Abraham Heschel

Qoheleth, the patriot

I’ve never heard anyone suggest to new converts that they begin their reading of the Bible with Ecclesiastes.  The last I heard, it’s not very popular in Sunday school.  I guess I can understand why.  It is a strange little book.  Some rabbis of old fought hard to keep it from being called scripture.

If you’ve read the book, you can probably figure out why.  Starting right off in chapter 1 we get some pretty good clues.  Ecclesiastes says things the rest of the Bible does not say!  Already, in the second verse of the book, we hear this: “Vanity of vanities…  All is vanity.”  That sets the theme for all that follows.  All is vanity![1]  Everything is meaningless!  It’s no use!  What in the world is that doing in the Bible?  Is that something one of God’s people would say?

Hold on to that thought.  We’ll see more examples as we go on as to why folks throughout the centuries have been puzzled about the book.

In the original Hebrew, our narrator is anonymous.  He’s simply referred to as קֹהֶלֶת (qoheleth).  “Ecclesiastes” comes from the Greek translation of that word.  “Qoheleth” comes from the word קׇהַל (qahal), which means “assembly” or “congregation.”  So, “Qoheleth” would be the “convener of the assembly.”  One might say he’s the person who “ca-halls” the people together!

Even though the author calls himself “the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” it’s clear from the vocabulary used he lives hundreds of years after Solomon.  But like others who wrote what’s known as wisdom literature, he pays his respects to the king noted for his great wisdom.  Claiming to be Solomon is high praise.

All is vanity!  To those who believe faith is like the nice little graphics you click on Facebook, this might come like a bucket of ice water thrown in the face—and then followed with the empty bucket!  This is some stern, bitter language.  The translations “vanity,” “futility,” “meaningless”: none of them quite capture the sense of deep disappointment Qoheleth expresses.  Those words don’t have enough bite.  What might be necessary is something like: “Everything is b. s.”

2 ec 1

In fact, Methodist professor Elsa Tamez has said of Ecclesiastes it is for “times of profound disillusionment.”[2]  It seems she goes along with the saying, “Misery loves company,” because she adds, “a disappointed soul can find solace in reading this work of a frustrated narrator.”  I really like the footnote she puts at the bottom of the page.  “This has happened to me various times after giving a sermon, teaching a Bible study, or conducting a course on Ecclesiastes”!

Just look at our scripture reading.  Look at the list of frustration that Qoheleth goes through.  Generations come and go, the sun rises and sets, the winds blow, the streams flow—but nothing really changes.  “All things are wearisome,” he proclaims, “more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing” (v. 8).

Don’t forget; this is just the opening chapter!  There’s a lot more where that came from!  Maybe we can be excused for dismissing this as the ranting of Qoheleth the curmudgeon.  But then, my sermon title isn’t “Qoheleth, the Curmudgeon.”  It’s “Qoheleth, the Patriot.”

To understand how Qoheleth could be a patriot, we need to look at the world in his day.  It was after the Babylonian exile, possibly after when the Persians came to power in the mid-500s B. C., and before the Greeks took over in the late 300s.  But no one really knows.

In any case, the Jews are but a small part of a big empire, be it Persian or Greek.  And in either case, Qoheleth has witnessed the arrogance of a superpower.  Each in their own way, the Persians, then the Greeks, have dominated the Jews.  They’ve imposed their own cultural values on them.

So when Qoheleth observes, as he does in verse 9, that “there is nothing new under the sun,” in part, it flies in the face of political propaganda—the party line of the government.  The nations who have invaded the Jews have promised them all kinds of innovations, what they see as modernization, so to speak.  To the leaders who say that “everything has changed” and that “we live in a brand new world,” Qoheleth says, “I don’t think so; we’ve seen all this before!  We’ve heard these grand promises before.”

Elsa
Elsa Tamez

Our author wants to rouse his fellow Jews from their slumber.  In verse 11, he warns, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.”  In The Message, Eugene Peterson turns that last line into, “Don’t count on being remembered.”

Dr. Tamez reflects on how “generations come and go without remembering their own history.  Such collective amnesia means the death of a people.”[3]  If we have the attention span of a gnat, we become very easy to manipulate.  We are easy to manipulate if our life’s focus is on bread and circuses.

