Pentecost 11C Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23 Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21
Have you ever said to yourself: when I win the lottery I’m going to do such and such. Or maybe: if I inherited a million dollars from some long lost rich uncle, I’d do this or that. This is a common daydream many of us have; magically getting enough money to finally fix all of our problems and even all the problems of the people and organizations we love the most.
A couple of years ago I heard an interview of a man named Felix Dennis, a self made British entrepreneur who started from quite humble beginnings and in his later years was worth over a billion dollars. He wrote several books on how to become filthy rich, not just wealthy or financially stable or having a lot of money but having obscene, tremendous amounts of money. But some of what he said in that interview was a bit surprising. Though maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising at all.
“Anyone who follows the advice [my book] contains will become richer than their neighbor, but you will pay the price. Those who tread this narrow road walk in single file. Shadows plague each weary step. Hazard haunts each mile. I would love to be able to write a book about how to get rich and be a descent human being. But all I can tell you is……you really can’t do it. I wish it was the other way around….but you can not make yourself a very rich person and do it by being a descent human being…..you may start out working together……but it all comes down to who is going to own what……who is going to own who. I worked hard with a lot of friends in the beginning. But I didn’t give them one iota of my company and they would not have worked any harder for me if I had. And in the end I got rich and they had a good life.” [There is no such thing as] Manufacturing wealth….at some point, you’re stealing it from other people [and] Sacrifice your better instincts to do it. [and to do it you use] The sliver of ice inside every person. It’s there already. It’s in every human being.”
When asked about the value of rich people leaving their money to charity in their wills, he said “leaving all your money to charity when you’re dead….what kind of sacrifice is that? I’ll tell you what kind of sacrifice that is, not any sacrifice. You don’t need money when you’re dead.”
It sounds like Mr. Dennis has come to his later years and, looking back upon his life, he is not entirely pleased with what he sees. Actually it sounds very much like he might agree with our Old Testament text for today. Vanity of vanities—all is vanity. This word vanity in our text for today means something that is very hollow and devoid of substance. Futile, worthless, something without purpose, vapor, smoke, or, perhaps most profoundly, emptiness. Not the emptiness of a void or vacuum but the kind of emptiness that is notable because it is a place that ought not be empty.
After recognizing the futility of his actions in life, saying that he hated all his toil in which he had toiled under the sun, hated giving whatever he’d worked for to others to do with as they pleased, the writer of Ecclesiastes then says that he gives his heart up to despair. Of us all, mortals that we are, he says “For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”
Whew! Between Mr Dennis’ perspective and that of the Ecclesiastes writer, it’s all rather depressing, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but it sounds like it’s time for some Good News. So let us turn to our lessons from the New Testament.
Unfortunately, there is also a hard teaching here as well. Our second lesson has a list of things within us that must be put to death the last of which is greed. Greed is the thread that ties together all of today’s scripture readings and it even ties in Mr Felix Dennis as well. Greed. The writer of Ecclesiastes isn’t talking about the kind of toil that produces satisfaction in a hard day’s work or providing a meal for one’s family or adds to the savings or retirement fund. He isn’t talking about the kind of work that comes from creating art, honest labor, helping others, or extra hours so that special vacation is within grasp. He’s talking about greed; what Mr Dennis called the “sliver of ice”. The desire to have more, do more, be more, take more for the sake of…..more. And we all have that potential in us.
Jesus speaks about greed as well. It’s one of those days when Jesus is surrounded by tons of people. From the crowd a man calls out to him to settle a family argument. Tell my brother, he says, to divide the family inheritance with me. There is something about this that sort of reminds us of our gospel lesson a couple of weeks ago when Martha asks Jesus to make her sister do her share of work around the house.
Here is the Messiah, right here in the flesh, and the thing that comes to this man’s mind is to ask him to settle a disagreement about money? So far in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has feed thousands with only a few bits of bread and fish, brought people back from the dead, healed countless sick and infirm and cast out demonic spirits. And yet all this man would ask of the Son of God is that he arbitrate a family dispute over things.
Jesus tells the crowd: take care and avoid greed, because your life does not consist of an abundance of possessions. And, in Jesus’ style, he tells them a parable about a rich man, so rich in fact that he tore down his barns to build larger ones in order store even more of all the extra he had. So much stuff!
