Opening Statement for Worship
Last night we went to bed with the news that 20 people had been killed at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas and many others are in the hospital in critical condition. As the news continues to unfold this morning we are learning that the El Paso shooter is a 21-year-old white male described by some news outlets as a white nationalist. It is reported that he posted an anti-immigration manifesto on social media just hours before the shooting. After slaughtering everybody insight, in spite of being heavily armed, police found a way to take him into custody ALIVE and WELL.
This morning we awakened to the news that 9 people had been gunned down and 26 injured in Ohio in another mass shooting, in the city’s downtown Oregon District. The shooter has been described as a person wielding a large gun with high-capacity magazines and wearing body armor. News reports are that the assailant was killed at the scene by multiple officers.
At some point, and not just some point in time out in the future that we never put on the calendar, we need to talk about gun laws in this country. At some point we need an honest conversation about white men with automatic weapons who go on killing sprees being taking into custody alive and well, while black and brown men with cellphones in their hands or reaching for their wallet or holding a pack of cigarettes; or black children holding a toy gun at the playground end up dead, shot by police. At some point, we need to talk about the systemic injustices of our nation that ensures these two outcomes. We need to name and call out our leaders and politicians who perpetuate this violence.
But in this hour, we need to lament the violence. We need to discern what our response will be to the violence. We need to find comfort in each other and in our presence with God. There are terrible things happening in the world and we keep ourselves safe in our devotion to one another.
You did not receive a worship guide this morning. That is because our worship will be different from what was planned. So now, trusting in God’s spirit, let us continue this worship.
Invitation to the Table
We are the Body of Christ, broken by this violence. Blood of the body has been spilled across the country in acts of inexplicable darkness. This ritual of the Eucharist invites us to this table to reaffirm our belonging to that body, and to share in the cup of love that circulates life throughout the whole body. Come to this table today to know that you are bound to those in pain this morning. Drink of this cup to offer your witness and your own life force to the healing and comfort of this body.
As we come to the table of love may we discern how and where God is calling us to love this broken world with our bodies.
All is Meaningless, Unless…
Text: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
The bible is a difficult, dangerous, and persistent book. For starters, it’s a
collection of books – not one single book that takes you from the beginning of a story to the end, like most. It is full of starts and stops. It is not comprised of one voice, but many voices. It meanders through history following individuals and groups of people through victories and defeats, joys and sorrows, scandals and seasoned wisdom. At places it is inspiring, at others haunting, even damning. It confirms a truth on one page and contradicts that truth on the very next page. Its stories can be frustrating as all get out and, at the same time, reassuring.
An old friend recently asked me, “Nancy, why do you keep reading and preaching from the Bible? Do you really believe what it says? You know it is steeped in patriarchy? Much of its meaning is lost in translations and interpretations. It has been used for generations to spiritually abuse certain groups of people. There are other sacred texts, why don’t you preach from them?” My good friend was on a roll by this time, and I was listening. My old seminary friend – this friend questioning me – had long ago given up on the text as having anything relevant to say. Or better yet, the confidence to trust its message. Yes, I thought to myself, there are many problems with the bible. Many problems!
As my friend continued to question me the thoughts running through my mind intensified. For sure, its treatment of women, its silence around women’s role in the life of faith, has been harmful to generations of women of faith and of no faith. The way men have used the bible to keep women silent, and worse, inferior in the human race, is scandalous. The way many Christians have used the bible to keep any number of minorities silent is, well, simply sinful. The way those same Christians have used the holy scriptures to condone slavery is an abomination and an assault on God. The way “loving” Christians have used the sacred text to heap spiritual, emotional, and physical abuse on homosexuals is a disgrace and an attack on the very nature of God and God’s love. The way we have told the story of God sacrificing Jesus for the atonement of our sins is abusive and harmful. And before I knew it my old seminary friend had me thinking, “Yeah Nancy, why are you still reading and preaching from the bible? Why do you find its stories so compelling and relevant? What is it about The Book that is so important to you?” I looked at my friend and simply said, “I’m not so sure but it seems that the stories of my faith contained in the pages of the bible keep calling to me, challenging me –
both disturbing me and comforting me.” In that moment I thought of something I had heard one of my mentors, Dr. Phyllis Trible say in a sermon. When I returned to my study, I found the sermon. Here is what she said:
As I began to respond to the challenge of feminism and the Bible, it was, perhaps ironically, the Bible that came to my aid – specifically the story of Jacob the scoundrel wrestling in the dark with a powerful stranger (Gen 32:22-32). Jacob did not immediately recognize this stranger, even though Jacob had suspicions. Was it a night demon? Perhaps his estranged brother Esau? or indeed the God of his ancestors? Whoever the stranger, Jacob put up a fierce defense, declaring, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” That declaration became my challenge to the Bible from the perspective of feminism. I will not let go this book unless and until it blesses me. I will struggle with it. I will not turn it over to my enemies that it curse me. Neither will I turn it over to my friends who wish to curse it. No, over against the cursing from either Bible thumpers or Bible bashers, I shall hold fast for a blessing. But I am under no illusion that the blessing will come on my terms – that I shall not be changed in the process. After all, Jacob the blessed man limped away.
