Life Lived in Light of Death

A deep and abiding sense of peace. 

That’s how I felt standing in the New Mexican desert on Saturday morning last week. After the funeral, after a great time of gathering with Dana’s family, we took the morning to take a hike, as we like to do. This hike was very different from the usual hikes we do in forests or along coasts. We walked along top of a mesa, with the barest of plant life growing low across the desert landscape. The ground was sandy, getting in my shoes no matter how tightly they were tied. For 360 degrees, I could look out and see a vista. To the east, tall, jagged, mountains rising just beyond the cityscape of Albuquerque. To the north and west, more distant mountains. And to the south, a wide open plain. It was a sight to behold; a beauty all of its own. There’s something deeply resonate for the soul from being in nature; a way of communing with God. 

Then I looked ahead down the trail and saw my family. Carter delighting in the natural landscape, running and cheering as he is wont to do; Jackson taking it all in with a certain meditation, Dana delighting in our children and enjoying the warm sun. I thought to myself that this is what life is about: family, togetherness, taking joy in the simple pleasures of the warm sun and the beauty of the desert landscape.

Up ahead, we found little piles of stones. Dana said, “look at those ebenezers!” An Ebenezer is a pile of stones made by the ancient Israelites. They’d use ebenezers to remember an event at a locale where they had experienced God, which is why the word Ebenezer means stone of hope. The kids immediately bent down to make their own ebenezers. 

When they had finished, Dana asked them what they were remembering. Carter looked sorrowful and said, “lily,” the name of our dog who passed away this past January. Jackson also looked sorrowful and said, “papa the great,” what they called Dana’s grandfather. We took a moment to reflect on life, in light of the death we had known. 

Life in light of death. It’s natural to experience life in that way in the shadow of a funeral. Just 24 hours before this moment in the New Mexican desert, we had sat together as a family for the funeral of papa the great. Certainly, death cast a shadow over us that remained just 24 hours later but, for Qoheleth, the author of our scripture this morning, a life lived well, a life lived properly, is a life lived in love; a life lived in light of death. 

Let’s hear our scripture for this morning. It’s selections from chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Ecclesiastes; my favorite book in the entire Bible. 

Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-25

Life in light of death.

Back in February, some of you gathered at The Methodist Home for the workshop run by the consultant Jim Ozier. At that workshop, I met many of you for the first time. Craig came and talked about me as if I wasn’t there, not naming me since it was okay to talk about me but not to publicly say I was going to be the new pastor here. Jim talked about me, too, as if I wasn’t there. Sitting in the middle of the room, I must admit, things felt a little awkward. 

Especially as Jim kept referring to me as “your new, young, hotshot, pastor.” I wondered what a hotshot pastor is? I’m still not sure. 

But perhaps he’d been reading my resume too closely. I am highly educated, with a Bachelor’s degree and three post-graduate degrees. I completed all these degrees before my 38th birthday. Some would say, including a close friend of mine, that I am overeducated. 

Beyond my appointment history to churches, I have served as the chair of the board and president of a chamber of commerce, formed my own nonprofit to build a community park, served as president of an historic neighborhood association, had some essays published, and was named one of Emory University’s 40 Under Forty just last year. In the words of a mentor of mine, any of that and $3 will buy me a cup of coffee.

Perhaps this is why Jim Ozier would call me a young, hot shot, pastor; a title I must admit to you I am quite uncomfortable with. 

Contrasting with Jim Ozier, Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes would say all of that is meaningless, vapor, a chasing after the wind; in Hebrew, Havel. 

My four degrees on the wall in my office? Meaningless, a chasing after the wind, Havel. 

My community service and positions? Meaningless, a chasing after the wind, Havel. 

My 40 Under Forty award? Meaningless, a chasing after the wind, Havel. 

Qoheleth, which means Teacher in Hebrew, says that all of this is utterly meaningless. He uses the word Havel over and over again. Your bible may translate that word as vanity, meaningless, but it most closely relates to vapor. Imagine the scene of getting out of the shower. There’s steam, vapor, in the bathroom. And consider how quickly it is gone. That’s what Qoheleth says life is like: vapor, here for a moment, then quickly gone. 

And within the lifespan of vapor are all our accomplishments, our education, our positions, our titles, our awards, and our accomplishments. They’re here for just a few seconds, and then gone. 

So Qoheleth says to chase after these things, to seek to earn them, to try and build up our resumes, to labor and toil so hard, is utterly meaningless, vapor, Havel. 

In fact, Qoheleth relates all this toil and striving as like chasing after the wind. Imagine trying to chase the wind to catch it. Picture yourself running across a field, the wind blowing behind your back, running, trying to catch the wind. It’s impossible, it’s futile, it’s foolish. Qoheleth says that’s what life is like when we spend our days toiling away trying to amass accolades, accomplishments, education, and the like. 

Because life is short. It’s vapor, here for a moment and gone. What we do will quickly be forgotten. What we accomplish will not long be remembered. 

