This is a sermon Mike gave a while back...
Beyond Despair and Materialism
Rabbi Harold Kushner is best known for his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, but he has written other books, too. One of these other books used the Old Testament writing of Ecclesiastes 1 as its foundation. The book is titled When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough.
In one part of this book Kushner writes about a depressed man who came to see him in his study. The man told the rabbi he had attended a funeral for a man from his office who had died rather suddenly. The man told Rabbi Kushner that they had already replaced the man at his office and his wife had moved out of state. He said, "Rabbi, I've hardly slept at all since then. I can't stop thinking that it could happen to me; that one day it will happen to me. A few days later I will be forgotten as if I had never lived. Shouldn't a man's life be worth more than that?
The Book of Ecclesiastes takes on the deep questions of life. "I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see all is vanity and chasing after the wind. What do mortals get from all their toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is vexation. Even at night their minds do not rest. This is also vanity.
Ecclesiastes is a thinking person's book. It wrestles with questions of meaning and despair:
- Why am I here?
- What should I do with my life?
- Does it matter?
- Who will remember me?
Ecclesiastes is a book that raises a lot of questions, but it is woefully lacking in positive answers and hope. It's not a good book to read when you are depressed but it gets you to think and take your life seriously.
Singer Paul Simon is a thinking man's songwriter. He's written positive things like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" but he also seems to have a dark muse. In the song "Slip Sliding Away" he writes, "God only knows and God makes his plans. The information's unavailable to the mortal man. We'll work at our jobs, collect our pay...believe we're sliding down the highway when in fact, we're slip sliding away."
Despair lurks nearby for those who have never established a healthy center of life. Despair can run people over when bad things happen. That's why we need a firm foundation, a strong center, that we can return to when things get tough. We need to hear the positive promises of God's word like, "Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."
The book of Ecclesiastes also talks about going after possessions to find meaning in life..."I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces...I kept my heart from no pleasure...Then I considered all that my hands had done...and behold all was vanity and a striving after wind and there was no thing to be gained under the sun."
I served a 3-point parish in Montana many years ago. Every Sunday I drove past the Bair Mansion. The last member of the Bair family died sometime after we left the area and the home was opened for tours. I went on one of those tours as we traveled back through and found out more about the Bair family. Back in the 1800's a man named Charles Bair came out West with 14 cents and 7 green apples. He came to earn his fortune in sheep and cattle ranching, as well as gold, coal and oil interests. Charlie Bair knew how to make money and he could be very generous with his money. But, his money seemed to have a strange effect on him and his family.
Charlie would shear sheep and brand cattle in his finest suits. Why? Because he could afford to. So he did.
Charlie had two daughters but to him no one was good enough to marry them. Charlie was afraid to turn his money over to a non-family member. One day the oldest daughter, Marguerite, rebelled and eloped with the ranch foreman. When they came back, Charlie still made the husband stay in the bunk house!
Alberta Bair was the youngest daughter and the last surviving member of the family. A member of one of the congregations I served worked for Alberta. I asked her to ask Alberta if she would like me to drop by since I was the only pastor in the area. Her reply was, "No, he's probably after my money."
The book of Ecclesiastes tells us an obsession for possessions is a futile struggle.
Jesus tells us "One's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions...Instead, seek his kingdom and all these things will be added unto you."
So, what are the alternatives to despair and materialism?
Our second reading from Colossians 3 offers this advice, "Seek the things that are above - where Christ is...Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth."
The Christian faith provides meaning for this life and the life to come. God gives us life. God gives us gifts. God gives us each other. Got wants us to have an abundant life now, but also in the age to come when our lives are done. Our hope, our meaning comes from God who loves us and sees each one of us as valuable.
Questioning is good and natural. Good questions lead us to the discovery of a good God. But, sometimes questioning can lead us to endless questions, despair or even anger.
Posessions aren't necessarily bad, but they don't always lead to happiness. I look at the Bair family. Were they happy because of their wealth and possessions? No, they seemed guarded and a little afraid of people.
Posessions and wealth can be a good thing. They can bless you to be a blessing to others. They can bring security. But, they are not to be the primary thing of life. Meaning and hope are found in the Christian faith, in setting our minds on things that are above.
I'd like to tell you about a couple of pastors in my life who reflected the joy of living with meaning in life, and a living faith.
Ermin Lunder was a retired pastor living in Issaquah, WA. He lived in a retirement community next to the Lutheran Bible Institute where I was going to school. He became a part of our "Life Group" on the LBI Campus. He had his burdens to bear. His wife of many years had health problems and the beginning of Alzheimer's Disease. Still, he had a very joyful and encouraging spirit. He knew the sufferings of this life were temporary. He set his mind on things above. The joy of the Lord was his strength. He was an excellent example to young people of how to carry on in faith in spite of suffering.
Another pastor of influence was Lowell Satre. He was my Greek Professor at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary. We didn't always know what to make of Professor Satre. He had the most outlandish clothes. He was the King of Polyester. We didn't know if this was his trademark, if he was fashion challenged or just poor. But, we did know that he loved the Lord Jesus Christ. He wanted us to succeed as pastors. He wanted us to bring the good news to the world. At the bottom of our papers he would write encouraging things and invite us to "Press On!"
There are things in life that are worrisome or depressing. Things don't always go right or as we planned but we don't live for this life.
This life isn't about knowing all the right answers. Nobody knows all the answers to the mysteries of life.
This life isn't a contest to see who can get the most possessions. The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that's like trying to catch the wind.
Paul wrote to the Colossians, "So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth. For you have cried and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory."