Grace Presbyterian Church
August 2, 2020, Pentecost 9A (livestream)
Unpredictable Fate and Unwelcome Wisdom
In last year’s movie reworking of the 1976 classic Midway, one character asks another, a pilot who has already gained a reputation for unflappability under pressure, how he kept his cool in danger. The pilot in turn tells the story of a relative who worked for years as one of the crew helping complete the Empire State Building, in particular as one of those workers who regularly negotiated his way around and across exposed beams at heights of a thousand feet or more, without incidents or accident. That same relative, walking on a sidewalk, was killed when a cab lost control, jumped the curb, and “squooshed him like a bug.” The pilot wrapped up his story with the observation, “You don’t know what’s going to get you. So why worry about it?”
I doubt the character had today’s reading in mind, but it’s a pretty good summation of the eleventh and twelfth verses of this ninth chapter of Ecclesiastes.
If you were looking for Qohelet’s mood to turn more upbeat in this last half of the book, you’re going to be disappointed. If anything, the general outlook of the chapters turns bleaker at some points, particularly given Qohelet’s reluctance to consider anything beyond earthly life, or life “under the sun” to use a favorite phrase. Given Qohelet’s frequent observation of injustice and oppression from high places with no divine correction in sight, there seems little reason for hope. Corrupt people aren’t just going to stop being corrupt, and oppressors don’t just give up oppressing. Even ordinary folk tend towards wrong deeds (as in 8:11: “Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil.”) Qohelet would look at today’s headlines and probably do little more than nod knowingly and resignedly.
Another change in this second half of the book is that much more time and space is given over to proverbs – short, contained wisdom sayings such as those characteristic of the preceding book of scripture that bears that name. The themes are frequently the same as those Qohelet has already addressed, but here are given in proverbs rather than discourses. They might make for quickly digestible instruction, but to be frank they’re not great sermon fodder. Hence you are invited to peruse them on your own time, especially sections such as the first half of chapter 7 and 10:1-11:4.
Chapter 9, though, does offer up a more extensive discourse on the futility (or “vanity“) of righteousness and wisdom. Nonetheless, Qohelet still insists that it is good and even needful to enjoy the gifts of God as they are given. In a passage that might be challenging to some folks living in pandemic isolation, Qohelet even seems to recommend dressing up nicely in 9:8 – “let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head.” – and enjoying life with your partner and enjoying the work your hands find to do, and to do that work “with might” in 9:10, a verse I’m pretty sure I had to memorize as a child.
Then comes perhaps one of the more recognizable passages of this book, opening up a brief reflection on life and its unpredictability – the one echoed by that pilot in the movie Midway. I suspect many folks have quoted or remembered some part of verse 11 without realizing where it came from – the elegant and somewhat wistful observation that the fastest and strongest doesn’t always win, and that wisdom, intelligence (notice how Qohelet gets that the two are not the same!), and skill don’t guarantee one any good thing. Our world fails to work that way, and we cannot know how “time and chance” will happen to us, and we still are reminded that “no one can anticipate the time of disaster.” Even with the greatest meteorological expertise in the world trained on this oncoming tropical storm (as it was when this was written), we still can’t know for absolute certain that it will or won’t make landfall in Florida, and we still can’t know for absolute certain that Florida will avert disaster even if it passes by. We’ve known sudden calamity before; we don’t doubt Qohelet’s words here.
What follows is a small parable with an apparent unwise translation choice in the NRSV Bibles found in our sanctuary. Where verse 15 is here rendered “he by his wisdom delivered the city,” the Hebrew is ambiguous enough that the translation might also be “he by his wisdom might have delivered the city,” which among other things would make more sense with the following verse. Times of calamity, when wisdom would be most valuable, in fact turn out to be the times when so many turn to fools and cheats and grifters and loud shrieking haters instead, and the calamity is multiplied. We see this all around us. Wisdom, particularly should it come from anywhere besides the rich and powerful, is disdained, mocked, and suppressed. And things get worse. To note verse 17’s proverb, we shush the quiet words of the wise and put all the microphones in the world in front of the shouting ruler enabled by fools.
You can see why Qohelet is down in so much of this book. Yet continually the counsel returns, as in verses 7-10 – eat your meals and enjoy doing so; drink your wine and enjoy that too (but don’t be stupid with that); get dressed up and do something with your hair even; enjoy your life with your partner; and do and enjoy your work with all the energy you’ve got. This is what we have before us, given of God, and all of the world’s foolishness should not take that away.
This should not, for us modern readers, be taken as an excuse to give up the things that the prophets and the law and the gospels compel us to pursue. We don’t get to ignore Amos’s thundering imperative to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream“; we don’t get to forget Micah’s instruction to “do justice, …love kindness, and … walk humbly with your God“; and we certainly don’t get to dismiss Jesus’s parable-embedded warning about how what we do to “the least of these,” we do to Jesus. No. Ecclesiastes is not a one-way ticket to giving up, not as long as the rest of the Bible is still out there too. But it does remind us that to ignore what God does give us, the good provision of daily needs, the very creation in which we live and move and are part, the awareness of our finite place in God’s infinity; to ignore all of these is itself a form of foolishness, or of “vanity, and chasing after wind” – remembering also that letting God’s provision for us be enough also helps God’s provision for all to be enough for all.
Enjoy what God gives now, knowing that we do not know the hour of what calamity might come, and that “time and chance happen to … all.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #436, God of Compassion, In Mercy Befriend Us; #—, When Our Race Is Not the Fastest
Grace Presbyterian Church
July 26, 2020, Pentecost 8A (livestream)
Watch Your Mouth!
“You watch your mouth!”
