Sermon: Sunday, August 5, 2007. Tenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Text: Luke 12:13–21


Early last week my dad forwarded me a New York Times article about American composer Elliott Carter in which he apologizes for “a half century of wasted time.” The Times called Carter “the greatest living practitioner of his craft,” his craft being a style of modern classical music known for its atonalist style. His work has been praised by more mainstream classical artists, more familiar names like James Levine of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim of our own Chicago Symphony and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

I had never heard of him.

So I did what many people my age do when they run up against subject matter with which they are completely unfamiliar. I Googled him, which is to say, I went online and searched the internet to see what I could discover about Elliott Carter. The guy turns out to be kind of amazing. Encouraged as a young man by none other than Charles Ives, Elliott Carter studied at Harvard and later taught not only music but physics, mathematics and classical Greek at St. Johns College in Annapolis, Maryland. He later taught at Columbia University, Yale and Julliard. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Elliott Carter has received the U.S. National Medal of Arts, the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and at least one Grammy among his many other honors.

This is what he has to say for himself at the age of 99:

“What was I thinking? Nobody likes this stuff. Why have I wasted my life?”

It is true that, despite his many accolades, Carter’s music has never gained widespread popularity. It is rhythmically and aurally complex music that defies convention and challenges listeners. It has been called elitist, high-brow, art-music. But it seems like a bit of a stretch for a musician as decorated as this one to say nobody likes his music.

What struck me though about Carter’s statement wasn’t his apology, or his self-assessment, but rather the fact that this man, nearing the end of his life, could look back at the body of work he had produced and denounce it. At a time in the course of a human life when the most natural of questions might be, “what have I accomplished with my life?” Elliott Carter had the ability to ignore the assessments of others, to differentiate his self from his work, and say, “I’d do it differently.”

What a departure from the clichéd retrospectives we’re used to hearing from people living in the eye of the public, who seem compelled to say while looking back upon their lives that if they had the chance to do it all again they wouldn’t change a thing.

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”[1] That’s what the book of Ecclesiastes teaches, and follows with a question, “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” The word we’re hearing translated as “vanity” is the Hebrew word heh’bel, and it has a more complicated meaning than simple vanity. It means vanity, but also vapor, or breath. Not breath like the deep breathing that keeps us alive, for which the Hebrew language uses the word ruah, which also means “wind” and “Spirit,” but here a puff of breath, a transient thing, a billow of steam that dissipates in the gentlest of breezes. And the connection to vanity? That we would invest in anything so transient, so temporary, as a puff of steam, is vanity. It is mistaking the temporary for the eternal.

Maybe the 70s rock group Kansas said it best in their 1977 song, “Dust in the Wind.”


Don’t hang on / Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky

It slips away / And all your money won’t another minute buy

Dust in the wind / All we are is dust in the wind

Everything is dust in the wind

Everything is dust in the wind


I love that I just quoted Kansas in a sermon.

Now at this point, if I’m following the flow of the texts assigned for today, I should begin to encourage you to give your money to the church. Ecclesiastes lays the groundwork by reminding us that our lives are temporary things, raindrops in the ocean of time. Colossians removes the anxiety about death with its reassurance that we have “been raised with Christ,”[2] and should therefore “seek the things that are above, where Christ is…not on things that are on earth.” Finally, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man whose wealth is so great that he has to tear down his barn in order to build one large enough to hold his goods, but is called to account for his life before God before he can enjoy the fruits of his labor. Jesus sums up the meaning of the parable with these words, veterans of many a stewardship sermon, “so it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”[3]

However, on a Sunday morning before our church goes into its weeklong biennial assembly, I’m feeling a little cautious about blurring Jesus’ call to be “rich toward God” with a call on behalf of this congregation for you to be rich towards the church.

