Summer Sermon Series – What Does It Mean to Be Wise?

Week 6: Is Everything Pointless?!??

Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 (Common English Bible)

There is nothing new under the sun, says “the Teacher” of Ecclesiastes.

What a fitting verse since I have been feeling a strange sense of deja vu this week.

We have had a verbal sparring match with North Korea that could lead to the launch of nuclear warheads. I thought we had settled this in the 80s and decided nuclear war was mutually assured destruction and therefore a bad idea?

Then Saturday morning, President Trump suggested at a press conference that military intervention in Venezuela—where democracy has truly gone off the rails—was a possibility. I thought we had figured out that invading another country because we don’t like the way their leader is doing things doesn’t work and only puts us deeper in debt?

And then, of course, there was the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend. Confederate flags, but also Nazi flags and arms raised in the “Heil Hitler” salute; rhetoric lifted directly from Nazi propaganda from 80 years ago. All of it done quite openly and without apology. This is the one that really gets me. I thought that, except for a few hold-outs, humanity had collectively decided that the Nazis are the universally acknowledged bad guy.

But apparently, history is repeating itself.

Which is not to say that I am viewing these events with a shrug of my shoulders. It is more with disbelief and grief.

People of Color—who are on the front lines every day—aren’t surprised by what is happening in Charlottesville. A friend and colleague in Raleigh, NC, who is black, posted on Facebook yesterday:

“… Outside of my prayers and concerns for all involved, I really don’t have anything to say (this is the point at which you may or may not understand that what is happening makes people of color like me “tired”). I am not shocked or surprised at what is happening. Many may blame the current administration for what is happening but in reality we are seeing the fruits of racism that has been planted and rapidly germinating – since about 1619.”

Our Jewish brothers and sisters have been warning us this was coming. That was part of the reason we decided to include Hebrew as well as Arabic on our “We’re glad you’re our neighbor” sign.

There are a few things that need to be acknowledged this morning:

White supremacists carrying torches on Friday night and surrounding a group of University of Virginia students; groups of angry young white men attacking individual black men with the poles of the flags they were carrying; driving a car into a crowd of people; and yes—paramilitary groups dressed in tactical gear and armed with assault weapons—these are violent actions specifically designed to intimidate, to make those who disagree with them afraid.

We need to name this for what it is: Racism. Sin. Domestic Terrorism. Wrong.

And deeply embedded in our history and culture. White people—this is in us and on us. My fellow white people, we do not have the luxury of looking away. We have soul searching to do.

Because although this is happening in Charlottesville, far away in Virginia, it could be happening anywhere.

Charlottesville is a progressive college town, surrounded by more conservative areas of the state. Just like Iowa City, or Ames, or Cedar Falls.

The car that plowed into a crowd of counter-protestors? It was from Ohio. This was not just a “local problem.”

Charlottesville is us. White Supremacy flyers for a group called National Alliance were distributed in the Quad Cities this week. I not infrequently see trucks flying confederate flags in Cedar Rapids. Thanks to the internet, groups promoting these beliefs are available to any angry young white man (and yes—that is the demographic we need to be concerned about), anywhere. The sin of racism is right here in our midst.

Still here in our midst. Shouldn’t we know better by now?

“There is nothing new under the sun.”

The opening lines of Ecclesiastes seem right on target—cynical, jaded, weary.

Biblical scholar Ellen Davis notes that she met a Vietnam War chaplain who said Ecclesiastes was the only part of the Bible his soldiers were willing to hear. And she has a former student prone to depression who said that reading Ecclesiastes is like “slipping into a warm bath.”[1]

The Book of Proverbs exhibits mainstream thinking on wisdom, that living in ways that are righteous, the straight and narrow path, will lead to wealth and happiness while the ones who follow temptation or steal from or mistreat others will end up ruined. It’s like a reliable mathematical equation—do that, and this will happen.

Ecclesiastes knows that while this equation sometimes holds true, sometimes it doesn’t. Chapter 7:15 “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.”

There have always been those who wondered why Ecclesiastes made it into the canon, but I am grateful for the recognition that when we are being honest and vulnerable before God, even cynicism has a place.

As Ellen Davis says, in Ecclesiastes, “Alienation and despair are recognized as one moment, at least, in the journey toward faith.”[2]

We need this honesty, this lament for the times when we are feeling tired and weighed down by the events of our own lives, or the world around us.

But we don’t stay there. Ecclesiastes is one of 66 books in the Bible. I’ll talk more about Ecclesiastes on August 27 but let’s look to the rest of the Bible for guidance here, too.

One of the things we hear over and over again throughout scriptures in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is “Be not afraid.” And while it is rarely said, the idea is, “Don’t be afraid because God is with you.” We can trust God to help us, to guide us in our thinking and doing. White Supremacists and other terrorists are trying to make us afraid. The media use fear to keep us tuned in. Don’t be afraid. Trust God instead.

Here’s another thought:

At Easter this year it finally occurred to me that even though the tomb was empty and Jesus had been raised from the dead, the Roman Empire was still in charge along with the religious authorities who were more concerned about their position and power than the well-being of the poor. That was all still there. On the surface, it seemed like nothing had changed. But when Jesus’ followers trusted in God, and lived their lives as if the resurrection promises were true, they changed the world.

It was the people of God who believed and trusted in God who changed the world. And have continued to change the world. WE are the ones to change the world.

So even though we’re sitting here in disbelief that in 2017 we are still dealing with the KKK, with people who think the Nazis might have something to offer us, with people who think Jews are to blame for our problems, we are going to stand up and say, No. That’s not okay.

We are going to lead with love and compassion.

And we are not going to lose hope. Because that’s what it means to be the people of God.

Many years ago Voltaire wrote something which Ecclesiastes would agree with:

“Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”

So friends, let’s sing in the lifeboats. Together. Amen.


~ Rev. Lori Wunder

[1] Ellen F. Davis, Westminster Bible Companion: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, 2000. p. 159

[2] Ellen F. Davis, Westminster Bible Companion: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, 2000. p. 159