August 4, 2013
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:18-23
I moved to a new place in April, and I’m still not done unpacking. Making transitions is hard. Even good transitions are never easy. I’ve moved a lot in my life, and still, it is hard whenever I have to leave a community, a job, a location, where I have found a gentle dentist, a reliable auto mechanic and someone who understands how to cut my hair just right. Many of you can relate, I know. It’s hard to walk away from a place where you’ve folded laundry hundreds of times, where the front door has opened and closed for friends a thousand times. Deciding what to take along and what to leave behind leads us to question deeply what in our lives is vitally important, what is moderately important, and what is no longer important for us. Perhaps we all should move every so often, just to clarify our values. (Though I, personally, hope I am done for awhile.)
In what or in whom do we find meaning? What is it that gives our life value? That’s the heart of what the writer of Ecclesiastes is exploring in today’s first reading. Sometimes the way to figure out what IS important is to consider what is NOT important. Don’t you often find that the best way to pack a household is to figure out first what really needs to go to St. Vinny’s and what needs to be pitched in the trash? After the clutter is cleared, you can decide what really needs to stay.
The author of Ecclesiastes is finding that a successful career isn’t the answer. Being knowledgeable and wise isn’t the answer. And leaving a significant legacy isn’t the answer. All of this is VANITY—all it is is dust in the wind (sing the Kansas song if you know it–it’s a perfect paraphrase of this text!). None of it provides the kind of lasting significance or identity the poet is looking for.
What is it that people in your family or community turn to in order to give themselves comfort and meaning? In our search to find what will fill that empty place in our hearts, we make some unwise choices. Even though we know that only God will never betray us, never let us down, and never abandon us; even though we know that only God will be able to keep every promise to us, somehow we still keep misplacing our trust. Some people look to alcohol or other drugs or chemicals. It is easy to see how this road never leads anywhere good. But it isn’t only addicts who are guilty of idolatry. Each one of us has some sort of false God with whom we must struggle. It’s just that some false gods are sneakier than others.
Sometimes our idols look like goodness. What about those folks who glorify busy-ness, who never take a break from work, so they can prove that they matter because of all they can do? This is a very common false god–among church people in specific, just so you know. Or what about those people who, like the man in Jesus’ parable, trust in their nice, secure bank accounts? “If I can just put away a little more this year, then I’d really have things together….” What about those who place respectability or security ahead of all other considerations? Haven’t we seen how those false gods can lead us to treat other people as if they were not made in the image of God? I don’t know what or who tempts you away from trusting in God and your source and foundation, but I am guessing you do.
Today’s Gospel lesson invites us to look at the particular false God of material possessions. Jesus offers a story to show that we aren’t going to able to find comfort or meaning or hope in our stuff. Take care! he says. Abundant life is not in your possessions. As a case in point, The Wall Street Journal reported recently on a survey from the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School. The survey indicated that we in the United States are the most depressed people in the world! Just under ten percent of us suffer from some sort of bipolar disorder or from chronic depression—minor or major. Over eighteen percent of us suffer from some anxiety disorder. Our numbers far surpass those in other developed countries (Germany, Japan, and Italy) and some of the developing nations in the world are far, far less depressed than we are (the Ukraine, Mexico, and Nigeria, for example). Our great wealth isn’t the answer to abundant life, is it? All is vanity.
How do we turn away from our false gods to the true source of Life and Meaning and Hope and forgiveness and comfort? How do we let go of false gods? It’s not as easy as putting them in the Goodwill box and packing them off next Tuesday, is it? Anything that grips hold of our hearts so tightly that we confuse it with God isn’t going to go gently into that good night. To get rid of them, there has to be a death. And the death of something close to the center of your life, as many of you know better than I do, is the ultimate earth-shattering loss. It is the loss of all that has been familiar and comfortable and entering a wilderness, where nothing is familiar. Letting go can be a clawing resignation, less a surrender than a bitter abdication.
In cases where we have to release something upon which we’ve become dependent is not. I think God was deliberate in making the first commandment–”you shall have no other gods before me”–the first. If we could only get that one right, there would be no need for any of the others.
But we can’t. Or at least, I can’t. In the words of the confession of sins we sometimes use, we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We need our sin to die, but we cannot kill it. Sometimes we don’t even want to. And this is what God does: God says, “I love you anyway. I want to help. I am here with you and for you and in you, and I will not let you fight this fight by yourself.”
There HAS been a death—Jesus’ death. But there has also been new life in his resurrection. And we are privileged to share in both. In baptism, the dominance of our false gods loses power. Being baptized doesn’t mean we don’t sin anymore, but it does mean that our sins are no longer in control. It does mean that no matter what else happens to us, we still belong to God. It means that Jesus life, death, and resurrection were not for his sake alone. Jesus’ did not consider his perfect love and compassion, justice and righteousness, treasures to be hoarded. He did not build special barns in which to keep them. Instead, Jesus threw open all the doors of the kingdom of God and said, “I want you all to have what I have! Come on in and get some grace!”
We may not have gotten everything in our lives right. We may never get it right. But the Christian story–your story, my story, baby Lily’s story, the story of everyone who has ever felt the wetness of baptismal waters–is that the Holy Spirit now dances inside of us. It isn’t just Jesus who came back from the dead. We are also new beings. We also have hope beyond our ability to do the right thing. We also know that no matter how miserably we are failing at making a difference the way we think we need to, the work of God is going to get done anyway. The Holy Spirit is at work in ways that are beyond our wildest imagination. And whatever happens, we get to be part of it. We have died and been raised with Christ. We have been clothed in the Holy Spirit. We have been marked with the cross of Christ forever. Nothing and no one can ever separate us from God’s love. This is most certainly true! Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider