Before I graduated from college, there was one thing I really wanted to do. On campus was a beautiful chapel with a very tall spire; the tallest building on campus. I wanted to get to the top of that spire and look out. Such an adventure was highly restricted because of safety concerns.
But, a friend had a key from the chaplain’s office that would open the door to the stairs that led to the steeple. So, one dark night, the night before I graduated, we climbed the stairs and went up to the spire, taking in the view. It was magnificent. It was incredible. And the thought that, if caught, we could risk being able to walk at graduation the next day, was more exhilarating than fear-inducing.
Soon, too soon, we made our way back down the steeple and went to bed. The next morning, I woke up and graduated from Berry College with a Bachelor of Arts, Magna Cum Laude. That last part, a Latin phrase, indicates that I graduated with honors because of my GPA.
A few years prior, I had graduated from Rome High School in the top five percent of my class, coming in twelfth out of over 260 graduates. After graduating from Berry, I received a Master of Education from James Madison University and a Master of Divinity from Emory University.
That last one about killed me. In my first semester, I had the option of taking an extra class or not. Of course, I took that opportunity and signed up for a class. The only thing that fit my schedule was a class jointly listed with Emory Law School titled “Canon Law: the medieval origins of the legal profession.” Canon law is church law, and I learned all sorts of things about the medieval Catholic Church. That class threw me for a loop. It was fourteen weeks long. During class in week twelve, I finally got stopped feeling completely confused, but still found myself highly overwhelmed by the content.
The grade for the class was almost completely based on the final. I studied harder for that final than I ever had for any class prior. When grades came in at the end of my first semester, I let out a scream so loud Dana thought I had gravely injured myself. I was hoping for a C, expecting that I might have a D or even an F. Instead, I had an A-.
In just a few weeks, I start year two of a three year program that will grant me a Doctor of Ministry degree. One day soon, my title will be Rev. Dr. Goshorn. Four degrees will hang on my wall, each with a story to tell, each having filled my brain full of knowledge.
Each degree something I am very proud of. Each degree representing lots of hard work.
And each degree meaningless.
Let’s hear our scripture for this morning, Ecclesiastes 3:1-15. You may recognize it not from the Bible, but from the 1960s phenom band, The Byrds.
What time is it?
In case you just glanced at your watch, I don’t mean the hour and minute. I mean what season it is or, as Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes puts it, what does the time call for? Building or tearing down? Killing or healing? Seeking or losing? According to Qoheleth, wisdom comes from knowing what the time calls for; knowing what time it is.
For most of us, the time is a new school year. Even if we’re not in school, the current time calls for getting back into routines. Qoheleth might put it this way, “A time for routine and a time for freedom.” This town feels like it shuts down during the month of July. It doesn’t really, but the pace slows down as we go on vacations, as we relax at each others’ homes, as we allow the heat to slow us down.
Now, we get busy again. Routine finds us again. And if we are in school, a whole host of new things awaits us: new students, new teachers, new expectations. For those going into sixth or ninth grade or starting college or a graduate program, a whole new building and maybe even a whole new school awaits. Much is new, no matter where in school we are, and that comes with stressors.
The stress of having to get back into morning routines. The rushing around that comes with getting backpacks ready, lunches made, showers taken, coffee ingested, and everyone out the door in a timely fashion to not be late to school and work.
The stress of having to learn a new set of expectations with new teachers or new students or a new school.
The stress of shopping for school supplies.
The stress of learning a new schedule.
The stress born of fear of wondering if we’ll be successful this year, if we’ll do well in school or if we’ll teach well or administer well. Sometimes, the fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all and the start of a new school year is full of that kind of fear.
And if you aren’t in school, it’s still easy to feel the stress that comes from a new school year as we experience it in the busy lives of our children or grandchildren or fellow church members.
What time is it? It’s a time of stress; the stress born of new beginnings and the fear it evokes.
And Qoheleth, the Teacher, the author of Ecclesiastes has this to say to you and to all of us in this time of stress:
Qoheleth says, instead, “I know that there is nothing better for [us] than to be happy and enjoy [ourselves] as long as [we] live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all [of us] should eat and drink and take pleasure in all [our] toil.” (3:12-13)
All those stresses? Forget about them!
What time is it?
A time to eat, drink, and be merry!
All those worries and fears at the start of a new school year? Forget about them!
Be happy, enjoy yourself, party!
Qoheleth says go have yourself a good time. Party your heart out. Eat, drink, be merry! Forget about all the stressors.
They’re all meaningless anyway.
