30 May 2021, 21:14
We apologize but once again, we encountered problems obtaining a Facebook Live feed.
© Stacey Steck
There are many parts of the Bible that may be enjoyed and understood in small, bite-sized chunks like the beatitudes, the twenty-third psalm, and the parables. But there are some parts of the Bible which seemingly cannot stand alone, or which make almost no sense without having to read a really large and rambling collection of verses, like a lot of the letters of the Apostle Paul, and any given chapter from Ecclesiastes. It is almost fruitless to read any part of Ecclesiastes without reading it all, but not because there is some strong thread which ties it all together, but precisely because there isn’t really one. It is a classical Biblical case of the old saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This morning’s reading of the eighth chapter is interesting and enlightening on its own merits, but reading it alone only leaves us with an incomplete picture of what the great teacher of Ecclesiastes wishes to tell us. And so, I am not going to go into great detail about this particular chapter, but I am going to ask you to go home and read the whole book sometime this week to see what I mean.
This morning’s chapter is, however, representative of some of the book’s recurring themes, although without a complete version of the book’s most famous expression, “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” That sentiment is indeed part of what this chapter expresses, namely that as much as we might wish the opposite, life, even life under God, does not play by the rules we might wish to create, but rather according to the sometimes mystifying rules God has imposed, rules which at times seem rather arbitrary and frankly sometimes pretty unfair. If we made the rules, the righteous would always win out over the sinners, the wise over the fool. If we made the rules, we would all get what we think we deserve: a long, happy life if we do the right things, and a swift and appropriate punishment if we do not. If we made the rules, there would be some consistency and predictability to life that would prevent the tragedies that take place seemingly every day in the news, like this week in San Jose, California, in which a gunman took the lives of nine people, including an immigrant who spent his last moments warning his co-workers and helping them to safety, even stopping to call those who were scheduled to come to work soon, instead of fleeing for his own life, only to be shot and killed himself.
And to this, says the teacher of Ecclesiastes, “There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” By all accounts, Mr. Taptejdeep Singh, the one who died helping his colleagues, was among the righteous, if not in the traditional religious sense, at least in the moral sense of that moment in which he “laid down his life for his friends.” When asked to describe him, Mr. Singh’s supervisor said, “The first (thing) that comes to mind is (his) empathy and his compassion towards people.” Of all people then, Mr. Singh did not receive what he deserved. But neither did the shooter, who deprived the community of justice by taking his own life before he could be apprehended.
But should we call what happened in San Jose vanity? I suppose we could in the sense that the shooter thought so highly of himself that he thought he could take the lives of others with impunity. I suppose we could use the word vanity to describe what happened in the sense of “it happened in vain,” or for no ultimate purpose. Those two senses of the word vanity do capture, in part, what Ecclesiastes means by the use of that odd English word, but a more helpful translation for our times might be absurd, as in “Absurdity of absurdities. All is absurdity.” It is absurd, it makes no sense, that a father of two toddlers, who is hard working, empathetic, and compassionate, should be gunned down in the prime of his life. It is absurd that white collar criminals who ruin the lives of countless people get less prison time than low level drug offenders. It is absurd that a traffic stop should end with a fatal knee to the neck for nine minutes. These are the kinds of contemporary examples of the inconsistencies of life and justice that Ecclesiastes calls vanities or absurdities, that lead the writer almost to the point of despair. In our passage today, it is the sight of known criminals being eulogized for their philanthropic efforts that gets named as absurd, and the list goes on throughout the book, captured in such compelling phrases as “Again, I saw that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.” It’s all so absurd, he says.
At the same time, however, Ecclesiastes reminds us strongly that in the end, we are the creatures and not the Creator, and that the fear of God is still the appropriate posture. Fresh off the Day of Pentecost, Ecclesiastes reminds us that “No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death,” powers reserved for our confounding, mysterious God who promotes justice but doesn’t always seem to execute it. Yet in the face of all that absurdity, the response from Ecclesiastes is not to try harder, not to join the revolution, not to curl up in a ball, not even to shake a fist at God, but to enjoy the time we have been given, as unpredictable as it may be, remembering that it comes from God and that we could be hit by a bus at any moment. “So I commend enjoyment,” it says, “for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.” More than once in Ecclesiastes comes this advice to get all you can out of this short life. Yes, the answer to life’s absurdities is to party!
