The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r185.htm
s185o98 Somerton Park 2/10/98 Sunday 18
"Vanity of vanities, the Preacher says. Vanity of vanities."
- Ecclesiastes 1.1
The Book of Ecclesiasticus in the Apocrypha is sometimes confused with this book in the Old Testament. Curiously the Apocryphal book is much more "orthodox" than this one. The orthodox one has the words: "Be not righteous overmuch" (Ecclesiastes 7.16) which is good advise, but hardly conducive to keeping the masses busy! It is reminiscent of the words of Martin Luther: "Sin boldly!"
The "disillusioned pessimism" of the book as it has been described is in stark contrast to the hope of both the Old Testament and the New.
However like much, even that which does not appear religious can in fact be quite profound.
There are two aspects to vanity. The first is the undue preoccupation with appearances, so a vain person is someone who is overly concerned with what they look like. This of course characterises a self-centred person and ultimately a self-centred person is concerned about money and inheritances and building bigger and better store houses.
The second aspect of vanity is that it is vain, it is useless, it is passing. Something done in vain doesn't achieve the purpose for which it was done. If one runs in vain one doesn't even get to the finishing line, let alone beat anyone else.
So putting together these things - that which is inward looking and only concerned with self will not achieve the sort of happiness the person desires.
There is also a point in the inclusion of this book in the Bible even though it says these things in a worldly and not a religious way. Here is a philosopher saying that so often the world is concerned only with self, and therefore true happiness eludes people. There might be some point in a priest saying these things from the pulpit, yet here we have a student of human nature who has spent his life looking for where happiness is found and failing. So we, the ordinary sort of people, are not likely to succeed where even a philosopher has failed to find happiness. This then is a most powerful witness to what we believe.
Sometimes I think we can be a little envious of other people, those who seem so relaxed and free and easy. Yet in fact I've not yet met anyone who is so self assured and free of difficulties in their life that I would envy them. Everyone has difficulties and problems despite the care that we all take to hide them. The witness of Ecclesiastes tells us that riches, intelligence, liberalness, sternness, or whatever is no recipe for happiness.
When we look at the life and witness of Jesus we see a person concerned not with himself but for others. He spent his life helping, healing and loving others. In his death he died not for a cause, he would have made sure that the cause he was dying for at least a bit evident, but we have complete silence. He didn't die for God either, for that also would have been easy to make clear to everyone. In fact he would hardly have been killed if that was his intention. The only other logical possibility is that he died for others, for you and me, for those who loved him and for those who crucified him, for Simon the Pharisee and Simon the leper. This is consistent with how he lived his life, so it is for me the greatest argument for what it is all about.
But the death itself is of limited value to anyone. Here comes the second side of vanity. If he died for others then that death was not in vain. Because everything we see which exists for itself passes away, by the logic of the world - then also by that same logic for someone who existed totally for others, that otherwise universal and inescapable fate of death would not apply. So the resurrection of Jesus is the logical consequence of all that we see around us, the difficulties, the selfishness and the seemingly unavoidable barrier of death now in fact have been done away with.
So instead of viewing the resurrection as quite unprecedented and unbelievable, I personally find the resurrection of Jesus the only logical explanation of what Jesus life was all about. It might seem to someone outside as clutching at straws, yet to me it is the very foundation of everything that exists.
I want to now go back a bit and say something else about our selves and seeking to help others. I believe it is important to say that we need to look after ourselves, in spite of all that I have said, and all that the lessons seem to say. The character who was going to build the extra barns to store his huge harvest, is painted fully. Even his inner thoughts are brought out in the story. It is not the exercise of building larger barns that is criticised, but that attitude that "I am safe, by this wealth nothing can touch me now".
Clearly this person is a selfish person in whose thoughts the affairs of others never enters. His response to his good fortune centres on his welfare rather than thinking with whom he might share it. The opposite extreme, to never consider one's own health and welfare is not here addressed. I have no doubt that God's kingdom is not advanced by we being doormats for the unrighteous.
Capitalism, the providing for other people by the use of wealth, therefore is not outlawed. In fact, in so far as it does seek to provide a living for all people, it is as good and right and proper as any other social system. But if it becomes just for one person's welfare, or one groups welfare, rather than for the total good of society, then it will pass away.
When one lives a life of giving as we are directed to in today's lessons, we find that in fact we receive much more than we have been able to give. If this is not the case then the proper relationship we have with others has broken down and it is necessary to reestablish that relationship first. But once reestablished we know that it is the relationship that is important and that will be neither inward looking nor fruitless.
One of the passages of scripture which tells me that Jesus was no charlatan, out to become the head of a new and correct religion are words in Matthew's gospel: "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-24). This tells me in no uncertain terms that Jesus had no interest in criticising the ancient faith of the Jews, nor in setting up a new Church. It is easy to love God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha or whoever. The really difficult thing and that for which grace is given, is to reach across human and (seemingly) divine boundaries, to see the good in other people. That is eternal.
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