Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection July 17, 2016
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday, I preached a second sermon on the Book of Ecclesiastes. I will preach one final sermon on Ecclesiastes this coming Sunday before we move on to “The Song of Songs” as part of our “Summer of Wisdom.”
Here are some reflections from last Sunday’s sermon: Some say that the Qoheleth is a cynic but I disagree. The Qoheleth – the Preacher – is confronting realties that we must all confront from time to time. Why are things the way they are? Where is God in all of this? And here’s a big one for the Preacher: Why do evil people prosper and, the flipside, why do good, godly people often not prosper?
These questions are not easy to answer. Much writing in the Old Testament clearly suggests that God will take care of the righteous and punish the wicked. But we don’t see this always working out in reality. As the Preacher laments in 3.16: “wickedness prevails even in the courts of justice.” Is this not still the case?
But if God is a God of justice, why doesn’t God punish and prevent wickedness? The Preacher doesn’t have an answer for us. But the fact is that even Jesus did not answer these perennial questions. As the well-written book, “Living the Questions” proclaims: “Rather than offer his disciples answers to life’s most perplexing problems, Jesus introduced them to deeper and deeper levels of ambiguity.” Jesus almost never directionly answers the questions put to him. And since we believe Jesus shares fully in divinity, it seems that God will not answer our difficult questions until some later date.
The Preacher cautioned against giving answers to questions that have no good answer. Yet many pastors and preachers continue giving “authoritative” answers to questions that can only be answered by God alone. It is not my role as your pastor to traffic in answers that can only come from God. And, yes, I understand why people want answers – especially in the midst of trials and tribulations – but some answers must be God’s alone. To pretend to have the answers is, I believe, a form of blasphemy.
There are many times when we just have to throw our hands in the air and declare: “I just don’t know why this has happened.” I myself have come to this unsettled place, this place of shadow, this past week with my beloved Beth and her profoundly serious illness.
We all wonder why so many things are wrong with our world. We demand that God make it better: more justice, less violence; more healing, less sickness; more peace, less war. But are not all these things in God’s hands? Do we not all eventually come to the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane: “Not my will, but your will be done!”
The Preacher suggests we should never give any kind of simplistic obedience to authority figures. Just because someone is in charge doesn’t mean we owe him or her blind or even half-blind obedience. Again a story from my past denomination: When I became pastor in Grambling, Louisiana (1986), for my installation there was a general acclamation by the congregation. But to complete my installation, I walked over to the matriarch of that community, Mrs. Fidelia O. Johnson, the daughter of the founder of Grambling State University.
I knelt down in front of her and asked her to place her hands on my head and bless me as her pastor. I then knelt down in front of the entire congregation while every person came up and one-by-one did the same thing. It was a very Spirit-filled moment. I could do almost nothing wrong during my time in Grambling. Perhaps I should have done something similar when being installed here at our beloved church?
But here’s the point regarding the Preacher: when I was installed as pastor in Parma, Ohio (1990) – a large congregation of about 10,000 people, the Catholic Church had added a loyalty oath as part of every pastor’s installation. How would people here like it if we demanded a loyalty oath – to American Baptists or to this church or to the pastor – as a requirement of joining our beloved church?
Beside reciting the Creed (which was no problem for me!), the following also needed to be pledged: “I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitely proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals. Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise the authentic Magisterium (teaching role), even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.”
I could not in conscience say this oath! I made an appointment with the Bishop of Cleveland. I told him that I could not submit my will and intellect to anyone but God. I guess I was already an American Baptist at heart! Soul freedom – an important foundation of Baptist faith – was something I already deeply embraced.
The bishop and I came to an agreement that I would “respect” the teachings of the pope and bishops but would not submit my will and intellect. I made a similar agreement when I was installed as pastor of St. Peter’s in the Loop, the busiest church in the Midwest. I’m sure the Preacher would applaud my actions. After all, he notes in chapter 8, verse 9 how the exercise of authority is often downright hurtful to many. Amen to that!
If one were to summarize Ecclesiastes – always a dangerous thing to do – it might be something like this: Enjoy your life while you can, because old age and death are coming! In the Talmud – the ancient Jewish teaching on the Torah – there is this saying: “Every one must render an account before God of all the good things one beheld in life but did not enjoy.” This saying is very much in the spirit of the Preacher.
Being on God’s side does not give us immunity against the endless challenges of life. I know this in the deepest part of my soul. Many in our beloved church know this truth in their deepest soul. But is it not better to be on God’s side nonetheless? The Preacher would be in agreement with our brother Paul who suggests in 1st Thessalonians: “Do not quench the Spirit --- but test everything.” (5:19-20) Let me close with a quotation from Rev. Eugene Peterson: “Qoheleth empties us of the inner noise that we supposed was religion and the cluttered piety we supposed was faith. He throws out the accumulated religious junk and banishes the fraud that has paraded as faith.” In other words, the Preacher’s work is simply to clear away what we mistake for religion so we can be free for true faith. Bless us!