By James G. Munroe
Almighty God, we beseech you to give us a new wardrobe, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When I first read this morning’s Old Testament lesson (Ecc. 1:12-14; 2:18-23), two television advertisements came to mind.
The first is an ad for Men’s Warehouse. In the ad, the owner, George Zimmer, extols the virtues of his clothes. He concludes by staring sincerely into the camera and saying, “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.” The implication of the ad? If I buy a suit from George, I will like the way I look — which means that I will look as though I am 6 feet tall, have a 32-inch waist — and hair.
The other ad is an older one for a brand of Danish ice cream called Frusen Glädjé. It shows a slender, attractive young woman spooning ice cream directly from the container into her mouth. She eats the last bit, smiles at the camera, and says, “I did it. I ate the whole thing.” At the bottom of the screen, these words appear: “Enjoy the guilt.” The implication of the ad? I can eat a pint of Frusen Glädjé every day and still keep that 32-inch waistline.
And what does today’s passage from Ecclesiastes have to say to these two ads? It says, “Give me a break.”
This rebuke by Ecclesiastes is confirmed by something that happened to one of my dearest friends. He was trying to go on a diet, and he was using all the personal will power he had. Then one night, he woke up at 2 a.m., got out of bed, walked downstairs and into the kitchen in his pajamas, opened the freezer door on the fridge, took out a container of Frusen Glädjé ice cream — and standing there in the dark, ate the entire pint.
When he finished, he threw the container on the kitchen floor and began to sob.
So that’s why Ecclesiastes says that after I buy 20 suits from Men’s Warehouse, I still look in the mirror and see that “All is vanity and a chasing after the wind.” Ecclesiastes says that after I enjoy the guilt with Frusen Glädjé, I still look in the mirror and see that “All is vanity and a chasing after the wind.”
In fact, for those of us of a certain age, one singer and one song express the truth of this passage. In the 1950s, Peggy Lee sang “Is That All There Is?” And Peggy Lee’s words echo down to us this morning with that haunting question for each of us, a question that the author of Ecclesiastes would surely understand.
Let me offer an illustration of this question. In 1923, a group of the world’s most successful financiers met at a Chicago hotel. Present were the president of the largest independent steel company, the greatest wheat speculator, the president of the New York Stock Exchange, a member of the U.S. president’s cabinet, the president of the Bank of International Settlements, and the head of the world’s greatest monopoly.
Collectively, these men controlled more wealth than there was in the U.S. Treasury. And for years, newspapers had been printing their success stories and urging the youth of the nation to follow their examples.
Twenty-five years after that meeting in Chicago, the president of the largest independent steel company, Charles Schwab, lived on borrowed money for the last five years of his life and died penniless. The greatest wheat speculator, Arthur Cutten, died abroad in poverty. The president of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, was released from Sing Sing Prison. The member of the president’s cabinet, Albert Fall, was pardoned from prison so he could die at home. The president of the Bank of International Settlements, Leon Fraser, committed suicide. The head of the world’s greatest monopoly, Ivar Krueger, committed suicide.
So is that all there is? A chasing after the wind and dollars bills? Well, in today’s Gospel (Luke 12:13-21), Jesus has a pretty blunt response to that question.
At the start of this passage, there is a crowd that has gathered around Jesus. And there is one fellow in the crowd who seems to be aware that Jesus has some authority. But he also seems to have completely missed the message that Jesus is teaching. So he says, “Jesus, would you please talk to my brother? He’s taking the entire family inheritance for himself. Would you please tell him that he’s supposed to share it with me?”
Well, if I’d been Jesus at that moment, I think I would have said something like, “Hello? Have you been listening to me at all?” But instead, Jesus calls him his friend. And then comes the key line of the passage. Jesus says, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And then he illustrates this truth with this story of a fellow who had lots of stuff and who built big barns to store it, so that he could retire and have a long retirement in which to eat, drink, and be merry. And on the day that he retires, he dies.
Now, when Jesus says, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” he certainly means material objects and money. But he also means possessions in some other ways. He is saying here that one’s life does not consist in how well you are trying to be in control of things. And he is saying here that one’s life does not consist in how well you are trying to measure up to the moral standards of the law. And he is saying here that one’s life does not consist in how well you are trying to keep a stiff upper lip and hang in there and make lemonade out of lemons and trust that God helps those who help themselves.
Now, to drive all of this home in the parable, the guy dies. But in fact, it doesn’t take that much for you and me to realize what real life does not consist of. One little twitch in the stock market, and the fear of losing it all can paralyze you. One little ache in the body, and the fear of cancer or Alzheimer’s or a stroke can take you over. One little word from a parent or spouse or friend or child, and the fear of rejection and being alone can come rushing in.
One option for you and me is to accept this notion that it’s all vanity and a chasing after wind, so let’s go home and close the door and not come out. Ever. That option makes a lot of sense, given what this world is like. I’d recommend it, except that one other option is available. And rather than theologizing about it, I simply want to read a portion of today’s second lesson (Col. 3:12-17):
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
So there it is. In the midst of all our lack of control and our inability to measure up, St. Paul proclaims that you and I are chosen. We’re chosen to be forgiven. We’re chosen to be forgiven by Jesus taking on his own shoulders on the cross all of the disasters of our lack of control and our inability to measure up.
And as we’re chosen to be forgiven like that, we’re also chosen, says St. Paul, for love. We’re chosen to be loved. And we’re chosen to pass that love on.
I’m sure that most of you here are familiar with the story of Sam Shoemaker. Sam was one of the most powerful preachers of his day, and he was one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. Sam once preached a sermon with this title: “Going Far Enough for the Fun.” His premise was that many Christians have just enough Christianity to make themselves miserable. They get far enough to understand all of the rules and laws, and then they stop.
Sam went on to say that it’s only as you go further, as you go to the core of the Christian faith — which is not moral laws, but rather a relationship, a relationship with a living God, a relationship with the risen Jesus Christ, a relationship in which you are chosen, just as you are, “as is” — it’s only as you go this far, that the fun, in the deepest and richest sense of the word, really begins — in knowing how much we have been chosen to be forgiven, in knowing how much we have been chosen to be loved, in knowing how much we have been chosen to love others.
So here it all is, in a nutshell. Some time ago, I was reading a story about St. Peter at the pearly gates. Peter was checking off the names of the people who were standing in line to get in. But there was a problem. The numbers didn’t add up. There was a discrepancy between the number of names in the book and the number of people actually in heaven. So a couple of angels were sent off to figure out what was going on. After a while they came back, and they said, “Well, we found the problem. Jesus is out back, lifting people over the fence.”
That big book at the pearly gates? That’s the record of how well we’ve done in this life in staying in control and conforming to all that God requires. That’s the law.
And that’s me, that’s you, out back, outside the fence, fearful that it’s all vanity and striving after the wind. And there’s Jesus, right now, choosing us, and lifting us over and into his arms.
That’s the offer.