Sunday, August 01, 2010

Vanity of Vanities

10th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 13) – Year C (RCL)
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11;
Luke 12:13-21
Sunday, August 1, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

“‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Sorry folks. I hate to tell ya’, but in these words, Jesus is not just speaking to the foolish rich man. He’s also speaking us. No, I don’t mean that we are all going to die tonight, as did the foolish rich man. But I do mean that our lives are being demanded of us as God has already laid claim to our lives by virtue of our baptisms. When we were baptized, brought into the Body of Christ, our lives ceased to be our own. In that moment, as we emerged from the baptismal waters, our lives became God’s. God is free to do with each and every one of us as God sees fit. And right now, God is laying claim to what is His.

The reason for this wake-up call is pretty evident when you look at all three of our lectionary readings. Ecclesiastes talks about how we spend our entire lives toiling in what the writer describes as being “vanity of vanities.” Colossians tells us to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” And in Luke, Jesus says “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does no consist in the abundance of possessions.” He then goes on to tell the parable of the foolish rich man which describes the outcome of such actions in no uncertain terms. Looking at the parable of the foolish rich man and filtering it through a 21st century lens, I see two components that we need to be concerned with: possessions and activity.

The most obvious thing being criticized in today’s scripture lessons, particularly in the Gospel, is the accumulation of material possessions. In the parable, the rich landowner is blessed to have had a bumper crop. Unfortunately he doesn’t have large enough facilities to store the surplus – a good problem to have. What to do with all the extra? He has the opportunity to share the wealth with his neighbors, or better yet, to those really in need. But, no. He’s more concerned with holding onto his riches. So he has to find someplace to store the bounty. Instead of doing the rational thing and building additional barns, he tears down the existing barns and builds even bigger ones. He takes the opportunity to flaunt his wealth. If he builds mega-barn, everyone will know he’s wealthy and successful. Unfortunately for him, just about the time he finishes his building project, he dies. He spent his whole time obsessing about his wealth and how to keep and protect it that he never had a chance to enjoy it.

And I’m afraid that in our consumer-oriented society, we have a tendency of following the lead of the foolish rich man. Society says more, more, more. Gotta keep up with the Joneses, or surpass them. Would you like to supersize that? And most of us say “yes.”

In addition to possessions, there is something else that our lessons seek to warn us about – activity, or rather over-activity. We see it with the foolish rich man who engages in a frenzy of activity in his massive building project. And Ecclesiastes talks about constant toil so that even “at night their minds do not rest.” Humanity is beset by some sort of need for constant activity.

But in our own day, I think we have managed to elevate the art of being overly active, of overextending ourselves, to an art form. It’s almost become a perverse form of status, a badge of honor, to be so busy you don’t know if you’re coming or going. We all do it. I have to admit that I catch myself doing it. I am sooooo busy today. I have to lead a Bible study and then meet with the rector and then I have to see three parishioners in the hospital – one at Redlands Community, one at Loma Linda, and one at Kaiser Fontana. Then I have to write my sermon for Sunday, do a conference call, write an article for the Messenger, go to a committee meeting, plan the fall adult education program, and go to a vestry meeting. And then after lunch . . .

You get the idea. But I’m finding this phenomenon seems to be more and more pervasive. When you ask someone how they are, more often than not, you get a litany of what they’ve been doing or what they have to do. And sadly, it’s gotten to the point that even our children are doing it. Recently I was talking with a young person, asking how the summer break was going, and I got a list of all the things and activities this person was doing. It made me tired just listening to it. I can sort of understand this in adults. It makes us look, or at least feel, valuable and indispensible in the workplace. It makes us look like the success-driven go-getters that society expects us to be. But our children? What happened to just being a kid, enjoying some time off from school, spending time with friends, or just laying around and doing nothing?

Ecclesiastes has a term for all this. Vanity of vanities. Not vanity as in self-obsession, though that certainly fits in many instances. The Hebrew word we translate as vanity really means vapor or breath, something illusory, meaningless, empty. The other term Ecclesiastes uses is “chasing after wind.” In other words, all of this, our pursuit of possessions and our obsession with activity, these things that seem so important to humans, is not what really matters. Quite the opposite. If anything, these things, our obsession with possessions and activity distracts us from what is truly important.