If that sounds like a mixed bag, a little fatalistic, a little depressing even, then you are coming close to understanding why Ecclesiastes is included in the Bible. But why would we want as part of our Bibles such a thoroughly pessimistic perspective on life, even if it is life lived under God, as part of the truth that shapes us and that we proclaim? Well, I think it has to do with the Church’s dirty little secret. You didn’t know we had one? OK, I’ll tell you what it is. The church’s dirty little secret is that although we may be “in Christ,” life is not always fun and games, rose gardens, and unending joy. Christians suffer, Christians hide their suffering, and Christians leave the church because they feel they cannot reveal their suffering. Our frequent odes to joy, and to abundant life, and to communion with Christ are not always reflective of the way life is for many of the faithful, and we don’t often leave room for the real doubt, pain, and suffering they experience. Too often, and probably unconsciously, we at least imply that it is a lack of faith that leads to a less than perfect life instead of acknowledging up front that, even with Christ as our guide, “Life is difficult,” as M. Scott Peck famously reminded us many years ago. And by lifting up this reality, we can at least go through it together, rather than alone.
The truth is that your life together as a church is going to become more difficult in the coming months, and that too is absurd. As my time comes here comes to an end, there will be transitions to plan, supply preachers to line up, meetings with presbytery to hold, nominating committees to form, goodbyes to be said, and yes, even tears to be shed. And some may say about many parts of the process, vanity of vanities, absurdity of absurdities, and they will not be wrong. Why should this righteous church be thrust into such turmoil and chaos? It is a chasing after the wind, to use another of the favorite phrases from Ecclesiastes, it is a chasing after the wind to find a new pastor; I mean they are just going to leave after a time anyway. And unfortunately, there is nothing new under the sun, another classic Ecclesiastes saying, there is nothing new under the sun about the laborious Presbyterian process of calling a pastor. It’s the same old, same old. And it’s an injustice that a small, rural church like Thyatira has to compete for the best clergy talent in an ecclesiastical marketplace that places it at a disadvantage, vanity of vanities in a body that supposedly considers each member as important as all the rest. Absurdity of absurdities.
And yet, to use other words from Ecclesiastes, “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything,” and “Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them.” Who knows what amazing things may happen as a result of this change? It is not just to put a happy face on a sad situation to say that the best is still yet to come, because that’s how it always is with God. At the very least we can say that the witness of 260+ years in this place suggests that everything will turn out just fine. Life will go on, Sunday School will continue, the choir will still sing, and deviled eggs will be served. Things may be absurd for a while, but God will be in the midst of it in that mysterious, divine kind of way, and sometimes that’s all we can rely on.
And so I, like the author of Ecclesiastes, “commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.” And to that end, Flora and I would like to announce a party at the manse on Sunday afternoon, June 13 from 5-9 pm, although you can stay later if you want to! We’ll send out more details, but we wanted to announce it now so hopefully you’ll be able to make plans to come. You don’t have to bring anything except yourselves, we’ll make it so that we can be somewhat socially distanced, and we’ll trust that God will provide good weather. And we sincerely hope you will join us, at least for a little while because we want to celebrate with you what God has done in this place over the last five and a half years, and to give thanks for the welcome you have given us, even if it is in the midst of saying goodbye. That may sound absurd, but sometimes life is like that, and that’s why there is a book called Ecclesiastes. May God bless us as we eat, drink, and enjoy ourselves in the midst of our toil. Amen.
23 May 2021, 09:22
Sorry, no FB Live broadcast available for this week (at least not one worth watching!)
