Vain Individualism

+ A sermon for Pentecost +8C/Lectionary 18C at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on August 4, 2019 +

Texts: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-17; Luke 12:13-21

Audio: LINK

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
“You fool!”

What a cheery message from our holy scriptures this morning, right?
Now, I don’t know what got you out of bed and made you decide to come to church this morning, but I’m going to guess you didn’t come here longing to hear that your life work is nothing more than foolish vanity.
And yet that’s what we seem to hear from our readings today.
From Ecclesiastes we hear the message that the toils of our labor, our striving for wisdom and knowledge and skill, our very lives are nothing more than vanity.
And from Luke’s gospel we hear Jesus tell us that our storing up of our wealth and possessions is pure foolishness.

So, there’s your good news for the day – Amen, thanks be to God.

But no, this is an uncomfortable message for us.
Especially for us in our 21st Century United States society.
We are taught from childhood that we are supposed to work for what we want.
We get jobs from a young age, we go to school to learn and gain wisdom, we start careers and spend most of our lives going to work.
And all the while we are told to save money, to invest in our 401ks and pensions, so that when we come to retire we can tell ourselves, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
That’s the game we play, that’s how we have been told to be successful in life.
And now you come to church and you hear that your whole life’s work is worthless?

Like I said, these are uncomfortable readings for us. But I think in this discomfort there is some divine wisdom to be found.
Take that dour Ecclesiastes reading.
The author writes about the vanity of life and our work.
But the original Hebrew word that we have translated as “vanity” is really hard to encapsulate in English.
When we hear vanity, we may think of self-important or self-obsession—perhaps about our appearance.
But this Hebrew word, hevel, gives a different impression: something that is fleeting, brief, temporary. It’s like smoke or a vapor that quickly dissipates.
So perhaps this author is saying, don’t you see how brief our life is?
How fleeting are material goods, our quest for knowledge, our very lives; everything we know is like a gust of wind, here one second and gone the next.
Ok, admittedly this may not be that much more comforting.
But I hear from Ecclesiastes a call to not put so much stock in what we own or what we work for, but to treasure this fleeting life that we have, because, as Jesus reminds us in his parable, we never know how long our brief span of life may last.

And speaking of the parable—that poor rich farmer, right?
Now, that’s not what I would usually say here; the rich man is rarely the protagonist in Jesus’ stories, and this one is no exception, but I actually have a lot of sympathy for him.
Maybe that’s because he seems to have done everything right!
There’s no mention that he may have gained his wealth dishonestly or through exploitation.
Jesus doesn’t tell us that he stole the land or was a bad man in any way.
All we hear is that his land produced abundantly.
So while this man has been labeled “the rich fool,” from our perspective, we may actually call this man wise and responsible.
And he’s so successful, in fact, that he needs more space for his stuff.
He’s worked hard for years, saved his resources, and is ready to live out his golden years in comfortable retirement—what’s foolish about that?
Like I said, this is engrained in our society.
We work hard, we save our resources and we accumulate stuff.
And when we have too much stuff there are two routes we take—we can get more space either by buying bigger houses or utilizing an entire industry that is devoted to storing our stuff, or we force ourselves to downsize.
marie-kondo-1547159819In fact, there’s a recent trend of downsizing that has been made popular by Marie Kondo, the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and host of the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.
Her method has become so popular that her name has become a verb and to “Marie Kondo” your home is to go through all of your belongings and keep only the items that spark joy.
And now thousands of people are following this model to get rid of clutter and strive to live more simply.

Now to be clear, Jesus sure has a lot to say about the rich and the perils of wealth, but I don’t think the accumulation of stuff is what makes this particular rich man foolish.
I mean did you hear what he said in that parable?
“What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? 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.’”
I, I, my, I, I, I, my, my, I, my.
Listen to all those first person singulars.

“Miser” Margret Hofheinz-Döring, 1910-1994. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

This man’s world has become so small that it only contains himself—he’s only talking to himself.
“What should I do?” he asks himself.
And then he answers himself: I will do this, I will build bigger barns to store my grain and my goods.

