Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Luke 12:13-21
Our first lesson today from Ecclesiastes, which Ella Nalle read for us, has historically been attributed to King Solomon, the wealthy king of Israel who succeeded his father David. The first line is famous, and many of you have surely heard it before: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” This final fragment becomes a refrain throughout the book: “all is vanity.” It is worth pausing to note that the traditional translation of “vanity” used here, which is carried through from the King James Version of the bible, is not the same thing as “conceitedness.” This is not the kind of vanity that refers to someone who is obsessed with their appearance. Although the word does carry that suggestion, it also means “futile” or “pointless,” in the same way that the English phrase “to do something in vain” denotes. Some translators have used the more literal word “vapor,” so that the first line reads “Vapor of vapors […] all is vapor.” Others have used the word “smoke.” Each of these translations attempt to communicate a sense of emptiness or pointlessness.
As we heard in today’s lesson, the primary thesis of Ecclesiastes is to emphasize the emptiness or “vanity” at the heart of all earthly and temporal things. Ecclesiastes reminds us that we will all die, that everything we know in this world will disappear, and that our lives in this world are empty, no matter how much we strive to give them meaning and purpose. It is not a particularly happy book, to be honest. Nevertheless, the message of Ecclesiastes has struck a chord with readers and listeners throughout the millennia. We might not like to dwell on its central message, but there is a truth in it that is hard to shake. Studying geological or astronomical time scales makes our particular lives – and even the entire history of human kind – seem pathetically small, perhaps even something like “vanity.”
As profound as this truth may be, it is universally available. We don’t need an advance degree in philosophy of theology to know that we are going to die. As a result, the message of Ecclesiastes is often trivialized and reduced to a platitude. “If nothing means anything [as Ecclesiastes seems to suggest]” this thinking goes, “then I might as well do what feels good for me now.” Those of you who are familiar with the history of human thought may recognize the seeds of hedonism and Epicureanism in this line of thinking. Perhaps more accessible to most of us is what author Kendra Creasy Dean coined as “the teen commandment,” which is two words: “gratification now.” This watered-down-pseudo-wisdom often manifests itself in the form of platitudes like “you do you” or “do what makes you happy.” Of course, our desire for self-gratification is certainly not unique to our teenage years. Popular culture is overflowing with a message for every age group that pleasure and money are the source of happiness.
I am highlighting this line of thinking because it is precisely the thinking that Jesus is addressing in the parable from today’s Gospel lesson. In the parable, a hugely wealthy man builds large barns to store all of his goods, and then he says to his own soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” It is worth noting how this parable narrows in on this man’s interior life. The man is speaking to his own soul in this parable, and he is resolving that the ultimate purpose of his wealth and his life is to “relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” I hope that we might see how this parable aligns with the commandment of “gratification now” described by Kendra Creasy Dean as “the teen commandment.” At its worst, this man’s thoughts are selfish materialism, and at their best they are a modern form of feel-good-self-actualization. In either case, the man presumes that the only things that ultimately matter are material possessions and pleasures: “relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” This is the kind of bumper sticker that I would imagine might sell well at a holiday spa, and it is what I meant when I said earlier that the message of Ecclesiastes is often trivialized and reduced to a superficial platitude.
In today’s parable from Luke, God’s response to this line of thinking is unequivocal. “You fool,” God speaks directly to the wealthy man, “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.” God’s response to the man in this parable feels like a quote from today’s lesson in Ecclesiastes.
Both God in the parable and the preacher from Ecclesiastes are moving beyond the superficial platitudes of pop culture to observe that self-gratification itself is an illusion. There is no there-there. The more we have -- the more we consume -- the more we come to realize that material stuff won’t fill us with what we truly desire and need. The fulfillment we receive from material self-gratification is superficial and temporary…we might even say that it is "empty" like the preacher from Ecclesiastes.
Even though “the preacher” who wrote Ecclesiastes is not King Solomon, it is important to note that he attributes the sentiments of his wisdom to the king. The preacher is suggesting that even a mighty king with as much treasure, wine, and food, and as many wives as he wished to court, is ultimately discontented because he sees through everything he has, how empty it all becomes once he obtains it. How many times in our lives have each of us thought, “I’ll only be happy when I get a particular material thing,” only to realize that when we get it, our lives have not fundamentally changed? A car? Or a piece of furniture? Or a house?
