I ask your prayers this morning and the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. Please be seated.
In 1981, the brilliant late comedian and social critic, George Carlin, released an album entitled A Place For My Stuff. You really need to watch him do the routine. It’s online. Needless to say, I am convicted by it. He begins by saying that he was a tad late coming onto stage because he was sent to the wrong dressing room and he couldn’t find a place to put his stuff. I quote, “I need a place to put my stuff. You know how important that is? That’s the whole meaning of life isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff? That’s all your house is. Your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. That’s all your house is. A house is just a pile of stuff with the cover on it. A house is a place to keep all your stuff, so you can go out and get more stuff. Now, sometimes you gotta move and get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore, too much stuff. You gotta move all your stuff. And maybe even put some of your stuff in storage”.
Carlin then goes on to riff about an entire industry, built around storing our stuff. You get the idea. Why do I share this with you? Well, I have just returned from my summer vacation to Colorado where my family and I go every year. My husband’s parents live in Denver. And this summer, one of our big chores was to clean out my mother-in-law’s house, where she has lived for 32 years. She recently moved into a one-bedroom apartment in a retirement community. As you can imagine, this was no small chore. The three days that my husband and I and our two sons sorted packed, cleaned and trashed almost did us in, And it was hot. No air conditioning. Voices were raised. Teeth were gnashed. Tears were shed.
My husband even ended up in the emergency room a few days later with acute stomach pain of unknown origin. Thank the good Lord though for 1-800-GOT-JUNK because those three truckloads driving off into the sunset each evening saved our sanity and our backs. Now, before I continue, I must preface my remarks by admitting, confessing that I love stuff too. I have spent 58 years acquiring stuff. The only difference between me and my mother-in-law is that my profession has required that I move every eight to 10 years. So I’ve been repeatedly forced to come to my senses and surrender my stuff. It’s as if this gospel passage is conveniently flashed for my eyes with each call and I’ve suddenly remembered, oh, I don’t need any of this stuff. Where in the world did all this stuff come from? I certainly am not going to build bigger barns to hold it all. And of course the proverbial, I can’t take my stuff with me when I die.
And since confessions are in order, I have to come really clean with you. My husband has already reserved a U Haul to bring back some of his mother’s stuff to add to our own. The stuff never ends. Now I go out on a limb here and compare George Carlin to the writer of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, the teacher- philosopher- theologian, who has been described as the most real of the realist when it comes to sacred writers. Qoheleth, who wrote in the year 250 BCE, was the least comfortable with conventional wisdom and the most willing to challenge unexamined assumptions. The book in our scripture this morning begins with the famous, “Vanity of vanities, says the teacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. If you know any of Carlin’s standup routines, you can imagine him questioning the cultural zeitgeist with these very words. The Hebrew word for vanity is “hebel” and it occurs 38 times in Ecclesiastes, except that hebel doesn’t really translate as “vanity” in English. Much debate about this noun has ensued over the millennia. Suffice it to say that the best translation of hebel describes something that is without merit. An unreliable, probably useless thing. The most appropriate English word to describe hebel as the teacher uses it is “absurd”. Absurdity. Listen again, “Absurd of absurdities, says the teacher, absurdity of absurdities all is absurdity”.
The ancient rabbis didn’t want Ecclesiastes included in the biblical canon for many reasons. But one particular reason is because Ecclesiastes is not a book about God. It is a book about ideas. You see, Qoheleth holds God in profound respect, but never claims to know too much about God. What’s more, the book also professes no life after death and in Sheol, there is neither hope nor praise. Its ideas are about human survival and world in which work is pain, over work is foolish, pleasure soon pales in the face of death, and wisdom cannot comprehend a real understanding of the world. Such a world is absurd. In 12 chapters, the Teacher seems even more stubbornly disconsolate than Job. Empire, wealth, wisdom, virtue, and still all is futility in chasing after wind. We will die and suddenly without notice. And what was ours will decay or pass to others.
Things are all at once banal, transient, monotonous, and random. There is nothing new under the sun. In the end as we know from the famous passage in chapter three, and I quote, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live. Moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil”. Qoheleth shares the quest of Greek philosophy in general, which was to help a human being live happily in the moment in a world that is not conducive to human happiness. Since time immemorial, the possibility that life really is absurd, that no sense could be made of it, has haunted human consciousness. But you see, for us Christians, this is where God, Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit, come to the rescue.
It’s not that we dismiss scriptures such as Ecclesiastes. No, it’s very important and has much to offer us today, especially when we tend to blow the wrong things out of proportion. Wouldn’t you agree that all the stuff we accumulate is pretty absurd and the value and status we attach to it is absurd? Our possessions, our professional status and our bank accounts do not determine our innate worth. The love of God, and the fact that God cherishes us as his own treasure is more than enough, or should be. In reflecting on the parable of the rich fool, we are asked to examine the line between abundance and pleasure, between hoarding and harm. I believe the way we conduct ourselves with regard to our possessions matters to God. They in themselves are neutral objects. It’s the meaning, the importance, the totemic weight we ascribe to them that separates us from God. The gospel reminds us to let go of our neediness when it comes to our material obsessions, and trust that we will feel more contentment when our prayers and our hopes are grounded in God. And in the care of our neighbor.
The sad fact is that the undertow of “me” and “mine” is powerful. Greed involves much more than the amassing of stuff. It is also a sad and sinful fact that our nation’s political culture defaults toward greed, power and control, which are really just modern-day terms for idolatry. The drive to hang onto power, to money to the spotlight. Even if it means trampling on another’s right to vote or on another’s bodily autonomy or on another’s right to be educated in a sage space. These are arguably the most pernicious forms of greed. All this, this preoccupation with transient absurdities rather than God would be laughable. If it weren’t so lethal.
Fortunately, Jesus has a habit of telling us to snap out of it, when we go awry. A quick shake of the shoulders reminds us to reclaim our gospel values toward justice and generous reciprocity. He asked us to stop playing those same tired tapes in our head. If I can control the perceived scarcity of my life, then maybe I can manifest the abundance my heart desires. Or if I can build my barns just right, then maybe I can finally rest and have the life I deserve. We have to remember that the divine operates outside of our conceptions of time and space beyond our understandings of material and spiritual realms.
God desires, God desires abundance for us, but not at the expense of another. Abundance is having all that we truly need, but also an inner spiritual abundance, grounded in trust that is rich toward God. This confidence allows the soul to be seen, known and loved by God. This is the meaning of life. It is not as George Carlin joked, trying to find a place for one’s stuff. The meaning of life is the richness of coming to know and intuit one’s beloved-ness. The novelist Reynolds Price once remarked, “There is a single sentence above all that people crave from the Bible: ‘The maker of all things loves and wants me’ ”.
My friends, this tells us that God is the single source beyond them all. And why for us, there is so much more to life beyond its absurdities. It’s July in Washington, when it’s hot and steamy. The hibiscus plants are flowering like mad. They’re big. Some blooms are as big as dinner plates. When I think of hibiscus plants, though, I’m reminded that their flowering stems could not be cut and placed in water. The flowers shrivel and die once they’re removed from their life force. You see, while we may be plagued with the absurdities of life, while our toil and wisdom may seem for naught, and chasing after the wind, this is not the end of the story for us. Our story doesn’t end on this plane. We are forever connected to an infinite source of love, our source of life here and in the age to come. Remember, the maker of all things loves and wants me, just as much as he wants and desires you. Amen.