This week, when I read the passage from Ecclesiastes that Terrance read earlier I thought of that recent question my old seminary friend asked me. “Nancy, why do you still read and preach from the bible?” These words – these feelings, these emotions, these thoughts – from the biblical writer of Ecclesiastes is exactly why I still read and preach from the bible. The fact that the sacred scriptures I read do not omit or censor or edit the rawness and reality of our human experience is what keeps drawing me to these stories. Whether it the writer of Ecclesiastes who questions the meaning of life or the Psalmist who writes: “How long, O God? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” The honesty, the vulnerability, the authenticity of the biblical writers is why I still read the bible and preach from it. The questioning, the searching, the wrestling, the doubting, the despair and desperation expressed in the writings of my faith ancestors keeps me returning to the text week after week, day after day. But it’s not just the questioning and searching and wrestling and doubting that feels authentic and real to the human experience. I return to the scriptures because of the comfort and reassurance I get from the biblical writers like Isaiah who writes: “When you pass through the deep waters, I will be with you…do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” And from the gospel writer who reminds me that if God takes care of the birds of the air I can trust God to care for me. Or the comforting words of pastor Paul to the Romans, “that nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God.”
I think it is a rare person who hasn’t at some point in life wondered what, if any, meaning there is in life. Some days it just feels like we are born and then we die and in between is a lot of hard work, suffering, and pain and maybe some fleeting joy. Some of us have children hoping they will continue our legacy and benefit from our hard work. And in our hoping we realize they have their own lives and own legacies to live and leave behind. The “Teacher” in Ecclesiastes is simply giving voice to the human experience – what most of us feel at least once in our lives.
I have shared with you in a recent sermon that every so often I have these same feelings. All is vanity – all is meaningless. Life has no real purpose. We are born and we die and in between, there is a lot of heartache. And in these moments it is easy to give in to despair as the writer describes.
I learned something, though, reading this text this time. I noticed in verses 18-21 the writer is focused on himself/herself. Listen again to those verses:
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.
Notice how many “I’s”, “my’s”, and “me’s” the writer used in those four verses? It was a lot. A lot! It struck me that this place that we all experience at some point in life – that all is vanity, all is meaningless – is rooted in all those I’s, my’s, and me’s. Some would call it the ego-self. And when we are focused on ego self, all is vanity and we are left with a sense of meaningless in life. I want to be clear here. I’m not talking about self-care here. I’m talking about the kind of self-focus that is about getting ahead of others, having more – more money, more power, more privilege. I am talking about the kind of self-focus that tells us we are more deserving and superior to others. The kind of self-focus that says I worked harder so I deserve more. It is this ego-self that leads us toward a life that the writer of Ecclesiastes describes – a meaningless life where we end up bitter and in despair.
This is where the lectionary passage leaves us. It leaves us in this ego-self place feeling despair and hopelessness. But interestingly, that is not where the writer of Ecclesiastes leaves us. The lectionary text for today ends with verse 23, “For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation, even at night their minds do not rest. This is also vanity.”
But the writer continues in verse 24, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from God who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy…”
A life of meaning – of wisdom and knowledge and joy – is found in pleasing God. And what pleases God? “To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.” What pleases God? To love God and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. What pleases God? To pray for one’s enemies. What pleases God? To feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to visit the sick and the prisoner. What pleases God? To welcome the stranger and to bind up the brokenhearted. What pleases God? To lift up the lowly. What pleases God? To work to change the systems of racism and classism.
As long as we see life as me, my, and I, all is vanity. All is meaningless unless we can understand and act as though life, all of life, is about us, we – all of us – together lifting one another up.
So, why do I keep reading and preaching from the bible? Phyllis Trible says it best.
To love the Bible is not to claim that it is without fault, imperfections, violence, and evil. To the contrary. To love this book is to understand that it sets before us life and death, bane and blessing. To love this book is to understand that the line between life and death can slip and slide. To love this book is to understand that a single text, a single section, a single story may yield life in one setting and death in another. And to love this book is to understand that it places upon us, the readers and listeners, the responsibility to choose rightly. That choice is not made for us; rather it is made by us, at the boundary of the Bible and its readers.
Today, the book asks us, “Will we choose a life where all is vanity or a life with meaning and purpose?” If the latter, then our worldview changes from I and my and me to us and we and together.