So I Commend Enjoyment
30 May 2021, 21:14
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© Stacey Steck
There are many parts of the Bible that may be enjoyed and understood in small, bite-sized chunks like the beatitudes, the twenty-third psalm, and the parables. But there are some parts of the Bible which seemingly cannot stand alone, or which make almost no sense without having to read a really large and rambling collection of verses, like a lot of the letters of the Apostle Paul, and any given chapter from Ecclesiastes. It is almost fruitless to read any part of Ecclesiastes without reading it all, but not because there is some strong thread which ties it all together, but precisely because there isn’t really one. It is a classical Biblical case of the old saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This morning’s reading of the eighth chapter is interesting and enlightening on its own merits, but reading it alone only leaves us with an incomplete picture of what the great teacher of Ecclesiastes wishes to tell us. And so, I am not going to go into great detail about this particular chapter, but I am going to ask you to go home and read the whole book sometime this week to see what I mean.
This morning’s chapter is, however, representative of some of the book’s recurring themes, although without a complete version of the book’s most famous expression, “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” That sentiment is indeed part of what this chapter expresses, namely that as much as we might wish the opposite, life, even life under God, does not play by the rules we might wish to create, but rather according to the sometimes mystifying rules God has imposed, rules which at times seem rather arbitrary and frankly sometimes pretty unfair. If we made the rules, the righteous would always win out over the sinners, the wise over the fool. If we made the rules, we would all get what we think we deserve: a long, happy life if we do the right things, and a swift and appropriate punishment if we do not. If we made the rules, there would be some consistency and predictability to life that would prevent the tragedies that take place seemingly every day in the news, like this week in San Jose, California, in which a gunman took the lives of nine people, including an immigrant who spent his last moments warning his co-workers and helping them to safety, even stopping to call those who were scheduled to come to work soon, instead of fleeing for his own life, only to be shot and killed himself.
And to this, says the teacher of Ecclesiastes, “There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” By all accounts, Mr. Taptejdeep Singh, the one who died helping his colleagues, was among the righteous, if not in the traditional religious sense, at least in the moral sense of that moment in which he “laid down his life for his friends.” When asked to describe him, Mr. Singh’s supervisor said, “The first (thing) that comes to mind is (his) empathy and his compassion towards people.” Of all people then, Mr. Singh did not receive what he deserved. But neither did the shooter, who deprived the community of justice by taking his own life before he could be apprehended.
But should we call what happened in San Jose vanity? I suppose we could in the sense that the shooter thought so highly of himself that he thought he could take the lives of others with impunity. I suppose we could use the word vanity to describe what happened in the sense of “it happened in vain,” or for no ultimate purpose. Those two senses of the word vanity do capture, in part, what Ecclesiastes means by the use of that odd English word, but a more helpful translation for our times might be absurd, as in “Absurdity of absurdities. All is absurdity.” It is absurd, it makes no sense, that a father of two toddlers, who is hard working, empathetic, and compassionate, should be gunned down in the prime of his life. It is absurd that white collar criminals who ruin the lives of countless people get less prison time than low level drug offenders. It is absurd that a traffic stop should end with a fatal knee to the neck for nine minutes. These are the kinds of contemporary examples of the inconsistencies of life and justice that Ecclesiastes calls vanities or absurdities, that lead the writer almost to the point of despair. In our passage today, it is the sight of known criminals being eulogized for their philanthropic efforts that gets named as absurd, and the list goes on throughout the book, captured in such compelling phrases as “Again, I saw that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.” It’s all so absurd, he says.
At the same time, however, Ecclesiastes reminds us strongly that in the end, we are the creatures and not the Creator, and that the fear of God is still the appropriate posture. Fresh off the Day of Pentecost, Ecclesiastes reminds us that “No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death,” powers reserved for our confounding, mysterious God who promotes justice but doesn’t always seem to execute it. Yet in the face of all that absurdity, the response from Ecclesiastes is not to try harder, not to join the revolution, not to curl up in a ball, not even to shake a fist at God, but to enjoy the time we have been given, as unpredictable as it may be, remembering that it comes from God and that we could be hit by a bus at any moment. “So I commend enjoyment,” it says, “for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.” More than once in Ecclesiastes comes this advice to get all you can out of this short life. Yes, the answer to life’s absurdities is to party!
If that sounds like a mixed bag, a little fatalistic, a little depressing even, then you are coming close to understanding why Ecclesiastes is included in the Bible. But why would we want as part of our Bibles such a thoroughly pessimistic perspective on life, even if it is life lived under God, as part of the truth that shapes us and that we proclaim? Well, I think it has to do with the Church’s dirty little secret. You didn’t know we had one? OK, I’ll tell you what it is. The church’s dirty little secret is that although we may be “in Christ,” life is not always fun and games, rose gardens, and unending joy. Christians suffer, Christians hide their suffering, and Christians leave the church because they feel they cannot reveal their suffering. Our frequent odes to joy, and to abundant life, and to communion with Christ are not always reflective of the way life is for many of the faithful, and we don’t often leave room for the real doubt, pain, and suffering they experience. Too often, and probably unconsciously, we at least imply that it is a lack of faith that leads to a less than perfect life instead of acknowledging up front that, even with Christ as our guide, “Life is difficult,” as M. Scott Peck famously reminded us many years ago. And by lifting up this reality, we can at least go through it together, rather than alone.
The truth is that your life together as a church is going to become more difficult in the coming months, and that too is absurd. As my time comes here comes to an end, there will be transitions to plan, supply preachers to line up, meetings with presbytery to hold, nominating committees to form, goodbyes to be said, and yes, even tears to be shed. And some may say about many parts of the process, vanity of vanities, absurdity of absurdities, and they will not be wrong. Why should this righteous church be thrust into such turmoil and chaos? It is a chasing after the wind, to use another of the favorite phrases from Ecclesiastes, it is a chasing after the wind to find a new pastor; I mean they are just going to leave after a time anyway. And unfortunately, there is nothing new under the sun, another classic Ecclesiastes saying, there is nothing new under the sun about the laborious Presbyterian process of calling a pastor. It’s the same old, same old. And it’s an injustice that a small, rural church like Thyatira has to compete for the best clergy talent in an ecclesiastical marketplace that places it at a disadvantage, vanity of vanities in a body that supposedly considers each member as important as all the rest. Absurdity of absurdities.
And yet, to use other words from Ecclesiastes, “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything,” and “Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them.” Who knows what amazing things may happen as a result of this change? It is not just to put a happy face on a sad situation to say that the best is still yet to come, because that’s how it always is with God. At the very least we can say that the witness of 260+ years in this place suggests that everything will turn out just fine. Life will go on, Sunday School will continue, the choir will still sing, and deviled eggs will be served. Things may be absurd for a while, but God will be in the midst of it in that mysterious, divine kind of way, and sometimes that’s all we can rely on.
And so I, like the author of Ecclesiastes, “commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.” And to that end, Flora and I would like to announce a party at the manse on Sunday afternoon, June 13 from 5-9 pm, although you can stay later if you want to! We’ll send out more details, but we wanted to announce it now so hopefully you’ll be able to make plans to come. You don’t have to bring anything except yourselves, we’ll make it so that we can be somewhat socially distanced, and we’ll trust that God will provide good weather. And we sincerely hope you will join us, at least for a little while because we want to celebrate with you what God has done in this place over the last five and a half years, and to give thanks for the welcome you have given us, even if it is in the midst of saying goodbye. That may sound absurd, but sometimes life is like that, and that’s why there is a book called Ecclesiastes. May God bless us as we eat, drink, and enjoy ourselves in the midst of our toil. Amen.