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. 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.
A few years prior, I had graduated from Rome High School in the top five percent of my class. After graduating from Berry, I received a Master of Education from James Madison University and a Master of Divinity from Emory University. And just last Wednesday, I finished the requirements for the Doctor of Ministry degree from Emory University. You may notice that the bulletin now has my name as Rev. Dr. Goshorn.
Four degrees 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.
That might be a surprising thing to hear me say considering I just finished my doctorate. Considering I now have the right to use the title Dr. with my name. And yet, still, each degree is meaningless. Absolutely meaningless.
Let’s hear our scripture for this morning, Ecclesiastes 3:1-15. You may recognize it when I begin reading it, but not from the Bible, but instead from the 1960s band, The Byrds, who made the first eight verses very famous.
What time is it?
In case you just glanced at your watch, I don’t mean the hour and minute. I mean what season of life 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; in other words, wisdom comes from knowing what time it is.
For many of us, the time is the ending of a school year and the anticipation of summer. Even if we’re not in school, the current time calls for celebrating graduates, marking endings, and preparing for the freedom of summer, especially this year when we can again travel. Qoheleth might put it this way, “A time for routine and a time for freedom.” Freedom especially as we anticipate that slower pace of summer as we go on vacations, as we relax at each others’ homes, as we allow the heat to slow us down.
But, before we get there, we’re busy. We’re wrapping up a school year if we’re a student or teacher. Soon, very soon, we’ll wrap up work so we can go on vacations. And then we’ll come back from vacations and wonder why we left with all the work that piled up while we were gone. If we’re grandparents, we might be preparing to receive grandchildren more during the summer, eagerly anticipating their arrival. And then after a few weeks wondering what we’ve agreed to.
Maybe your job is just busy right now. Maybe you’ve got big projects.
Maybe home is stressful right now. Maybe there are stressors I haven’t mentioned.
There’s stress all around us all the time. Stress from work, stress from school, stress from family, stress from obligation, stress from life. And there’s always the break we’re looking forward to: like the freedom of summer’s slower pace and frequent beach trips.
What time is it? We think it’s time to fulfill obligations, to work on projects, to mark endings as a school year comes to a close. We think it’s time to manage our stress.
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)
What is Qoheleth really saying? This:
All those stresses? Forget about them!
What time is it?
A time to eat, drink, and be merry!
Be happy, enjoy yourself, party!
Finish the school year strong? Work hard here in the last final weeks if you’re a student of any kind?
No! Qoheleth says go have yourself a good time. Party your heart out. Eat, drink, be merry! Forget about all the stressors.
Forget about the projects. Forget about the obligations. Forget about the demands on your time and energy. Forget about all those stressors!
They’re meaningless anyway.
Which is quite a funny thing to say. We value our work. We value our contributions through jobs, through school, through boards and such we serve on, through community service, through offices we hold, through anything that we do that demands our energy and time. We value that. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t do it.
So it’s a funny thing to say that it’s all meaningless.
And yet, that’s Qoheleth’s message.
He looks at our education, at our striving, our laboring under demands and stressors, and has one word for us: meaningless! A chasing after the wind. He says that all our toil, whether for education, jobs, family, or any other obligation, 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.
And that’s what Qoheleth says we’re doing whenever we strive, labor, stress, over fulfilling some demand on our time or energy. It’s meaningless. Just as if we were chasing after the wind.
Instead, Qoheleth has the prescription: eat, drink, and be merry! Be happy and enjoy yourself!
For that’s God’s gift, as verse 13 says.
One might now think that Qoheleth is a cheeseburger in paradise. Maybe he wrote Ecclesiastes on some beach somewhere, sipping a fruity beverage, feet in the sand, while he looks for his lost shaker of salt.
One might also think that Qoheleth sounds much like a college student. 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!
So is Qoheleth a cheeseburger in paradise? An ancient parrot-head? A stereotypical college student?
Or does he have something deeper and more meaningful to offer?
One of the most popular videos on our Facebook page in the last year was the general funeral service I posted back in January. It was when this community was facing the loss of many of our friends, neighbors, and family members, and I wanted to provide a way for us to grieve and have that space to consider the people we’d lost.
It’s fair to say that over the last year, we’ve had much occasion to reflect on the meaning of life. While we haven’t had very many proper funerals because of pandemic restrictions, we’ve known the loss of friends and loved ones.
All this loss has left me reflective about life. And of course I get reflective about life anyway because that’s my job, whether from preaching or officiating funerals or pastoral care. So, from reading, and loving, the book of Ecclesiastes, and from being reflective about life, I have come to often ask myself a particular question for discernment and self-reflection. The question I ask is a means of discernment, of questioning priorities, that I might keep those in line.
And that question is this: “will this thing I’m stressing about be mentioned at my funeral?”
When I am stressed about an obligation, or a demand upon my time or energy; when I’m feeling depleted in life and have nothing more to give; when stressed because of trouble I’m facing; when obligations get annoying or overly taxing; whenever life is stressful I ask myself that question:
Will this be mentioned at my funeral?
And the answer always helps bring perspective to whatever stressor I’m facing.
My will dictates that my dear friend, Anthony McPhail, officiate my funeral. When he gets up to officiate my funeral, offering up my life and work to both celebrate it and inspire others with it, what will he mention as a part of that funeral?
Consider your own life. What things will be mentioned about you at 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 degrees 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: 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.
Because our lives aren’t properly measured by what we’ve accomplished, what we’ve earned, what statuses we’ve managed to achieve, what titles we hold, nor anything else on our resumes. All of that is really, truly, meaningless, when considered in the grand scheme of our lives and in the grand scheme of eternity.
Asking the question of “will this be mentioned at my funeral?” keeps that grand scheme in front of us. For if the answer is no, whatever stress I feel regarding the thing, whatever fear its evoking, is meaningless and not worth the time and energy I’m giving it.
Qoheleth’s bold claim that all this is meaningless is a call to keep priorities straight. “Will this be mentioned at my funeral?” is 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 stress. Chances are high that it’s not.
This is why Qoheleth can say that the stresses that come from this time of year, or from our jobs, or from our families, or from any obligation or demand upon us, 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. That’s one of the reasons I love this book. What we do in this life can be meaningful, can matter, if we will keep the big picture in front of us.
And that big picture, what matters, what is meaningful, what will be mentioned at our funerals 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 because it is the work God has given us to do; even to enjoy.
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 at the end of our lives; foolish like a chasing after the wind.
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. When my job gets stressful, and I ask myself will this be remembered at my funeral, the concerns of my job come into focus. What ultimately 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, not even my newly minted title of Doctor. Those are merely vehicles to help me love, lead, and teach the people I am assigned to; to care and cherish all of you because this is the work God has given me to enjoy.
And even more than that, at the end of my life, all of that can be forgotten if my family knows they were loved, that I left the best of myself in them. I strive to leave my family better than I found it. That is my highest priority, for there’s no greater responsibility nor privilege than to leave your family better than you found it.
That’s the kind of big picture that Qoheleth wants us to keep in front of us. That’s what should be at the forefront of our thoughts. Not stressors, not momentary concerns, but the big picture.
And so, we must ask ourselves: will this be mentioned at my funeral?
If the answer is no, leave it behind and, instead choose to take Qoheleth’s advice: eat, drink, and be merry! Enjoy the life God has given you.
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.
So today, what are you stressing about? Take a moment to bring those items to mind.
Now, ask yourself, will those things be mentioned at your funeral?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.