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    Oct 24, 2021



    Speaker: Rob McClellan

    Series: October 2021

    Category: So-called Christian Values

    Today's Scripture: Ecclesiastes 2:1-11

    Today's Sermon




    Ecclesiastes 2:1-11

              2I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. 2I said of laughter, ‘It is mad’, and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’ 3I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; 5I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.

              9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. 10Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.


                What is this Scripture doing here?  Ecclesiastes is a strange book.  Its opening words are, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity” continuing, “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun…there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:2-3, 9).  If you’re waiting for the answer, a profound statement to counter the seemingly nihilistic approach at the outset with optimism, hope, and meaning, you will find that you will be, to borrow Ecclesiastes’ words, “chasing the wind” (2:4).  It never comes.  All of this is meaningless, and in the end we all die.  What a passage to read on a day we welcome new members into the church!

                The part of Ecclesiastes with which people are most familiar, at least most people of a certain age, was popularized by The Birds’ rendition of “Turn! Turn! Turn” subtitled “To Everything There is a Season.”  Written by Pete Seeger, The Birdsbrought their signature melodic sing-songy feel, which can mask the otherwise heavy passage.  Consider the words from Ecclesiastes 3:

    For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
    a time to be born, and a time to die;
    a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
    a time to kill, and a time to heal;
    a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
    a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
    a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    a time to seek, and a time to lose;
    a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
    a time to tear, and a time to sew;
    a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    a time to love, and a time to hate;
    a time for war, and a time for peace.

              A time to die, to kill, for war?  Isn’t Scripture, the faith, supposed to uplift?  Where is the good news?   I may have mentioned that at my seminary well before my time, there was a preaching professor named Wade Huey.  They used to call him “Wade the Blade” because of the way he’d carve up one of your sermons.  Responding to a student sermon, he was known for repeating with increasing fervor, “Good news!  Good news! Where’s the good news!?”  Every sermon needed to be punctuated with good news. That is, after all, what gospel means.

            Now, don’t fall into the trap:  “Well, this is the Old Testament, I worship the New Testament God.”  First off, Jesus’ Bible was the Hebrew Bible so by that measure he worshiped an “Old Testament God.”  Secondly, there’s a lot more mercy found in the Older Testament, and a lot more wrath in the Newer Testament than most people want to admit.  It’s all one God.  

            What is this Scripture doing here?  Even the early church debated including it in the canon.[1]  I’m with Wade the Blade here; my conviction is there is good news in some form in all of it.  Where is it here?

            I don’t know if in full, but I think I know part of the answer.  I’ll being with a story.  I remember sitting in a group one day, and a very successful person was sharing about where they were in their life.  They had reached a pretty high place in their career, but having arrived there, they kind of looked around and said, with some disappointment, “So is this it?”  Is that a familiar story?  I call a story, but really it’s many peoples’ stories. I’ve seen it again and again, people suddenly realizing that what they were supposedly working toward, is here and…it feels empty. 

             In this culture we’re brought up from the youngest of ages to treat our lives as if we’re preparing for some grand something. Often, it’s tied to vocation.  We ask children, children(!) “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  We just don’t know how to engage them in who they are.  How could they possible know what they want to be, and why should we care? Just once, I’d love a child to answer, “kind,” “balanced,” “I want to be whole.”  Kids are only told they’re the future, because we only value the earning years.  Children, like elders, are part of the present, just like the rest of us are.  When we make it all about the future, we just pile on pressure and devalue the only moment we know we have, this one. 

              We set up a life of chasing.  The author of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, did everything one would have thought would lead to happiness – did great works, built houses, planted vineyards, made gardens and parks, pools, bought slaves, had many possessions, treasures, performers, they delighted in the flesh, yes, that means what you think it means.  And…nothing. Meaningless.  Waste.  Chasing the wind.

