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Reading Ecclesiastes in a Pandemic

This is an excerpt from a sermon I recently preached at the CRC’s Campus Ministry at the University of Toronto (my alma mater!).

Words spoken by the wise bring them favor, 

    but the lips of fools consume them.

The words of their mouths begin in foolishness,

    and their talk ends in wicked madness;

yet fools talk on and on.

    No one knows what is to happen,

    and who can tell anyone what the future holds?

The toil of fools wears them out,

    for they do not even know the way to town.


Alas for you, O land, when your king is a servant,

    and your princes feast in the morning!

Happy are you, O land, when your king is a nobleman,

    and your princes feast at the proper time—

    for strength, and not for drunkenness!

Through sloth the roof sinks in,

    and through indolence the house leaks.

Feasts are made for laughter;

    wine gladdens life,

    and money meets every need.

Ecclesiastes 10:12-19

I’m exhausted. Is anyone else exhausted? I’m sure there are many factors in our lives that are contributing to that right now, but I’m talking about the unending up-and-down roller coaster between anxiety and languishing that we all seem to be stuck on. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming sense of randomness and fear that comes with living through a whole year (and counting) of a worldwide pandemic.  Or maybe it’s the near-constant squabbling and wildly contradictory worldviews we encounter as we try to make sense of our political landscapes.  Or maybe even just the numbing senselessness of these lockdown lives we’re living, of ‘wake up, eat, work, sleep, repeat’ - all in the same house or apartment, because there's nowhere to go and nothing to do. 

And you all wanted to bring a sermon series on Ecclesiastes into this mess? 

I’ll be honest. I’m a bit annoyed at this Teacher and his glum one-liners in Ecclesiastes. I'm a fixer, a justice seeker. It's central to my understanding of how God created us to exist in the world to believe that we are called to love and do good for our neighbours...especially now when we’re so divided, both physically and ideologically. So reading this Wisdom Teacher go on about the meaninglessness and bleakness of it all, with seeming apathy to the state of the world - I want to scream back at him - who are you to say it’s all just vanity?

Your speculation on life and death seems trite when life or death is not your experience.

You Teacher, who comes with so much privilege that your voice is heard in the whole assembly? Sure, you can feast and drink and be merry, because you have food on the table.  You who has so much privilege that your voice is heard in the whole assembly? You have nobility as a Son of David?  You can say that money meets every need because your needs don’t outstrip your wealth - you didn’t lose your job or your business or a beloved family member to an arbitrary virus. Your speculation on life and death seems trite when life or death is not your experience.

Or is that the subversion that this Teacher is trying to get at? If all our efforts are intangible, and all our striving and planning, all of our climate protests and pandemic safety precautions, don’t guarantee we’ll ultimately have covid or carbon-free air to breath, then maybe we should hedge our bets with the wise instead of with the fools. 

And there’s no shortage of foolishness to go around these days...we’ve seen enough foolishness in the past year that it’s felt like 100 years! And we say to ourselves ‘thank God I’m not like those fools’ - agitated to exhaustion in their confusion, so overwrought that they can’t see a simple way out. But we didn’t count on the idle talk of those fools spiraling into “wicked madness”, resulting in horrifying real-life consequences that show up in the nightly news - and then we say, ‘how did it come to this?’

The rewards are meaningless, but the harms are countless.

I think the Teacher in Ecclesiastes is trying to tell us - when the fools drown out the wise, we all get held captive by their idolatry. We are all impacted by the vanities of the Kings and Princes of our world, and their foolishness can ruin the land and destabilize the people. When leaders are easily swayed by their appetites, the fools will follow their example, and the land will suffer. But the Teacher sees that the land is blessed when leaders are righteous and responsible. Happy is the land when those who have the most privilege know to give it up for the common good of all.

But it’s not just our leaders, we must cultivate our own wisdom too, to combat the foolish idolatry that we can be so tempted by. If fame and fortune and hoarding and clawing our way to the top really gets us nowhere in the end, then why do it? Why disobey God and put ourselves first? Why ostracize and exploit? Why perpetuate injustice? The rewards are meaningless, but the harms are countless.

All this clawing, this seeking rewards that end in nothing, this demonstrates the futility of idolatry. Why spend our whole lives working for and worshipping something that cannot hear or speak or love us or take care of us?  The whole time we could have been living in peace with each other and the whole community creation as we fearfully love and obey the One who created us all.  We can follow The One who knew our predisposition to sin, and so gave us good commandments and a covenant and a gospel that unveiled the foolishness of our many vanities. That sounds like true wisdom. 

And that wisdom is not meaningless! To families who have lost loved ones to this pandemic, it’s not meaningless when their community enfolds them in love and support. To the refugees who are waiting for the borders to reopen so they can seek safety, it's not meaningless for us to advocate for their travel to be considered essential. To the young climate advocates, it's not meaningless to demand drastic action so that they will be able to breathe the air when they are old. To people protesting in the streets, it’s not meaningless to expect Black, Indigenous, Asian and other people of colour to be just as beloved as any other.

None of it is meaningless. But it is exhausting. And that is why we do it. It’s hard work, but as we repair the breaches and restore the crooked paths, little by little, there’s more justice, there’s more grace, there’s more wisdom, there’s more peace, and more and more of our neighbours can be a little less exhausted and have a little more hope. 

Will all our efforts come to nothing...who can know? But I have to believe this is the better way.


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