Just as criticism of our views toward possessions and activity comes from our readings for the day, so too do they provide a corrective – maybe not directly, but the corrective is certainly implied in the meaning of the parable of the foolish rich man, as well as in Ecclesiastes’ assertion that all these things are vanity and chasing after wind.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with worldly goods and success, with having big houses, fancy cars, nice things, etc. We work hard. It’s okay to reward ourselves. It’s not the possessions in and of themselves that are problematic, but rather our obsession with them. It’s the building up of material goods, the drive to get more even when we already have enough or more than enough. What the scriptures are really saying is that we need to be careful not to become so focused on getting more, striving for bigger and better. In spending so much time and energy on acquisition and maintenance, we don’t have time to enjoy what we do have. In focusing our energy on getting more, we are thinking about ourselves and what labors went into getting all this stuff, failing to recognize God’s hand in the bounty we have. In becoming self-absorbed with what we are doing for our selves, because we deserve it, we fail to recognize the needs of those who are on the margins and how we could possibly share out of our bounty. In the drive for more, we get wrapped up in the thrill of getting, not realizing that we have way more than we need or could possibly use. We are unable to discern what really is enough.

It’s all about personal stewardship of the resources we have. True stewardship entails careful use and care of what we have. This does mean saving some surplus for the future – for retirement, for a rainy day. But stewardship is more than this. Good stewardship also entails recognizing the source of all we have and giving thanks to God for what we have. And good stewardship entails care for one’s neighbors, providing for the poor and marginalized, particularly when we have more than enough.

And then there’s dealing with over-activity. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes speaks to this when he tells us that all our human activity is ultimately vanity of vanity, is chasing after wind. While we think everything we do is of upmost important, the reality is that a lot of it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in the grand scheme of things. Working 70 hours a week as opposed to a standard 40 hour work week probably won’t make a significant difference in the quality of our lives, other than taking us away from our loved ones. Having extracurricular activities are important to help relieve the stress from our workaday lives and help make us well-rounded persons, but are they really beneficial if we just end up stressing about how we are going to get everything done: the job, the 20 or 30 different activities we do, not to mention household chores, and oh yeah, spending time, real quality time, with our loved ones? And we haven’t even factored in yet, where do we find time for God in all of this frenetic activity? Where and how do we take a little time to give thanks to the God who has given us so much, to praise him for the beauty of creation, to check in and let him know how we’re doing, what our concerns are?

What we tend to forget is that there’s a reason for Sabbath, and I mean real Sabbath, not just a day off to fill with back-to-back activities. Sabbath is about giving us the time we need to slow down and catch up with ourselves, to catch up with and spend time with our loved ones, to spend time with the One who created us and gives us all we have and all that we are. That’s why the Jewish religion mandates a day of Sabbath with minimal activity – to focus on self, family, and God, not on going, doing, rushing around. Sabbath time is an invitation to renewed relationship with God, and with one another – relationship that does not happen on the fly, but can only really happen when we are intentional about it, by being present to those we love and being present to our God.

The statements made in today’s lessons, and the correctives they provide are not meant to be pessimistic statements about human existence or to provide onerous requirements. Rather, they are an observation of how we can get carried away and lose sight of what is truly important. These correctives are really meant to be liberating, to free us from our focus on possessions, our obsession with ceaseless activity, and to give us the space we need to focus on care of self; care for our loves ones; care for others, including our neighbors and the marginalized; and nurture of our relationship with our God. We are meant to be free to have time to enjoy life and all that it brings as a gift from God.

Today’s lessons, while seemingly harsh, are therefore expressed out of loving concern. It’s not so much that our life is being demanded of us as that we are being invited into another way of being. We are invited to slow down and discern what God is calling us to do with our possessions, our time and our activity. We are invited to evaluate our standard of what is enough. We are invited to determine what is truly important in our lives. We are invited to examine our understanding of God’s blessings and our purpose in life. And we are invited to do this in partnership with God, in renewed relationship with the One without whom our lives really are nothing more than vanity of vanities and a chasing after wind.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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