Year C, Proper 13
In our reading from Ecclesiastes we hear the writer, whose name is Teacher, sigh, “Vanity, vanity! All is vanity…. I…applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven…I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14) The Hebrew word for vanity, hebel, means transitory and unsatisfactory, fleeting, like the wind. Each of our texts this week asks in some form or fashion. “What is “hebel”, vanity? What is fleeting and unsatisfactory? And what is NOT vanity? What is meaningful and not transitory?” Each text contains rich imagery that answers these questions.
The 8th century BCE prophet, Hosea, continues to speak for God this week in lament over the people of Israel’s broken relationship with God. God seems to wonder if all is “vanity” in relationship to God’s people. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them [my children, my people], the more they went from me; …. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim [part of Israel] to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them” (Hosea 11:1-4). “My people are bent on turning away from me. … How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?”(Hosea 11:7-8). God’s question go beyond finding meaning that is satisfactory in relationship with God’s people. God is despairing for their very lives!
Psalm 107 tells the story in poetry of God gathering in the redeemed, those who have been made whole in relationship to God, those who have allowed themselves to be gathered in and healed by God’s love. The psalm expresses God’s longing to for the people that we hear in Hosea. It is the song of those over whom God’s “compassion grows warm and tender” (Hosea 11:8). God has decided not to “execute my fierce anger; … I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9). Instead God roars like a lion calling the people home. “They shall come trembling like birds … doves … and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD” (Hosea 11:14).
As I read the verses from the Psalm 107 I asked myself, “What does redemption look like?” The psalm says that those who have been redeemed are have been wandering in desert wastes, hungry and thirsty. We can imagine the dust and dirt, the emaciated bodies and hollow eyes. God has led them straight to “an inhabited city”. They are led into community where their hunger and thirst are satisfied. Dust and dirt are wiped. Bodies are made clean. Sparkle returns to those hollow eye. The psalm begins and ends with thanksgiving, the thanksgiving of the redeemed. What does that thanks sound like, I wonder?
The verses from Psalm 49 mirror Ecclesiastes in their somber tone. All will die, high and low, rich and poor. No one can ransom one’s life from God. Riches and wealth are not to be trusted. “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish”(Psalm 49:12).Therefore we do well to heed the words of God, sings the psalmist. “Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world, … My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp” (Psalm 49:1,3-4). Where do we find what is NOT vanity, not transitory according to this psalm? In meditation with the heart of God which can come in speech, in written proverb, in music.
We do not know if the writer of Colossians knew the story Jesus told of the rich man and his barns. Yet the exhortations of Colossians 3 are a broader extension of Jesus’ admonition “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…” (Luke 12:15). The letter to the church in Colossae advised the community of Gentile believers “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10). Do not put on pretenses or show for the sake of impressing others or yourself as the rich man in Jesus’ story did. Store up you treasure in God. And this will lead to greater community not just your own well-being. “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Colossians 3:11).
How do we answer the questions posed at the beginning of this blog? What is meaningful and satisfying in life? What is transitory and unsatisfying? What is “vanity”? One obvious answer from our texts is relationship with God is meaningful and satisfying, ultimately rewarding and abundant. Separation from God is not. A further question we can ask from the pulpit, in the Bible study or in worship with children is “how do we make our relationship with God tangible and accessible in our everyday lives?” How do we make our relationship with God manifest in our human relationships, in our work, in our play? How can Christ be all and in all in the very stuff of life that leads us to despair with the Teacher, “Vanity! All is vanity!”? These questions are the stuff of stories.
The first story that comes to me in regards to choosing what is meaningful in life is one that I just rediscovered in a book of stories literally from my childhood –“The Pine Tree” from Once Upon a Time by Rose Dobbs. Perhaps you heard it as a child, too. A little pine tree is lonely and sad because it is the only tree around with long needles instead of green leaves. It wishes to be important and noticed among the other trees in the forest. Thinking it costs nothing to wish, the pine tree wishes for gold leaves. And lo, the next morning his branches are full of shining gold leaves. However, they do not last long. A poor peddler comes along and thinking he has been blessed with the discovery of a treasure, he picks every single one of the leaves. The pine tree is devastated wishing that he had beautiful but less valuable leaves he envisions himself with glittering glass leaves. Which is what he has when he wakes in the morning. And do they shine in the sun! But near evening a storm comes up. The wind blows and soon the pretty glass leaves are broken on the ground. Shivering in the cold wind the pine tree wishes for plentiful, lush green leaves like his neighbor trees. And in the morning he is full of such leaves….until a goat comes along and eats them all. “Oh, my!” exclaims the tree. “I wish I just had my plain old needles back. I should never have wished to be more important than the other trees in the forest! ” And by next morning his needles have returned. The birds are asking to build nests in his branches because they can be hidden by his needles. And the little pine tree welcomes them vowing to be happy and useful with all that he is. And we could add, all that God created him to be!
You can find other versions of this story online at:
It would be a great children’s time story for the Ecclesiastes, Colossians, or Luke text this week. The Storypath website also has wonderful suggestions for children’s time stories for Hosea, Colossians and Luke. http://storypath.upsem.edu/lectionary-links-sunday-july-31-2016/.
What are the stories that you know or have experienced that tell of a parent longing for the return of a child? There are several in folk literature that you might have heard or read. One that comes to my mind is the story a story told in many variations in many countries, “The Necessity of Salt.” You can find it at along with other variants at http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/salt.html#busk. In the story the parent takes the child’s love for granted. Another story that tells us of a child who has taken the father’s love for granted can be found at http://www.g-dcast.com/mountain/ in a delightful animated video that has contemporized an old Jewish folktale.
In thinking about how we might consider being rich toward God I thought of stories about compassion, forgiveness and gratitude. Perhaps these two attributes might have helped the rich man who stored all his treasure in his barns. Consider the story of “The Silent Sermon” at http://www.wisdomcommons.org/virtues/146-forgiveness.
Or consider the old tale of “Androcles and the Lion” as an example of being grateful for what we have rather than craving more. You can find it at http://www.wisdomcommons.org/virtues/60-gratitude.
Sermon Starter Questions
- Where do you find examples of “vanity” in your national or local culture? Are there also stories of people making meaning from situations or events that could have been experiences of despair that render life meaningless?
- When have you experienced your relationship with God as a parent welcoming you home a lost or truant child? Have you seen this happen with communities of people?
- Jesus says, “be rich toward God.” To me this is cultivating a relationship with God. Where do you see people in your congregation intentionally cultivating a relationship with God, a “richness” toward God? Lifting those up in story is a way for encouraging even more richness!
Blessings on your story journey this week,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2016 and beyond. Commentary and photos may be reprinted with permission only. Please use the stories! Salt image from http://www.saltsistersonline.com/resources/info-guide.html. Ember image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ember.