Grace Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2020, Pentecost 16A (prerecorded)
The Revised Common Lectionary offers an opportunity for a brief trip through a brief book of the New Testament, Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. This is, aside from perhaps the very short personal letter to Philemon, perhaps the most unique of Paul’s letters recorded in scripture in at least one very noteworthy way: there isn’t really a big problem going on in the church when Paul writes to it.
Consider: the situation with the Romans was fraught with the fact that Paul didn’t found or help found that church, and indeed had never even been there; why would they trust him? The letters to the Corinthians are full of Paul struggling to correct that church’s misconceptions about living as the body of Christ. The church at Thessalonica, recipient of Paul’s earliest letters, is growing concerned and perhaps even despairing as the anticipated quick return of Christ hasn’t happened and members are starting to die, forcing Paul to do some theology-on-the-fly to reassure them. As for the church in Galatia, their tendency to get hornswoggled by false apostles produces an epistle from Paul that very early (just six verses in) produces the sentence “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel… .” (Later in that same letter, 3:1, comes the terse exclamation “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”)
By contrast, the folks at Philippi still held Paul in warmest regard, and had sent one of their own, Epaphroditus, to minister to him during his time of imprisonment (and had apparently sent some other support with him to Paul as well). There was no obvious schism or straying in the congregation, and if there was any upset among them it seemed to be more about their concern for Paul than about anything among themselves.
Perhaps as a result Paul seems to be more comfortable opening up to the folks at Philippi about where he was both physically (in prison again) and emotionally. It’s the kind of revealing that might have gotten Paul directed towards therapy if he were to have expressed it in such a fashion today. This first sentence, in verse 21, is more or less sound theology, even if it was still a formative idea at the time. The idea that death was anything other than endless nothingness or a blank space or even some kind of eternal torment was still being worked out among the early Christians, but the idea that there was something and even something good (think of Jesus’s words at the beginning of John 14, for example) was there for the struggling, and Paul is found here grappling with it. This statement itself is not the cause for concern.
What comes in the following verses, on the other hand, might have raised a few Philippian eyebrows. When Paul expresses his uncertainty between living and dying, or even that his desire was to “depart and be with Christ, for that is far better“…well, let’s just say that were I to write that in a letter to this congregation, I’d be hearing from somebody at the presbytery very soon, I suspect.
But Paul concludes quickly that his work on earth with the Philippians (and with other churches along his way, for that matter, though he does not say so here) is not done, and that he is bound to remain in the flesh, no matter the imprisonments or persecutions or other travails he might face. In fact, his purpose might be said to be bound up in those very troubles that he had encountered on his various journeys, including an imprisonment in Philippi itself recounted in Acts 16.
Philippi was described in that chapter as a “Roman colony.” That has a somewhat different meaning than we might think of in early American history, for example. Philippi existed to be many things in service of the Roman empire; a military garrison most likely, a home for retired soldiers, and a location more under the direct control and model of Rome than most other cities. It was a model city, so to speak, for the Roman Empire, with purposes both to demonstrate and perhaps to enforce the power of Rome.
In other words, it was not a good place to live if you were going to declare that anyone other than Caesar was Lord. And guess what the Philippians were called to do, just like Christians in other parts of that empire, just like Christians living today in this particular empire?
The resolution takes root and begins to set the tone for this letter in verse 27. For the Philippians, the relatively stress-free nature of their existence as a church belied their status as a Christian church situated in this Roman-colony city. To “live…in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” was going to come into conflict with a city expressly dedicated to the notion that Caesar was Lord and the Empire was above all. To say that Jesus is Lord is to deny that Caesar (any Caesar of any age) is Lord, and that’s going to get you into conflict inevitably.
Therefore, standing together and living in that way worthy of the Gospel was both a form of bearing witness to the Lordship of Christ and of resisting those who would deny it. But notice what Paul doesn’t say in this passage. There’s no talk of “holy war.” There’s no whipping up folks about raising up some kind of “warrior Christ” who would never be caught dead on a cross (literally, but also pun intended). There’s no talk of taking over the empire for Jesus or making sure to get the right judges or anything like that.
