Vanity, Thy Name is Mortal

By Sharron R. Blezard, July 28, 2016

Lectionary Reflection for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

July 31, 2016

What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity. –Ecclesiastes 2:22-23

How much is enough? Do we really have to “keep up with the Joneses”? Is that newest gizmo or gadget a need or a want? Is a bigger house in a better neighborhood going to satisfy in the end? Is working longer hours or more stressful job(s) worth it to simply have more and better stuff?

These are just a few of the important questions with which faithful stewards must wrestle. Don’t be fooled either; it is tough to be a good steward in a culture that preaches excess and consumption. It is a countercultural act to ask tough questions and behave in ways that run against the consumer mindset.

Andrew Guyton ccTake housing for example. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the median size of a new home in the U.S. is 2,467 square feet, up 61% from just 40 years ago and up 11% in the last 10 years. The average home price in March was $187,000 and the average price of a NEW home was $357,400. The cost of housing varies from state to state and area to area, but the question is, how much work and toil is a bigger, more expensive house worth?

Conversely, the tiny house movement is growing as people choose to downsize to homes of around 450 square feet that can cost as little as $8,000. It’s certainly not a move everyone would choose, but for some it becomes an issue of stewardship of time, resources, and creation.

In this week’s reading from Ecclesiastes, the Teacher proclaims that much of the human striving and busyness and toil is vanity. In the United States, the average worker clocks just over 40 hours per week, with more than 25 million American workers (mostly white collar) reporting 49 hours per week. Eleven million of those workers reported logging more than 59 hours on the job (or jobs). We take less vacation, have higher stress and more stress-related illnesses, and often wear our amount of labor and toil like some crazy badge of honor. Vanity, thy name is mortal, the Teacher would likely shake his head and say.

The parable in Luke’s gospel lesson about the rich farmer, who because of his very abundant harvest tears down his barns and builds larger ones to store his surplus, has an eerie ring to our 21st century tendency to rent storage space and fill attics, garages, and basements with abundance and excess possessions. We’ve probably all heard the sad tales of people who save and scrimp and plan for a joyous retirement traveling the world only to be beset by catastrophic illness or early death. Vanity, they name is mortal.

1333555014_eeefdc68cb_zHere’s the thing: God desires for us to enjoy a good life in the present moment. Yes, we work, and our work is good and holy, an offering of time and talent. But, God also wants us to enjoy leisure, take adequate rest, and cultivate satisfying relationships (Hint! Hint! It’s called Sabbath). God wants life to be lived well, not pining for the past or worrying about the future, or hoarding resources out of fear or greed. God doesn’t want us to strive for independence and self-sufficiency as much as interdependence and reliance on the mercy and grace we receive freely in Christ. Our days should not be filled with pain, vexing work, and restless nights. There is enough for all of us. Yes, there is enough.

Vanity, they name is mortal. Mortal, your help comes from God. Part of good stewardship is building one another up, sharing all of God’s good gifts, and taking care of God’s good creation. Let’s challenge one another to take up a countercultural course of action and drop the vanity that costs us so much and yields so very little. Let us seek our wealth in faith, in relationship, and in service to God and one another. In doing so, we will indeed have enough—and then some.

In Worship

Today why not celebrate how your congregation and people are “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21)? What are the ways in which your congregation and individual members are focusing on generosity and giving outside the walls of the church? What time, treasure, and talents are you sharing with others and not hoarding for yourselves? Invite members to write these things down on slips of paper or sticky notes that can be posted on a large heart-shaped poster, or use them to make a word cloud that can be posted on your Facebook page or website. Consider singing “We are an Offering” (Dwight Liles, Word Music, LLC) as an offeratory or woven into your sermon.

With Youth

How do we avoid the temptation to “build bigger barns” in a world and culture that is always telling us more is better and that we NEED new things? Consider looking at the work of The Minimalists (Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus). They have a new documentary on minimalism with lots of bonus footage coming out on August 2. Click here for more information. You might also wish to talk about the fact that even simplicity is complicated: It’s great when you have the resources to CHOOSE to live simply, but it’s not so much fun when you are forced to live without. Several critiques of this lifestyle choice are popping up. Click here to read one, and then google others. Could “building a smaller barn” also be a way to be poor toward God? How do Christians successfully balance our possessions, work, and time in ways that honor God, build relationships, and contribute to a better quality of life for all?

With Children

New Clothes!

As the weeks draw nearer to a return to school, many parents will be taking children shopping for new clothes. Bring some new clothes with tags still on them (or if your congregation uses baptismal gowns or bibs, use those). Ask the children what they like about back-to-school shopping. Why is it fun to get new clothes?

In advance, cover the tags on the clothes you have brought with larger “tags” that you make to reflect the epistle reading from Colossians. You might label them “Child of God” “Priceless and Precious” “One Size fits Everybody” “Designed by God” “Grace Designs” or something similar. Tell the children that we don’t want to choose the ill-fitting clothes of greed, anger, bad words, and hate. Everybody feels good in new clothes, and we have the new clothes of a Christian. We are given these new clothes in baptism when we “put on Christ” and they never get old or wear out. Better yet, these clothes are a good fit for everyone because Jesus loves all of us. Finish with a simple prayer like this one:

Dear God, Thank you for giving us new clothes to wear, new clothes that never get old, that never wear out, and that always fit. Thank you for clothing us in goodness and love. Help us to share with others and tell them about all that you have done. Help us to love our neighbor. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

(Photos: daily sunny, Andrew Guyton, and Joe Shlabotnik, Creative Commons)

About the Author

The Rev. Sharron Riessinger Blezard is an ELCA pastor currently rostered in the Lower Susquehanna Synod. She came to ordained ministry after teaching secondary and college English, working in non-profit management and public relations, and moonlighting as a freelance writer. See more posts by .

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