text :: Ecclesiastes 3: 9-22
theme verse :: “He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Eccl 3:11)
On Being is a public radio show and podcast that examines what host, Krista Tippett, calls the ‘animating questions at the center of human life’: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live? The author of Ecclesiastes is our worship guest for faithful reflection of these questions and invites us to consider our relationship to the rest of creation in seeking a way of being in the world.
offertory :: 'Turn, Turn, Turn' (B.Seger) : Ashley Pease, vocal; Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
musical meditation :: 'How Can I Keep From Singing' : Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
reader :: Bob Flint
preaching :: Rev Courtney Richards
special music :: 'For the Sake of the World' (Bethel) : The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
Ecclesiastes 3: 9-22
What gain have the workers from their toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. 14 I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.
16 Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. 19 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. 21 Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?
A man I’ve known since he was a high school church camper is now the morning anchor at WFAA in Dallas. He’s also in Los Angeles this weekend to host Backstage Live for the Emmy Awards tonight. He’ll greet the winners and catch the quips and chat on livestream with the people we all watch on tv.
Dozens of men and women I know here are at doors each Sunday morning, greeting everyone who arrives, and saying goodbye as they head home.
Is one kind of greeting more meaningful than the other?
One of my high school classmates is now a Broadway actor. Except for social media (for which I’m grateful!), I haven’t seen him in 30 years. This week, I’ll get to see him in the role of a lifetime: Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote, in a touring company of Man of La Mancha. I’ll hear him sing ‘The Impossible Dream’. My heart cries with joy and pride just thinking about it.
One of my friends here holds babies in the church nursery, week in and week out. She sings with them, and tells them about Jesus. She tells them the stories of a lifetime.
Is one kind of performance more important than the other?
A dear friend from my Indianapolis life is an extraordinary writer: she ghostwrites for others, she coaches writers and speakers, she writes and publishes children’s books especially focused on minority and marginalized communities. She’s recently spent a year travelling the world with a group of artists and creators of all kinds, spending a month each in 12 countries, deepening their resources for creativity and productivity.
A woman here writes out postcards every week, to be sure that our children’s ministry shepherds, storytellers, worship assistants, and Sunday School teachers know that it’s their turn to serve, and where to find their materials and supplies.
Is one kind of writing more worthwhile than the other?
This is not to say that you should be impressed at how very remarkable all of my friends are … although, I DO think all of my friends are quite remarkable! This is all to say … this is the wisdom the teacher in Ecclesiastes is trying to draw out in our text this morning:
What is our work? What has God made us to do? In this world, in this created order, in this place we inhabit, what IS ‘our place‘? What is ours to do … and what is not? Given all that God has done … in us, around us, before us, and sometimes in spite of us … what is God even now trying to do with us? What is our way of ‘being in the world’?
This book’s title, Ecclesiastes, comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Qohelet. Language study suggests that Qohelet is a title and not a name: It means something like ‘gatherer of an assembly’, referring to one who ‘taught the people’. So Teacher or Preacher is a common word for it. (You can see all these words in this week’s GPS insert.)
As we are taking this season of Creationtide to explore the Wisdom in Creation, the wisdom of this book comes from the Teacher’s taking traditional theology – talk about who God is – and combining it with questions in contemporary life – asking what God does.
In the public radio and podcast world, Krista Tippett hosts On Being, where she asks a wide variety of guests what she calls the ‘animating questions at the center of human life’: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?
That’s what Qohelet, the teacher, is doing in this text.
We’re familiar – through scripture and through folk song – with the first eight verses of chapter 3, right?. ‘For everything there is a season … ‘ We know that poetry – it reads well, it sings sweetly, it will now be stuck in your head for the next who knows how many days …
But the prose that follows the poetry is less familiar; the challenge which some of your study bibles will subtitle ‘the God-given task’. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? I’ll admit that when Kevin and I were crafting this sermon series and this was the text he suggested, I thought it sounded great, like a fun challenge, the chance to explore an unfamiliar text and open it up for the congregation … until I realized he meant he wanted ME to do this one, while he’s out of town for the weekend celebrating is birthday and anniversary. Well played, my friend; well played.
