his commentary on Luke, calls him a “practical atheist.”

David Lose, professor at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis says:  “The relentless use of the first person pronouns “I” and “my” betray a preoccupation with self. There is no thought to using the abundance to help others, no expression of gratitude for his good fortune, no recognition of God at all. The farmer has fallen prey to worshiping the most popular of gods: the Unholy Trinity of “me, myself, and I.” This leads to, and is most likely caused by, a second mistake. He is not foolish because he makes provision for the future; he is foolish because he believes that by his wealth he can secure his future: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” [, “Lectionary for August 1, 2010, David Lose]

Sometimes, it is only when, like the writer of Ecclesiastes that we have worked hard, tried to figure out what life is about, and arrived at the awareness that “we can’t take it with us” and that we can’t even guarantee how our estates will fare in the future, we determine that it is vain and futile to try to make everything secure that perhaps we learn that real wealth is when we trust the future to God and use what comes to us – either by our work, or through inheritance, or by virtue of the mere accident of our birth in the richest nation in history – use all that unselfishly, and learn that the way to real life is to give our lives away.”   I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus means when he says, elswhere:  “…those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

We all know money isn’t everything, but it helps, as Mark Twain said.  Yet we also know that money may buy a bed, but not sleep; books but not brains; food but not appetite; finery but not beauty; a house but not a home; medicine but not health; luxuries but not culture; amusement but not happiness; a church pew, perhaps, but not faith.   [ adapted from Lindy Black’s Sermon Nuggets, at] In our heart of hearts, we do know that the chase for things, for more and more wealth, is vanity, and that there is profound truth in the statement that it is “in spending one’s self that we become rich.”

Here’s a good old tale of Aesop…about the miser who used to hide his gold at the foot of a tree in his garden.  Every week he would go there and dig it up to gloat over his gold. A robber noticed this, and dug it up and carried it off.  The miser, when next he came to gloat over his treasures, found nothing but the empty hole.  He tore his hair and raised such an outcry that all his neighbors came around  to find out what was the matter.  “Did you ever take any of it out?” asked one of them.  “No,” he said, “I only came to look at it.”  “Then come again and look at the hole,” the neighbor said, “it will do you as much good.”  Wealth unused might as well not exist, is Aesop’s point.

So the question comes to us as individuals and as a church, too:  what might it mean for us to be “rich toward God?”  What are the implications of that question for how we use our talents, our status achieved through our professional and community work, our personal assets?  And  as a congregation, how might we use this building, our reputation as a place of progressive faith,  and  our small endowment of reserve funds to be rich toward God?

As the professor from Luther Seminary notes:  “The question is not, “Is material abundance bad?” but rather, “Is our material abundance sufficient to meet the weight of meaning, significance, and joy that we seek?” Can our wealth secure a relative degree of comfort? Certainly. Can it grant to us confidence that we are worthy of love and honor and in right relationship with God and neighbor? Certainly not. Only as we recognize that the gifts of ultimate worth, dignity, meaning, and relationship are just that – gifts offered freely by God – can we hope to place our relative wealth in perspective and be generous with it toward others.”  And I’m pretty sure that this is true for churches as much as for individuals.  May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand. Amen.

Sermon: Vanity or Real Treasures? August 1, 2010

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