I’m sure you’ve all heard the quote that I’ve used for the title of this sermon—or at least some version of it, which may or may not be appropriate for church. I always enjoy learning the origins of sayings like these. The oldest reference I found to it is in a book of quotations from 1922. The book quotes a poem by Edmund Vance Cooke. Here’s the verse which seems to have birthed our popular saying:
This life’s a hollow bubble, don’t you know?
Just a painted piece of trouble, don’t you know?
We come to earth to cry,
We grow older and we sigh,
Older still, and then we die!
Don’t you know?
I think Mr. Cooke and Ecclesiastes would have gotten along very well.
Just before our passage for today, the Teacher bemoaned the sorry state of the world—that “painted piece of trouble.” In place of justice, there is wickedness. In the place of righteousness, there is wickedness. Near the end of our passage, there is oppression perpetrated by the powerful, with no one to comfort the powerless.
In between, the Teacher observes that human beings are no different from animals. All animals—human and otherwise—die. People of his time believed that at death, everything returned to its source. So, since all animals—human and otherwise—are made up of earthly matter, our bodies will return to the earth. Or, as we say on Maundy Thursday when we receive the ashes that remind us of our mortality, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
The same is true of our breath. Using that Hebrew word ruach, the Teacher includes both breath and spirit. The ruach—the spirit or breath—is given by God, and so at death it will return to God. There’s no suggestion of an afterlife of any kind here—just a returning of what had been borrowed, like a library book when the lending period expires. If the breath of life comes from God, the Teacher muses, why should animal breath go one way and human breath another?
In our passage, the teacher comes to two conclusions. Given the absurd and limited lives we have, we might as well just enjoy what we’ve got, because that’s all there is. But, the Teacher continues, what we’ve got is such a mess, it would be better to be dead than alive, and better yet never to have been born at all.
Are you totally depressed yet? If not, go ahead and read the other suggested passages I listed in the bulletin, where the teacher expands on similar themes.
The fact is, though, that in many ways the Teacher’s right. Our bodies are made up of the same elements as the animals. When we die, our bodies do decompose or are turned to ash. People are still asking the question, “Do dogs go to heaven?”
Unfortunately, he’s right about the state of the world, too, at least in part. Yes, there are many good and generous people in the world. But there is an awful lot of wickedness that stands in the way of righteousness and justice. Those without power are still at the mercy of the powerful. Ignoring this, or pretending it’s not so, does nothing to bring kingdom values to bear on the world.
Here’s an example: the debate at all levels of government about if and how schools should reopen their buildings. One great concern is about how to care for children who depend on the schools for food and physical safety and even health care. Another is the technology gap that leaves many low-income and rural students unable to access online learning. Those are serious and legitimate concerns.
But, I’ve heard no discussion about the underlying social systems and structures that lead to schools having to provide these services. Why don’t children in our country not have enough to eat? Why is there a lack of affordable housing, a lack of access to mental and physical health care, and a lack of safe and affordable child care that enables parents to work? Why don’t full-time jobs pay a living wage? When online access is more and more the gateway to jobs, to learning, and to necessary services, why is high-speed internet access considered a luxury to be enjoyed only by those who can afford it?
Schools and other organizations (like our Food Pantry) have been scrambling for years to put the necessary band-aids on these wounds. The coronavirus has aimed a spotlight on them. But, we’re still not working to cure the underlying disease. I think the Teacher is right in identifying why we’re not. As he says in Chapter 5, lovers of money are never satisfied. Officials who dismiss the needs of the poor aren’t called to account, because their superiors are equally dismissive. In Chapter 9, the Teacher speaks of how the voices of the poor themselves aren’t even included in the debate. He says, “The poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.” It’s no wonder that many share the hopelessness that the Teacher expresses in his dim view of life.
But, the good news is, there is an alternative view. It’s the view that Paul expresses in his letter to the Philippians.
If anyone ever was in a position to feel despondent over life, it was Paul as he was writing his letter. He was sitting in a Roman jail cell. Some rivals were using his imprisonment as an opportunity to further their own ambitions. He writes as a man who is facing the very real possibility of dying at the hands of a Roman executioner in the very near future. So, his weighing of the relative merits of life versus death aren’t just idle thoughts.
On the one hand, death would be a blessing—a conclusion that Ecclesiastes would have agreed with. But, their reasons are different. For Paul, death would not mean the end of life, but the beginning of life with Christ. Dying is not loss, but gain—the attainment of a life of eternally praising God, free of the earthly trials that come to all of us. Death is not oblivion—a simple disintegration into dust and breath that is reclaimed by its source. Death is transformed into another means of exalting the living Christ. Death does lead to that “better place,” as we so often say when someone dies.
But, as much as Paul would welcome death and all that will come after it, life is also worth continuing. Life is not the empty, absurd slog that Ecclesiastes describes. It, too, offers opportunities to exalt the living Christ. And if Paul can choose, he’ll choose life, so that he can continue to help the Philippians grow in their faith and share in their joy.
Life, for Paul and for all of us, has a purpose, and that purpose is to be a living testimony to the gospel of Jesus Christ—to exalt Christ in our living and in our dying. Our purpose is to be a visible sign that the kingdom of God is present in this world, however incomplete it still is. So, Paul says, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
This has serious implications for how we live in the world. We don’t just throw up our hands in despair as Ecclesiastes does, focusing on our own needs, our own enjoyment, ignoring the injustices of the world until that blessed day when our death arrives and delivers us back to the earth. No! We live out all the life-creating, life-sustaining, life-celebrating lessons that Jesus taught us.
We look around and see the people Jesus cares about—the poor, the hungry, the unclothed and the unhoused, the sick and the imprisoned, the powerless, the voiceless, the friendless. We continue to put on the band-aids—sure. But we also begin to ask challenging questions of those who hold the reins of power. We insist that they work to eliminate the need for band-aids. We communicate to them the values we hold dear, because our faith mandates them—the values of justice and mercy and compassion. We choose leaders who will view all people as those who have been created in the image of God and whose lives are precious, whatever their station in life.
“Life is short, and then you…” Ecclesiastes would have ended it the way we usually hear it: “Life is short, and then you die.” But, we are not the helpless pawns that Ecclesiastes paints us as. We are not created to be like our animal friends—desiring only to be happy in our creature comforts until we die.
As people who live according to the Gospel, we can rewrite that saying. Life is short, but Jesus has given us work to do. He’s given us a commandment to live by and an example to follow. Life is short but, by the grace of God, we have been set on a path to become more like Jesus every day. Life is short, but by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are enabled to do the work that will make this world more like the kingdom Jesus brought near.
We, like Paul, can face death without fear and maybe even with anticipation, because we know that our lives will continue in constant joy and praise. But more importantly, we can face life without fear, because we know that our years—however long or short they may be—have meaning and purpose as we live in a manner worthy of the gospel. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young