Being a good citizen, especially the citizen of a democracy, requires effort.  It takes discipline.  On the other hand, to live under an authoritarian requires very little effort.  We need only ignore our responsibility to others—especially to the poorest and weakest—and to the planet.  Without discipline, especially spiritual discipline, freedom slips through our fingers like sand.

The great Jewish writer Abraham Heschel published an article in February 1944.[4]  During World War 2, he speaks of that lack of spiritual discipline that permits dictatorship and war to thrive.  Heschel’s words remain relevant for us today, as they have been presented again in recent years.

“Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.  [I think we could substitute “terrorism” for “fascism.”  But I think we could also envision fascism once again raising its ugly head.]  We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil.  We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.”

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Abraham Joshua Heschel

He goes on, “A tale is told of a band of inexperienced mountain climbers.  Without guides, they struck recklessly into the wilderness.  Suddenly a rocky ledge gave way beneath their feet and they tumbled headlong into a dismal pit.  In the darkness of the pit they recovered from their shock, only to find themselves set upon by a swarm of angry snakes.  Every crevice became alive with fanged, hissing things.  For each snake the desperate men slew, ten more seemed to lash out in its place.  Strangely enough, one man seemed to stand aside from the fight.  When the indignant voices of his struggling companions reproached him for not fighting, he called back: If we remain here, we shall be dead before the snakes.  I am searching for a way of escape from the pit for all of us.”

We can become so focused on the agenda that’s been handed us—or that we’ve chosen for ourselves—that we forget to stop, lift up our heads, look around, and explore other possibilities.  We can emphasize what we reject more than what we accept.  We can emphasize what divides us more than what unites us.  We can attract negative energy rather than positive energy.

“Let future generations not loathe us,” Heschel says, “for having failed to preserve what prophets and saints, martyrs and scholars have created in thousands of years.  The Fascists have shown that they are great in evil.  Let us reveal that we can be as great in goodness.”

In a strange way, Ecclesiastes is valuable for those who often have an uncomfortable and questioning faith.  I don’t know; maybe that’s why I like it!

As we approach our nation’s 242nd birthday, sometimes we have an uncomfortable and questioning patriotism.  I believe that’s in the best spirit of America.  We’re still allowed to ask uncomfortable questions, at least, for now.

Our final hymn today is “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”  I love that song.  Most of us know the first verse by heart.  As we continue, Katharine Lee Bates deals with the innate complexity that is America.  Each verse begins, “O beautiful,” and celebrates the promise and the dream of America.  It is a promise not yet fulfilled.  Bates thinks this is reason for celebration: “O beautiful for patriot dream / That sees beyond the years. / Thine alabaster cities gleam, / Undimmed by human tears!”  Friends, we’re not quite there!

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Qoheleth asks the uncomfortable questions, and he really doesn’t have the answers.  Vanity of vanity—all is vanity!  It’s all useless!  Fortunately for us, we do have one who asked, and continues to ask, those uncomfortable questions, and he asks them to Caesar.

Jesus the Christ, the son of David, the king, makes the promise to us, even if the dream is not yet fulfilled.  We are freed to ask those uncomfortable questions, and we know at the end of the day, that all is not vanity.  To the contrary, all is bursting with light, something new under the sun.

 

[1] הֶבֶל (hebel)

[2] Elsa Tamez, “Ecclesiastes: A Reading from the Periphery,” Interpretation 55:3 (July 2001): 250.

[3] Tamez, 252.

[4] mlk50.org/writings/king-heschel/the-meaning-of-this-war-by-abraham-joshual-heschel


reflect on Sabbath

In his book, Sacred Necessities, Terry Hershey tells a rather quirky little story.[1]  It involves a man going on a journey.  It’s a journey on which he encounters the unexpected.  And it is, as they say, much to his chagrin.  Here’s how Hershey tells the story:

“An American traveler planned a long safari to Africa.  He was a compulsive man, loaded down with maps, timetables, and agendas.  [Workers] had been engaged from a local tribe to carry the cumbersome load of supplies, luggage, and ‘essential stuff.’

“On the first morning, they all awoke very early and traveled very fast and very far.  On the second morning, they all awoke very early and traveled very fast and very far.  On the third morning, they all awoke very early and traveled very fast and very far.  And the American seemed pleased.  On the fourth morning, the jungle tribesmen refused to move.  They simply sat by a tree.  The American became incensed.  ‘This is a waste of valuable time.  Can someone tell me what is going on here?’

