Of Vanity and Value
Sermon preached by Jeanne Gay
August 5, 2007
Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:23 Luke 12:13-21
You can’t take it with you. How often have you heard that? It competes with the ever popular, “The one who ends up with the most toys, wins.”
It’s something that’s really hard to get past in this culture, when every time we open a magazine or turn on the TV or just walk down the street, we’re accosted with messages telling us that we’ll be a whole lot happier if we’d just—oh, take your pick—buy a new car, take a cruise, go on the right diet, exchange our refrigerator for a snazzier model, wear designer clothes … One of my professors talks about going to the Mall of America, outside Minneapolis, with his family. They went for the experience of visiting this shrine to consumerism. And after being there for a couple of hours, checking out the stores and even the in-the-mall wedding chapel, and riding the rides in the theme park, his 7-year-old daughter started wailing, “But I just want to buy something!”
I just want to buy something. Shopping therapy, we call it. As if buying something will solve all our problems or, at the least, make us forget them for a while.
And after looking at this “you can’t take it with you” passage in Luke, a sermon about conspicuous consumerism is the first kind that comes to mind. I’ll bet some of you even expected it. You said to yourselves, “Okay, here it comes; she’s going to talk about the dangers of greed.” But there just may have been a little piece of you that was thinking, “Yeah, but we’re not like that. We live in
And you’re right. Someone called me this week to ask us to participate in a program, and he said, “I think
But given that we’re so wonderful and not all that likely to build ourselves huge barns to hold all our stuff … well, maybe some of us, despite loving Mt. Airy, do fall prey to such mistakes … well, given that perhaps that’s not the sermon we need, what else can we find in this morning’s texts? Because, you know, there’s always something for us in the scriptures. That’s part of the human condition, that we never quite get it all together.
In the text Christine read for us, from Ecclesiastes, the speaker has had quite a bit of experience with the human condition. In our translation, he refers to himself as The Teacher; sometimes he’s called The Quester; scholars know him as Quoholeth. Don’t read these first couple of chapters in Ecclesiastes if you want to be cheered up—Quoholeth is decidedly gloomy. He’s decided that everything people value in life is vanity—or what Eugene Peterson translates as “smoke” in The Message.
Smoke, nothing but smoke. There's nothing to anything—it's all smoke.
Life goes on, Quoholeth tells us. It’s the same old thing, day after day, generation after generation. He’s tried it all. As king over
Do you know people like this? People who are so world weary that they’re convinced there’s nothing worth living for? Quoholeth reminds me of some of the earnest young cynics I knew in college—except that he really has tried it all. These verses (and I’m using The Message translation here) go on to tell about everything he’s tried:
Oh, I did great things: built houses,
designed gardens and parks
and planted a variety of fruit trees in them,
made pools of water
to irrigate the groves of trees.
I bought slaves, male and female,
who had children, giving me even more slaves;
then I acquired large herds and flocks,
larger than any before me in
I piled up silver and gold,
loot from kings and kingdoms.
I gathered a chorus of singers to entertain me with song,
and—most exquisite of all pleasures—
voluptuous maidens for my bed.
Did you hear all that? Yes, he’s been amazingly rich, and he’s been entertained by wine, women and song, but he’s also put his efforts into the kinds of things we tend to see as worthwhile: He’s been a builder and a planter, a designer of gardens and even an ecologist of sorts. And still, what’s it all about, Quoholeth? Vanity and chasing after wind. Smoke and spitting into the wind.
He’s tried great learning and wisdom.
I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over
Wisdom is better than folly, he decides—better to be smart than stupid—but both the wise and the foolish end up the same. Smoke and spitting in the wind.
I imagine that if Quoholeth were living today, there would be an even greater list of things he had tried. Sky diving and rock climbing … world travel … explorations of science and philosophy … compelling careers … reading great novels … eating at wonderful restaurants … going to concerts … yoga … simple living … organic gardening … handcrafts … recycling … repairing antique furniture …
And his conclusion about all of this would be the same. Vanity and chasing after wind.
It’s pretty discouraging. I imagine that we come to that same conclusion about our lives at times. “Is that all there is?” we ask ourselves.
The man in our text from Luke didn’t seem to be that much of a philosopher. If he ever asked himself whether all of this was worth it in the end, we surely don’t know it. All that we know of him is the discussion he had with himself.
And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’
Have you ever noticed how completely self-centered that text is? I count six I’s, five my’s. The only time he says you, he’s talking to his own soul. It’s all about me. Me, me, me!
There’s nothing in this man’s life that includes anyone else. And there’s nothing that includes God. The passage ends with the lines, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! 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.”
And there, I think, is the clue to both of these passages. Quoholeth’s life also had nothing in it that was rich toward other people or to God. Lives that are created around “me, me, me,” whether it’s my barns full of grain or my wisdom or my career or my happiness or even my family or my church—those lives can indeed be vanity and chasing after wind.
This morning we will gather together around the table of our Lord. We will gather as the Body of Christ and to partake of the body of Christ. The invitation for us is from God, and participating at this table ensures us that our lives are not empty and meaningless, not vanity and chasing after wind. God invites us all to open our hearts to the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through our lives and giving them meaning—full of love and service and joy. Come to the table, my friends, and celebrate lives lived in Jesus the Christ.