July 31st, 2016
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Do you remember what Benjamin Franklin said after the Constitutional Convention? Someone asked him, “What have you done? What have you made?” And he said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” I am reminded of this after reading Ecclesiastes this week—“I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me—and who knows if they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master over all for which I have toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.” I think of this as we enter another election season, at the end of the Obama era. Two hundred and twenty-eight years after Ben Franklin’s remark, we still have a republic of sorts, and if you believe the commentary, its continued existence is questionable. I’ll bet Ben Franklin would have been happy to know the Republic he toiled so hard to build is still around. I wonder what he’d think of us now, the man who hoped that the seal for the United States would feature the turkey, a peaceable, native bird, rather than the fierce bald eagle. Yet we are master over all for which he toiled and used his wisdom—or at least, some of us are. But we shudder sometimes--Scripture tells us that all nations will end eventually, ours included. Will it be our generation?
The test we face, though, is to know when enough is enough. And it’s becoming increasingly hard for us to do this: our economy, even if it is diminished from what it was in the 90s, still produces an unimaginable amount of goods and services—want plastic ponies with rainbow hair? Got ‘em. Want stuffed Nintendo monsters? Pikachus are on sale now. Want a one-of-a-kind vegetable cured briefcase made from the hide of grassfed cows? You can get one of those. All kinds of things that you can imagine and all kinds of things you can’t, you can get in our economy. Our problem is that it never seems enough--as soon as something new comes along, we want it. Color TV was great until HDTV came along. And that was pretty cool until VR comes along. But if we are plugged in to the economy, we can get what we desire.
Scripture, however, punctures a hole in this picture. Ecclesiastes is an extended meditation on the empty promise of wealth—it wonders what is the use of all this work, all this suffering. It finally decides that the purpose of life is to enjoy the work and the relationships God has given us to do—and that God’s commandments help us know what these things are. To love our neighbor, to work for the good of all, to give God thanks and praise in all times, good and bad. To recognize that this brief life, which is like a floating ember, glowing brightly and fading to cold ash in a few seconds, is bittersweet, short, and all that we have, save the presence of God. Ecclesiastes wants to remind us that God has given us breath, just for a short while, and when he takes the breath back, our time is over. Our legacy, in a sense, is meaningless. Our legacy will be what we did today, what we valued now, how we loved each other in this moment.
Jesus tells a parable of a rich and wealthy man, who had everything. He was well above the $75,000 threshold, or whatever the magic number is for happiness. And then he decided to retire. “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. Go on a couple cruises. Buy a leather recliner and a 3DHDTV. Soul, spoil yourself.” And then God comes to him at night, and says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” All that toil, all that grain, those big barns full of food and wealth--vanity. Whose will these things be? You're tempted to say, in the rich man's voice--they're mine! I deserve to enjoy them. But that's the point of the parable. Nothing you own is truly yours. You working with borrowed time and borrowed materials, and eventually, the owner comes to collect.
I think the way to understand this parable is to think of some of the other parables in Luke, and you hear God say to the rich man: Your life is being demanded of you. Luke has no problem thinking of God as a creditor, who loans life; but all of us have to pay up, no matter how we try to wriggle free. This parable bears a strong resemblance to more famous parable, of the talents. You might recall that in this parable, the rich man gives money to his slaves and tells them to do business with them in his absence. As Luke tells the story, each of the slaves gets a single talent, and one makes ten more talents, the next five, and the third does nothing with it, out of fear. Then rich man returns from his journey and wants to know how they did—and he rewards the men who invested their talents and punishes the man that squirreled his talent away. The same basic idea here holds: that God gives us something on loan and then comes to ask us how we did. And we better have done something good with it.
Jesus wants us to take a good, hard look at our lives. He is not condemning success as such, but rather reframing success for us. Success, for Christians, is finding security in God’s faithfulness to us, not in our wealth, and using what we have for the good of all. Because even our wealth will be taken from us, one way or another. As the old spiritual says, you’ve got to go to that lonesome valley—you’ve got to go there by yourself. No one else can go for you—and if, I may add to the spiritual, you may bring nothing but yourself to that valley.
When we pass through that valley, that valley of shadow, we pass to see our life revealed. Paul says our life is hidden with Christ, and interestingly, he tells us that we are already dead. Our life has already been demanded of us--we have already given it up. It is beyond the benefit of wealth, and the sooner we find our security in the hiddenness of our life, the better off we will be.
And we should find courage in this. That old Lutheran hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God has such a great and inspiring line: Though he should take my house/Goods, honor, child, or spouse/Though life be wrenched away/He cannot win the day/The kingdom's mine forever." That's what our faith reveals--that the things we spin our wheels to obtain, all the ways we measure our success, from the size of our Facebook following to the size of our bank account, all these things don't matter compared to the way God loves us, and to the freedom God gives us by uniting our lives with Christ's, by hiding them from the world.
The thing about our country is that no one in the country is an American by ethnicity: you are an American by birth, or by emigration. We are a country of ideals, and since they're ideals, they are rarely realized. The promise of America is always, and always will be, greater than the reality of America. And some day, America will be gone, and all that will be left, in anything, will be its history. Who will be left to take care of it? But our true citizenship is not in America, but with Christ, who is hidden everywhere, and revealed at the breaking of our dreams and our lives. Seek Christ, and live. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack