Posts Tagged ‘ecclesiastes’

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.

So…happy Sunday?

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.

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The pace of technology is mind-boggling. From the dawn of the internet to the introduction of power-packed cellphones and tablet computing devices, the way we interact with each other has changed dramatically in the span of a generation. And like most things, this evolution is a double-edged sword.

Global Positioning Systems on our smartphones have rendered maps, directions, the yellow pages documents of a bygone era. Programs like Skype allow us to video chat for free across continents, a thought that was mere science fiction not that long ago. Platforms like Twitter have even been at work in unseating dictators in the Middle East.

But wait: there’s more!

For the iPhone alone, you can get the following apps:

  • Payphone locator! Have an iPhone? Want to know where the nearest payphone is? Love irony? Then this is the app for you!
  • How about Beer Opener? You can enjoy the experience of opening a virtual beer without the hassle of having to drink it!
  • And my personal favorite: HangTime. This app measures how high you can throw your iPhone. And it only costs 99 cents. Plus the cost of a new iPhone.

For every device that might save us time, there are tons that would love to waste it. When you embrace technology, you have to take the bad along with the good.

We might as well say the same thing about our current sermon series. The basic idea is that, as we face the dawning of a new calendar year, we might consider the ways we might like to start over. And the beautiful thing about our faith is that it constantly gives us the opportunity, no matter the season, to begin again.

Now the title, Ctrl+Alt+Del, is taken from technology. If you own a Windows computer, you have, at some point, had to use this little combination of keys to restart your device. So if you understood the title of the series without the explanation, then you are a fellow lover – and hater – of technology.

Today’s sermon pushes the technological conceit one step further. It’s a play off of the idea of Web 2.0. If you know anything about this concept, then you will know that I understand it only in part. But here goes:

The world wide web began as a one-way communication technology. Sure, you could send emails back and forth, but these were not interactive in the way that, say, a face-to-face or a telephone conversation is. And websites took this approach as well. Websites started as kind of a virtual brochure. For your company or your organization or yourself, they were places you could post information that you wanted the user to know about you: your history, location, telephone number, email address, etc.

In tech circles, this approach is now referred to as Web 1.0 – kind of a rough draft version of the internet.

We have now moved into a phase known as Web 2.0, which has added the interactive component to internet activity. Rather than a model in which the owners produce the content, the reality now is that the user has a great deal of say in how the content is received. It has introduced a level of participation to the internet.

Anyone can start a blog. For free. And anyone can respond to that blog. For free. Anyone can post a video on YouTube. Again, for free. And anyone can respond to that video. For free. If you have a website that is of the 1.0 “information only” model, people will not be interested. You have to open up your site so that people can tell you what they think of your content. And that reaction helps to shape your future content in conscious and subconscious ways.

Another aspect of Web 2.0 is syndication, or the ability to share the content you find. Through social media, like Twitter and Facebook, among a hundred others, you can let other people know what you’re reading, seeing, thinking, engaging, and let them know what you think about it. And they, too, can share that content with others. When a piece of information spreads rapidly, it is said to “go viral” – that is, it has taken on a life of its own and spreads further than the creator of the content could ever have imagined.

At the risk of stretching my metaphor well beyond its breaking point, could it be that the birth of Jesus ushered in a new era of God 2.0?

This may not sit well with some of us. The very reason that we find God to be worthy of trust is that we trust that God is unchanging; that the same God who created the universe is the same God whom we meet in Jesus Christ and is the same God whom we worship here at OPC.

I do believe that this is true. But there is something earth-shattering that happened at the birth of Christ: incarnation…the human embodiment of the divine…God in baby form. As human beings ourselves, our best possible understanding of the nature of God comes through our understanding of the nature of Christ.

In our texts today, we moved from the almost fatalistic quality of Ecclesiastes to the sublime awe of Anna and Simeon. The author of Ecclesiastes lets us know that everything good and bad has its place: birth, death, planting, sowing, crying, laughing, killing, healing, holding on, letting go. And we see all of these things in the life and ministry of Jesus himself.

What springs forth in the lesson from Luke is in the echoes of Ecclesiastes, but in an incredible way. We meet these two characters who fade from the scene as quickly as they arrive. Both have been waiting a lifetime for the promises of their faith to come true: that God would deliver the Messianic goods. Simeon seems to channel the author of Ecclesiastes, saying of Jesus that he “marks the failure and the recovery of many, a figure misunderstood and contradicted…but his rejection will force honesty.” The infant will be a double-edged sword, bringing both division and the possibility of healing to the people.

For Simeon, this is enough. He doesn’t have to see the results. It’s enough for him to know that the child has arrived, that hope is on its way. Anna, too, is stunned by what she experiences. She had been faithfully waiting in the Temple for decades. As soon as Jesus arrives on the scene, she departs – both from the Temple and from our story – to sing God’s praises for the birth of this baby.

God is the same, the alpha and omega, the first and the last. And yet, there is a newness in the form of this infant Messiah. We now have the opportunity to know God more fully than ever before. Rather than dealing with a divine abstract, we now see God as a concrete reality. This is, no question, something new. And if we choose to embrace that concreteness, we must embrace it for the double-edged sword that it is. Christ comes to comfort us in our woes. And Christ comes to heal us, in the fullest possible sense of that word. And part of that healing means the shaking of our assumptions to the core.

How was your 2011? Are you happy to see it in the rear view mirror? Are you ready to start over completely? Or was it, like most years, a year of ups and downs? Are there those moments that you’d like to have another shot at? Then this is your year.

My invitation for all of us for 2012, beginning this week, is simply this: interact with God. Reflect on those places where your faith-life still exists in a 1.0, rough-draft kind of world. God wants your engagement! God wants your participation!


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