Time after Pentecost – Lectionary 18
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth.
I hated history when I was in school. I don’t know whether it was the memorization of places, names and dates, or whether it was just the immaturity of youth, but I did not enjoy learning about the past, especially the past that seemed to have nothing to do with my life. How would I benefit from knowing that the Magna Carta was signed by King John on June 15th, 1215? I recognize now that we are connected to one another not only by our today, but also by our history and together we can make our future good or bad depending on the lessons we learn. However, back then, the history lessons seemed pointless.
I am certainly not a history scholar, and I’d still rather not memorize places, names and dates, but I’ve come to appreciate history much more. I think it has to do with our time in England. You can’t drive down a street in the Old Country without seeing history. The homes are five hundred years old; the churches are even older. It seems like there is a castle on every corner. Flea markets are filled with furniture and coins that are older than most towns around the United States. We call those antiques even if they are a bit beaten from use, but in England most of it is little more than someone’s junk.
So, I learned to appreciate history during those years living in England. I think it makes a difference to walk where they walked and to see with my own eyes the places and documents that we learned about in class. Actually seeing an original copy of the document (as we did in Lincoln Cathedral) makes it real. The history we learned is something we can actually read for ourselves (even though it is locked in a glass case, knowing that there is an actual document makes it a tangible possibility, not just a report of something that once happened.)
It is said that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. I’m sure this is true and yet I wonder if it is ignorance or simply a matter of human nature. After all, we read in the Old Testament stories of Israel and her kings that they repeatedly followed the evil ways of the past. Over and over again the scriptures tell us, “And the king did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord.” And the people followed the ways of the king. Baal worship, injustice, war against neighbors was all a part of their lives but not within God’s intent. Did this happen because the kings did not know the will and purpose of God? Or did they simply fall into the temptations of the world that have plagued humanity from the beginning?
As I read today’s scriptures, I said out loud, “How depressing.” The text from Ecclesiastes begins “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity…” How often do we say, “Why do we have to learn this? I’ll never need it again.” This is true of history, but also in the other disciplines. My kids (and probably myself in my younger years) have asked when they will use trigonometry and what purpose dissecting a worm served in their lives. I don’t have a good answer. Perhaps the teacher is correct; perhaps it is all vanity.
It is so hard for us to think that everything we do has no meaning at all. We work many hours a day, week and month to accomplish our goals in life. We do it to feed our families and ensure that we have a nice place to live and a comfortable existence. We practice our hobbies so that we can be good at them. We read books to gain knowledge, follow the news to stay informed. We create friendships so that we will not be lonely, but will be happy and satisfied. We don’t think any of this is meaningless. It means something to us.
Yet, even our most passionate interests are blown by the wind. How many of us have treadmills gathering dust in our garages because they were the popular way to exercise decades ago? Now we run off to the gym to take Zumba classes. What will it be tomorrow?
I have a close full of craft supplies from projects I’ve done in the past. I’m sure most of the paint is dried up and the materials are out of date. New technology changes the way we do things. Photography is a digital pursuit rather than chemical. I can now store thousands of photos on a disc in the space of just a few photographs. What will we do with those photos tomorrow? Other materials have been made stronger or longer lasting. I’m sure most of my old supplies will end up at the Goodwill or in the garbage when I’m gone.
Our earthly pursuits, while important to us today, are ultimately meaningless. Our traditions die as new ones are created. Our hobbies come and go as new ones are created. Our hobbies come and go as our interests change with the trends of the day. Our knowledge changes as new discoveries are made. Language changes making old literature difficult to understand and irrelevant to modern generations. Even our human relationships change as we move on to new places and people. Though a few people may achieve a sort of immortality as they are remembered for some great accomplishment, most of us will end up as little more than a footnote in a family Bible or a gravestone in a cemetery.
So, we ask the question, “If everything is meaningless, why bother?” Why do we have to live in this world and do what we do? What is the ultimate purpose of our existence? Unfortunately, we tend to think of success in terms of what we have collected. We are intelligent when we have collected enough knowledge. We are wealthy when we have collected enough money. We are happy when we have collected plenty of beautiful things. But are we? Are we wise when we know the formula for determining the speed of light? Are we rich when we have millions tucked away on CDs? Are the happy people those who have the newest sports car in their driveway?
We spend a great deal of time chasing after things. We live in Texas where bigger is better. We, like most Americans, work hard to have a comfortable life. We have a house big enough for all our things. We have a bank account that gives us a little freedom to upgrade our lifestyle. We do not have to worry about where our next meal will come from or if we can afford to buy school supplies for our children. We don’t have to worry about tomorrow because we have more than enough for today. We have enough for today, so we think about ways we can spend it on the things we want.
Vanities of vanities, all is vanity. At times it seems like this is true. The passage seems without any hope at all. Yet, as we are reminded of the truth that our pursuits are meaningless in the greater scheme of things, we are also reminded that there is an even greater scheme. Though our toil is in vain and will be forgotten someday, our hope rests in something much greater than ourselves. In knowing, and living, this truth, we will see that God’s purposes and pursuits are not so meaningless. There is truth in the statement from Ecclesiastes. Everything is meaningless. Life is vanity when it is lived for the sake of perishable things.
