Sermon for Pentecost 8C – 31st July 2022

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 • Psalm 49:1-12  • Colossians 3:1-11  • Luke 12:13-21

Herod the Great began construction of the third Temple in about 20 BC; it was finished in 63 AD, and destroyed by the Romans only seven year later at the end of the Jewish revolt.  Herod wished the temple to be an everlasting monument to himself. In Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, we see the folly of such an enterprise

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said -“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

and on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Ozymandias” – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Herod wasn’t the first, nor will he be the last to seek to immortalise himself in something which has the illusion of solidity, but the enterprise is in vain.

Ecclesiastes was written by a man Qoheleth (or teacher) “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” who’s seen it all, done it all and tried it all – and concluded at the start of today’s reading:

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14

In essence Qoheleth, the teacher says that applying wisdom leads to the conclusion that God’s left ushumans with a hard task. That task is livings, and sometimes, life is just hard. Things happen over when weve no control – sickness, job loss, the end of relationships, the death of someone close. Life can be very tough indeed and it could, if we let it, rather get us down. Our toil is, as Qoheleth calls it, “hebel” (translated as vanity but perhaps that doesn’t capture the concept fully). It means that which is fleeting, like an ephemeral puff of wind that can’t be grasped, held on to or hung on the wall.

But let’s look at this from another perspective.  What if paying attention to the tiny details of one’s life makes even the most tedious activities a prayerful reflection on life and on being fully human. We could dismiss the life we currently live and yearn for one that’s more spiritual. But what if, say, walking the dog or washing dishes in a thoughtful way, living in the moment leads to wonderment rather than weariness? What if travelling by bus or train could provide us with insights on human life, rather than the feeling that you wish it were over?

Is there not a different kind of “getting wisdom.”?  Perhaps Qoheleth is right that gaining wisdom brings vexation and more knowledge increases sorrow. An unexamined life, lived in an unconscious or even selfish way chasing after doing things which will ultimately fade away and leave no tracemight lead to the conclusion that it’s all futile, a waste of time, a chasing after wind, but that assumes that life’s about status and accumulating all sorts of ephemeral things, which will be for future generations to decide on the value of.

Set alongside our Gospel ‘The Parable of the Rich Fool’, one can’t help imagine that Qoheleth would say that storing up treasure and using one’s reason to solve the conundrum of what to do with such treasure, is “hebel”. According to Qoheleth, one can’t win. Doing as the rich fool does and building larger storage bins is “hebel.” Even doing so for the enjoyment of future generations is “hebel.”:

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 whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 2:18-19

So much for ‘leaving a legacy’.

Later in Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth’s contends that the only thing left to do is to eat, drink, and be merry, but how does that square with the seemingly foolish plan of the rich man 

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.’

Luke 12:18-19

It’s true that if we work hard, then die, someone else benefits from our labours (not least the tax man). But despair isn’t the only possible response to the fact that we’ll all die sooner or later and leave whatever we’ve accumulated for someone else to enjoy.  What we leave also includes thewisdom we’ve gained from our living and what we’ve done for others. It could be hebel (in vain) or it could be a part of joyful living. 

Death is of course inevitable and no amount of work will change that. So, working to enjoy the fruits of our labour, whatever that might be, and to make peace with our eventual death and with God would seem to offer a way out. We may not be able to work our way to joy, but we could try tofigure out if satisfaction or dissatisfaction with our current life is all there is, or if there’s a dream, a wind worth chasing.

Yesterday, I met someone who had a vision which became increasingly powerful over a few years and when he shared that vision with others, they were also caught up with it and it’s now bearing fruit – a dream and a wind worth chasing.

What we do with the hard places and times, dreariness and sameness, is for each of us to work out – to dismiss as drudgery or to make something of. I think reflecting on what Qoheleth has to say is important, especially for people who might have been brought up with an ethic that doesn’t see “joy” and enjoying life in a wholly positive light, a wind worth chasing.

Qoheleth ultimately comes to the conclusion that we shouldn’t worry,

It is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil” …“Go eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do

Ecclesiastes 3:13 and 9:7

After his initial scepticism about life, he’s won over to the view that the solution is to “enjoy life”, because life is the ordinary and constant gift of God and we should honour that gift and make the most of it.  So here’s the important distinction: for Qoheleth, to eat, drink, and be merry is an act of faith towards and in God and although he does at times struggle to believe it, ultimately, he’s faithful.  For the rich man his foolishness lies in storing up treasures for himself and not for God, that’s where his vanity lies as it does in Herod and Ozymandias’s attempts at immortality. Amen

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