This parable from Luke and the entirety of Ecclesiastes are clear: “[true] life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” and they point us in a different direction away from materialism. It is a mistake to read a parable like today’s as a blanket condemnation of wealth; the scripture makes clear that the problem is not wealth itself, but the unrelenting temptation to make wealth an end in and of itself. When a man steps forward from the crowd to ask Jesus to settle a dispute about material things, Jesus responds, “Friend, who am I to be judge and arbiter?” Jesus refuses to engage with the question of wealth in this world, instead moving immediately towards material wealth's capacity to inspire greed and corrupt our souls. In the parable, God says that “[anyone who] stores up treasures for themselves [will be lost if they] are not rich toward God.” The point is clear and positive: we should spend our lives searching for the riches of God rather than clinging to material things.
Author David Brooks offers an accessible way to think about the what this might mean. In his book The Road to Character, he draws a distinction between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” Resume virtues are all the material accolades and possessions that we accrue over a lifetime of work. These accolades are the metaphorical riches that most of us store in the barns of our resumes, and it is so tempting, like the man in our parable, to think that these will make us happy. But Brooks points out that the most “vapid” lives (note the use of the word “vapor” here), are those consumed with curating resume virtues. By way of contrast, the lives most worthy of emulating, he observes, come from the kinds of stories that emerge in great eulogies. These stories, what Brooks calls “eulogy virtues,” conform to a particular pattern, or way of being. Great eulogies talk about times of shared suffering, times of compassion, or times of self-sacrificial or self-effacing humility. When we offer ourselves and our wellbeing for the wellbeing of another, something profound happens.
Two days ago, a friend of mine directed me to the 2012 film version of Les Misérables, to a particular scene when actor Hugh Jackman’s character, Jean Valjean, a convict taken in to be fed and clothed by a priest, steals all the parish silver and escapes into the night. Overtaken by authorities, Jean Valjean is beaten severely and returned to the priest along with the parish silver. The priest, knowing that this man will likely be killed for his crime, rushes to the dinner table and grabs the only two silver candlesticks that were not stolen and thrusts them into Jean Valjean’s hands, saying, “You for forgot to take these too.” Stunned, the officers let the Jean Valjean go with all of the parish silver, shocked to learn that the priest had given it away.
I have been chewing on that scene from Les Misérables for two days, and it occurs to me that there is no amount of silver in the world that could purchase the kind of value and truth that such an act of grace accomplishes. That’s the kind of story that forms a “eulogy virtue;” that’s the kind of story that transforms a life; that is an example of what it might mean to “be rich toward God;” it is a story that works its way into our souls and stays with us.
It can be tempting in this beautiful place in the Adirondacks, to think that its value comes from the pleasure or self-gratification that we all derive from its material beauty or from the material comfort of the many wonderful places to stay here; however, such a conclusion misses the most important undercurrent of why I think we gather in this chapel and turns towards God in this place. I submit that we come here because something about this place allows us to experience the richness of God. Many of us have been coming here for three, or four, or five, or even six generations. What keeps us coming back, all the way from Texas or Colorado or California? There are so many beautiful places in this world. Why this one? I suspect that many of us who keep coming back here have experienced someone who has displayed to us a “eulogy virtue." I was recently talking with someone from our congregation who came to this place for the first time three years ago. When I asked her what drew her to the Adirondacks, she responded, “My whole family just got along here.” Do you see the undercurrent of love in that statement? The material beauty of this place is wonderful, it may even be a catalyst for what I am talking about, but material beauty isn’t what keeps us coming back to a place like this year after year. For many of us, we have experienced a small fragment of the same kind of love that the priest in Les Misérables shows Jean Valjean. In other words, someone has embodied, if only for a moment, the love of God that we see in Jesus Christ.
That is what we are about to do for Tove Maple Marklund. She will be baptized in water from Upper Saranac Lake, and before she is even aware of it, she will be wrapped in a love that she will never deserve or earn because it is a free gift. Tove will be loved here. Right here at this baptismal fount, in this place, she will be given the silver candlesticks of God’s grace. That is a kind of richness that can never be taken away from her. There is no vanity in it because it is not from this world. Amen.