Ever get that thrown at you? Or maybe some variant like, “Shush!” or “Zip it!” or maybe a long emphatic “Shhhhhh!”
In a slightly more elegant format, that is the principal theme of much of this portion of Ecclesiastes. Qohelet, our teacher/author of this book, frames the advice as applying to the proper attitude for one coming to the Temple, but it becomes clear soon enough that Qohelet considers the advice to be good counsel for pretty much any part of life “under the sun,” to use a favorite phrase.
Part of the background to understanding this emphasis lies in the particular situation of Palestine at the time Qohelet is writing. While much of Hebrew Scripture as compiled in your Bible came about when the land was occupied from the East – kingdoms like Babylon or Persia are often mentioned in those histories – Ecclesiastes appears to have been written much later, possibly as late as 250 years before the birth of Christ. By that time the occupiers of the land were no longer from the East but from the West: Macedonian forces led by no less than Alexander the Great had swept through and conquered the territory probably less than a hundred years before.
If you ever read Greek philosophy or ethics or drama or literature of the classic era, you might have some memory that such tracts did not tend to be brief; the Greeks liked their words, and used them in volume. Qohelet may be reacting to this tendency among those in power in his land, at least in part, in this reaction against the foolishness of words.
At the same time, though, it isn’t as if Qohelet’s concern is unprecedented. Psalm 62, for example, opens with the declaration of the psalmist that “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” Psalm 4:4 instructs the hearer, when disturbed or angry, to “ponder it on your beds, and be silent.” In Psalm 81 the Lord laments that the people would not listen, and in Psalm 95 the psalmist pleads “O that today you would listen to his voice!” As much as we are told to sing or to give thanks or to praise God in those psalms, there is clearly also a time for holding our tongues and listening for what God might say.
Verse 2 points to, if not a full-fledged and fully explained reason for such caution of words, a serious motivation. Back in the early days of Saturday Night Live one Chevy Chase, then “hosting” the regular “Weekend Update” segment, became infamous for his opening introduction, “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.” Qohelet, with a good bit more seriousness and a truckload more substance, does something of the same thing to us: “for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.” God is god, and you’re not. So hush.
Qohelet may have had his fill of Greek babblers, but again, his viewpoint sure does resonate with today. We are, at minimum, bombarded with words. To be blunt, we often feel the full force of verse 3: “For dreams (best read as “daydreams” or “fantasies”) come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words.” As if that weren’t enough, Qohelet roughly repeats the thought in verse 7 – “With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words…” You don’t have to look or listen very far to find the many words of fools in this world. Such bombardment with words makes it all the harder to listen, but listening is the needful posture to take in the presence of God.
Rashness of words can lead simply to foolishness, to promises or “vows” we cannot possibly keep, or even into outright sin, even the full-fledged provoking of God to anger, as Qohelet puts it. These are all very good reasons to keep your words few, and your listening constant.
Verse 8 begins a section of recapitulation of what has come so far. Verses 8 and 9 touch on injustice again, this time directly aimed at the poor. <sarcasm> This of course never happens today. </sarcasm> Here Qohelet’s theme of the abuse of power is amplified by the idea of competition of power as a multiplier of abuse and provoker of greater injustice, and Qohelet calls out what is in Qohelet’s view the only real purpose for a ruler of any kind: “a plowed field,” in other words the full functioning and fertility of the land and the people that work it and live in it. No other reason for a king or any other ruler to rule. And yet, we end up with a torrent of foolish words, and rampant injustice.
The rest of this chapter continues to recapitulate themes from the book so far, and even into chapter 6 the review continues, to the point of verses 10-12, which some manuscripts of Ecclesiastes actually have marked as the halfway point of the book. Indeed, at this halfway point our theme for today is restated; human beings “are not able to dispute with those who are stronger” – a raggedly translated indirect reference to God – and “the more words, the more vanity, so how is one the better?” What’s the point of all your talk? What good are you doing? How are you creating anything but, to use Qohelet’s favorite phrase, “vanity, and a chasing after wind?”
The advice Qohelet gives rather testily here doesn’t just have precedent in Hebrew scripture; it also resonates with Jesus’s words in the gospel of Matthew. Indeed, Jesus gives here three different illustrations of this same principle:
- Don’t make big noise about your almsgiving – the wonderful phrase “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” is a particularly catching description of the humility with which one should come before God with an offering;
- Don’t show off when praying – a few street-corner preachers could get in trouble here (note that both of these get the follow-up instruction about doing the respective deeds in secret, and being rewarded by “your Father who sees in secret“;
- And finally, don’t pile up a bunch of words to sound important, as if you think God will listen more because you blather so much. (Interesting that Matthew records Jesus as teaching the disciples not to pile up the empty words “as the Gentiles do” – even under Roman rule Greek culture remained quite prominent in Jesus’s time.) God knows what you need before you even ask.
And in case you didn’t recognize the lead-in, the next thing that happens in Matthew 6 after this passage is that Jesus teaches the disciples what we call the Lord’s Prayer, itself a model of concise and humble address to God. Qohelet’s council to “let your words be few” echoes in one of the signature moments of the gospels. Not bad for a book that almost didn’t make it into the biblical canon.
Guard your steps before God. Let your words be few, before God and otherwise. Enjoy what God gives, and don’t go grasping after excess (which might also mean there’s more for everybody). I wouldn’t call it a life plan, necessarily, but it’s not the worst foundation to build upon.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: Dear Lord and Father of Mankind (GtG #169); Let Words Be Few
Grace Presbyterian Church
July 19, 2020, Pentecost 7A (livestream)
In a letter to an Anglican archbishop in 1887, the English historian and writer Lord Acton took issue with the archbishop’s tendency to judge historical figures, particularly those of renown, with a great deal of deference and leniency, glossing over their corruption and abuses. Lord Acton’s vehement disagreement is suggested in this quote from the letter, part of which has become famous itself in an abridged form:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility [that is, the later judgment of historians] has to make up for the want of legal responsibility [that is, legal consequences during the rulers’ lifetimes]. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. 
