Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News for the Disillusioned” (Luke 12:13-21)
August 4, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
If God spoke to you in a dream and gave you the opportunity to ask him for anything, anything at all, what would you ask for?
When Solomon, David’s son, first became king over Israel, God spoke to him in a dream one night, “Ask what I should give you.” Solomon replied, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people? (1 Kings 3:9). Solomon asked God for wisdom, and God commended him for this:
I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you (1 Kings 3:12-13).
God indeed gave Solomon wisdom to rule over Israel. Solomon oversaw the building of the temple in Jerusalem. He wrote the majority of the Old Testament book of Proverbs, which is replete with wisdom for anyone’s life. He wrote the beautiful Song of Solomon. But somewhere along the line Solomon’s wisdom was not enough for him. Yes, he spent seven years overseeing the building of the temple, but then he spent nearly twice as much time, thirteen years, overseeing the building of his palace. Scripture tells us he had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, yes you heard that correctly, and that “when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord” (1 Kings 11:3-4). As an old man Solomon became very disillusioned.
And it was in this period of his life that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. He was the King of Israel, full of wisdom from God, unspeakably wealthy. He was feared by neighboring kings and queens, and had as much sex as he could have ever want. And yet as an old man he realized that all he had accomplished, all his stuff, all his wisdom still left him feeling empty, as he wrote in today’s passage of Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity…I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 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).
It you are not depressed yet, don’t worry, it gets worse, as Solomon continued:
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair (Ecclesiastes 2:18-20).
As you know, this kind disillusionment expressed by Solomon is common not only among the elderly who may find themselves second guessing what they have done with their lives, but also among young adults, who “have their whole life in front of them.” In the classic and controversial 1967 film The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, who has just graduated from an elite college in New England and returned to his California home. Benjamin is a member of an elite academic honor society and a decorated track star. He is from a very wealthy family, and yet is completely disillusioned about his life.
All summer he spends his nights with a married older woman, Mrs. Robinson, and his days floating in his parents’ pool. Ben’s father becomes exasperated. One bright morning Ben is floating in the pool, again, and his father says, “Ben, what are you doing?” “Well,” Ben replies, “I would say that I am just drifting here in the pool.” “Why?” his father presses. “Well, it’s very comfortable just to drift here.” “Have you thought about graduate school?” “No.” “Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?” Ben hesitates and then replies, “You got me.”
Like the elderly Solomon the young Benjamin Braddock had a great education, lots of accomplishments, plenty of money, and lots of, as Simon and Garfunkel sang, “koo-koo-ka-choo Mrs. Robinson”—and yet, he was totally disillusioned, floating in the pool, perhaps thinking to himself in his own way, “Vanity of vanities…all is vanity.”
The gospel lesson appointed for today is almost as disconcerting as the Ecclesiastes passage, especially in our materialistic and achievement obsessed society. Someone in a crowd asked Jesus, “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13).
It’s all about who gets the stuff, right? Trust me when I tell you that I have many conversations over the years with people whose family had quarrels about an inheritance or an estate, about who gets the stuff. The sibling who does the heavy lifting taking care of the parents is not too pleased with the sibling who never helped and who barely made it to the funeral on time and now expects to get what he believes he is entitled to and demands, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
In response, Jesus, as he so often did, redirects the discussion to the deeper issue at hand. “Friend,” Jesus said, “who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Then Jesus says to everyone in the crowd, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:14-15). Jesus makes it crystal clear that your life is not about who gets the stuff. As acclaimed actor Denzel Washington told a graduating class at Dillard University, “You’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse, because you can’t take it with you.”
Then Jesus tells the parable about rich man who kept building more and larger barns in which to store his ever-increasing amount of stuff, thinking his security was in that stuff. After all this accumulation of stuff this man said to himself, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” And then Jesus brings the hammer down, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).
“The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Sound familiar? God’s response to the greedy man in Jesus’ parable echoes today’s reading from Ecclesiastes, “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?” Unfortunately, more often than not, the “they” will be foolish.
Several years ago there was a moving British television show called Rev. about an Anglican priest named Adam who had moved from a small country church to a small dwindling inner city church in London. Like any church, this church was full of real people with real problems—marital issues, financial issues, health issues, addiction issues—lots of issues, even among those who appeared to have it all together. The attendance of this inner city church had continued to decline and this meant less money was going to the diocese, so in addition to his personal and congregational stressors, Adam was under diocesan pressure to increase attendance and increase giving because apparently even in the church, it’s all about who gets the stuff and proving his hard work was not indeed “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”
So as you can imagine Adam is on the verge of a breakdown. In one episode he carries a wooden cross to the top of a grassy hill on Good Friday. Adam is every bit as disillusioned as the elderly King Solomon, as disillusioned as the young Benjamin Braddock. He gazes out over his inner city parish, and then all by himself he starts dancing and singing, “Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance said he. And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the Dance said he.” Adam keeps singing and dancing all alone.
Suddenly and unexpectedly there is a stranger singing and dancing with Adam, someone Adam has never seen before. This stranger is nondescript, wearing exercise clothes. “Hello,” he says to Adam, “I like your dancing.” Adam is puzzled, “Yeah, thanks.” He sits down on a bench and this stranger continues, “You’re in a good mood then.” “Not really.” The stranger sits next to him, “Why is that then?” “I’m trying to keep something alive but I don’t think I can do it.”
Then this stranger, whom Adam has never seen before, looks him in the eye. In the distance you can hear someone pounding nails. The stranger calls him by name, “Adam, Adam, we all have our crosses to bear.” “Yes, yes we do,” says Adam. Then the stranger gently places his hand on Adam’s shoulder, his eyes filled with compassion, and he continues, “I understand, Adam. I will always be here.” He squeezes Adam’s shoulder and smiles. Then as suddenly and unexpectedly as the stranger had appeared a moment before, he suddenly and unexpectedly disappears. In that moment Adam realizes who this Stranger was, and his eyes widen and relief washes over his face and he looks up to heaven and begins to smile, and begins to laugh, and begins walking back down the hill.
Back to Ecclesiastes for a moment…Somewhere in the process of writing this book Solomon’s heart began to turn back to God, because this is how he ends Ecclesiastes: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
And here is where the good news of the gospel comes in for those disillusioned with their life’s work, for those for whom wisdom and riches and pleasure have still left them feeling empty, for those mired in sin and floating alone in the pool, for those preoccupied with who gets the stuff, for those trying to keep something alive who do not think they can do it.
Not too long after telling his parable about the fool who trusted in his stuff, Jesus, who emptied himself at his incarnation and was born in someone else’s barn—Jesus, who had earlier said of himself, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58)—Jesus, who was never preoccupied with what he would get but rather always preoccupied with what he would give—Jesus, who like Adam carried his cross to the top of the hill on Good Friday—Jesus, the stranger, the Lord of the Dance—died on the cross to atone for all the sins of a disillusioned and greedy and foolish world, including yours. And in so doing Jesus took the judgment Solomon wrote about at the end of Ecclesiastes, the judgement for “every deed…including every secret thing, whether good or evil” upon himself. Then Jesus’ body was placed in someone else’s tomb.
But on Easter Jesus was raised from the dead, and as scripture assures us:
Death has been swallowed up in victory…thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:54, 57-58).
And although some dismiss the gospel as a myth and consign it with everything else to “vanity, vanity, all is vanity”—the gospel is actually good news for the disillusioned who like King Solomon have given their hearts up to despair.
For God calls you by name, and says, “I understand, and I will always be here.”