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Life is Like Chasing Wind, Herding Cats: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 4, 2019:
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

“All is vanity” says the Teacher. “Because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it [does not deserve it]. This also is vanity and a great evil.”

It’s a rare occurrence to have St. Paul offering the most cheerful of the Sunday readings…

The “vanity” spoken of here is a hangover from the King James translation of the 17th century, that at the time most commonly meant “lack of value.” Today when we hear “vanity” we think of celebrities agonizing over their looks before appearing on the red carpet. But the Hebrew word used here is more along the lines of “futility,” “absurdity,” and “elusiveness.”

“Everything is futile. We worked hard, and left much for those to come after us, many of them foolish. This is absurd and a great evil. We toil and strain and get nothing but pain and anxiety in return. This also is futile. Everything is elusive, like chasing after wind.” Or herding cats, we might say today. But here those words are deliberate and meaningful again. The “wind” here is a different and opposite word from the “wind” or breath that’s talked about in the creation story, the life-giving spirit breathed into the creature made from the dust of the earth.

And the message of the vanity speech is a lot different than the exhortation in the Genesis creation story to “be fruitful and multiply” and “fill the earth” and “have dominion.” A reminder that the Bible doesn’t speak with one voice. This “chasing of wind” is an expiring, dissipating breath from a winter’s morning. That you see for but a second or two, until it just disappears. Life is an absurdity, like trying to chase, and capture, and bottle up that vapour.

This ‘unmotivational’ speech comes to us from a genre of the Bible that’s called wisdom literature. Like the Psalms and Proverbs, we have the feeling of tapping into the innermost thoughts of someone who’s seen and lived through a lot. And the Psalms can be just as depressing as what we heard, but you turn the page and inevitably find some joy and celebration. And Proverbs gives some very concrete, practical advice. But here in Ecclesiastes, we have a word that, for the most part, is glum, and more philosophical than practical. And we hear echoes of other wisdom traditions. Like the Buddha, who based his way on the premise that “life is suffering,” or “ultimately unsatisfactory.” (All is vanity.) Or even the philosopher Karl Marx, whose full quote we rarely hear: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (So for Marx it’s not just a disappearing vapour, but an opium cloud.)

And the Teacher continues in the verse that follows right after today’s reading breaks off: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.” The philosopher, in my head, is a barfly, sitting at the end of the counter, familiar to all the regular patrons of the establishment. Known for rambling. Annoying, and a bummer. But nonetheless, sometimes hitting on a reality that most would rather ignore. Though our response to life’s absurdity might differ from this barstool prophet’s, who seems content to just eat, and drink, and ramble on.

And this connects us to the fool in the parable that Jesus tells. “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” I don’t think we need to fault the character here for being rich. Or for very sensibly revamping the farming infrastructure to address the increase in production. But we might have an issue with how he disconnects from the world, and gets caught up in his own head, in dialogue with his own soul. And God, who’s a character in the story, as a sort of disembodied voice that just appears, says “the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” echoing the philosopher from Ecclesiastes. But the difference here, is that the Jesus we know had no problem, and actually was very intentional about feeding other people. The philosopher in the first reading, on the other hand, was just resentful about others enjoying the fruits of one’s toil. Jesus, though, was all about sharing and welcoming ‘the other,’ even the supposedly undeserving.

But there is that question: “those things… whose will they be?” Not because the contents of the barn will be enjoyed by others, but because “this very night your life is being demanded of you.” Because life is elusive. Often unpredictable. And ultimately, whether after a long, satisfying life, or an unfairly short one, whether with a sense of peace and relief, or in tragedy, our life escapes and disappears like the exhalation of breath on a cold winter morning. That question for me — “whose will they be” — not a chastisement to the farmer for not having been selfish enough, but an existential riddle that we all have to deal with. In this often absurd and elusive existence, in what do we put our trust, and our energy, and efforts? In other words, what is life for? Even in this absurd world, do we dare to have a sense of purpose? Most of us can’t (and probably shouldn’t) remove ourselves from the matters that the parable represents with the symbols of crops and barns. But we can respond to this toil, and elusiveness, and absurdity with a wisdom that says that we have our foot in another kingdom. So we set our minds on things that are above, as Paul writes. Not because the two kingdoms are diametrically opposed, I’d venture. But because the heavenly one makes claims on the earthly one. The values from above can transform how we live in the absurdity of the earthly one. The heavenly one transfigures the earthly one. That where there is meaninglessness and absurdity, we might inject compassion, and creativity, and connection. So Paul counsels: in this situation, “get rid of all such things [that are common reactions to our toil, and the futility of life]: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language…. [for you] have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

Susan Peppercorn wrote a recent article in the Harvard Business Review: “Why You Should Stop Trying to Be Happy at Work.”* (And we might say, not just “work,” but “life.”) There she questions the conclusion of the philosopher and the fool, who says “relax, eat, drink, [and] be merry.” Because Peppercorn realizes that happiness is elusive. But what she says we can do instead, is to “make meaning your vocational goal.” [Citing psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues] Happiness is mostly concerned with the here and now. But meaning, she says, “seems to come from assembling past, present, and future into some kind of coherent story.” It’s “bigger-picture and long[er] term.” Happiness, she writes, depends largely on being helped by others. But meaning comes from being of service to someone other than yourself. And importantly, “[s]tress, strife, and struggles reduce happiness, ‘but they seem to be part and parcel of a highly meaningful life[.]”

Closer to our own context as church, we might simply look at vows of the baptismal service, and there we’ll find meaning, and a guide to our “vocational goal.”

    – Will you continue in the life and practices of the Church: teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and praying?
    – Will you resist evil? And when our resistance fails, turn back to God?
    – Will you help others to know God?
    – Will you dare to see Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?
    – Will you work for justice and peace, and be mindful of the dignity of every human being? And
    – Will you remember that God created a “good” creation; and respect it as such?

This is not a recipe for easy happiness, or success. But it is a way of life that is meaningful. And this is what the Church has been given (and often failed to live up to), to bring to a world of seeming futility and elusiveness. It’s a treasure in clay jars, a life hidden with Christ in God, and the clothes of a new self, renewed in the image of the God we meet on the Cross. To some without the Church this way seems absurd in itself. And to some within the Church this way gets buried under layers of other, less important things. But it is the Christian way. And it is important. It is our meaning, and our purpose.

Let us pray:

Lord of abundance,
you demand our life entire and whole:
lead us out from prisons of hopelessness and selfishness
to a place of lasting riches always shared and always new;
through Jesus Christ, who gave his whole self. Amen.
Adapted from Prayers for an Inclusive Church (2009) alt.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* https://hbr.org/2019/07/why-you-should-stop-trying-to-be-happy-at-work