Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
All is vanity, all is vanity. This reading seems similar to an episode of Oprah. Your work is vanity, my work is vanity, everyone’s work is vanity!
Even so, it makes a valid point about our concern for the world. When we labor, we know that our labors, in the end, are not for our own good because we, like all things in this world, will pass away. When we worry, this is vanity, because the world will pass away. When we do not toil, it is also vanity.
It all sounds so existential. But what seems to be happening here looks like it may be a bit of rabbinic hyperbole. Like most teachers and preachers, sometimes the scriptures, ahem, exaggerate a bit to make a point.
In the end, is everything vanity? Is every single act we do in this world only for ourselves? Do we do nothing worthwhile? Of course we do. Of course our actions are important, of course it matters how we live our lives. Of course it matters whether we work and leave things better for the next generation than they were for us.
But the point of this particular reading seems to be that, in the end, while all these things are important and in fact are the most important things we will do during our short time on this spinning rock, that importance pales in comparison to the eschatological, heavenly hope and life that we will lead.
In the end, our worship of God, our praise of God, and our relationship with God are the most important things. And those things manifest themselves in a variety of areas of our lives, all of which are important. But when that last day comes, when we find ourselves raised again into our new life with Christ, when light perpetual shines upon us and we are overwhelmed with the glory of the Lord God Almighty, all we had done prior, all of our previous successes, sins and shortcomings will fade away as insignificant in the face of that overwhelming love. And it will all seem to be vanity.
- What details do we get caught up in that are unimportant?
- What minutia is distracting us from a life with God?
- What small things are interfering with our relationship with God that may be overshadowed by the big things interfering with our relationship with God?
In today’s psalm we see that “the wise die also; like the dull and stupid they perish” and that “we can never ransom ourselves, or deliver to God the price of our life.” This reading has a grim but liberating equality to it. It is a reminder of the ultimate equality of every person; king and beggar alike both molder into dust in the end. And yet, this seemingly hopeless psalm fits with our other readings for the day. This reminder that we are dust easily sets up a premise for a sermon, presenting us with a problem that needs the redemption offered by the readings in both Colossians and Luke. When we are reminded we are going to die, and that rich and poor die alike, fertile ground is plowed for a reminder that not only do we die, but we are also raised in Christ.
Likewise, it reminds us that no matter how many toys we have, we still die, and that our greed is not our goal. While potentially dark and heavy on its own, this reading offers up an existential problem that is met with powerful and affirming solutions in the other readings of the day. Incorporating this psalm gives the preacher a chance to scripturally ground feelings of fear or worry that are redeemed in Christ.
- Why are good works not enough to ransom ourselves?
- What is the folly of trusting in riches?
- What must we do to never see the grave?
Today’s reading from Colossians leads with the best of news: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is. … When Christ, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” It continues on, exhorting and encouraging good behavior, but reminding us that in Christ it does not matter, and that even the death we suffered has enabled us to be clothed in the “new self.”
While we cannot be saved by our own acts, we can be saved by Christ. We invite upon ourselves death if we rely upon our own actions or our own abilities, but Christ, who is all in all, does not worry about our sins and inadequacies; Christ redeems us anyway.
- What failings or iniquities can the power of Christ wash away?
- What does a new life in Christ look like?
- What relation is there between this universal life in Christ (neither Jew nor Greek, etc.) and a life in which we rely on human ability?
In this reading we hear Jesus rebuking greed and worldliness and giving us an example of bad stewardship. Normally, we would consider a man who had stored enough to fill his silos and storehouses to be a good steward of the resources given to him, having multiplied them like the servants with the talents. The difference is that here, the talents have not been given back to the master in gratitude. This man has saved more than he can use, and yet he shows no gratitude to God for the gifts he has been given. He does not care for the widow, the orphan, the starving, or the helpless. He even speaks only in the first person. “I,” “I,” “I,” “I,” all throughout the parable.
Saving and being prudent with resources is a virtue, but this man has become an idolater, greedily taking more than he needs or can use, failing to use the gifts he had been given. While his grain may have multiplied, is storing it in a silo where he can come back and get it later any different than the servant who buried the talent? This parable warns us against the idolatry of greed, the glorification of excessive wealth. Jesus does not condemn the man for his success, or even for his wealth. He is shown as a negative example because he fails to serve anyone but himself and his own wealth. His greed has caused him to think only of having more for himself, to the detriment of those around him. And in his actions, he has forgotten that most important of financial truths: You can’t take it with you. He who dies with the most toys is still just as dead. And in death, this man will have to stand before God in judgment, with his greed and selfishness on full display.
Stewardship is about more than getting as much as possible. It is about more than stockpiling resources. It is certainly about more than idolizing that which we are greedy for. It is about making sure that we have enough, certainly, but about making sure those around us have enough as well.
- What are our idols? For what are we greedy? What is it that we pursue to the detriment of those around us?
- What material goods or wants are we putting above God and service?
- Are we more worried about the judgment of the world or about the judgment of God?