Speaker: Cynthia Lapp
Vanity of Vanities.
Futile, absolutely futile.
Completely illusory. Everything is an illusion.
Welcome to the dog days of summer, when even the lectionary texts are despondent, overheated and grumpy.
We, who are hard workers, who like to live comfortably, who are responsible and save for retirement, wow, between Ecclesiastes and Jesus, these texts are hard to hear. These are definitely not the texts to base a joyful sermon on, which is what the worship committee requested at our last meeting.
The opening words of Ecclesiastes – vanity, futility, illusion (in different translations) – are spoken by Qoheleth, the leader of the “assembly.” Qoheleth is not a name, it is a title, like “teacher” or maybe “convener.” We don’t know who this depressive curmudgeon is though in some parts of the text the speaker claims to be King of Israel; despite tradition, scholars say it is isn’t Solomon. Clearly this person has been thinking a lot, has become pondersome. They see the glass half empty, if they see the glass, or vessel, at all.
Ecclesiastes starts with “Life is like trying to chase the wind” and it ends as it began: “Everything is meaningless.” In between we get that famous text that became a folk anthem in the 1960s, “To Everything, turn, turn turn ,there is a season, turn turn turn.” Such a charming tune; it doesn’t sound nearly as depressing as the other twelve chapters.
And Qoheleth isn’t wrong. Life is sort of illusory. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, straight out of the Book of Common Prayer. Nothing is guaranteed. People work hard and what do they get, another year older and deeper in debt. We might call Qoheleth the blues singer of the Hebrew bible. Ecclesiastes is full of this melancholy, almost desperate, poetry. I wonder what the music sounds like.
In the passage that we heard from Luke, Jesus isn’t much cheerier. He is probably sick and tired of being called on to address arguments. Even his disciples squabble over who will sit on his right hand in heaven. It is part of a rabbi’s work to mediate, to help people hear each other. In this passage, an unnamed, unknown voice calls from the crowd, “Tell my brother to give me my share of our inheritance.” (It’s almost a foreshadowing of the “prodigal” parable to come three chapters later, where the younger asks for their share of the inheritance and the older is none too happy with how it all transpires.)
The voice from the crowd asks not for mediation but for Jesus to be the judge, to pick a side. Jesus does not bite, at least he doesn’t bite at the question. He sort of bites back at the premise with the parable that he tells. “Go ahead, work hard, farm hard, store up for the future. You are going to die anyway and you can’t take it with you.” Maybe this is Jesus channeling Qoheleth, (for surely Jesus would know this wisdom text of Ecclesiastes.) Jesus takes his turn reminding people that life is futile, that any of it can be gone in a flash – or rather they themselves can be gone in a flash.
Does Jesus toss off this parable out of impatience, or anger? Is he fed up with the people who are looking for ways to accumulate more when he is so clearly modeling something different? Jesus’ way of life and ethics, being a nomad that preaches to people on the edges of society, it is a hard one to replicate across time and culture. Well, really, it was hard even in his own time and culture.
As Anabaptists, we look for ways to pattern our lives after Jesus’ teachings, but this ascetic lifestyle – it is not what we choose. Some of us do have crops and barns, metaphorically if not literally. Maybe that’s why this parable still has some bite.
And come on, after 2 1/2 years of pandemic, (much of it an elusive blur by now,) war and drought, flood and famine, climate catastrophes, doom scrolling on Facebook, buses full of people from Texas and Arizona being dropped off every day at Union Station,… do we really need all this negativity on Sunday from Qoheleth and Jesus? We can pretty easily go full tilt Qoheleth all on our own. Some of us are predisposed to a Qoheleth outlook, seeing pointlessness wherever we turn. Depression is real, not to be taken lightly. So what are we to do when the misery is so front and center, even at church?
How do we balance the seriousness of responsible living with the reality of finiteness? How do we balance awareness of Jesus’ hard teachings with the joy of life? I was sorry to hear that the “Planting Joy” retreat that Becky Hass was planning to lead at Rolling Ridge this weekend got canceled for insufficient registrations. Maybe Qoheleth and Jesus’ parables have a tighter hold on us than we want to admit, not just here at Hyattsville Mennonite but across the faith communities who were invited.
The good news is that Qoheleth does not have the last word. Even this word from Jesus is not the only word or the final word. There is some truth here, sure, but it is not the only truth. The hot and sticky, dog days of summer are not the only season, Jesus is not always this grumpy, and Qoheleth is only one curmudgeon, among a few, in the bible.
I love where Jesus goes next – after telling the rich people to quit hoarding in their bigger barns. He turns to the earth, our true home. We can build big homes and barns but it is the earth that actually houses us all, is accessible to us all. Interestingly, Luke says Jesus doesn’t give this next message to the whole crowd. Almost as an apology, or perhaps as an invitation to those who have chosen to leave barns and boats behind, Jesus says to his disciples:
“Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.
Has anyone, by fussing before the mirror, ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? (and here I think Jesus is giving a nod to Qoheleth and the tradition that says that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes) not even Solomon in all his splendor was robed like one of these. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think God will attend to you, take pride in you, do God’s best for you?
What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting – so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how God works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. (from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message)
This is idyllic, idealistic, a little starry-eyed, certainly it is a far cry from Qoheleth’s dreary view. Jesus gives his disciples, who spend their days wandering the countryside, not always sure where they will sleep at night, a joyful perspective on what it can mean to live without big barns.
During the pandemic, when we were on line every Sunday, we took a Sunday off here and there. It was an opportunity to get outside, spend time under the trees, (now called forest bathing,) observe birds, learn the names of flowers, commune with animals, get in the water, to bathe in beauty, to give our eyes a rest from the screen. Since January 30, for 6 months, we haven’t taken any Sundays off, at least not as a whole community.
Next Sunday, you might want to follow Jesus out into the fields and trees, looking at how nature clothes itself. Of course, if you want to be with people, there will be a gathering here as people watch the worship service streamed from Laurelville. But if you need to restore yourself by being in the green forest, or walking your dog or hiking or biking or picnicking, do it. God is there, love is there, light and healing and peace are not just available in the building, they are accessible out in the green, green world. Jesus tells us so.
It is true what Jesus and Qoheleth say, life is unpredictable and unfair, difficult and dicey. There is a lot of misery in the world. And as Celie says, in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it(s) always trying to please us back.”
In the parable, Jesus accuses the rich person of accumulating riches but not being rich in God. Noticing the purple flowers, hearing the bird songs, watching the shadows spread as the sky turns red at night, these makes us rich in God, rich in Love, rich in Beauty.
Vanity, all is vanity.
Yes, and Beauty, all is Beautiful.
A note on the two hymns that follow –
VT 618 Sometimes a light surprises – the poem was written by the English poet, William Cowper, 1731-1800. He knew a lot about living without light. After attempting suicide, he was institutionalized for mental illness and somehow found his way back to some light, through faith. He gave the world a lot of truth telling poems – including The Negro’s Complaint.
VT 653 Nothing is lost on the breath of God was written by Colin Gibson in response to the death of a 19 year old who died from cystic fibrosis, a disease that makes it difficult to breathe. Qoheleth declared that life was merely chasing wind. This hymn reminds us that Qoheleth doesn’t have the final word on wind or breath.