Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 18-23, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21
We spent a couple of days this week in lovely Dorset, and we spent a lot of our time in lovely Dorset on lovely Dorset beaches. The sun shone, the sea was blue, the beaches were sandy and long - and so we built sand castles.
And I don’t want to boast, but one of our castles was pretty impressive. It was designed around a Ziggurat - a stepped Babylonian pyramid structure, and included walls, tunnels and many complex geometric shapes.
And what we learnt in our castle building outings is what anyone who has ever worked with sand knows. It’s all about your foundations. It’s all about having a broad enough, well packed base at the bottom of your structure. Ignore that, move too quickly to your fancy pinnacle, your shells on top of the tower, or whatever ambitious glories you are dreaming of, and the whole thing will come crashing down.
Sandcastle building is all about getting your foundations right.
And our 3 readings today tell us why life is just the same. Why life is also about getting your foundations right.
And despite being written at utterly different times, and in very different places, those readings work together with a very clear and coherent message.
And despite being written at utterly different times, and in very different places, they operate together with a very clear and coherent message.
Ecclesiastes is the warning; this life is vanity - everything that we do to strive for success, appreciation and meaning will disappear. All our toil, our labours, our strain is ‘chasing after the wind’. Everything will end one day, and if we think that meaning and wisdom can come from our activity, we are just caught up in vanity.
This is a good passage to point people to when they say that Christianity is just a prop for people who can’t face the reality of life. Ecclesiastes says it clearly - brutally even - we are all going to die, nothing is permanent. Do not build your life on something that will fade away, because ‘the world’ can never satisfy.
All our struggling after love and acceptance. All our ambition. All our storing up of money, objects and treasures. All of it will go. None of it can last. Even the good things in our lives - our family and friends, our communities, our gifts. Even these will end. None of these things can bear the weight that we try to put on them.
Because we are all trying to build our lives on something. We all construct our identity out of building blocks of one sort or another. For some of us it’s our work that defines who we are, for others our family, or a hobby. For some it’s possessions, or wealth or how we look. And some of these are good, some of them less so.
But Ecclesiastes says, ‘none of these can be a foundation for real wisdom’. None of these will be enough for a full life.
And Jesus says the same, and he tells a story about a man who has apparently made it. Like a Lottery winner, this man has scooped the big one. And like a Lottery winner, he would have been the talk of the town. A man who had made so much out of the harvest that his barns were too small. A man who, when most people struggled to put food on the table, could now relax, eat, drink and be merry. Surely God must have been smiling on him!
No says Jesus, he too is chasing after the wind. That rich man, who thought he had it all sorted, has built his life on shifting sands, and tomorrow they will move, and all that he thought he had, will be gone.
If we live our lives as if accumulating possessions and money will buy us happiness, we are also foolish. We are foolish because we have allowed ourself to be possessed by our possessions. We have allowed ourselves to believe that we have earned what we have - and that, ultimately, it all belongs to us. And then we want more, and we need to protect what we have, and so jealousy, anxiety and greed grow in us and in society.
That rich man, one of a tiny minority of wealthy people in a desperately poor society, had the means to feed entire communities, but he thought it was all for his own pleasure. Act like that, says Jesus, and we will end up losing everything.
So that’s the first part of the story of our faith - which lays out the problem. This life is full of shaky foundations, which tempt us to build our lives on ambition, possessions or activity. None of them will last and none of them will satisfy.
And it’s St Paul who tells the second part of the story - who gives us the answer.
‘Set your mind’ he says ‘on things that are above, not things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’. That’s the answer.
This is our calling. To allow ourselves to die to our need to build our lives and our identities on the things that the world tells us are worthwhile - our possessions, our ambitions, our ego. None of these will last because none of these are designed to be built upon in that way. They are all temporary and fallible. There is a deep mystery in this fact - Jesus’ death gives us the opportunity to put to death those false foundations, which can never carry the weight of a life. In his dying, that way of life is buried with him, so that we can let go of ‘whatever is earthly’ and we can be free.
And the wonderful thing - the point of faith - is that we don’t have to wait to die, to discover this truth. We don’t have to be like the rich man, who figured it out too late. Instead, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, heaven has broken into this world, so that we can live according to the ‘things that are above’ even while we live here on earth. We don’t need to wait for our death to discover that the things of the earth will never satisfy - we can know it now, and we can know that there is another way.
It is the way of Jesus. It is Christ living in us. We are invited to let go of all the stuff of the world - the possessions and everything else - and to build our lives on the firm foundation of Jesus.
And when we start to let that happen, when we start to let Jesus be the purpose and the goal of our lives, slowly, steadily, the stuff of this world is revealed for what it is. Just stuff. Some of it good, some of it bad. None of it sufficient. And instead we can build on the one thing that will satisfy. Not a temporary possession, but a relationship. God’s love, poured out for us, freely and abundantly. A love which stands the test of time, and which is strong enough to endure.
But we mustn’t leave it too late. We mustn’t be like that rich man, and discover we have built our lives on the wrong foundation. No. Do it now. ‘Set your mind on things that are above, not things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God‘