Which is quite a funny thing to say, especially about education. We highly value education. I saw the looks on your faces when I declared my education meaningless. Certainly, I must not believe it’s meaningless if I’m currently toiling away for my doctorate.
For those of you who have put children through college, or yourself through college, or are currently saving for college for your children as Dana and I are, education is very meaningful. It’s worth the money spent or the money currently being saved. It’s worth every penny because education is meaningful.
It’s the ticket to a better life.
It’s the ticket to living a fulfilled life.
It’s the basis for being a contributing member of society.
Education matters. Education is meaningful.
Thomas Jefferson said it best when he said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Our country was founded on the the presumption that education is so meaningful, everyone must be granted that opportunity.
And yet, Qoheleth won’t let us have it.
Meaningless! A chasing after the wind. Havel, he says, which in Hebrew means vapor. He says that all our toil, even for education, is like trying to catch the wind. Imagine running after a blowing wind, trying to catch it. That is a meaningless, futile, useless activity because the wind cannot be caught. Imagine trying to hold vapor, trying to capture it. You can’t; it’s impossible. That’s a meaningless activity.
And Qoheleth says all the stress that we feel at the start of a new year, all the fear, all the worry, all the rushing around; it’s all meaningless. Havel. A chasing after the wind. Utter foolishness.
So eat, drink, and be merry! Be happy and enjoy yourself!
For that’s God’s gift, as verse 13 says.
While this might sound very foreign, if we’re honest it kind of sounds like college. Eat, drink, and be merry! Be happy and enjoy yourself! Forget about the stresses of tests and papers and deadlines and due dates. I imagine those of us who went to college lived such a lifestyle.
But at the end of the day, the Bachelor degrees hanging on our walls are meaningful not because we partied, not because we enjoyed ourselves, but because of the doors the degree opened, because of the knowledge imparted, because of the opportunities afforded. Our education and the resulting degrees are meaningful to us.
But no, Qoheleth says. Meaningless. Know what time it is!
In the last two weeks, within a ten day span, I officiated three funerals. Many of you have been to some or all of them. It’s been a remarkably busy time for me here at the end of the summer.
And it’s left me reflective about life as funerals are wont to do. From reading, and loving, the book of Ecclesiastes, and from having officiated many funerals before the last two weeks, I have come to often ask myself a particular question for discernment and self-reflection. When I am stressed about something, when I am fearful, when I am bothered, when I am otherwise perturbed, as is often the case at the start of a new school year, I ask myself that question to gauge if the stressor is really worth the stress. It’s a means of discernment, of questioning priorities, that I might keep those in line.
Stress comes, things get frustrating and annoying, life gets challenging. When that happens, and I want to complain about it, I ask myself that crucial question and find that it provides much clarity.
And that question is this: “will this be mentioned at my funeral?”
My will dictates that my dear friend, Anthony McPhail, currently the pastor of Centerville UMC in the Warner Robins area, officiate my funeral. When he gets up to officiate my funeral, offering up my life and work to both celebrate them and inspire others with it, what will he mention as a part of that funeral?
Consider your own life. What things would be mentioned about you in your funeral?
For me, my funeral will not contain a list of degrees I earned. My obituary will not begin “The Reverend Doctor Ted Goshorn,” but, rather, simply say, “Ted Goshorn.” I won’t be buried with my degrees.
In other words, at the time of my death, my education will be meaningless.
Indeed, all my accomplishments will be meaningless. The jobs I held: meaningless. The awards I earned: meaningless. The statuses I hold and will hold: meaningless. All the things written on my resume: founding a nonprofit, writing self-published books, positions in churches and in universities; all of it will be meaningless.
Considered in the grand scheme of my earthly life, and in the grand scheme of eternity, all that I have accomplished, all that I have learned, all the accolades received; all of it is utterly meaningless.
That’s what Ecclesiastes asks us to consider: to think about our lives, including our work and our education, within the grand scheme of our lifespan and of eternity.
This is what gives rise to my question of “will this be mentioned at my funeral?” If the answer is no, whatever stress I feel regarding the thing, whatever fear its evoking, is meaningless and not worth my time.
Because our lives aren’t properly measured by what we’ve accomplished, what we’ve earned, what statuses we’ve managed to achieve, nor anything else on our resumes. All of that is really, truly, meaningless.
What matters, what is meaningful, is what we do with our education, accomplishments, statuses, and achievements. What matters, what is meaningful, is how we put those to use for the betterment of others.
It is those things, the ways we have positively impacted the lives of those around us, that will be mentioned at our funerals.
