It is hard not to have a favorite Avett Brothers song stuck in my head this week as I consider our lectionary passages and sit down to write a sermon for this coming Sunday:
“I’ve got something to say
But it’s all vanity, it’s all vanity.”
The author of Ecclesiastes (1:14) would agree: I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
The great secret of all pastors who have not let things go to their heads is that we have no special access to God or to holy wisdom; we are just human people speaking to bring hope to human people listening.
I love the fatalism of Ecclesiastes and the Avett Brothers song, in some sense. The sentiments among them, that all is for nothing, feel as easy as breathing to me.
And then the words of Jesus’ parable in Luke (12:20-21): 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.
Personally, I have never been one for faith seeking understanding. I have always begun with understanding, pursuing facts and knowledge of things as they are, before then attempting faith beyond the limits of this first and most confounding enterprise. Last week, I read entire books on the history of the 2nd Amendment and criminalization of homelessness, immigration, and drug addiction. But, understanding alone, and placing all my hope in works of political activism, it’s all vanity.
On the other hand, I deeply fear the vanity of a faith untethered from the facts on the ground. We can practice spirituality and prayer in such a way that we can handle just about anything: grief, loss, transition, and much more. But, we must be careful not to locate all the problems within ourselves: there are realities out in the world that can and must be changed, too. Put another way, no matter how spiritually fit we might be, there are material circumstances that are responsible for a lot of suffering among those seeking to follow Jesus, or even just to live a good life. Alleviating poverty might be a better cure for anxiety and depression than mindfulness and prayer, in some sense.
Being ‘rich toward God’ must be somewhere in between, where we practice our faith in such a way that we find not vanity, but hope. We need a spiritual life, but we must also be willing to change the material circumstances of our world, even at great risk. Faith and works, as Christians have struggled to balance from the beginning.
In truth, we are seeking to be rich toward God in a particular time and place: white supremacy and racism revealed as mainstream, inequality at historical levels, financial insecurity despite a “thriving economy,” and much more that defy our claim that Jesus, not the free market, is Lord. The market has no reason to end homelessness, or to welcome the foreigner, but we who follow Jesus do. This week consider with me how we might be humbled beyond seeing accumulation of wealth as the goal, for such is vanity. Might our seeking to be rich toward God transform us into repairers working for justice and wholeness? I hope so, for me and for you.