Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
When I was a moody teenager, I fell in love with existentialism. My high school English teacher explained to us that the core of existentialist thought could be summed up in a single sentence as, “Life is absurd and nonsensical and then you die.” I am sure that existentialists themselves would provide a more nuanced definition of their philosophy, but the way I heard it, it made sense. I was exposed to more heartbreaking images and stories with the Internet boom of the early 2000s. I was able to hear the the stories of my family’s struggles with more mature ears. As an adolescent I was growing in my understandings of injustices and wrongdoing throughout the world. I could not explain the cruel absurdities that led to the Holocaust and the murder of my grandparents’ family and friends. I could not explain the cruel absurdities that left millions and millions of people around the world starving or malnourished. In the months after September 11, I could not wrap my head around the cruel absurdities of life that allowed thousands of people to die in the World Trade Center attack and the ensuing War on Terror. “Life is absurd and nonsensical and then you die,” made sense to me.
After this English lesson on existentialism, I started reading existentialist authors on my own. I eventually read The Trial by Franz Kafka. In this story, the main character, known simply as K, has been summoned to appear at trial for a crime he has committed. K does not know what the crime was and he never finds out. He journeys through the land of bureaucracy being passed along from one suit to the next and the only thing they are able to tell him (after many frustrating conversations) is where and when his trial will take place. Everyone he talks to is quick to judge his personal character, but no one can find what crime he is being charged with. Even in the trial itself the defense lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge never say what K’s crime was, but nonetheless K is found guilty and sentenced to death.
The Trial certainly isn’t a warm and fuzzy kind of story, but it articulated what I was feeling in my adolescence and new learnings about the terrible things going on throughout the world. The cruel absurdity of the story reflected my own confused exposure to the cruelties of war, terror, disease, and poverty. It seemed like so many people in the world were being sentenced to death for a crime that no one could articulate.
The writer of Ecclesiastes is a sort of biblical existentialist.
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” he shouts. Everything is fleeting. Nothing lasts.
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes goes through his absurd journey to find meaning in the world. He searches for wisdom and concludes that it fades. He looks at good, hard work and concludes that it too fades. He explains that you will never see an end to your work and you will inevitably have to pass it on to someone else when you die and that person may very well not care about it as much as you did. He laments, “For all [mortals] days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”
If life is filled with so much suffering and our work seems to be vain and fleeting, why even bother? Why bother working at all?
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes says that the work and wisdom we seek in life is vanity or fleeting. This is both a somber statement about the cruelty mortals experience in life and it is a hopeful message that declares that suffering also is fleeting.
Working for the betterment of ourselves and our neighbors is good work and worth seeking after. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes, however, reminds us that our work and wisdom is not what ultimately saves us from the power of sin and death. The only thing that lasts, according to the Teacher, is God and God’s work. He writes in the conclusion of the book, “Remember your creator …[before] all must go to their eternal home… before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken… and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 5-8).
Sin, suffering, and death too are fleeting. They will not last. The only thing that will last is God and God’s Kingdom.
Jesus tells a story about a rich man who stored up so many goods for himself, that he made plans to build up bigger barns to store his ever-growing wealth. That very night the man dies. He seeks after his own joys and overabundant comforts, but it means nothing when he dies. Jesus teaches his disciples that seeking after an overabundance of food, clothing, and other provisions is simply not worth it. Obsessing over getting more than we need and keeping it to ourselves does not add an hour to our lives and it only benefits ourselves for a short time before we die. Instead, Jesus urges his disciples to strive for God’s Kingdom.
Our experience is that money is fleeting. Health is fleeting. Joys are fleeting. Life is fleeting. But the Good News truth that is proclaimed loudly from the empty cross is that sin is fleeting. Injustice is fleeting. Death is fleeting.
Those things that are a part of the Kingdom of God will last forever. The Kingdom of God is a beloved community of God’s own children. The Kingdom of God is the seed that feeds on the promises of God and grows full and beautiful. The Kingdom of God is the tiny mustard seed of faith that blossoms into a great home for the birds of the world. The Kingdom of God is known in the kind of love that would sell everything to have us, the pearl of great price. The Kingdom of God is the love of a shepherd who seeks out the lone, lost sheep. The Kingdom of God is the unbounded affection a father shares for an undeserving, broken, and prodigal son.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested and jailed for his participation in a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He tried doing what he felt was right, but like K in the The Trial, he found himself bound to an absurd and cruel justice system. Bonhoeffer, like K, was sentenced to death. Reportedly, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer made his way to the gallows he declared, “This is the end- for me, the beginning of life.” Bonhoeffer had the gift of faith to boldly believe that he was a part of the Kingdom of God and that meant that death was fleeting and life with God is eternal.
The Kingdom of God lasts and is the only thing ultimately worth seeking. The Good News is that this kingdom first sought us in the person of Jesus Christ who declared, “The Kingdom of God is near!” Money, prestige, health, and life may be fleeting, but the Kingdom of God is here to stay. It is God’s will, promise, and love to bind us together as one people, it is the gift of life abundant and eternal, and it is the defeat of the power of sin that seeks to rip us apart from each other and God. The Kingdom of God lasts and it isn’t going anywhere, and that means sin, suffering, and death are fleeting and gone.