Aside from making it clear, for example, how Lord Acton would likely feel about the removal of statues of Confederate generals, this particular quote also taps into the vein of criticism that Qohelet, our teacher and author of Ecclesiastes, opens up at the beginning of this fourth chapter of the book. As Qohelet shifts his (or her, you never know) perspective from lofty cosmological perspective to the mundane scope of earthly life, the parallels between Qohelet’s world and our own become bracingly clear and stark.
First Qohelet calls out power as an agent of oppression. The word “comfort” as it appears in verse 1 needs to be understood as far more than a pat on the shoulder or even a friendly embrace; here “comfort” involves defending, standing with, advocating for out loud, and even taking action against the other’s oppressor if need be. Qohelet sees no one doing any such thing for the oppressed in his sight, nor anyone calling into account those who wield power to oppress and punish and harm. So bleak is the picture that Qohelet considers that those who have already died are better off not having to suffer through this oppression of power, and even better those not even born into such a world.
Qohelet is not only concerned with oppressors of great position, though. Verse 4 shifts the perspective to consider the striving for advantage of one over another without positions of power. The notion of envy as a motivation for striving and toil might seem farfetched, but take a look at the average luxury car commercial and you will see that those marketers are counting on envy as a powerful motivator. Sloth is no virtue, as Qohelet makes clear in verse 5, but verse 6 puts it all in perspective with its observation that it is better to have enough (“a handful“) with peace than excess (“two handfuls“) with the strain of extreme toil. Even among solitary figures with no dependents Qohelet sees this capacity for envy and inability to be satisfied no matter how much they accumulate. Not only is this “vanity,” to use Qohelet’s keyword, but it also fits with the opening critique of power as well – endless striving to have more than the next person only to find that more is never enough.
In the face of all this, Qohelet turns to something not yet addressed; the power of community, the act of being in partnership with one another. The examples are clear enough; when one falls, the other can help lift up the fallen, and two can withstand an power-mad oppressor better than one alone. The middle example is sometimes taken to suggest that Qohelet is speaking of marriage in particular, but this is not necessarily so; the need to “huddle up” for warmth was not unknown on cold winter nights in the barren plain of Palestine, and no sexual connotation needs to be read into it. Two are better than one, and three are even “more better.”
The final section seems more opaque, although the one who can “come out of prison” to lead is often read as an allusion to Joseph, the ancestor of the people of Israel who came out of Pharaoh’s prisons in Egypt to wield power as the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. (In modern times one might think of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned many years in South Africa and yet eventually that country’s leader.) Qohelet has the nerve to posit that age does not automatically equate with wisdom, and that a young leader might well be better than an old one (imagine that!). Yet in the end, neither endures, and again all is reduced to “vanity and a chasing after wind.”
It’s hard not to be impressed with the clarity of Qohelet’s vision these days, when even a cursory look at the news headlines puts all sorts of power and oppression on display. Sadly, even the church and those who call themselves “Christians” are no less prone to the grabbing and grasping of power, and to wielding that power oppressively towards decidedly non-churchy ends. In writing of the increasing embrace of exaggerated ideals of masculinity and power-grabbing in modern white American evangelicalism, Kristin Kobes du Mez, a history professor at Calvin University, quotes a noted scholar who describes that mindset with recourse to an iconic Hollywood exemplar of masculine power: “the unspoken mantra of post-war evangelicalism was simple: Jesus can save your soul but John Wayne will save your…“, with the sentence finished with a three-letter word that I probably shouldn’t use in a sermon.
Qohelet wouldn’t stand for that, and neither would Paul, who in this letter to the Corinth followers makes clear that this kind of power is not at all what Jesus was about, and not what we who claim to follow should be after. The power of God, Paul says, makes itself strongest in our weakness. That’s a hard saying to bear, but also one can see examples of this and how it works – those who suffer “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ,” and yet persevere in bearing witness to the justice of God (the late John Lewis, perhaps). This is the only power worth striving for, and “striving for” is hardly the way to describe it – this power comes not in striving, but in submission.
No, the power of the world and its oppressiveness – from Hong Kong to Portland and all places in between – is not of God. It may well be the way of the “old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice,” but it is not the way of God, and it is not what we are to pursue. Our charge is to live within God’s provision, and to comfort one another, to care for one another, to stand with and support and to speak up for one another in time of oppression and even to take action for the oppressed, no matter how futile or hopeless it may seem. To do any less would not even rise to the level of Qohelet’s “vanity, and a chasing after the wind.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #356, Sing Praise to God, Whose Mighty Acts); #816, If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee
 Accessed here: https://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/165acton.html
Grace Presbyterian Church
July 12, 2020, Pentecost 6A (livestream)
A Time For…Not That
You know the song, especially if you’re of a certain age. It starts with that jangly guitar lick, and then the familiar words: “To everything – turn, turn, turn – there is a season – turn, turn turn – and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Created by Pete Seeger and made famous by the band called The Byrds, it’s a song that not only was quite popular in its time but also has remained almost instantly recognizable even these many years later. And while giving due to the repeated use of the word “vanity” in this book of scripture, this song has made the first eight verses of chapter 3 far and away the most famous part of the book of Ecclesiastes.
Of course, there’s more to the chapter than this, material that Pete Seeger presumably did not find suitable for setting to music. In this case, it’s a good idea to be reminded of what else Qohelet (the teacher/author of this book) has to say here, lest we get too carried away with the poetic beauty of these couplets and fail to understand what they have to say to us or, worse, get it completely wrong.
