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Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)
Which is better to be a dead lion or a live rat?
For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart
with which he has labored under the sun? (Ecciesiastes 2:22)
I want to introduce you to someone you may not know very well: Qoheleth, the Preacher who. wrote Ecclesiastes. We ought to find him quite interesting; he is one of the most modern personalities in all the Bible. In fact, here is someone very much like you or me.
He is a successful man by any measure of worldly achievement and he knows how to enjoy the pleasures of this world. But like many people today, he is also restless. He is looking for deeper meaning and greater fulfillment in life.
He is honest about himself and even a bit cynical about his world. He is not seduced by vanity. He looks at what he has done with his life and he asks a question which many thoughtful people are asking today: What am I working for? What am I living for? “What do we gain from our labors under the sun?”
Understand that I am speaking of “labors” and work in the broadest sense. You might work in an office or in a motor pool; you might work in the home. You might be paid very well for your work, or paid nothing at all. If you’ve had babies at home, you know that babies work incredibly hard to learn everything they do. If you are retired, or you love someone who is retired, you know that they are still left with the hard work of living.
Regardless of age or circumstance, work is our common lot in life, our legacy as children of Adam and Eve. It is so basic that the Preacher’s question can speak to every restless heart and hungry spirit: “What do we gain from our labors under the sun?”
The world offers various bargains concerning work and the Preacher says that he tried them all. He started with the first and most familiar one: “Work to buy the good life. Do your own thing, because after all, life is to enjoy.” The Preacher’s first reason for working is old, yet very new – as contemporary as the latest commercial selling the American Dream.
So, the Preacher jumped into the exhausting frenzy of working for the good life: “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them, [and I] found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.” It says in the gap we skip He became what we would call today a “workaholic” (“even at night my mind did not rest”), but he knew how to enjoy all the good things his money could buy.
We can surely understand such a person today. And we might also be glad that the Preacher never lost his wisdom, even when he became fabulously wealthy. After all, our churches are full of people who treasure what they have earned, but they don’t want to live just for the “Almighty Dollar.” they don’t want to gain the world and lose their soul. They are like the Preacher. Yes, the good life has its appeal, but a still, small and persistent voice speaks from within: “You cannot live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4).
The Preacher does not say that his work and its material rewards are evil. But they are vanities which do not satisfy. They are like cotton candy: all taste and no substance. In the end, the Preacher found he had asked too little from his world and thus received too little from his life. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. What do we gain from our labors under the sun?”
Then the Preacher tried the other side of the worldly bargain: “If you don’t want to work just for your own selfish reward, work to leave your mark, to make your own small contribution to someone else. Make a difference in the world! Let the mother and father raise a good child. Let the drill sergeant spread a little cheer; let the JAG spread a little justice! Show your good works and leave a legacy for others to follow.”
Now the Preacher moves beyond selfish living and enters the larger realm of values and ideals. Having tried wealth, power and pleasure, and found them all to be vanities, the Preacher seeks his satisfaction in leaving great works behind for others.
But oh, how his dreams become delusions! You see, great works must be left to others in a sinful world and time has a way of wearing down the best-laid plans. You who have command know that as soon as you leave, someone is going to say you left a mess behind and undo al you have done.In the Preacher’s words, “I must leave [my work] to those who come after me and who knows if they will be wise or foolish? This also is vanity.”
Remember how, as a young man, Alexander the Great conquered everything from Greece to India. He dreamed that his power would make peace over all the earth and ate the age of 33, he sat down and cried because there were no more worlds left to conquer. Yet within one generation after his death, Alexander’s empire was gone. It was as if everything he had done had been in vain.
Of course, the world can also wear down the legacies of us ordinary people. In fact, it happened to a friend of mine when we worked together in a factory, pouring cement from a gantry crane. He was someone who wanted to make a difference and one day he got an idea about how to waste a lot less cement on the job.
We went to the foreman and my friend presented his idea. But as soon as he was finished, the foreman said to him. “You’re not being paid to think! Get back there and do your job!” And as I watched my friend’s face, I could see him saying to himself, “Why do I even bother? What difference can I really make in this world? Maybe I should do what everyone else does – just put in my time, look out for number one and let it go at that.”
Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “Why should I keep beating my head against the wall when all my work is in vain? If no one else cares about making this a better church, or a better home, or a better world, why should I care? Why shouldn’t I just stop now and start worrying more about me again?”
This is a common frustration, isn’t it: at work, in the church, even at home. We try to make a difference with our labors under the sun and then throw up our hands in resignation.
But when we do that, when we throw up our hands in resignation, we are back where we began. We are back to looking out for ourselves and our own and we already know that this is vanity! It does not satisfy; it gives no happiness. Exchanging one vanity for another brings little satisfaction to the Preacher’s question: “What do we gain from our labors under the sun?”
When people who work only for themselves are unhappy in their work, it is because they have asked for too little. They have a view of life which begins and ends in the world. When they learn that the next raise or even a prosperous and happy home, does not make life complete, they open the door to that restlessness the ancient Preacher knew, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. What do we gain from our labors under the sun?”
