Fr. Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!” (Eccl. 1)
How interesting, that after two solid weeks of political conventions today’s lectionary should kick up the chapter from Ecclesiastes that declares all of life to be a pointless vanity. Indeed, some translations of our reading put it even more directly: as the New International Version reads, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is utterly meaningless!”
And certainly there is a lot of political rhetoric around these days that seems to take the view that the political process and perhaps even the country are irreparably broken and corrupt, as if to echo our reading from Ecclesiastes. But the problem is that when one takes such an attitude, it creates a kind of downward spiral, for if that is true, then it really doesn’t make much difference what the outcome of an election is, does it? One candidate is as bad as another, they’re all the same, scoundrels and scumbags every one of them!
But it won’t surprise you if I suggest that the message the writer of Ecclesiastes is trying to make is in fact a bit more subtle point than that—after all, it is in the Bible, the “good book,” so it must have something more to it than raw cynicism, wouldn’t you think?
The gospel might put us on the right track toward finding something more substantive. Jesus tells the parable of a rich man who securely stores away his belongings, thinking that in his well-protected comfort he can eat, drink and be merry. The wall is built, and he plans to hide behind it. But then that very night, death comes and his soul is required of him: and suddenly he discovers the “vanity” of which Ecclesiastes spoke when he has to reckon with the fact that in death his riches can no longer mask his poverty of spirit.
Having told his parable, Jesus points his hearers toward a larger truth: the important thing in life is to be rich toward God, for only those riches endure. And what does that mean? Well, Paul steers us in that direction in the epistle lesson: we are to give up greed, idolatry, evil desires, and so on, and cultivate instead their opposite—generosity, dignity, respect, and so on.
And here I think is the really important point: if you pay close attention to that list, you will hear running through it a message of great hope and optimism about the human spirit, because unless we understand human nature to be capable of such things as generosity and dignity and respect, then it is entirely disingenuous to expect that we should cultivate them. But as people of faith, we do think that human beings are capable of cultivating these virtues, because we understand God to have created us with that very capacity, modeled in God’s own image. We therefore just won’t accept unbridled cynicism as an adequate approach to life—including politics.
It’s in that very vein that the columnist David Brooks, writing in this week’s New York Times, appealed to the “Judeo-Christian aspirations that have always represented America’s highest moral ideals: [aspirations] toward love, charity, humility, goodness, faith, temperance, and gentleness.”[*] Sounding a bit like St. Paul himself, Brooks was pointing us toward an ultimate hope, optimism, and determination that we both can and should aim toward being our finest selves and not our basest. (In this day and age, I think I would have referred to that as the Abrahamic tradition, or maybe even more inclusively, as the spiritual tradition, but that’s another issue.)
Someone recently asked me, what I think that she could do right now in response to the high state of anxiety in American politics? Well, I wonder if it might be this: could it be that we as Christians are be called to advocate for hope. To resist the sense of pessimism that can so easily creep into human affairs is not easy (we human beings are a messy, disappointing lot after all). Yet whether we are individually Republican or Democrat, perhaps what we most need to be about as followers of Jesus right now is to be a voice for the richness toward God that is given in the potential each one of us has for generosity, dignity, and respect—a potential which our life together in community equally has. Whether in our conversations with one another, in our interactions in the community, or in our emails and Facebook posts and tweets, we people of faith have a natural commitment to raising the bar of public discourse beyond anger to hope, beyond grievances to aspirations, beyond suspicion to justice.
This past week, I had the opportunity to go for the first time to Chaco Canyon, that extraordinary series of pueblo ruins in northwestern New Mexico dating from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. You probably know that cumulatively, these pueblos constituted an extensive and complex culture whose influence stretched for hundreds of miles in all directions. It is remarkable to me that the largest of the ruins, Pueblo Bonito, was for some 600 years the largest man-made structure in North America, until it was superseded in the nineteenth century by the new buildings of the Industrial Revolution.
Now lying in ruins, one could look on these pueblos with the sentiment we heard from Ecclesiastes that all is vanity, for everything ultimately passes away or is overtaken by time. Yet one can also look on that complex of ruins with a great sense of reverence and amazement at the creative accomplishment of a community of people who ventured something great, and achieved it. Of the two, that is perhaps the more profound statement.
Writing in the 3rd century B.C., at a similar time of anxiety and uncertainty to our own, the author of Ecclesiastes was tempted to look on the world and conclude that everything is meaningless, and that our efforts are therefore in the end pointless. But reflecting more carefully upon his subject, by the end of his book he concludes in effect that the meaning of life is what we choose to make it to mean: we can either fall into despair at its vanity, or we can direct it toward those larger purposes toward which God has created us to aspire. In these first decades of the twenty-first century, perhaps we too need to find the confidence in ourselves that we are building a new global world whose parameters already astonish and amaze us—and sometimes frighten us—yet which it is our generation’s challenge and obligation to construct.
In reconvening the Congress in 1862, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln turned to the first chapter of Ecclesiastes as we did today. He quoted these words to the assembled group of worried, fearful legislators: “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains for ever” (Eccl 1:4). With that reference, he meant to encourage his hearers—who surely faced greater challenges and trials than any we have today—by reminding them that in what they would do, they were laying a foundation of freedom and social unity for succeeding generations. They themselves might not live to see it, but their children, and grandchildren would.
Is that not the kind of confident hope and steadfast determination to which we as people of faith are called to bear witness in our country today? As another well-known passage from Ecclesiastes puts it, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Surely this is a time for rekindling hope. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016
[*] “The Democrats Win the Summer,” July 28.