August 7, 2013, 4:01 PM
You Can’t Have Everything
Ecclesiastes 1:12-14, 2:18-23
Both Jesus and the Preacher of Ecclesiastes raise serious questions about the accumulation of wealth, especially the desire to have more than one can possibly use. Comedian Steven Wright observes very practically, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”
The Hebrew word Qohelet is translated “Teacher” in the reading we heard from the book we know as Ecclesiastes. It can also mean “preacher”—one who speaks to the assembly. And he brings a difficult word. He is an honest and astute observer, but not a particularly comforting one. As one of the delegates to the Continental Congress muses, in the film 1776, following one of General George Washington’s dismal reports from the field, “That man could depress a hyena!”
The preacher looks at the striving of humans and says it is vanity—a word that can also be translated “breath.” All of our busyness is simply chasing the wind. He knows our need to be remembered, to leave, if not a monument, at least our mark on the world. We create monuments to our leaders, The Washington Monument (he may have been depressing, but he won the war!), the Lincoln memorial, and a thousand statues in cities and towns all over the world. How important it is in Hollywood or on Broadway to have your name above the title, to have a building that bears your name Trump Tower, or a business that’s identified with your name—JC Penney or Sears, or a product in a million garages—Ford. But the preacher knows that the business or empire that have been so carefully sculpted will one day be handed to someone else, who may or may not be as wise, or ambitious, or careful of your name and legacy. What most of us really want is to leave a legacy. Something that will live after us, a part of us, or a result of our work that will be eternal, so that our lives will not have been in vain—only as lasting as our breath.
Jesus is no more encouraging than the preacher of Ecclesiastes. You say you’re all set? You have storehouses so full of grain that they are bursting at the seams and you’ve had to add storehouse upon storehouse? You say to your soul, “Relax, it’s time to eat, drink, and be merry?” That very night, as you celebrate your astounding ability to accumulate wealth and create the good life, your life can be demanded of you. And whose will all this wealth be? Because you can’t take it with you. It is not attached to your soul and cannot comfort your soul in eternity.
There is only one thing that is eternal. Love. It begins with your relationship with God who created you in love and created you for love. Things will never satisfy you. Wealth will never satisfy you. There will never be enough to feel safe, to feel secure. You and I were created for love. We were created to be in community and in communion with God, who alone can satisfy the longing of our souls—who alone has the fullness of life to fill us to overflowing.
Listen for the activities that will make us rich not only in this life, but in the life to come—throughout eternity: Hear these admonitions from the letter to the Colossians (3:12-17):
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
What are your most valuable possessions? The relationships with those you love. Our resources are best used building and strengthening relationships and community. That is what will ultimately feed our souls and that is what will last. But don’t stop with the people you already love. Expand your circle to include everyone you do business with, your coworkers, your classmates, and neighbors, so that your wealth will extend in every widening circles like ripples in water. The currency that will have the most impact on our lives, in our communities, and in our world is love in its several denominations: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience—and the most valuable: forgiveness.
Our lives will not be lived “in vain, as fleeting as breath,” if we accumulate relationships instead of things. We will not “chase the wind” if it is God’s very breath that animates our lives. We cannot have everything, in spite of the bumper sticker that declares that the one with the most toys wins. I saw a similar bumper sticker in a fabric store, “The woman with the most fabric wins.” I visited a home once where an avid quilter lived. Quilts covered beds, hung on the walls and over banisters, were draped over sofas, and were displayed on multiple quilt stands in every room. Not unlike the storehouses in Jesus’ parable. She didn’t have another space to put the quilt she was working on at the time. And I think of the hundreds of quilts laid across our pews to be blessed before they are sent to sick children or service men and women far from home—several hundred every year! All that fabric and labor placed in the hands of someone in need. That’s a legacy!
We can’t have everything. Where would we put it all? The things that really matter fit right here, in our hearts. Our true wealth is the love that we have shared. Our legacy is not what we have accumulated, but what we have given of ourselves in love and service. May all that we say, and all that we do, be our offering of gratitude for God’s abundant love.