The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost—PR 13—Year C; Ecclesiastes 1:1-2,12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
It would appear that the Teacher in that passage from Ecclesiastes is not having a good day. The Teacher can’t get past the second verse of his book without using the word vanity five times. “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” He sees all the deeds done under the sun, and all is vanity. He hates all his toil, and he’s aware that he has to entrust it to those who come after him, and they could be really foolish, yet it will be in their hands—and this is vanity. And so he gives himself up to despair because one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill has to leave it all to one who didn’t work for it—and this is vanity. And what do you get for all the toil and strain? Days that are full of pain and work that’s full of grief and anger born of frustration and minds that spin in the middle of the night—and this also is vanity.
Whoo-ee. That is one despairing soul. The hebrew word for vanity—it’s hard to translate. It’s a vapor, a breath, a puff, it’s fleeting; it’s the epitome of emptiness; the meaninglessness born of hopelessness. This is the “What does it matter?” question that comes when you can’t see the fruit of your labors or when you have labored hard only to see another come behind you and dismantle your work. What does it matter? None of it lasts anyway. Why try? Why try at all?
And at the end of this passage, the Reader stood at that lectern and said, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people,” and we all responded, “Thanks be to God.”
Goodness, what in the world is the Spirit trying to say to us through this passage, and how in the world can we give thanks for such a hopeless, despairing message?
Well, sometimes, the scriptures go dark, really, really dark, to mirror back to us those dark places that we, in our darkest moments, inhabit. If we’re honest, we’ve all had moments when we wonder “What’s it all for?” and answer that question with a big fat “Nothing.” We’ve all had moments of sheer frustration in having worked so hard to build something only to place it in someone else’s hands and watch it fall apart. We’ve all had moments of counting the cost of our work and lying awake in the middle of the night and wondering why on earth we care so much.
Cynicism, skepticism, despair—these are alive and well all around us right now, maybe even within us. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes says, “All is vanity.” Today, we’d just call it the spirit of nihilism—nihilism, according to Webster’s, is“the belief that traditional morals, ideas, beliefs, etc. have no worth or value” and more specifically, “the belief that a society’s political and social institutions are so bad that they should be destroyed.” Oh, this just got uncomfortably close; this sounds like where so many in our country are living right now.
Maybe the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is just describing what the society is mirroring. Maybe the Spirit is just trying to show us the sea we’re swimming in. Maybe our thanks is about knowing the degree of despair and hopelessness that is all around us right now.
And in this environment, the temptation is to hunker down, take care of your own, get what you can, store it up, look after your own happiness, and cut everyone and everything else loose. Maybe that’s the stance of the person in the gospel today who wants Jesus to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. Jesus won’t get in that family triangle, but he tells a parable instead about the rich man whose land produces abundantly and who wants to tear down his barn and build bigger ones so he can store up his goods and grains and sit back, relax, eat and drink. And then his life is demanded of him. The moral of the story is delivered at the beginning when Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Life—“zoe” is the word used in the greek—this is vital life, genuine life; life that is immeasurably real, this is the absolute fullness of life, both in its essence and in its alignment with its deepest values; this is the abundant life that Jesus promises us. You can’t find this life in what you accumulate, whether that accumulating is in tangible, real goods and possessions or in the intangibles of status and privilege or even in the success or lasting nature of our work.
Daggone it, one more death to our False Self. Transformation is really hard work.
As is always the case, the spiritual life is all about letting go. Letting go of old behaviors and old patterns. That’s really what Colossians is trying to spell out for us when it talks about putting to death whatever in us is earthly. Oh, it lists a bunch of things, but they’re all different ways of describing what happens when we live our lives out of alignment with our deepest values. Colossians calls us out on the ways we once followed when we were living life thinking that the trappings of the False Self are the goal—thinking the goal is about gaining power, being in control, making an idol out of safety and security, doing anything to gain esteem and affection. Colossians says, “These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things” and then it gets even more specific in saying that anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language from your mouth, lying to one another—these all have to go, seeing as we have stripped off the old self with its practices.
Oh wow, we all might as well put tape over our mouths from now until the election just like old Zechariah who was struck mute for the entirety of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
But the stripping off of the old self, the stripping away of the False Self, doesn’t leave us standing there naked. No, Colossians reminds us that we have been clothed with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. And in that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian (who were the really, really barbarian people), there is no longer slave and free, there is no longer Republican and Democrat, enlightened and unenlightened, those who see what’s really going on (however you define that) and those who don’t have a clue (however you define that); but Christ is all and in all! All the ways that we have of dividing up the world, they have no place in the new self that knows it rests in Christ and knows that the image of its creator is indelibly imprinted on every human being.
Colossians reminds us that we who have been raised with Christ have to seek the things that are above. We’ve got to rise above the noise to where Christ is, to where God lives. We’ve got to see the world through those divine eyes that only have love and compassion for this broken, broken world. We’ve got to set our mind on those things, not on all the ways that the world has come up with to keep us apart from one another. We’ve got to die to this insatiable appetite for division. And we’ve got to understand that our life, our “zoe” life, our True Self, it is hidden with Christ in God.
In other words, there ain’t going to be no reward that will be tangible and visible by the world’s standards.
But when Christ shines through our life, then our truest most real self is revealed. When we move into the abundant life, full of essence, lived in alignment, we come to know experientially that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, and glory is just another way to describe the beauty of this transformation.
We may have started this morning believing that “all is vanity,” but we can leave this morning filled with a crazy kind of hope. We are only bound to the old self if we choose to stay there, but remember, that old self was buried with Christ. We have been raised with him. We have been clothed with a new self. We don’t have to buy into the nihilism, the division, the definitions of success, the idols of the False Self; our life is hidden with Christ. We can rest there; we can anchor ourselves there; we can align our values there; we can live our life from there. The old ways are the way of death, for all of us and certainly for our society. Renewal will come in knowing that Christ is all and in all and that the image of the Creator is everywhere.
All is not vanity; there is a LIFE—vital, essential, aligned, infinitely full, infinitely alive—there is a LIFE so worth living. It’s a hidden treasure; hidden with Christ in God. It’s just waiting to be discovered, and it’s yearning to be revealed. The way to find it isn’t to build bigger barns; no, the way to find it is to die to the old self that thinks this LIFE will fit in any box that we construct. Strip off the old self and discover the treasure that rests underneath, your LIFE, hidden with Christ in God, now and forever. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
July 31, 2016