Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sermon: "Bonfire of the Vanities"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 4, 2013
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Luke 12:13-21

“Bonfire of the Vanities”

There’s an old story about a stingy old rich man who was bedridden in his final days. He had heard the saying, “You can’t take it with you,” and was determined to prove it wrong.

He instructed his wife to go to the bank and withdraw enough money to fill two pillowcases.
He then told her to take the bags of money to the attic and leave them directly above his bed. His plan? When he passed away, he would reach out and grab the bags on his way to heaven.

Several weeks after the man died, his wife was up in the attic cleaning, when she came upon the two forgotten pillowcases stuffed with cash.
“Oh, that darned old fool,” she exclaimed. “I knew I should have put the money in the basement.”

The message of both of our scripture passages this morning is that we can’t take it with us.  
Anyone who has ever moved, downsized to a smaller living space, or inherited a household worth of stuff after the death of a parent, knows this.
All that we work so hard to accumulate in this life will be left behind – left as a joy or burden to our families, to gather dust in someone else’s attic, or to gradually decay, rust, and be reclaimed to the earth by the ravages of time.
Nothing in this world lasts forever.

Jesus has much to say about putting undue value on things that are in reality, temporary and worth much less than we think they are.
The Parable of the Rich Fool is a signature Jesus parable in this regard.

Now, any time a rich man talks to Jesus or asks him a question we know it’s not going to end well.  As I said earlier in our introduction to the gospel reading, Luke in particular loved pairing the words “rich” and “fool” together.

The gospels are full of tales of rich men hoarding their possessions and not getting into heaven, widows giving their last nickel to the church while the rich give very little, money changers having their tables overturned, and greedy land owners not paying a fair wage.

But while the rich are the focus if all of these stories, what Jesus is lifting up here is not the evil of having money and possessions, but rather the evils that result when we place too much value upon them.  
The focus of these stories is greed.

The rich man in our parable today is looking for a way to store his crops for future use. His concern is that without a larger barn to store his goods, he will not feel secure enough to relax and enjoy life.

And we might ask, what’s wrong with that?
The man has done nothing illegal to gain his bounty. He didn’t steal it, he didn’t manipulate anyone into giving it to him, and there is no mention of him not treating his workers well or tying to cheat anyone out of a fair wage. His land produces a bountiful crop. The soil, sun and rain worked together to make him a rich man. He simply builds bigger barns to hold what he rightfully harvested from his land.
Would it be better for him to let it go to waste?

We might answer that what God has given us is not for us to hold onto for ourselves. The man should give the excess back to God, by giving it to those in his community who have less.
But perhaps the message that Jesus has for us here goes a bit deeper than our need to give back to God.  It’s hard for us to pour out God’s love if we haven’t made room to receive it.

The man’s life has been taken over with worry and concern over how to store his possessions. He believes that he cannot relax into the joy of living as long as his future is insecure. He does not acknowledge the gift that God has given him and he does not trust that God will continue to provide.

In a world ravaged by drought, floods, unstable economies, and food insecurity, many of us might have cause to doubt that “God will provide” as well.
When children in our own communities go to bed hungry at night and families have to choose between rent and groceries, telling them that God will provide may not be enough to keep them from imagining how they might build their own bigger barn, to ensure they have enough to feel secure.

When I was in seminary, I traveled to Kentucky with twelve of my classmates to learn how poverty affected children living in the poorest parts of Appalachia.
We visited a church that gathered as a community every Thursday night to pack bags full of food to be given to local schoolchildren.  During the week these children relied on the free meals offered at school and would often go hungry for the 68 hours between Friday afternoon and Monday morning.  What was striking is that the children receiving the food bags were instructed to hide the bags from their parents, as too often the food was taken away from the children, hoarded for another day, or sold to fund a parent’s addiction.

Greed is fed by insecurity and fear.
It is not limited to one socioeconomic class and it comes in many forms.
We might place undue value on our possessions, the size of the land that we own, the number of people under our influence, and our ability to exert power over others.
Greed also comes into play when we withhold our time, attention, respect, and love from those whom we deem unworthy of receiving it.

Jesus sees and calls out the fear that is at the root of our greed.
Our fear of not having enough.
Our fear that we are powerless.
Our fear that we ourselves are unworthy of love.
But too often what we desire, what we long to possess, what we hoard because without it we feel insecure, is something that is perishable and temporary, and once it’s gone we fall into fear yet again.

The author of Ecclesiastes writes,
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity   and a chasing after wind.

When we hear this text, our modern ears translate the word vanity as meaning self-centeredness, narcissism, or pride.
But the root of the word vanity is emptiness.
In fact, the word that appears in the original Hebrew text is hevel,
  which means “breath, vapor, impermanence” –
Hevel is a fleeting vaporous apparition that is easily blown away.

