This morning we are celebrating baptism. Tennison G and Andrew N will soon be baptized, and it is a chance for each of us to remember the meaning of our own baptism and how that continues to shape our lives. It was meaningful to Tennison and Andrew to be baptized in this natural setting at retreat; and for Tennison this place, Camp Luz, has been an especially important part of his life. And we’ve ordered the weather to be warm enough that we can all enjoy being outside to witness the baptisms, and cool enough that these guys are really going to have to want to get baptized to get in that lake.
So here’s how we plan to proceed. I’m going to give a brief meditation based on these scriptures that have been chosen. Then there will be a chance for Andrew and Tennison to share a little bit about their faith journeys and for their sponsors, Andy KK for Andrew and Austin K for Tennison to give affirmation and blessings. After this part of the service is done we will reconvene by the lake and have a couple baptisms.
The scripture that Tennison has chosen for today comes from Ecclesiastes 3. There is a season and a time for everything. It begins by saying, “a time to be born and a time to die,” and proceeds to name some of the many things which happen in between that span of birth and death. A time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time for war and a time for peace. On that last one, let’s agree that the time for war is over, and the time for peace is here.
Each of these couplets is paired together in such a way that they give the sweet right alongside the sour, even the bitter. A time to laugh, and a time to weep. For every bit of goodness, there is an accompanying hardship. This can be both comforting and a reason for pause.
Are you in mourning? Be comforted. There will also be times to dance.
Are you building up, sewing together, embracing? Remember. There will also be times of breaking down, of tearing part, of refraining from embracing.
Being baptized is neither an exemption from nor a reduction of the odds that one will encounter the more difficult experiences that time brings our way. Jesus even teaches that his followers can expect to experience more difficulties and hardships. If life is too easy, we might be doing something wrong! Baptism does not provide a way out of the darker and more painful parts of life, but it does provide a particular way of walking through those experiences. An orientation. A way of seeing. A way of interpreting. Our baptismal identity gives us a particular way of being in time, a particular way of relating to time, and all of the very human joys and sorrows that time holds.
The verse that Andrew has chosen is from Isaiah 40:31 “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” In our conversations leading up to today Andrew mentioned that this was the verse that was highlighted for him by his parents in the Bible that he received from this church as a seven year old. It’s one he has continued to come back to especially when he has not felt like he was soaring like an eagle. So these Bibles and verses that we give our children do have some lasting meaning. Good news!
This is one of those pieces of scripture that we are drawn to precisely because it speaks of impossible things. Who can run without getting worn out? Even Forest Gump had to admit he was tired after a while. How can we mount up with wings like eagles? But there it is, in the text. Those who wait for the Lord. Those who trust in the graciousness of Ultimate Reality to renew us, to strengthen us in our weakness, to offer impossible gifts during impossible times. This is how you walk, and keep walking, and not faint. A particular way of being within time that involves opening oneself to this gift, often hidden but miraculously present and available.
Today, for Tennison and Andrew, is a time to be baptized.
This is one day of your life.
If you should happen to live to be 85 years old, lets say, this day of your baptism represents 1 out of 31,025 days. Put that in a fraction and it’s a very low percentage of time and life experiences you will have. But the beautiful thing about baptism, is that it carries with it this density of meaning, this expansiveness of significance, that it is now something that will be present with you through the rest of the days of your life. You will live with a baptismal identity. You do not have to know now what all this means, but we, as your church family, encourage you to consider that what it means will continue to take on depth and richness throughout your life. You’ve already heard from Austin and Andy that their baptism means something different to them now than when they were baptized, and it will continue to mature for all of us.
There is a time for everything. A time to be baptized, and the rest of the time to figure out what that means for your life.
I am holding in my hand an Illinois Lottery All Jackpot Report slip from a couple years ago. On the back of it is handwritten ECC Chap 4:9-11. This ticket was a gift to me, and I’ve kept it as a way of remembering the experience that went along with it.
The handwriting belongs to someone that I knew only as Troy, and he gave me this slip of paper at the gas station where I had taken him to fill up his gas can. I had been driving from Kansas back to Ohio after spending some time with Abbie’s family and Abbie and the girls had stayed back for an extra week. I was in the middle of Illinois and saw a guy on the side of the interstate beside his car, holding up a gas can. It’s not real often that I’m driving by myself, without having to be at the destination at any particular time, so I decided to stop. Troy got in the car, cursed at himself for running out of gas and asked for a ride to the nearest gas station. After I asked him his name he asked me what I do for a living, and I told him I’m a pastor. He laughed at me and replied that there was no way I was a pastor. Unshaken by his doubt, I repeated that actually, I am a pastor. He said I couldn’t be a pastor because I didn’t have a Bible on the dashboard. “Every pastor I’ve known always carries a Bible by their side,” he said. I didn’t know how to come back at that one, so I told him I was on vacation, which he thought was a really lousy excuse. He eventually believed me and confided that he was recently out of jail after ten years, having woman problems, but had been reading the Bible a lot recently. He said he had a Bible verse that he wanted to pass along to me. At the gas station he asked the attendant for a slip of paper, and wrote on the back ECC Chap 4:9-11. Ecclesiastes 4:9-11. He gave it to me and told me to look it up when I got back home and got my Bible.
