Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 18
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity…
I was contacted a few days ago by a woman who is doing genealogical research of our family. She is, if I understand the relationships, a very distant cousin, her great grandfather and my grandfather were brothers. He query into our history, of which I have little knowledge, made me curious about some other things. On a bookshelf in my library is a very old family Bible. All I know about the people who are listed under the births, marriages and deaths may be some sort of relation on my father’s side. Without the link between me and them, the names in the bible are meaningless.
The Bible itself is not meaningless, although I highly doubt I will ever use it to read the texts. The pages are fragile and old; the cover is dusty and broken. I have dozens of other bibles in my house, some worn with wear, others specially chosen for the translation, yet others received as gifts. I have no need for another bible and yet I keep it on my shelf. It is a reminder of what, and who, came before us in this generation. I think it is somewhat sad that they worked so hard to record their lives and it took only a few generations for us to lose touch. We move forward. Everything they worked for is long gone. We might have a piece of furniture or a beloved plate, but even those things mean little to us today and the connections will be forgotten in another generation or two.
I was curious and I began looking for some of those names on the Internet. Genealogical searches have become quite popular with the advent of the Internet because it is easier to be in contact with people who may have information that will aid in our quest. I discovered a site that had pictures of tombstones, including one that held the names of people mentioned in my bible. It was amazing to think that the man and woman in that tomb might have been my great, great, (great?) grandparents.
Our Old Testament passage is not very hopeful. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is 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, we are reminded that everything comes to an end. We retire from our jobs and others take our place. Our families grow up, our children move to new places. Though we hope that they will retain some of the things we have given to them, they do not hold on to everything. Our traditions die because they create new traditions. Sometimes they see the world from a different point of view and they take a path we would not take. Our hobbies come and go as our interests change with the trends of the day. Our memories fade and knowledge changes as researchers find other possibilities. Even our friendships end as we move on to other places or people. In a few generations we may be little more than a footnote in a family bible and a gravestone in a cemetery.
Victoria and I were once talking about this passage and she asked, “If everything is meaningless, then why do we bother? Why do I have to go to school? Why do I have to do this homework? Why do we have to live in this world? If this life is meaningless, wouldn’t it be easier to just go to heaven? The point of this passage is not to be woeful about the meaninglessness of living in this world. There is a purpose for our earthly flesh, for God does not create worthless things. We have to look at the verse in light of the rest of the passage. The theme of this week’s scripture is not about life itself but about our focus in life, most particularly about greed. It is about stewardship of our time, our talents and our possessions.
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. With back-to-school just around the corner for most children, there are a great many whose parent can not even think about a new outfit for the first day of school or a backpack full of paper and pencils.
Even with the abundance of good things that we have, I admit that I am envious of some of my friends. They have bigger and more beautiful homes, they are able to travel to exotic places at the spur of the moment. We dream about the things we would like to do when we retire – perhaps buy a recreational vehicle or take lengthy cruises. We do not know what tomorrow holds for us, so we work very hard today to build up some security, to ensure that we will be prepared for the future.
Envy is not a helpful emotion. It can lead us to do things that are sinful against God and mankind, working deceitfully to fulfill our desires. Most of us do not do wicked things, we settle for the life we are able to live, but we are never truly satisfied with what we have. We long for more. We work harder to build more. We end up ignoring and forgetting the things that truly matter in this world. We forget that wealth and all things we can possess are perishable and that when we die it will all be lost. We forget that there are those who do not have enough, that there are children who might return to school without a coat or a brand new pencil.
Wealth, in and of itself, is not bad or sinful. As a matter of fact, God has often used wealthy people to accomplish many of the things He intended for His people. The problem lies in our attitude about wealth. We have to always remember that wealth is fleeting. We can’t use our wealth in heaven and we can’t use our wealth to redeem the lost. The psalmist writes, “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; (for the redemption of their life is costly, And it faileth for ever;) that he should still live alway, that he should not see corruption.”
Through we might build great estates to pass on to our kids, in the end we are left with nothing. When we die, it is all left behind and in a few generations our legacy will be lost altogether. When we die, we face the living God with nothing but our faith and hope. It is the love of Christ that saves and it is faith in His mercy and grace that will bring us home. When we know that our wealth is fleeting and perishable, we will live in that wealth with mercy and love.
