By Mack Owings
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Sometimes life is hard. Actually, the older I get, I feel like there are more and more hard days. But even kids, who don’t have to worry about bills and taxes and what to make for dinner, still have hard days, they’re just hard differently. But I bet most of us can understand where the author of today’s text is coming from when he talks about toiling under the sun, literally or metaphorically.
A couple weeks ago I went out to our community garden behind the church, and, with the help of one of our youth and Pastor Suzanne, I began to pull weeds. And boy did it feel like we were toiling under the sun. It reminded me of many summers growing up when I would help my Grandma Bonnie with her garden. Bending over to plant seeds, pull weeds, and pick green beans was certainly hard work for me as a 12 year old, and I can only imagine what that work was like for my 80 year old grandmother. We would toil under the sun for hours and it felt never-ending. There were many days where it felt pointless. No matter how often I weeded that garden, there were always more little green stems sticking out of the soil where they didn’t belong. And on top of that, the rabbits kept eating our plants, no matter how many ingenious things my grandma came up with to keep them out. Day after day, weed after weed, the same thing. It felt like a futile, pointless task.
When I remember those hard days toiling under the sun, it becomes really easy to empathize with the author of today’s text. He calls himself the Teacher, and he wrote this collection of wisdom that we call Ecclesiastes. But his opening words don’t feel much like wisdom. He begins with a poem and cries out, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Or as the Common English Bible translates his words, “Perfectly pointless. Everything is pointless.” Then he continues:
3 What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains as it always has.
5 The sun rises, the sun sets;
it returns panting to the place where it dawns.
6 The wind blows to the south,
goes around to the north;
around and around blows the wind;
the wind returns to its rounds again.
7 All streams flow to the sea,
but the sea is never full;
to the place where the rivers flow,
there they continue to flow.
8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing
or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been
in the ages before us.
11 The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
Huh. What is this doing in the Bible? This Teacher and this so-called book of wisdom doesn’t sound like it leads to a happy life. The Teacher is essentially saying, “Everything is ephemeral, it doesn’t last long, but at the same time nothing ever changes. So why bother? What I’m doing doesn’t matter, my work does not provide meaning. I’m just an ordinary guy.”
Now we need to step away from this passage for a moment and talk about the church calendar. I know, that sounds really boring and useless, but just stick with me. In the cycle of the church year, we have lots of exciting holidays and seasons (well maybe exciting to a church nerd like me). We have Advent and Christmas and Epiphany. Then we have Ash Wednesday and Lent and Palm Sunday and all of Holy Week leading up to Easter. Then we have Pentecost, which is the birth of the Church when the Holy Spirit rushes out as a mighty wind and as tongues of flame to fill the gathered apostles and followers of Jesus. To give them the means and the courage to spread the Good News of the Kingdom of God. These are BIG, important days for us as Christians.
And then… we have Ordinary Time. This is the long gap from late May or early June until we arrive back at Advent at the end of November. That’s about 6 months. HALF the year. We spend half of every year in what has been dubbed “Ordinary Time.” Where every week is simply named by its distance from Pentecost. So today is known as “8th Sunday after Pentecost.” And next week is the 9th sunday after Pentecost and then the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, and so on and so forth. On… and on…. For months.
It starts to feel like each week is the same. And for pastors who have been preaching for years, I can imagine that the urge to just reuse an old sermon becomes pretty strong. “There is nothing new under the sun.” As we get further from the excitement of Easter and Pentecost, life begins to feel… well, ordinary.
And I’m sure many of you have felt this way at some point in your life, or maybe you feel it now. Wake up, go to work, come home, go to sleep. Rinse and repeat. The same thing every day, the drudgery and weariness of it all can creep up on us while we’re not paying attention. The Teacher says he spent his whole life working hard, yet all that work will just go to someone else. He’s spent years gaining wisdom and knowledge and skill, and it’ll just disappear when he dies. It’s all vanity. The Hebrew word used here is hebel. And a more literal translation is vapor, breath, or a puff of air. Everything the Teacher worked for will vanish like a puff of air on a cold winter’s day. And to him, that makes it meaningless. If we stopped reading here, at verse 23 of chapter 2, it’s hard to see how this is considered wisdom, and how it’s considered scripture. Using so many words, all he’s expressed is that life is so fleeting as to be meaningless.
For some people, that might sound depressing, but when I read it, I’m not filled with despair. In fact, I feel a little relieved. I can live my life without being weighed down by worry, without being weighed down by the pressure to be perfect. After all, God does not require perfection.
