The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?
It has already been, in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come by those who come after them.
Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together.
My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp. Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave. When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own. Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.
The Ransom of Life is costly. The Ransom of Life is costly. I will say it again; the Ransom of Life is costly. This is something which is easy to forget – we live comfortably enough; we gather together and worship a God who has proved to us the power of the resurrection. However, that does not remove the truth of the matter – that the ransom. Of Life. Is Costly.
We have in Psalm 49 several meanings which can be drawn out of the text. On one hand, it is a call for the rich to care for the poor. When we look to the poor and say, “I cannot afford to help you.” Then we have decided that they are too costly for us to save. The text begs of us then to take care of the poor, because in the end, we come to the same place. We are gathered together in the grave. We are told, “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp,” other translations put it as, “Mortals die though they were once famous.” However, it is something much more mundane – Even though people once called their name. So, on one layer, this verse carries a message carried throughout the bible – care for the poor, and don’t make excuses about it.
Another way to read it is to place it in conversation with the text that seems to have been written in a similar mindset as this one, namely our reading from Ecclesiastes. We read in Ecclesiastes that we, you and I, all people – are nothing. We are a “vanity”, we are “utter nonsense”, we are “meaningless.” These texts are both written to describe those moments in life when we butt up against the existential terror of life. We all know that we will die, we all know that there is a great deal of suffering in the world, and in our darkest moments we turn our eyes up to the hills and we do not see God. We do not see the Love of the divine, our purpose seems abstract or imagined. There are times in the life of every person of faith where, for a moment or a season, the light drops out from the sky. We believe God is out there, we just don’t believe in him.
This is natural. The scripture is adamant that the life of faith is filled with doubt. There was never a prophet who did not look to God and say, “Why have you done this! How can so much bad exist if you are really in control!” Abraham questioned God in the plains of Sodom, Moses at the base of Sinai, and Jesus from the cross. Yes, Jesus shouted out questions to God. “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” The life of faith is an up and down journey. The straight and narrow is not a strictly uphill journey, there are valleys so deep we feel like we will never get out.
If we do not question God sometimes, I do not think that we are engaging with God honestly. Maybe some people could, but I have not met them. There comes a time when you see the suffering of people in the world when you hear the hate that people pour out toward one another, when death seems to have overcome all light. In those moments God does not just tolerate questions, God expects them. God wants your questions, God wants your anger, God wants you to be engaged in authentic relationship.
I’m not sure about you, but there is always seldom a time where I know a person and feel the same way about them all the time. The basic relationship is the same, I love my family no matter what, but sometimes you don’t want to be happy with them, sometimes you want to be angry. You should be angry with people sometimes, scripture tells us, “Be angry and do not sin!” Resentment is evil, but anger can be a righteous thing. Anger tells us that a boundary has been crossed. God tends to cross our boundaries, and we have a right to shout back. I know God crossed boundaries because he took a chemistry teacher in training and said, “No! You’re a minister and don’t you pretend otherwise.” Now here I am preaching instead of synthesizing NSAIDs in a lab somewhere.
Or maybe you come to God in one of these dark moments and you’re not angry. Maybe you’re just upset. Maybe you could fill a lake with the tears you’ve cried. God respects those tears. Jesus, when he was facing down his death wept so fiercely that blood came out in place of water. When Lazarus died, he wept openly. God respects your tears because God has cried those tears. Your emotion is valid, whether they good or bad, God wants them. God accepts them. There is power in your expression of emotions, and there is no one who is too big or bad, no one who is such a pillar of the community that they cannot be vulnerable.
If the creator of Heaven of Earth, the literal pillar of creation can cry. If that creator can turn over tables. If that creator can laugh and celebrate with sinners. If that creator can express all these emotions, then why can’t we? The essence of our Christian life is not found in what we believe, or what we do. It is tied up in faith. Faith is not just one thing – it is not ascent to doctrine, it is not believing in God, it is not good works – it is all these things, but it is something more. Faith that thing which pushes us forward even in the dark, even when we don’t believe in the goodness of God we can hold onto our faith in God.
The Ransom of Life is Costly. It is a ransom that Christ paid though. Not only in his salvific work on the cross, not only in the resurrection but in the full life which Christ lived among us. As we gather today to share in the Eucharist, to remember the work that God has done among us. We gather as people who may be in mourning, as people who may feel far from God, or perhaps as people who have never been closer to God, as people who are the height of celebration. Today as we celebrate, we do so as a complete body. All are invited, all are welcomed, all are legitimate, the table has been set. Today we feast upon the goodness of God.