Sermon Summary 11.13.22
Unfortunately our livestream failed Sunday so I do not have a transcript this week. However, I had reworked a sermon I'd given before, back when I did manuscripts but did so with a different reading from Ecclesiastes, so this is similar to, but not exactly, what I did here at Fort Scott.
“A Time To Live”. Stewardship Sermon for University UMC Wichita Delivered November 16th, 2014 – tweaked for Nov 13, 2022 at First Fort Scott For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; Last week, this church and churches around the world celebrated a All Saints as we remembered those who have gone before us in this journey we call life, faith, and hope. We sometimes hesitate to acknowledge it, but death is part of life. The book of Ecclesiastes has been important in my journey (Known as Qohelet in Hebrew, both mean preacher or teacher). It is wisdom literature, full of proverbs and advice – but it is not simple. It is designed to challenge and cause pondering. When I first read it… I experienced a moment of recognition… The central character seeks meaning – first by pursuing wisdom itself, then indulging in every worldly pleasure, again by accumulating wealth and power. He boasts of building great gardens and palaces, of having huge numbers of servants, of denying himself nothing he desired – But he finds all empty, fleeting, meaningless. He finds in wisdom much vexation, in wealth and power anxiety, and in pursuing pleasure that it eludes him. In tradition, the book was long ascribed to King Solomon, based on some allusions that call his rule and reputation to mind. The style of Hebrew it is written in and other factors definitely rule Solomon out as the actual author. But most commentators think this “royal fiction” is done deliberately to evoke the stories of Solomon and play off of them. The wisdom of Qohelet is often counter-intuitive and countercultural. In fact, some commentators think this book might have been created as an instructional text – in the form of a play with a narrator and a character’s internal thoughts shared with the audience. Many find the book pessimistic and depressing. I can certainly see why – if it were staged as a play, much of the dialog would sound like Eeyore. "vanity of vanities, all is vanity and chasing after the wind." “There’s nothing new under the sun…” “All is vanity, emptiness, absurdity… The Hebrew word that all those terms translate is “hevel” and perhaps the best way to convey its meaning might be to think of our breath as we walked outside this cold and snowy morning…. “breathlike” or “vapor” – that hint of something solid that is gone before we can grasp it. everything – including youth and life itself is fleeting. Vanity. Hevel Qohelt is considered pessimistic because it deals extensively, in varying ways, with some themes our culture would really rather not think about death and inevitability. A time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, … and a time to die;…. We don’t like to think about death at all – but again, if this book were staged as a play, we’d likely see the central character grow old and reach the end of his days before our very eyes. And yet – despite all that – I find the central message of the book is about joy. Qohelet ultimately finds that joy is a gift from God – Life itself is a gift and there is always joy to be experienced and shared. fleeting moments of life where happiness comes – the warmth of the sun, the song of a bird, the pleasure of a meal with friends. those moments we notice and cherish. These things are the meaning of life – and they cannot be grasped… they must only be lived. And one encounters them by remembering one’s relationship with God. One best embraces life by remembering that it is not permanent, that it will pass, that we will die. That seems odd to our culture – and yet it is not completely foreign. I can think of several songs that have recently been at the top of the charts that embrace this very notion. I bet everyone here knows at least one of them. From a while back, Garth Brooks “The Dance”, - remember “I could have missed the pain, but I would have missed the dance.” Or , Tim McGraw - who recorded one of his biggest hits in honor of his father – former Phillies pitcher Tug McGraw’s battle with a brain tumor I went sky divin', I went rocky mountain climbin', I went 2.7seconds on a bull name Fumanchu. And I loved deeper And I spoke sweeter And I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin' And he said some day I hope you get the chance To live like you were dyin' Hear that? Every one of those is a joyful song that acknowledges that life is fleeting. And worth it. My grandmother taught me that – and as I look back on it I think it is one of the main reasons I got into ministry – she told me “we’re all dying, some of us just know maybe from what and perhaps when” The