Qohelet may have created this bit of poetry or else borrowed it from another source, but either way it is a captivating meditation on the inexorable passing of life. Note, though, that it is followed by a section of about seven verses that to a great degree reiterates themes we have already encountered in chapters 1 and 2; the suitability of enjoying what God provides for us and the business or toil that is the lot of humans. There is also a note about how, even though we are not able to apprehend God’s doings, God has allowed that we humans can catch a glimpse of the unfolding of time; we have, as Qohelet puts it, “a sense of past and future.” For all of that, though, our efforts and our strivings do not alter the work of God – “whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.” Ideally this should provoke a needed sense of awe and reverence before God.
Taken all together, this cautions us not to take those first eight verses as a matter of our choosing. We don’t choose when to be born and we don’t choose when to die. I suppose you could plant a crop in the middle of a Minnesota winter if you wanted to, but it’s not very likely you’d ever have anything to reap for your labor. You don’t generally grieve at the birth of a child nor laugh at someone’s deathbed. These seasons are not then our doing; they are life, and our business is how we respond to and live within these “times.”
It is in verse 16 that the discordant note comes.
“Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well.”
The statement comes as a jolt to the reader, and apparently to Qohelet as well. God’s judgment is invoked here, which is not something Qohelet has done so far; even so, Qohelet finds here that such judgment is beyond the scope of our understanding, and will not ultimately change much about our living – the fate of the righteousness is not different in any observable way than the fate of the wicked (remember, Qohelet has no interest in anything beyond earthly life – anything that we cannot see, that is not “under the sun,” so to speak). Indeed, the fate of humans does not seem to differ much from the fate of animals, as far as Qohelet can see. The end is the same; “all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” Aside from possibly being another inspiration for popular song (in this case, the song “Dust in the Wind” by the band Kansas), it is, to be blunt, a downer of a note.
But what it does is reinforce something important about verse 16: this wickedness in the place of justice and righteousness is not one of those things for which there is a season, or a “purpose under heaven.” God does not judge all of these other things that have come before Qohelet’s eye, but God judges this, even if such judgment is not necessarily visible to us “under the sun.” Wickedness in the place of judgment and righteousness is not part of life; it breaks life. It denies the good provision of God to the children of God and hoards it in the possession of the wicked; it brings death, it brings hatred, it brings corruption, it brings, frankly, evil.
When wickedness in the place of justice and righteousness is tolerated, it disrupts that order of life. If you were wondering how Qohelet could possibly argue that there was “a time to hate” or even “a time for war,” here it is; what should never have to be the case in fact becomes unavoidable when wickedness is tolerated in the place of justice and righteousness. For that matter, such a time cannot be “a time to keep silence“; it must be “a time to speak.”
At the last of this chapter, Qohelet returns again to a favorite theme: “So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work.” Now, in the hearing of what has come before, this takes on a new shade of meaning; being greedy for more, seeking to grasp at more beyond the work and the gifts that God provides, becomes a part of wickedness usurping the place of justice and righteousness. It fractures that cycle of living under the sun. There is no season for it, nor any purpose under heaven for it. It breaks us and the life that God gives to us. Hopefully by now we see that this theme of Qohelet’s is no weary resignation, but an urgent summons: live within God’s means.
In fact, that’s our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #14, For the Beauty of the Earth; #30, God Moves in a Mysterious Way
Yeah, that song…
Grace Presbyterian Church
July 5, 2020, Pentecost 5A (livestream)
Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, 12-18; 2:1-2, 9-11, 24-26 (link includes all of Ecclesiastes 1-2)
Is That All There Is?
We are in a strange time. Simply going out is an act that requires far more preparation than we’re accustomed to exerting on a trip to the store. Medieval knights once prepared with their trusty sword and shield; now we prepare with our trusty facemask and hand sanitizer. We just passed the strangest Independence Day observance in my memory at least, the new case numbers are leaping in ways that dwarf the previous the peak of this pandemic, and it frankly seems that nobody with the power to do anything about it cares.
If anything can bring us to the point of confronting the limitations and absurdities of life, no matter how much we’d prefer to avoid that, this perplexing virus and resulting pandemic is just the thing. And when that confrontation is upon us, the place to go in scripture is the book of Ecclesiastes.
The unknown author of this book, who goes by the name Qohelet (roughly translated as “the Teacher”), is about seeing those things in life and the world that don’t match up with all that he (or she, you never know) was taught from youth. Qohelet is not interested in using such discrepancies as an excuse to bail out on faith, but he (or she) is quite willing and determined to call out how extremely righteous and rather pat teachings long imbibed (like the entire book of Proverbs) don’t hold up in the cold light of real life.
Qohelet’s book is virtually summed up in verse 2: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” A bit of background here: the word here translated “vanity” is the Hebrew word hevel, which at its most straightforward might be translated “breath.” Here, though, the meaning of “breath” is not like another word we encounter in scripture that might also be translated that way. Where ru’ah might also be translated “breath,” it also translates as “wind” or – especially in its scriptural uses – “spirit.” Hevel, on the other hand, captures the idea of “breath” as an ephemeral thing – you breathe, and then that breath is gone. Think of a mist, or a vapor, or that fog that happens when you breathe out on a cold day and is immediately gone. That’s hevel, or what the NRSV and many other translations render as “vanity.” It is a thing that is there and gone, that does not endure; it is ephemeral, unsubstantial, and utterly temporary. Remember that, because you will see that word a lot in this book.