But still, what are we to do in our daily lives? When life is hard, we have to find a way to keep moving forward. Because if we succumb to the dreariness and drudgery of life, if we can’t find some way to relieve the pressure and see hope, then we may very well lose our lives.
I think during the high holy days, the big holidays, it’s a lot easier to see God. We’re celebrating God’s goodness and glory; God’s presence is pervasive and inescapable. As theologian Elizabeth Webb puts it, “Days like Christmas and Easter, those moments when God’s dazzling light breaks through all darkness, only come once a year. The rest of the time we can often catch only a glitter here and there, as we struggle through the demands, the tedium, the felt meaninglessness of life.”
Webb continues, saying that “In the midst of a life that seems rife with monotony and dissatisfaction and sorrow, out of the corners of our eyes we can see small glimmers of God’s grace… Despair casts a veil over our eyes, blinding us to the brilliance of God’s love. But if we see momentary joys as what they are, as small pinpricks of light in the veil, we live not in despair over meaninglessness, but in hope for the day when that light shines brilliantly on all.”
So how? How can we find joy, find God, when we feel lost or stuck, when every day feels the same, and all of those days suck. What are these small pinpricks of light, these glimmers of God’s grace?
Let’s see what the Teacher has to say… Earlier we stopped reading at chapter 2 verse 23, where he says that even at night, our minds don’t get any rest, due to the toil of life. But then in verse 24, in verse 24 he says, “There’s nothing better for human beings than to eat, drink, and experience pleasure in their hard work.” Or as it is in the New Revised Standard Version, the NRSV, “eat, drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. --Find enjoyment.. in their toil.— I also saw that this is from God’s hand.” The Teacher says that we ought to seek out enjoyment in what we do. In chapter 4 he tells us of another joy in life: the value of a friend. Starting in verse 9, he says, “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other, but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?” Though the Teacher claims that life is pointless, he tells us to look for glimmers of God and in our daily, ordinary lives. In food, drink, work, and friends.
The summers I helped my grandma in her garden, I often did not want to. I was young and there were more fun things to be doing with my limited summer days, like going to the pool or playing baseball. I did not want to sit in the dirt with all the bugs and pull weeds that would just reappear the next day. But my mom would make me get on my bike and ride the mile or so to Grandma’s house. One time as we worked together quietly, I asked her how she could keep doing this every day. Her response surprised me. She simply said, “I enjoy it. I like seeing my plants grow.” I gave her a puzzling look and said, “but it’s HARD. I’d rather be doing something fun.” She chuckled and replied, “Well then make it fun. It can be fun differently. I know you like to learn, so what can you learn from these plants? Or from the dirt and the bugs?”
Now I can’t say that my perspective changed instantly. But I started to slow down and be more mindful while I worked. I started noticing how some leaves are a little fuzzy. I started keeping track of which flowers next door got the most visits from bees and butterflies. Not only did I get satisfaction from watching the plants grow and then eating them in the fall, but I began to look forward to my visits. I found joy in being in nature and examining the world around me.
So what if we slowed down and noticed the details? What if washing the dishes led to wonderment instead of weariness? What if the daily commute to work led to insights in human nature, or at least a list of prayer concerns. What if brushing your teeth became a prayer? I think in one sense that the Teacher is right. To quote biblical scholar Valerie Bridgeman, “An unexamined life, lived in an unconscious or even selfish way does lead to the conclusion that it is all futile, a waste of time, a chasing after wind.”
Being in Ordinary Time as we are now means that we have to intentionally look a little deeper to find God and meaning. As the Teacher says, we work hard and we die, and then the fruit of our labor goes to someone else. But that doesn’t mean it’s pointless. I think if anything, it’s an invitation for us to examine what we do have and how we might share it with others. Our possessions and our wisdom. After all, we can’t take it with us when we go. This links up really nicely with the Gospel passage for today, the parable of the rich fool. If you’re interested in hearing more about that, you should check out Pastor Monica’s sermon from today over on Attica’s YouTube page. I think that parable is a great illustration of a man who lived the unexamined life and found no joy.
God has gifted us with life. And one way we can thank God for that life is to enjoy it in whatever ways we can. To take joy in life’s simple pleasures. In fact, enjoying life is a noble pursuit, you might even say that it’s a wind worth chasing.
As a reflective activity, I’d like for you to grab a piece of paper and a pen or a pencil. Take the next couple of minutes to write down a few of your own simple pleasures. These can be anything. For example, I find joy in sitting by a river, eating chocolate chip cookie dough, or getting all dressed up and going out to a nice dinner. I encourage you to put this list somewhere you will see it often. Let it be a reminder to slow down and enjoy life’s simple pleasures.
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