Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26
There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.
I cleaned some of my carpet yesterday. I didn’t do the whole house. I didn’t even do an entire room. I spot cleaned the places that were high traffic areas and that had stains from kids and cats. It took me a couple hours and didn’t look perfect, but the work made a difference. It made a difference for a moment. Oh, no one has managed to stain it yet, but I’m expecting to find a trail of soda dribbles or gifts left by the cats any day now. A stain appeared within twenty-four hours the last time I cleaned the carpet. Why bother?
Have you ever noticed that you can never truly be finished with the dishes and the laundry? There’s always a cup in the sink and clothes in the hamper because as soon as the dirty dishes are washed, someone is searching for a drink and I don’t do my laundry naked, so the clothes on my back will need to be washed tomorrow. Why bother?
I am sure you can think of a number of tasks that frustrate you and make you wonder why you bother to do them. The bed will be messed up, the grass will grow and the car will just get dirty again. We do these things because we know that it will be harder if we let them go. How much easier is it to do a handful of dishes than a whole sinkful when we run out of clean glasses? How much easier is it to do a couple loads of laundry rather than a day’s worth when we have nothing clean to wear? It seems pointless, but in the end it is better to do what we can at the moment rather than wait until it is unavoidable.
I am an artist, but I have to admit that I haven’t spent much time in my studio over the past couple of months. I have a painting that has been on the easel for so long I can’t remember the last time I added paint. I have other projects spread out on every flat surface. I have my Christmas ornaments planned and the materials purchased, but it is all stored away for the moment that I get around to working on the project. I know I need to prepare for an upcoming show, but I have to admit that sometimes it seems meaningless. I have dozens of finished paintings stored that no one seems to want. Why bother to paint anymore?
Oh, I’ll get back in the studio and I’ll love every minute. Even if the paintings end up as gifts or donations to charities, I’ll find a way to use them. I work in my studio not just for the finished product, however. It is also about the process. It is a way to share my gifts, but also to bask in them, for I find myself in prayer and wonderment as I put color on canvas. Perhaps, someday, my work will be lasting and will mean something to someone somewhere for a very long time.
Our earthly pursuits, while important to us today, are ultimately meaningless. The sink fills with dishes and the carpet becomes stained, but our life is better for having done the work along the way. We will find that our other earthly pursuits will also be meaningless to us, for we can’t take it with us after we die. Even the things we love, like our traditions, die as new ones are created. Our hobbies come and go as new ones are revealed; our interests change with the trends of the day. Knowledge grows as new discoveries are made. Language evolves so that old literature seems outdated 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.
The text from Ecclesiastes is somewhat depressing. It is so hard for us to think that everything we do has no meaning at all. At least my painting, and writing, leaves something behind. But what about all the people who do work that leaves no tangible mark? What about the store clerk who checks groceries all day or the accountant whose work involves columns of numbers that will change with the wind?
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. Even our clean dishes and clothes mean something even though they will be dirty again tomorrow.
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?
Vanities of vanities, all is vanity. At times it seems like this is true. The passage from Ecclesiastes seems to be 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.
The problem is that we get so caught up in the quest to do this work that we forget the source of our blessings. Solomon writes, “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.” There are few people throughout the span of history who can claim to be as blessed as Solomon. He was given wisdom and wealth and every good thing, but in the end he knew it was not his to hoard. God blessed Solomon to be a blessing. He blessed us to do the same.
St. Basil the Great writes about today’s Gospel lesson: “You who have wealth, recognize who has given you the gifts you have received. Consider yourself, who you are, what has been committed to your charge, from whom you have received it, why you have been preferred to most other people. You’re the servant of the good God, a steward on behalf of your fellow servants. Do not imagine that everything has been provided for your own stomach. Take decisions regarding your property as thought it belonged to another. Possessions give you pleasure for a short time, but then they will slip through your fingers and be gone, and you will be required to give an account of them.”
St. Basil talks about how the rich man in today’s text doesn’t know what to do with all his stuff. He has so much from this harvest and previous harvests that he decides to build a bigger barn. And yet, we are reminded, that his life could be taken at any minute. What good is all that grain wasting away in a barn? And what will the next person do with it?
How much better would it have been to give some of that grain to feed the hungry? The rich man was given excess not so that he could hoard it in bigger and better barns but so that he could provide for those who had less. If he recognized that his blessing came from God, belonged to someone else, he might have done something completely different with his excess.
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 eat, drink and be merry, not in celebration of God’s grace, but in boastful merriment of our own accomplishments, building bigger barns to hold all our stuff.
We are called to live a life that rejects the attitudes and actions that are earthly like “sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved 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, who is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his Creator.” 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.
Our human nature is like that of the man in Jesus’ 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, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” It is about us.
Jesus calls us to be rich toward God. Our life is not meaningless, but our striving after things is vanity. We do that work that makes us wonder why we bother because we know it will make life better for others. We do the dishes and clean the carpet so that our home is clean and comfortable for those we love. God created us for a purpose even if the purpose doesn’t seem very lasting. He has given us many gifts to use for His glory. We are a new creation in Christ and in Christ we are called to manifest His grace to the world. Paul writes in our epistle lesson for today, “Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth.”
The teacher writes, “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.” Despite the seemingly cynical attitude of most of the passage from Ecclesiastes, the teacher also knows that there is value in the work we do according to God’s will and purpose. When we use our gifts and respond to our calling, we’ll find true joy in our work. It will not be toil or a striving after the wind. It will not be vanity. It will have power and purpose, and we’ll really know what it means to be satisfied and happy.
The psalmist writes, “Shout for joy to Yahweh, all you lands! Serve Yahweh with gladness. Come before his presence with singing. Know that Yahweh, he is God. It is he who has made us, and we are his. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name. For Yahweh is good. His loving kindness endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations.
I get frustrated by the continuous work necessary to keep my house clean and comfortable, but doing these tasks also gives me joy because I know it will benefit my family. I get disappointed when yet another painting I’ve created gets stored in a closet gathering dust, yet I find such joy in the moments when I can share my paintings in some way whether it is as a gift or donation. The key to the joy is to remember that our gifts and resources are not ours to keep, but have been given to us by God to be used for His glory. We are blessed to be a blessing. It is meaningless to build bigger barns to hold more grain when there is a world of people who can share in the excess that God has given to us, but there is nothing better for us than to eat and drink, and make our souls enjoy good in our labor because this is also from the hand of God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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