Vanities of Vanities

auction_bySheltonReality.jpgEcclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Luke 12:13-21

Have you been to an auction? I used to go all the time with my dad. It was our daddy-daughter bonding time. I remember this one auction very well: it took up the entire farmhouse yard, went into the barnyard, and into the two barns AND the house. There were tables of tools, boxes upon boxes of pots and pans, antique furniture around every corner, and enough holiday decorations to decorate the White House. The front lawn had a long line of folding tables divided into lots — lot 1, lot 2, — and so forth. Whatever was in your half of the folding table is what you were bidding upon.

I stood at the head of one of the tables and looked in the boxes. It was photo albums. Book after book of black and white photos; book after book of Polaroids; and Christmas cards with photos and address books with photos. About half were carefully labeled ‘Danny’s First Christmas’ ‘Hannah and Chuck’ ‘Whitehall, 1960’ and so forth. Weddings. Birthdays. Picnics. Men ready for war. Women holding little babies. Kids in bathing suits.

I suddenly realized a woman, an elderly woman, had died. We were rifling through her possessions. Soon we would be taking some, giving her family or her medical bills money, and then all she owned would scattered across the state.

These weren’t extra dishes. These were the dishes she ate with every day.

This table she had toast at, and fed her children.

These were the clothes she washed, wore, repaired, for decades.

And here, these photos in my hands, this is her nice cursive handwriting detail the people she loved. What would be done with the photos now? No one here even knows who Danny or Hannah or Chuck are. Would the buyer throw the photos away and reuse the antique albums? Who collects old color out of focus Polaroids? Why didn’t the family take these?

… Maybe she doesn’t … didn’t… have any living family left.

The auctioneer began his fast pelt of questions and calls and the people around me began to nod their heads or flick their little paper numbers. But I was lost in thought looking at that stack of albums. It made me begin to wonder about this dead woman I’d never met, and, what it will be like when I am the dead woman some day. What will I leave behind when I die?

Another death. Nuns and monks have their own private rooms although they share a big house. A UCC minister told this story of her aunt who was a nun. One of the nuns passed away, and, eventually, the sisters needed to clean out the deceased’s room. When they opened the door to her bedroom, they found it was completely stuffed with things: maps and books, little nicknacks and silk flowers, photos and paintings and everything you can name — all piled into that little room. I think it must have looked like my closet when I was a kid: one of those ‘Open Only If You Dare’ situations. It took days to clean and clear out.

Later, the minister’s aunt herself was diagonsed with incurable cancer. The minister was called by her aunt to come visit. When she got there, her aunt handed her treasures: her favorite painting, little ceramic cats the two played with, and pictures the minister had made her aunt when the minister was a little girl. The minister knew her aunt treasured these things, and was so surprised she was parting with them. But the aunt was adament, “I know you’ll treasure these like I do. Take them.”

When the aunt died, the sisters gathered one day to clear out her room. They found it was completely empty but for its bed, nightstand, and dresser. The aunt had given away everything.

The minister realized then that STUFF is for the living. We can’t take it with us at all. By giving away things, the aunt had seen all the people she loved one last time before passing away. She knew what true wealth is, and how to share it.

The writer of Ecclesiasties sets out to learn what is true wealth. He wants to know: what brings lasting happiness? What brings lasting joy? What is worthwhile to do? How should one spend their life?

And in woe, he finds that most things we do are meaningless in the big picture of the world. Every joy and every meaning is fleeting, is a vanity, a puff of smoke or is dust in the wind. Like cleaning the house, or weeding the garden, our toils never end and just seem to come to nothing.

He writes that if we work really hard and build up something to pass on to our kids: wealth, a furnished house, a business, or even photo albums labeled and organized… we have no guarantee what they’re going to do with those things. They might not appreciate the money and blow through it. Or they may not want to live where we have the house. Maybe they don’t want to work the business. Maybe they don’t want the photo albums.

Yet we want to have lives that MEAN something. If we can’t trust even our own kids to pass on our mark, our stamp, our memory, on the world, what can we do? Is life a vainity? Is life meaningless?