What, then, is hevel to Qohelet? Darn near everything. We skipped a wonderful poetic discourse in verses 3-11 that you really should read, but Qohelet gets down to business in verse 12 when, taking the role of Solomon, begins to explore those things we humans so strive after. Wisdom, in verses 12-18, is tried and found wanting; “in much wisdom is much vexation,” concludes Qohelet, “and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” You can almost hear Qohelet breaking into that old Peggy Lee song, “is that all there is?”
The first two verses of chapter 2 turn to Qohelet’s exploration of pleasure (also a pursuit of Solomon’s), and it proves equally unfulfilling and unsubstantial; it is “vanity, and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (2:11). Again, cue the chorus: “is that all there is?” Finally Qohelet concludes that all the toil expended on pursuing wisdom and power and pleasure ultimately gained nothing; it all passes, and life ends, and it devolves down to one who did not work for it and is not ready for it. Qohelet is vexed by it all, declaring that “all their days are full of vexation, and their work is a vexation” by 2:23. Is that all there is?
At last, though, Qohelet hits on something worth holding on to. If all these things are “vanity” or “a vexation” then what is there? There is this: “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.” To receive the gifts that God gives for our provision, and to find joy in the work one does; this is to acknowledge one’s dependence on God rather than to strive after and to hoard all of the world’s goodies. And, amazingly enough, Qohelet turns out to be striving for justice without even talking about it; when one receives with gratitude what the Lord gives rather than grasping after more and more and more, there’s a lot better chance of there being enough for everybody, which kinda seems like the point.
To center this receiving of God’s provision in the enjoyment of food and drink becomes of interest (again quite unawares to Qohelet) when we look at the life that Jesus spent on earth, many moments in which were spent at table in the fellowship of a meal. Indeed, it was in that context, the disciples at the table, in which Jesus took bread [take bread and break and eat] and broke it, gave it to his disciples and told them to remember him. Then he took a cup and did the same [take cup and drink]. In the most basic context of God’s provision for God’s people, the sacrament is given. It is when we are content to receive what God gives that God gives what we need. And that’s all there needs to be.
We humans, even we Christians, have such trouble remembering this. We are as bad about striving and grasping and hoarding as anybody, and sometimes worse when it comes to things like power and money (churches and denominations can be especially bad about this). And yet, what God gives is waiting for us to receive with gladness. Will we ever receive?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #817, We Walk By Faith and Not By Sight; #835, Just a Closer Walk With Thee
Grace Presbyterian Church
June 28, 2020, Pentecost 4A (livestreaming)
What is God Doing!!??
In May 2003, a woman in New Chapel Hill, Texas took a large rock and smashed the skull of her fifteen-month-old son, then led her two older sons outside and did the same to them. The two older boys were killed, while the toddler survived but was disabled for life. She then called 911 to report what she had done. In court a year later, her defense attorney sought to have her found not guilty by reason of insanity. As he described in his opening statement, the woman was “a sick person on a quest to be closer to her Lord.” He continued by stating that the woman believed that God had told her that the world was going to end and that she “needed to get her house in order,” a part of which included killing her children. Witnesses, he continued, would testify that she loved her children and also believed “that the word of God was infallible.”[i] The plea worked: she was indeed found not guilty by reason of insanity, and sentenced to eight years in a state mental hospital, from which she was released in May 2012.[ii]
It’s not as though this is the only such story you could find out there, if you had the stomach for horror and the patience for googling. And it comes as a surprise to no one that the insanity plea was successful. To us, the very possibility of conceiving of such a thing seems the textbook definition of being insane – of not being in one’s right mind, or of “exhibiting a severely disordered state of mind” as Merriam-Webster defines “insane.” Of course she was insane, we say. Of course.
And then comes today’s reading from Genesis.
Right away it’s bad news: “After these things God tested Abraham.”
I mean, that’s the kind of thing we specifically pray not to happen in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the kind of thing we don’t really want to believe God really does. God issues the test, and Abraham says, as far as we learn, nothing: he just gathers up his son and his belongings, along with two servants, and sets out to do the deed When Isaac asks where the sacrifice is, Abraham offers an answer that is either elusive or prescient. He binds his son, and is about to kill him when an angel of God intervenes forcefully, attributing to Abraham fear of God and allowing him to see a ram conveniently caught in a thicket, sacrificeable instead of Isaac.
It’s a struggle to make anything out of, and Jewish commentary has struggled with the story far longer, and maybe far more honestly, than Christian critical observation. Part of that struggle inevitably involves questioning why Abraham is so passive in his response to God’s test, when that has hardly been his pattern so far in Genesis. Throughout this book’s account of Abraham’s life the relationship between God and Abraham had been by turns funny, personal, challenging, and about a billion other things, but not formal and distant. Perhaps most notably, back in chapter 18, Abraham had been most bold in challenging God’s stated plans to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, going so far as to bargain with God (a thing we’re specifically taught not to do) to refrain from destroying them if even ten righteous persons could be found there. Of course, that didn’t turn out to be the case, as the two cities were indeed destroyed (though Abraham’s nephew Lot was saved).
Things had gone strangely for Abraham since then, though. First Abraham had gotten in trouble (for the second time) with a regional king for trying to pass his wife off as his sister, in a misguided maneuver to spare his own life. Then his wife had borne their son Isaac and insisted on throwing out Hagar (for the second time) and her son Ishmael. Finally a minor tiff came up with that aforementioned regional king over a well, a tiff that had to be settled with a gift of sheep. It all sounds strange, to be sure, and there’s a reason that those stories don’t get into the lectionary. And that’s where today’s reading commences, “after these things.”
What happened to that Abraham, who bargained so relentlessly with God? What happened to the Abraham who knew darned well that God was not one to “sweep away the righteous with the wicked” (18:23)? What happened to the Abraham who knew God well enough to challenge him?