I did, and it says: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other, but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie down together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?”
I’ve kept this note not only to remember meeting Troy, but also as an accompanying text to the book of Ecclesiastes.
If you’ve ever read Ecclesiastes, the question may have crossed your mind of how this book got to be part of the Bible in the first place. The Hebrew Scriptures are an interesting mix. They contain the voices of the prophets, who speak of what can be, the kind life that we long for, visions that feel nearly impossible to be realized. Coming, it seems, from somewhere beyond the scope of human history. Beating swords into plowshares, nations learning war no more, justice being established on the earth, the lion and lamb lying down together, everyone living under their own vine and fig tree and being unafraid. These are the flashes of the prophetic imagination that hold up, out there, God’s dream for the world.
And then there is the book of Ecclesiastes, which dwells, unrelentingly, on the here, and makes observations that drive the other direction. Not necessarily into despair, but into the undeniable reality of our own mortality, the ambiguity of morality, and fleeting nature of all things that happen “under the sun” as the author is fond of saying. There’s some cynicism, some pessimism, but it’s not quite without hope. It’s in the neighborhood of what we would get if George Carlin and Eeyore the Donkey got together to write their treatise on life.
If you struggle with some of the supernatural aspects of the Bible, Ecclesiastes could very well serve as a welcome, natural, entry point into the scriptures. If you get weary of religion that attempts to sugar-coat the hard truths of life, this is also a book for you.
Unfortunately it is only included for one Sunday out of the entire three year lectionary cycle. That’s actually next Sunday, but with our focus on the MC USA Phoenix Convention for next worship time, I thought we could bump it up so we wouldn’t skip over it.
Ecclesiastes uses the ancient practice of fictional autobiography to speak its mind. As we read we are asked to imagine these being the words of Solomon, the aged king of Israel who in his youth asked for wisdom from God and in his elder years is now reflecting on the follies and benefits of wisdom in light of all that he has witnessed in his life. Ecclesiastes was probably written about 500 years after the life of Solomon and in the text, the writer simply refers to himself as Qohelet, the Teacher.
That passage from Troy is one of the more upbeat and positive notes from Ecclesiastes. It appears against a backdrop that has already called into question any single proverb’s ability to contain the secret meaning of life, already challenged any notion that if we just have someone by our side throughout life that we will make it through unscathed, our bodies always warm and our tanks always full.
One thing that seems to be the case about people as they get older, which I love, is that they feel less inclined to beat around the bush in what they have to say – less inhibited, perhaps, with wondering what people may think about them and more free to speak their mind. This is the manner in which Qohelet begins, cutting directly to the chase. Chapter 1, verse 1: “The words of Qohelet, (the Teacher), the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” Anytime someone gives an opening statement and uses the same word five times right away, it’s a good clue that they might be trying to emphasize that theme. Vanity. All is vanity. It’s a word that keeps showing up throughout the discourse and presents, up front, the central problem with which the text is dealing. So right away we have some work to do in making sure we have a sense of what’s meant by this word.
Vanity is a decent English translation that captures some of the gist of the expression. Vanity suggests futility, even meaninglessness. The Hebrew word behind it, Hevel, is rich with multiple layers of meaning. It is related to breath and can mean a vapor, wind, a mist – something insubstantial and fleeting. All is vapor, barely even here.
One of the first stories of the Bible is about a young man named Hevel, whom we call Abel. Same word. Cain and Hevel. Hevel wholeheartedly gives his offering to God but his life is fleeting, his effort nearly insubstantial to history, as he is murdered by his brother. Faithful Hevel is gone but murderous Cain lives on. Abel, hevel incarnate, never got to be old enough to even realize that all was Hevel. The Teacher will observe in his writing “In my hevel life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing” (7:15). We’re all hevel, vapor, gone with the wind.
But this doesn’t necessarily have to be purely a negative thing. Hevel could also be understood as emptiness. All is emptiness. For Buddhists, when one realizes that all is empty, one has reached enlightenment. When one accepts that nothing has any independent life in itself, one enters a new level of consciousness that can lift one beyond suffering. Jesus echoes something similar when he says, “the one who loses their life will find it.” And in Philippians we read that Christ emptied himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross, which then becomes the path toward exultation.
Physics has discovered that in regards to physical matter, emptiness is a pretty good description. In going inside the atom, the building block of everything we can see, it is a stunning arena of empty space, with the nucleus and the electrons occupying a tiny portion of what is otherwise vast emptiness. Even the very substance of the world itself, that which appears to us as most real, most solid, is, to the best of our knowledge, hevel. Hevel isn’t quite nothingness. It’s not pure emptiness, it’s just close. It’s mist. It’s nothing plus a little bit, as close as one can get to nothing while still having something.
