Sermon for August 1, 2010

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Often, before writing a sermon, I'll use facebook and twitter to ask my friends and acquaintances for their thoughts and insights into the scripture passage. When I did this Friday, one of my friends from Seminary immediately shot back: "I'd give my input, but it's all vanity and striving after wind."

If I were truly wise, and if we had a giant screen here in the sanctuary, and if the worship service lasted two-and-a-half hours, I would sit down, shut up, and let you watch the movie Forrest Gump as a guide through today's scripture text. But fortunately (or unfortunately) for you, I am far from wise, we have no screen, and I have been strictly instructed to unlock the secrets of wisdom and the universe in a neat and tidy 15 minutes.

There are three ancient books that together form the "wisdom" tradition of the Old Testament: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. All in some way attempt to answer, among other things, the philosophical question "What is the end of wisdom?" or to phrase it differently, "What is the objective, the purpose, the goal of wisdom?" Depending on how the question is answered, the related questions "What is the meaning of life?" and "How should we live?" flow naturally, and are also addressed.

The most ancient of these is the book of Job -- for more on Job's answer to the meaning-of-life question, <begin shameless plug here> you can join me at 5pm next Sunday night, where I'll be leading a folk music rendition of the book of Job as part of the worship service for the Presbyterian Church in El Paso, which meets Sunday nights this month here at 1st Pres <end shameless plug>.

Proverbs is perhaps the most well known of the Wisdom books -- it's answer to the "life questions" is also the most simple: To "find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths" (Proverbs 3:4-7).

Of these three ancient wisdom texts, Ecclesiastes is the latest, and the most subtle. It has been regarded as cynical, dark, pessimistic, and also, in a paper I recently read by a young seminary student (at the time) by the name of Robert P. Reno, as tongue-in-cheek satire, wherein the book's author creates an over-the-top persona of all the things he argues against to drive home his witty, irreverent point. Personally, I find Ecclesiastes, along with the book of Job, to be one of the most profound and interesting books of the Bible.

However you view Ecclesiastes, it is certainly complex, and difficult to penetrate. It might help to have a tour guide—a certain simple man, who may not be too smart, but knows that “stupid is as stupid does.” Yes, I'm talking about Forrest Gump, the fictional hero of the 1994 film of the same name, starring Tom Hanks. If you haven't seen the movie, most of what Forrest has to say about Ecclesiastes will still make sense, but I highly recommend seeing the movie.

"Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher . . . all is vanity." The word "vanity" is from the Hebrew word "Hebel," which some translations render as "meaningless" and still others as "futile." It can also be translated as "inconstant," "transitory," or "unpredictable." Unpredictable. Our tour guide might put it this way: "Life is a box of never know what you're gonna get.”

The quote actually comes from Forrest Gump's mamma, who believes that life is unpredictable, but that you do the best you can with what God gave you. And like the characters in Forrest Gump, this is also what the protagonist of Ecclesiastes sets out to do. The NRSV and the NIV call him “the Teacher.” King James calls him “the Preacher.” But in the original Hebrew, he is called “Qohelet” which means “one who gathers.” The assumption of the early translators was that he was the gatherer of a congregation, or a class of students, hence “Preacher” and “Teacher.” But I prefer to just call him “The Gatherer” and let you decide what it is he's gathering. Hear now from Ecclesiastes 2 (MSG):

I said to myself, "Let's go for it -- experiment with pleasure, have a good time!"

With the help of a bottle of wine and all the wisdom I could muster, I tried my level best to penetrate the absurdity of life. I wanted to get a handle on anything useful we mortals might do during the years we spend on this earth.

I did great things: built houses, planted vineyards, designed gardens and parks and planted a variety of fruit trees in them, made pools of water to irrigate the groves of trees.

I acquired large herds and flocks, larger than any before me in Jerusalem. I piled up silver and gold, loot from kings and kingdoms.

Oh, how I prospered!

Everything I wanted I took -- I never said no to myself. I gave in to every impulse, held back nothing. I sucked the marrow of pleasure out of every task -- my reward to myself for a hard day's work!

Qohelet—the Gatherer—is collecting experiences, possessions, achievements...bigger, better, more, more, more! He's starting to sound downright American, isn't he? But listen to what comes next:

Then I took a good look at everything I'd done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing.