Instead there is the instruction to bear a good witness, to live worthy of the gospel, to be un-intimidated by those who opposed them, and to know that the struggle is coming.
One might recall Jesus’s instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10, including the bracing warning in verse 34 that he came “not to bring peace, but a sword.” Perhaps not much had happened yet to the believers in Philippi, though Paul’s own imprisonment there some time before had no doubt brought them much concern, and Paul’s current imprisonment elsewhere provoked worry again. But Paul knew, and made sure the Philippians knew, that to live as a follower of Christ in the teeth of the Empire was going to bring trouble – the “privilege of suffering for,” not just believing in, Christ. And the same holds true today, no matter what empire one is facing, whether would-be totalitarian government or would-be corporate monolith or would-be mass entertainment and sports complex or whatever seeks to claim our ultimate devotion that can only belong to Jesus.
“Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel…” Paul says it as if that’s such an easy thing to do. And yet that’s our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #846, Fight the Good Fight; #285, Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song
Grace Presbyterian Church
September 6, 2020, Pentecost 14A (livestream)
The Life of Bread, The Bread of Life
I made fun of them so much when I first saw an ad for them, several years ago.
“The body of Christ, processed for you,” I cracked. “The recyclable, foil-sealed plastic cup of salvation.“
I am speaking of “pre-filled communion sets,” which consist of two small compartments attached to one another. The smaller one, typically on top, is just large enough for a small, thin wafer of the type frequently used for the Eucharist in some high-church liturgical traditions. The larger (but still small) container is filled with grape juice. (I have not seen any purporting to be filled with actual wine.)
When I first saw these advertised a few years ago, it seemed ridiculous. Even for taking communion to members of the church at home, it’s not hard to put together a small flask of juice, a few communion cups, and a small piece of bread. Paul Gillespie used to have a kit for exactly that purpose. Not hard. Breaking the bread and filling the cup worked just fine. What exactly was the point of these prefab sets?
Flash forward to present day, and these “pre-filled communion sets” are now probably the safest and least Covid-susceptible means of observing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in person.
Don’t think the manufacturers and suppliers of these kits are unaware of this. The advertising has gotten so much more intense since the onset of the pandemic and necessary precautions surrounding it. Just this week such an advertisement from one supplier showed up in my email box with a new name for these kits: “The Miracle Meal.”
And for all that, whenever we are able to try to gather in person for worship and observe the sacrament, these kits will very likely be part of the meal.
The bread of life…broken for you.
The rice of life from heaven came
to bring true life from God above
Receive this gift; God’s mercy claim;
in joy and pain give thanks for love
Way back in Exodus, the wandering Israelites were in a hard way for food, and (as usual) had no problem letting Moses know about it. God heard their griping well before Moses did, and announced to Moses how he was going to deal with it. In the evening the camp was covered with quail just begging to be eaten, apparently. In the morning a fine dew covered the camp, and when the dew lifted, there was this … stuff. Verse 14 describes it as “a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.” Later, in verse 31, it is described as “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” The people looked around and said, “what is it?” That, in the form of the word “manna,” became the name of the bread of God’s provision. Each household gathered enough for that day, and on the sixth day each household gathered enough for two days, so that the Sabbath might be kept the next day. Each gathered just enough for that day, and no more (else it got all rotten and wormy). According to verse 35, the Israelites ate that “what is it?” for forty years, until they came to the land of Canaan.
The bread of life, given from heaven.
True rice the hungry world has fed,
the rice required for life below
Provide this gift, God’s mercy spread;
in weakness God’s compassion show
The folks who followed Jesus from the lakeside up to the mountain to which he had retreated knew all about the manna. The crowd is quick to bring that up to Jesus, once they’d finally tracked him down on the other side of the lake, after the truly miraculous meal in which five thousand had been fed from five loaves and two fish. Jesus, of course, knows what’s really going on with them; as he says in verse 26, they came looking for him because they got full, not because they saw what was happening. Then the crowd goes on to prove they didn’t get what was happening by asking for a sign, like the manna that had been given to the Israelites. It seems like some kind of serious gall to ask for a sign after five thousand people had just gotten fed from five loaves and two fish, but there it is.
