Smoke

I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”

So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?

-from Ecclesiastes 3

Someone in a crowd once said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus did no such thing, of course. God didn’t come to earth, making all the divine majesty and glory incarnate in human form, in order to tell others to do what we want. That’s not how this works. It’s a hard truth, but we all have to learn it at some point.

You might not be surprised to hear that rather than telling either brother what to do, Jesus told a story. It goes like this: the ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

That’s a nice problem to have, right?

So the man pondered this for a while, and then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

Sounds like a great plan! Take it easy. Enjoy the fruits of a good harvest.

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

And then Jesus says, “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

Ok, let’s unpack this a bit. We have a rich man, but the fact that he’s rich isn’t the problem. He had a surprisingly successful harvest, and that’s not the problem either.

I don’t think the problem is that he wants to build bigger barns, either. If your operation is expanding, then you’re going to need bigger infrastructure. That just makes sense.

The problem, I think, is that all the man wanted to do was build bigger barns. He thinks he has it made- one good harvest, and he’s set forever. It’ll be a life of leisure from here on out.

There’s no mention of making a grain offering at the temple, no mention of throwing a banquet for friends and family, no mention of concern for people in need. He’s just going to build bigger barns, so he can lock it all away safely.

Of course, that kind of safety is a mirage. None of us know what’s coming next.

God calls the man a fool, not because he has a foolish business plan, but because he has foolish priorities. He’s assuming that the future is promised to him and planning accordingly, but none of us can be secure in that.

The book of Ecclesiastes begins with this cry:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”

   says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!

   Everything is meaningless.”

Or, more literally: Smoke, nothing but smoke. There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke. Or, more King James-ly: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

The word being translated here is hevel, and it really does mean something like smoke or vapor, rather than meaningless or vanity. This word – hevel – is used 38 times in the relatively small book of Ecclesiastes.

Imagine yourself at a campfire, looking at a wisp of smoke. It looks real enough, but you reach out your hand to touch it, and it’s gone. You squeeze your fingers around it, and it disappears- there’s nothing left in your hand.

Hevel – smoke – can’t be grasped. It’s a mystery, without substance or handles. It’s not meaningless or vanity, but it’s beautiful, and then it’s gone.

The Teacher says that everything is like that: just a vapor, like chasing after the wind. You can’t catch it, and even if you could, how would you hold it?

What’s there to show, the Teacher asks, for a lifetime of work, a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone? One generation goes its way, the next one arrives, but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old planet earth.

The sun comes up and the sun goes down… the wind blows south, the wind blows north… all the rivers flow into the sea, but the sea never fills up.

It’s all just smoke.

Not content to make this point in a general way, the Teacher goes on to take apart all the ways that we try to build solid lives on insubstantial foundations- all the things that we take for granted, but which are actually fleeting and temporary.

All our labor amounts to nothing. Eventually, every single one of us are going to be forgotten, along with everything that we’ve accomplished- and while technologies change and languages change and cultures change, the basic problems endemic to humanity remain.

It’s all just smoke, all this work. It doesn’t last.

The Teacher applies the same analysis to the question of pleasure. He denies himself nothing, builds gardens and parks and vineyards, gathers herds and flocks and silver and gold, the absolute best of everything. Where does that get him? Nowhere.

Pleasure doesn’t last. It’s just smoke. You can’t hang onto it.

The Teacher, right here in the middle of our Wisdom literature, even critiques wisdom itself. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all.

Not even wisdom lasts. Live as wisely as you want, but it’s no guarantee. The wise and the foolish alike meet the same end.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but death is coming for us, each and every one. You can die rich or poor, you can die wise or foolish, you can die kind or mean, but you’re still going to die. Death evens everything out.

Ok, so to be honest, I got to this point in writing my sermon yesterday evening, and then took a break to go to the McKay’s 50th anniversary celebration. It was a strange combination – nothing we do matters in the end and we’re all going to die, so let’s go to a party – but I came home convinced that it was the most Ecclesiastes thing that I could have done.

Because yes, on the surface, all of this sounds very depressing. It’s all meaningless. Nothing lasts.

The Teacher isn’t saying all this just to complain about the way the world is, though. He’s trying to direct us past the things that distract us and into something deeper.

We have this tendency, Friends, to imagine that the things we love are solid. We assume that relationships will last forever, that we’ll always have that classroom, that the cabin on the lake will always be in the family, that tree will always be on the corner.

We assume, then, that it’s safe to put these things in the center of our lives. They’re not going anywhere.

