Independence Day

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.”

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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


the state of the union, imho

I checked, and the title of my sermon this time last year was “Independence Day Theological Reflections of One American.”  Quite a mouthful.  This year, “The State of the Union” is a bit shorter.  And if delivering a “state of the union” address means I’m getting too big for my britches, I do add “in my humble opinion.”

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Right away, I freely admit hearing the prophet Jeremiah chew people out at the temple and hearing Jesus telling us to love our enemies is not your typical Independence Day sermon.  However, I do have an explanation.  But we’ll get back to it in a few moments!

I can’t resist tossing something in about paying your taxes.  Did you know it’s a spiritual discipline?  Well, sort of.  In Romans 13, St. Paul says, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (v. 7).  And that, coming from a guy who knew all about being persecuted by the government!

So there is that political dimension, which makes sense.  Words like “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr), in the first century, are not just theological, but they’re also political.  The terms “Lord” and “Savior” are titles attributed to the emperor of Rome.  Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues (which are qualities bullies possess), are especially insistent about it.  They crave adoration with a vengeance.

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When the early Christians call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” they are well aware of what they’re doing.  For them, it isn’t an empty phrase.  It’s not something to put on Facebook and hope that you’ll get plenty of “likes.”  They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire.  They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.

Neither the northern kingdom of Israel nor the southern kingdom of Judah had empires.  Still, like most countries, they had their own brands of patriotism.  Banu has told me on several occasions when she was growing up she was taught, “There’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!”

Jeremiah faces a situation in which the temple is being used as a tool of the state.  It has been co-opted by patriotism gone wild.  The temple has been turned into an idol.  The threat of the Babylonians, who have been gobbling up countries right and left, has the people of Judah fearing for their lives.  And that’s understandable.  But in times of fear, even paranoia, the temptation to grab easy answers can be almost irresistible.

That is what’s going on here.  There is a belief that God will not allow Jerusalem and the temple to be destroyed.  In the midst of uncertainly, while the winds are howling, there’s a safe haven in the storm—and it’s the symbol of national pride and where the priests do business.

Unfortunately, as the prophet points out, if your conduct is criminal, if you disregard the distressed, if you neglect the needy, the temple won’t protect you.  But talk like that flies in the face of the official line.  Jeremiah is tired of the propaganda, the empty slogans, and he makes fun of them.  “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (v. 4).

3 independenceAnd he’s saying all of this at the temple of the Lord!  The prophet calls out the political and religious powers-that-be, and he does it in plain sight.  (Or as my mom told me when I was a kid, “Before God and everybody!”)  He issues his protest, “Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail” (v. 8).

As you might expect, Jeremiah is labeled a traitor, and all kinds of bad stuff happens to him—but we can leave that for another day.

Distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be a tricky thing.  Love of country is part of the love of God’s good creation, though caution is warranted, lest it divide us.  Loving the gift of God is right and praiseworthy.  Still, too often we love the gift more than the Giver.

We might put some questions to the fellows we just looked at.  Do we go along with Paul and pay taxes, even if they’re used for an evil purpose?  The Romans ruled with an iron fist.  Of course, Jesus also paid taxes, and he wound up getting the death penalty.

What about Jeremiah?  Is he a whistleblower, or is he endangering the country?  Is he a precursor to Edward Snowden—though not many people would call Snowden a prophet!

I think there are more questions than answers when we look at this stuff, but questions are a good thing.

I just said distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be tricky.  For those of us who would maintain that Christ and Caesar are not the same thing, we do have to tread carefully.  An Independence Day sermon can be tricky!  Choosing to do one can be tricky.  Talk about treading carefully.

Something that came to mind this past week was an experience in 1991, just as the first Gulf War was beginning.  My pastor made it quite clear he was in favor of the war.  I was not, but that’s really not my point here.  The Sunday after the war started, I knew it would be the theme for worship.  And I knew I would be miserable, so I attended church elsewhere.  At the big Methodist church in town, the war was mentioned in prayer, but that was it.

I went back to my church during the week, and the red, white, and blue bunting that adorned the stage was still there.  I thought it looked more like an election campaign headquarters than a church.  Recognizing the difference between Christ and Caesar can indeed be difficult.

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The apostle Paul says paying taxes is an act of faithfulness.  At the same time, the prophet Jeremiah speaks truth to power.  Now, here comes Jesus, with his call to love our enemies.

