"My Ecclesiastes Phase" (Ecclesiastes 1:1-4, Ecclesiastes 1:12-18, Philippians 4:8-9)Richard Noel Chrisman, June 10, 2018
Part of the Pentecost series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page
Sermon: Richard Chrisman 6/10/18
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1:1-4, 12-18
“My Ecclesiastes Phase”
Over the last year I have been saying I can’t take another month of this. Over the most recent months, I was saying I can’t take another week of this. Over the last couple weeks, I said I couldn’t take another day of this. Separating children from their families--what is this, the Gulag?
It has driven into an “Ecclesiastes phase.” I feel just like the speaker or “Preacher” in the Book of Ecclesiastes that you just got a little taste of in the scripture reading this morning--
”Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” “Utter futility,” you heard it read, “what does anyone gain from their labor and toil here under the sun? Generations come and generations go, while the earth endures forever.” There is much more of this in the following 13 chapters. Like, “I applied myself to understanding wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly, this too is a chasing of the wind.” And, “I saw here under the sun that where justice ought to be, there was wickedness; and where righteousness ought to be, there was wickedness.” And, “I considered all the acts of oppression perpetrated under the sun; and I saw the tears of the oppressed and there was no one to comfort them.” Nor was any of this new; in fact, “there is nothing new under the sun, it has all existed before, long before our time.” Finally, he says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come . . . and the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken.”
You can see why people have regarded this as the most cynical book in the Bible. So negative were its conclusions deemed, that the rabbis debated whether Ecclesiastes even belonged in the Bible at the time that the book was composed in the 3rd century BCE out of 7th century BCE materials that drew from oral tradition out of the court of King Solomon who ruled in Jerusalem from 970 to 931 BCE. (But King Solomon is not the author or source, contrary to popular opinion.) And Christian commentators and authorities down through the centuries have also questioned the appropriateness of including this book in the canon.
Only, this book is not what it superficially sounds like. An ancient spiritual tradition was gathered by an editor and put into the mouth of a “preacher” or “teacher” of the royal court who is educated, sophisticated, privileged, and close to the seat of power. He has seen it all. And he is reacting to the decline and decadence of his society. Far from being the resignated dismissal of life by a jaded observer, on the contrary, these are expressions of grief on the part of a disappointed idealist, someone who sees that what is, ought not and need not be. Yes, his expostulations vary widely in tone, revealing a moodiness, at times a hurt soul, at others a pouting teenager, still others an outraged advocate of the poor. All of this springs from grief upwelling from deep inside a believer.
The picture he paints is simply a realistic one, making very plain the social injustices, the insecurity of life, our human mortality. This realism is directly aimed at balancing up the excesses of his society which appears to have been much like our own—in our case, an “entertainment nation” where we are too comfortable with the normalization of the abnormal; a nation of conventional piety which looks to religion for rescue, not wholeness; a nation of social Darwinists the root of whose “American values” are the “frontier values” where man has his gun in one hand and a woman in the kitchen, and a man is a man, after all; a nation that stole a continent, enslaved a people and called it our “destiny,” and where opportunity was a mask for opportunism.
There is nothing new about today’s President, if you know American history, and it’s driving me to Ecclesiastes. But amidst the degradation of our politics, there has also been a resurgence of perennial popular outrage--Black Lives Matter, MeToo, Poor Peoples Campaign, March for our Lives, gay marriage, and even some white-privilege consciousness in parts of white society. Yet, the situation is dire, just as bad as Ecclesiastes portrays it in his time (and straight white males are finally getting the picture).
What people have mistaken for the “Preacher’s” pessimism is a realism ultimately intended to plant our feet on the only dependable security, the Word of God. “Fear God,” he concludes, “and follow his commandments” –where “fear” really means to respect, to honor with resolve and with serious purpose. That, he says, “sums up the duty of mankind. For God will bring everything we do to judgment, every secret, whether good or bad” –just as we are actually seeing worked out before our very eyes in our time.
Therefore, amidst tragedy, amidst the travesty of our political leadership, we have our part to play as a church and as individuals: make good decisions. Distress does not relieve us of responsibility. It is a bracing, a healing message, from the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, that doesn’t let us off the hook. He would have us embrace a difficult world, to love the world as it is, so that in loving it, we can forgive it (and ourselves who are very much part of it) and go on to a better future. What excuse do we have to lose faith? God did not send Christ to protect us or rescue us from trouble, but to make us whole for the proper waging of war against the evils to which we are witness.
It certainly means that the church has to rethink our mission and the way we go about it—to become a part of the public conversation in a way we have not before—perhaps just as you’re doing in the Poor People’s Campaign. And with your Coffin Prize, which I hope will continue!
But fighting racism and materialism, which are only abstractions, must be augmented by fighting my racism and my materialism, and yours. That’s why we need to be in church on Sunday mornings, or at Shabbat on Fridays, or at Muslim prayers. Resist we must, but know that Sabbath is where our resistance must begin, where we confess and repent and take steps to repair the damages we have caused others, and ourselves in the bargain. That’s why I said I need to be in church on Sundays—after all, none of this happens at the Price Chopper where you certainly can’t sing like we can here!
With Paul (Philippians 4:8-9), let us then cling to whatever is true, whatever is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, and worthy of praise, and the God of peace will be with us.
1:1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever. (ESV)
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.
18 For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. (ESV)
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (ESV)