A Sermon by the Rev. J. Michael Solberg in response to the attack on Congress on January 6, 2021 based on Ecclesiastes 1 (see Mike’s translation at end of sermon). This sermon is also available as a video on our Youtube channel here. 

Let us pray. Gracious God, may my words, and the responses of us all, be acceptable to you, O Holy One, who guides and sustains us always. Amen.

You may question the wisdom of reading a passage like Ecclesiastes 1 today. I certainly did. After the attack on the Capitol on Wednesday, I decided to change the reading to something more hopeful, more comforting. There is a whole Bible’s worth of them to choose from, because just about anything would sound more hopeful than this Ecclesiastes passage. My first inclination was to go with Romans 8 – assuring us that God’s love cannot fail:

“…We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor RULERS, nor things present, nor things to come, nor POWERS, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I also thought of Psalm 46 – assuring us that though things get really messed up, God will take care of it, and take care of us:

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should rumble,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea…
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”

I realized that those and other passages I thought of were ones that I commonly read at funerals. That makes sense I suppose, since we lost something this week. We lost a sense of innocence – a sense of inevitability about our democracy. We lost a sense of trust – trust destroyed as 220 years of the peaceful transition of power came to an end. We lost a sense of security – perhaps for a few uncertain moments there on Wednesday afternoon, a sense of physical security, but more enduringly we lost the security of believing that we really are all in this together. And we lost a type of hope – a hope that despite all appearances to the contrary, and no matter how much we may disagree with him on policy or style – we lost holding to a shred of hope that that President actually held the best interests of the people in his heart.

Emotionally, for me, this week I feel like I did a few years ago when thieves broke into my in-laws’ house. They weren’t home at the time, so there was no real danger, and there was nothing really worth taking, other than a laptop and some old family silver. But the only way to describe that feeling is, violated. Their physical space, their home, with all that means, was violated, and that’s very personal. But even more, of course, there was the violation of their sort of basic trust in humanity. We sometimes forget that all of human society is one big trust game. Every time you drive down the street, you entrust your life to hundreds of other people who could swerve and kill you at any moment. Every time you vote, you put your future wellbeing in the hands of hundreds of others who need to respect you enough to be sure your vote is counted properly and that it carries the full weight it deserves.

On Wednesday, our physical space, the home of democracy, and our trust in our fellow human beings, was violated. I am definitely angry, and I want to see those responsible for this, those who literally invaded the Capitol, and those who, for months and years, stoked the political moment in which this could happen – I want to see them suffer the consequences of their actions. That’s a critical step in social and political order. But that won’t take away the loss, it won’t erase the violation. And that makes me sad.

So why not use those funeral passages today? Why not offer assurance that though things get really messed up, God will take care of it, and take care of us? Why read this seemingly dreary passage from a book of the Bible we rarely hear from, largely because we don’t want to hear it?

Well, actually, I guess it just felt too easy for today? Too simplistic? I mean that is sometimes true at funerals too. But on that occasion you gotta just go straight to the comfort and hope, just point to a light out there and say, I know you don’t feel surrounded by light right now, but with all the conviction I can muster, all the weight of thousands of years of faith, echoing the assurance of God own voice, I assure you that the light continues to shine, and it will engulf you, embrace you, again.

I hope to get there today in the end, but by a different route. Although some of the emotional dynamics are undoubtedly the same, this isn’t an actual funeral. Our democracy lives after all. I talked to one of my Angolan friends on Friday, and before I could even say “Hi,” he said “Hello, my brother Mike, I am so proud of you guys, you Americans. Checks and balances! If only we had those!” That was actually healing for me. So, this is not a funeral , and we will get through this. But let’s take a different road, or perhaps linger here a little longer, and see if there is not something we can learn in this moment, a lesson at least, if not a blessing, we can find in this moment. I think the ancient teacher of Ecclesiastes, the one we call “Qoheleth,” has something to give us here.

If you know these words at all, you might be used to a more traditional translation: vanity of vanities, all is vanity. But I think this version is better:

Vapors of nothingness!
Everything is nothing.
    I have seen it all—
    vapors of nothingness!
What is there to show
for all of our hard work
    here on this earth?
People come, and people go,
but still the world
    never changes.

Everything that happens
    has happened before;
nothing is new,
    nothing under the sun.
Someone might say,
    “Here is something new!”
But it happened before,
    long before we were born.

I have seen it all,
     and everything is just as senseless as chasing the wind.

As always, we ended this reading earlier with the words “Thanks be to God for these words of life.” But I am not sure too many of you are thanking God for this, and you’re pretty sure there aren’t any words of life there. But let’s explore it and see what we can find.

One of the key things to realize is that the Teacher, Qoheleth, isn’t just a normal guy – at least not in these opening verses of the writing. Ecclesiastes is a little complicated this way, but basically, the Teacher starts out with the personae of King Solomon, the greatest, richest, wisest king Israel ever had. These opening words are given as the words of Solomon. And Solomon, as a great king, had time to do what he wanted, and what he wanted was to find the truth about life – what could truly give a person rest, peace, joy.