Melissa Bane Sevier has interesting thoughts on the matter.[1]  She notices how Jesus expands on loving our enemies, especially in verses 46 and 47.  “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

5 independenceShe says, “I can say I love someone while not really liking that person, right?  Avoiding them helps with the illusion that I don’t hate them, and if I don’t hate them, I must love them.”  That must be it!  Problem solved.

Still, she continues, “Avoidance doesn’t seem to be an option with Jesus.  I am required to greet all people, whether I love/like them or not.  And if I only love/like the people who love/like me, I’m not being the person I need to be.  That’s more difficult than I thought.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I believe she is speaking to me.  I believe Jesus is speaking to me.  And it is something I recognize.

I’m no fan of the big cable news networks.  They’re more interested in entertainment than journalism, in my humble opinion.  That’s a reflection of our society and its dualistic, simplistic view of reality.  It’s us and them, winners and losers, black and white.  To be honest, it’s too often a reflection of the church.

Greeting those with whom I disagree is more than not getting into an argument.  It actually involves engaging with them, even if it seems so tiresome!

6 independenceSevier notes, “Praying for them is so much more difficult than not-hating them.  Not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active.”  And it’s not simply praying for their hearts to change.  I’ve been guilty of that one!  When we pray for our enemies, it’s most of all, our heart that changes.  Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Your enemy is your best teacher”?

She concludes, “Praying won’t make me less convinced of the rightness of justice, but it will help me see the person on the other side as a real person, not as someone I want to defeat…

“For the next week, I’m going to choose one public figure a day—one who I think is really wrong-headed…and pray for that person.  I expect I will be changed.  Not in my convictions, but in my humanity.”

Imagine the state of the union if that were our measure of faithfulness.

Imagine the state of the union among us if that were our measure of faithfulness.

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[1] melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/praying-for-enemies


Independence Day theological reflections of one American

The wording of my title has been carefully chosen.  First of all, “Independence Day.”  It is the one day of the year in which we’re especially called to be grateful for the gift of nation.

Then there’s the word “theological.”  That speaks to questions like:  how is God involved in it?  Where is God to be found?  And they are “reflections.”  I don’t pretend this is some universal truth that applies to everyone.  I’m speaking from my own experience.

And indeed, this is the viewpoint of “one” American.  But though I am one, I am an “American.”  In some ways, I feel like I could be nothing but an American.  Having been adopted as an infant, I don’t know who my genetic ancestors are.

In a similar way, America as a nation has no single clear understanding of its genetic makeup.  After all, what does an American look like?  What does an American sound like?  Our political history mainly ties us to England, but as a whole, Americans look to all parts of the world, not to mention those who were here before the Europeans ever showed up.

So there’s that.  But I do have a better reason for saying that “I feel like I could be nothing but an American.”  It’s because I love my country.  I love America.

For the first ten years of my life, we were a military family.  My dad was posted to various naval bases around the country, from coast to coast to coast.  That meant plenty of moving around, guaranteeing that I saw a whole lot of this country.

But like most of us, whether or not we’re from a military background, I was taught at an early age that God has blessed America.  However, my young mind—not so good with nuance—made the assumption that since God had blessed America, we were better than people from other countries!  (I’ve since learned that Banu was raised with a similar belief about Turkey—that’s there’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!)

Ferguson flag

There is within the spirit of America a conviction that people have human rights, that they shouldn’t be tortured, that the government shouldn’t tell them how to think, that they are truly “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  That’s why it’s a shame when we, as a country, don’t live up to those convictions.

I realize that many say faith and politics should be kept separate.  (By the way, that’s a whole different animal from separation of church and state!)  When it comes to airing one’s political opinions from the pulpit—such as telling people who to vote for—I would agree.  As Christians, we need to learn to think theologically, not just politically.  As I said earlier, “Where is God in this?  How do we think of God?”  That’s what the New Testament church does.

The gospel is inherently political; it’s inescapable.  Words like “Lord” and “Savior,” in the first century, are political terms.  They aren’t merely spiritual in the sense of being disconnected from everyday life.  The terms “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr) are titles attributed to the emperor.  Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues, are especially insistent about it.

When the early Christians call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” they are well aware of what they’re doing.  For them, it isn’t an empty phrase.  It’s not something to put on a bumper sticker or post on Facebook.  They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire.  They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (20:25).  Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.  I wonder, what does that mean for us, on our nation’s 240th birthday?

We see the scribes and chief priests sending representatives to Jesus, but they’re hardly doing so in good faith.  The scripture calls them “spies who pretended to be honest.”  That’s not a vote of confidence.  Their job isn’t to pursue meaningful dialogue; their job is “to trap him by what he” says, so that they can hand him over to the Romans (v. 20).  They aren’t there to listen; they just hope he screws up!

