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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Such is Life! -- A Sermon

My final sermon in my series on Ecclesiastes. We sang this song:



Such Is Life!
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 11, 2011

Wisdom from Ecclesiastes

Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the impulses of your heart
and the desires of your eyes,
yet know that for everything you do
Nature will hold you accountable.
Therefore banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
For youth and its early vigour are short-lived.
Therefore think of your grave in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come and those years arrive
when you say, “I no longer find any pleasure in life.”
Think of it before the sun grows dim,
and with it the daylight and the moon and the stars,
and the clouds return after the rain.
Think of it when the mind starts to wander
and even the strong back begins to stoop,
when the disappearing molars cease to chew
and cataracts dim the eyesight.
Think of it when the doors to the street are closed
and the noise of the grinding mill fades,
when the sound of birds grows faint
and all the daughters of song are humbled.
Think of it when the fear of heights increases
and terrors lurk in the streets,
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire is no longer stirred.
For humankind goes to its eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Think of it before the cord of life is severed,
the golden bowl is crushed,
the jar is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel is broken at the well.
For then the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to the God who gave it.
“Fast fleeting,” says the Proclaimer. “Impermanent!”
“Everything dissolves into nothingness.”

The Proclaimer was not only wise in himself,
but what is more important, he imparted his knowledge to the people.
He searched and weighed and set forth a host of parables.
The Proclaimer sought to find just the right words,
and honestly write down what he found to be true.
The words of the wise are like goads.
They are like nails driven firmly home,
by members of a fraternity
and now delivered by one caring guide.
Apart from these, my son, be warned
that there is no end to the making of books,
and much study simply tires us out.
That is the end of the matter, for now you have heard
everything.
Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind.
For everything we do Nature will bring to judgment,
even everything hidden, whether it be good or evil.

Translation by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), p. 171-192. Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:14.

We have spent the summer with Qoheleth, the Proclaimer, the goad, the devastatingly honest skeptic and critic. Today we allow him his last word and let him rest. Some may breathe a sigh of relief. A steady diet of existential angst is not warm and fuzzy.

I am going to miss him. This is the first time I have preached an entire series of sermons on Ecclesiastes. I am grateful to the guidance of Lloyd Geering, whose book, Such Is Life: A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes has helped me to see more about this interesting figure of the Bible than I had seen previously.

Qoheleth is not warm and fuzzy. He is real, though. He is not one to settle for “Sunday School” answers to important questions. He is not the one who will acquiesce because some authority tells him what is supposedly true. He will examine the evidence for himself. He will come to his own conclusion even if that conclusion is not popular or warm and fuzzy.

Earlier this week I watched an interview with retired Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong is a Qoheleth-type figure. He is not warm and fuzzy either. In addition to his delightfully sharp and liberating critique of Christianity, he talked a little bit about his life. He grew up in fundamentalism. He said,
“The reason fundamentalist churches grow is that they offer security. “You can’t think but they offer security….The churches that claim to have all the answers don’t allow any questions.”
He said that he had an unstable life growing up. He was only twelve when his father died. His father was an alcoholic. His mother was uneducated and raised him in the faith she knew. He said:
“My fundamentalist religion probably gave me the strength to endure that kind of childhood. But by the time I was fourteen, my fundamentalistic religion kept me from growing, either in terms of my understanding of God or my understanding of the world. So it began to shatter and fall apart. I didn’t go from fundamentalism into what I am now in one step. There were a number of intermediate steps. But I finally came to the conclusion that God is beyond my human capacity ever to know fully. I tell people that a horse could never explain what it means to be human. No matter what you did, no matter how a horse might be able to talk, a horse could never enter into the human experience and describe what it is like to be human. I wonder why human beings can describe what it is like to be God. And yet we have done that throughout history. We have said God is this and if you don’t agree with this I’ll burn you at the stake, I’ll go to war, I’ll persecute you. That’s nothing but human arrogance. God is a mystery into which we walk and the more deeply you walk the more that mystery just surrounds you. I consider myself today a God-intoxicated person, almost a mystic, but I have no idea of what human words I would use to try to articulate who God is or what God is. I can articulate what I believe my experience of God is.”
That was John Shelby Spong in an interview about his latest book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. What I think is important here is that he recognized that the fundamentalist faith of his childhood had a purpose. It gave him security and strength to endure a difficult childhood. It isn’t that fundamentalism is bad. We have to be careful about judging because that security is often what people need to endure. But there comes a time that it no longer works. That happened for Bishop Spong, perhaps for many of you, and for me.

LinkSecurity is a good image. Security can keep you safe, but it also keeps you confined.
Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater,
Had a wife but couldn't keep her.
So he put her in a shell
And there he kept her very well.
I'd like to know his wife's opinion.

When you become strong enough that you no longer need the security, you will feel the urge to break away from the confines of a rigid faith. It is important to allow people to take their own spiritual path at their own speed. The other side of that is that in order to break out of the confines people may need the goad or the prod such as what Qoheleth offered.

