Text: any chapter of Ecclesiastes
Rev. Richard Chrisman
July 14, 2019
Since last year just about this time, I have been saying over and over, I can’t take another month of this. During these more recent months, I heard myself 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? But it’s not just that. There is incoming from every direction—climate events, gross and heinous and criminal mismanagement by some men of their physical impulses toward women, and parents cheating their kids into college!
It has driven me into an “Ecclesiastes phase.” You might see why I can resonate to the Preacher’s vituperation upon the sights and scenes he observed around him. I, too, feel like saying, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” “Utter futility,” as you heard it read, “emptiness,” “madness,” given what every American—and the world—are seeing around us. Tears, oppression, wickedness, wrongful death, malignant and intentional malice! What good are wise counsel, wise men, wise judges, wise lawyers, and wise ministers—they don’t nearly grasp the depth of the tragedy. Instead, the Preacher muses, why not try marinating in pleasure, let’s try oblivion, but even that doesn’t work. I never went down that road, but other evasions of reality had been available.
What’s going on with me? Is it my age, or is it just this particular age? I cannot deny my feelings. How are YOU feeling today? I wouldn’t be surprised if you were candidates for your own Ecclesiastes fit.
But you would be entitled to ask, like most other readers, is that Preacher too much? Does he exaggerate? Is he unbalanced? You can see why people have regarded this as the most cynical book in the Bible, seemingly life-denying in the face of all the life-affirming content of the rest of the Bible. So negative were its conclusions deemed, that the rabbis at the time debated whether Ecclesiastes even belonged in the Bible. Christian commentators and authorities down through the centuries have also questioned the appropriateness of including this book in the canon.
So who is this self-styled “Preacher” who delivers himself of such a choleric diatribe? The commentators are pretty sure it’s not King Solomon himself but possibly a writer from Solomon’s own court assuming a fictional role addressing an assembly of his peers. His title in Hebrew is “Qoheleth,” which means gatherer of people, summoning an audience. (The initial “Q” on your bulletin cover is from the Book of Kells.) Christian translators naturally saw in this a preacher who calls forth and gathers the church—hence our book’s title, “Ecclesiastes,” which means house or church.
The writer, adopting the persona of “preacher” or “teacher” in the royal court, is educated, sophisticated, privileged, and close to the seat of power. He has seen it all. He is reacting to the decline and decadence of his society. First comes his intense disappointment, then understanding. Far from this being the resigned dismissal of life by a jaded observer, on the contrary, these are actually the expressions of grief on the part of a disappointed idealist (that’s the real definition of a cynic—a disappointed idealist), someone who believes that what is, ought not and need not be. After any loss, and YOU can certify to this from personal experience, you hate and despise the beauty of the world and you execrate the evils that took away your loved one. That’s Qoheleth. His expostulations on loss summarize our own. You probably noticed that his moods vary widely in tone, revealing at times a hurt soul, at others a pouting teenager, at still other times he is an outraged advocate of the poor—a so very human performance. All of this springs from grief, grief upwelling from deep inside a believer. Can you relate? I certainly have. Sometimes you have to ventilate.
But Qoheleth isn’t simply venting. He paints a realistic, unvarnished picture of life, making very plain the social injustices, the insecurity of life, our human mortality—they are truths that cannot be denied by any honest person. Nor is it the Sunday School faith of many churches. He aims this realism directly at perpetrators of evil and those who would deny evil. He takes aim at the excesses of his society which had its priorities wrong, a society of a very different era but much like our own—an “entertainment nation” where people seize distraction like a drug; a nation of conventional piety which looks to religion for rescue, instead of wholeness; a nation, in our case, 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 real man, after all; a nation that stole a continent, enslaved a people, and called it our “destiny,” and where some people wore opportunity as a mask for opportunism. Examples of this abound in America’s wild and woolly history. But does that make me feel any better?
What’s going on with me? Answer: I’ve been pushed to the edge, like the guy in the film, Network, who said he is mad as hell and won’t take it anymore. But this moment had been a long time coming, it was not made on Nov. 8, 2016. There is nothing new, Qoheleth says, there is nothing new under the sun, and much as Mr. Trump’s critics hate to think it, there is nothing new about today’s President, if you know American history. Everybody’s darling in the White House has made a pact with the devil, and so have some state governors, and members of Congress.
To be sure, and that’s why we are here this morning, there are examples like Qoheleth who drew back from these excesses—Mother Jones, Edith Wharton, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton. Those are the big, historic examples, but this story is repeated daily on the ground. Today, amidst the degradation of our politics, there has also been a resurgence of popular outrage—the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, MeToo, the Poor Peoples Campaign, March for our Lives, gay marriage, and even some white-privilege consciousness in some parts of white society. Our Waban church sent a delegation to the Montgomery Memorial—they wept.
What would the “Preacher” seek to accomplish with a realism that is going to be taken for pessimism? Thomas Hardy: “If a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.” Qoheleth’s realism ultimately wants to strip us of our false securities and plant our feet on the only dependable security, the Word of God. By detailing evil this way, he is not describing the Kingdom of God, obviously, but he is describing what the Kingdom of God is made from.
“Fear God,” the book concludes, “and follow his commandments” – where “fear” really means to take seriously and treat with respect, to honor with resolve and personal purpose. Full disclosure: these two verses do not belong to the original text but were added by a redactor, although they are consistent with all that precedes. Qohelethe says, “[righteousness] sums up the duty of mankind. For God will bring everything we do to judgment, every secret, whether good or bad” – and aren’t we actually seeing this worked out before our very eyes today in real time! We should hope our sins, or shortcomings, or shortcuts, whatever you want to call them, never get such exposure, but never mind: God knows. And also God forgives. Only because there is God’s forgiveness, proclaimed by Christ who preached and lived it, could we face ourselves as God sees us.
Therefore, amidst tragedy, amidst the travesty of our political leadership, we still have our part to play as a church and as individuals: make good decisions. Our distress does not relieve us of responsibility. It is a bracing, a healing message, from Qoheleth, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes; it 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 does anybody have to lose faith? God did not send Christ to protect us or rescue us from trouble, but to make us whole for the purpose of opposing the evils to which we are witness.
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 evil we must, but know that Sabbath is our spiritual practice where our resistance must begin, where we personally confess and actively repent and devise steps to repair the damages we have caused others—and ourselves—in the bargain.
I need to be in church every Sunday—and I thank you for making me. You need to be here too, you have to be here—you and others need a conversion experience that transforms “church” into a way of life, for your sake, for Christ’s sake, for the world’s sake. Be assured, none of this will happen at Trader Joe’s or on Facebook where you certainly can’t sing like we can here!
Near his conclusion, Qoheleth 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,” your Creator who sent us Jesus Christ.
It’s a sober commission, but would you really rather live any other way?
Richard Chrisman, July 14, 2019