Teachers, for example, aren’t known for the degrees they earned or what they taught in a given year but rather the mark they left on the hundreds, if not thousands, of students they taught.
Principals and other administrators aren’t known for their lauds and honors but rather for the indelible mark they left on all those they mentored and shepherded.
Those of us outside of education will be remembered not for positions we held, money we accumulated, wealth we established, statuses we earned, nor any other thing that we use to grade our lives against others. All of that will be meaningless and all the striving we did to earn those things will look foolish, like a chasing after the wind or trying to catch vapor. At your funeral, the question will be how did you impact the lives of others? For better or worse? Put another way: did your life conform to the camping rule, leaving your corner of the world better than you found it?
Pastors aren’t known for what they wrote but rather the lives they shaped in how they loved on a people. This is what I hope I am known for at the end of my life. What concerns me, primarily, is whether or not I am loving the people entrusted to me as Christ loves them. That’s what makes a difference; not the degrees on my wall, not the statuses I hold, not the titles in front of my name. And if ever those things start to concern me more than loving this church and community, my priorities are out of order and I hear my inner voice saying, “meaningless.”
Hearing that voice say, in a whisper, “meaningless,” is a call to keep priorities straight. “Will this be mentioned at my funeral?” does the same thing. It makes us ask if the thing we’re so concerned about, so wrapped up about, so fearful about, is really worth all that emotional energy. Chances are high that it’s not worth all that energy.
And so, we are then to take the call of God through the Teacher, Qoheleth, when he says, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” God gave us this life, our work, and each other, to enjoy; to take joy in and find joy. Stress, undue stress over things that will be long forgotten when it’s time for our funeral, robs us of so much joy.
This is why Qoheleth can say that the stresses that come from getting back into routine, from starting a new school year, from the fear of the unknown so present during this time, are meaningless. They are because they don’t matter in the grand scheme, they don’t ring in eternity, they won’t be mentioned at your funeral.
Sometimes the present can be so full of things to do, stressors to manage, and fears to overcome, that we lose sight of the big picture. Ecclesiastes wants us to never forget that big picture. What we do in this life can be meaningful, can matter, if we will keep the big picture in front of us, making sure that we major in the majors, rather than what most of us do: majoring in the minors.
So when you’re stressed, overcome with fear and worry about the demands of life, ask yourself: will this be mentioned at my funeral? Probably not, so don’t worry about it. Find ways to be joyful: take Qoheleth seriously when he says that we should, in the midst of our stress and fear, “eat, drink, and take pleasure in all [our] toil.” That’s really good advice because it’s a call to self care.
When we take care of ourselves, our impact on the world is positive. When we dwell in stress, our impact on the world is negative and we tend to hurt each other. The joy we receive from taking care of ourselves in that way is a joy that spreads to others. Your joy will be remembered at your funeral. And undue stress over things that don’t matter in the big picture robs us, and those around us, of tremendous joy.
When you’re stressed about school, about your education, about getting to know the expectations of the teachers and the school, about how you’ll handle all the work, remember that it’s meaningless work unless, unless, you put that education to work for others. Your grade in Algebra or Phlebotomy or Accounting or Business Ethics won’t be remembered, but the way you put your knowledge and wisdom to use for others will be.
Will this be mentioned at my funeral? If the answer is no, then don’t worry and stress. Do things that bring you joy. That’s important self-care that Ecclesiastes says here in chapter 3 and throughout the book. Eat, drink, and be merry! Live life to the fullest. Don’t major in the minors. Don’t let stress rob you of joy. If it won’t be mentioned at your funeral, it’s not worth the stress.
I often receive feedback that I am known for being joyful, for being a generally happy person. That’s not some fluke of nature. My personality actually doesn’t tend toward joy. It has taken the discipline of choosing joy, of choosing to enjoy the things of life, and of rejecting stress through ritualistically asking myself that question, “will this be remembered at my funeral.” That practice, along with disciplined Sabbath practice, has left me, and my family, full of joy and much less stressed than we used to be.
Joy is a choice. Stress is a choice. Qoheleth gives us the answer to choosing our way out of stress and into joy. That answer is this, “eat and drink and take pleasure in all your toil.”
So, make that choice today. Qoheleth says that wisdom comes from knowing what time it is. Mindful that the things that matter are those that will be mentioned at our funerals, in your life, today, what time is it?
Is it a time for stress or a time for joy?
Is it a time for the meaningless or the meaningful?
Is it a time for what will be said at your funeral or what will be long forgotten?
Knowing the difference makes all the difference in our quality of life, on our impact on each other, and on our impact on the world.
Will this be remembered at your funeral?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.