I preached the following sermon on September 17 at Not So Churchy.
Ecclesiastes 1:12-14 I, The Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
In the new TV show, the New Normal, two gay men are trying to have a baby. They have a surrogate and the surrogate has a daughter. Through this whole process a new family is being created as the men, the surrogate and the daughter are bonding. Through this process, in the last episode, it has come to the attention of Brian, one of the men, that someone, the daughter he thought, took a marker to his rare leather sofa he got at an auction. He was furious. After taking some time with this reality of his pristine furniture eventually, if they had a child, being defaced and destroyed, he says to his partner John, “I’m letting the couch thing go. I mean it’s just stuff right and it’s not like stuff can love you or take care of you in your old age. Then again, I don’t really intend to age.”
And that is the whole point of this Scripture reading today.
This reading is taken from what we consider wisdom literature in the Hebrew Scriptures, which is for Christians the first half of the Bible. There are many genres of literature in the Bible, there are stories, parables, wisdom, law, prophets, poetry. The Bible has so many different writing styles and ways of communicating as we have today. But in this book you will find a lot of advice on how to or how not to live life. From this book we find those famous words of “for everything there is a season….” (Ecc. 3:1) and the “to eat, drink and be merry” (Ecc. 8:15).
Here are a few of my favorite verses from this book that I read this week as I was getting ready, I wonder which ones reach to you:
- God has made human beings straightforward but they have devised many schemes. (Ecc. 7:29)
- Why is it that the wicked are praised? The wicked are treated like the righteous and this is vanity. (Ecc. 8:14)
- Eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has long ago approved of what you do. (Ecc. 9:7)
- Time and chance happen to us all—we can’t anticipate disaster. (Ecc. 9:12)
- The lover of money will not be satisfied with money, nor the lover of wealth, with gain. (Ecc. 5:10)
- Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind. (Ecc. 4:6)
These themes and lines are found repeated in many ways throughout the book. The basic themes being that we are wired to fill ourselves with busyness but in the end that busyness for the sake of busyness does not matter. All the books we have read, all the knowledge gained, all the work we have done, no matter how good we try and be, no matter how hard we work, in the end, this busyness will not save us; it is like chasing after wind, there is nothing to grab onto.
So I guess the question that this begs then is “what will save us, when we get down to it, what is important?” Regardless of how much help we were given or how many smart choices we have made that get us closer to where we want to be, if we can’t control in the end what happens, then what is important? What do we do? Who is God? And what is the point really?
It is somewhat remarkable that this book not only made it into the Bible but then that it stayed. This book is far from filled with answers, far from filled with do’s and don’t’s, far from filled with religious rhetoric. It’s place in tradition hasn’t come without contention, for not all wanted it in there or to stay. But what a gift it is, to be a voice for the cynics, for the tired, for the questioning, for the honest among us. For these this author voices what so many of us wonder about but not what many of us, at least in religious circles, are comfortable voicing.
On one level I think that this book functions as a way of getting perspective—that in the end our little problems, and even our bigger problems, are not what is so important. And that no matter how much we worry, our worrying won’t get us where we need to be.
But then I go back to those questions: where is God and what is the point, what is most important?
This book doesn’t give many answers to these questions. Later in the book, the very last two verses, are where we find a little information, a nod at an answer. The author said this: “Fear God, and keep God’s commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone” (Ecc. 12:13).
Some have argued that these two verses have been tacked on at the end by someone else, someone more orthodox than the writer, but let’s run with it.
In the biblical sense, to fear God does not mean to be afraid of God but instead to be in awe of the presence of God. So, first, to be in awe of the Creator, through God’s creation. We find God in our own lives, through mystery and magic. That is the image of God here—wherever you find this. I wonder where in your life you are finding mystery. Or are you even open to knowing? Do you pay attention?
And the second is to keep God’s commandments. In the Hebrew Scriptures there are over 600 commandments—but there is one that I think might be the most important and that everything hangs from. It comes in Deuteronomy and is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The Scripture continue this way, showing us how important this is: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut. 6:4-9).
So, you see, fear God and follow God’s commandments, it appears they are one and of the same thing and far from a rule list. Fear God, meaning be in awe of the way the world works, and Love God with all you have, meaning be in awe and grateful for how the world works.
I remember as a high school aged kid spending a lot of time reading theology books, reading the bible, and struggling with the rhetoric I was hearing around me. Why as a Christian did I have to say that Jesus Christ was my Lord and Savior? Whatever does that mean? What about other religions? I couldn’t subscribe to Christianity if that meant that other religions were false. And the Bible…what was so special about it? My struggling with these questions took me to the point of multiple meltdowns; was I going to be able to continue with a denomination and a tradition when I didn’t think there was space for me and my beliefs? I remember sitting with one pastor one beautiful afternoon, that poor woman—I was in her office sobbing into my shirtsleeve about my dilemma. Smartly she didn’t tell me much, she didn’t try and convince me of anything.
I could have used a bit more of Ecclesiastes during that time, or even knowing that it existed. It would have challenged my insistence that my chasing after these answers could be a pursuit that had an ending. That the answers would come and never be challenged again. That the answers were where I would find comfort and security.
I can’t tell you exactly how I found my way out of these meltdowns out of my desperate search for answers. I began to read about other people who interpreted for themselves what this all meant. I began to hear other people give voice to their own questions. I lie in a freezing cold stream one day in the mountains in North Carolina and noticed for the first time a sliver of light coming through the leaves of the trees. I realized that trying to put words onto the mysteries of the world is indeed being in awe of God, is loving God with my heart, mind and soul. I began to claim my space in the place of things, I suppose.
I can’t answer the questions I proposed in some nice, neat way, as much as I tried to come up with a nice little story. Those questions of what is the point and where is God—we get glimmers of them in this text, mostly in the form of the negative—the point is not to busy oneself with the hope that this saves us from whom even knows. The point is not to pursue rabbit hole ways of thinking that you know lead to a place that does not leave you in awe of the mystery of things. God might be in those places but more than anything God is there to help you get out. God helps you look up and notice the beauty around us, to be found in even the most desperate of circumstances, to cease chasing after wind, for in wind we cannot hold on to very much.
It seems that much of the ritual of what we do here on Monday evenings is to bring us back from chasing after wind. We let go that which we are chasing after as we place this on our prayer tree. We sing to open our hearts to that which is important. We listen to readings and reflect on them to bring us back to center. And we gather around this Table that has come in so many different forms and shapes over the years. I have been thinking a lot about why we gather around this Table every month, and for that matter why generations have done so in the past and will to come. There is something about it that, for me, keeps me from pursuing the blowing of wind. It reminds me that at this very one place societal boundaries are blurred and that we are, for once, all equals. It gives us a foretaste of what that might be like to stop it with our parsing of words and defensive debates, with our guilty rhetoric and our greatest fears unrealized. Here is a magical and mysterious place, I believe. Not where any elements get transformed but where mystery is met. It is similar to the Bible, for me, I can’t tell you why exactly I keep coming back there, why these places hold authority in my life. There are plenty of times I go to both places and come up empty. But it isn’t the short-term emptiness that is of concern, it is the long-term fulfillment that is. And so we come back day after day to words that have new meaning each time, that contradict and comfort simultaneously. We come back to Tables because in the end what is necessary is not individual chasing after wind but a community around a dinner table. Food to sustain, drink to sustain and friends to sustain.