message of my grandmother’s proverb and each of the songs I mentioned is that life is worth living – and perhaps even sweeter – if we live it knowing that is finite and won’t last. One commentator on Ecclesiastes who also sees the hopeful side of it explained its central message as a form of “reality therapy” – by naming our fears we cease being controlled by them and are instead freed. For example – how many of you have ever had to get a shot. Raise your hands. Ever had to get a shot? Were you told “this won’t hurt a bit?” Keep your hand up if somebody told you that. How many feel like that person lied to you? OUCH. SHOTS HURT! A small betrayal but a betrayal nonetheless. And after that – how did you feel about the news the next time you had to get a shot – were you looking forward to it? Probably not… But what a different experience it is when the nurse says “now… this will probably sting for a second, but you can handle it.” Hear the difference?– you’ve been told the truth – and told you can handle it. And the shot is done before you know it. "A friend who tells it like it is and holds your hand is better than a friend who says what you want hear but then walks away to let you face things alone." Qohelet tells it like it is. Genesis 2.7 tells us that “God originally formed us from the dust of the ground and breathed into our nostrils the breath of life so that we became living beings Qohelet, says when we die “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit [breath] returns to God who gave it” (ECC 12.7) There is a certain humility in knowing that. And that’s crucial for Qohelet’s argument. Humility keeps us grounded. Keeps us from going to excess. And so where the teacher finds joy is in a humility – remembering that we are creatures, not creator. embracing the very thing we often seek to deny in ourselves - That we are finite, not infinite. Like few other places in scripture this book embraces our alienation and despair, our frustration when life doesn’t make sense and the proverbial wisdom doesn’t work. When we can’t figure out what it is time for and when our pursuits come up empty. Yet despite the encouragement I find in Ecclesiastes, the book almost didn’t become part of the Jewish scriptures because of the way it challenges proverbial wisdom. In fact – in the 7th chapter, he says: “don’t be too righteous… and don’t be too wicked…. We’re okay with the first part – self-righteous people annoy us… But – that last part is scandalous –by saying not to be TOO wicked is the Teacher saying we SHOULD be a little wicked??? No – he’s not saying we should…. But he IS acknowledging that we will sin… we will be selfish, angry, covetous… and he’s cautioning us to RECOGNIZE that and not let it go too far. Not let it get so out of hand that it breaks relationship and robs us of opportunities for joy… And so, with that in mind, let us turn back to the Gospel reading from Matthew. We heard a section from the middle of that sermon earlier – salt and light… and words about righteousness… One of the struggles I have with our society is that we don’t often have the attention span to really hear some of the Scripture in context. We tend to take short pieces and make all kinds of meaning out of this verse or that without really considering the context. Jesus – or at least the author of Matthew – want us to hear Jesus words in all of this texst together. The sermon begins with the beatitudeS… an unexpected and unconventional series of blessings. Blessed are the poor, meek, peacemakers, persecuted... But the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t end there –The sermon goes on through all of chapters 5, 6 and 7 and Jesus has a lot of challenging things to say. We heard the next lines read earlier… but I want to jump a bit farther after assuring his audience that not one iota of the law would pass away… Jesus has a series of sayings… challenges. Concerning Anger ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; Um…. Jesus… that’s kind of a high standard don’t ya think? I mean… I’m fairly confident that I’m never going to murder anyone… but angry… um.. I was angry just last Thursday…. and Tuesday… oh and Monday… and then the Friday before that… um… this is awkward. Concerning Adultery ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. And ladies… I think this applies to you also… and… um…. Jesus I kind of liked that hard and fast rule with the line set way over there… about those other folks… He goes ON… divorce, oaths. retaliation… not an eye for an eye but turn the other cheek… go the extra mile… Jesus goes on! But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? The Sermon on the Mount is a challenge to live life in a radically different way. Selflessly, in a way that is not just about rules – and certainly not about rules that safely define us as in and others as out… but about