This is what the aged Qohelet is facing head on. All is hevel. And he’s not particularly ready to just let it slide at that. He has a few things he’d like to get off his chest about this state of affairs. As long as his vocal chords are still swinging in the wind he would like to voice some thoughts.
“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is hevel.” (2:22-23)
“Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no one to comfort them. On the side of their oppressors there was power – with no one to comfort them…Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is a hevel and a chasing after the wind.” (4:1,4)
“The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth with gain. This also is hevel.” (5:10)
“All this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them is hevel, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice…this is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone.” (9:1-3)
Those four readings span from the beginning to the end of Ecclesiastes. The vapor/breath/mist/emptiness/insubstantiality is not something that The Teacher feels can be moved beyond or argued against or say, well, it seems like all is hevel, but really, it’s something else. The book ends the same way it started. In 12:8, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, all is vanity.” All is hevel. Hevel just is, and the old Teacher who has known wisdom has no illusions that it might be otherwise.
Well, what’s an old, weathered ancient near eastern king to do with this? Or, better yet, what’s a bunch of youthful and young at heart 21st century Columbus Mennonites to do with this?
The Teacher has some constructive words to offer, although it’s hard to tell how convinced he is by his own attempts to speak with wisdom. He has essentially let go of the need to make sense of what he has seen under the sun, let go of his need to make sense of God, about which he says, “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.” (11:5). There is a tone of surrender, of yieldedness that breaks through.
And what The Teacher suggests, here and there, throughout his wonderings, holding it out tentatively as if it were the only humble offering he has to bring before the alter of life is – the possibility of enjoyment. Enjoyment. And one of the words translated enjoyment is simkha, which completes the puzzler sermon title. Would you like some simkha with your hevel? Would you like some enjoyment with your futility? It’s fleeting, it may be a small consolation in the game of life where nobody makes it out alive, but it’s one of the gifts that The Teacher has seen in all the things that happen under the sun. Joy is something that the Apostle Paul names as a fruit of the Spirit. And for the Teacher, this is more than just a spiritual state of mind. It involves eating good food, enjoying some well-made wine, making love to your partner, wearing nice clothes, finding pleasure in your work, and enjoying the wealth that your work brings you.
Here is some of what The Teacher has to say about enjoyment, again spanning from the beginning to the end of the book, and, not presented as a solution, problem solved, and initially, not even as something that really works all that well. But, perhaps, at the end, seen as a gift present within the Hevel that still gets the first and last word.
“I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad,’ and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’ I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine – my mind still guiding me with wisdom – and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life.” (2:1-3)
“This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil – this is the gift of God.” (5:18-20)
“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your heard. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might.” (9:7-10a)
“Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. Rejoice, young person, 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. Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body.” (11:8-10)
Commentators are all over the map on just what to make of The Teacher – evaluations range from Enlightened One to Cynical Depressed Old Man. I like to think of him as a brutal realist who, now in an age of quick fix religion and seven easy steps to a happy life is a breath of fresh air – a breath of fresh hevel.
It’s a strange kind of comfort to let go in the way that The Teacher is trying to let go and surrender to whatever it is that holds us up and keeps us from falling into the Abyss. Grace, Serendipity, Mystery, God. Somehow when we stop fighting and flailing about, rather than sinking to the bottom as we should, we find ourselves buoyed up by a Presence that we have no ability to claim any full knowledge of other than its effect of not only keeping us afloat, if barely, but also helping us find something that resembles – surprise – enjoyment of the water and the waves, the wind blowing mist in whatever direction it happens to be traveling that day.
My encounter with Troy was a few minutes of a long trip home and a tiny blip on whatever timeline of history it is we’re all on together. It was basically a vapor. Neither heroic nor completely void of meaning. It is what it is, like so many other encounters and relationships we have that span a few minutes or days or a little longer. Hevel, Abel, is uncertain of what his offering even means, knows that in giving it he receives no guarantees or promises of a long, happy, and prosperous life, but still he lifts it up to heaven. All might be hevel, and hevel might be the closest thing you can get to nothing while still having something, but there is that miraculous spark of something.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.
We needed 28 readers for that, which I’m guessing is a record for a scripture reading at Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship. 28 different happenings, seasons of life, arranged as 14 different pairings. Seven is the biblical number of completeness, so these pairs are seven twice over, double completeness. A representative sample of everything. “For everything there is a season.” And each of these happenings, each statement from all 28 readers, shares a key common word: Time.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writing in the middle of the 20th century, made the bold statement that “the Bible is more concerned with time than with space.” (p. 6) He pointed out that while the religions of the ancient world tended to locate the deity in particular places – “mountains, forests, trees or stones,” a shrine, a sacred image – that the Jews experienced God as primarily present within history, within time: deliverance from Egypt, and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and Sabbath which he called “a cathedral in time.” Heschel wrote: “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information (or things), but to face sacred moments.” (p. 6) (All quotes taken from Heschel’s book The Sabbath)
These are beautiful thoughts, but it’s questionable whether the writer of Ecclesiastes would buy it. Ecclesiastes is one of the Wisdom writings of the Old Testament, a group that includes Job and Proverbs, and extra-biblical books like the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. One of the characteristics of Wisdom is that it makes no reference to any of these signature happenings of Jewish identity. The promises to the patriarchs and matriarchs, the Exodus, and Sinai, are not mentioned. Instead, Wisdom concerns itself with the raw material of life. It is a universal category of literature, a shared language across cultures. It concerns itself with things that can be seen and observed. The object of observation is life itself, in all its joyous, brutal, and boring aspects. Things happening right now, in your neighborhood. And, as Ecclesiastes states time again, if life has its sacred moments, then it also has its desecrated moments, and it’s pretty hard to sort out what this is all about. What’s going on within this time that we are in.