The idea that all we have worked for, and all we have accomplished amounts to “nothing” is difficult to grasp for those of us who are still actively involved in the chase. There is a point in the movie Forrest Gump when Forrest, through much hard work and some divine intervention, has built up for himself a business empire—Bubba Gump Shrimp—that is listed among the Fortune 500. He is standing on the deck of the flagship of his fleet of shrimp boats when the call comes in that his mother is sick and dying. Forrest doesn't even wait for the ship to dock. He jumps straight overboard and starts swimming toward home without a second thought, leaving everything he had built behind him like so much smoke and vapor. Sometimes all it takes is one phone call to put all our “stuff” and all our “achievements” into perspective.

So what then shall we gather, if not possessions, wealth, achievement? Should we gather people? Family and friends? Facebook tells me that I have 703 friends, and Twitter says I have 581 “followers.” Qohelet, the gatherer, says “I bought slaves, male and female, who had children giving me even more slaves” and then, “I gathered a chorus of singers to entertain me with song, and—most exquisite of all pleasures—voluptuous maidens for my bed.” Even our tour guide, Forrest Gump, when he decides “for no particular reason” to run back and forth from coast to coast across the United States, several times, acquires a large crowd of followers who run with him, and look to him for inspiration and wisdom. Shall we gather people? Qohelet comes to the conclusion that end the end, people die. Forrest Gump, despite some amazing opportunities and good fortune, is ultimately powerless to stop the premature deaths of the three people he cares most about—his mother, his best friend Bubba, and his beloved Jenny. People too, are fleeting and transitory.

So Qohelet decides to gather wisdom instead:

I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly . . .

I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness. Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them.

I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?”

For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.

This is particularly difficult for us, as Presbyterians, to hear. We're the denomination where “you don't have to check your brain in at the door.” We pride ourselves on our commitment to Christian Education. We require all our pastors not just to have graduate degrees, but also to be proficient in Ancient Greek and Hebrew. We, my friends, are the quintessential Nerds of the Body of Christ...and we're proud of it.

But, the bible has a few things to say about pride as well. And while you'll never hear me say that education is a bad thing (I am after all, a teacher and a student), it is useful for us to remember that even education—like possessions, achievements, and relationships—is fleeting. What is the end, the objective, of wisdom? Perhaps the end of the end of Wisdom, or at least realizing where wisdom ends. Forrest Gump says, “I'm not a smart man, Jenny, but I know what love is.” Wait...Love?

1st Corinthians 13:2: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."

While I think that Forrest may indeed be onto something here, Qohelet does not, finally, raise the banner of love in Ecclesiastes. That comes much, much later, in the gospel message of Jesus, and his sacrifice of love for all humankind. But Qohelet does finally come to a conclusion, and I think it is a profound one. After gathering fortune, fame, friends, wealth, wisdom, the gatherer says: Don't gather. Enjoy what you have in this moment, feast or fast, for it is from the hand of God. Anything else is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

This is not too different than Mamma Gump's view that you do the best you can with what God has given you. Life is a box of never know what you're gonna get. To which I would add, no matter what you get, it's still chocolate.

The movie Forrest Gump opens and closes with a lone feather, floating on the wind, spiraling past trees, houses, cars, and people, changing directions unpredictably on its journey. The feather is a metaphor for the lives of the film's characters, and for our own fleeting and fragile lives. At one point near the end of the film, Forrest is standing at the grave site of his beloved Jenny, trying to make sense of everything, and he says: “Jenny, I don't know if Momma was right or if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.”

I think Qohelet could appreciate that sentiment. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. As I've already said, “hebel” is a tricky word to translate. It's not an entirely abstract concept in Hebrew, like our words “vanity” or “futility” but rather a semi-tangible thing with a range of meanings that also includes smoke, vapor, breath, wind, spirit. We are indeed feathers blown on an unpredictable wind. But what seems unpredictable, insubstantial, and accidental to us is not necessarily be without destiny or guidance.

What is this wind, this smoke, this breath that blows us from place to place? From Isaiah:

The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Whether you are a feather or an eagle, may you enjoy this day as a gift from God's hand, and may you soar gracefully upon God's wind, wherever it leads you.

And that's all I have to say about that.