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“The translator answered, ‘They are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.’”

Do you ever feel that way?  Do you ever find yourself waiting for your soul to catch up with your body?

Or do you find yourself relating to the traveler who is on a schedule?  “We’ve got things to do and places to go…hey, we can fit another bag in there…and what’s wrong with these lazy people…don’t they know time is money…I’m not doing this for my health…”

Maybe that’s the point.  Maybe you should be doing it for your health!

Our scripture text in Exodus 20, the first version of the Ten Commandments (the second one is in Deuteronomy 5), covers a lot of ground: living a life in which the Lord, Yahweh, is one’s God, not misusing the Lord’s name, and then, there’s a collection which basically deals with loving one’s neighbor.

But it’s the fourth commandment I want to focus on: the call to remember the Sabbath—to reflect on Sabbath, or perhaps, on the Sabbath to engage in reflection.

Speaking of reflection, Walter Brueggemann has a reflection of his own in his very interesting book, Sabbath as Resistance (the subtitle is Saying No to the Culture of Now).  He shows how Sabbath really is a counter-cultural thing.

He shares a story from his youth:[2]

“When I was growing up in rural Saline County, Missouri,” he says, “‘Mr. G.,’ our town grocer, and his wife always sat up front in church.  Every Sunday, during the last five minutes of the sermon by the pastor (my father), Mr. G. and his wife would rather ceremoniously walk the long aisle to the back of the church and leave.  They did not mind the distraction of their maneuver to everyone else at worship.  The reason they left is that the other church in town, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, got out of service thirty minutes earlier than we [did].  As a kid, I often wondered how often Mr. G. had looked at his watch during the service to be sure he left on time to receive Lutheran trade and Lutheran money.  I did not know the phrase at the time, but Mr. G. was ‘multitasking.’  He was worshiping, even while he kept an eye on the clock for the sake of trade and profit.”

2 sabbathBrueggemann says multitasking is “poisonous,” because it leads to “a divided self, with full attention given to nothing.”[3]  If we’re distracted by many things, it is difficult to keep the Sabbath holy.  But what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy?  It partly involves how we treat others, and like the fellow who needs his soul to catch up with his body, how we treat ourselves.

Look at the way our chapter begins.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (v. 2).  That sets the stage.  Everything following is set within the context of the exodus from Egypt, being set free from slavery.  And that applies to the Sabbath.  “The God who rests is the God who emancipates from slavery and…from the work system of Egypt.”[4]

Have you ever watched a dog chasing its own tail?  Our dog chases his tail, especially when he gets upset and throws a temper tantrum.  He spins round and round in a circle.

If you recall, earlier in the book of Exodus, the economic system the Pharaoh develops is a circle, a vicious circle.  Here’s what I mean.  The Israelites are forced to make bricks.  And they are driven to produce more, which in turn, raises expectations and quotas are increased, which then means the work force has to put in even more hours (and if you do get vacation time, stay in touch with the office).

Does that sound familiar?  It seems the ancient Egyptians aren’t the only ones chasing their own tails!

3 sabbathSpeaking of Sabbath and working, I want to tell another story.  I heard this from someone when I was at seminary.

It seems there was a pastor who refused to buy the Sunday newspaper.  He could not abide supporting something made on the Lord’s day.  He wanted nothing to do with it.  However, someone told him the Sunday paper was actually printed on Saturday.  He had a sense of relief.  He had permission to buy the newspaper.

Although, I never heard if he then refused to buy the Monday paper!

Now I want to bring this Sabbath stuff to a more personal level.  And when I say “personal,” I am including myself.  I have to ask myself, “Do I remember the Sabbath, and do I keep it holy?”  I go back to my earlier question, “What does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy?”  What does it mean to sanctify it, to set it apart?

Throughout the Ten Commandments, the only time the word “holy” appears is in reference to the Sabbath.  It’s not even used for God.

With the Sabbath, we’re not dealing with sacred space.  With the Sabbath, we’re dealing with sacred time.

I’m fascinated by time.  I spoke earlier about dogs.  I’ve often wondered how dogs perceive the passage of time—especially when we go somewhere and our dog Aidan is left all by himself.  We humans perceive it all too well.  Time is a precious commodity.  It is precious because we are aware that our lives have a finite amount of it.  It will run out, and we know it!