“I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This is also vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This is also vanity and a great evil.”[4]

I wonder if this is how Bishop Landahl feels about leaving his office to Bishop-Elect Wayne Miller? Or retiring ELCA Secretary Lowell Almen, whose replacement will be elected at this week’s Churchwide Assembly . “I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making any kind of a comment about Pastor Miller, I’m just wondering what it must feel like to be retiring from a career into which you’ve poured your life, knowing that those who come after you may choose to take the work you’ve spent years, decades, building up and move in an entirely new direction.

“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”

We in the church know as much about restless minds as anyone. Lutherans are gathering here in Chicago from around the country this week. We have some of those guests with us this morning. The tiny branch of God’s family tree called the ELCA is having a family reunion, and minds are restless. Members of this church, pastors of this church, congregations of this church have had days filled with pain, have been occupied by work that has been a vexation. They have suffered sleepless nights. For some of us the lead up to this Churchwide Assembly has been the focal point of all our work for the last year, for the last two years, for the last twenty years.

This is also vanity? This is a breath? A puff of wind?

Yes. It is.

It is vanity, it is investing the qualities of eternity into something very temporary, to think that any denomination, that any congregation, is the church. The church is the assembly wherein the word of God is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. The church is right here, right now. Here we are, church is happening at this very moment and we are all here on the same terms! There is a place for each of us and it is the place to which we belong. But it is not these walls, and it not our constitution, and it is certainly not a set of policies that are the church, though all of those things are useful in the orderin
g and living out of our life together in Christ.

In the end, do we want our lives to be about the building up of buildings, the construction of constitutions, the policing of policies – all solid things, all things that seem to promise safety and stability, but in the end will crumble, will be replaced, will fall like the houses of the three little pigs when the big bad wolf huffed, and puffed, and blew… poofheh’bel

The rich man in Jesus’ parable equated his wealth with security, with permanence and in some sense with immortality. He assumed he would live long enough to enjoy all that he’d tucked away for a rainy day. But God calls him to account for himself and he discovers that he has invested his life in things that do not last, perishable goods. God says to this man, “the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

That is the question that divides us: whose will they be? Whose church will this be? The ones who agree with me, or the ones who are against me? Whose neighborhood will this be? The ones who came first or the ones who came lately? It is the question that prompted Jesus to tell this parable in the first place, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Tell my church to divide itself for me. Tell me how to leave with my share and how to finally be done with my brother.

But Jesus says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge over you?” and Paul says, “you have…clothed yourself with the new self, which is bring renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” there are no longer these divisions. These divisions, like the properties and policies that prop them up are gone now, temporary, vanity, dust in the wind, poof.

“But Christ is all and in all.” That, friends, is eternal. Christ is all, and is in all. In you, in me, in those you love, in those you can’t stand. Christ is the common factor which gives our vain, blustery lives depth and meaning. Christ is the manifestation, the revelation of God’s love for us. Christ in us empowers us to become the manifestation, the revelation of God’s love for everyone. That is eternal, that is relational, that cannot be stored up in a barn because it can only be what it is – love – when it is given away.

Elliott Carter, who at the age of 99 seems to have turned his back on the work that defined his career explains it this way:

“[My wife] liked this stuff, and I could never say no to her… I’d like to write something pretty for a change – maybe something based on an Irish folk tune.”

I can’t argue with him there. I love a good Irish folk tune, especially set to a hymn text. They’ve got heart, you can hear love in them. You can’t sing them with a little wisp of a breath, it take a whole belly full of air. Maybe, on account of my Irish roots, its just vanity – but I think a good Irish folksong, or really any hymn, with strong texts, sung with conviction is more than just a vapor, a breath – it’s more like a wind, full of the spirit of life, able to carry us through that which fades away and into the eternal.

And Elliott loved his wife, so he kept writing music to make her happy. It was the relationship, not the work, that mattered after all.

“I feel like an enormous weight has been lifted from my shoulders,” says Elliott Carter. Detached from all the vanities of life, Elliott has been made lighter. Light enough to be carried, as if on the wind.


[1] Ecclesiastes 1:2

[2] Colossians 3:1

[3] Luke 12:21

[4] Ecclesiastes 2:18-21

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