Sunday, July 31, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-26
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The book of Ecclesiastes could really be called The Meaning of Life. The writer speaks about how life is just nothing but toil. He asks the question, “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” He says that he turned and gave his heart up to despair concerning all the toil of his labors under the sun, “because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.” I think the writer of Ecclesiastes perfectly describes how many people feel today. People are working long hard hours and often little to show for it.Some people barely can make ends meet financially – yet I’ve seen them share out of the little they have – while others seem to have more than enough and yet don’t share out of fear that there won’t be enough left for them when they need it. People can’t sleep at night because they are either worried about what they don’t have or worried about all that they do have being taken away from them. The writer calls this vanity and the best way to translate this would be to say absurdity. It’s absurd, or senseless or foolish to live like this. But what is the alternative?
The rich man in our gospel story was a perfect example of what the writer in Ecclesiastes was talking about. He was a farmer whose crops produced so much that he had no place to store it all. He worried about it; it kept him up at night. But then he thought he had a solution. He tore down his barns and built larger ones to store all of his goods. Then when he finally had everything stored away to live on for many years he thought he would be able to relax, eat, drink, and be merry. Finally, he would be able to relax and live! But, God called him a fool because little did the man know that he was going to die that night and not be able to enjoy everything that he had. It sounds like the very situation that the writer in Ecclesiastes is talking about. He did all that work and wasn’t even able to enjoy it. Vanity –senselessness – absurdity! Things like this happen every day.
So why did Jesus tell us this story? Was it just to reiterate what the writer in Ecclesiastes was trying to say or was he trying to tell us something different. As is the case with all of Jesus’ parables, he was trying to get us to think a little deeper about things – about life. Jesus was trying to get us to understand the meaning of life and look at things not from our perspective, but from God’s perspective. If we’re working all the time and striving to get ahead in life for ourselves then it is all vanity – senseless, and absurd. But if we are working and striving to bring about the kingdom of God here on earth and to give glory to God, then it’s anything but senseless. The question is why do we work and save? Is it for our glory or God’s. For the Christian the answer is very different than those who are not followers of Jesus.
The world tells us we need to work or toil so that we can get ahead, so that like the rich man in our gospel story we can build up as much wealth as possible. More things, more possessions, more money, more of everything. We are bombarded with commercials and advertisements that tell us that more is better. But wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness any more than poverty guarantees depression. Now Jesus isn’t saying that being rich is bad, but he is saying that we need to make sure we are rich toward God. And that makes all the difference in the world. But what does rich toward God look like? Using our resources – no matter how much or how little we have – for the benefit of those in need like the story of the Good Samaritan – is being rich toward God. Intentionally stopping what we are doing and listening to Jesus’ words as Mary did in the story of Mary and Martha that we heard a couple weeks ago, is being rich toward God. Trusting God will provide for what we need instead of worrying all the time and praying the Lord’s prayer to give us our daily bread is being rich toward God. The difference is the word us instead of me. As we heard last week, when we pray the Lord’s prayer we are asking God to give us – all of us – what we need every day.
That is the difference with the rich man in today’s story; he thought only of himself. He didn’t realize that he wasn’t the one solely responsible for his crops. The rich fertile land produced the crops that grew. And God gave him the energy and the ability to help to manage the crops. But the rich man focused only on himself not on God. He was preoccupied with what he would do, that he would build bigger barns, that he would store his grain, that the goods he had were his, and that it was his soul that would finally be happy. There’s nothing wrong with saving, but we have to be careful not to let our possessions own us. And the rich man in this story let his possessions own him. Everything was about him, not about anyone else who could have benefitted from the abundance God gave to him. He was thinking of the future, his future, and not of the people who could have benefitted from the abundance God gave him right then. This story is similar to one from Genesis when Joseph interpreted pharaohs dream and told him to build a storehouse for when famine would strike the land. The difference in that story, however, was that pharaoh was storing up the grain so that when famine struck he could open it up and feed all the people – from near and far – who needed it. He wasn’t storing it for himself; he was storing it to share with others in their need. This is what being rich toward God is all about and this is what Jesus not just asks, but demands of his disciples today. Everything that we have is a blessing from God and it is to be used to give glory to God by caring for God’ people. We are called to bring about the kingdom of God here on earth through sharing and compassion and love. The question Jesus is asking us today is “Are we good at creating God’s beloved community with the abundance we have from God or are we keeping it only for ourselves?” This is at the heart of the meaning of life for the Christian.
Our first reading from Ecclesiastes that is printed in our bulletin didn’t include verses 24 – 26 and I believe they are critically important to answering the question of life’s meaning. It continues: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner hi gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleased God. This also is vanity and a chasing after the wind.” Jesus said that we might have life and have it abundantly and this is what the writer of Ecclesiastes finally realized as well. “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also is from the hand of God.” Everything we have is from God who wants us to live life to the fullest. The difference in finding the meaning in life is that we as Christians who have been given the promise of the resurrection and have experienced the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness can therefore enjoy the journey because as Paul says in the letter to the Colossians “Christ is all in all!” When we have Jesus we have everything! We can have joy in the midst of our toil because we are not just working for us, but to make the lives of all God’s people better. We can have joy in the midst of pain and suffering because we are not just focused on us, but how our lives impact those around us. We can have joy even when we don’t know how things are going to turn out because we realize as Christians that we are not in control, but God is.Life has meaning not when it is self- serving, but when it is spent serving others to the glory of God. Look at what happened here last Sunday…..this congregation gave away free ice cream and over 100 people showed up on one of the hottest days of the year to eat, drink, and be merry. That is what it means to be rich toward God. Are we good at creating community with the abundance we have from God every day or are we still holding some back? That is the question for each of us here today. Amen!