Sunday, July 31, 2016

Moving Beyond Absurdity & Vanity: A Sermon on Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 & Luke 12:22-31

Sermon Delivered at Central Presbyterian Church in Downingtown, PA (AUDIO HERE)

The lectionary text for this 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Ecclesiastes 1:1-18, is nothing short of a downer. Written by a royal sage, wisdom teacher and preacher, known in Hebrew as the Qoheleth, he delivers a dreary summation of the world as he saw it.  Many attribute the text to King Solomon and suggest Ecclesiastes, meaning “one who leads a congregation,” as the more cynical antithesis of the Qoheleth’s other writing, Song of Songs, likely written in his more youthful days. Song of Songs is a beautiful, hopeful, and a bit racy love affair often considered an allegorical portrayal of God’s love for God’s people.  Song of Songs was often kept away from Jewish teenagers due to its explicit imagery. For the same reason, Song of Songs is often a favorite for teenagers in church youth groups.

But Ecclesiastes is not that- at least not the beginning.  The opening words sound much more like Philly sports fans after generations of disappointment. 

Vanity. Meaningless. 

For me, the words also remind me of our attempts to get all three of our kids to bed before ten o’clock. 

The Hebrew word is tough to define in English, some settling for vaporous, delusional, or absurd, because despite all the toil for wisdom and righteousness this remains the dominant reality surrounding him. As you venture further into Ecclesiastes, the Qoheleth pens examples like these, sure to speak to our congregations today, 
“Again I saw the all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.  Look, the tears of the oppressed- with no one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors, there was power- with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (4:1-3).
If I ended this sermon there, I wonder the response? Would you still rush to the donuts and coffee after the benediction? I know my kids and likely the teenagers of this church would. Some of the youth may read Song of Songs while they eat- but that’s another conversation. 

The raw and honest poetry of Ecclesiastes is pertinent for the days and times in which we presently live.  Dare I say Ecclesiastes speaks what all of us are likely thinking in these days, whereby the election season leaves many or most of us despairing as though all we have before us is vain absurdity, all things are wearisome, a mere chasing after the wind. As each candidate paints a picture of their version of reality in efforts to leverage their agenda as that which can deliver, redeem, move forward or make great again, we become tempted either to be paralyzed by fear or enamored by lofty political promises. 

Still more, in the midst of increased terrorism, all-too-frequent killings of black lives by those sworn to protect us, the killing of those sworn to protect us, the resorting to violence as perceived solution to international conflict, constant lure to purchase more and newer stuff, rise of local and global poverty, broken education systems, and fill in the blank local or international crisis, we could likely write our own opening chapter to Ecclesiastes. Maybe it would go like this:

Absurdity upon absurdity 
     despair on top of despair. 
Every generation the same,
     each day and week on repeat. 
Cut and paste victims’ names here
     into prayers and published statements. 
Political rhetoric laced in
     fear and division
     hate and delusion.
Facebook newsfeeds reach no end
     Twitter trends our constant cries of concern
What is this reality we now live within?
     Will a new day ever come? 
Will we ever be able to escape 
Are our faithful labors in vain?
We are tired and worn. 
And the more we know
     the more we
     wish we could run and hide. 
As I prepared for this week’s message, the line that sat with me the most was the last one, “those who increase in knowledge increase in sorrow.” This may be the very seeds of the cliché, ignorance is bliss. After all, the more you invest in learning about the very issues facing our churches, communities, nation, and world, the more we can fall victim to either compassion fatigue or debilitating cynicism that has left the writer of Ecclesiastes, even you and me, so jaded.

For that reason alone, I think the Qoheleth would have played Pokemon Go. Like my friend's 85-year old neighbor in Portland who visits his church every day because it is a Pokestop, the Qoheleth would have found a break from reality and various political interpretations of it. For youth andadults alike, the virtual game is a chance to walk in isolation from theharsher realities actually going on around you or that are a part of your everyday experience. 

The ancient sage may have also liked the novel, Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. The book takes place around 2046 when virtual reality is where people spend most of their life. You create your own persona, travel throughout virtual worlds, engage in digital communities, and even wear gear that allows you to see, feel and smell within your virtual surroundings. Not that far off from what we know to be true of our digital realities today. The name of this particular global virtual world is the Oasis, and for many it is their escape. I think the Qoheleth of Ecclesiastes would relate to some of the main character’s opening words: 
“Maybe it isn’t a good idea to tell a newly arrived human being that he’s been born into a world of chaos, pain, and poverty just in time to watch everything fall to pieces. I discovered all of that gradually over several years, and it still made me feel like jumping off a bridge. Luckily, I had access to the Oasis, which was like having an escape hatch into a better reality. The Oasis kept me sane. It was my playground and my preschool, a magical place where anything was possible” (18).
For many of us, we are looking for that escape hatch from reality, whatever that may be for us. Whether the affairs of the world or our own wrestling with whatever causes us angst about family, our children, finances, employment, and relationships with others, we are looking for that magical place where anything, at least some sort of alternative to the absurdity we read and see and experience on a daily basis, is possible. We are looking for relief from vanity and chasing after the wind.

