August 4, 2019

8th Sunday after Pentecost Year C

I have good news for you today, we are all going to die and whatever we have accumulated along the way will die with us. For almost all of us our name and legacy will be forgotten in time. There is no achievement, no matter how noble, that will enable us to escape death.

Welcome to the book of Ecclesiastes, also known by its Hebrew name Qoheleth, meaning one who assembles the congregation or more commonly the Teacher.

Ecclesiastes has traditionally been attributed to Solomon, King of Israel in its most glorious period known as the Golden age, immediately after King David. Solomon was the second son of David and Bathsheba, the builder of Israel’s first temple and the King who famously asked God for wisdom rather than power or riches.

“Now, O Lord God, let your promise to David my father be established, for you have made me king over a people like the dust of the earth in multitude. Now give me wisdom and knowledge.”

According to the Hebrew scriptures, this impressed God so much, that God gave to Solomon not only knowledge and wisdom, but also “riches and wealth and honor, such as none of the kings have had who were before you, nor shall any after you have the like.”

While Ecclesiastes is based on Solomon’s life, most scholars say that Solomon was not the final author and that the book was compiled sometime after Solomon’s life and reign. But like the book of Proverbs, the timeless nature of the message of Ecclesiastes makes it unnecessary to link it to one particular person or time period.

Also, this particular Sunday in our lectionary cycle, the eighth Sunday after Pentecost, is the only time in our three year cycle of readings that you will hear this passage or any other from Eccesiastes, except for the traditional New Years reading that we know from the classic song by the Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn – there is a time for everything under the sun.”

So I’d like to give you a brief overview of the message of this book, which you cannot really get from the brief lectionary reading today. The purpose of Ecclesiastes seems to be that there is nothing under the sun that is capable of giving our lives meaning – no matter how many possessions we acquire, they always leave us feeling empty, so we acquire more in the hopes of filling the lack we feel in our hearts.

… vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?

The same is true of pleasure, no matter how much good wine and food we consume, our hearts remain unfulfilled and so we continue to fill our bellies with that which cannot truly satisfy – or anything else that gives us pleasure. Solomon is a good example of this, having purportedly had hundreds of wives and concubines, but not finding fulfillment in having more.

There is always only temporary satisfaction, the Teacher admonishes us, because in the end, no matter what, death is waiting for us. Not a very encouraging message is it?

But the Teacher’s pessimism is leading us not to despair but hopefully to God, where we can find meaning and fulfillment in relationship, with God and each other. Because, as the Teacher says, God has set eternity in the human heart.

Ultimately, Ecclesiastes is about how we make our way through this life, a description of the futility of our efforts to acquire things and experiences that will bring us fulfillment and meaning when in the end, our fulfillment can only be found in God.

Several years ago, David Brooks, the New York Times columnist wrote a book entitled, The Road to Character. In it he writes:

Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume’ virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume’ virtues are the ones you list on your resume’, the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume’ virtues … Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.

And most of us have probably spent more time thinking about how to pad our resume rather than fleshing out our eulogy – there will always be time for that later, we tell ourselves, until there isn’t, the Teacher from Ecclesiastes reminds us. The Teacher wants us to see the futility of building our resume’ while neglecting our heart.

When someone in the crowd challenged Jesus to help them by commanding their brother to divide the family inheritance with them, Jesus responded, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then Jesus told a parable of a rich man who had spent his life getting all of his possessions in order so that at the end of his life he could “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But the man died and was not able to enjoy all of his possessions. And Jesus said, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

The Teacher would agree with Jesus in the next passage when he says, “strive for God’s kingdom … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”