So Qoheleth recommends this:

Live life in light of death. 

Tradition says Qoheleth is Solomon. More likely, someone wrote as Solomon after his death, but speaking as Solomon, the author speaks to legacy. He talks about becoming wealthy, wise, having everything he could ever want and having built up a huge, stable, kingdom. He had taken Israel from a bit of a backwater to a respectable Kingdom, one visited by larger kingdoms, growing wealthy off the trade that went through their borders between the larger kingdoms of Assyria and Egypt. 

Solomon had accomplished quite a lot. Consider modern Germany, a country utterly destroyed by war not quite eighty years ago, which has since become one of the world’s economic powerhouses with a high standard of living. They’re also a major power broker across the continent of Europe and in world affairs. When considering the past 75 years of history, Germany’s rise from the ashes is remarkable. That’s akin to what Solomon accomplished during his reign, but in even less time. 

He speaks to his legacy, stating how he had worked to build one up. He thought it wise to build a legacy, to leave something behind for his children and his subjects. Only to later realize it was foolishness. Utterly meaningless. A chasing after the wind. 

He calls his work to build a legacy Havel. 

Why would Solomon feel this way? Why would Qoheleth record these words? Isn’t this depressing? 

Then, while we’re asking those questions, let us consider Qoheleth’s final statement in the scripture we read this morning: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” This is where that medieval phrase chanted by knights as they went on crusades came from; one chanted by many a college student in jest ever since: eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die!

It’s pretty dark! Or, perhaps it’s hedonism; pure pleasure seeking since life is hardship and meaningless so you might as well eat your fill, drink your fill, and not worry about tomorrow. 

Or, maybe Qoheleth is an ancient parrot head, recommending being a cheeseburger in paradise. Escape your pain, escape hardship, go sit on a beach, drink your fruity beverage, and look for your lost shaker of salt. 

While this may strike us as odd, discomforting, depressing, foolish, or something like that, let us admit that Qoheleth has a point. Life is hard. We don’t have as much control as we think. We can work to build a legacy, for example, only to have it squandered by those who come after us. History is replete with stories of children who squandered a family fortune, built by the hard labor of the family patriarch or matriarch. Solomon’s story was that way. A civil war broke out after Solomon’s death. In the end, the kingdom divided into Israel and Judah; the northern and southern kingdoms of Biblical fame. The two kings, both Solomon’s children, squandered the legacy, wealth, and stability that their father gave them. 

And so Qoheleth, seeing this reality, looks back and says to us that it’s foolishness to labor, toil is his word, trying to construct a legacy. Just as it is meaningless to compile wealth, accolades, accomplishments. In the part of chapter 2 we didn’t read, Qoheleth lists all his accomplishments; namely Solomon’s accomplishments, just as I listed some of my accomplishments a moment ago. And then declares all of it meaningless, a chasing after the wind, vapor; Havel. 

Life lived in light of death. 

Back in the New Mexican desert, I walked along the trail, delighting in my children’s delight of the landscape, reflecting on the profound sense of death and life they demonstrated in building their ebenezers. My children are wise beyond their years, and I am grateful for the depth of their soul that they share with us on a regular basis. 

There is wisdom in the building of those ebenezers; the wisdom of life lived in light of death. Knowing that we will all die, knowing that what we do will be forgotten much more quickly than we would care to admit, brings into focus what really matters in this life. And that’s the point that Qoheleth wants to convey to us this morning: not a hedonistic escape from the toil and trouble of life lived on this earth, not a dark and depressing nihilism stating that nothing really matters and we should just retreat from life, nothing of the sort. No, that we should be aware of what really matters in this life, an awareness than can only be cultivated by living life in light of death. 

Consider my funeral. 

One day, perhaps this week, perhaps a day sixty or even seventy years from now, but most likely somewhere in between, I’ll die. Should he outlive me, my will stipulates that my friend Anthony McPhail officiate my funeral. Sometimes, I admit, I’m a little controlling. And when Anthony comes to eulogize me, when he stands in a pulpit somewhere to remember my life for those who have gathered to hear that remembrance, what will he say? 

Will he say that, in 2021, I was awarded some award by the Emory Alumni Association? Will he recite my list of degrees earned? Will he review the list of churches I served? Will he give an accounting of the community leadership positions I held, the boards I served on?  

No. None of that will matter upon my death. I won’t be buried with my degrees and my accomplishments. My awards will go in a box somewhere, stored in a forgotten corner of some relative’s house. My degrees will be forgotten in that same closet. And one day long after I’m gone, some grandchild or great-grandchild will discover those things, say they’re kind of neat, and throw them away. That’s life. All of that is vapor, Havel. 

But it’s not depressing because it reveals what really matters in life: our impact on each other, the relationships we have, the way we loved each other. 