We use many of the same kinds of words for time that we use for money. Time can be spent, saved, and invested, but it defies being accumulated. And it can’t be tricked. Our extended family would always get together to celebrate birthdays and I remember that when my Aunt Teri was in her early 30’s she told us she was going to save some of 30’s birthdays until later and use up her 50’s now. I think it’s about time for her to be cashing those in.
In the spirit of Ecclesiastes and Wisdom, I’d like to make two observations here. I know that sermons are supposed to have at least three points, but Connie will also be speaking to what she has observed through the passage and why it is significant for her, so that should fill things out.
The first observation we might call The vulnerability of wisdom
Look at the Bible in your hands or in front of you in the pew, and then imagine it’s not there. All of sacred history and its revelations are set aside, and all you have are your life experiences, common sense, and the world around you. Pay attention. Where do you find wisdom? Where do you find foolishness? In one way, this is how the wisdom writers seem to approach their task.
Or, better yet, open the Bible and read it all the way through, but then add to that the Qur’an, the Talmud, Confucious, the Vedas, Lao Tzu; and while you’re at it, pile on Homer, and Dante, and Tolstoy, and Mary Oliver, and Harry Potter, and whatever else you can get from inner library loan. Not sure if Harry Potter belonged on that list. But Yes. Anything. Everything. And that’s just the books. Open your eyes and look. Look at the ants and spiders, gaze at a tree, listen for the bird call, feel the stones, watch the people. Wisdom dares to confront it all. To not leave anything out. To look, observe, take it in. What do you see? Don’t sugar coat it. Don’t turn your head when it gets difficult. Don’t rely on easy clichés when you don’t understand.
Just about all the book of Job is actually spent arguing against what had become the conventional wisdom of the day. While his friends take cover under their piety and platitudes, Job is exposed, in his suffering, at the mercy of biology, and God. Wisdom is vulnerable.
Apparently, it also dismisses the idea that one always need to be pleasant in order to be righteous. Ecclesiastes begins:
NRSV Ecclesiastes 1:1-9 The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. 8 All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
Of course, these are the Teacher’s opening statements, and not his concluding statements, but it is quite a way to kick things off. And it does put in a different light those words from Ecclesiastes 3. Are they a statement about the expansiveness of life experiences, or are they a statement about the restrictions of what life has to offer? All these things have already happened to others, and they’re going to happen to you, so you might as well get ready. There’s nothing new under the sun.
Wisdom opens itself up to vulnerability because it looks reality square in the face, and even if it admits that it can’t see everything, it names openly what it can see, and puts it out there for others to consider.
These kinds of thoughts are normally ones that we might consider to be outside the realm of faith. In the category of doubt, or skepticism. But, remarkably, Ecclesiastes is in the Bible. How did that happen?! The very collection of sacred history that Wisdom is willing to look beyond, includes this voice, and canonizes its perspective. Wisdom, vulnerability, honest inquiry, openness to insight wherever it may come from: this is part of what the life of faith is all about.
The second observation is the Importance of knowing what time it is.
The basic observation of Ecclesiastes 3 is that life happens in seasons, and, I’m guessing since enough of us chose it as an important passage, it rings true. There’s a time for everything.
Some of the things mentioned here are difficult. “A time for war.” One way of looking at this is to consider that we are in a time of war, and it’s important to be conscious of that. It’s not a time of peace. And, we could perhaps try and convince our leaders, that the time for war is over. It’s time for a new season.
“A time to kill and a time to heal.” I’m not particularly all that interested in experiencing a time to kill. But we do have those chickens in our backyard. They’re still giving us eggs every day, but they’re in their second year and production is going to trail off at some point. When the Bellefontaine Farmer’s Market is done in the fall and there are live first year chickens available that my parents are offering, is it time to kill these? And if you ever eat meat, then it was time to kill somewhere, you just had the luxury of not having to do it yourself.
It’s been observed that the structure of the opening and closing couplets might speak a message in itself: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time for war, and a time for peace. Death and war are a part of what time holds, but neither one gets the first or last word, as they are enclosed within birth and peace.
It’s important to know what time it is.