There’s another story in the gospels where bread is part of a sign, so to speak. Luke’s gospel isn’t as big on the language of “signs” as John’s is, but what happens to those two disciples who met Jesus unawares on the road to Emmaus feels pretty sign-like. You remember, how those two didn’t recognize the risen Jesus from any of the teaching he did on the road, but recognized their Lord when he broke the bread?
It’s not hard to guess that bread provided a useful image for Jesus in his teaching and life not only because of that background story from Exodus, but also because bread was about as much a staple food as his people had. The harvesting and winnowing and grinding of grain was one of the most basic survival tasks of the culture in which Jesus lived and taught, and any reference to bread would quickly conjure up images and associations both historically theological and practical.
Perhaps it’s also not an accident that, in the time of pandemic-induced isolation that quickly spread through this country in the spring, one of the go-to “comfort activities” that started popping up all over the place was the baking of bread. I know my social media feed got overwhelmed with fresh-baked bread at times, and still does on occasion. Not only the staple comfort of bread itself, but the elemental labor of it – grain, yeast, liquid for mixing (I saw some interesting recipes for exactly what liquid might be involved in some cases), kneading and preparing, then the anticipation built into the act of baking.
So, for most of Jesus’s immediate audience, and many of those who have received this word across the centuries, bread is a captivating and meaningful way to speak of the word, to speak of God’s provision.
But is it that way for everybody?
The bread of life…given for who?
The rice of God for all is meant
No one who comes is turned away
Believe in Christ whom God has sent
In humble trust God’s will obey
Bread doesn’t conjure the same comforting and welcoming image for everybody. The kind of bread that seems homey and welcoming for many can be a difficult or even painful image, for example, for those who suffer from Celiac disease or other gluten-intolerance disorders. In awareness of that condition, the seminary I attended had instituted the use of a gluten-free bread for communion, with a recipe that managed to appeal to pretty much all tastes. I remember the bread being pretty good, although it could be a challenge to dip it in the cup without losing a chunk of the bread in the cup.
For some, the challenge of the image of bread is different. For some, it isn’t necessarily a difficult image, but one that just doesn’t have that much meaning.
J. Andrew Fowler, an American mission worker who served in Malaysia, found himself facing that kind of challenge. For the people among whom he served, bread simply was not a particularly important part of their diet. The true staple food, even the true comfort food, was rice. It was the food that connected families across generations, much the way a handed-down bread recipe might connect a family across generations (or even some recipe more varied, like Grandma’s secret method for making the best fried chicken). Rice was the stuff of life, to the point that a meal without rice, no matter how filling, simply was not satisfying.[i] The hymn that has been interspersed through this sermon was the result of this experience.
What such an interpretation does is bring us – bread-eaters or otherwise – to the ultimate point of Jesus’s saying in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life.” The point of such a saying is not to sacralize bread into some kind of idol-like mandatory representation of Christ or the word of God or whatever gift of God is being represented in the hymn or song or sermon. The point is not to heap shame upon those who can’t eat plain old wheat bread. The point is not to shove bread upon a culture that isn’t a big bread-eating culture as the only way to understand Jesus.
The point is this: Jesus is what sustains us. Jesus is like the food that keeps you satisfied, that keeps you alive. Not a “food” that destroys or ruins or brings illness or decay; the food that gives life.
The bread of life, that never leaves us hungry.
The food of life, that never leaves us hungry.
The living rice, for all a sign
Came down eternal life to give
Abide in Christ, the living vine
In Christ, with people die and live[ii]
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: #460, Break Thou the Bread of Life; #500, Be Known to Us in Breaking Bread
[i] See Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion, 522.
[ii] “The Rice of Life,” Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, #524. Text: J. Andrew Fowler, 1983. Copyright 1990 Christian Conference of Asia (admin. GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission OneLicense #725345-A. Music: Tune BÍ-NîU, I-to Loh, 1984. Copyright 1980 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission OneLicense #725345-A.
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 30, 2020, Pentecost 13A (livestream)
Psalm 26; Matthew 16:21-26
Don’t You Dare, Jesus!
