Monday, August 06, 2007

All is vanity?

A sermon for Proper 13, given on 5 August 2007 at St. Alban's, Arlington.

Ecclesiastes is not a well-loved book of the Bible. It seems to be no one’s favorite. With lines like “I considered all that my hands had done, and the toil I had spent in doing it, it was all vanity—chasing after the wind—and there was nothing to be gained under the sun”, we can see why few would want to hear what the Preacher (or in this translation, the “Teacher”) would have to say.

With so few fans, one wonders how Ecclesiastes found its way into the Bible at all. But there was at least one person who got excited about it. According to his student Reginald Fuller, the Anglican New Testament scholar Edwyn Hoskyns was fond of saying that Ecclesiastes was the most Christian book of the Old Testament. What he meant by that statement was that Ecclesiastes is a ruthless exposure of what human life is like apart from God, and so it has the blessing of preparing the heart to receive the gospel. That is, Ecclesiastes is not so much good news, as it is bad news—the kind of bad news that shows us just how good the “good news” really is, and which makes the gospel message audible to the broken-hearted.

“Vanity of vanities”, the book begins, “all is vanity.” All of human life is futile and meaningless, when viewed apart from God. In a temporal perspective, even a life lived well seems lived in vain. “Vanity” is the refrain carried throughout the book.

The Hebrew word for vanity is curious—abhel. It literally means “vapor” as in the moist puff of someone who is short of breath, toiling endlessly under the sun. It could also be translated “mystery”, as in a fog where things are unclear and hard to discern. As you may have guessed, abhel is also the name of Adam’s son Abel, who was murdered by his brother Cain.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” What is life good for? What are doing with it? Are all our blood, sweat, and tears really worth anything in the end? How come sometimes things just don’t work out? Why do bad things happen to good people, like poor Abel? Mystery of mysteries, it is all a mystery!

This week, we saw a chapter close in that outreach ministry of our church which began with a request for Kindergarten from the city back in 1958 and grew up into St. Alban’s Episcopal School, serving Pre-K—12. There are some who will reflect upon the history—the visionary contributions and tireless labor of people like our first Rector, Fr. Walter Harrison Beste, who accepted such a challenge for our young church, and of Marge O’ Halloran, who was entrusted with responsibility for its development and leadership from the ground up. Some will reflect upon the dedicated efforts of teachers, volunteers, and parents, upon the endless expenditure of construction paper, paste (some of it digested), and crayons, of field trips, milk cartons, science lab equipment, and uniforms . . .

And some will say, with the Preacher, It wasn’t worth it. It was all in vain. “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” If we had known it would all end up in bankruptcy and pointed fingers, we should never have done any of it in the first place. As a matter of fact, some of us did know—we figured it out, we saw it coming, we could see it would end like this sooner or later, and (you know what?) . . . I told you so! Vanity of vanities.

And then there are others who do not join the voice of the Preacher, except perhaps to enter into that struggle humbly—putting off judgment. Mystery of mysteries. It is all a mystery. Was it all worth it? Did we accomplish what we set out to accomplish? Where is the wisdom of God to be found in our history?

They too will ponder the endless expenditure of construction paper, paste, (some of it digested) and crayons, of field trips, milk cartons, science lab equipment, and uniforms, the noble sacrifices of individual leaders, the dedicated efforts of parents, volunteers, and of teachers, and so forth. But they will begin to see more and more a glowing and marvelous Christian witness—people who were more concerned with doing some bit of good in the world than in their own interest or in counting the personal costs. They will see a generational school community, which like our patron, blessed Alban, was faithful even unto death.

The rewards will not be found in a lasting institution, but in human lives, instilled through bygone moments of learning, caring, growing, nurture and play. It is an utterly Christian thing to find nobility in the futility of love, to see grace in the pouring out of oneself even unto death. Sometimes our biggest failures are exactly our most vivid testimonies to the grace and love and mercy of God known to us in the cross of Jesus.