relationships. About being reminded that ultimately, we can only depend on God. We cannot create our own righteousness, we cannot, on our own, be “good enough” What we CAN do is LIVE. This church is one that has decided to live. To notice and claim what God is doing in your midst. To share your blessings. To create space for others – to plan and preserve for the future – and to reach out beyond your walls. You’ve done great and difficult work the past few years – remodeling, preparing for a new pastor – and using an unexpected gift to bless Wichita State with a renewed campus ministry! In his sermon, Jesus even gives the seemingly impossible call to Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect. the word perfect there can be translated Holy, Compassionate… but its still… well… hevel. I think Jesus and Qohelet would get along well. because avoiding all anger, every covetous look, anyone who thinks they can do all that on their own… vanity of vanities! Both use counter-intuitive, counter cultural proverbs to call us to rely fully on God. Not on our own efforts, abilities, our own choices, our own righteousness – but to recognize God in our midst. Jesus extends the law to the point of folly precisely to teach reliance on God. Both call us to eat and drink with joy – to share what we have with joy. To love God with all our heart and mind and strength – and our neighbors as ourselves The passage of Matthew we read earlier uses the images of salt and light to teach this lesson. I want us to hear those lines again – but this time from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase “the Message” THE MESSAGE Matthew 5:13-20 The Message Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! This passage is about living in Christ. About being filled with the love of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit that leads you to a life of joy. and it comes between the beatitudes and the “you have heard it said” challenges to live differently. That’s no accident. We struggle with these calls to live differently. One of the things about the New Testament that encourages me is that the disciples themselves – the people who were closest to Jesus during his earthly ministry… so often just don’t get it. He’s right there and they misunderstand… so he constantly is trying to convey the good news in different ways… so I want to look at another passage… Later in Matthew (12), Jesus again gathers his disciples and seeks to convey this same message – this time he calls a child and tells his disciples BE. LIKE. THIS. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven Can you imagine the scene – I envision the kid appreciating the attention from Jesus – but then while the grownups keep doing all that boring theology talking he finds…. – maybe a dandelion… maybe a butterfly… maybe a cool shadow on the ground made by the light of the sun. Sweet…. This is what “Remember your Creator” means – noticing the joy and wonder of creation. The joy in every moment of life. When we pursue our own greatness, our own pleasure, our own wealth, or power, or even our own wisdom, those are stumbling blocks. When we think we can limit our response to a set of rules that mostly involve judging other people’s actions … we’ve missed the point of the law and the prophets. DIDN’T READ THIS PASSAGE… REWORK When we “remember our creator” we can rejoice, even if we live many years, even as our youthful powers might fade. Even as we acknowledge that life is fleeting. Because God is with us and we are continuously made aware of God’s presence, the small miracles in every moment. The kinds of things children notice easily. This week – we are invited to remember our creator. IN our youth… in all the days of our life. To enjoy the life we are given To notice the wonder of creation, the beauty of our world. To love our neighbors as ourselves In days when the sun is bright and days when the clouds roll in. – and to do so precisely because we are aware of how temporary, how fleeting, how precious it is. Qohelet understood that.. And we have an advantage that the Teacher did not. We are drawing very close to Advent – the beginning of our liturgical year… and Christmas – our celebration of the incarnation – of the fact that the Word become Flesh and dwelt among us. Our recognition that God came in the humility and vulnerability of a baby We have the stories of Jesus, his life, his teaching, Jesus in the flesh – living a fully human life – even when that life leads to suffering. Even when it leads to a cross. We have Easter. his suffering with us and for us. Yes, his death – and his resurrection. Our time is marked by the celebrations of the church calendar… by Christmas, and Easter, of Pentecost and in every day of what we call “ordinary time” but there’s nothing ordinary about it. For it is … A Time to Live. That’s what I believe.
Thanks be to God.