I think of Eric Erickson’s developmental stages of personhood and how each of these seasons has different opportunities and pitfalls. The adult stages are Intimacy and Solidarity vs Isolation. Generativity vs. Stagnation. Integrity vs. Despair.
What time is it, and what are the opportunities and pitfalls of this particular time of life?
It’s a beautiful thing when you see people embracing the particular season of life that they are in. Children do this without necessarily being conscious of it yet, with their exuberant playfulness. You can see it in the charged energy of youth, in the freedom of young adulthood for travel and exploring the world and one’s identity. We see the seasons of life being embraced in the happiness of a newlywed couple or the contentment of someone who is single, investing in friendships. We see it when expectant parents focus their attention and energy on preparing a safe and loving space for a birth, or an adoption; during the householding years when people give their passion and creativity toward a career or business venture, making a home, raising children. When someone slowly recovers from a painful divorce and faces this unknown future they never thought would be theirs with an open heart; embracing this season. It’s a beautiful thing when a couple walks through the disorientation of an empty nest and rediscovers their love for each other in new and simple ways. When the retired person pursues an interest that fills them with joy. When the aging woman embraces being the gentle crone, the wise woman, a mentor who distributes blessings and calls everyone “dear” because she has come to know that it is true. It’s a beautiful thing when a man in his twilight years need only give that sharp, mischievous smile to say more than words are able.
It’s a beautiful thing when you see people embracing the particular season of life that they are in, although it can also be beautiful when people defy age stereotypes. When you see the 60 year old woman running in the 5k race, or the adolescent boy playing gently with young children.
So without being overly restrictive about it, one of the key directives on the path of wisdom seems to be knowing what time it is. When you know what time it is, you can embrace it for all its gifts. But there’s no need to hold on too tight. It is a season, and it will end, and a new season will come.
These are times that happen on the scale of one human life. People who look at the larger scale of time tell us that we are currently living during 6th mass extinction period in the history of life. If this is true, then this also helps direct our path. It means we all, every one of us on this planet at this time, have a common calling, since we all live in the same time. It’s a calling to celebrate and cherish the beauty that we have inherited, that has taken millions of years to produce, but which won’t always be with us in this form. It’s a call to mourn losses. It’s a call to humility. To live humbly on this planet. It’s also a call to take responsibility for our exisitence. To come out of adolescence as a species and grow into adulthood.
As Christian people, we have a special way of talking about time and understanding our current time. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes said “There is nothing new under the sun” but the writers of the New Testament, those who experienced the radiance of Jesus, and Jesus himself, speak quite openly about newness. About something already here, pressing in through the pores of time. “This is the new covenant. Do this. Remember this.” “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, the old has gone, and the new has come.” Time, as Jesus taught, is haunted by the dreams of God. Time is the arena in which these dreams come to realized. “The kingdom of God is at hand.” “Now is the day of salvation.” The rabbi from Galilee and the rabbi of the 20th century have a similar message. “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information (or things), but to face sacred moments.” And those sacred moments are now, and always will be.
On this first day of the Sunday school year, after much work has gone into recruiting teachers, planning for the year ahead, and teachers have begun their work, I guess it’s OK if we finally break out the fine print. The New Testament reading for the day just so happens to be James chapter three, whose opening words are most likely not a part of any pitch that Christian Education committees around the world give for potential teachers. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” For those who have already signed the dotted line, we thank you sincerely. But there’s no going back now.
A little further down in the fine print are the words from the Hebrew Wisdom tradition which open the book of Ecclesiastes. In contrast to the exalted form of Woman Wisdom that we find in Proverbs, the Teacher, as he calls himself, of Ecclesiastes, is not taken by the mystical union with God that learning and the pursuit of Wisdom can bring about. “I, the Teacher, 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 be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted…. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” Inspirational words from “The Teacher.”
Who still wants to teach? These readings are full of warnings and caution signs, putting doubt on the value of wisdom, and calling into question the work of teaching. Reading further in James chapter three, about the destructive power of the tongue, one could get the sense that any kind of speech, whether it be from a teacher to a student or a friend to a friend, is risky business. Reading further in Ecclesiastes one can get the impression that after all of his life studies, the one thing that this Teacher has learned to pass on to students would go something like this: Life is hard, and then you die. Sounds like a short class.
When we decided to carry this Wisdom theme for the month I hadn’t been planning on going in this direction today, but I want to talk some about the connections and tensions between Wisdom and teaching. Wisdom being this ever present, active and engaged teacher who, as Proverbs says, calls out from the streets and the gates of the city, and who is present in the little things of creation. And teaching being our difficult work of trying to listen to Wisdom, and passing along what we hear to others.
Those of you who have done this for a living know better than the rest of us the challenges and rewards of attempting to teach. I imagine you’ve experienced James’ words of being “judged with greater strictness” by parents or students who aren’t all that excited about how you are going about your work. And that you also judge yourselves with a fair amount of strictness in trying to figure out how to do your work well. And I imagine that there are time when you can sympathize with the words of The Teacher whose opening words are “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.…A generation goes, and a generation comes.”