© Stacey Steck
There are a lot of things to be afraid of in this world. There’s COVID-19 of course, pretty scary stuff there. Dying a painful death is pretty high on many people’s lists of things to be afraid of. Heights, that’s my great fear. Public speaking is a classic one. Reading the second chapter of Acts is pretty scary with all those foreign words. Clowns are popular right now. And then there are the run of the mill fears of snakes and spiders and the dark. And then there are the lesser known, but often very debilitating, fears that we call phobias. You know some of the common ones like agoraphobia, or the fear of open spaces, and claustrophobia, or the fear of enclosed spaces. But did you know about Syngenesophobia, which is the irrational fear of relatives? Someone suffering from this condition can expect to experience a very high amount of anxiety from merely thinking of relatives, let alone actually seeing them. In fact, their anxiety may be so intense that they may even endure a full blown panic attack as a result of it. Can you imagine Thanksgiving at their house? Xanthophobia is fear of the color yellow. The common cause of this phobia is unhappy experiences involving the color yellow, like getting stung by a bee or even getting hit by a yellow car or school bus. Very troubling for some is asymmetriphobia, or the irrational fear of asymmetry. Essentially, anything that is objectively or subjectively out of whack even just a little will give someone with this condition an very high amount of anxiety. Even thinking about asymmetry may be enough to give someone with asymmetriphobia an influx of unwanted dread and terror. Not surprisingly, the antithetical phobia of asymmetriphobia is symmetrophobia, which is the fear of symmetry. And then there is the class of phobias that bring us closer to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Luke, and in that class is Papaphobia, or fear of the Pope, Hierophobia, or the fear of holy people or sacred things, Ecclesiaphobia, the fear of church, organized religion or holy people, and Hagiophobia, the fear of saints or holy things.
So what should we call this kind of fear Jesus both describes and recommends, when he says, “Do not fear those who can kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear; fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” Well, first we would need to figure out about whom Jesus is warning the disciples. At first glance, we might think he’s talking about Satan, since hell is mentioned, and Satan is supposed to be the caretaker of the underworld. Satan wants us all in hell and would do anything possible to grab our little souls, right? But does Satan have the authority to cast us into hell? Is that Satan’s job? Or is he just the recipient of those souls who are delivered there by someone else? Indeed, it is not the devil whom the disciples should fear. Jesus is pretty clearly indicating that it is God whom they should fear because it is God alone who decides our fate. The devil is powerless over life and death, powerless of anything, really, except to tempt us. And so maybe we should call this fear Jesus recommends theophobia, since it is God, theos in Greek, whom we are to fear. Turns out that theophobia is actually a thing for which people frequently seek treatment. Who knew?
The first part of the 12th chapter of Luke reads like a charge, or maybe more accurately, a warning, to the inner circle of disciples, of what might be coming due to the popularity Jesus was experiencing. After all, thousands of people were gathering to hear him, so many that they were trampling on one another. Such a gathering could be construed as a threat, could it not? And so Jesus is giving them a heads up that trouble may be brewing, and don’t be surprised if you get some questions about your role in this unfolding drama. Indeed, the warning about the Pharisees presages the betrayal by Judas. “What you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” Perhaps it’s no wonder that Judas died by suicide, what with the shame of his dark deeds coming to public knowledge. At some point, Judas is either approached by, or goes looking for, those who wanted to do away with Jesus, and surely they had some secret conversations, “words whispered behind closed doors” about betrayal by kiss. So be careful, he tells them, be careful what you say or do, because people are watching, and they might not like what they see. It’s not like the Jewish leadership was the KGB, knocking on doors in the middle of the night, hauling people away, but with a pretty violent Roman Empire lurking in the background, you never knew what could happen. And of course it did ultimately happen, didn’t it?
And so back to the fear factor. Jesus can probably imagine these words provoking fear in the disciples, making them start to look over their shoulders all the time, but that’s not what he wants them to be doing. What he really wants is for them to continue to focus on God, and on the message Jesus is bringing that is attracting so many people, and to let the chips fall where they may. And so he ups the ante and tells them that what they should really be worrying about is not a crucifixion by the side of the road, but an eternity second guessing what might have been. It is life with God that matters, not death at the hands of the Romans. But Jesus doesn’t really want them to be afraid of God in the same way either, and so he follows the warning up with some words of comfort: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” What Jesus seems to be getting at is that despite the overwhelming power at God’s disposal, the power of life and death, the power to cast into hell even, God is benevolent in a way that the powers that be cannot even contemplate, and that rather than living in fear of God’s power, they should live in awe of it.