There are a lot of different varieties of tests. In the contest of scripture we tend to think of a “test” as being something to be endured, that we have to survive by faith, so to speak. That is how this passage is typically read: God was testing Abraham’s faith.
What if the tests we face are different? When I was a professor part of my job entailed occasionally giving tests, but that wasn’t about anybody’s faith or lack there of. The point of that kind of test was to see if any of the music and idea that we had discussed and listened to and learned over the term had stayed with the students at all. The question to be answered was ultimately have you learned anything? What do you remember? Can you take what you’ve heard and seen and put it into practical use?
What if that’s the test Abraham really faced?
What if that’s the test we face?
Have we learned what it is to follow God? Not merely to tick items off some checklist of half-remembered Bible verses we memorized in Sunday school as children and give ourselves brownie points for doing them, but to wholeheartedly, whole-mindedly, whole-bodiedly, and whole-spiritedly follow God? To be so saturated with the life and teaching of Jesus that we know what is real and what isn’t, maybe for the first time ever? To be so overtaken and occupied by the Holy Spirit that the spiritual discernment we so badly need to get through the tests we face is simply a part of living?
If you go in to class expecting a multiple-choice exam and instead are given essays to write, you’re probably in trouble. Are we just guilty of trying to win some blue ribbon for super-faithfulness, like those churches that keep reopening only to have to close again because of a new coronavirus outbreak? Will we ever learn that our test is not to be some kind of super-Christian, but to learn most simply how to listen and know and follow?
Later in Hebrew Scripture we hear from the prophet Micah (6:8) the most direct statement of what our test is: “…what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Or you could turn to Jesus’s words in Matthew’s gospel (22:37-40):
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
You want to talk about a test from God? There you go. Pick up your pencils. Begin.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #49, The God of Abraham Praise; #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
[i] “Attorney: Woman thought God told her to kill sons,” cnn.com 30 March 2004 (accessed 27 June 22020) http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/03/29/children.slain/index.html
[ii] “Deanna Laney out of mental institution,” kltv.com 24 May 2012 (accessed 27 June 2020), https://www.kltv.com/story/18620253/deanna-laney-out-of-mental-institution/
Grace Presbyterian Church
June 21, 2020, Pentecost 3A (livestream)
When Unity is Unholy
I’m not thrilled with the idea of being tear-gassed while at the church.
I am of course referring to the incident a couple of weeks ago at an Episcopal church building in Washington, DC, in which the rector and others from that church found themselves unexpectedly choking on fumes as the property was cleared for some kind of presidential event, one that mostly seemed to involve the president holding a Bible. (As to that event I can only say that, as a veteran of that old event known as “Bible drill” back in my youth, I wasn’t taught to hold a Bible that way.)
What was particularly interesting about the aftermath of that incident (to me, at least) was the reaction of other religious groups or leaders. Many naturally expressed concern about the incident and support for the rector and church. There were others, though, who reacted in quite the opposite fashion. At least one such leader, a president of a seminary my wife and I attended many years ago in our past life, went so far as to imply that, because of the ways Episcopalian (and other) churches disagree with his denomination on particular bits of scripture interpretation, those folks were not really “Christian” at all.
At the very minimum, such a response goes to show that “the church” – or that body of different denominations or institutions that use such terminology to describe themselves – is not unified. Given the great theological differences between such bodies it isn’t a surprise, but perhaps what might surprise some is that one could say that Jesus predicted it. And it might even be necessary.
It’s a shocking enough passage. It starts with the expectation that if others call the teacher (Jesus) the Devil, then Jesus’s followers should expect to be called much worse. It slips into more heartwarming stuff for a bit (if you ever wondered what inspired the song “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” your answer is in verses 29-31). It turns darker in v. 33, at the suggestion that those who deny Jesus will in turn be denied by Jesus, but the real shock blast comes in verse 34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Whew. And it doesn’t get better, as Jesus go on to suggest that his work and teaching will set family members against one another, pointing to the three family relationships considered most important in that culture – son/father, daughter/mother, daughter-in-law/mother-in-law – as points of likely division. The thoroughly-not-uplifting conclusion to this passage suggests that choosing those family relationships over Jesus – over “taking up the cross and following” – makes one unworthy, and that losing one’s life for Jesus’s sake is to be preferred to its opposite, against all human rational thought.
My goodness, where does this leave us?
About a year ago, Layton E. Williams, a PC(USA) minister in South Carolina, had published a book with the title Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us. (It’s a really good book and you should read it.) I have no intention of writing a book on the subject, but I’m going to flip Rev. Williams’s title around: there are times when unity, or at least the pursuit of or insistence on unity at all times and at any cost, is flat-out unholy.
Our call is nothing less than to pursue a true and faithful relationship with God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And that will inevitably bring us into conflict or disagreement with others, even including our own fellow “Christians.”
Indeed this very discourse from Jesus we read today is born of exactly such conflict. Jesus’s principal attackers at this point in the scripture were none other than the religious leaders of world, as can be seen as recently in Matthew’s account as twice (three times, actually) in chapter 9. Taken with this context in mind, Jesus’s words to his disciples, about to be sent out on their own witness-bearing journey, sits rather differently; if you are truly proclaiming my good news, if you are ministering as I have called you to do, you’ll get in trouble for it, and not just with outsiders.
Now this isn’t carte blanche to go be a jerk all over the place. Being a follower of Christ isn’t about causing trouble merely for trouble’s sake; it is about causing trouble when justice is denied, when the poor and oppressed continue to be poor and oppressed, when the good is suppressed and silenced and the wicked is supported and allowed to prosper. Taking up your cross and following is no cute metaphor; crosses aren’t about anything but the strong likelihood of suffering, but Jesus still says that the one who doesn’t take up that cross and follow – no matter the suffering – is not worthy of him.
