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Reflection July 24, 2016
Taking Leave of “The Preacher”
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday, I finished three sermons on the Book of Ecclesiastes. This coming Sunday, we’ll begin looking at “The Song of Songs” as another dimension of our “Summer of Wisdom.” But before we leave Ecclesiastes, I’d like “The Preacher” to have some final reflections for us.
Don’t become a workaholic. Feverish labor robs one of life’s enjoyment. As Ecclesiastes 4:5-6 teaches us: “One hand full of toil and one hand full of rest are better than two hands full of toil.” Is it not true in our culture that we equate ceaseless work with success?
If one is not (financially) successful, it must be because one is lazy and not working hard enough. This is a profoundly dangerous notion that is very hard to disentangle from our national psyche. But this is not so for the Preacher. A slave to work is still a slave!
The Preacher asserts that it’s better to have less possessions with more time for leisure that to have many possessions with no leisure. Is this still not true today as it was 2300 years ago?
True enjoyment, teaches the Preacher, is to be content with less - to be content with what is at hand. But he also notes how human appetite is seldom satisfied. True then - true now!
For the Preacher, it is either God or nothing. Either God or vanity - either God or vapor - either God or gas! We must all decide. But even if we decide on God, many, if not most of us, will travel in the dark - in the shadows - as did the Preacher.
There is much foolishness, much balderdash, intermingled with our religious life, our life of faith. Is it not true that most of us have never had the kind of revelation that hammered our brother Paul on the road to Damascus? Do we not often have to travel through our lives uncertain where we stand before our God?
About 20 years ago, I was traveling in Ireland and England with a good friend of mine, a clergyman, from Cleveland. While we traveled, we would have deep discussions.
I told him more than once on that trip that I had a recurring fear of standing before the judgment seat of God. Knowing that God isn’t given to chattiness - I believed God would ask me one question and one question alone. I knew in my soul that the one question God would ask was: what about your son, Mark?
I’m happy to say that I have a better answer to that question now than I did 20 years ago. But what is the one question God might ask of you when it is your turn before the judgment seat of God?
The Preacher wants to strip away all the pieties and pious platitudes that make us sound religious - but are not real. We just cannot know where God is in the most significant moments of our lives. As the Preacher rightfully claims: no one (but God) knows what is to be! True then - true now!
My mother, bless her memory, used to enjoy a popular song from 1956, sung by Doris Day: “Que sera, sera - whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see, que sera, sera.” The Preacher would agree!
The Preacher suggests that we enter into life with zest. Could we not all use a bit more zest in our lives? Many of us sometimes feel like the weight of the world is crushing us. But God wants us to enjoy the great gift of life.
In chapter 11, verse 4, the Preacher advises us not to be over-cautious. Again good advice to us, especially those of us who find ourselves anxious and fearful. As I’ve said numerous times over the years, fear is, by far, the prevailing emotion in our world. Many of us are trapped by fear.
Our politics seem to be fueled by two strong emotions: fear and rage. But is it helpful to make us more fearful of those who come from other countries or those who belong to other religions?
We’ve heard a great deal over the past months about building a wall on our southern border. But do we know where this idea originated? Rev. Jerry Falwell called for such a wall in 2008. Unfortunately, too many of our Christian leaders stir up fears and help generate rage against those we perceive as “other” than ourselves. The Preacher abhors such behavior.
The Qoheleth takes as his model the first creation story, (Genesis chapter 1, verse 1 to Genesis chapter 2, verse 4a.) (There are two differing creation stories in Genesis - the second story begins in chapter 2, verse 4b.)
The Preacher notes how God created everything and how everything was good. He notes six times that joy is the Creator’s greatest gift to us, after the gift of life and the gift of salvation. If we were not given the godly gift of enjoyment, then the Preacher says it would have been better never to have been born.
As Pastor Eugene Peterson notes in reference to Ecclesiastes: “God is the living center of everything we are and everything we do. God is before, behind, over, beneath everything. If we separate any part of our lives from God, we are left holding an empty bag. Nothing can stand on its own as good, apart from God.”
We cannot know the future, even though we want to know it. But today and every tomorrow is in God’s sacred hands. That’s good enough for the Preacher. That’s good enough for me. I pray it’s good enough for every one of us!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor