Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 11th Sunday After Pentecost + July 31, 2016
In fairy tales the world usually makes sense. There may be crazy things like talking frogs and snacks that give people the ability to fly, but in the big picture things make sense. The hero succeeds in the name of what is right; the innocent village is saved; the villains face the consequences of their evil ways, and the good characters live happily ever after. In fairy tales things almost always happen the way we feel they are supposed to happen.
Maybe that is the most fantastical thing about fairy tales, because real life isn’t very much like that. In real life there is some chance that what we do will lead to the expected results. Like in Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper: the grasshopper spends all summer partying, while the ant toils away, storing up food. When winter comes, the grasshopper has no food and goes hungry, but the ant is able to live off of his rations. There’s definitely wisdom in this story: it’s a good idea to do the work you need to do in order to meet your needs, and hopefully if you work hard like the ant, you’ll be full like the ant.
But sometimes even when we try our best to be good, to work hard, and to be healthy and wise, things don’t go according to plan. Sometimes life is much more like the parable Jesus told in today’s gospel reading: the rich man is blessed with an abundance of crops, figures out a way to store them so that he can retire to rest and live off his stores…and then that night he dies. His work and his planning come to nothing.
This kind of story is far too familiar. Hearing Jesus’s parable makes me think about people in our community who work long hours — maybe juggling two or three jobs — and still can’t make ends meet. It makes me think of people I’ve known — in the hospital, in my family, in this congregation — who have tried their best to live healthy lives and still find their bodies taken over by diseases while they are young. It makes me think of children who do their very best and yet can’t escape the addiction or the abuse or the poverty of their families. It makes me think of sudden accidents and betrayals by friends or family, of children who die before their parents…it makes me think of the simple fact that we’re all going to die one day. Sometimes these realities can make all our hard work and even life itself seem so meaningless.
This is the mental space the “Teacher” writing Ecclesiastes is living in. “Vanity of vanities,” he says, “all is vanity!” The Hebrew word translated to “vanity” means something like “vapor” or “breath” or “smoke.” Using that word to describe life paints a picture of how fleeting life is and how impossible it is to grasp it and control it. The Teacher laments about the futility of working: sure, he may earn good money, but then he will leave it to his children — it will be for them to invest and to enjoy, and who knows if they’ll use it wisely or foolishly. He laments the futility of being righteous: righteous people and wicked people both suffer and die (Eccles. 3:16-22). In the end, what can we control, what can we enjoy, what meaning can we make? “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!”
(Those of you who like to read the Bible first thing in the morning, let me warn you from experience: Ecclesiastes is not a good way to start your day.)
Grace is many things. As I meditated on Ecclesiastes this week, I began to think of grace as the gift of meaning in the midst of all that meaninglessness. For instance: the point of Jesus’s parable is not “The man did all that work, and it was all for nothing. Isn’t life meaningless? All is vanity!” That’s how the Teacher from Ecclesiastes might sum up the story, but Jesus did it differently. Jesus ended his parable by pointing toward another way of living, a truer source of meaning in life: here, he called it being “rich toward God.” At other times he talked about living in the Kingdom of God, or following him, or taking up our cross.
All these phrases describe a life that is lived from a different perspective. Christian faith does not —or should not — mean denying all those unfair results and surprising tragedies that sometimes make life seem meaningless. That our main symbol is the cross — and that “taking up our cross” is one way of describing discipleship — ought to remind us to pay attention to the hard facts of mortal life. Our history is full of martyrs. Our scriptures call over and over again for us to pay attention to injustice: to poverty, to those in pain, to widows and orphans and social outcasts. Christian ethics ask us to sacrifice, to give of our blessings and the fruits of our labor, even beyond what is fair or reasonable. The cross reminds us that life necessarily involves letting go, suffering, unfairness, and, yes, death. But the cross also reminds us of grace, and moments of grace help us see all this in a different light.
The first gift of grace is the gift of acceptance — a gift in which God is rich toward us. It says, “Yes, life treats you unfairly. And yes, you do wrong sometimes. And yes, you will die. But there is Someone beyond all this that says you are loved, you are forgiven, and you are meaningful — and that Someone wants better for you.” This gift of grace gives us “the courage to be,” the courage to stand against a world that seems like its trying to make us feel small and meaningless and afraid, the courage to find meaning in our lives, to feel hope and joy and love. We have the courage to see all those things — to take hold of all those things as they come — because God says they belong to us; God has given them to us. Grace gives us the faith to see that our lives do have meaning.1
The second gift of grace is the gift of vocation, of a calling; this is where we are rich toward God. Grace takes us beyond ourselves and gives us a purpose as part of God’s mission in the world. We get beyond those questions of “what will happen to us if…” We get beyond trying to control the way life will go when we — as Pastor Lippard said in last week’s children’s sermon — “just do it,” when we are rich toward God, when we love our neighbor. And then when we look back at a moment helping someone, or using our talents well, or just spending time with a friend, and think: now that was a good use of my time. That was meaningful. And these moments of grace remind us that life does have meaning.
I call these moments of grace because I know how easy it is to slip into that Ecclesiastes mindset. I know that I need to be pulled back to faith and meaning over and over again. But I also know that God comes to us in moments: moments where that still, small voice says, “You are accepted,” and helps us believe it; moments where we lose ourselves in meaningful work or in the experience of joy; moments where the company of a good friend seems to give us all we need; moments where we can focus on the good things in our lives and let the negatives fade into the background. In Ecclesiastes we see how wisdom and realism can show us a bigger picture, where life seems meaningless; but moments of grace take us one step further, beyond our usual measures of meaning. These moments of grace help us find meaning not through logic, but through a pure experience of meaning, meaningfulness, of being loved and loving others.
In moments of grace we find ourselves confessing: yes, this is meaningful, this is what life is all about. Thanks be to God.
1. [Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, (New Haven): Yale University Press, 2nd edition: 2000); Tillich, “You are Accepted,” (sermon) online at http://www.areopagus.co.uk/2012/05/you-are-accepted-paul-tillichs-famous.html]↩