Although the whole long journey is summarized in just a few verses in this writing, Solomon’s pilgrimage must have taken years, decades. As a king, he explored the full extent of political power, and found it could not give a person peace – it was empty, a vapor of nothingness. He explored the possibilities of let’s say sensual pleasure, and found it could not give a person joy – it was a vapor of nothingness. He explored the promise of riches, and found vapors. He committed himself to learning wisdom, the hollowed and beautiful wisdom of the ages, and found nothingness. Here’s the culmination of it all, in his own words – a few verses after the reading we heard earlier:

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was a vapor and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

You know what I love about that? The honesty. Solomon says, look, I tried everything I could, I tried all the paths to find some rest, to find a little joy, and I got nothin’. It was all nothin’. He looked beyond himself as well. To the experience of others, the way life unfolds, and he saw nothin’. “I have seen it all,” he says, “and everything is just as senseless as chasing the wind.” He tried everything he could, and he was honest enough with himself to say, “You know what? There’s nothing there. My search has been futile. Empty. It’s all a vapor of nothingness.”

The fascinating thing is that we don’t hear any sadness here. He’s not lamenting the emptiness. He’s reporting it. He’s not shaking his fist at God for not revealing the secrets of the universe. We do see that kind of reaction in the book of Job – faced with the same reality Solomon faced,  Job shakes his fist at God:  I cry to you and you do not answer me! But there is none of that here. We don’t hear the fullness of the struggle, the bitter moments of death, defeat or disappointment, when Solomon realized that there was no point to his searching, striving. We just get the clear-eyed, straight forward, unvarnished truth – the search ends with nothin’.

So, what happens? We are going to stick with this book of Ecclesiastes for a few weeks, so you’ll hear in more detail how this plays out – and trust me, I’ve barely skimmed the surface of the thoroughgoing emptiness presented here – but the Teacher, gives us another lesson, a teaching that is not the result of searching, of striving, but of receiving, as one gratefully receives a gift: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and see good in one’s work. This, I came to see, is from the hand of God;”

The searching, striving King found nothing. The humbled man received a gift – recognized the gifts that were always with him. Eat and drink. (I wish we could sit at table together today.) Eat and drink. This is not the eating and drinking of Bacchus, not pleasure found in the things themselves. This is the eating and drinking of family, friends, maybe a stranger or two, around the table, receiving daily bread, the bread that is closely connected to forgiveness given and received, the bread that is so closely connected to “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” There is rest, peace, joy. There is not an achievement, but a gift.

The other element the Teacher notes: seeing good in one’s work. Not seeing the good one can get from one’s work. And certainly not the goods one can get from it. But seeing the good in one’s work. The value of effort, the pride of accomplishment, the joy of contributing to the greater good. There is oh so much more to say about that, especially in this town, but you know what he’s getting at:

Seven times [the Teacher] acknowledges or commends enjoyment in various forms. Common to them all is the utter lack of self-pretention, ambition, or obsession…As [the Teacher] comes to realize, joy is not a means to a greater, vainglorious end. The true pleasures are the most mundane. They are the “simple gifts.” Whereas [the Teacher] found his life in a constant state of ceaseless activity and accomplishment, of making, building, planting and gathering – the all-consuming and self-aggrandizing labors of any [snip] despot – he now discovers what is ultimately worthwhile; the task of receiving. Neither achieved nor planned, neither grasped nor produced, the gifts of true pleasure are simply received from God. (William P. Brown, Ecclesiastes, p. 37)

You know who I wish had accepted this truth? The President of the United States. The last four years would have turned out a bit differently. The last four days would have turned out a bit differently. We wouldn’t all feel the loss we have felt. The violation. The need for a funeral. I wish all the Christians who have been his most avid supporters would flip through their Bibles and listen to the Teacher. I wish there were a few more politicians who understood the beauty of the simple gifts, and enjoyed the work of ensuring they are available to all. But, of course, those folks  are not alone. The world doesn’t shake and democracy doesn’t crack at the failings of all of us, but I know that I too need to hear the words of the Teacher, and maybe you do too. A life of eating and drinking and seeing good in one’s work is a life lived in peace with others, in service with others, in joy with others. That’s what we all truly want, what our world truly needs. Leave the striving behind, and receive the gifts of God, then we will surely get through this moment, and this life, together.

Mike’s full translation of Ecclesiastes 1:

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vapors of nothingness!
Everything is nothing.
    I have seen it all—
    vapors of nothingness!

What is there to show
for all of our hard work
    here on this earth?
People come, and people go,
but still the world
    never changes.

The sun comes up,
    the sun goes down;
it hurries right back
    to where it started from.
The wind blows south,
    the wind blows north;
round and round it blows
    over and over again.
All rivers empty into the sea,
    but it never spills over;
one by one the rivers return
    to their source.

All of life is a chore,
    more than words could ever say.
Our eyes and our ears
are never satisfied
    with what we see and hear.
Everything that happens
    has happened before;
nothing is new,
    nothing under the sun.
Someone might say,
    “Here is something new!”
But it happened before,
    long before we were born.

No one who lived in the past
    is remembered anymore,
and everyone yet to be born
    will be forgotten too.

I said these things when I lived in Jerusalem as king of Israel. With all my wisdom I tried to understand everything that happens here on earth – and God has made this so hard for us humans to do. I have seen it all, and everything is just as senseless as chasing the wind.

If something is crooked,
    it can’t be made straight;
if something isn’t there,
    it can’t be counted.

I said to myself, “You are by far the wisest person who has ever lived in Jerusalem. You are eager to learn, and you have learned a lot.” Then I decided to find out all I could about wisdom and foolishness. Soon I realized that this too was as senseless as chasing the wind.

The more you know,
    the more you hurt;
the more you understand,
    the more you suffer.

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