It is near the end of Ecclesiastes that we realize what Qoheleth is doing.
The Proclaimer was not only wise in himself,
but what is more important, he imparted his knowledge to the people.
He searched and weighed and set forth a host of parables.
The Proclaimer sought to find just the right words,
and honestly write down what he found to be true.
The words of the wise are like goads.
They are like nails driven firmly home,
by members of a fraternity
and now delivered by one caring guide.
He is writing as an old man to a young man. He is offering his reflections. He is not sparing anything. He wants the young man to think. Qoheleth knows that there are plenty of places where the young man can go to get security and someone else’s answers. Those places are a dime a dozen. They exist today as they did in his time. In our language it sounds like this:
You are a miserable sinner. Here is how Jesus will fix you. Believe this and believe that and don’t doubt this and don’t doubt that.
Qoheleth knows that business. He heard all of it and found it wanting. Qoheleth, like Spong, does not tell his spiritual story to give the final answer. He tells his story so that the young man will take his own adventure and live his own life. What Qoheleth tells the young man in the last chapter is what he has been saying throughout. He is telling him the one truth that he knows:
everything comes to an end.
Nature bats last. She brings us all home, back to her womb. That is how she holds us accountable. Our life is impermanent.

Qoheleth is haunted by this. He keeps trying to beat it. Through wealth, power, wisdom, pleasure, religion, but none of it helps. All is impermanent. All is vapor. It is only when he comes to an acceptance of it, that he can say,
Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind.
In other words, such is life.

This is what you have now. Take it. Give it. Live it.

The Buddhist teacher holds up a glass. He says isn’t this beautiful? Look how it reflects the light. It holds this pure water that quenches my thirst when I drink from it. I am happy with this glass. I know that one day this glass will shatter into a thousand pieces. I don’t know when. I don’t know how. I know that this glass will break. I cannot stop it. I imagine that this glass is broken. Because I know that one day it will not be I can enjoy it fully now.

You get the paradox? When we try to make something last forever, when we deny reality, we actually increase anxiety and suffering and cause harm to ourselves and others. When we know that life is impermanent, when we accept our limits, we can be more present to what is real. We don’t need to be anxious about what we will lose, because really it is already lost. In cosmic time, the glass is already broken. It is not ours to keep. It is ours to honor in its fragile, impermanent state.

Qoheleth rather than hold up a glass, holds up himself as an old man. He says to the young man:
Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the impulses of your heart
and the desires of your eyes,
yet know that for everything you do
Nature will hold you accountable.
Therefore banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
For youth and its early vigour are short-lived.
Be happy. Enjoy your youth. Don’t be anxious. Live life, knowing that Nature has the last word. Then he says:
Therefore think of your grave in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come and those years arrive
when you say, “I no longer find any pleasure in life.”
Why think of the grave? Isn’t that depressing? No. It is the opposite. What do we spend our time doing? Much of the time we spend it waiting to be happy. I am going to be happy when I finish school, I get a job, I get a better job, I get a lover , I get another lover, I have kids, I boot the kids out, I get a house, I get older, I retire, whatever.

The Buddhist and Qoheleth say,
“Why wait? Be happy now.”
None of it lasts. Neither do you. There is no need to put off joy. Whether it is joy or sorrow, it is now. Notice it. Such is life.

To drive the point home, Qoheleth gives a lengthy poetic description of aging.

Think of your grave, young man, before…
Your teeth rot out and
Your eyes grow dim and
Your mind wanders and
You can’t hear the birds and
Desire stops and
You get afraid of things
And you drag your old body around like a grasshopper
and on and on. In my first church, my elderly parishioners would tell me,
“Don’t get old.”
What do you say to that? I’ll try? I knew what they were saying. They were seeking some sympathy and offering advice,
“Don’t let life pass without noticing it.”
Good advice.

Qoheleth shows the young man what his future will be. Think of your end, now, recognize your impermanence so you don’t cause a lot of suffering trying to cling to what you need to let go.

This is not only a lesson for individuals but for society. This whole decade since 9/11 has seemed to be one of desperate clinging. Clinging to security, to fear, to fantasies of lost innocence. Eventually civilization will end. Economic growth will end. The age of the automobile will end. How much suffering will we cause before we recognize that? How much suffering will we inflict before we recognize our limits? Before we follow the advice of Qoheleth:
Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind.
The last words from Qoheleth are these:
For everything we do Nature will bring to judgment,
even everything hidden, whether it be good or evil.
For me, that sentence means that what I do now matters. What do I now, not five years from now or ten years from now, but what I do now matters. What I do will either add to the collective good, the ball of merit, as Joanna Macy calls it, or it will add to suffering.

I don’t have forever, I have now. I have this amazing unasked for existence. Like Bishop Spong, I don’t need to cling to religious or theological baggage that no longer works. I don’t need to be anxious about my life as it will end anyway. There is only one rule I know of, that Brother Kurt Vonnegut reminded us,
"Be kind."
I will try.

I will also try to follow the advice of Phil Ochs. If any of you are around at my funeral, you can sing this song if you like. It is called, “When I’m Gone” and here are the lyrics:

There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone
And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone
And you won't find me singin' on this song when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't feel the flowing of the time when I'm gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I'm gone
My pen won't pour out a lyric line when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here


And I won't breathe the bracing air when I'm gone
And I can't even worry 'bout my cares when I'm gone
Won't be asked to do my share when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't be running from the rain when I'm gone
And I can't even suffer from the pain when I'm gone
Can't say who's to praise and who's to blame when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

Won't see the golden of the sun when I'm gone
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I'm gone
Can't be singing louder than the guns when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

All my days won't be dances of delight when I'm gone
And the sands will be shifting from my sight when I'm gone
Can't add my name into the fight while I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't be laughing at the lies when I'm gone
And I can't question how or when or why when I'm gone
Can't live proud enough to die when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

Such is life.

Amen.

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