It is very likely, even as a humble fisherman turned follower of itinerant rabbi, that Peter was at least somewhat familiar with the text we know today as Psalm 26.
Whether in the course of being in the synagogue on even a semi-regular basis, or as part of the education he received as a young Jewish boy, somewhere along the way Simon (as he would have been named) had likely encountered this text, one of pleading for understanding evidently in a time of struggle of some sort, whether of illness or oppression we cannot say for certain.
Psalm 26 as it is preserved for us, though, presents a challenge to read or hear with that theme in mind. On the surface, it looks, frankly, like a great big ol’ bragging session.
“Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering…“Look at me, God, see how good I’ve been? That’s not how it works, but you can see pretty quickly how it could be read that way, and you can darn sure bet that there are many who have read it exactly that way.
There’s no way, of course, to know if this psalm was somehow sneaking into the mind of Peter (as he was know known, as of a few verses ago) as he heard Jesus speaking to the disciples of his ultimate fate. Verse 21 opens with a significant shift in tone in Matthew’s gospel; the very words “From that time on” make clear that something is changing in the way that Jesus addresses and teaches his disciples (and by extension, we who read Matthew’s gospel); this man who Peter (again, only a few verses ago) had named as Messiah was to “undergo great suffering” and “be killed.”
This flew in the face of what Peter and his contemporaries had likely been taught to believe. Particularly under the occupation of the Roman Empire, understanding of the Messiah as read in prophetic literature had come to stress the belief that this promised one would be a forceful deliverer who would toss the Romans out and restore the throne of King David. It was a belief that was at least as much nationalist as it was religious, once that particular interpretation took root, but it was held no less passionately for that.
So when Peter hears Jesus teaching of his own suffering and tying (somehow it seems he didn’t pick up on the part where he would “on the third day be raised“), it flew in the face of everything he had known or been taught. And he reacted accordingly.
And for that, Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!“
We should pause for a moment and remember that for Jesus to say this was no abstract insult. We need only to go back to the fourth chapter of this very gospel to hear Jesus use a very similar phrase – “Away with you, Satan!” in the face of a very similar temptation: the temptation to wield unchecked power, the exact kind of power to be expected of a messiah who was to throw out the hated Romans. Peter does what the tempter had done to Jesus? Peter gets called out the same way the tempter did.
Jesus follows up the epithet with a challenging set of instruction, beginning with the charge for those who would follow Jesus to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus is not a mascot to be used to fulfill our wishes, whether they be for political freedom or revenge or for holding on to our own privileged status in the world; those desires are inimical to taking up your cross and following Jesus, and Jesus won’t have it from Peter. Jesus has a work to do on earth; you can either get on board with it, or you can step off.
The next sentence intensifies and clarifies this claim Jesus demands of Peter. In the end your very life is the definition of your following. No doubt there have been countless souls over the centuries for whom the phrase “lose their life for my sake” has in the end been literal; the numbering of the names of the martyrs of the faith would be boundless. This is not, however, the only way such a charge can or should be read. Indeed, any conduct of one’s life that is based on “setting your mind on … human things” rather than “divine things” can be a way of “saving” one’s own life. Anything that pulls towards our own passions or prejudices or cravings, and away from the work to which Jesus calls us and leads us, can be a way of “saving” one’s life, only to lose it in the ultimate – to be cut off from and starved of life in Christ.
In the end, what Peter did, and what innumerable supposed followers of Christ have done since, is to hear Jesus’s call to take up your cross and deny yourself, to take up the lordship of a Jesus who submitted to suffering at the hands of those who despised him and death at the hands of those who feared him; to see and hear all that and to say, “don’t you dare!“
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to throw off the enemies who oppress us.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to give me back what once was mine.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to hate the same people we hate.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to hold the same prejudices we hold.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to give us power over our enemies.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to exalt us and tear *them* down.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to give me whatever I want, riches or fame or love or power or … anything but being a suffering and dying Messiah. Not that.
