All is vanity.

Those of us who have fallen
into times
when everything in life
seemed to be
nothing other than vanity
— those of us
who have suffered through times
when everything,
small and large scale,
seemed trivial,
worthless,
valueless —
know this “all is vanity” perspective
to be a tell-tale sign
that something is wrong,
that something is amiss in our lives.

We might not perceive it right away.
In fact,
we could be so immersed
in the perspective
that we might not perceive it
at all.

But those of us who have endured and overcome
such moments in life can, and often do, look
back
and perceive our misperceptions.
We’ve learned how critical it is
to recognize the signs of our misperceptions.
And how much better off we are
the earlier we can perceive them.

Because God made all of life
and filled it with joy and delight,
filled life with meaning and value,
as part of God’s unfolding design
for the goodness of creation—
every life and every thing in life
supporting the interconnected goodness
of all people and all things.

So to judge life as does the author of Ecclesiastes
— to declare all is vanity —
provides opportunity to take stock
of what is going on for us and with us and around us.

It could be that we are placing too great of value
on the wrong things of our lives.
All can become vanity pretty quickly.

Or it could be that we are stuck
collecting so much of one thing or another
that we find ourselves constantly searching
for bigger, better and faster,
never satisfied by the fulfillment of enough.

That’s the malady Jesus points to in this parable
about over-collecting goods that one needs to tear down
perfectly sturdy barns and fine storehouses,
and create even more.
Too much of a good thing,
eroding the value of good things
leads to seeing life as nothing other than vanity, too.

It could be that we are jealous for others.
Spend our time chasing after someone else’s belongings,
someone else’s success.
So focused on the goodness of someone else’s life,
that we fail to see the goodness of our own.
That’s a fast road to seeing life as vanity.

And finally,
it could be that we’ve endured
some truly horrible thing,
making life seem of little or no value.
Nothing other than vanity.

Vanity is a tough way to live.
Experiencing such a perspective individually
can hurt us and those closest to us.
Experiencing such a perspective collectively
— as a community, a society, a nation —
is even more harmful.

This corrosive power is probably what
prompts the author of Ecclesiastes to write
in such dramatic and over-inflated ways.
To fall into a cycle where we believe individually or collectively,
that all is vanity,
can lead us to act on that distorted perspective,
falling into true trouble as we:
Gloat. Or fear.
Become reckless. Or despondent.
Run roughshod over the wisdom of
sages, founders, elders, and our better selves.

Which is vanity’s most devastating destruction,
whatever its form —
it erodes the very sense of the goodness of our lives
and the lives of those around us,
without us even knowing it.
It turns us not simply on one another,
but turns us on ourselves.
In precisely these moments
God acts to turn us away from such devastating ways,
and turn us again toward God
and toward one another.

God sets us free from such vanity,
by reaching out to us.

Its not much.
A bit of bread.
A sip of wine.

But God touches us and feeds us with something
with which we cannot feed ourselves.

The bread of life.
As with mana in the wilderness.
As with bread eaten at passover.
As with bread shared that night Jesus gave his life.
As with bread broken in the presence of another,
God shares with us a bit of the goodness of creation,
freely and without cost,
by no merit of our own,
with no strings attached,
so that we might be overwhelmed
by a generosity,
a grace,
a gift,
the comes only from God.

And in being so overwhelmed by God’s goodness
become free from those ways
which lead us to believe
all is vanity.

Which, when you think on it, is a pretty amazing thing.
I mean, look at us
and all our broken ways!
God does not look at us and say of us and the whole creation —
all is vanity —
God does not turn on us,
or forget us.
No, God reaches out, time and time and time again.
And, will continue to reach out time and time and time again.
Reach out even by giving God’s very own life on a cross.
So that vanity and its ways
will not have the last word.

God acts.
And being touched by God.
We are given a new perspective.
God’s perspective on life.
Which is goodness.
And wholeness.
Which is value.
And fullness.

Seeing our lives from that perspective.
Whole and Good.
Valued and Full.
We can’t help but share that goodness with others.

We can’t help but order our lives
by seeking first to give and not receive.
Give what God has first given us.

That’s life worth living.
That’s life worth fighting for.
That’s life worth praising God for.

For such goodness it not something to be held as our own.
Not something to be guarded.
To put a wall around.
That would simply be a return to the cycle of vanity.

But discovering goodness in greater measure.
Finding new depths to grace.
And new heights to joy.

Literally turning to others.
And sharing that goodness.
—that’s where we find value and meaning and purpose in life.

I can’t ever tell you a time in my life
when I’ve had an enduring warm feeling
from taking or guarding God’s goodness for myself.
And I can’t imagine you do either.

But I can tell you the countless goodness
that has come by giving myself to others.
And, I can tell you stories of being fed by others on the way.

Yes, it is true we could be burned by goodness.
We can be taken advantage of.
We might not be valued for it.
But how someone receives a gift we give them
is not why we give it in the first place.

If we lived life to avoid disappointment
or only gave a gift when we were certain
we knew how it would be cared for,
we’d just become bitter and feel valueless.
That’s the way of vanity.
It pulls us so much into ourselves
that our ways become distorted.
And are cut off from those very things
and those very people
which restore us and energize us.
God.
And God in one another.

Which is why gathering together is so important.
Why eating together.
And forming the body of Christ together is so important.

No, it’s not always easy.
But it is deep and value-filled.

It is here that we give ourselves to others in generosity.
It is here we learn to forgive.
It is here that we learn to do for others
as we would have them do to us.

And if we can learn that here.
We can share that in the world.

Because the world needs this goodness.
And it won’t get it in the countless other places
the world turns to for that goodness.
Not because they are bad.
But because of they do not posses
the fulness of what we find in this place.

Here are the poor and the lowly.
Here are the rich and the forgotten.
Here are the powerful and the powerless.
Here are the joy filled and the joyless.
And here we see beyond our vanity,
to our wholeness.
To our wholeness in Christ.
To the wholeness God first intended
when God said.
Let there be light.

The wholeness when God brought
God’s people out of slavery in Egypt,
set captives free,
even those captive to vanity
If you’re trying to see beyond a view which says all is vanity,
come to this table.
And experience God still creating,
still redeeming,
and still giving.

Here enjoy God’s promise:
finding ourselves
rich toward God and rich toward one another.

Which is the greatest of treasure.

Jared R. Stahler
Saint Peter’s Church
In the City of New York

ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
July 31, 2016
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-12
Colossians 3:1-11
Saint Luke 12:13-21