This kind of following requires spiritual and moral discernment. When I was in seminary (the second time, not the one I mentioned before) I did a year’s internship at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, an organization that works with faith groups of all types to help them learn about social issues and, within their faith tradition, to aid them in taking action on them. The Center, at least when I worked there, had a direct three-word slogan that summed up its work quite well: “Learn. Pray. Act.” It’s a good summary. Learn: do the research, listen to those affected. Pray: that’s always a part of any discernment. And then, act – do what your learning and discernment leads you to do. (In other words, follow the leading of the Spirit.)
The “suffering” involved here, let’s be clear, is not abandoned suffering; this is where that part about the sparrows comes in. Sparrows were, in effect, cheap food in this culture, in effect sold two-for-a-penny. The same God that follows and cares for even such lowly creature follows and cares for you, even in the midst of the worst the world (or even your fellow Christians) can throw at you.
But following is still required, even if it causes division. You can’t sit by and say nothing when that crude and awful racist or homophobic joke is getting laughs around the table. You can’t sit by when any kind of injustice is perpetrated, even if you’re the one who profits or benefits from that injustice. And it’s not about passive responses either; it really does require taking action to put such injustices to a dead stop.
Where does that leave us today? We current Christians are actually pretty good at responding to the effects of injustice – we provide meals for homeless folk, for example. Where are we when it comes to erasing the injustices of our society that make homelessness inevitable for some, no matter how many jobs they work?
Those of you who have been part of this church for a while know that I consider the church’s worship an indispensible thing, its most distinctive contribution to the lives of its members. But even with that being so, the church is at its most Christlike when it is not all tucked safely inside its own walls, but is out in the street, out in the halls of power, out in every space of society calling out what offends Jesus and demanding that what is unjust be made just; both responding to and ministering to those who have suffered at the cruelty of the world, and calling to account those who administer such cruelty. That is indeed the church being the church.
And to compromise on that, to forsake that call to follow Jesus for the sake of “keeping the peace” with our fellow Christians or even for the sake of “furthering the peace, unity, and purity of the church,” as the line from PC(USA) ordination vows goes? That’s not faithful, and can only lead to what can only be described as “unholy unity.”
Let us not go there.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #718, Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said; #766, The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound
I still have the t-shirt.
Grace Presbyterian Church
June 14, 2020, Pentecost 2A (livestreaming)
You Didn’t Earn This
We’re “good people,” right?
I mean, we don’t go burn crosses in Black neighborhoods, right? We don’t use the n-word, or go off on those awful viral rants that keep getting caught on camera where white women go crazy screaming at or threatening Black people for no apparent reason, right? Right? We’re “good people,” right?
It is pretty unsurprising, in a time of great trouble and distress in society, to retreat into that kind of thought – a kind of reassurance that we are indeed “good people” or at least that we’re not “that kind of person, the ones who do the things that provoke protest or unrest. We’re better than that.
The Apostle Paul would call us up short on this one.
Writing to the people of the church in Rome, Paul comes pretty early in his letter to the need to remind his readers, in perhaps a subtle way, not to fall into this trap of self-reassurance. Paul – who had not been to Rome yet, and therefore did not personally know most of those to whom he was writing – feels compelled to remind his readers that any goodness they may have is not their own doing; they didn’t earn it.
This passage starts cheerily enough, following an extensive account of the faithfulness of Abraham to reinforce the notion that “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” Don’t lose track of that last phrase, folks; it’s terribly important.
That discussion on Abraham and his example of faith had followed, back in Chapter 3, a discourse on the highly unpleasant thought that, in fact, no one is truly righteous. As Paul puts it there, “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written; There is no one who is righteous, not even one…” No matter your background or where you came from – whether you came to this fellowship from a Jewish or Gentile background, you came with no advantage over the other in terms of righteousness. “No one…not even one.”
Now notice that here, even after this seemingly more upbeat turn in chapters 4 and 5, Paul can’t quite let that point go. He does talk about how we are justified by faith; how we have peace with God through Jesus; how we can hope to share in God’s glory; how even suffering is used by God to produce good things in us. That all, even despite the introduction of suffering, sounds joyful. But then the hammer drops: “For while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly.” Then again, at the end of verse 8: “…while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Paul won’t let us forget that any goodness we manifest is entirely God’s doing, and not our own. We didn’t earn this.
Remember that little slipped-in line about “this grace in which we stand“? God didn’t wait around until we were good enough. If that were the case God would never do much of anything with us. Any good that is in us is God’s doing, not our own.
This, you’ll not be surprised to hear, has – even has to have – ramifications in how we live. In light of current events, the most obvious point here is that any kind of bias or bigotry we may harbor against others for no reason besides who they are cannot stand; it is an utter denial and refusal of this grace from God that allows us to stand in any kind of goodness at all.
To put it bluntly: racism, whether individual or societal, is a rejection and denial of the grace of God, in that it claims that we somehow earn that grace and others do not. It is anti-grace, it is anti-being a follower of Christ, period. And the same can be said of any kind of bias in person or society or structure to which you might point.
It is to deny the grace that, in the words of the ever-famous hymn, “saved a wretch like me.” It is to deny the grace that, in words from that same hymn that we don’t normally sing, gives us hope that the God who gives that grace will continue us in that grace beyond our here and now, even beyond the bounds of our physical time here on this earth, even to the very end of all time and into eternity itself. And why would we want to deny that?
Whatever goodness you claim, whatever faith you name, you didn’t earn it. It is all of God’s grace, the – yes – amazing grace that saves and preserves us now and always. The same grace God extends to us God extends to all, and so must we. We didn’t earn this grace – that’s not what grace is – but we are compelled to share and extend it to all. Period.