There is a fairly simple diagram that I have found helpful that illustrates the elements of the life of the church. It’s a Venn Diagram, and there are three circles. One circle is worship – the ways that we express awe and wonder and lament and praise with God. Another circle is Community – the ways that we share life together. And the other circle is Mission – how we reach beyond ourselves with good news. Worship, Community, Mission. And the center point, where all these circles intersect, is Formation/Transformation. All of these things working together for this central reality of the church. Forming and Transforming people and communities is the central activity of the church. And the act of teaching, education, that we do, is right at that center. This is a key place where formation happens. Teaching is a great gift, and one of the titles of Jesus was the Great Teacher. We are formed by those who teach us.
For those who have ever found themselves in a teaching role, whether formally or informally, I’m going to offer that in the act of teaching, we always have two companions with us who don’t exactly see eye to eye, but who help us mature as teachers. One companion is Wisdom, this personified presence that speaks of that which is good and true and beautiful in the world. The other is The Teacher, the voice behind the book of Ecclesiastes, who through a lifetime of observation and reflection on all the facets of life, often reverts to a single word that seems to characterize the whole blasted thing: Vanity, Meaningless. Hevel, in Hebrew, which literally means a vapor, a mist, something without real substance. The Hebrew Wisdom tradition itself contains both of these voices, and they both continue to speak to those of us who have the gumption to put ourselves in the position of teachers.
Last week I tried to introduce the first of these companions. Wisdom has a life of its own and is imagined to be like a woman who has built a house and invites all who wish to enter to come in and learn. Proverbs 8:22 is the voice of Wisdom speaking and it says, “The Lord created me at the beginning of God’s work, the first of God’s acts of long ago.” She was the first of all God’s creations, there before anything else existed, and everything that follows in creation, every creative act of God, we could say every cluster of energy that exploded out of the Big Bang, has in it some form of wisdom.
The Wisdom of Solomon is one of these books that make up the apocrypha – not a part of the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament but still considered to represent the biblical tradition in many ways. It’s one of the books of Wisdom Literature and has the beautiful poem to wisdom in chapter 7 – “For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of God’s goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls, and makes them friends of God, and prophets, for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.”
So Wisdom is this wonderful companion for the teacher. Or a better way of putting it would probably be that we are Wisdom’s companion. Wisdom is the great Teacher, already present in all things – already present in the creativity of our children, already present in the subject matter that we try and present, ready to bring us along in becoming friends of God and prophets. And we as the teacher are the ones who get to help this process along and be a partner with Wisdom.
That’s one companion, Wisdom, and then the other companion is this tricky booger that Ecclesiastes, also a part of the Wisdom tradition, calls The Teacher. Because The Teacher has been looking for Wisdom his whole life, been trying to pay attention and be observant and be one of those holy souls that Wisdom passes through, and he’s just not feeling it. It’s not coming together for him and he’s not going to pretend that he can understand any of this or that creation fits together in one beautiful cosmic work of art. So The Teacher says things like “I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” And he says things like “When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.” In an attempt to know deeply, and to pass on what he has learned to others, The Teacher confronts his own limitations, and often becomes bogged down in frustration, even, at times, despair. Some of the most constructive teaching he can offer is named in chapter 9, verses 7-10, where he basically says, that we should enjoy life while we can — eat, drink, wear nice clothes, and work hard at what you enjoy, because that’s about the best we can do in life.
One of the teachers I’ve had who reminds me of The Teacher of Ecclesiastes was a history professor at Eastern University. He was a brilliant guy, knew all sorts of things about history and had been teaching for quite a while, but it was pretty clear that at some point in his career he had become fairly disinterested in his subject. Somewhere along the way he seemed to have concluded that the more you know about history, the more bleak the future looks. One of the ways this showed up in the classroom was that he taught with a cynical, although rather humorous tone throughout all the lectures. Another way this showed up was that he was easily diverted from talking about history to talking about his favorite subject: cheeseburgers. He loved cheeseburgers and would describe in detail different cheeseburgers he had eaten at different places. He also had a way of connecting the telling of history with cheeseburgers. For example, in the 16th century Martin Luther and the Catholic Bishops could have gotten along a lot better together if they just could have sat down and talked things through while eating cheeseburgers. They both would have been a lot happier. Cheeseburgers, and the pleasure that they bring, were the bright light of hope in an otherwise tragic story.
