Isn’t it amazing how hard Ecclesiastes hits every time? You’ll be moving along, living your life, coming to church on a nice Sunday morning for a morsel of spiritual fulfillment, and bam, Ecclesiastes is there waiting for you with the hardened stare of a parent who sat on your front porch with the light on waiting for you to come home hours after the curfew you agreed to.
What have you been living for? Or, for whom have you been living? To me, these are the questions Ecclesiastes confronts us with.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed your summer vacations. I’ve enjoyed mine — it ends tomorrow. I’ll go back to work as a high school English teacher, focusing on new priorities to implement into curriculum and instruction for the 2022–23 school year. I am struggling, if I’m being honest, to look forward to it. I try to remember to be grateful that I have summers off at all. The rest of the adult working world continues apace. In many spaces there is a relaxation or a thinning out of the requisite industriousness in the summertime. Look no further than our summer sabbath worship series here at Epiphany. It invites you to relax, to be still, to remove yourself from the toil of life and reflect, adjust, and renew. Even for folks who aren’t off work in the summer, it still feels right, at least to an extent. So as we turn the calendar into August and prepare to ramp back up to full speed at whatever it is we do in the fall and winter, it’s a good time to sit and reflect on how we’ve used our sabbath, and for whom we have used it. Have we used it for God? Have we used it for ourselves? For family? For community? Have we forgotten to really use it at all?
As a teacher, there is almost this pressure to come back refreshed at the start of the year. Nowadays when you are hired as a teacher one of the things they show you is a chart with what your mood is going to be for the entire year. It sounds absurd, but I’m serious. The point is to get a general sense of the trends among teachers and where their mental health is at, but it is admittedly a little odd to hear that you are bursting with energy now in August and will be given to feelings of hopelessness by mid-November. Everyone feels that subtle undercurrent of pressure when they rest, I think. “I’d better be happy at the end of my vacation, or going back to work is going to be really hard. After all, Ecclesiastes says to toil in hard work is vanity, so I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to handle that toiling if I don’t have the greatest vacation ever and start from a spiritually healthy place.” Now, as I mentioned, our reading today cuts off in an unfortunate place, because in the very next verse, we are told that there is “nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil.” That is, to turn that toil toward a higher purpose.
We in the Lutheran faith love to extol the virtues of hard work. “God’s work, our hands,” right? How audacious a claim to suppose our hands can conduct God’s work! It is a commitment to working a thousand times over the work that could be completed in a lifetime. Right? The book of Ecclesiastes seems to feel pretty strongly about hard work, or toiling, as our translation tells it. One of the resources Pastor Libbie gave me this week said that the Hebrew word that we have translated as “vanity” can be translated also as “vapor.” So all that toil, turns to vapor. It is not the key to happiness. Luke cautions from the other end, as Jesus tells a parable of a man who ultimately just wanted to relax. He built big barns to hold all his crops, and he planned on just letting the good times roll from there. Only, God called this man a fool and in his life, his relaxation, too, turned to vapor. The text is telling us something. It is neither the hard work, nor the lack of it, that makes us happy, that brings us closer to God.
Pastor Libbie this week at church council asked us to reflect on what our mountaintop spaces were. Where were places we go to pray, to center ourselves and put ourselves in a position to return and live life according to what we know God wants for us? I had to be honest: I’ve been missing that mountaintop space. I haven’t found the time and place to center myself, even along the journey of my sabbath, and perhaps this is why I’m feeling not yet ready to return to my toiling. I’ve been busy, of course, trying to raise two kids. That excuse won’t restore my spirit, however. So when I encounter today’s readings, I am hit hard with the possibility that I have been misusing my time, my sabbath. If my life was demanded of me this very night, who would inherit the fruits of my relaxation? The good news for me is it’s not too late. Because I have done a lot this summer. I’m sure we all have. A moment of prayer may be all it takes to repurpose all that rest and all that toil. Because even when I forgot to live for God, he was working in me, using me to live for him. I think God and I just need to talk, do some accounting over his higher purpose he has for me, and maybe I can feel some of the restoration I crave. Consider it; you may need some time with God as well. And consider this: What might happen if you and God can talk about tomorrow instead of yesterday?
To live according to the Christian faith is a foundational undertaking, meaning it comes first. In this case, it means to align your hard work, align your rest, with God. Setting your mind on things that are above, as Colossians tells it. So as you prepare to return to your toil, look for your opportunities to find the joy of glorifying God in your work. How is your work helping others? How are you helping spread love? Are you remembering to find joy in those opportunities? And for what remains of your summer sabbath — even if that’s just the next 10 or so hours — how can you bring yourself closer to the joys that do last, the love that colors your life and brings you closer to God?
As Christians, it is our duty and our joy to continually recommit to living a life aimed not toward material wealth but toward spiritual fulfillment. Is your salary the reason you work? Is your vacation the reason you work? You fool!, God says in the parable. “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Yes, all things of this Earth are vanity. But not all things we do on this Earth are of this Earth. It is that distinction we must remind ourselves to make.