This rich man is not a fool because he does not plan ahead or because he does not work hard, but because he only works for himself, because he believes that he can build up his own life through material possessions, because he can’t see beyond himself.
He doesn’t think about the workers who surely helped him bring in such an abundant harvest, he doesn’t thank God for the abundance he has received, and apparently he can’t imagine any way to utilize his barn-full of food despite surely having hungry neighbors all around him and can only think of building a bigger barn to store even more food.
It’s like he either cannot see or chooses to ignore the people that are all around him.
He has allowed greed and the striving for the accumulation of stuff to become his motivation and, now as he comes to the end of his life, he finds himself utterly alone.
He’s like a biblical Ebenezer Scrooge and hoards what he has planning for a future life of luxury with no consideration for other people.

But as Ecclesiastes reminds us, all of this is fleeting.
The rich fool falls into that same trap that so many of us can find ourselves in, trusting in that lie that with a little more money, a little more stuff, a little more whatever, we will be happy and content and finally able to relax, eat, drink, be merry.
He deludes himself by thinking that he can make it on his own, that he can be self-made man, a strong individual that doesn’t need anyone else.
And while it’s tempting to now equate this rich fool to at least one local billionaire who has publically stated he can’t imagine how to use his vast fortunes to benefit our local community, this parable also strikes uncomfortably close to home.
Because while I certainly have far less wealth than he has, I find myself falling into that same trap all the time.
If I just had some more money, I wouldn’t have to worry about all those bills.
If I just had some more clothes, I’d be happier.
If I just had this, everything would be ok and my future would be secure.
And then I hear myself focusing on my life, my desires, what I need for my future.

“The Rich Fool in Luke 12” by James B. Janknegt

And I hear Jesus reminding me that life is so much more than my stuff, that the future is uncertain, that there is an urgency of now and a whole community around me that could use what I am hoarding who needs my resources, who needs my love, who needs my contributions to community development.
Because just like following Jesus is so much more than trying to get into some eventual afterlife, so too are our labors more than storing up treasures for ourselves in the future.
We are invited to live into the kingdom now, to work to expand the Reign of God now, to proclaim the gospel in word and deed until hunger is vanquished, violence is finally and forever ended, love becomes our watchword, and all people have a safe place to store their treasures and lay down their head.
We are called to build up the beautiful community that God has envisioned for us, to invest our riches in God’s plan for the world, and use our life work to care for each other and our neighbors all around us.

And so the author of Galatians calls us to get rid of those things that would break down that beautiful community, the forces of division like anger, wrath, and greed that foster individuality and strife.
Because we have been joined into a new life in our baptism that is concerned about the here and now.
We have been raised into a resurrection that is stronger than any of the forces of this world and will not cease until the whole creation knows the fullness of life that God has in store for us.
We have been inaugurated into a new reign where we don’t have to worry about what is ahead but can be assured of God’s everlasting love for us.
We have been united in Christ with a beautifully diverse community that overcomes all the forces that seek to divide us.
We have been called into a new understanding of wealth where our material possessions don’t matter nearly as much as the people around us; a new understanding of life not obsessed with the future but focused on the needs of the here and now.
We have been given an opportunity to turn away from the fleeting, transient, individualistic life and embrace eternal life in community with each other.

So while we don’t explicitly hear Jesus telling us to get rid of our possessions today—though tune in next week for that cheery command—we are invited to see our life as something greater than the accumulation of wealth and the abundance of possessions.
unnamed (1).pngWe are invited to see the richness of God as something so much more than just the number in our bank account or the size of our house.
And so perhaps we can and should Marie Kondo our homes, go through our stuff and evaluate its place in our lives, but rather than asking if an item sparks joy, we can wonder if these possessions are being adequately used to build up community.
Perhaps we can evaluate our resources and ask ourselves how can we use what we have to care for our neighbors and live into the life around us?

This question rings all the more true to me as we are discerning where our congregation is called in our future together.
We have these gifts that we have received from our loving God: our building, our small slice of God’s good creation, our desire to follow Jesus and emulate his ministry in our neighborhood.
How can we use these buildings or new construction to better serve our neighbors?
What is the best way to utilize this land to proclaim the gospel?
How can our passion for Christ’s mission build up the beautiful and everlasting community that God envisions for us?

We know all too well how short our span of life is on this earth; we know that life is fleeting and should not be wasted on pointless toil and vain pursuits.
And we know that we have been given an abundance of gifts, resources that are meant for building up the Reign of God on earth and a love that will never die.
How will we live into the abundant life that Jesus is showing us?
How will we expand the Kingdom here and now?

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