Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost | Lectionary 18
"Rich Toward God" by Pastor Kinsey
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher! …All is vanity. …I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”
I don’t know if we’re really all that scandalized by this message in our day and age? Isn’t this really a very modern cynicism that filters into all our thinking? The writer of Ecclesiastes has been nicknamed, ‘the Teacher,’ or as Martin Luther called them, “the Preacher.’ Most Chicagoans are probably not all that fazed by this Teacher-Preacher! We are a city of the big shoulders, a hardy breed. We are the windy city, and we laugh at the cold and snow of winter. We have endured 2 Daley administrations. We live in neighborhoods where the El trains rumble by our living room windows every 8 – 12 minutes. And the curse of a goat guarantees Chicago’s north side baseball team will never again win the pennant… or can they?! Our favorite disciple is probably Thomas the doubter, the last holdout of the Disciples to believe in the resurrection. Vanities are just part of who we are!
Certainly, there is no other book of the bible like Ecclesiastes, with its doubting and seemingly dour message. And it’s no coincidence that in our entire 3 year lectionary of worship readings, this is the sole passage we hear from Ecclesiastes!
Throughout its twelve chapters, The Teacher-Preacher, continues to return to this theme of “vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” detailing their sense of skepticism and meaninglessness found in, our work, our intellect, in law and order, and pretty much everything else, that any of us, would expect, to provide joy, and meaning, or rewards, in our lives.
It is hard to capture the true meaning of the Teacher’s use of “vanity.” The word, Vanity, or hevel in Hebrew is difficult to translate, but means something like, a “breath”, a “vapor,” or a “puff of air.” All is transitory, we’re unable to grasp it! But in describing what is vanity, the Preacher is a hard nosed realist, a pragmatic theologian from Jerusalem – or the Windy City – and is not going to be taken in by any Pollyannaish fancies that paste over the truth. The Teacher is neither an Epicurean or Hedonist, like those then, or today, who pursue pleasure more than spirituality or justice. Nor is the Preacher like the famous poet, Horace, of his own time, from whom we get, “carpe diem – seize the day.” Robin Williams, you might remember, made carpe diem famous in the film, Dead Poets Society. Though we tend to forget what comes after that: “seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next.” Horace, and his crowd, were cynical that there was anything more to this life, and so we should scale back our expectations; we should take pleasure in what we have, and face the fact that death is the end. ‘Seize the day’ for them meant mostly to pursue those things which avoided pain, fly under the radar, be satisfied with whatever simple things you can find, don’t feel guilty for taking it, or that your neighbor goes without, because that’s all there is to life.
But that’s not the conclusion the Teacher in Ecclesiastes comes to, despite his cynical nature of the vanity of all things. The Teacher is not despairing of life itself, but in the human activity that cannot be counted on to save us. In this, he reminds me of Martin Luther, who at first, worked hard to please God and to justify himself, but realized that all our works are, a hevel, a vaporous puff of air, that cannot gain God’s approval or satisfaction – what he called “works righteousness.” And only at the end of his rope, when Luther let go of that pursuit, in the so called Tower experience, as he read Paul’s letter to the Romans, did he discover the free gift of God’s Grace, in Christ Jesus. And this opened a whole new door for Luther to find hope, and the courage to live. So too, the Teacher-Preacher, finds human striving, a vaporous, shallow, puff of air. The toiling we do is gone before you know it. And the gift of life from God, is all we have.
After Luther’s insight and transformation, he developed a teaching that helped shape and transform the Reformation for centuries. He taught that God calls each of us to have more than a job, more than a toiling at meaningless work just to put food on the table, but God calls us to have a ‘vocation,’ that which we were created to do, that satisfies our talents, that we might play a part in society that edifies and builds it up.
Are you stuck in a job you hate? Do you feel you are toiling endlessly for nothing, but even more afraid of losing the paycheck? Afraid of leaving or losing the job you have now during these difficult times to find the “vocation” or job you love. But how can we not reflect on what it is that God wants us to do? What is my calling? What is my true vocation? What gives you meaning in the workplace, at home, volunteering in the community – beyond the, “vanity, vanity, all is vanity” feeling?
Some are able – perhaps with the help of family or friends’ – to pursue that new vocation or job that you’ve always thought about, or to go back to school, or to start up a new business, or to volunteer at the place that gives meaning, and perhaps even brings joy and satisfaction. While some, can mostly never count on a leg-up, or “knowing someone,” who can get you a job, at all.
In Jesus’ parable of the Rich Fool from the gospel reading today, the rich fool is only concerned about his own welfare, bottling up the bounteous grace God blessed him with, in newly built overflowing barns, all for himself, thinking it will be his own private salvation. And then he puts his feet up so that he can, “eat, drink, and be merry,” in total isolation or accountability to the world! But as it turns out, says Jesus, this is a vaporous vanity, which he loses in an instant!
In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, also advocates “eat, drink, and enjoy,” but in exactly the opposite way of The Rich Fool, in Jesus’ parable. The Preacher is not advocating hedonism, but is turning everything over to God, taking a leap of faith, knowing that our striving and toiling cannot justify a life of leisure like the Rich Fool thinks he deserves.
The Teacher-Preacher is advocating a coming to the eschatological banqueting table, something like the open table celebrations Jesus hosted! A realist-sharing, here and now, an enacting of the gracious heavenly gift of salvation, and the realm of God, as we do every week at the communion table. “I know that there is nothing better for [those who toil],” says the Teacher, “than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; [for] moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil, [everything they work at and do]. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him,” says The Preacher.
To eat and drink and take pleasure in all our toil, and work, is easier said than done, of course. But it is true that, as Professor Walter Bouzard says of Ecclesiastes, “our vane lives find their meaning in Christ.” And “our hope… is that our life is hidden with the resurrected one, with Christ in God.”
Let us not store up treasures for ourselves, but let us live richly toward God, as Jesus said, who apparently learned from the Teacher-Preacher, how critical this lesson is – a bit of wisdom we Chicagoans cannot hear too often. With the Teacher, the cynic-realist, and with Luther, we plant our faith, and plant it firmly, in the free gift of Grace from God, which we know in Christ Jesus, our Teacher-Preacher.