Vanity and Satisfaction

Transcribed from the sermon preached September 4, 2016

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

 Scripture Readings: 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Ecclesiastes 6

Ecclesiastes is a strange book.  The author takes a journey through life, contemplating what brings wisdom and happiness.  Scholars note that the language and the abstract nature place it late in the Old Testament canon.  The Hebrew Scriptures are not abstract but historical.  Only Job has a similar abstract quality. Scholars suspect some Greek philosophical influence, with a Stoic contempt for the world and the “enjoy it if you got it” influence of Epicureanism. It feels like a philosophy one writes from privileged position – at least privileged enough to travel around and contemplate. Its heretical leaning from a modern point of view would be nihilism and hedonism. That is, there is not much we can do so why try. We might as well enjoy ourselves. But it is a corrective against the Christian extreme that somehow suffering itself is virtuous. It is fascinating and providential that we find it in the canon alongside the likes of Isaiah, Micah and Mark. His basic point of view is that the world is trouble no matter who you are or how hard you work, so take the time to enjoy what you can while you can. To the poor he says don’t be envious; the rich have no cause for pride because we will all be dead soon enough. He certainly has many pithy lines. One that cracks me up is, “It is better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” Seeking peace and justice too, has its vanity, as if we consider ourselves so powerful and important and good that the world should bend to our righteousness. We can beat our heads against the wall all we want, but “Nothing is new under the Sun.” Seek righteousness, that is good.  Seek peace. Seek prosperity. Seek wisdom, but there is no promise God will reward you. The best you can do is to enjoy what you are lucky enough to have while you have it.

Here in chapter six he discusses key symbols of success in Hebrew society, wealth, long life, and lots of children.

He laments that too many people work hard and do not get to enjoy the fruit of their labor.  On the one hand he is noticing the fact that too often powerful people hinder, exploit or steal the fruit of labor.  The probability that unjust, corrupt and powerful men will graft off our hard work is one of the greatest stumbling blocks of social transformation the world over.  If you live in a society where the evidence has shown that if you prosper you will draw attention and get your goods taken, hope is stifled, and people will be less inclined to be creative and work extra hard.  This is why attempts at development work are so hard.  The local people have a different understanding than the outsider with his or her own hope and idealism.

This is why the latest round of utopianism via technology is misconceived.  Some will use it for good, some will use it for evil, and it won’t change the fundamental problems of social life: that it is hard to get along with others, and the powerful tend hoard and be greedy, whether is it good for them and society in the long run or not. There is nothing new under heaven.

So Ecclesiastes is lamenting injustice.

On the other hand he is also talking about the fact that there are some who have it well, and yet they are still grumpy and unsatisfied.  There are folks with wealth, a long life and many kids who are critical, angry or unsatisfied.  What is the blessing in living till we are 150 if we have had a negative perspective for the first 75?

I think it was Tony Compollo who said, “Some people, when they find that their cup runneth over, rather than thanking God, they pray for a bigger cup.”

The country club family with fancy cars and great houses may be miserable, while the family who struggles to get by may be wise, stable and love filled.

Most of us are a mix of both.  Sometimes in some areas we are solid and resilient in others we slip and slide. Sometimes we could stand to be more thankful for what we do have, sometimes we need to struggle and grieve loss of the past, or hope for the future, Sometimes we need to work, sometimes rest.  “There is a time for everything under heaven.”

Take it easy, take it slow, stay focused on the now, one step at a time and try to have a positive attitude most of the time. I figure Ecclesiastes would think that if you are happy 51% of the time, you are ahead.

There is a limit to how much good work you can do; you are human after all. Work hard but don’t burn out: you are not that powerful or important; from dust we come and to dust we shall return, “Better a live dog than a dead lion.” So do what you can as you can. In a sense Ecclesiastes would rather not have us keep score: that is we live wisely, with the right mind and right spirit, and try to do the right thing at the right time because it is the right thing to do, not because we are sure we can bring in utopia or heaven on earth. Or, heaven on earth, the eternal, is in that moment of blissfulness, the act of justice and love.

So there is some grace in Ecclesiastes.  Forgive yourself for not being able to save every last suffering child of God, to reign in every destructive ideology, bring to justice every single bad guy, to justify yourself to every critic. They will die soon enough, just the same as you. Pick your battles.  If the shoe fits wear it. Or as Gandhi said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

Let’s have a meal and enjoy.  Christ invites us.  Maybe up to the present moment we have been nothing but trouble.  Seize the grace of the moment.  Like Paul, receive forgiveness and new life.  Let go of the failures and step forward with courage into now.  Take this bread and this wine as Spirit into you, enjoy the taste of this moment, may it remind you of the grace that comes to us from the saints of the past, from Christ, and may you be nourished and sustained for the moments to come, trusting that the God of love will be there waiting for you.