English translations of the Bible have always had trouble capturing the nuances of the original languages and perhaps nowhere do they miss the richness more than with respect to the word “fear.” In Hebrew itself, and in the worldview of its speakers, the word fear has a different meaning based on context. It can mean either fear like the fear I described earlier, our common fears or our phobias, but it can also mean awe and reverence. And so the famous scary phrase, “the fear of the Lord,” is not about living in fear, but living in awe, not about walking around wondering when God will jump out from behind a rock to scare you out of your wits, but marveling at the rock itself and your own inability to make it. It’s a kind of jaw dropping sense of awesomeness or wonder you experience when you come face to face with something so amazing or divine that it seems too perfect or too untouchable or too indescribable. The fear of the Lord is that profound understanding of the difference between you and God, a way of living as if you know how awesome God really is. And once again, we are betrayed by the translation of the Greek in Luke 12 which simply reduces it all to fright by the use of the word phobos in both places. But it’s the awe Jesus wants to make sure they do not lose sight of, because once we lose that awe, the awe of a God who knows the number of hairs on our heads, then we really will have something to be afraid of.
In increasingly pointed language, the passages that follow in Luke 12 speak of the coming judgment of this awe-inspiring God. Here’s what’s going to happen, Jesus says, when the end of days comes, and what will your posture be? Will it be cowering in fear, or standing up in proclamations of awe? Will it be worried, striving, hoarding of possessions for some futile attempt to survive a siege, or will it be graceful generosity that welcomes God’s coming to make things right? You get to decide, Jesus says. You get to decide whether you will live in fear or awe, because there are worse things than death. Maybe the kind of fear Jesus is really recommending is Atheophobia, or the fear of not having God in your life. What could be worse than living under Roman occupation? Living under Roman occupation numb and indifferent, not caring what happens to yourself or your neighbors or God’s creation. When we lose our connection to God, when we lose that awe, the world is a much duller place, the flowers of spring gray rather than vibrant with color, the songs of the birds monotone rather than symphonic, the taste of Patterson Farms strawberries bland rather than bursting with the flavor they always have. Now, that is something to be afraid of. In a world where there really are so many things to be afraid of, can we really afford to add a life without God to the list?
If we can remain connected to God, however, good things happen. What does Jesus say? “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge. When they bring you before the synagogues [for interrogation, you won’t have to] worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; fore the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” There are benefits to believing. God will vouch for you. The Holy Spirit will empower you. Those benefits probably shouldn’t be the reasons we believe, but they are pretty good perks. We probably should believe in God simply because God is worth believing in, because life without God isn’t worth living, but I suppose God doesn’t mind sweetening the pot. You probably shop at your favorite supermarket because it offers a nice shopping experience, and has the things you want to buy, and not only because it always has the lowest prices, but isn’t it nice when they also throw in a VIC card or an MVP card for some extra savings. Isn’t it nice to have the assurance that God thinks you are of more value than many sparrows and that the Holy Spirit will give you the right words when it really matters?
I know that some of you are still waiting for me to offer an explanation of the “unforgiveable sin” of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Yes, it’s one of the more mysterious phrases in the Bible: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” Very scary. Nobody really has a complete explanation for that phrase but let me just say this. Most of us don’t really have to worry too much about committing this unforgiveable sin because it takes an awful lot of intentionality to be blasphemous. I mean, blasphemy is not casual, not accidental. You really have to work at it. You have to try to deny God. Look at it this way. Jesus says, “Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven,” and that covers a lot, doesn’t it? It covered Peter when he denied Jesus three times when it mattered the most, and it’s going to cover us for almost any slip up we might make in our confessions about God as we are trying to live awe-inspired lives. If there is something we can do that is blasphemous, unforgiveable, it’s living as if God doesn’t matter, as if we are the captains of our own fate, as if have no fear of the one who has authority to cast into hell. God forgives our well-intentioned mistakes, and that might even be the best definition of the word grace. But let us not take God’s grace for granted by making our mistakes without any intention at all. In the end, that’s what Jesus is after with these disciples, and with us, for us to really live like God matters, and like other people matter, even when we fail at it. When we do that, we’ll have nothing to be afraid of. Let us be glad for a little atheophobia, the fear of life without God, and let us embrace the grace we have been given. Amen.