August 4, 2013
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:28-23
Preachers may find a particular kinship with the words of the "son of David" in Ecclesiastes because our work is difficult, personal, and often vague--a "chasing after wind. "On a good day, we may gracefully receive complaints, but on another day, are unsure of our own proclamation. This Sunday is a testing day for preachers. We do not like to hear that human toil is vanity, yet we must hear it in order to preach it.
Vanity appears in this reading repeatedly and throughout the book, not only defining pride but also resentment (Eccl 2:18-19), despair (20-21), and awareness of pain (22-23). All of these are marks of vanity. All signify emptiness. The Hebrew, hebel, comes from the French, vanus, meaning empty. The word "vanity" itself is breath, vapor, ruah. All that we do is futile, and God's role is mentioned only as having given us this "unhappy business." (Eccl 1:13)
These words, however, concern more than existential meaninglessness. There is evidence that Qoheleth (the "Teacher" in v. 1) is disparaging the injustice brought about by a market economy that had supplanted the traditional agrarian structure. Under the domineering Persians, Judah was experiencing (fourth or fifth centuries BCE) a new currency, standardized to facilitate trade. Taxes were imposed. (1) And, as with twenty-first century financial woes, many who had fortunes one day were, the next day, impoverished. This text, in other words, speaks directly to our time with the middle class shrinking. Think of Ecclesiastes, in part, as a cry against the inequality of an economy that does not reward people who "work hard and play by the rules."
For good reason, Ecclesiastes is set beside the Lukan story of the man with many barns in which we hear the same hard view of a God who will tear down all that the farmer has created. He will not live to enjoy the new barns bursting with what he has built. The resentment in Ecclesiastes is raised again in the moan that asks: Why do we labor when others will reap the benefits?
These texts confront us with the mystery of our own worth. Notice that when asked for help in solving a family squabble about inheritance, Jesus says to the man: You measure your worth on a scale of your own devising that does not do justice to what I have created in you. Your life is worth more than what you have. Your true value is hidden. "Because we do not know our worth or where it is located, we build up a quantifiable accounting on the basis of which we can forget about the fact that we are going to die and lose it all, anyway. Greed works like this as a distraction. My nest egg helps me to visualize my importance.
Wealth is only a mirage; it does not truly measure value. But because it is palpable, and therefore comforting, it is also a source of a most grievous sin: self-justification. On the basis of my own scale of valuing and my own devices for avoiding the truth about myself, I succeed in pretending that life is something it is not. And in this endeavor, I have not grown "rich toward God."
The church's tough road is to proclaim a counter-reality of equality, rest, and joy in the face of a version of life that venerates greed, fear, and destruction. These readings lay out the hard truth of human life: we work at what is, in the end a vapor, a nothing. Each of us will die. And in the interim between birth and death, we have true life not in the measurements of our own paltry devising but in the truth of God's reality that is "hidden."
A caution here to the preacher today: Listen to this text as an expression of what people truly feel about their lives. Spend time in the harsh reality of work that is difficult and even hated. Think of the work you do that is most unappealing, the physical strain that is required and dreaded, the tiring and boring aspects of life maintenance for humans, for those are the very image of what Ecclesiastes wants us to ponder.
Do not rush to the good news that despite how tired and badgered we might feel today, God loves us. Ecclesiastes is surely written out of reverence for our Creator and Redeemer, and these words of steely-eyed reality about the vapidity of our lives lay the foundation for a mighty word to come as the readings unfold.
The truth is that we are "hidden with Christ in God," but we cannot see or trust these rather large and vague words unless the preacher shows us what is hidden. It is, as Colossians describes, a "new self ... being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator" (Col 3:10). Help us see that image so that we are given knowledge and can come to trust more fully the promise that our toil is not the whole story. Show us where Jesus' risen self is present in our daily toil and in the small miracles that do incessantly surprise us. MEQ
August 11, 2013
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
In our journeying on the paths as yet untrodden, in ventures of which we cannot see the ending, (2) we are called to wait--as were Abram and Sarai--with expectation. We are not to be afraid. The Lord's delight is to serve us with countless fruits of this life. This promise is true for Abram and Sarai as well as for the "little flock" to whom Jesus addresses the admonition to be "dressed for action" with "your lamps lit" (Luke 12:35).
Like many people, Abram and Sarai had hoped for children but had none. Abram's complaint to the Lord is as familiar as our own cries: Lord, I have lost my job! Lord, my mortgage has fallen to ruin! Lord, our neighborhood is being destroyed by ... [polluted wells, drugs, unemployed teenagers, hopelessness]. In these early years of the twenty-first century, so much has gone wrong in the large structures that support us in our smaller purviews that it seems only logical to give up hope. We can understand the temptations of cynicism.
But the Lord has a way of seeing that is difficult even for Abram. The Lord says to him, "count the stars, if you are able ... "God knows the stars are not countable. So does Abram. It is the unfathomable quality of this image that makes sustaining hope all the more dependent on the one in whom we cannot hope without help. The particular problem of not being able to hope is clarified in the epistle reacting in which faith is defined as the "conviction of things not seen." Neither Abram nor we can see all the stars. Even the amount of hope needed and the quality of faith we cannot sustain, is beyond our vision. This is the central problem of human life.
The evidence all around us is that there is no reason (NB: no reasoned argument that can convince us) to have faith. We cannot see what God tells us to expect. We beg: Show me the extent of my hope. Show me something that measures, even in an incredible way, what it is to live by faith. God's response is to point to the panorama of stars (Gen 15:5) and to give us the image of the master coming to serve the "slaves" who have remained alert (Luke 12:32, 40). We are to expect at every moment without fear the gifts and shield (Gen 15:1), the protection and fulfillment of what God has already given.
But we have a problem with this. Not only is it impossible not to be afraid, we cannot maintain assurance that the thing for which we have hope will actually come. Life's actual experiences militate against living truly by faith.
Furthermore, what God says to Abram "in a vision" may sound like a "reward" resulting from Abram's ability to ward off fear. This is not an adequate reading of this sentence. The word for "reward" is skr. a gift not a wage. God's people are not commanded in this text to do something for which God will, then, amply pay. Instead, God comes to Abram presenting the promise as a vision, an image that could not, otherwise, be conveyed.
Theologically, the readings for this Sunday bear on each other in a way that continually reinforces the images of God's assurance that our lives ought to move into the unseen future without fear. God has already given us the treasure that no rust can destroy and no thief can steal.
The gift nature of God's servanthood is underscored by Jesus' statement that "it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). "Good pleasure" sounds like a noun as it is translated, but it is an aorist verb--eudokesen--that means you have already been given God's own realm. It is done; it is not conditional. Nothing more is needed. So "do not be afraid!"
Our difficulty with this promise is not only that we cannot grasp it except in images, but also that we are told by Jesus to take action: "sell your possessions, and give alms ..." (Luke 12:33). As with so many of the paradoxes by which Scripture calls us to live, this is another impossible command that we cannot fulfill. How are we to remain hopeful facing what we cannot do?
We are acclimated to think in conditional terms. We are taught the if/then strictures of human relationships, and we apply them also to the relationship we have with...