Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Don’t hang on,
Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.
It slips away
and all your money won’t another minute buy.
Dust in the wind,
all we are is dust in the wind …
That Kansas song is the heart of what the writer of Ecclesiastes is exploring in today’s first reading. Both poems are explorations of what makes a meaningful life, and both find that the places where they are looking—a successful career, an accumulation of knowledge, a legacy to be merely VANITY—dust in the wind. Nothing provides the kind of lasting significance or identity the poets are looking for. So what ISN’T vanity? How do we construct a meaningful life?
Searching for what will fill that empty place in our hearts can be scary. Sometimes, in desperation, we grasp what we think will fulfill our longing, only to discover our hopes dashed. Some people look to alcohol or food or gambling or other drugs. Some rely on weapons or brute strength; prestige or popularity; walls or fences to keep them feeling safe and secure. Sometimes our false gods look like goodness—the glorification of “busy-ness” comes to mind, as do toxic, co-dependent relationships.
Whatever shape they take, these are all false gods, idols that promise they will bring us happiness, purpose, and comfort, that they will make our lives better. But, eventually, all of them let us down, leading us to treat ourselves and others as if we were not all made in the image of God—as if God’s creation were disposable. Today’s Gospel lesson invites us to recognize another false god that turns into dust in the wind. Jesus tells a story about how abundant life is not found in our possessions.
It is a good lesson about how hoarding stuff can be one more rabbit hole we pop into seeking to make our lives full and complete. But it’s also about more than that. It’s also a warning that we cannot find rich, meaningful lives if the only person we are concerned about is ourselves. The conversation this farmer has with himself is both funny and sad. He addresses his remarks about himself to himself. There is no evidence he has anyone else of significance in his life. He doesn’t wonder how his bountiful harvest can help anyone else, or benefit any cause he believes in, or how it might be shared. He only considers how he can take care of himself in his old age.
Maybe this is a story about trusting in wealth, or maybe the false god this farmer bows down to is the idol of self-sufficiency, the misplaced trust in one’s own ability to secure a life worth living. He seems to think that he needs no one, depends on no one, and can create a future for himself alone.
God’s response to this? “You fool!” Not only does the man die before creating that isolated future, he fails to create a future at all. He cannot enjoy all that he has stored up; his wealth does not protect him or comfort him. It does not engender respect or gratitude from his family or friends or community. All he’s accumulated is simply dust in the wind.
The last line of Jesus’ story is this: “So it will be with those who store up treasures for themselves and are not rich toward God.” But what does it mean to be rich toward God? I don’t want to discourage you if you think it means generously financially supporting the work of this congregation. But I’m certain there are other ways to do good. And I want to make sure you don’t give to Trinity because you think God needs your money. God doesn’t. Nor can you buy God’s favor. But there are plenty of people God loves who do need your money. Being rich toward God may look like being generous toward others.
So maybe this parable is really more about community than it is about wealth. After all, Jesus tells this parable because of a rift in a family. One brother comes to Jesus, seeking his intervention in a family squabble about an inheritance. But Jesus doesn’t want to play that game. He sees that what should have been an occasion for celebration, remembrance, and gratitude – the giving and sharing of an inheritance – has instead turned into a bitter division. So instead of mediating that family’s dispute, Jesus tells a story of a man so enraptured with his good fortune that he ends up all alone. Perhaps the story is meant to make the brothers reconsider their attitudes. Maybe it will make them ponder what a fortune is and what it is for. Maybe it’s meant to make all of us reconsider what it is we treasure.
I’m still savoring my recent immersion in intense community living with 20 teenagers and 7 other adults at the Naming Project Camp, a weeklong Bible camp for LGBTQ teenagers. I’ve come home covered in mosquito bites, but feeling what I always feel when I return from camp—a sense of belonging to more than just myself—an awareness that I’m part of a larger world that is both hurtful and beautiful. Our theme this year was “Jesus loves me, so now what?” We began the week with stories of how God has blessed us, and named us and claimed us as God’s own beloved children. And then we moved to exploring how our own gifts and inadequacies, our own strengths and flaws, allow God’s light to shine in the world.
It was hard to leave camp and suddenly be in touch with the real world again. Listening to the radio in the car on the way home, I felt all that depth and power of connection so celebrated at camp butting up against a different message—an increasingly panicky message that we should not and cannot trust each other, that the world is increasingly dangerous and we should therefore be increasingly afraid.
I am convinced that fear is not the answer. Fear will not lead us forward. The regular and relentless Biblical injunction is exactly this: “Do not be afraid.” The message is delivered to individuals like Mary, when she was asked to bear God into the world, and it is delivered to groups, like the disciples when they gathered in a locked room on the first Easter night. “Don’t be afraid” is a message intended to make it easier for us to turn to one another in the midst of our fears and hopes and dreams and needs in order to form a community. From the very beginning God said it was not good for humans to be alone, that we are made to be together. The Bible warns us against fear because it’s really hard to care for your neighbor and create a community when you are afraid.
Which is not to say that being in community is easy. I know; I just spent a week sharing a bathroom with 4 other adults. As the old saying goes, “Everybody wants a revolution, but no one wants to do the dishes.” Living in community is hard. It means putting up with people who disagree with you and annoy you and maybe even have hurt you. It means exercising forgiveness and trust, repeatedly. It means sometimes we don’t get our own way. It means honoring each other’s gifts without belittling our own. But it is essential.
The Christian church is the Body of Christ, and St. Paul often writes about how a body needs both ears and hands, both feet and noses. We are only whole when we are all together. God designed us to be complementary parts of a whole. Separately, we are incomplete. The farmer who was rich in possessions but absolutely impoverished in terms of relationships never got that message.
Alas, there are others like him all around. And so we, God’s hands and feet, God’s elbows and kneecaps, are called to deliver this message far and wide: “Don’t be afraid.” We are not here to build bigger barns. We are here to build community. How do we do it? How do we communicate the Good News that God’s home is among mortals, so we have nothing to fear? How can we spread the word that Christ is present among us, and his mercy and compassion, justice and righteousness are not treasures to be hoarded, but gifts to be shared? We have been received with limitless hospitality and grace. Jesus loves us. So now what?