Preaching is a genre of speaking, where our goal is—through Scripture—to learn about God, the world, and each other. Preaching should be edifying. And preaching should ultimately be about the Good News of God in Christ.
So given this description of what we might expect a sermon to contain—sort of the baseline qualifications, it’s perhaps understandable that you might wonder why today’s sermon is about the reading from Ecclesiastes.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Things continue to go downhill from there, really. The Teacher writes that even though he was king, and had access to all the wealth and education that might make it possible to find wisdom, he’s got nothing. No lasting wisdom, just frustration, and some exhaustion to boot.
All is vanity, and a chasing after wind.
After all, he continues, all of this work he does isn’t going to do him much good. He’s going to die. Just like everyone else. And who knows if the kids or grandkids or great grandkids are going to be wise or foolish? Is it worth it, really, to work work work all day and night, knowing that death is coming?
So as you can see, this is an incredibly uplifting reading. We’re all going to die. So what’s the point of wisdom or of a “good” or “productive” life?
What’s going on here? Why is this text in the Bible at all, and what are we going to do with it, on this Eighth Sunday after Pentecost?
This week, I was reading an article which called out some of the human rights abuses occurring in our country, and in our common political life. And in the midst of this impassioned discussion, one particular paragraph stood out to me. In this paragraph, the writer said that “Protesting in the face of such outrageous abuses of power, of such true horrors, can feel overwhelming.”.
This writer goes out of their way to name that this work is exhausting, even while arguing that it should be done. If you read a lot of work on social justice activism, you’ll know that this feeling of overwhelm actually has a name—“activism fatigue”.
Activism fatigue. Or maybe, you know it as work fatigue. School fatigue. Social media fatigue. Or just plain exhaustion at the hectic pace of life.
So when I read this part of Ecclesiastes, I hear this same sense of fatigue. Exhaustion at having tried just about everything.
Perhaps, for our Biblical author, it’s a frustration that no matter how hard we work, no matter how desperately we seek wisdom, it all eventually feels like nothing. Perhaps, it’s that, as the author says later in the book, “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (8:14). The text describes this as “vanity”, but you could easily substitute the words “ridiculous”, “unfair”, or even “sinful” or “futile”. ‘Unfair. This is all just unfair’ (I’m sure you’ve heard, or said that before, right?).
This is all unfair.
The lectionary today has this incredible contrast between Ecclesiastes and the Gospel. In the Gospel, we find the parable of the man who thinks he has it all. Wealth, food, drink, a good harvest. Jesus tells us God’s response to this—“you fool!”.
I don’t know what God’s response is to the writer of Ecclesiastes, but I wonder if it might be the opposite? “you wise one!”
We find in Ecclesiastes, someone who has toiled under the sun. Who is exhausted. Who says that “all is vanity”, all is meaningless.
But we also find someone who is willing to recognize that he is not the greatest. He recognizes, like our psalmist, that our “graves shall be [our] homes for ever/ though [we] call the lands after [our] own names. He recognizes, unlike the rich man of the parable, that there is a season for everything, and that we are limited in what we are able to accomplish.
And most importantly, the conclusion of this book of the Bible is a reminder of what should center our limited, joyful, complex lives: he says in chapter 12 that this is “The end of the matter… fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone”.
The end of the matter. Live according to the commandments of God. This is not vanity—in fact, any mention of vanity is gone by this epilogue.
Fear God and live according to the commandments.
This is, as the Gospel might say, being rich toward God.
This is our whole duty.
So if you walked in this morning, perhaps able to empathize with this writer in proclaiming that “all is vanity”, that “this world is unfair”, I hope you know that these words are enshrined in Scripture… for you. For us.
Because so much is unfair. There is so much pain, so many needless, senseless deaths—from guns and wars and our own inability to live together, to love each other. And I don’t know about you, but I feel the fatigue of this reality weighing down upon me this morning, in the wake of yet another shooting, this time in Texas.
This is also vanity.
So what do we do now?
Christ tells us the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
This is not a platitude.
This is to fear God and live according to the commandments.
And however hopeless or terrifying or strange things may seem—however much work and exhaustion we are in the midst of—this is our whole duty.
In our limited, complex, and even joyful lives, this is our whole duty: to love God and neighbor, and live according to the commandments.
May we remember this on our good days and our bad days—our call is to be faithful.
This is not vanity. This is faithfulness.