God of tumult, God of peace: more will change in the weeks and months to come. Further landscapes of our normal will be shaken to the ground. Gradual movements will accelerate, market trends will shift, and they will sweep away much of what we know. And so we pray for what we need: the reassurance of your strength in the midst of our community; and the life that returns in fuller resurrection after what we love is laid to rest. Amen.
Ecclesiastes (selected verses, such as 1.1-9; 3.1-8; 9.1-18) John 10.1-10
A young student once called the Book of Ecclesiastes the book that makes everything okay. I think it’s fair to say that her judgment would not be obvious to everyone.
Ecclesiastes certainly does contain a number of well-known sayings that are now embedded in the English language: For everything there is a season; or There is nothing new under the sun; or Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. But Ecclesiastes is not known for its ability to make everything okay. It is much more likely to be considered a masterclass in negativity and cynicism, and thus avoided. Some have questioned why it is in the Bible at all, though Martin Luther loved it.
But as is so often the case, if we look more deeply, there is something real going on here, and a surprising resonance with our own time. The author, often called the Teacher, is clearly someone who had it all together, perhaps still does. Professional recognition, material comfort, education and time are all his. And yet the truth he keeps coming back to, which is forced upon him by all he sees around him, is that even those whose lives are the most comfortable and protected are never really in any kind of control.
All is vanity. Which doesn’t mean worthless. It means something more like: fleeting, transitory; but also random, and randomly unjust; or even absurd, in that life so often seems to be without a pattern that makes any kind of sense. But this is not negativity, strictly speaking. It is just a painfully honest reflection on what the Teacher sees.
Now the Teacher never lets up on this honesty. But it cuts both ways. If all is vanity, if nothing lasts forever in this life (and Ecclesiastes doesn’t expect another one), and if random and inexplicable are embedded in the only normal we will ever know, there is, for this Teacher, only one conclusion to draw.
And it is not a negative one. It is not to lie down and give up. On the contrary, it is to get up, every new day, with just one goal in mind: to receive with joy every single one of the gifts God is offering to you each day. The world is full of pleasures, and moments which are true joy-bringers. And when you wake up in the morning to a life which you have no capacity to manage in any definitive way, the best compass for your life is this: Do not miss the gifts. Do not fail to know the sheer joy of them.
Love. Work. Sunlight. Wine. All of them. Go to your work, because we all have to. But because you know that good work is not always rewarded in this often random world, do what is worth doing, not what will be to your advantage, as advantage can be lost overnight.
Love others, and sit at table with your friends. And because you know that tomorrow is uncertain, raise a glass to this ordinary joy. Forgive those who bought up all the flour to make banana bread and sourdough. Perhaps they were right.
Of course, this hard-won teaching is not the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its fullness. We know that. But it does still perhaps hint of resurrection. And it’s noticeable how many times Jesus himself, in shaping his own radical teaching, appears to draw on the wisdom of Ecclesiastes.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, Jesus taught. They won’t last. And do not worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will give you its own worries.
And then, this: Take, eat; this is my body. Do not miss the gift. Do not fail to know the joy of it. Take it, today, even though you cannot know what will happen tomorrow. For God is the giver of every kind of gift.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus refers to himself as the gate of the sheep, the swinging entry and exit to the sheepfold. Jesus is the gate by which we go in, when we need rest, confinement, safety, or sleep. But Jesus is also the gate by which we go out, to depart from what we know, to seek new pasture, to discover a new landscape for our lives.
For everything there is a season, the Teacher said. Be ready to receive the gifts of God in all of them, in your going out, and in your coming in.