When we were yet “ungodly,” while were still “sinners,” Christ died for us. Let us never exalt ourselves above that knowledge; instead, let us remember the grace that saves us, and let us live that grace towards all.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #655, What Shall I Render to the Lord; #—, Amazing Grace, How Sweet The Sound
Please click here to join in virtual worship at or after 11:00 a.m. on June 7.
Grace Presbyterian Church
May 31, 2020, Pentecost A (livestreaming)
Never Back to Normal
The reading from Numbers today (not a book that crops up that often in the lectionary, by the way) is one of those odd little detours in the narrative of the Hebrew people. It seems out of place somehow, or at least detached from the main story, but once you soak it in for a while it opens up into its own interesting story.
The Hebrew people had been complaining. This was not a new occurrence. In this case they were complaining about having no meat to eat. That manna the Lord had provided was, in their opinion, getting old (at least according to “the rabble among them,” as verse 4 puts it). In this case Moses had had it up to *here* with them <hold hand up over head>, and gave the Lord a piece of his mind, to the point of saying in effect that if this is how you’re gonna do me, Lord, I’d just as soon you put me out of my misery.
The Lord comes up with two answers for Moses. He promises that the people will have meat. Lots of meat Lots of meat, in the form of quail literally falling from the sky. As for Moses’s personal problem, the Lord offered a personnel solution. Moses was to select seventy men from among the group, and those men would be set aside to “bear the burden of the people along with” Moses.
The seventy join Moses and his first lieutenant Joshua outside the camp, gathered around the tent of meeting, and the Lord came down on them and, as the author describes, “took some of the spirit that was on him (Moses) and put it on the seventy elders.” And apparently under the influence of that little bit of spirit, the seventy turned into preachers for a few moments.
So pervasive was this event that even two men left behind in the camp, Eldad and Medad, also got caught up in the prophesying moment. It’s not clear whether they were not among the seventy or were late for the appointment, but they joined in (though not by Zoom in this case). A boy ran and told Moses, which somehow prompted Joshua to offer to shut them up for good (Joshua does not sound like a people person here). Moses allows how he’d frankly prefer that everybody would touched by that spirit, they head back into camp, and this little side-story ends.
There is this odd detail, though; the author feels compelled to make sure to inform us that after this little prophetic outburst, “they did not do so again” (v.25). Presumably they had some extra work for the rest of the Exodus, but otherwise their lives went back to normal.
That’s how we know this isn’t the Pentecost story.
When those “divided tongues, as of fire” appeared among and upon the disciples in that upper room, there wasn’t a soul among them whose life ever went back to normal. Peter, the same disciple who couldn’t put two words together without saying something dumb, ends up giving the eloquent and convincing speech that makes up most of this reading from Acts. These often confused disciples, who just one chapter before were still going on about Jesus restoring the kingdom to Israel, are now speaking to these crowds from all over the world (at least the world as they knew it) proclaiming “God’s deeds of power.” They ended up becoming the unsuspecting leaders of the post-Pentecost community of followers, with their own uncertain leadership to practice and their own need to rely on that Spirit. As best as history and church tradition can piece together, they didn’t get to die peacefully; only John is recorded as not being executed in some way.
Their lives never went back to normal.
That’s not how the Holy Spirit works. It isn’t about “back to normal”; the Holy Spirit is all about what’s next. It disrupts. It ruffles things. It changes the direction of God’s people, if God’s people have enough wit to follow.
How curious that this particular text for this particular occasion should come along at this point in time. We are in an exhausting moment. After months of isolation people are clamoring, maybe even whining for things to get “back to normal” (shades of that “rabble” back in Numbers that was clamoring for meat!). Folks are exercising no caution about resuming their “normal” activities, even as institutions such as schools and, yes, churches (or at least some churches) are approaching with greater caution.
And here we are with this story about the Holy Spirit disrupting the lives of these followers, lives that would never go back to what had been normal. And that may be exactly what we need in this moment.
Let us be blunt for a moment. We have, for a while now, been living in a “normal” that no follower of Christ should ever want to return to. Just to name a couple of examples:
- Do we really want to return to a “normal” in which, for some large number of people in this country, skin color is a perfectly good reason to kill a man?
- Do we really want to return to a “normal” in which 100,000 Americans die who didn’t need to die, and in which actual elected leaders think that means we’re doing a good job?
Or let’s get closer to home for a moment:
- I have noticed that there are people joining us for these online services on Sunday mornings, for several weeks now, who cannot join us when we gather in person in the sanctuary. Do we really want to rush back to a “normal” that leaves these fellow Christ-followers out?
- Alachua County seems to have arrived at a point of a much slower rate of new coronavirus cases being reported, even experiencing some days on which no new cases are reported. Do we really want to rush back to a “normal” that totally undoes that progress?
We might be at a point where being fearful of change might be exactly the “normal” we need to give up. We might be at a point where getting “back to normal” is exactly the thing the Holy Spirit is trying to get us out of. We might be at a point where it’s time to give up our yearning for control and trust the Spirit that is, in the words of the hymn we’ll sing in a few moments, “making worlds that are new, making peace come true, bringing gifts, bringing love to the world,” or to pray in the words of the first hymn we sang, that the Spirit “kindle faith among us in all life’s ebb and flow“:
O give us ears to listen, and tongues aflame with praise,
So folk of every nation glad songs of joy shall raise.
Maybe our call is, in this stressful and even violent time, to lay aside getting “back to normal” and to be ready to go forward in faith.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #289, On Pentecost They Gathered; #292, As the Wind Song