But none of this is true! All of this that we love so deeply: it’s smoke. We can’t keep any of it. It’s disappearing faster than we can even take pictures.

Now, if you ask me directly, I know that Craig and I are both mortal, and can infer that our marriage won’t last forever, and the same with the rest of it. People live and die. Nations rise and fall. Dogs and cats get old and go to a nice home somewhere upstate.

I just don’t always remember that, when I pet my dog. The Teacher calls all of this smoke – hevel – not because it doesn’t matter but because it’s so very human not to pay attention to what matters most.

Saying that all of this is smoke doesn’t minimize its importance. If anything, it heightens it. We’re surrounded by a fleeting beauty, and you’re the one who’s here to see it. Pay attention now. It won’t be here forever.

Someday, Friends, Wilmington won’t be on the map. All of this is going to disappear. Imagine archaeologists excavating the college campus, looking for clues about 21st century life. Imagine them writing research papers about reconstructing our ritual use of a board with 88 keys, how they know that this particular room was sacred to the natives because it contains two such boards when many rooms didn’t even have one.

Nothing lasts. It’s all smoke. They won’t know who we were.

It’s here that the Teacher in Ecclesiastes makes his contribution to our wisdom literature. Because up to this point, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know this. We might not like to think about it – we might push it down and try to keep it at bay – but we know that none of this is forever. We know that it won’t last.

What do we do, then? Do we just not bother? Do we remove ourselves from the fray, as much as we can? Do we just collapse into cynicism and alienation? Do we just give up?

The Teacher says, no. He says, “I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot.

This is the gift of Ecclesiastes: there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work.

Someday, Wilmington won’t exist. Well? Nothing lasts forever. It’s here right now, though, and the work that goes on here is beautiful and redemptive and holy. It’s beautiful work, not because it lasts forever, but because it doesn’t and we do it anyway.

Recognizing that it won’t last forever only serves to remind us to appreciate what we have now. Who’s going to appreciate it, if not you?

Look. The work of investing in intimate relationships is beautiful, not because it lasts forever, but because it’s inherently beautiful. The work of creating and raising a family is redemptive, not because the family lasts forever in any one stage, but because each new stage brings a new redemption.

The work of building community, however you’re called to that task – whether it’s feeding people or teaching people or healing people or governing people or tending people – it’s all holy work. That’s not because you’ve finished the job… tomorrow, there will be more hungry people and more sick people and more work to be done.

No. Strip us of the illusion that any of this will last forever, and the value and the joy of the work remains.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and on through the six days of creation: light, sky, trees, stars, birds, animals, and us in the image of the God who so loves to create.

How many of those creatures have died out? Are the trilobites, who roamed the waters for 270 million years, less valuable creations because they died at the end of the Paleozoic period? What about their friends, who didn’t have such excellent exoskeletons and so weren’t preserved in the fossil record? Having left no trace behind, were they meaningless?

No. And furthermore, if in 270 million years we have disappeared without a trace, we will also not be meaningless. The creative work we do may be smoke – may be impermanent – but it’s not meaningless.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes believes that the key to true wisdom lies in accepting hevel, in accepting the fact that all this beauty fades as we grasp at it. Stop grasping at it, then, and simply enjoy it. You can’t make the sun shine, but enjoy a sunny day when you have it. Enjoy friends, enjoy family, enjoy good food or good wine or good company or whatever it is that makes you happy.

No, really: breathe deep and enjoy it. You can’t make all this happen, yourself, and that’s part of the beauty of it. Just lean back in trust, and enjoy it.

If you let go of the notion that you can control all of this, that you can take a pleasurable moment and make it last forever, then you’re free to simply enjoy blessings and loveliness as they come.

At the end of the book of Ecclesiastes, the narrator returns. Having allowed the Teacher to speak for most of the text, the narrator provides an epilogue of sorts. He describes the words of the teacher as a goad– picture a sharp point on the end of a shepherd’s staff, which the shepherd would use to get the sheep to move.

No one likes being poked (I certainly don’t), but the Teacher’s goal here is to move us toward deeper wisdom. He puts before us a question that is very pertinent, as we try to live Gospel-shaped lives: how do we live in the face of impermanence?

More than that, though, the Teacher and the narrator both set before us a Gospel-shaped answer: Live anyway. Love anyway.

Take this moment and call it blessed. Create faith, and hope, and love, not because it will last forever but because in this moment, that’s what you’re called to do.