The Teacher in Ecclessiasties struggles with this. In the end, he concludes that the truest meanings of life we mortals can’t know. God alone knows. So, while we are living, live well: relax, eat, drink, be merry, enjoy time with your family and friends. Whatever you do, do with joy. Obey God and the commandments, for whatever life is, (a test? a dream? a proving grounds? a place to learn?) and whatever death is, we can ask God once we have passed away. What is certain is, he writes, “Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.”

Our second reading echos, refers back to, Ecclesiasties. Did you hear it?

A man has come to Jesus and said, “Tell me brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” You see, each son was entitled to some of their father’s wealth when their father died. Usually Rabbis could step in and use scripture to chastize the greedy one not sharing.

But Jesus turns the tables, and warns everyone: don’t be greedy at all! Sure, this boy deserves his share by the law… but the real issue is that greed — greed of the older brother and younger brother — is tearing the family apart. One’s life does not consistent in the abundance of possessions. What you own isn’t who you are.

I can’t tell you how many families I’ve seen torn apart when somebody dies. My own included. Countless. Theft during funerals; hiding or changing wills; hiding possessions; changing locks; lawyers and police and decades of hurt feelings. Over what? Possessions. Jesus reminds us that who is right and who is wrong in these situations isn’t going to make us happy. Getting a laywer or a judge or pastor to say, “You’re right!” doesn’t knit the family back together again. Guard against all kinds of greed. It tears us apart.

Then Jesus tells the story that echoes Ecclesiasties. He says a rich man had land that made him even richer. He had so many crops they didn’t all fit in his barn. So he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Then, like the teacher of Ecclesiasties, he chose to relax, eat, drink, and be merry. However, the Teacher told us to enjoy time with our family and friends, and to honor and obey God. He also told us that wealth is meaningless. The rich man chose to hoard his wealth all to himself. He didn’t share it with family and friends. He didn’t honor and obey God by sharing with the stranger and the needy. And God called the man a fool, and that the man was going to die that very night. “All the things you prepared, whose will they be?” All that toil was in vain. All that hoarding was in vain. The man didn’t need barns of food after he died. So who owned them now?

Greed tears us apart. Clinging to poscessions tears us apart.

Poccess your poccessions. Don’t be poccessed by pocessions.

When you store up treasures, store them up for God- not yourself! Store up good deeds, good memories, fun times, prayers, times of comfort and sollace, times of generosity, times of worship; store up heavenly treasures. Store up love for others — and share that love abundantly.

The treasures we hoard for ourselves all alone, without others enjoying or God invited, these we lose.

The Teacher writes in chapter 5 of Ecclesiasties:

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them?
The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether they eat little or much,
but as for the rich, their abundance
permits them no sleep.
I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners,
or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when they have children
there is nothing left for them to inherit.
Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
that they can carry in their hands.
This too is a grievous evil:
As everyone comes, so they depart,
and what do they gain,
since they toil for the wind?

Wealth – financial stability – comes and goes. Work – what we do to survive – should never consume our whole lives. Our lives are meant for more than labor. No matter if you have no income, a fixed income, make $30,000 a year, or 50, or 100, or a billion dollars a year… you always will think you could use a bit more. So instead of worrying about money, enjoy what you do have – and share it with others. In the sharing we find we all have enough to go around.

Jesus economics are like garden economics. This week I have so many cucumbers I beg you to take some and use them. Next week, you’ll have so many tomatoes you’ll beg me to take some and use some. By sharing, we all have richer summers, richer relationships, and richer lives. We store up in heaven our love for one another.

When we apply this to money, it means that some years of your life you’ll have more income than you need. Then is the time to share, because in later times of your life, you’ll not have enough. And there is no shame in taking tomatoes or cucumbers. There is no shame in taking offered finanical assistance.

For while one has more money than they need, another has more time, another has more skills in gardening or cooking, another has abundant repair skills, and another abundant stories. We each are blessed with more wealth than we can ever count. And together, when we share it, we always are an extrememly blessed community.

Where is your treasure? Stored somewhere fading and passing away; or stored in our heavenly home? Amen.

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