An interesting part of the little parable is the conversation the rich man has with himself. The man said to his soul, “Soul, you have much stored up for many years. Eat drink and be merry!” He does not turn to God for guidance as to what to do with his possessions. He does not give away or share his extra with those who are in need. No, he consults with himself alone and seeks to have a contented and happy Soul not in God but in the security of his well stocked storehouse full of many things. But all of this is worth nothing in comparison to his life.
Like Mr Dennis said, you don’t need money when you’re dead.
The problem with greed isn’t the things themselves nor is it even really proportion. Having just enough is never possible because truly, we never seem to get enough of anything we want. It is, instead, a matter of where you hang your heart. Greed, which is equated with idolatry by the writer of Colossians, has to do with where you hang your heart. Martin Luther wrote that a god is that upon which we hang our hearts. And Idolatry is when we hang our hearts upon anything that is not Jesus. Greed, the love of not just money but the love of “more”, is idolatry because it is hanging our hearts upon, trying to fill up our hearts with “more”. More stuff, money, things. Or just more. Consoling our souls with our full storehouse.
We could say to ourselves: the cure to greed is to just take enough, so we should seek balance and only take what we need. This is not a bad idea at all. In fact, it is a very good idea. However, if we think this is the full solution, we might not be realistically seeing the whole picture of our human nature. The truth is that there is never “enough” to satisfy. It is difficult even to see a proper balance or know how much is just what we need. At least not for long. There are always the “what if” questions. What if I have company, will that be enough food? What if I need something repaired on the car, will there be enough in savings to cover it? These are normal what ifs that we all think about. These are the kinds of what ifs we think about in the middle of the night. What if the market crashes, will we have enough to live on? What if the house burns to the ground, do we have enough insurance to replace everything?
However, it is not long before we end up with greater, less “survival” oriented What ifs. What if I have a paycut and can’t get a mocha latte every morning or we can’t eat out more than twice a week? What if we don’t get to go on a beach trip this year?
And it is even more than the what ifs of life because Mr Dennis is right; we all do have that sliver of ice in us. We are both saint and sinner at the same time. There’s always something in us crying out for more more more and convincing us that it isn’t enough yet and if we had just a bit more, everything would be ok. We’d feel secure, safe, stable, successful, prepared, if we had just a little more. If we’re honest, down deep inside, we might even think if we had a little bit more we might finally feel ok, loved and whole.
There’s nothing wrong with things. There’s nothing wrong with gold and nothing wrong with cows. Put them together to make golden calves, however, and we have a problem. We have an idol. Things, money, appreciating the world and the people and things in it are all just fine. Worshiping, hanging our heart upon them, turning them into a god, that’s the problem.
More things, more people, more money or even more of all of these things together cannot fill the hole in the soul that is left when we lose a loved one. They won’t fill up all the tiny little Swiss cheese holes eaten away in us when we are lonely or lost, when we are afraid of what will come or won’t come for us, when we are sure we are unlovable, abandoned and worthless. All of the things and money and people in all the world can never fill up these holes. The greed that demands more of everything can only widen and deepen these holes, all the while telling us that just a little more will do the trick. That greed also widens the gap between us and the one who can satisfy, who can heal, who does make whole, who brings us new life, who created all the things we wish for ourselves and others; the one who made us.
Colossians says “for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” This is where our real life is: in Christ. There is nothing of eternal value to be found in all the massive, greedily gathered piles of more but uselessness. Vanity of vanities. All of that is vanity. Empty, leaving us empty in a way that we ought not be. But with Christ even death cannot destroy the life we have with him. There is the true healing, true solace, true happiness, true joy for our souls.
When the bible addresses the problem of idolatry, most often the text brings up the grandness and majesty of creation and the God who brought it all into existence. It is as if to say, ‘you think all that stuff you’re so desperate to have is amazing? You haven’t seen anything!’ The hymn we will sing in just a few moments is an example of a scripture-style recounting of awe inspiring creation and its creator. When we sing these words, we are reminded of where our heart truly belongs. When we see the things of this world and want them, we can remember that we belong to the God who made all of them and who made us. Which is better, the created thing or the one who creates?
Winning lottery tickets and distant wealthy uncles are few and far between and whatever we could truly gain from them is little more than vapor and smoke. But God, on the other hand, is never in short supply, always present and always more than we could ever need.