And Jesus’s answer to every such act of rebellion, as it always has been, is the answer he gave to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!“
To every clinging to power, to every clinging to hate, to every clinging to the things of the world, the answer returns: “Get behind me, Satan!“
It’s a temptation Jesus rejected long ago, and there’s no changing that. If we have not in some way foresworn those things in our claim to follow, our claim is hollow.
Particularly in a time given to the exaltation of greed and hate and power to abuse and destroy, there’s simply no room for anything but denying yourself and taking up your cross and following Jesus into whatever may come. And that’s the only way to find your life – to find a life worth the trouble and the struggle. The life we cling to is no life at all; the life found in Jesus is all life. The life “lost” for the sake of Jesus and the work of Jesus is the life that endures in fulfillment and truth and love and even joy, as strange a concept as that may seem. Anything else is but a pale, false shadow.
And so, in the end, the prescription it this: for Jesus’s sake, quit clinging to your old claims about what you want Jesus to do or be. For Jesus’s sake, don’t you dare become a stumbling block to the gospel. For Jesus’s sake, set your mind on divine things and leave those death-dealing human things behind.
For Jesus’s sake, lose your life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #612, We Praise Thee, O God; #720, Jesus Calls Us
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 23, 2020, Pentecost 12A (livestream)
The Confession of Caesarea Philippi
Like many of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the gospel of Matthew, this story has a parallel in the gospel of Mark – or actually a predecessor, since it seems extremely certain that Mark’s gospel was written well before Matthew’s. In most cases the accounts are largely the same, but sometimes there are slight differences between the two, and sometimes those differences in wording or phrasing can be quite substantial in how the story gets read. This is one of those stories.
While Mark’s gospel describes the conversation recorded here as happening while Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Caesarea Philippi, Matthew records it as happening after they had arrived there – when they “came into the district of Caesarea Philippi” is how the NRSV renders it. For Mark, language of being “on the way” is frequent enough that it suggests an easy metaphor; the journey from one place to another becomes a representation of the journey of discipleship, the journey of following Jesus. For Matthew to place the discussion in Caesarea Philippi itself, similarly, comes freighted with meaning in a different way, having to do with the nature and history of that location itself.
The earliest history of this location seems to have been as what southerners might call a “stop in the road,” a location with a nearby spring for travelers on an important trade route between the port city of Tyre and the inland city of Damascus. The conquest of the region by Alexander the Great’s armies and the resulting “Hellenization” of the region added a new level of significance to that spring; it was quickly appropriated as a shrine to the Greek god Pan and the location given the name Paneas.
The subsequent occupation of the area by Rome added one more bit of significance. During the reign of Caesar Augustus, the local Roman puppet ruler Herod the Great (yes, both of those names are familiar from the Nativity story in Luke’s gospel) built a grand temple at the location in honor of his patron, the emperor (and perhaps also to overshadow the older Greek shrine). His son Philip expanded upon his father’s work, building a full-fledged city there. Thus the location became Caesarea Philippi – a city of Caesar belonging to Philip.
So this wasn’t just some anonymous town for Jesus and the disciples to stop for a rest. For Jesus to ask “who do you say that I am?” and for Peter to answer “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God” in this particular city of all places carried a weight of the words themselves – which are weighty and powerful enough, to be sure! But it’s one thing simply to say that “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God“, and another thing to do so in a location carrying the marks of three of the greatest obstacles to the human understanding of God:
- Empire – as the seat of political power in the area, Caesarea was as much the emblem of Rome as any city in Palestine.
- Idolatry – both the shrine to Caesar and the older shrine to Pan make the location an excellent stand-in for a whole host of “idols” seeking to detract from God – and remember, any religion can lapse into idolatry…and finally,
- Money – don’t forget that ancient history as a center on a trade route.
Given Matthew’s penchant for making everything in his gospel have some level of extra significance, it’s hard to believe he didn’t give extra emphasis to this conversation happening in this city. To claim Jesus, inevitably, is to reject these other claims on us.
On such an occasion it would be easy for someone like Peter to get a little puffed up and full of himself. Jesus’s words in response to Peter’s statement would go a long way towards getting Peter all puffed up, at least at first glance. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” Jesus says, and you can imagine Peter all flush-cheeked and waiting for Jesus to lay it on thick. But what comes next changes course a bit: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Nice job, Rocky, but you didn’t come up with that all by yourself.
