“Vanity of vanities,” says the Teacher. Ecclesiastes: also known as “The Day the Teacher Lost It.” The Teacher finally snapped. What does the Teacher mean by “vanity”? We’ve used that English word for centuries to translate a Hebrew word for mist. The ancient Greek translators chose a word meaning “useless.” “It’s all useless,” the Teacher says. “I’ve worked my butt off, and I am still gonna have to leave it all to someone, and I have no idea what they’ll do with it all, and I won’t be able to control them!” The law of conservation of matter and energy means we cannot create out of nothing and cannot take it with us. It’ll stay here; we will cease to be. Someone else will have to handle the matter and energy.
If Ecclesiastes is the record of “The Day the Teacher Lost It,” the Rich Fool in Jesus’ parable is the student who, for whatever reason, didn’t get the Teacher’s message. What is this man’s problem? It’s not that he’s rich, though he is rich. Jesus says his “regions” produced. Not lands, regions. They produced abundantly enough that his storehouses were not big enough to hold it all. This is a miracle, and as such should alert the guy, “God is at work.” Think of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams: seven fat years are coming when you must store up food for seven years of famine. Think of the manna, of which God always sent a double portion on Friday so no harvesting needed doing on the Sabbath. A huge harvest, bigger than the storehouses can handle, should alert the man: people are going to need this.
Instead, the man says, “I will say to my Soul, ‘Soul, let’s hoard all of this for me.’” Who is he talking to? There isn’t even a slave around to say, “Ah, sir, are you talking to your soul?” There is no one else. That’s the man’s problem, according to Jesus: it’s all about him. Goods and people exist only for him. He decides to take the gift of this bumper crop and use it for himself. Then, that night, God says, “Remember the Day the Teacher Lost It?” Guy’s like, “Yeah. What was that about?” God’s like, “You’re coming with me. I’ll explain on the way.” Death is not punishment for this guy; it’s something that happens. It happens for him tonight. That miraculous harvest, that gift from God, it’s still there. All the people this man ignored are still there. God is still there. The man set himself up as the only important thing, and he’s gone.
The issue is idolatry. Theologian Paul Tillich writes, “Idolatry is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy. Something essentially conditioned is taken as unconditional, something essentially partial is boosted into universality, something finite is given infinite significance.” The author of Colossians writes that greed is idolatry. Greed shares a list with fornication, impurity, passion, and evil desire. The common theme is treating people as means to ends. You’re not seeing people as people; you’re seeing them as ways to get something you want. The author’s second list is in the same vein. The author says, “Get rid of anger [which estranges us from each other], rage [that initial explosion of anger], malice
[intentionally harming someone]
, slander [abusing or vilifying others], and obscene language [the Greek word is related to words meaning ‘shamefully seeking your own gain’—in terms of language, think slurs, offensive stereotypes.]” These are ways to use or ignore people, just like the man in the parable.
We have this amazing gift of other people. Some of them drive us nuts, but they’re a gift. And instead we say, “ooh, I can use them, I can make myself feel good at their expense, I can stand on them, or I can just ignore them and have late-night conversations with my soul about how I can keep good things away from others.” That’s idolatry. We make ourselves into God and other people are means to our ends. We’re self-centered. We probably evolved that way. We use our amazing human brains, our neocortices, to find clever ways to overdo the survival instincts of our reptilian, limbic brains. We’re the center of our universes. Even if I say I am not religious, I have a God, and it’s me. Problem is, I am not God. I will die. The First Reading, The Day the Teacher Lost It, is the day the Teacher realized, “I’m not God.”
Only God is God. For us Christians, Jesus Christ is God. How is it that Jesus is God and I’m not? Tillich, who defined idolatry as elevation of something finite to infinite significance, says Jesus conquered idolatry by not claiming infinite significance for his finite nature. That’s a good technical explanation, but what does it mean? In terms of the Parable, Jesus is like the Rich Man: he is given everything. The man in the parable has the gift of a bumper crop; Jesus has the gift of being God. In our Trinitarian language, God the Father gifted all godliness to God the Son, said, “This is all yours to carry as a finite human creature.” If Jesus were entirely like the man in the parable, he’d have said, “Man, God the Father’s an idiot,” and used his godliness to tear down everything and build a world centered on gratifying his every desire. But that’s not Jesus. Jesus gives. Jesus heals the sick. Jesus forgives sins. Jesus goes to those society slurs and shames, befriends them, eats with them. Jesus teaches anyone who’ll listen to do the same. Jesus says from the start of his ministry, “I am about God giving. I’m declaring God’s jubilee, when God gives the world freely to all.” Jesus stewards the gift until it’s time to go, then he hands off. In the Ascension, Jesus says to the disciples, “This is the end of my turn. It’s time for me to hand off to the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus stewards the gift. He uses it for good. The man in the parable wastes the gift. Normally we think of wasting a gift as frittering it away on useless stuff. That’s wasting. Sitting on it and doing nothing with it is wasting, too. God provides the opportunity to do something good. God says, “Go, do something good with this. Put it aside for when times are tough, or feed some hungry people, or give your laborers a raise. Don’t try to be God. You’re not good at it. The role of God is covered. Holy Spirit’s got that one. For now, you’ve got this gift that will be someone else’s someday.”
God calls us to steward our gifts. Use what we have now for good, knowing that someday it will not be ours. Gifts vary. For example, maybe you’re gifted musically. God’s giving you the opportunity to make music, and Szu-Ping will find you and put you on the worship schedule…because you’re gifted, and God wants you to share your gift. God gives us opportunities. This building is a gift. We’ve got a campaign, “We’re Here For Good,” to get this building a new roof and new flooring, to replace aging air conditioning, and to maintain the pipe organ. Supporting that work will not impress God. It will not make you God. God does not need your money. No, God is giving us the opportunity to keep doing God’s work. God does a lot of good work out of this building, and God’s given us the opportunity to keep it going. If you think about it the regular offering is an opportunity to keep God’s work going through this congregation.
Maybe the gift’s not obvious to us. I think the man in the parable had a pretty obvious gift in his miraculous harvest, but maybe we don’t know what ours is. This fall, Trinity’s going to embark on some discernment of what God is calling us to do. The Council has put together a team piggybacking on the special projects team: “We’re Here For Good: Laying the Groundwork for the Next 85 Years.” It’ll be a time of congregation-wide study of what is God calling us to do. God is providing opportunities to do good: what are they? We’ll pray and study our way through that. That won’t impress God. No one’s gonna get promoted to God at the end. It can help us know what specific gifts we have and how to make the most of them.
Or maybe our gift is wisdom like that of The Teacher Who Lost It. The book of Ecclesiastes isn’t exactly a pick-me-up. But its message is important. And in every generation, some find comfort knowing our faith tradition is big enough to say, “I’m not sure I see the point to any of this.” Or find comfort knowing, “Yes, I will have to hand things off to someone else. For whatever reason God likes it that way. After all, God the Father hands off to the Son, who hands off to the Spirit. Handing off seems to be God’s M.O.” What’s ours is ours for a while, and then it isn’t. This became real to me on our vacation this summer. As usual we visited our family in the mid-Atlantic region. We’ve lived here long enough now that the mid-Atlantic has moved on without us. I don’t know how many times I said, “That didn’t used to be there,” or, “the road used to end here,” or, “they tore that down!” It is no longer my part of the world. Other people get to decide what to do with it. And God has handed other things to me. I can…talk to my soul about it in the middle of the night. Or I can take the opportunity to do the good call calls me to do.