The suffering of this world’s population under Covid in 2020 will never be, could never possibly be recorded. The number of times every day that people must be crying out, “Lord, why hast thou forsaken me,” has to be astronomical. No remedies exist, no therapies, no vaccine exists that will meet the anguish caused by the safety and security endangered, and by so many plans foreclosed.
What have we learned in 2020--? Have we learned any worthwhile lessons? Have we grown at all, have any of us grown in wisdom and stature as a result of this emergency, now 10 months old? Surely, the deaths by pandemic of over 300,000 Americans and the death by police force of George Floyd has had the effect of turning our thoughts inward toward our own lives and deaths and inward toward the life and death of our illusions about American society.
Obviously, we have been confronted this year by our natural limitations and our social sins, some Americans have anyway. But what have we actually learned? Have we been forced to reappraise things in any fundamental way, or have we only been focused on coping with Covid and temporizing with racism? Have we stepped back from this rolling catastrophe far enough to learn anything?
The writer Lawrence Wright took a good look in his superior (40-page) New Yorker article this week—did you see that?
Have we stepped back as far back as Koheleth did, to take it all in and derive some insight from history for living—some rock-bottom, rock-solid truth to live by? For this kind of moment, we need not advice, not consolation, not placation, but something from beyond that reaches to the soul within.
The great literary scholar, the late Harold Bloom, in his own personal need when undergoing the traumas of aging, a grave illness, and the loss of his friends and family, himself cried out in desperation—where shall wisdom be found?
Where shall wisdom be found, indeed! We crave, in this combined pandemic of both a virus and American racism, we should be craving wisdom. Harold Bloom didn’t want to be bothered with nostrums—nothing avails but the strongest medicine. Where did he turn?—Bloom turned first to the Bible, to the Book of Ecclesiastes, and to Job (where we will go in two weeks).
What wisdom does the Speaker or Preacher in Ecclesiastes have to offer (which is what the title means)--? In the readings and litany this morning, taken from Ecclesiastes, you will have picked up what sounds like a certain world-weariness, a certain inability to take any satisfaction from small or great things, maybe a refusal to accept the ordinariness of life. He writes, “All is vanity, all is futility, all is emptiness--I applied my mind to understanding wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly, and I came to see that it’s all folly and chasing of the wind.”
He goes on, “What reward does anyone have for his labor, his planning, and his toil here under the sun--all of it pain and vexation?” Then, “I saw the tears of the oppressed, and there was no one to comfort them. Power was on the side of the oppressors and there was no one to comfort them.”
You would be entitled to ask, What useless kind of cynicism is this? Are these the thoughts of a spoiled brat? Readers find it hard to warm up to the jaded sophistication of the Preacher, tinged with melancholy of an overindulged dandy.
But look again, listen more closely--the Preacher offers the bracing kind of realism necessary when crisis hits--brush aside your illusions and distill from your experience wisdom worth the name.
The resulting clarity actually invigorates the Preacher—the energy is wholly apparent in the high-flying prose which races along a chain of defiant complaints. In sum, when the Preacher looked back over his personal history, over his experiments and extravaganzas and excesses, he felt something was missing--he saw through the tinsel and found that not all is gold that glitters.
The Preacher only sees the same things that we see but which we won’t admit to ourselves—doesn’t the year 2020 tell us that we are overdue for a mid-course correction (if you remember that phrase from the moon-shots?). Covid’s bleakness forces us to reckon with our personal past—just what were we doing back then, how important were those pursuits?
In addition to this health crisis came the murder of George Floyd--it inspired worldwide outrage at yet another of the police crimes that we swore would not happen again. George Floyd’s death should have sharpened the focus of our personal reckoning upon what exactly our lives add up to in the glare of the American criminal in-justice system. The Preacher wrote, “I saw the tears of the oppressed, and there was no one to comfort them. Power was on the side of the oppressors and there was no one to comfort them.”
Has the nation hit absolute bottom yet—aren’t we just about ready to conclude ourselves that all our labor and planning amounts to so much vexation and futility? Doesn’t this crisis make us see that we are wasting our precious time, and always have been, on ephemera, when we simply need to focus on human relationships and follow God’s commandments, that’s where the Preacher brings us—that is the antidote for all that ails us, especially the Covid-19 and racism pandemic.
If this emergency has worked on our minds at all, it should have us conclude the time is overdue to repair ruptured relationships. We will be renewing our anti-racism programming at Eliot right away in this new year--the black lives matter will be one half of it: the other half should be a focus on our namesake the Rev. John Eliot, who conducted the first mission to convert the native population to Christianity. All surely is futility if we do not investigate our history at Eliot Church. Our namesake at Eliot Church mandates that we engage with our part in American racist history.
What an opportunity it would be to minister to this region if we opened a conversation with the Wampanoag people and jointly developed an educational program! What else is worth doing against the backdrop of this pandemic which has just revealed to us all our past efforts are so much vanity? How do we stop doing to each other what people have always been doing to each other? We certainly can’t erase or undo the sins of past generations—we can’t escape or even heal them.
But we can make amends by creating new history together--! Eliot church is under obligation by virtue of our namesake to open a conversation here where you could say the Trail of Tears started. Eliot Church has some great assets with which to initiate a conversation---space, a social justice commitment and tradition. Wouldn’t it make good sense to form common cause with the indigenous (Wampanoag/Nipmuk/Massachusett) peoples on environmental issues which is close to the heart of both communities? (Happy birthday Greta Thunberg, who is 18.) Possibly, we could collaborate on the annual spring festival of giving thanks that native peoples have traditionally done and still do in our region.
In conclusion, Nature will have its way with us, we must accept our natural limits, and now we must adjust the way we make decisions. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is that endurance is not good enough, we must prevail. It used to be called re-ordering our priorities. It’s more than a mid-life crisis—the Preacher is talking about epiphany here, about revelation, and it’s not a revelation unless it inspires new choices because we all end up before the same judge.
Jesus reached into the human prospect long ago and incarnated the wisdom revealed by God that promised forgiveness and makes a New Year truly possible, indeed it does so every day.