Vanity of Vanities

Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14; 2:18-23, Luke 12:13-21

I want everyone to pause for a second, and think back. For some this is going to be thinking very far back, for others, not so much. But I would like for us to think back to middle school, about the time you were 11, 12, or 13 years old.

What was the big fashion trend? What did everyone not just want to wear, but have to wear?

For me, 13 years old in 1999, it was Jnco Jeans; which had these ridiculously wide legs at the bottom that, because I was a little bit short for a 30 inseam, always ended getting busted up from my shoes walking on them. Those were the coolest and most important thing I could have had when I was that age. Luckily, fashion moved forward, relentlessly, ceaselessly.

If our middle school fashion disasters seems a little bit frivolous of a topic for church, perhaps they are, but they remind us one of one of the fundamental truths of life; almost everything in life is fleeting. Many of the things we think are important in the moment are not, and perhaps one of the great activities that we pursue during it is “what is important?”

“No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business.’”

That was advice from Labor lawyer and arbitrator Arnold M. Zack to his friend, Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, back in 1983. Tsongas relayed that advice in his autobiography, explaining his decision not to run for re-election in 1984 while facing a cancer diagnosis.

I think it echoes the core questions of our readings: What are we to do with our lives? What is important? What matters?

Although I cannot tell you the answers to those questions- indeed, I believe anyone who tries to answer those questions for you is probably trying to sell you something- I can try to point us toward answers that have typically been fruitful, and represent the best of our traditions.

Our first reading is from the book of Ecclesiastes: Most well-known for people of a certain generation is the wonderful poem in Ecclesiastes 3: there is a time and purpose for all things under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die, etc.,

Although it claims to be written by Solomon, based on language clues, it was probably written after the Babylonian exile and return to Jerusalem. The author, who we usually call “The Teacher”, whoever they are, seems to be old and wealthy, and writes about what is good and meaningful in life.

The most prominent word in Ecclesiastes is probably vanity, and we should talk about it a little bit before we go too deep. The word translated in our Bibles as Vanity is the Hebrew Hebel, which means something like mist, something that cannot be grasped, and fades away. It is a representation of how ephemeral, how fleeting life, and almost everything we experience really is.

That’s why there is a time for all things under heaven- because things shift and fade. Children grow up and old. Neighborhoods change. Cities Change. Generation follows generation.

If this feels familiar, it should; it’s a running theme throughout the Old and New Testaments. The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “All flesh is grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers; the flower fades.

Jesus’ brother- depending on what you believe, either his full brother, half-brother, cousin, or brother from another mother- James- wrote about this in his letter:

James 4: 13- 14- Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

There’s that mist- that hebel- that vanity- once again.

But back to the teacher.

The teacher seems to be especially salty- aggravated or frustrated, by this ephemerality. He seems to almost lust after permanence, as many of us do. He has seen his toil. Why should I do all this work, if those who will enjoy it haven’t labored for it?

This is one of the many things that vexes our author- all of life, the work and toil that we put ourselves through is as hebel, is a mist, is ephemeral and fleeting. Buildings decay, crops are sown and reaped and eaten and the cycle begins again.

Even the pursuit of wisdom itself is fleeting! How much do future generations ignore the lessons of the past, doomed to repeat it until experienced? How much of what we learned in school is now outdated by new advances in science and art?

What are we to make of this ephemerality? What remains, what matters?

This question seems to remain eternal.

I believe it’s a major reason that the idea of eternity is so present within our gospel stories.

Perhaps the greatest of the parables, the story of the good Samaritan, was asked in response to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The question that Jesus chooses to answer in this reading- not the question that he is asked, but that he chooses to answer is related to that one.

Jesus decides to answer the question: What is eternal?

Jesus is asked to settle an inheritance dispute- and Jesus wants no part in it. I want us to parse carefully the man’s request, and Jesus’ response.

Let us note that the man’s request is for Jesus to do something to someone else. “Force my brother to do what is right.”

It is not to make him happy with his situation, it’s not for healing, it’s not for reconciliation with his brother. It’s not to become the better person. In my experience, we can rarely, if ever, force anyone else to become a better person. We can remind them of their responsibilities, their covenants that they’ve made with God and each other, we can even reduce harm, but changing attitudes comes from within. I speak of course on this from the level of the individual; the expectations we might have of a government are different.

And I think Jesus here has a line that should give us pause when we see Christians align Jesus with the power of the government or the courts: “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

Jesus doesn’t want to do this for our material, civic, and criminal disputes. The apostle Paul tells Christians to avoid the courts to settle disputes if at all possible.

I believe that this is because the things that are adjudicated in civil courts are not the things that Jesus thinks are important.

“One’s Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Not that our material conditions don’t matter at all; Jesus is very concerned about the poor. But the excess?

He then tells a parable: in some ways it echoes and turns upside down the story of Joseph in Egypt- Joseph of the amazing technicolor dreamcoat who becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt by saving up grain in years of plenty, while then having enough grain in years of famine.

This man has good land that has worked it well. He cannot store his excess properly. So he decides to build bigger barns. He lives well but does not consider giving more of his money to the poor. He does not consider paying his staff more in wages or hiring more workers. He does not consider letting some of his fields lie fallow so that the land may rest. All he wants is more, more, more, and for nothing reason other than having a bigger barn.

Because he says to his soul “Soul, it’s fine. You have no need to grow, to change, to connect with God or to love. For many years we will do nothing to help others, but only serve ourselves in the raw pursuit of pleasure.”

But life comes at us all fast; Tonight, God says to this man, your very life your soul- in Greek the psyche, like psychology- is being demanded of you. And what will you have to say for yourself?

That you decided to build a bigger barn? That you refused to help those who needed it most? That you devoted your life to pleasure?

Through this story, Jesus asks us “What matters in your soul” or perhaps even more so, “What is your soul made of?” For Jesus also tells us in the Gospel of Matthew that where our treasure is, our heart is as well.

These are questions we ought to contemplate now, while we can. Not on our deathbeds, not while we are in crisis, but now.

Because life comes at us fast, and when it does, it is best if we know the contents of our souls. And if we don’t like what we see when we peer inside, by the grace of God, we can change it. By conscious thought which turns to action which turns to habit which turns to a new truth.

Thank God for this. Because no one has ever said on their deathbed that they wished they spent more time on their business.

I will remind you that I cannot answer for you the earlier questions I posed: “what are we to do with our lives? What matters? What is important?”

I regularly try to point us to some answers that seem to be good that we have found; but those should not dictate your answers, but rather inform them. For in the end, each one of us has to answer to and for our souls to God.

Attempting to answer these questions should not be a source of anxiety, but of comfort and joy. Realigning ourselves to God and to each other is a good thing. Although we’ll never be fully in alignment, thankfully, the good news is that God is a more merciful judge than any of us is or could hope to be. For God knows the scope of our lives and the challenges we’ve faced. God knows our perils and pitfalls even more than we do. For God knows and loves us as a good parent loves their child, like a mother hen brooding over her chicks, as a potter loves his art.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.