When Anthony comes to do my funeral, I hope that he will have plenty of ways that I loved on my family, on my friends, on those whom I serve, to be able to recount a legacy of love. For how I love others, how I care for others, how I share the light of Christ that lives within me, is what really matters in this life. 

And keeping that in focus, keeping what really matters in this life in focus, comes from living life in light of death.

Consider your funeral. What do you hope is remembered about you by those whom you leave behind? Your accomplishments, degrees, accolades? Or how you loved your children, your grandchildren, your nieces and nephews; how you loved the people at your workplace, how you cared for others, took the time to listen, encouraged and sustained those you love when they were weak. I dare say, all of us hope to be remembered as loving, kind, thoughtful, caring people who made a real difference in the lives of our family and friends. 

Keeping that in focus is what it means to live life in light of death. To remember that what really matters, what will outlive us, what God desires for us and calls us to, is to leave a legacy of love. 

That’s the wisdom Qoheleth shares with us this morning. Live life in light of death, so that we never forget that what really matters in this life is to leave a legacy of love. 

When facing stressors at work or at home, when life gets hard, when there’s toil and trouble all along the way, let us pause and ask ourselves if what we’re stressing about, what we’re toiling after, what we’re striving for, what feels like a hard yoke and a heavy burden, might actually be Havel. Probably, in the grand scheme of our lives, whatever is stressing us is really Havel, vapor; here for a moment and then quickly forgotten. In the end, when our time comes and our funeral service is held, whatever it is we’re stressing about probably won’t be remembered. 

In those moments of stress, or in those moments where accomplishing something feels super important, or in those moments where we’re striving to attain something, let us ask ourselves this question: will this be remembered at my funeral? 

I’ve had to ask myself that question in these last several weeks. As you can probably imagine, getting settled in this job has been exhausting. Exhilarating, but exhausting. It’s been stressful. There have been times where I have felt overwhelmed. It hasn’t been easy. 

And when I get wrapped up in something that’s stressing me here at the church, when I am consumed in my thoughts trying to figure something out or decide what direction to take, when I feel like I need to prove something or somehow be better than I am, when I feel like maybe I’m not quite big enough for this job, if I stop and ask myself that question, will this be remembered at my funeral, everything comes into focus. 

Because whatever I do here, for however long I am here, will quickly be forgotten. The structures I put in place, the budgetary measures, the hirings, the programs created; all of that will be forgotten in time. But, if I do my job right, living life in light of death, what will be remembered is how I cared for you, how I loved you, how through our relationship, we showed each other the light of Christ and made a real difference in each other’s lives. If I do things right, if I live out this job in light of death, what will be remembered is the love of Christ you found in me.

And that’s why Qoheleth says it’s chasing after the wind to chase after accolades, accomplishments, titles, and anything else that we feel has prestige to it. All of that will quickly be forgotten. No one wants to hear a resume read at a funeral. I certainly don’t want my resume read at my funeral. We want to be remembered by the positive impact we had on those around us; the way we left the lives we touched better because of the love we showed.

Love is what we want to be remembered because that’s what really matters in this life. That’s what it means to live life in light of death. 

So when stressed, when consumed, when life is hard, when we’re toiling after some accolade or accomplishment, when upset because we haven’t gotten something we thought we deserved at work or in the community, let us ask ourselves that question: will this be remembered at my funeral? If the answer is no, then release it, let it go, and focus in on caring for, loving, those around you. 

Continue to work hard, to labor well, because God has given us our work, so says Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes. The work we have is a trust from God, and the expectation is that we will do well with it. But Qoheleth tells us that our work, and the ways we labor and work hard, should not distract us nor blind us to what really matters in this life: to care for those around us and leave a legacy of love.

And then, while mindful of what really matters and while working hard, Qoheleth tells us take joy in the simple pleasures of life. That’s what he means when he says, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” God has given us things to enjoy: family relationships, meals shared around the table, taking a moment to just enjoy the simplicity of a favorite food or drink, being in nature, spending quality time with people we care about; the things that really matter in this life. What Qoheleth speaks of is what I experienced in the New Mexican desert: the glory of God on display in creation, in my children and family, and in the love we felt and showed to each other.

Qoheleth can sound depressing, but really this is a hope-filled message. A life lived in light of death is a life lived on purpose, for it’s a life that understands what really matters during our earthly existence and puts focus there, taking joy in the simple pleasures of life.

What really matters in this life is that we live a life of love and care, for that will truly make a difference that no accomplishment, accolade, or position ever could. God calls us to live such a life, for it’s through our love for each other that God makes a true difference in the world. There’s freedom in understanding that we have but a short period here, and that within that period, our calling above all that we might do or accomplish, is to love. 

So live life in light of death. Ask yourself in hard moments of life, “will this be remembered at my funeral?” Mindful of all this, let us this morning make our prayer the words of our final hymn: “Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down; fix in us thy humble dwelling…till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.” 

Only love will leave a lasting legacy. Make it yours.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen. 

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