When people who work to leave a mark for the good of others are unhappy with the fruits of their work, it is again because they have a view of life which begins and ends in the world. But this time, they look only to the world and expect too much. They forget how Creation is fallen and so they expect that good intentions and hard work alone will re-make a sinful world.
If your Christian calling is to make a difference with your life and if you are in it for the long haul, you will have to know this: your job is to give your best to God’s service. God’s job is to save the world. Only His power and glory can make all things new. Our God is Everlasting; He is true and righteous altogether. He has the whole world in His hands! If you don’t trust and believe in that, all your good work will be in vain. You will quit or be defeated and you will end up muttering with the Preacher, “What do we gain from our labors under the sun?”
This is just what the Preacher says at the end of our text: “Apart from God,” he says, “no one can have enjoyment [in their work].” This is because: when you live for yourself without God, you are liable to be empty and unhappy. And when you work for the good of others without God, you will be disappointed and disillusioned. Either way, life without God is vanity.
We can see much the same message in the story of an old preacher who went to speak at a college campus. It seems that while he was there, the preacher met a brilliant young senior named Robert.
“What do you plan to do after college, Robert?” he asked. “Well, I’ve been accepted to law school,” Robert answered.
“What will you do after law school?” “Well, I thought I would get married, have children and establish my law practice.”
“And then what will you do?”
Robert said, “I’d like to get rich and retire early, so I can see the world. This has always been one of my dreams.”
The old preacher persisted, “What will you do after that?”
By this time, young Robert had run out of plans and he was getting a bit annoyed. “Young man,” the preacher said, “your plans are much too small. You have planned only for the next sixty or seventy years. You must make your plans big enough to include God and large enough to include eternity.”
This is the message we must hear today in this hurried and hassled world. Let the church be the place where we come, week after week, to lift our vision and seek the higher things of life. Let the Sabbath day in God’s House remind us once and always that life without God is vanity, a striving after wind.
To the vanity of living by bread alone and of working just for one’s own selfish purposes, we believe we cannot live without saying, “O Master, let me walk with Thee.” We know we can find no meaning or lasting joy unless, “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea.”
And to the vanity of living by great works alone, of working without God to make a difference in the world, we can always “lift up our eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh our help? Our help cometh in the name of the Lord!” His is the power and the glory for evermore. He is the One who brings grace to even our feeble efforts and blesses all we do for His Name’s sake.
Dust returns to dust as riches rot and great works fade and mighty empires fall; but eternal things abide. God’s ways are the higher ways which keep us while we are here below, away from “the vain world’s golden stores.”
The faithful heart knows that in all our life’s work, we should neither ask too little nor expect too much; but trusting always in God, make Him the Beginning and the End of all we do, and let Him be sufficient to all our needs.
Life without God is vanity – a striving after wind. But with God, we live in fullness and in grace. We see the world as it is, and we look beyond the world for meaning in this world. We know a joy which is complete, because our minds are set, not on vanity, but eternity.
I have some very expensive- looking things with me today. What do you think these are made of? (Let them answer.) That’s right, boys and girls, these are made of gold. Gold is very valuable, isn’t it? What does valuable mean? (Let them answer.) Right — gold costs a lot of money if you want to buy some. Well, today I’m going to tell you a story about a man who became very greedy. His name was Midas, and he was a king. One day a wise old man told Midas that he could have one wish — anything he wanted — but just one. This promise made Midas very greedy. So he thought and thought. Guess what he asked for? (Let them answer.) Those are good guesses, boys and girls. Let me tell you what Midas asked for — he wanted everything that he touched to turn to gold! So he got his wish. King Midas was so excited. He touched his plates and his cups and his saucers and they turned to gold! He touched vases and furniture and walls and they turned to gold! Then he went into his garden and touched the roses and other flowers growing there — all of them turned to gold! King Midas was very happy until his little daughter came running into the house, crying. She had seen the golden roses and other flowers and was very sad. She wanted to know why all those lovely growing things were now frozen into pieces of gold. She cried and cried. Well, King Midas took her into his arms and guess what happened, boys and girls? (Let them answer.) That’s right. His lovely daughter turned into gold — a pretty golden statue! Midas couldn’t believe his eyes! He had lost his only daughter because he was so greedy. Then other bad things happened to Midas. When he tried to eat, the food turned to gold. The wine in his goblet turned to gold. He couldn’t eat or drink anything, and he knew he would starve to death. Poor Midas. His greed got the best of him, didn’t it boys and girls?
Does anyone know how the story of King Midas ends? (Let them answer.) Well, Midas was so miserable and so unhappy that the wise old man who had granted his wish felt sorry for him. He came to see him again and Midas begged to have his golden touch taken away. Midas had learned his lesson. He would be happy with what he had and not want any more. So the old man took away Midas’ power. The flowers came back to life, his daughter came back to life, and all of his furniture and dishes and food looked like everyone else’s once again! In today’s gospel story Jesus is telling us to be careful not to become greedy like that Old King Midas. Jesus says that it doesn’t matter how many things we have — like houses or cars or boats or bicycles or dolls or trains. We shouldn’t spend all our time trying to get more things. You see what happened to Midas! Just remember that you have the greatest treasure of all — God’s love. Amen.