Perhaps this text from Ecclesiastes is better read as:
“Vapor of vapors. All is vapor. All the deeds that are done under the sun are vapor, and a chasing after wind.”

Now we might argue that we accept that our material possessions are fleeting and temporary, but our work – all the deeds and toil that we’ve done under the sun – are not.
What we do now has the power to affect generations to come – socially, economically, environmentally, and spiritually; and while our human legacies will not live on for eternity, there is still value in what we create and leave behind for future generations.
All is not vanity. All is not empty.
All is not foolish toil left to wither under the sun.

But perhaps too much of it is.

If we all took out a sheet of paper and listed everything that we do in a typical week, we might be forced to defend the necessity of a good number of things on the list.
Work is necessary. Play is necessary. Time spent with family and friends is necessary. As members of a church community, we might add that time spent serving others and serving God, is necessary.

But how much is too much?
How far can we stretch the reasoning, the rationalization, for the necessity of every thing that we do?

The average adult in our society leads an increasingly overscheduled life, add a couple of kids to the mix, and one’s life quickly becomes an endless parade of lacrosse practices, soccer games, dance recitals, violin lessons, doctors appointments, teacher meetings, and school assemblies.
Even without school age children, when we string together work commitments, plans with friends, trips to the gym, caring for adult children or elderly parents, and various boards, committees, and organizations that we choose to serve, we quickly see why the mantra of our modern world has become, “I’d love to, but I have no time.”

Earlier this week I saw a posting on facebook that read,
        “Stop the glorification of BUSY!”

Too often we wear our busyness as a badge of honor.
As we list all those things that we do in a typical week, we may feel a sense of pride in what we’ve managed to accomplish.
Our busyness can add to our sense of importance and value, to the point that when a friend asks us how we’re doing and we respond with a breathless rundown of all the things we’ve done, and still have yet to do – perhaps we’re not complaining so much as bragging.

For many of us, beneath the feeling that we’re exhausted, overworked, and overstressed, is the fear that if we don’t have a full schedule, we will cease to have value….or will be thought of as unimportant.
We worry that our kids will fail to keep up with those who have a multitude of extracurricular activities to add to their college applications.
Or we believe that we are too important to lessen our pace.

We imagine all that would fall through the cracks and ask ourselves,
“What would the people at work do without me?”
“What would my family do without me?”
“What would my church – and God – do without me?”

What is so wonderful about our scripture texts today is that they both give us good reason to yank ourselves off the treadmill that we’re struggling to stay on.

Because all those things on our to do lists are really not as important as we think they are.
And all our toiling under the sun is not going to make us live longer or live happier.
And all those things we have stored up in our barns are not going to keep us secure, or healthy, or safely out of harms way.

Jesus said to the rich man, “You are a fool. You could die this very night. And the things you have set aside, whose will they be?’

What Jesus offers as an alternative to all our toiling and storing up, is the love of God.

What makes us feel powerful, what makes us feel secure, what makes us feel connected to others, is love….and God’s love, God’s unconditional love, is the greatest love of all.  
But we can’t feel, experience, or seek concrete ways to respond to that love if we haven’t created a space in our lives for it to take root.

In 15th century Italy, it was a common sight to see priests gathering up and publically burning items that might tempt one to sin  – books, works of art, musical instruments, fine dresses, and even mirrors. These public burnings were known as bonfires of the vanities.
It was believed that the removal of these items would cause people to turn back towards God.

But as we know, removing the temptation doesn’t reduce our desire or need for the love and security that we seek. And we if don’t seek those things in God, and in our relationships with each other, then we’ll find something else, some other vanity, to fill in the void.

If we empty our barns of possessions but don’t seek to fill our lives with love, then it won’t be long before we fill those barns back up again.

If we reduce or commitments and clear our schedules to create a day of Sabbath for us and our families, but don’t fill that space with love, then it won’t be long before we’re seeking something else to do to keep us occupied.

Filling that space with love doesn’t mean that we have to take on yet another community service project or church commitment, if we’ve already made space in our lives for such things.
But if we haven’t made space for such things, we may be surprised how rewarding it is once we do.

Filling that space with love will look different for each and every one of us. It could entail spending more time together as a family, visiting a friend we haven’t seen in a while, taking longer walks at a slower pace, setting aside time to mediate or pray, opening up a creative channel and learning how to paint, sculpt, or sing.

Remember this is not a challenge to add more things to our lives, but to actively reduce how much we are doing and how much we are holding onto and creating a space for God’s love, mercy, and grace to work it’s way into our lives.

All of life is vanity.
All of life is hevel – a fleeting breath, a passing vapor.

Give yourself time to experience it while it’s here –
   in all its fullness,
        and in the loving company of God.


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