Tag: Purpose

All is vanity?

Sermon St Wilfrid’s Church and the Presentation Church, Haywards Heath
Trinity 7: Ecclesiastes 1. 2, 12-14; 2.18-23, Luke 12. 13-21
31 July 2022

For those Churches following the three-year Lectionary, a cycle of set readings for each Sunday, this is the only time in those about 150 Sundays that a reading from the book of Ecclesiastes is chosen as the Old Testament reading for the main Sunday service. In many ways, this is not a surprise, as Ecclesiastes is one of the most controversial books in the Bible. Indeed, if you would read this morning’s text without knowing its source, you would not necessarily have guessed that it is part of the Bible, but it could have been written in our time by someone disillusioned with the world around them. 

Yet, Ecclesiastes is part of the Jewish Wisdom literature, and the Christian tradition has received it as part of the Old Testament. The writer refers to himself as the ‘Teacher’ or ‘Preacher’, and Jewish interpreters have associated him with Solomon, as he refers to himself as ‘King over Israel’ and elsewhere ‘Son of David’. 

The first words we hear in our reading this morning, are the opening words of the book: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The Hebrew word that is translated here as vanity is the word hevel, which literally means ‘puff of air’. It’s the same word that is at the root of the name ‘Abel’, Cain’s brother, whose life was cut short like a puff of air.

So when we hear this morning that all is vanity, we could also say: all is just a puff of air, or maybe paraphrased even more liberally: what is the point of it all? And indeed, if you read Ecclesiastes as a whole, this seems to be the pervading question: what is the point, and why do we strive?

It is a question that most people will ask themselves at least once in their lifetime. I suspect that often this question comes up at moments of crisis or loss: when something happens in our lives that makes us question what we took for granted. When someone we love is diagnosed with an incurable illness; when we hear of a tragic accident, or when we are betrayed by those closest to us. At these moments, we can ask ourselves as well: why did we even try?

To me, it’s a great consolation that a text like this is part of our sacred Scripture. It shows that being a Christian, being a Jew, doesn’t mean that there is no doubt, no grief, and no questioning. These difficult questions are what make us human, and a belief in God does not ask us to pretend they no longer exist or apply to us.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we see another way paraphrasing that all is vanity, as Jesus explains in the parable of the rich man, or – as we hear – the rich fool. The parable is a clear warning, not against being wealthy as such, but against defining one’s life by one’s possessions: ‘for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’

It is a warning that is as acute for us, as it was for the original hearers of Jesus’ message. The problem with greed is that there is never enough. I think it’s not entirely unfair to say that our whole Western culture is based on this concept: all around us we are told that we need more. In our time, this more, is not just more possessions, although this is a part of it. It is also more power, more influence, more ‘likes’ on the many different types of social media, and more experiences: places to visit and things to do. Jesus’ warning here is not against these things per se, but against the real danger that more means never enough, and we easily lose perspective of what is really important.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who finds myself often thinking about ‘what’s next?’, rather than enjoying the moment. When I’m at work, I find myself thinking about the next break, and when I’m on holiday, I find myself planning the next few weeks at work. When I’m cycling, I find myself thinking of my next meal, and when I’m eating I begin to plan my next day. Just as with greed, the desire for more possessions, this pattern of thinking is based on the idea that life would be better, if … And, I would be a better version of myself, if …

But here, Jesus says to us: ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’. What if today would be our last day? Would we make the same decisions? Or would we suddenly realise what really matters? It is quite a good spiritual exercise to think what you would do if you had only one more day to live. I’m pretty sure that most of us wouldn’t go shopping, but would have more important matters to address. 

So what does it mean, when Jesus mentions being rich towards God? Being rich towards God expresses itself both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, that we realise that what defines us is being made in God’s image, with the gifts and talents he has given us. Realising that all that we have, including our life, is a gift, and that we should live it with thankfulness and respect. Respect towards ourselves, but also towards others, as each person is equally made in God’s image. 

If we are able to order our inner life in this way, how we live will follow. We will treat others with respect and dignity. We will be more able and willing to share what we have when we acknowledge that we have not earned things on our own accord, but that we have been given all that we have and all that we are. Living a life rich towards God, is the only way we can live a truly rich and fulfilled life. It won’t be a life without hardship, pain, loss, and difficult questions, but it will be a life worth living: a life with substance, a life in which not everything is vanity.

This all was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago, when I was on a trip to Zambia. We spent two nights sleeping under the stars. As I was looking up to the Southern Cross and saw the Milky Way, I realised that this was the most beautiful way in which I had ever spent a night. It didn’t need a fancy hotel, or even a comfortable bed, but only the realisation that here I was, looking into the vastness of the night sky and knowing that I am too a tiny part of God’s wonderful creation.

And therefore, I have to disagree with the author of Ecclesiastes that all is vanity. When God spoke and created, it was not just a puff of air, but from his breath the universe came into being, and we have a part to play. Together with those who went before and those who will come after, we have been created out of love and been given a purpose. Yes, it is a tiny part to play, but not insignificant. So let learn to be thankful, and ask, not for more, but to be shown ever clearer what is means to be truly rich: rich towards God, and rich in hope, faith and love.