Monday, August 5, 2013

Vanity, Vanity!

Ecclesiastes 1: 2-14, page 614 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new?” It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them. I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. Sermon According to the author of Ecclesiastes, our second scripture lesson for this morning, “there is nothing new under the sun”, and while this statement is generally true, there are exceptions I believe, as when I was a child pita chips did not exist and today they do. I was in Kroger last week to pick up a handful of items and I wandered into the section of the new Kroger store with all the fancy cheeses, and there was a big display for Stacy’s Pita Chips. Now pita bread, I remember eating pita bread as a child, and I would wonder for hours on end how it was that the bread magically developed with such a convenient pocket. Pita bread is almost like a bread bubble gone flat, so when you slice a piece into two both become a shell that you can fill up with whatever you want. I remember having pita bread sandwiches as a child and stuffing the pocket with cheese and lettuce or whatever else. But now Stacy has figured out a way to turn the pita bread, that I’m sure human civilization has known for thousands of years, into delicious chips that can be dipped as a snack or appetizer, and her advertising people even developed a catchy slogan to make sure that you hurry over to Kroger today to pick up a bag: “Like is short. Use the good bowl.” Pour out the bag of pita chips onto a plate and pour out some kind of dip - into – not the chipped bowl you use every day, but the good bowl – the one you use only on special occasions – why, because life is short and you don’t need to let another day pass without experiencing Stacy’s pita chips. This advertising slogan really affected me. This slogan, in addition to Stacy’s pita chips, also got me thinking about all the good bowls that I am not using, that I have been saving for some kind of special occasion. Sara and I have been married now for nearly 11 years and there are still wedding gifts, not bowls, but platters and serving utensils, still in their box, waiting for a special occasion. And now I have a reason to pull them out – as today I’m going to ask Sara to bring home a bag of Stacy’s pita chips, which we’ll pour out onto one of those platters, spoon out some kind of dip with our never before used silver serving utensils, because after all, “life is short,” and it's time we “used the good bowl.” Or, maybe not today, but I hope we do use that stuff soon. We’ve moved three times since our wedding day, and each time I pack or unpack those unused wedding presents I think about how we should have used them at least once. But we’re still waiting for the right occasion, or the right yard sale, though it’s not as though we can keep waiting forever. The occasion we’ve been waiting for may not get here. That’s the reality, so while it is possible to get comfortable in the false assumption that tomorrow is guaranteed, while you and I may just go on waiting for the right moment to use the nice bowl, we must remember that there is no way of knowing when our time will run out. That is part of what I believe Jesus was trying to illustrate in our first scripture lesson. Our first scripture lesson tells the story of a rich man and his land that produced abundantly. The man 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.’” That sounds like a good plan – take advantage of today so that you can benefit tomorrow. Work hard now in preparation for the years to come. Tighten that belt, stiffen that lip, and tomorrow – tomorrow you can relax. “But God said to the man, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” Life is short, so use the nice bowl, because tomorrow may never come. There’s a lesson in this parable for the one who works eighty hours a week, all for the day in some uncertain future when his dues are finally paid and he can slow down a little bit – hear this parable and be mindful of the truth that you may not make it that far. There’s a lesson too for the one who gives up everything, who puts everything else on the backburner for the good of her family. She loves them of course, and as for those things that she dreams of doing – exercise, shopping, going on dates with her husband, getting back to school, they’ll be time for that once the kids are in school she says, then I’ll get back to being myself. But hear this parable and know that today is all the time that anyone can count on. We postpone things however. We postpone using the nice bowl in favor of just the right occasion. We save the fancy mustard for the right party, then pull it out from the pantry only to find that the expiration date has already passed. We look forward to the day when there will be time for a vacation, a fishing trip, a night out to dinner, not realizing that tonight is just as good a night as any and tonight may be all that we have. What are we waiting for? As though we had all the time in the world, people put all their chips on tomorrow. But don’t put off really living, don’t wrap up life in tissue paper and put it away in the china cabinet so that your children can pull it out for the estate sale. You do not have all the time in the world, so do not put off enjoying something, do not put off joy or happiness for who knows what might happen between today and tomorrow. That was the lesson that the rich man could have benefited from, and Jesus tells this story to a brother who asks, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” as though the two brothers were fighting it out over who would get what. And this is how we are we humans – wanting fairness when it comes to property and goods – and as we seek out fairness we raise our voices to each other, we appeal to courts of law, and inadvertently we throw away relationships with our brothers in the reckless pursuit of inheritance as though such things as wealth and property were anything more than vanity. “Vanity of vanities,” says the teacher, “all is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” Certainly by fighting over inheritance many gain nothing in the mind of the author of Ecclesiastes, though they say things that can never be taken back and they forfeit relationships that seem as though they can never be healed. And for what – what do they gain? Money in a bank account, property, or goods – surely these things are vanity when they are compared to the relationship harmed with a brother. However, money, property, goods – these things are not deemed vanity by the world – no – these things are prized, valued, sought after tooth and nail, and labored in pursuit of. On the other hand stand the words of Jeremiah Milbank, who helped President Hoover develop the Boys and Girls Club guided by the principle that “wealth not used to serve others is wealth wasted.” This past Thursday I was able to attend a lunch celebrating the Boys and Girls Club of Maury County when six of our church were honored as members of the Jeremiah Milbank society for their outstanding contributions to the Boys and Girls Club. Surely their contributions could have gone to investments, leisure activities, vacations, surely the grain from their productive fields could have been stored in new and larger barns, but instead they gave it away to girls and boys in our community who can benefit from it right now. Right now – that is all that there really is – so what will you do with right now? To put all your effort into labor, surely that is vanity. This afternoon you can cut your lawn, mine certainly needs it, but the grass will grow back again just as the wind “blows to the south, then goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.” Just as “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.” Be motivated knowing that the earth will still be here tomorrow but you may not, so what will you do with today? Surely you must consider the future, but do not assume that joy can be postponed, do not pass up the chance to make a difference to someone, and do not put off the chance for reconciliation for Jesus was trying to tell that young man that the inheritance will still be there tomorrow but you may not again have the chance to see your brother. So how will you treat him? Spend your last moments fighting over goods? Bitter over a deal? Be careful chasing vanity – for it doesn’t matter how much stuff you have, nearly so much as it matters how much you give away. “O the beautiful treasure laid up for the wise, How precious the value, how glorious the prize. Far brighter than diamonds on prince’s brow, And richer than royalty can bestow. Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth can corrupt, where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal.” Follow the example of Christ. The one who gave away everything, even his very life, for your sake and mine. Amen.

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