It is an enormous honor to be standing in this pulpit, in this phoenix of a church in the company of the finest clergy team I have ever seen. I pray that God will bless the words that I deliver to you this morning, that they may convey the pure Spirit of his love. Amen.
Oft summarized with the foreboding statement, Vanity of Vanities all is vanity, Ecclesiastes is one of those epic books of our tradition that is the testimony of one man’s struggle for meaning. Rich with the wisdom of ancient Judaism, Ecclesiastes grapples with the stuff of existence: life and death, immense suffering and triumphant joy. Believing that a life without pain was the ultimate goal of living, the author of Ecclesiastes searches his whole life for the kind of happiness that is free of all pain. You know, the kind of happiness that if it were silver, would never tarnish, if it were a rose, it would never fade, if it were youth it would never age.
So he partied and drank with the best of them, but the morning always came and so did the pain of a hangover. So he sought wealth and gained valuable property, but realized the pain of having to give it away at death. He sought women, but realized the pain of ended relationships, he sought power but realized the pain of oppression. It wasn’t until reflecting upon an entire life fraught with the pain he was trying to avoid while seeking his own happiness that the author settles down to record his trials. He writes them for our benefit, not with the finger wagging of condemnation, but as a reminder, one human being to another, that seeking pleasure for your own sake is as good as trying to capture the wind. After all his attempts of chasing after happiness, though at times he felt happiness, he could never grab hold of it. The pleasures he sought after were fleeting, it did not last. The very wind he blesses for bringing him joy, he cursed for taking it away.
“Vanity of vanities all is vanity.”
While it is an extraordinary book, Ecclesiastes has no understanding of God as deeply involved in the human experience. God’s love, God’s compassion, God’s deep and innate desire to love and be love by humanity, Ecclesiastes does not know. The Spirit of God, the breath of life, moving amongst us has no mention. He cannot conceive of a God that suffers with us born of divine compassion. While Ecclesiastes understands life’s joys as gifts from God, in many ways the God Ecclesiastes knows is distant, giving, but distant.
Does this make the book wrong? Absolutely not. What it does, is it helps us understand the darkness of doubt, the limits of human understanding and of our own tendancies towards self-absorbtion in spite of the evidence of God’s constant presence every day, the God which gives meaning to a world of change.
Beginning at the age of 15, I had the great fortune of living with my grandmother for the last 13 years of her life in her sweet little town of West Point, VA. Those of you who know it would argue there is nothing sweet about the smell of West Point and its prominent paper mill, but when the wind is blowing the right way, that is, in the other direction, there is nothing like canoeing around its thick marshes or getting lost in miles of the tall pine farms around the town. It is best said, there is nothing like home.
My grandmother was a grand southern dame of the finest order. Attractive, intelligent and interesting, she drew people to her, people just loved her in spite of the sometimes sharpness of her tongue, or perhaps because of it.
Life with an elderly woman meant many unique things, it meant moving slowly and carefully. It meant the routine of chores of bathing her delicate frame, counting out medications and ferrying her to doctors’ appointments, grocery stores, the post office, and more doctors appointments. It meant watching the same movies over and over- like Gone with the Wind, Waterloo Bridge and anything with Elizabeth Taylor in it with the volume turned up so high the tv stand shook. The past thrived in that house and her stories easily slipped between their settings in the Great Depression, to World War II to the joys of falling in love to her present failings of health. My grandmother’s life had often been filled with the winds of blessing, and as they passed through the lace curtains of her home we breathed in deeply and enjoyed their refreshment.
Life with an older women also meant a deep awareness of the shortness of life. Death was, I must say, our quiet and constant companion in the room. We knew no matter what we did or where we went, death would follow my grandmother and there was not a thing we could do about it. Some days we were alright with it there, some days we resented death’s presence. She had so much to do, so many things she loved. She enjoyed life so much, what right did death have to intrude? Some days were tear filled, dreading deaths powers, others it was peaceful, resigned to the work death had to do…the work he always does, eventually.
While the inevitability of her death was as clear to us as tidal movements of the River’s waters around us, we could not bring ourselves to hate death because of the God from which so many of life’s blessings had come, and to whom she, and eventually I, will return. The wind that brought the blessings were our lifeline to their source.
It’s funny, in all of the ranting and raving, efforts and struggles that the author of Ecclesiastes goes through, he never once stops to think that the incredible gifts that he experiences in his life: his health, his wealth, his relationships-they are but a fore-taste of what is to come. He is given glimpses of the pure light of the glory of God by way of these blessings, and he dismisses them as soon as they lose their shine.
Just the other day, as I was unpacking boxes from three years of storage while I was in seminary, I came across one of my grandmother’s pocketbooks. It’s a classic leather covered boxy thing with brass trim and a heavy clasp. I opened the box and inside found her medications, glasses, wallet and a folded napkin with a perfect impression of bright pink lipstick kiss, blotted after a heavy application. It was just a moment, but it was pure happiness as I thought of that icon of a woman who has so greatly impressed herself upon me. While it is true the moment was short and the pleasure fleeting, it was born of the accumulation of blessings, perhaps ended with her life, but still effective. That moment passed gently and I was left with a peace that is impossible to describe but most certainly from the Holy Spirit.
So to return to the ultimate question of the author of Ecclesiastes, I submit that he is absolutely right, the meaning of life is not found with the fleeting pleasures of life, it is found in the source from whom all such joys are born. Those joys of life that are passing, youth, health, love-they are grace-filled windows into the eternal life of the God from whom they came. A God who wants nothing more than to be a part of our lives, the breath we feel, the air we breath, the very stuff of who we are.
While our experiences are many, some happy and not a few deeply painful, and all passing as life is apt to do, they are pregnant with the presence of God’s spirit, and they are valuable in as much as they impress upon us the centrality of God in everything, and the sheer vanity of all else. In the heat of the day’s difficulty, it is we who must pause in the passing of happiness and take account of it…knowing from where it came and loving it for that reason. Only a fool would think they are not transformed by such blessing.
Brothers and sisters, as this is my 3rd week here, we do not know one another well, but I hope that we will, I count on it. There is a deep sense of grace in being here with you, to enjoy God’s presence moving among us, as we live into the loving community we are called to be. Surely there will come great blessings and deep difficulties, and throughout them all the joy of this community will be found in the breath of the Spirit.