There’s more nuance to Ecclesiastes, but it points toward something that Parker Palmer emphasizes. He’s a teacher himself, and works to train other teachers, and one of his books is called “The Courage to Teach.” And he says that every teacher must confront the tangles they run into with 1) their subject matter, and 2) their students. Both of these containing more complexity and challenges than any teacher can every completely figure out. He says, ““We must enter, not evade, the tangles of teaching so we can understand them better and negotiate them with more grace, not only to guard our own spirits but also to serve our students well” (p. 2)
And then he goes on to say, which is really his main point and then what the rest of the book is about, that the third tangle confronting teachers is really themselves. The self of teacher. That teachers, ultimately, are offering themselves to their students and their subject matter, and that the journey of the teacher is really an inward journey, to maintain one’s interest in teaching, and ultimately, to nurture love. To let love triumph in us so that our love for our students and our love for our subjects, and, we could say, our love for God, becomes what we teach. He doesn’t put it this way, but we could say that these two companions of Wisdom and The Teacher also are about our own soul work. Our desire to become wise people, and the way that we deal with our limitations.
I want to come back to something that I think holds all these different pieces together and close with this – and that is this picture of Wisdom being present at the beginning of creation. As God creates, Wisdom is there. This place of creation is also the place where the one who teachers finds herself. It’s this Genesis One picture of hovering over the unformed stuff of the world, and then being there when formation begins to happen. Confronting the chaos of the deep waters, and partnering with God as the subject matter begins to take shape. And using language, the creative instrument of God, Let there be light, as a tool in this creative process. James three warns that language can be destructive, but we also know it can be constructive and a teacher looks for ways to communicate constructively, in a way that brings to life. And teaching becomes a partnership with God, a partnership with Wisdom in the ongoing process of creation.
We are grateful for those with the courage to teach. Here, and in the schools in our city, and a few that teach at home. We believe this is a great gift you are giving to us and an important way that you are letting God move through you. May you find companionship with Wisdom and The Teacher, and may you know God’s grace, extended to you, in your own formation.
Work.For better or for worse, much of our identities are tied up into our work.One of the first questions that we ask people when we’re getting to know them is “What do you do?”It doesn’t tell us everything about a person, but it does help give insight into a significant part of a person’s life.The challenges one is used to facing on a regular basis through one’s work are formative of one’s personality and outlook on life.
To separate work from spirituality would be a great loss.We regularly give our best energy to our work.Many of our most creative thoughts, a high percentage of our waking hours, the skills that we have taken years to develop, go into our work.A contractor, a social worker, a stay at home parent, an engineer, a factory worker, all have different ways of expressing their spirituality in their work.
Gregory Pierce has written a book called Spirituality@Work and uses this simple definition for work: “All effort (paid or unpaid) we exert to make the world a better place, a little closer to the way God would have things.”Pierce names himself as “piety impaired” and says the kind of spirituality he lives out and encourages in others, “has little to do with piety and much more to do with our becoming aware of the intrinsically spiritual nature of the work we are doing and then acting on that awareness.Authentic spirituality – at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition – is as much about making hard choices in our daily lives, about working with others to make the world a better place, and about loving our neighbor and even our enemy, as it is about worship and prayer.” (The Marketplace magazine, March/April 2008, p. 4)
One of the commentaries on the world of work these days is the comic strip Dilbert.I’m not a Dilbert junkie by any means, but I do try and check in most mornings while reading the newspaper to see what’s going on there. It’s been observed that Dilbert is a one joke comic.The joke is that work is spiritually vacant, depressing, and all about a nonproductive confrontation of egos, and everybody is miserably playing along with the game.The funny thing is, the joke works every time.Each comic strip is another meeting, another water cooler conversation, another email or phone exchange, another cubicle confrontation where this punch line shows up again and again.Dilbert’s popularity has to reveal something about how painfully close it comes to many people’s reality.
Sitting around a meeting table with Dilbert and the pointy haired boss, co-worker Wally says, “I took a class on being less useless.Now I see the world in a different light.For example, I recognize these staff meetings as colossal wastes of time, but there’s nothing I can do about them.Now my helplessness makes my uselessness seem unimportant.”At another meeting Dilbert is giving a presentation and pointing to a projection on the wall with lots of different shapes and arrows going every which way.He says, “You won’t read my technical report so I summarized it in this complicated slide.If you stare at it long enough you will either experience the illusion of understanding it or be too embarrassed to admit you don’t.Do you have any questions to betray your ignorance?”To which someone looks at the slide and asks, “Is the triangle thing mad at the tube?”In another comic Dilbert’s boss, who is continually coming up with meaningless work to make the company seem more efficient and productive, is leading a meeting and saying: “Starting today, all passwords must contain letters, numbers, doodles, sign language, and squirrel noises.”
In Dilbert’s world, work brings out the worst in people.
If there is a biblical equivalent to Dilbert, it would have to be the book of Ecclesiastes – only here the burden of work is more of a tragedy than a comedy.Ecclesiastes, written by one called “The Teacher,” is a reflection by someone who refuses to ignore the darker side of reality or be easily comforted by platitudes.The book begins in this upbeat way:“Utter futility, says the teacher, utter futility.All is futile.What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?One generation goes, another comes.But the earth remains the same forever.The sun rises, and the sun sets – And glides back to where it rises.Southward blowing, Turning northward, Ever turning blows the wind; On its rounds the wind returns.All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.All things are wearisome; more than one can express.”The word used in the opening line, “Futility,” is a theme throughout the writing, showing up in 11 of the 12 chapters for a total of 38 times.It literally means a “vapor” or a “mist,” something without substance or meaning.Useless and empty.Futility.It’s often followed by the phrase, “a chasing after the wind,” an example of something elusive and pretty much pointless.