So back to the question: What is our work? What is – or what should be – our way of being in the world?
There are not a lot of things I can say absolutely for sure when it comes to God. That may be a surprise to you, and even hard to hear from your pastor and preacher, but it’s true. The Divine Mystery is just that … a mystery … and I find it enriching, and exciting, and wondrous, and constantly capturing my attention: Who is God and how does God work and what will God do next? It’s part of what makes life at Harvard Avenue so rich: God has done such deep remarkable wondrous work here over the last 60 years. What does the Holy One have in mind for our next 60? How will we be loved, what will it mean to believe, who will God empower us to become as we move forward together? I don’t know. I don’t. But WOW is it fun hanging out with you while we live into it together!
So there are not a lot of things I can say absolutely for sure when it comes to God. But here’s one of the few I can: I am absolutely convinced that our work, our way of being in the world, is NOT to be God. Let me say that again: God has given us work to do. And that work is NOT to take God’s place.
And whew! Aren’t we glad for that? I mean, sometimes we’re doing well just to get ourselves from one day to the next … can you imagine where you’d fit in being God, too?! Right.
A friend shared with me this week what he sees as his work in the world: Know that God loves me, and God loves everyone, and I should too. And when I start to wander from that, figure out how to get back. He didn’t know I’d include that in a sermon today, but really it just about covers it, don’t you think?
Think of the verse we’re all fond of quoting as a favorite, Micah 6:8 – What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Those are all good things to do. Those are all action words: do, love, walk. Those are all great ways to consider our work, our being in the world.
And not one of them says: Be God.
That’s where the teacher in Ecclesiastes is taking us, too. God has done and is doing more than we can imagine. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing for us to do … it means our primary job is to live in the joy of living in God. That’s it.
We make it about everything else. We often make it about everyone else. But Theodore Roosevelt (who’s given credit for this reminder) is right: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Sit with that for a minute. Comparison. Is the thief. Of joy.
We’re so busy, so often, with making sure we’re doing it right that we completely miss the fact that what God wants for us, and wants of us, is joy. It sounds easy.
My friend Kellie, a Buddhist practitioner, and a writer who always has just the word I need, offered this reflection. It hit me pretty squarely … maybe it will speak to you too:
We like our wisdom packaged in easy-to-follow, step by step formats that give us handrails to hold. We want our experiences to line up in columns and rows with emboldened headers and the ability to hit the “sum” button and see exactly what our life totals out to be.
I’ve been a dedicated spreadsheet girl all my life.
I’ve tracked diets and recipes, exercise plans, computer game scores, plant watering schedules, budgets and baseball stats, comic book titles and tea leaves. …
One day I was deleting old files and I saw how many lovingly created, half-filled, completely forgotten spreadsheets I clicked into the trash. They were the usual suspects: exercise tracking and budget watching, calorie counts, a book reading list, meditation times, a list of places to submit my writing, how many vegetables my garden grew in 2014, and more. So many little digital boxes. So much life left undone.
Was I lazy or just bad at follow-through? …
I needed to examine what caused each list to fail and find the common denominator…by putting them all on a spreadsheet. I jumped off my cushion, ran for the computer, and clicked the icon I loved most: Blank Workbook.
“Maybe, just maybe,” my spirit cried out as I sat before the empty grid, “this is the problem. Maybe human beings don’t fit in small boxes, and human life isn’t designed to reach a sum total. Maybe I’ve been squeezing my soul into a cell format, instead of expanding to feed my soul. Maybe I should go off-grid for a while and see what a real, untracked life can do.”
I went free range. I stopped tracking. I started being.
Free range life is not the same as an unexamined life. It doesn’t mean you stop caring, stop trying, or give up new habits and ideas. It doesn’t mean you quit checking your bank statement and leave the grocery store with a whole cart of sugary “this-looks-good.” It simply means you aren’t obsessing, categorizing and judging every penny, cookie and thought. You aren’t agonizing every missed meditation as a blot on your practice. It means you are spending your time living, not counting. It means you are as generous with yourself as you try to be with others.