It’s a bit of humility we can all stand to take to heart. Even the ability to understand just a little bit, to catch just a flash of a moment of insight into what God is doing with us or in us or among us; even that is a gift of God, ministered by the Holy Spirit. This discourse from Jesus that follows, a part of the story not found in Mark’s version, becomes a necessary moment of instruction about our role in Jesus’s work in the world.
Peter made the good confession, yes. Literally across the centuries since then, Christians have sought to give words to the call of God upon the church, to put down, in that moment and in that place, what God was doing amongst them and how God was leading them. Many of those statements are found in our denomination’s Book of Confessions. Some of those confessions even reflect the place where they were written down – the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Declaration of Barmen, the Confession of Belhar, for example. In many ways Peter’s “Confession of Caesarea Philippi” is the forerunner of all of these, and Jesus’s disclaimer to Peter – “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you” – had better be true of any such statement that comes along, or it’s really not worth the trouble of writing it down. In the midst of all the idols the world offers for our adoration, it is the Spirit that gives us the answer, “Jesus is Lord.”
Verses 18 and 19 have frankly become lightning rods for disagreement within the larger scope of Christianity. For example, the statement of Jesus about “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” becomes a sticking point depending on what you decide about “this rock“; does it refer to Peter himself, an interpretation significant in Catholic thought and understanding of Peter as the forerunner of the papacy? Or does “this rock” refer to Peter’s declaration, a more widely held Protestant interpretation? All of what follows, about the authority represented in the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and things being bound or loosed on earth, gets hung up in this particular thicket. And the final verse of this reading, one that is carried over from Mark wrapping up all of Matthew’s added material, makes less sense here than in Mark’s gospel, in which the so-called “Messianic secret” is a consistent theme. But perhaps it’s better to address that verse in next week’s message.
At any rate, the idols of Caesarea Philippi – empire, money, and even “religion” itself – still contend against the faith of those who would seek to follow Christ. And if we take nothing else away from this account of Peter’s confession, we must take this: we do not resist those temptations on our own, reliant on nothing but our brains or our heart or our emotional commitment or anything like that. We resist those idols because God gives, as God gave to Peter, the words to say and hear and do in order to follow faithfully and to live as Christ would have us live in a world that would rather us not.
For the good confession, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #321, The Church’s One Foundation; #—, Let Kings and Prophets Yield Their Name
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 16, 2020, Pentecost 11A (livestream)
Period. Full Stop. End of Discussion.
There’s a trope in Hollywood films – maybe not the most common, but frequent enough – that goes something like this: a person finds out they only have so long to live, and decides to throw all caution to the wind and live it up in the time they have remaining, possibly even checking off as many items from some so-called “bucket list” as possible along the way. In fact, one such movie was actually called The Bucket List, and it featured Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two cancer patients who…well, as the Internet Movie Database describes: “Two terminally ill men escape from a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with a wish list of to-dos before they die.”
As we come to the end of this little road trip through the book of Ecclesiastes, I have to suspect that Qohelet, our teacher/author on the way, would have two problems with that concept; perhaps the idea of a “bucket list” might be an example of misplaced priorities, but definitely the two men waited too long to enjoy life.
This final section of the book (not counting the epilogue that starts in 12:9) makes clear the most likely target audience for Qohelet’s teaching: like the preceeding book of Proverbs, the writings here are aimed at the young, though only here at the conclusion is that truly made explicit. One might in fact argue that 11:9 is the actual climax of the book and its teaching. All of the talk of “vanity” and “chasing after wind,” all of the words about toil and labor, all of the indignant complaint against the injustice of the world and the way the wicked get off easy, all of the urging to “eat and drink and enjoy your work“; it all comes together in the instruction of this verse:
Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
Enjoy what God gives now, while you can, and go after what you want – but not to the harm and oppression and exploitation of others. It’s not the worst summary of Qohelet’s teaching, and it’s not the worst advice on living in this finite and fragmentary world, as long as that heart one follows is set on following and serving God.
