“Chasing After Wind”

Eccles. 1/Lk 12

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Modern living can be stressful.

And as we rush from one thing to another, going from problem to problem, working more and sleeping less—as we run the great rat race, we wonder sometimes, is it worth it? Is it worth it?

We might even have had thoughts like these:

“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.”

These sentiments are expressed by a writer known as the Teacher, in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes. This is not the cheeriest book in the Bible! But it does make us think.

It reminds us that life has always been “full of pain.” Work has always been prone to lead to “vexation.” Minds filled with worry have always found sleep elusive.

And so we can’t blame contemporary life for these various issues. Human existence at all times and in all places is, to use a modern world, “problematic.” Or, as the Teacher puts it in the famous opening sentence of The Book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

This gloomy writing reminds us that if we look at the world from a purely human point of view, we’ll ultimately be disappointed. However hard we work, we can’t be sure that we’ll build a happy life.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a sobering story to make the same point. He offers a parable about a man who is so rich that he doesn’t have enough storage space for his grain and other possessions.

The man thinks to himself that if only he can build larger barns to hold all his stuff, then he’ll have it made. He will then be able to keep everything he has; he’ll be content. He’ll be able to “relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

Unfortunately for the man, God has another future for him in mind. God says to him: ”You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

The man has devoted his life to amassing wealth. But now his life is over; his possessions will be enjoyed by others.

And, though Jesus doesn’t say this explicitly, we might expect that this selfish person won’t find Heaven to be a congenial place. As Christ remarks in concluding his parable: “…those who store up treasures for themselves are not rich toward God.” Because the man has had the wrong priorities in life, he won’t feel comfortable when his life ends and he finds himself in God’s presence.

Having heard these lessons, though, we might wonder whether we have really learned much from them. It’s pretty obvious that life is full of vanities. The work we do can be stressful. Meaningful activity can be elusive.

As for Christ’s parable, we all are aware that serving God is more important than storing up wealth for some future pleasures. For as the saying goes: “You can’t take it with you.”

“Vanity of vanities—all is vanity.” Try as we may to live a meaningful life, and even though we sometimes achieve worthwhile goals, still, we feel the transience of the world.

This transience is vividly portrayed in Christ’s parable. The rich man had so many possessions that he had to build new buildings just to house them. The man did all he could to get ready for the future. The problem was, the future turned out to be different from what he thought it would be. His wealth couldn’t postpone the inevitable end of his earthly existence.

As today’s Psalm says, “We can never ransom ourselves, or deliver to God the price of our life.” A barn full of grain is great if I have years ahead of me, and I need food to sustain me for of those years. But if I am confronted with my eternal destiny, wealth is useless.

I particularly like the image the Teacher used for failed human endeavors. He wrote, “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”

“A chasing after wind.” What could be more fruitless? You can’t even see the wind, much less catch it!

One of the best books ever written about New York City is Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s about a Wall Street bond salesman named Sherman McCoy. Sherman’s life unravels when his car breaks down in a desolate section of the Bronx, and he comes in contact with a part of the population of the city he’s never met. A long series of misfortunes follows; and all the wealth stored in the man’s Park Avenue “barn” is lost.

Like the man in the parable, Sherman thinks he is immune to the perils of life. He thinks that he doesn’t need to worry about higher values. But his accident and his attitude to the rest of society lead to the loss of everything he holds dear. Sherman’s social position and his occupation and his possessions—all his vanities go up in smoke.

Sherman’s fatal flaw is that he believes that he’s superior to other mortals. This arrogance is expressed in a name he and his fellow financiers used to refer to themselves. They took the name of the heroes of a 1980’s cartoon show: “Masters of the Universe.”

Yet of course, they weren’t invincible. They couldn’t control their fates. They weren’t immortal. They couldn’t master the universe.

Now I admit that these cautionary tales from the Bible and from literature aren’t likely in themselves to recommend a life of faith! We don’t choose to follow the way of Christ simply so we can avoid the finitude of existence.

After all, there is much more to the Christian religion. Think of the positive proclamations of faith in other parts of the Old Testament. The Psalms encourage us to “be joyful in the Lord.” They tell us to “Sing unto the Lord, for he has done marvelous things.”

And in the New Testament, Jesus announces that he has come to bring “abundant life”–“life in all its fullness.” Life that is more than vanity.

At the same time, though, the somber texts serve a purpose. They remind us that being too caught up in the problems of life is like chasing the wind.

Sometimes it pays to step back and think about that. Are there problems that we are worrying about that aren’t as important as we believe they are? Maybe we could leave those problems aside for once. Or do we have goals for ourselves that are impossible– chasing after wind?

Jesus said that the rich man in his story wasn’t “rich toward God.” Perhaps, we would find life more satisfying if we thought more about God and other people instead of ourselves. Maybe then we would find the fullness of life that comes from the true Master of the Universe.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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