Remember, the apostles recognized the risen Lord when he showed them his wounds—his hands, his feet, his side. They recognized him by the signs of his suffering. Sometimes that is how people recognize Christians. Jesus’ formation of his disciples did not end in parables and pronouncements. It ended in blood, tears, sweat, nails, and wood, with the final vapor of breath squeezed out of his sacred body before family, friends, and mostly strangers on the cross of Calvary’s hill. What were the rewards? Was it all in vain?

The disciple says, It was worth it. He did this for us. He suffered for our salvation. And he did so, St Peter tells us, to "give us an example that we should follow in his steps" (see 1 Peter 2:20-21). This is essentially St Paul’s idea in today’s epistle: to be joined to Christ is to have a new kind of existence, a new life in which life is now lived for others.

No parable could truly teach the disciples what they could only learn by example through the bloody cross and the empty tomb. To be Christian disciples means to give ourselves away . . . to God, to each other, and to the world.

The gospel reading today draws together the thoughts of the first two readings and gives them precision. It begins with pointed fingers—a bitter family dispute. “Teacher”, someone called out to Jesus, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” How often have we seen this after someone dies?

Jesus warned this man and others to guard against greed in all forms—to remember that life does not consist in the abundance of things. The older translation is to guard against all forms of “covetousness.” After all, why is this man so concerned about his inheritance? Is it because of a noble and disinterested concern for justice? Or is it a fixation on the material gains that are his rightful inheritance. No one is saying he doesn’t deserve the money. But Jesus reminds us to consider our motives and perspectives.

"Life does not consist in the abundance of things." That verse in the Greek text is idiomatic; it is difficult to translate exactly. One scholar put it this way: “A man’s life does not belong to him no matter how rich he is.” Another commentator suggested, “Because a man has abundance, it does not follow that life consists in amassing wealth.” Or to turn to the Fr Matkin translation (which is not always literally correct, but may get the point across): “As odd as it may seem, sometimes God may want us to get the short end of the stick.”

That news can be hard to swallow, so Jesus told them a parable. His story is essentially a quotation from Old Testament book called Sirach (Ecclesiasticus 11:18-19) There was a rich man who was actually a fool in God's sight, for he lived his life without regard to God and was caught in the toils of futility and vanity. He saw life only with a temporal perspective; he did not “seek the things that are above.”

The land he owned produced plentifully, business was booming, and his biggest problem
was figuring out where to put it all. "Should I build new and larger barns?" he questioned. What problems to have! He never would have thought he had a care in the world. Because of his wisdom, his retirement would be occupied with eating, drinking, and being merry (taking cruises to the Virgin Islands, etc). Who among us would not envy that for ourselves?

Then comes the crashing judgment: “This night your soul is required of you.” That is, "You’re going to die, tonight." Because he thought his own existence was under his own control, it came as a shock to learn that it was God’s to give and God’s to take away again. With his perspective, the rich fool cannot help but consider his life a vain pursuit in the end. He had measured himself according to a worldly standard (a temporal perspective), and found himself confident, wise, and successful. But when he was forced to measure himself against God’s standard (an eternal perspective), the rich fool found himself wanting.

We see that eternal perspective in Jesus’ own life and mission. He was born to endure the cross; he directed his life toward suffering. The rich fool, would have never have willingly gone to the cross. At the end of Luke's gospel, we see the two perspectives contrasted in the two thieves crucified with Jesus.

One turns to Jesus and says, echoing the scoffers below, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Can’t you save us from all this?” The second thief reminds the first, “We deserve to be here, but this man is innocent.” And we see his eternal perspective when the second thief turns to Jesus and says, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus says to him, “You will be with me this day in paradise.” The second thief and Jesus shared an eternal perspective.

The book of Hebrews tells us “it was for the joy that was set before him” (the joy of things like giving paradise to this poor sinner) that Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Following Christ means giving ourselves away—to God, to each other, and to the world.

“Vanity of vanities?” Some would undoubtedly say so. “Mystery of mysteries?” Of that, we can all be certain.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was one of your best sermons, Father. It gave us a whole lot to think about. Thank you.