Be generous with yourself. Know your place (in the good way); know what is yours to do … and what is not! No one is saying, pay no attention to anything. Details don’t matter. BUT it is ALSO true that we can get so wrapped up in the busy work of being what we think we’re supposed to be that we end up being little more than what one of my staff colleagues this week labeled as “God’s little helper”. As a minister I once worked with often reminded us as pastors: “We’re in sales, not in management.”
Now yes, of course, we talk quite often about being the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Yes, we share an understanding that being faithful means being part of the world around us. Yes, we learn from scripture, from discernment, from experience, from prayer, what it means to take the lessons of faith and tradition and apply in this much-evolved and constantly-changing world.
To think we’ll just separate ourselves, ignore the difficulties of the world, and retain our joy is just … well, it’s just impossible. It doesn’t make sense. We are IN the world. We are in God’s world. So how can we co-create with God? How can we rest in the joy of relationship with God and trust that to carry us forward?
Maybe it means we don’t have as much control as we’d like. As the text says: We cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end. But maybe it’s good to offload that weight, to throw out that sense that it’s all on us every second of every day. Maybe we can repeat from Ecclesiastes: That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.
God seeks us out. God wants to be in relationship with us. If we learn that that is true – if we believe that it’s the case – then why on earth would we make it harder for God to reach us by building walls of do-it-ourself-ness? Of arrogance? Of pride? Why would we separate ourselves, by thinking we know more and are in charge of everything, over against the God who created us, loves us, and wants nothing more than to be in relationship with us, and desires nothing so much as our thriving, our flourishing, our joy?
A former youth minister in Jacksonville Florida, who pursued training in chaplaincy, and also in mixing drinks, now creates events and writes prolifically under the title the Bar Chaplain. He says he saw with his own eyes that ‘the Holy Spirit will follow us anywhere’ and has created space for ‘questions, conversation, and collaboration’ that never would have happened in traditional church settings.
Tom read Ecclesiastes (which the church he previously served suggested he should just avoid preaching on), and borrowing a few thoughts from writer and speaker Rob Bell, and contemporary Christian song ‘Breathe’, he offers this reflection:
In spite of all this smoke filling your attention, calling to your heart, and obscuring what may lie ahead,
Know that God’s heart is for you.
He has made everything beautiful in its time.
He has also set eternity in the human heart;
Yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Eccl 3:11)
Eternity is in you
Because God is with you
And though you may not understand
And you may long to hold onto the vapors of this world,
There is something so much better
If you will simply look beyond this cloud.
Think of it in these terms:
Breath is an ongoing metaphor for God’s Presence and Spirit and Life.
Breath and Wind and Movement of the air—
It was Breath that God Breathed into Adam,
Filling his lungs and invigorating him with Life;
The Rhythm of Life repeating;
And at death, the last act is to exhale that Breath,
As if to return it to God.
“The Giver of Breath” is a title repeatedly given to God,
And “Breathing his Last” is repeatedly a euphemism for Death.
Breath is Life,
And It is God’s Gift to us,
And each time we Breathe, we ought to think of that Gift,
But now consider this:
Sometimes, that warm holy Breath
Comes into contact with something else,
The cold air of our earth,
And when that interaction occurs,
What does it produce?
A beautiful but temporary obscuring presence
Where the Exalted meets the Earthly,
And something ethereal and exquisite emerges
With elegance exceeding expectation
For an instant.
This is Life.
Enjoy its beauty.
Appreciate its joy.
But trust that there is greater still
When that cloud at last dissipates.
Let’s enjoy the gift that’s here, the Ecclesiastes Teacher says.
There is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot. … God has made everything suitable for its time. God has put a sense of past and future into their minds. I know that there is nothing better for them that to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live.
We are to be about the work of living with joy.
We are to be about the work of offering that to others.
It is not our work to tell someone how to find their joy.
It is our work to show them where we find ours.
If we’re doing it right, that should be convincing enough.
 Eunny P Lee, ‘Ecclesiastes’, New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Abingdon, 2003)