Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Interim Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection July 10, 2016
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday, I began a two-part preaching on the Book of Ecclesiastes (part of our “Summer of Wisdom.”). Having re-read the Book three times last week, I’ve grown in my appreciation for Ecclesiastes and its mysterious author, the Qoheleth. I will share some of what I preached.
What the name “Qoheleth” means is uncertain. Some translations call him “the Teacher” but most (and I believe rightfully so) call him “the Preacher.” But a caveat for us: the Preacher writes that he is actually King Solomon. But this improbability is profoundly unlikely. The Book of Ecclesiastes was written roughly 700 years after Solomon.
The author covers himself with the mantle of the king considered the wisest person in Jewish history. But he was not King Solomon. There are many reasons why he cannot be who he says he is. The Book of Ecclesiastes, by the way, is probably the last book of the Old Testament to be written (around the year 300 B.C.).
I hope this doesn’t present a problem for any of us. There are numerous Christians who proclaim that the Bible must be free of any error of any kind. If the Preacher claims he is King Solomon - then, by God, he must be King Solomon, even though it is nigh unto impossible.
As American Baptists, with our legacy of main-line progressive theology, we do not subscribe to this view of the Bible. The Bible is our foundational book and we are deeply immersed in the Bible. But we are also open to what Scripture scholars have been teaching us for many generations now.
I really like the Book of Ecclesiastes. As Pastor Eugene Peterson notes (in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work): “Ecclesiastes is a John the Baptist kind of book. It is not nourishment as such but a cleansing bath; it strips away all pretense and all false piety.” It’s my hope that we will come to deeply appreciate this preacher - this Qoheleth - who will tear down pious pretenses and allow us to be naked and vulnerable before the absolute and awesome power of God Almighty. The Preacher continues to preach to us across the span of 23 centuries.
At the time of the Preacher, religion/ biblical faith among the Jews had fallen onto hard times. The Preacher was intent on scrubbing away the decay - the pollution that had seriously clogged the stream of Jewish Biblical faith.
Peterson points out two main issues the Preacher was confronting: 1) overconfident piety, a piety that it sure it knows God’s mind better than God does himself and 2) neurotic apocalypticism; the misguided notion that doomsday is just around the corner. Both of these issues continue to pollute faith to our present day.
I recall during the first week or two after I began as pastor of our beloved church, someone asked me if I believed we were living in the “End Times“. This person believed strongly that such was the case. I said that I had no idea but I also stated that such talk of “End Times” was not helpful to the growth of faith. Pietistic paranoia is still paranoia!
We cannot EVER know the mind of God. God has always been in charge. God is now in charge. God will always be in charge. This is what Biblical faith asserts. This is what the Preacher asserts.
The preacher was not only against neurotic apocalypticism, he was also against the type of piety that makes God into a “buddy” of ours. Too often we’ve tried to domesticate God. I’ve preached on this tendency to domesticate God often.
We attempt to domesticate God when we proclaim cheap pieties that do not arise from Biblical faith. We must remember that no member of the Trinity of God is our golfing buddy. No member of the Trinity of God is our drinking buddy. No member of the Trinity of God is our personal pet.
In all of Scripture, Old Testament and New, it is clear that there exists an incomprehensible gulf between us and God, between the Creator and every creature.
We might say that the Preacher does not have what we call a personal relationship with the Almighty. Yet isn’t that the REAL case with many of us?
Yes, Jesus saves us and makes us whole. But the Preacher came hundreds of years before the exquisite revelation of the love of God Made Flesh. The Qoheleth had little way of knowing if God loved him or not. Yet the Preacher still clung to God and the commandments even in the midst of his uncertainty. We can certainly respect the Qoheleth for the tenacity of his faith in God.
Too many believers, too many Christians, too many pastors, too many preachers proclaim miracles aplenty. It is the proclamation of magic! And magic is strictly and rightfully forbidden in the Bible.
Anyone who claims God wants to make a miracle for you is a charlatan and the Preacher will have none of it. God is God. Humans and humans. End of story! We don’t get to tell God what God must do! God cannot and will not be manipulated. Too many television preachers are the worst kind of con artists.
In my former denomination, magic is also proclaimed. Basically every mass said throughout the world is said in the name of some deceased person. The mistaken idea is that having mass said for the dead will hasten their time in purgatory! Magic!
I cannot remember how many statues of Saint Joseph I’ve blessed over the years. The misguided notion was that by burying a statue of Saint Joseph upside down in your front lawn - you would sell your house sooner! Magic! Misguided and pious balderdash!
God is God - the Preacher preaches this. No one can cause God to do anything God wasn’t already planning to do. Such false piety is all vanity - a word the Preacher uses some 40 times in Ecclesiastes. While usually translated as “vanity” - it’s better translated as vapor or gas.
The Preacher will not allow us to say foolish, pious platitudes like: God never sends us more than we can handle. Really? Tell that to the families of those massacred in Orlando! Tell that to the families of the children who are slaughtered weekly on our own city streets!
We should keep in mind that the Preacher did not believe in any significant afterlife awaiting him. So he tells us many times: enjoy your life while you can. Good advice from our brother Qoheleth!