The backdrop of our story is the payment of taxes to the Roman authorities.  Any loyal Jew, with any patriotic sensibility, considers being taxed by this foreign government reprehensible.  The enemies of Jesus have racked their brains, trying to come up with some way to get rid of this guy.  He’s drawing too much attention, and they feel that can only spell trouble.

Somebody has one of those “aha!” moments, and says, “I got it!”  If Jesus teaches “the way of God,” let’s see what he says about the law.  If Jesus says it’s legal to pay those taxes, he’ll anger the Zealots.  (They are the Jewish insurgents who want to overthrow the Romans, by any means necessary.)  No doubt they will say, “If he won’t lead the revolt, then it falls to us.”

However, if he says “no,” the Romans will step in and take care of him.  Either way, we win.

The folks trying to trick Jesus haven’t done their homework, or they might have guessed their plan won’t work.  Jesus is proactive, not reactive, about the job of reconciliation.  He is intentional.

For example, among his disciples he’s included Simon the Zealot, one of those Jewish revolutionaries.  He’s also included Matthew the tax collector, a collaborator with the Romans.  Not exactly birds of a feather.  Compared with them, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are identical!

In answering the question about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus elevates the discussion.  Changing the perspective, he gets to the heart of the matter.  He gives the perfect answer to their question, one that invites them to challenge their assumptions.

Christ and caesar

Ten days after the 9-11 attacks, a well-known person spoke of his own assumptions that needed to be challenged.  I’m referring to the guy who went from being Terminator to Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He spoke of growing up in the scarcity of postwar Austria and of his dream of going to America.  He arrived in 1968 with $20 in his pocket, and within six months starred in his first movie, the classic work of art, Hercules in New York.

He said, “I called all my friends back in Europe and said: ‘It’s true!  You can do anything in this country!  Come over here!  It’s everything you imagine—and more!’”[1]

Arnold spoke of 1989, when President George H. W. Bush named him the Chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.  He traveled all over the US, promoting fitness programs in schools.  He believed if a poor farm kid from Europe could make it in America, anybody could.  Encountering the poverty of American cities forced him to challenge his assumptions.  He said he used to go around saying, “Everybody should pull himself up by his own bootstraps—just like I did!”  But he changed, and said, “What I learned about this country is this:  Not everybody has boots.”

Arnold finished by saying that “it’s not just the bodybuilding and the business and the box office for me anymore.  Helping the kids who need help is the most important goal I have.  This is what it means for me to be an American.  Maybe that’s what it could mean for you, too!  No matter how much success you have, you can be more successful by reaching out to someone who needs you.”[2]

We are called, both as Americans and especially as Americans of faith, to expand our vision, to look outward, to be proactive about reconciliation—to take the first step in peacemaking.  We’re called “to form a more perfect union.”

And again, as the church, St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:17-18).

Our second hymn today, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was one I had never heard or sung until going to seminary in the 90s.  I found out that it’s often called the national anthem of the black church.  It was that second verse which reinforced it for me.  “We have come / over a way that with tears has been watered; / We have come, / treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”

That comes from the black experience of America.  I’ve had friends who told me some stories, stories of everyday life: stuff I’ve never had to deal with or even think about.  Still, black history, Native American history, Latino history, white history (although we usually don’t think of it that way)—all of that and more is American history.  But more than just national history—the civic side of things—all of that belongs to church history.

Now, to recall my question from a few moments ago, how do we as Americans of faith live on the 240th birthday of our country?  There is a vast difference between being an American and an American of faith, just as there’s a vast difference between Caesar and God.

As Americans who belong to the body of Christ, we are called to actively celebrate the good and to challenge the injustices, not only in our country, but in ourselves.  To say that each person is born with inalienable rights means respecting and honoring those who are different from us, in whatever way.

It also means not denying our identity in Jesus Christ.  It’s easier than we think to conceal the cross behind the flag.  Remember, there is a difference between Christ and Caesar!  We mustn’t confuse the two as we rightfully celebrate, as we seek to be grateful to God for the gift of nation.

May we live lives that are authentically Christian this Independence Day.  May we sing with sincere belief in mind and genuine joy in heart:

“Shadowed beneath Thy hand / may we forever stand, / True to our God, / true to our native land.”

 

[1] Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The Education of an American,” A Patriot’s Handbook, ed. Caroline Kennedy (New York:  Hyperion, 2003), 567.

[2] Schwarzenegger, 568.