So, why do we bother? What is the purpose of it all if it is meaningless? Why do my kids bother going to school to get an education? Why do we bother even getting out of bed in the morning to go to work again if it is all vanity? Jesus answers that question with the final verse of the Gospel passage. “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” It is about the focus of our hearts.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is approached by brothers who are dealing with their inheritance. Now, we don’t have a record of the last will and testament of their father, but it was typical in that day for the first born to get twice as much as each younger brother. So, in the case of two brothers, the oldest would get two thirds while the younger got one third. This might not seem fair, but the older brother was expected to continue the family heritage while the younger was set free to begin a new life. Was this the case in the story of the two brothers? We don’t know for sure, but we do know that the one who called out to Jesus saw Him in the role of a rabbi. It was their responsibility, like Moses, to be arbitrators in legal cases.
Jesus uses the opportunity not to establish equality between the brothers, as we might expect. Instead, He warns the crowd about being greedy. If the brother was seeking his share of the estate, then Jesus might have approached this request in a different manner. He may have addressed the brother who was keeping the other’s birthright. However, Jesus addresses both of them. “Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”
Jesus continued this lesson with a parable about a man whose work was extremely successful. He needed more space to store his crops, so he decided to tear down his old barn and build a bigger one. I think what is most disturbing about the story in today’s Gospel lesson is not that the man is building a building for all his stuff. What disturbs me the most is that he tore down a perfectly good barn to replace it with something new and better. What was wrong with the original barn other than the fact that he had more grain than it would fit? His decision is wasteful. It seems to me that if you can tear down a perfectly good building, then you have too much.
How do we waste our own resources? Is there something we can do with our surplus that would make life better for someone else? We can’t take it with us, and though we are pleased to know that our children can reach farther than we ever imagined by that which we leave behind, we don’t know what tomorrow holds. Will they be wise or will they be foolish? Will the circumstances of the world in which they live allow them to benefit from our hard work, or will it all be wasted? How can our resources better serve those in need today?
It doesn’t matter if we are rich or poor, high or low. We will all die and everything we have accumulated will be given to another. It may be used for good, but history tells us that human nature is more likely to fall into the traps of evil. The kings of Israel were given the good things which God had assured for His chosen people, and they used it to honor and worship the false gods. They led the people away from the one true God, into lives that were truly meaningless and empty.
We are called to be rich toward God. There are many ways that can manifest in our lives. We are given gifts and talents, opportunities and relationships that God uses to make His will happen in the world. We have material possessions that can be shared with our neighbor. We have knowledge and wisdom that can make life better for others. The Gospel story does not tell us that we can’t have wealth, but that we are to use our wealth for the sake of the world. The wealth we have, whether it is our possessions, our time and our abilities, is given to us to be used to the Glory of God.
We may intend on doing so, but we just want to wait for tomorrow. Tomorrow is a better day. I’ll have a little extra tomorrow. I can do more with the surplus I will have tomorrow. Today I just want to make sure I have a place to store everything I have gathered. But, our time is limited. We may never have a tomorrow to use the blessings we have today. To be rich toward God means giving what we have now toward His will and purpose.
Instead of tearing down a perfectly good barn, perhaps the man could have given the old one for another use. Instead of building a bigger barn, perhaps the man should have given the surplus to a neighbor. How do we waste our resources and how can we share them? Again, this text is not necessarily telling us that we need to be rid of our wealth. We are simply reminded that what we gather is meaningless if we don’t use it to the glory of God.
Our scriptures this week teach us that the material possessions for which we work so hard are perishable and it is meaningless for us to put all our energy and focus into keeping these things. We are called to ask ourselves, “Where will I bestow these things?” Will we hide our grain and goods in a bigger barn, or will we dedicate it to God and for His use in this world. In this way we will store up treasures in heaven, treasures that will last.
The Psalm for this day shows us that this is a question of salvation, but that chasing after these things will not do anything to benefit our soul. We certainly cannot save others. “They that trust in their wealth, And boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; None of them can by any means redeem his brother, Nor give to God a ransom for him.” We will all die and everything we gathered will be given to someone else. In the end, our stuff is as perishable as we are. The only thing lasting is the God we worship and that which He chooses to make last. He has chosen us for eternity, but we’ll miss it if we are spending all our time and energy gathering stuff.
Paul writes in our epistle lesson for today, “Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth.” The earthbound attitude is one of self-centeredness; when we chase after the things of this world we lose sight of the things that truly matter. We are called to live a life that rejects the attitudes and actions that are earthly, like “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Paul reminds us that we are a new creation; though we were once like the rest of the human race, tempted and weak against the ways of the world, we have put on Christ and we live for Him. Paul writes, “…and have put on the new man, that is being renewed unto knowledge after the image of him that created him: where there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman; but Christ is all, and in all.” This is why we were created; this is our reason for life. We were created to become like Jesus, to live as He lived and share everything God has put into our care so that all will come to know His love and mercy.
Vanities of vanities, all is vanity. At times it seems like this is true. The passage seems without any hope at all. But God has created us and saved us for something much greater. Life is not vanity when we glorify God by the use of our resources to bring hope and peace through love and mercy to the world. We may not be remembered in a hundred years, but we will dwell for all eternity in the presence of the Living God, in heaven where our true treasure lies.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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