Vanity of Vanities and the not so pessimistic preacher

IMG_4448If I start to talk about money, what sound track comes to mind? For those whose musical taste naturally goes to the 1970s and 80s it might be Pink Floyd’s 1973 song ‘Money’ with its characteristic sound of a ringing cash till and its bass riff at the beginning. The song comes from an album which reflects on the things that send humanity insane: war, greed and death. Or it might be the rapid staccato piano chords of Abba’s 1976 hit ‘Money, money, money’ with its comment on the difficulties of breaking through the gender pay gap. A decade later brought us Dire Straits’ ‘Money for nothing’ where a hardware store employee contrasts his own life with the lifestyle he sees on the music videos he is watching. 1985 was the decade of shoulder pads, Miami Vice with its sharp suits and fast cars, and the young and upwardly mobile. Acquisitiveness was everything.

For older listeners, the Beetles 1966 rant against the 95% supertax rate in their song ‘Taxman’ may be what springs to mind first. And for some of our younger iPod track searchers, Jay-Z and Kanye West produced a rap called ‘Who gon’ stop me?’, complete with Parental Advisory in 2011. Here the inner city struggle meets the aspiration for the badges of power and value displayed in gold watches and bling. I will leave the Precentor and Dean to give you their top 10 favourite tracks from a more classical selection over coffee.

This very selective and brief track list gives a snap shot into how money is often portrayed on the radio and MP3 player. The themes of justice, avarice and false treasures compete for attention, though it has to be said avarice probably has the upper hand. The reason for this is probably set out by Rick James 1982 song ‘Money Talks’, where he sets out the ability of cash to control all facets of our lives. Those with it can do what they like; those without it can’t. And those who say you don’t need it are often speaking from a position of comfort or security, or both.

When we want to know what money is for we need to ask what life is for. Both have a transitory quality, here today and tomorrow gone. They cannot just be stored because they have no value except in the using and in the case of life, in the living. It is in the breathing of the moment that we exist and it is in the spending and using for a purpose that money is of any use. Money is a tool to be used to help us trade and exchange; it is the currency of action which makes things happen because it is much easier to swap a commonly accepted token than go around with a bag of chickens with which to barter according to whatever value can be gained for them. Even money in the bank is working in how it is lent and invested and moved around – though you might not think it when you see the interest statement. So in the use of money and the living of life we begin to see what our readings were about.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, from which the first reading was taken, has been described as having an unremitting pessimistic outlook. It has a seemingly negative view of life, not surprisingly coming from its opening words: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2). The book ends in similar vein so it doesn’t improve. But the word translated ‘vanity’ is not that easy to tie down. It can mean futile and worthless, fleeting and ephemeral. But it can also mean brief and breath. Chasing after stuff is like chasing after the wind (1:14). But wind and breath are also the signs of life. So when we think of the human condition in these terms, we join the Psalmist who pondered the question ‘what are human beings that God should value them’ (8:4). Our lives are like the grass in the field, when the wind goes over it it is gone (103:4), blown away like a dandelion head in the summer. ‘Vanity of vanities’, this strange phrase of the Preacher, whoever he was, probably from the third century BC, is an expression of how much our life is fleeting and fragile, brief and like the breath, but that breath is what makes us alive. It may be momentary, but that moment is charged with the substance of life itself. So how the ‘vanity of vanities’ is viewed depends very much on the stance of the one viewing it. If life is pointless, it is pointless and useless. If life is charged with the purpose of God, then its brevity is nonetheless held by the purpose of God.

We may well wonder what the point of everything is, especially in our darker moments. Work may indeed feel a vexation, full of pain, disturbing our sleep, a fleeting vanity as with the Preacher in Ecclesiastes (2:23). But deeply rooted in the writing, given its place in the Bible, is a faith that purpose lies with God and so while our life might be fleeting and brief, a mere breath, it nonetheless emanates from the breath of God and that makes it all the more special.

It is here that we start to look afresh at the man who built a big barn in our Gospel reading (Luke 12:13-21). The Old Testament story of Joseph, with his coat of many colours, has the building of barns to store the food from times of excess to feed the people during the approaching famine (Genesis 41). And that is the clue, the barn was for everyone and was for a purpose. It was not just to horde so that the rich farmer could take life easy, while others struggled, but to make sure there was enough for everyone, to use it for the common good. Money is not individual and private, but a social mechanism and without the social use it is pretty pointless. And money brings us into the web of relationships around its production and spending. We cannot count it without an eye to how it was generated.

Yesterday our church calendar remembered William Wilberforce and those who campaigned with him to end slavery in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Those included Olaudah Equiano, himself a former slave. It was moving to hear Michelle Obama talking this week about her family being descended from slaves and her daughters currently living in the White House built by slaves. Quite a few bishops in the Church of England were compensated for their loss of income by the ending of slavery, not to our credit. There are modern forms of slavery with people trafficked, exploited and held as slaves and from time to time we hear about it in this city. When we ask what money is for, we are confronted with the God of justice who demands that we treat one another as the full, honoured, beloved children of his amazing grace that we all are. We may be fleeting, fragile and brief, but just like breath the value and the purpose of love remain central.

The rich farmer was condemned for his avarice, for his selfishness and for his total lack of any notion that there was a purpose to life because of his total missing of the point of what his harvest was for. What we can buy with our money and the fruit of our labour does not last, just as life does not last. It is vanity and all is vanity. But vanity, breath, for all its brevity and its fleeting nature, springs from the heart of God and is held by the purpose of God.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 31st July 2016

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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