As long as I can remember, I have been a fan of the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. It was originally penned by Pete Seeger, taking the words from the book of Ecclesiastes. The Byrds made it famous, with Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string Rickenbacker guitar cementing it in public conscience.
As a teenager, I was part of a youth mission trip to inner-city Denver. We were working on a church there and providing programming for some of the children of the neighborhood, who were among the poorest of the poor. Every day we had a brief chapel service, and one day it was my turn to lead. I chose this text. I planned to teach it to the children, and then we would sing it together. And as I read it and asked them to reflect what they heard, it hit me: here I was, a well-off white kid from Atlanta, telling poor Hispanic kids in Colorado that hardships and good times were all just a part of life. I might as well have told them to just “suck it up”, because that’s just the way life is. I was horrified…and so, quickly, we brought the reflection to a close and started to sing: “To everything…”
It is only when you strip the song of its beautiful melody that you see the blunt lyrics that they hide: there is a time for everything. A time to destroy, a time to build; a time for war, a time for peace; a time for love, a time for love; a time for birth, a time for death…not exactly your typical pop song fare.
In many ways, it is an unflinching look at life on Earth with its ups and downs, such as they are. And it becomes so much more when we look at it in its context in the book of Ecclesiastes. Because the author is identified as a son of David, many associate it with Solomon; it is, though, ultimately an anonymous collection of wisdom sayings by someone who has seen it all and as declared that it is all pointless. There’s nothing new under the sun. There is nothing to be gained by work, except to eat and drink and enjoy.
This is a tough reading. I think that is especially so in our culture, where we expect all of our stories to end with “happily ever after” and have somehow absorbed that real life should be that way, too. For me, what this highlights is the fact that our cultural identities and our faith identities exist in a tension that we tend to ignore.
We love that our central story is resurrection – but forget that it is also crucifixion. We relish the community of standing around a table and sharing in prayers, in bread, in cup – but tend to hurry past the words Jesus spoke, of a body broken and blood poured out. We act surprised every time we hear about violence and injustice at work in the world – but ignore that our own Savior was betrayed by one of his closest friends and put to death by a brutal regime. In many ways, the up and down rhythms of Ecclesiastes get it right. It’s not all up…it’s not all down…it…just…is.
What are we supposed to do with this?
I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this text. I know that sin is pervasive: whether in individual unrighteousness or societal injustice, we are far from perfect. And yet, I rely on the conviction that hope has the final word, that God has not given up on us. After all, isn’t that the whole point of our shared story?
Whenever we gather around this table, we remind ourselves of this sweep of salvation. God created the world, called it good, and formed us in God’s own image. We messed up; but God forgives. In fact, God called forth a people to give them a place and covenant of promise. They veered off course; but God is merciful. God sent prophets to remind them of the true way. They strayed time and time again; but God is gracious. God sent his son, Jesus, as holiness personified. In his life and ministry, he showed what it means to live as God desires. And on the night he was betrayed, he gathered around the table with his disciples and established this feast we now share.
We call it the Last Supper. My mother-in-law loves to point out that we should refer to it as the First Supper. After all, the Church has been gathering together now for centuries in the echoes of that ancient meal, remembering the whole sweep of our story – or rather, of God’s story – and resting in God’s hope for us.
And then we look back to the Old Testament, to the Hebrew Bible, to this book of Ecclesiastes, and we wonder: is any of this worth it?
Part of the challenge, I believe, comes from the fact that there ain’t a whole lot of Jesus in Ecclesiastes. Part of that is historical, of course; it was written at least 300 years before the birth of Christ. For me, that’s – at best – a partial answer. After all, the gift of Scripture is its enduring meaning: what it teaches us about ourselves, what it teaches us about God, and what it teaches us about what it is that God desires for us. As much as I might want to, I won’t pick and choose which texts I like and which ones I don’t. Instead, I do my best to read them all through the lens and focus of the cross and its love, inclusion, and redemption, regardless of which Testament they happen to be in.
So it goes for the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. The title of the book comes from the Greek, and is a rendering of the job ascribed to the author: namely, “Teacher”, or rather, the one who speaks to the gathered congregation. In that way, it is meant to be like the wisdom of a sermon, a reflection on who we are and who God is. And that, ultimately, is the point of what the author is trying to convey. Life, they write, is fleeting. Ephemeral. Short-lived. This is not a call to strip life of all meaning. It does not mean we are supposed to live in sackcloth and ashes; nor does it mean we ought to hoard and party like there’s no tomorrow. Instead, it is a call to humility. It puts everything we do in context – no matter how much or how little we might think of ourselves, it is what God thinks of us that matters.
The great Reformer Martin Luther wrote of the book this way, saying that it condemns us because we want to “accumulate riches, honors, glory, and fame, as though we were going to live here forever; and meanwhile we become bored with the things that are present and continually yearn for other things, and still others.”
To put it rather bluntly: we are going to die. And yet, paradoxically, this should not lead to hopelessness, but rather delight because of all we receive from God. That is our hope – that God’s eternity cares for our mortality. We do not experience good because God loves us more than others; nor do we experience evil because God despises us. Instead, we receive life as it comes and are given the opportunity to do something with it, to recognize that God can transform it all for the sake of God’s desires.
All of this reminds me of the story of Shaka Senghor. Growing up in inner-city Detroit, Senghor was an honor roll student who wanted to be a doctor. Turmoil in his family led him to places that young men should not go. At 17, he was shot three times. Coming home from the hospital, the trauma left him paranoid and hyper-violent. Just over a year later, he committed murder and was in prison. Not surprisingly, he became even more bitter and angry. The warden called him “the worst of the worst.” He spent seven and a half years in solitary confinement.
Then one day, he received a letter from his young son. It read, “My mama told me why you’re in prison: Murder. Dad, don’t kill. Jesus watches what you do. Pray to him.” The message jolted him, and he began to change.
After 20 years, Senghor was released; and since then, he has tried to model the possibility of transformation while he works to change the system that once held him – a system, he says, which is designed “to be a warehouse, rather than the rehabilitate or to transform.”
In the end, Senghor hopes his life can stand as an example, a hope, that “anyone can have a transformation if we give them the space. Misdeeds should not define you for the rest of your life.”
To me, there is no better definition of grace: that your misdeeds should not define you for the rest of your life. And that is the hope of this table. Life is fleeting – yes. It will not last. And in this, there is cause for both grief and celebration.
When we come to this table, we bring our shared life experiences, both good and bad. No matter how fortunate we might be in the grand scheme of things, each one of us has experienced heartbreak, loss, disappointment. The point, though, is not to despair; nor is it to lord it over others. Instead, we ought to recognize our brokenness in the broken bread. We ought to see our failings in the cup poured out. And in them, we can be redeemed, saved, healed.
Our misdeeds do not define us – only God can do that. The bread and cup we share are reminders of mortality, that we need food and drink to survive, to keep our bodies alive and well. And even though our time around this table is fleeting, it can and will transform us into the people that God desires us to be: fed and strengthened to seek out and love all those whom Christ loves.