The first verse of chapter 12 is another of those verses that might provoke the response “oh, I know that one, I didn’t know it was in this book.” Besides reiterating the counsel that has come, it marks a turning point: what follows is perhaps the most eloquently poetic and poignant prose in the book, even if it is incredibly sad and sometimes hard to interpret. The images that follow in verses 2-6 are wildly mixed and not at all uniform, and have provoked much spilling of ink by scholars seeking to pin down exactly what part of human decline is marked by which metaphor. Far be it from me to crack wise about the work of biblical scholars – that’s not my vocational path for good reason – but it seems pretty clear what Qohelet is about here, no matter what this metaphor or another specifically means. This is a poem of human decline and death, that thing that is awaiting us all, and which is never as far away as we are inclined to believe in the days of our youth. You might recognize some of those conditions described here, and some might be more unclear, but the force of this elegy is no mystery. We decline, and we die – or as verse seven puts it, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” Again, with Qohelet not interested in discussing afterlife or eternity in any form, this really is it, as far as his story goes. We live, we decline, we die. And that does seem the end of the matter.
Except of course for one more statement from Qohelet, a terribly familiar one by now: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.” Scholars who address this book describe this theme by reference to organ music, of all things. While the other themes of Qohelet’s teaching – enjoying what God gives, naming and calling out injustice and oppression, the unpredictability and inequity of life and others – sound out as melodies played by the organist, maybe in different registrations or manuals or with right hand or left, the “vanity” theme sounds as a constant throughout the book in the way a pedal point – a long, sustained note or a constantly repeated note, probably played on the organ’s pedals, played by the organist’s feet – sounds throughout a composition by Bach or some other organ master. The statement that “all is vanity” – all is fleeting, all is like a breath or a wisp or a fog or smoke, here one moment and gone the next – is the constant, against which all the other themes or ideas Qohelet sounds play out.
And for Qohelet, that’s really the last word. Apparently, though, somebody just couldn’t stand that.
Though a few scholars try to insist that the last six verses are really Qohelet’s own, the vast majority of scholarship regards verses 9-14 as an epilogue or afterword added by another, unidentified writer. There are good reasons for this: the writing style is quite different, the tone and use of language is not much like the rest of the book, and frankly this postlude sounds as if it doesn’t really like much of what has come before it. Little passive-aggressive remarks like the one comparing the words of the wise to “goads” or “nails firmly fixed” don’t suggest great comfort with what Qohelet has offered. The crack about the weariness of making many books and much study (to which every academic in the world replies “ya think???”) doesn’t come off as an endorsement; quite the opposite – it has the smack of “see where you end up if you think too much?” And most of verses 13 and 14 frankly sound like a attempt to put a more properly “churchy” spin on a troublesome book.
And on top of that, of all the gall, the anonymous epilogist tries to end all discussion with that phrase “the end of the matter; all has been heard.” Move along, folks, nothing to see here. No. Maybe “all has been heard,” but that’s hardly “the end of the matter.” Remembering that Qohelet doesn’t get to cancel out all the rest of scripture, we are also challenged to remember that all the rest of scripture doesn’t get to cancel out Qohelet and his thorny insistence on seeing things and naming things that don’t conform neatly to the boundaries of wisdom literature like Proverbs. Ecclesiastes isn’t going anywhere, and thank God for that. Having a voice in the wisdom literature that is willing to call out how human existence isn’t a sunny step-by-step guide to everyday perfection is a lifesaver on those days (or in these times) when life looks like a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle with about 1000 missing pieces.
And for all that, Qohelet is a faithful book – perhaps one of the most faithful in scripture – in its dogged insistence on fearing God and enjoying what God gives in the face of all the “vanity.” In the face of a church that too often tries to force upon its people the idea that life is beautiful and sweet and perfect if you just have a little faith, Ecclesiastes offers only the harder and yet hopeful guidance: yeah, it stinks out there, especially right now. Have faith anyway.
For the hard, good words of Qohelet, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #819, Be Still, My Soul; #836, Abide With Me
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