But there is good news laced in this morning’s sermon. There is another Qoheleth who offers the congregation- and whole world- an alternative framing of reality. This Wisdom Teacher assures us of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in the midst of all that appears to be futile, vaporous, oppressive, hopelessness- mere vanity, a chasing after the wind.  Some even say Ecclesiastes is “the dark background against which the light of the gospel shines forth.” ("Ecclesiastes," New Interpreters Bible. Vol. 5. p. 267.)  

Jesus’ words in Luke 12 reframe the opening poetry of Ecclesiastes and responds to the Qoheleth’s question, “Is there anything new?” with a resounding “yes!”  Jesus as our Qoheleth holds the reality of the despairing world in one hand and the assurance of God’s promised future in the other and pulls them together in his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus then dares his disciples, people like you and me, to  push through fatalism and shift our eyes and ears to the possibilities flying over us and sprouting up beneath us as we love our neighbors as ourselves, advocate for justice in the face of oppression, extend welcome to the stranger, declare the lives of those most marginalized by systems and people in power truly do matter, and do not fret, fear, toil, or spin in the midst of vanity and socio-political delusions. This is what Jesus means when he says to strive for God’s kingdom, the very alternative reality you and I are searching for in these tired days. A better title for today would have been, Beyond Vanity and Absurdity.

Over the course of my nearly 15 years in ministry, I have been blessed to see evidence that the church of Jesus Christ is alive and well, moving beyond vanity and absurdity.  Sure, we have our moments and seasons that even linger for generations. Yes, we may even have fears about the present and future of our faith communities, especially as we become increasingly aware of and anxious about our need to adapt to the changing landscape around us. Certainly, we struggle with conflict and encounter disagreement related to theology and biblical interpretation. We may even contribute to the polarizing rhetoric we know to be empty and void. We could likely write our own rendition of Ecclesiastes 1 on church experience alone, occasionally wondering if our faith communities are merely chasing after the wind.

But the message of Christ this morning is that we are not stuck in vanity or absurdity. Just look around and you will see evidence of God’s people striving after the kingdom of God. In communities where heroine is claiming the lives of local neighbors, there are churches resurrecting community arts programs as means for recovery. In certain urban places where hunger and food insecurity is pervasive, I have seen churches resurrecting nutrition programs, care closets, and urban gardens to provide food for their neighbors. In certain places where those who have been previously incarcerated are looking to utilize their artistic talents, churches are resurrecting their fellowship halls into studios for those engaged in the restorative justice program through Philly Mural arts.

In this church community, you are connecting with local hunger alleviation programs and food cupboards, extending solidarity to parts of our country rebuilding after major floods, sending youth to Presbyterian Youth Triennium to be empowered to "Go" as God's agents of grace.  You then immediately send them the following week to be immersed in conversations about poverty, homelessness, and other justice concerns alongside good friends at Broad Street Ministry. You are making prayer shawls for those who need another burst of support in the midst of difficult medical diagnoses. Children, including my own, are returning home from vacation Bible School not only with a new songs and friends, but also with an understanding that we are called to provide clean water to those who do not have equal access. Friends, your ministry labors are neither unnoticed or in vain. They are also not complete. We must continue to move beyond absurdity and towards God’s kingdom.

So today’s question: what reality will define and shape us as the people of God? Will we be trapped by vanity, fear, and despair and merely look for an escape from this world in light of what has become too overwhelming for us to engage? Or will we be those who follow our Wisdom Teacher, who is Christ, move beyond absurdity as we strive towards the kingdom of God and look for opportunities to serve alongside our neighbors in Downingtown and Coatesville, Honey Brook and Philadelphia, and other parts around the world?

Will our life and witness respond to the Qoeleth’s question, is there anything new?, with the same resounding “yes!” as Christ. May our work and witness near and far, here and everywhere, bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. After all, anything else would be mere vanity, a chasing after the wind. Amen.


Poetry as Benediction
Hope upon hope;
         possibility upon possibility
In the midst of the absurdity and vanity,
         is there anything new?
Consider the birds of the air
         the lilies of the field
         do not fret
         do not fear.
Strive for the kingdom God,
         surrounded by the love of God,
         grace of Christ,
         and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.