Our True Worth
11th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 13C)
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
August 4th/5th, 2013
I’m sure you have all heard the saying, “You can’t take it with you.” And how true it is. Our world is filled with examples of things that people strive for, chase after, put immeasurable effort into achieving. And yet all these things have one common element: You can’t take them with you.
Sometimes the turnaround is quick, like in the world of sports. Athletes work so hard to perform at their best when it’s game time. They put in hours of practice, sweat over drills and exercises that will help them improve whatever aspect of their game they are focused on, all in the hopes that when the moment comes, when they are called upon to perform, they will be up to the challenge.
But one of the most rewarding, and perhaps most frustrating, aspects of sports is how fleeting it all is. Within a game itself, take baseball for example, if all of a player’s hard work pays off and the player gets a hit, that doesn’t matter the next time that player goes to the plate. Their previous accomplishments are gone, all that matters is the present. The same is true game to game. When each new game begins, the accomplishments or failures of the previous games no longer count. The only thing that matters is the contest before you now. The same is true in an entire season. Sometimes, all of an athlete’s hard work is rewarded with a championship. That championship is, of course, accompanied with the appropriate celebrations, parades, visit to the White House, etc. But it only lasts a few months. Years, maybe even a lifetime, of preparation to realize that moment of championship, but two months later you are back on the practice field, preparing for a new season. Last year is over, you are no longer the champion of your sport, you are just another player, just another team trying to win this year’s championship. All that effort in order to realize a moment, an experience that lasts but a short while, then is gone. Vanity. Vanity. All is vanity.
“Wait,” you may say, “Once you are a champion, no one can ever take that away from you.” True, but the moment is gone. And one day, that championship ring will no longer be on your finger, because your finger will be in a casket 6 feet below the surface.
But maybe sports isn’t the best analogy for you. It is obvious that the writer of Ecclesiastes is writing about the vanity of money, not just reputation or achievement. Maybe, when it comes to the vanity of toil or hard work, the truth is so apparent that it needs no analogy. Your Job. Your Career. Your Finances. You can’t take them with you. We’ve all heard it before. We’ve been told countless times that money is not the key to happiness, that accumulating wealth is not the secret to a happy and fulfilled life, that no one on their deathbed says that they regret not having spent more time in the office.
In fact, that is exactly what the readings for today do talk about. Vanity. Wealth. Greed. And the hollow life that each ultimately offers. The book of Ecclesiastes, generally believed to be written by older and wiser King Solomon, offers the following observations about a life spent chasing wealth and financial success. Solomon, the wealthiest king in the history of Israel, eventually grew to the point where he hated the work he had done because he saw that he must leave the fruits of that toil all to someone else. Solomon says that he gave up his heart to despair because he would have to leave all the fruits of his hard work to someone who did not work for them. “What then,” he asks himself, “is the use of all my toil?” Why bother spending your life accumulating something that you can’t take with you?
But while recognizing the futility of a life devoted to wealth is one thing, avoiding such a life is quite another. Martin Luther once commented that as we age, Satan’s temptations against our flesh change. When we are young, Satan tempts us primarily with the pleasures of the flesh, with sexual temptation, temptation to a drunken life, temptation to experience all the pleasures that this world can offer: the tired old cliché of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. But as we age, Luther observed, the approach of Satan’s temptations changes. He begins to tempt us not with pleasure, per se, but with security and stability. While a young person covets the fast cars and beautiful women that wealth brings, an older person covets the retirement lifestyle that a plush IRA can offer. The details are different, but the greed is the same.
Which is why money is and will always be one of the most common idols that people face each and every day of their lives. The idol of wealth, and the sin of greed. It is a message we have heard before, but it is one that bears repeating. Jesus told this parable to illustrate the vanity of wealth. A rich man who thought he had it all figured out, died. What good did his money do him then? None. So Jesus warns us, “Be on your guard against all kinds of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions.
No one’s life comes from their possessions, and death, the great equalizer, is the proof of that. Cancer takes no notice of a person’s checking account. It will kill a homeless person just as easily as it will kill Forbes’ Wealthiest man alive. A fatal car accident in a fancy European import has the same result as a fatal crash in a beat up old hand-me-down. While it can delay, wealth cannot ultimately stop death, and once you’re dead, then it doesn’t matter how much you were worth on earth.
What truly matters is how much you are worth to your Father in heaven, and that question has been answered in Christ. By ourselves we are worth nothing before God. On the basis of our wealth, we are worth nothing before God. On the basis of our possessions, talents, or abilities, we are worth nothing before God. As the apostle Peter says, our beauty does not come from wearing gold or jewelry, but it is the inner beauty that is of great worth in God’s eyes. In Christ, we are worth infinitely more than all the wealth of this world.
In his death for us, our Lord Jesus claimed us as his own. He washed away the filth of our sin and took us as his bride. In Baptism, our old self was drowned and died and we were united to Christ, to his resurrection, and to his value and worth. And in the words of Paul, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things that are above, not on the things that are on earth.” We don’t set our mind on the things of this earth because they are striving after the wind. We set our mind on things above because they are eternal.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t have nice things while on earth. Our Lord has not called us to forsake all wealth and earthly comfort altogether. What matters is our perspective. We don’t work simply to accumulate wealth, we work to provide for the needs of our families. But the needs of our families extend beyond what a paycheck can provide. Our children need our attention, our time. They need us. Spending endless hours at work in the name of providing for your family is idolizing wealth if you are sacrificing the other things your family needs, like time and attention. What matters are our priorities. Being wealthy is not a sin – idolizing wealth is. Set your mind on things above, not on things below. Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, where thieves do not break in and steal. It is important to do what you can to make sure your children have food and shelter right now, but it is more important to do everything you can to make sure your children spend eternity with you in paradise.
Jesus is the only treasure that matters. He is the one treasure that does not fade away. He is what counts in our relationship with our Father in Heaven. It is easy to rejoice when we hear that our sins and shortcomings don’t matter, for Christ is our all. But we must humble ourselves and acknowledge that neither do our successes or wealth matter, for Christ is our all. He has done it all for us: lived for us, died for us, rose for us, so that we may be with him in eternity.
For almost 150 years now, there have been Christians here at St. John gathered around that truth. As we inch closer to a great anniversary next year, let us thank our Lord for what truly matters. Technology has changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Popular musicians have seen their careers rise and fall. The economy in Detroit has seen the explosion and implosion of the auto industry. Clothing styles have changed. All the work that went into making those things happen has come to nothing. It’s all vanity. It’s all fleeting. At St. John itself, buildings have come and gone. Teachers have come and gone. Pastors have come and gone. But the Word of the Lord remains. The Gospel remains. Even as the culture has changed around Fraser and the world for the last century and a half, even as the work of men has crumbled under the weight of the sands of time, the message of Jesus and his work remains the same.
And the work of Jesus was not in vain. The work of Jesus does not fade away. The work of Jesus does not expire or spoil after a certain date. Ecclesiastes says that our work is vain because we can’t take it with us when we die, because when we die we don’t know who will reap the benefits of all we did. Well, Jesus knows who reaps the benefits of his work. You do. Jesus died so that you might have life, and so life you have. That is your true worth. That is my true worth. Our life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions; our life is in Christ, and when this Christ who is our life appears, then we also will appear with him in glory.
May God grant it for Jesus sake. Amen.