In 1951, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel published the now classic book The Sabbath, a true masterpiece.  It’s short, but it’s filled with rich and wonderful and sometimes stark imagery.

Listen to how he describes time: “Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”[6]

Still, the Sabbath redeems time.  Heschel says, “He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil.  He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.”[7]

4 sabbathIn soaring language, he says, “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.”  The Sabbath is “architecture of time,” “holiness in time,” and most of all, “a palace in time.”[8]

I wonder about myself.  Do I regard the Sabbath as a palace in time?  Or am I embezzling my own life?

The Sabbath is not about laying down rules and regulations.  Jesus understands that.  In Luke 6, faced with some scribes and Pharisees who insist on dotting every “i” and crossing every “t,” he asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (v. 9).  He changes the focus; he changes the conversation.  He has us look at it in a different and unexpected way.

Still, the Sabbath does make demands on us.  God loves us so much that we are called to imitate God—to rest and to build a world in which others can rest.  We are reminded that, around the globe, there are too many who have no time to rest.  There are children who have no time to rest.

We’re reminded, “Christian practices—whether hospitality, forgiveness, testimony, or keeping Sabbath—impose rhythms that make demands on us, that break us out of zones of comfort and familiarity, and that enlarge our hearts.”[9]  The Lord commands and invites us to enlarge our hearts.

As I prepare to close, I want to include one more quote.  This is from Joan Chittister, the well-known Benedictine sister in Erie, Pennsylvania.  She speaks about the verse in Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God” (v. 10).

She says that verse “is more than the simple observation that everyone needs to let go a little, to get rested enough to work harder next week, to change pace from the hectic and the chaotic.  It is far beyond the fact that everyone needs a vacation.  Oh no, it is much more than that.  What [it] teaches us is the simple truth that a soul without a sense of Sabbath is an agitated soul.”[10]  What about that?  A soul without a sense of Sabbath is an agitated soul.

I fear that, even in the church, there are way too many agitated souls.  What kind of damage does that do?  What kind of damage do we do to each other?  What kind of damage do we do to ourselves?

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So today, I would like for all of us to rest and reflect on Sabbath.  I would like for us to take the time to let our souls catch up with our bodies.  I would like for us to thank the Lord for the wonderful gift of the palace in time.

 

[1] Terry Hershey, Sacred Necessities (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2005), 68-69.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014), Kindle edition, Chapter 5, section 1, paragraph 1

[3] Brueggemann, 5.4.1

[4] Brueggemann, 1.1.2

[5] Brueggemann, 1.1.3

[6] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York:  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951), 5.

[7] Heschel, 13.

[8] Heschel, 8, 15.

[9] David F. White, “Keeping Sabbath,” Windows: Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Fall 2014): 12.

[10] www.huffingtonpost.com/sister-joan-chittister-osb/the-sabbath-making-someth_b_643716.html


give it a rest


It seems like Jeremiah just can’t leave well enough alone. He’s making plenty of enemies with all of the other stuff he’s saying. Now he insists on criticizing the observance (or in this case, the non-observance) of the sabbath day. (To be fair, he does say that the Lord gave him the message.) His words in chapter 17 can be illuminated by Isaiah 58, which comes from a part of the book maybe seventy or more years later. Even after the return from exile in Babylon, the sabbath is being disregarded.

This gets to the heart of what the sabbath is all about. Is it simply a commandment to be obeyed? In Exodus 20, it’s tied to the seventh day of creation; in Deuteronomy 5, the focus is on the exodus from Egypt. God rested from work; you too must rest from work. You were slaves—you are slaves no longer. Do not treat your workers as slaves; allow them to rest.

In his wonderful (and brief) book, The Sabbath, Abraham Heschel (1907-1972), has given the world a masterpiece. This meditation on sabbath has a beautiful and mystical spin.

“He who wants to enter the holiness of the day,” says Heschel (apologies for the gender-exclusive language!), “must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go far away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.” (13) The surface image, of course, is labor—physical and mental work—but there are layers beneath.

He continues, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.”

It would be foolish to put the words of this 20th century American into the mouth of Jeremiah, but surely the fire that motivates the prophet comes from a deep source that sees well beneath the surface of sabbath. He warns against embezzling our own lives.