With back-to-school right around the corner, we will undoubtedly be buying some new clothes. I can remember my own childhood and how exciting it was to get a new outfit for the first day of school. We always bought new underwear, socks and shoes. It was so much fun to go buy all those new supplies – a new box of crayons, some notebooks and folders, a brand new pencil sharpener. Some of the stores already have sales running with supplies at very inexpensive prices. The racks in the stores are beginning to display clothing that might be appropriate for fall, but here in Texas it will be hot and steamy well into the school year. Most of those clothes would not be comfortable. When we begin that back-to-school shopping each year Zachary usually tells me, “I have enough clothes.” When the colder weather hits, he realizes that his blue jeans are too short or a little tight in the waste. In August it is unnecessary to buy new clothes, but by November it is time.
I suppose he’s got the right attitude about it. Why buy clothes when you have a perfectly good wardrobe for the circumstances in which you will be wearing them? Why have dozens of pants that fit when there are only seven days in a week? It might be cheaper right now, but the stores will have another sale. It is vanity to have a closet full of clothes that are unwearable even though it gives us a feeling of security, satisfaction and control.
There is a story that has circulated the internet for some time about a woman who died. When her husband was going through her personal belongings, he came across a specially wrapped box with a beautiful new night gown. It still had the receipt and had been purchased long before her death. She was waiting for a special occasion to wear the nightgown because she did not want it to become worn. She never had the chance to wear it because she died before she found that perfect moment.
We do not know when we will die and everything we accumulate will be given to the next generation. Why do we waste so much time chasing after things that are meaningless? We build up cabinets full of supplies that we’ll never need and buy so many clothes that we will never have the chance to wear. Yet, we are given the opportunity to share what we have in this moment – to give some supplies and new school clothes to those children whose parents simply do not have the resources to do so.
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 this 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 the story from today’s Gospel, two brothers approached Jesus about an inheritance situation. This is not an unusual thing for them to do – the rabbis were authorized to judge cases like this. A man went to Jesus because he saw Him as a rabbi and he wanted an official verdict to their dispute. Jesus answered the brother, “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” Jesus was not interested in becoming involved with their dispute, but he did not leave the question open. He used the question as an opportunity to give the crowd a lesson in greed.
We fight with our brothers and sisters over perishable things because we are greedy. Most of us aren’t looking to have more than others, we simply want what we believe to be our fair share. We want things to be equal, at least equal to our benefit. We don’t always do this with wicked motives – we want security for the future. We want to know that we will be safe tomorrow, that we’ll have enough to eat and all that we need to survive. We want to be happy. We want to feel secure and comfortable.
Jesus warned the crowd to be careful about greed, “for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” Then He told them a story, a parable about a man who had more than he could ever need. He had more than he could even store, so he decided to build an even bigger barn. Then he felt that he could relax, eat, drink and be merry. God spoke to the man, telling him that he was a fool because on that day he would die. “Who will possess those things now?” We do not always know what will happen to our worldly goods when we die. Certainly there are those who might do battle over every penny.
Our human nature is like that of the man in the parable. We tend to think of ourselves and what we can do to make our lives better. We work and save; we hoard our blessings and think that those things will save us. We look to our financial independence as our security and we put our leftovers in bank accounts for tomorrow. We are like the man who says, “And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, be merry.” It is about us.
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.
We have come to know and love the Disney version of the story “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” In the movie, Snow White runs away from her wicked stepmother and stumbles upon a tiny house in the forest. She thinks that it the home of seven untidy children. We see them as selfish and self-centered. They do not care for one another and do not seem to understand about love. They own a diamond mind and must have great wealth, yet they seem to be very poor in spirit. She tidies up after the dwarfs and when they return to their home they ask her to stay with them. Snow White agrees to stay. She takes care of them while she teaches them to love and to care for one another. When she is attacked by the evil queen, they love her so much that they willingly suffer with her and they fight for her.
It is a story of transformation. Through love, the seven dwarfs are given a new perspective on life. They learn to love one another and others, to the point of willingly sacrificing themselves for the sake of Snow White. When Snow White ate the poison apple and fell asleep, the dwarfs could have gone back to living as they did before they knew her. Instead, they continued caring for each other and Snow White. They put aside their greed and messy living for that new life. In this story we see the kind of transformation that occurs when we are raised with Christ Jesus.
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.” He lists a great many ways our self-centeredness manifests in this world and it is not a pretty sight. He encourages us to put those attitudes away, to be the new creation we are in Christ Jesus and to live for Him. He reminds us that we are not alone in this, that all those who believe, no matter who they are, become part of Christ and will share in His glory. 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.
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 are true treasure lies.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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