Ecclesiastes covers more than the world of work and labor, but does mention this a number of times.One of the main complaints is that what we do and all of our efforts make such a little difference.The teacher is fond of saying that “there is nothing new under the sun.”“That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is.”The seasons come and go, we do what we do, and things stay pretty much the same.The teacher asks, “What gain have the workers from their toil?”
The Teacher is also mindful of injustices connected with labor and the apparent lack of divine or human regulation going on to right these wrongs.Chapter 4 begins, “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no one to comfort them!On the side of the oppressors there was power – with no one to comfort them….Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another.This also is a futility and a chasing after the wind.”
But this isn’t all that scripture has to say about work.Like many other aspects of life, the original vision for what something can be like, comes out of the mythical first chapters of Genesis.Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took and placed the human creature in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”The original vocation of humanity was to be keepers of the earth, stewards of creation.And like the rest of creation, this is good.Work is good.It’s actually a gift.Work has meaning and is part of who we are.It’s in our DNA to long for good work to do.To care for our plot of land, to care for our neighbors, to create and invent and build and collaborate together on projects that enhance the beauty of the world.We can’t separate ourselves from this connection to work.Whether we are getting paid for it or not, we are all workers looking for good work to do.
It’s possible to read the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures as a people’s long journey from poor work – futile toiling and laboring – toward good work.It didn’t take long after Genesis 2, of course, for the joy of work to become the burden of work.And it didn’t take much longer for the burden of work to become the worst form of work, slavery — when one people or nation seeks not to care for the earth and nurture life and beauty, but to dominate the earth and consolidate power.The ancient Israelites found themselves on the underside of an Egyptian empire that sought this very control over the world.And work became not a life giving activity, but a life-draining demand.Exodus tells that, “The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them” (Exodus 1:13-14).The harder the Hebrews worked, the more the Egyptians demanded from them, eventually not even supplying them with straw for the bricks they were making, but asking them to gather their own straw while still having the same quota of bricks.And so the people cry out.
In The Lord of the Rings book,Frodo’s companion Sam says, “The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”
Yahweh, the God of slaves and all oppressed people, could not agree more with the theologian from The Shire, Sam Gamgee.Yahweh hears the cry of the slaves and responds with a mighty hand to deliver the Hebrews from their slavery and to bring them out as a free people, giving them laws and commandments in order that they may keep living as free people.A people who will partner with God in the good work of being a blessing to all nations.
There is a phrase in the scriptures that represents the vision of what good work looks like.When everyone has opportunity for constructive, meaningful work.It’s a phrase that also refers to a state of security and peace and social stability.The prophet Micah uses the phrase when he says, “God shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:3-4).Sitting under one’s own vine and fig tree was a symbol of people having the freedom from fear of violence, and the freedom of good work on one’s own plot of land.To care for one’s family and community.
So the Hebrews who become the Israelites make the God-led move from the toil and poor work of slavery toward good work that can lead toward all sitting under their own vine and fig tree.
For the last couple of years I’ve been engaged in the work of pastoring.I have found this to be good work and am grateful for the chance to have this kind of work.Inevitably, there are two common responses that people give when I tell them that I’m a pastor.One is to say that pastoring must be the most difficult, challenging work that there is, something that no one would really do in their right mind.The other is to say that pastoring must be the most rewarding, meaningful work that there is, right in the middle of God’s work in the world.Without meaning any disrespect to the calling of pastors, I believe that this work is no more and no less a part of God’s mission in the world than many other forms of work that are available.We are all engaged in difficult work that we have to be a little out of our mind to be doing, and we are all right in the middle of God’s work that can be meaningful and rewarding.
Here’s a line from a recent essay put out by the Alban Institute that summarizes all of this well: “Every rightful human task is some aspect of God’s own work: making, designing, doing chores, beautifying, organizing, helping, bringing dignity, and leading. Our work then is to reflect God’s work. As the apostle Paul proclaims, ‘Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people’” (Col. 3:23).(Alban “Called to purpose and meaning” 5/12/08)
We’re all called to good work, and even the Dilbertesque Teacher of Ecclesiastes is willing to give some worth to this calling:In 3:12-14 it says, “I know that there is nothing better for us than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we live.Moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before God.”
Over the next few weeks we’ll keep reflecting together on work and spirituality.What makes for good work?How do we encounter God and wisdom at work and through work?As a way of visualizing the coming together of work and spirituality we’re inviting everyone to bring in some object from their work world to be up front in our worship space.This could a hammer, a calculator, a baby toy, a book, or whatever may symbolize what you give your time to throughout the day.I’m going to get things started by placing this sermon manuscript on the table.May God bless our worship and our work and bring them together as one expression of love for God and neighbor.