              Mountain climbers talk about the experience of reaching the summit and it is satisfying, even exhilarating…for a fleeting moment. Then there’s a letdown.  Endurance athletes speak of this too.  It’s like being given a full bucket but there’s a hole in the bottom.  It doesn’t last and it takes more and more to feel full.  You’ve all heard that phrase, “There’s no ‘there’ there.”  All of it is passing away, though we continue to try to make it last forever.  When I studied philanthropy, one of the things we learned about was how in antiquity one of the reasons the wealth gave was to create monuments, legacies, an attempt among other things, to manufacture immortality.  It never quite does the trick.  Nothing lasts, not even this life. 

              And with that, we’re on to something. Ecclesiastes tells it like it is. The “Turn! Turn! Turn!” passage is not advocating for killing or war or even death.  It’s acknowledging them.  It’s descriptive, not prescriptive, and there is some companionship in having your experience described by another.  It means on some level you’ve been seen, and to be seen is to be, on one level, affirmed.  It’s the opposite of gaslighting, making you feel as though you are crazy for feeling a certain way.  Sometimes things do feel futile.  Sometimes they truly are.  If you know much about Carl Rogers and his method of psychology, you know that his method was one of largely listening and reflecting back to people what they shared. It’s the mode that still dominates in much of pastoral counseling.  What’s amazing is how people can describe feeling so much better just after being heard. They feel legitimated. 

              What is Ecclesiastes doing here?  Part of what it’s doing is keeping us company when we feel even the darkest, emptiest of feelings, when it feels meaningless or hopeless.  Ecclesiastes says to us, it feels impossible, doesn’t it?  I just read a reflection from an old friend about a long saga to get their child help with an absolutely debilitating eating disorder. Ecclesiastes isn’t fixing her, but neither are any other books in the Bible.  Ecclesiastes is, however,  keeping her company, holding her hand, and saying, “I know.  I know.  It’s hard. It’s impossible.”  Those who ultimately put the Bible together decided there was no part of the human experience too hard to be in Scripture. There’s a place for all of it and that makes for a fairly large tent.  This faith is not just for those who are happy, or believe without a hint of doubt, or “know where they’re going.”  Here, we get the full range of human experience and expression.  One of the reasons people leave the faith is because it hasn’t adequately made room for the shadow feelings and experiences. Ecclesiastes provides some cover. If you feel bad, maybe it means you have a problem.  We all do. Maybe it just means you’re paying attention.  Sometimes the most sensitive among us also take in the most darkness, and we get to have a home here too.  If someone ever says they’re too sad to go to church, the church has failed. 

              Another part of what Ecclesiastes is doing is refocusing our attention, and that too is part of the good news.  Instead investing all our energy chasing the wind, building monuments all of which will one day blow away or be swallowed by the sea, Ecclesiastes directs us right here, now.  It’s not quite, “seize the day” as biblical scholar Peter Enns reminds us, but more hold things a little more lightly.[2]  You can be unburdened about that which you cannot change.  A band I liked back in college had a song with the refrain, “No, it won’t mean a thing in 100 years.”[3] This isn’t to dismiss the consequences of our actions or be dismissed from our responsibilities, but it is to free us to live both fully into the present moment. “Eat, drink, and be merry,” says Ecclesiastes, incidentally also popularized by a band big in the 90s.[4]Do you see how resonant these themes are; they show up again and again in popular music.[5]  I can think of more examples in popular music from Ecclesiastes than any of the gospels, because it’s relatable; it’s real.

              Being real opens the door for real presence.  On a beautiful autumn day, a friend of mine in the Midwest shared this quote from writer Margaret Renkl:

    Perhaps the reason I didn’t feel sad about the onset of fall when I was younger is only that I was younger, with my whole life still ahead. In those days my only worry was that my real life, the one I would choose for myself and live on my own terms, was taking too long to arrive.

    Now I understand that every day I’m given is as real as life will ever get. Now I understand that we are guaranteed nothing, that our days are always running out. That they have always, always been running out.

    And so I greet this gorgeous season with a quiet and a stillness I never felt when I was younger and in such a hurry.[6]

    What’s this passage doing here?  Enabling us to do that, to live.  What a perfect day to welcome new members, anyone, into this fold.





    [3]Blues Traveler, 100 years.

    [4]Dave Matthews Band, “Trippin’ Billies”

    [5]See also, John Mellencamp, “Paper in Fire”. Actually, see much of his catalog!