Oct. 12, 2014

Sermon by Jay Pierce

Ecclesiastes 9:7-12

“Work Hard, Play Hard, Rest Easy”



One of the great things about our church is the opportunity to take on all sorts of challenges.  It is a double edged sword in not all of the challenges are ones that we necessarily want to take on, individually or collectively.  But somehow, someway we always seem to meet the challenge.  One of the challenges is how to fill in during the well-deserved vacations of a pastor.    And unless you have the fear of public speaking, glossophobia as I recently learned it is officially called, I highly recommend you take on this challenge if called.  The ability to really do in depth research and come to a personal understanding of a piece of the Bible is fantastic.

This is the third time I have been honored to fill that call.  The first two occasions I did indeed get that experience of breaking new ground in my understanding.  Today, seven and a quarter years after my first appearance, the call is answered a bit differently.  This sermon is a revision of that first sermon.  I have chosen that for a couple of reasons.  First is it has actually been a part of the request: “it’s OK if you reuse one of the old sermons, nobody will remember it anyway”.  … Gee thanks.  That is inspiring.  … “Umm no, what we really meant was it was so good we wanted to hear it again.”  OK, that’s better.  So if you do remember it and want to go get a cup of coffee now, be my guest.

Reviewing this material was good as the message is one easily overcome by the activity of life.  Particularly easy for me at this time as I have lots activity.  As many of you know, I am spending this year back in graduate school at Florida Tech for a series of courses sponsored by my employer General Electric.  And being in school takes me back to what originally peaked my interest in Ecclesiastes.

The reading we heard earlier contains a very special passage for me.  The key clause, from the King James Version, is “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might”.  That passage has been a significant part of my life since 1983.  The first half of chapter 9 verse 10 is the motto of my undergraduate fraternity, Theta Tau National Professional Engineering Fraternity.  It was drilled into us as pledges and is actually quite appropriate for an engineering fraternity. Engineering a challenging academic pursuit and professional field that quickly weeds out those putting forth halfhearted efforts.

As fraternity brothers, we put the motto in to practice often.  As a small house varying between 13 and 20 brothers, it was amazing the number of intramural sports teams we fielded.  One year, we even won the all sports trophy for houses up to 50 members.  We were typically in the top 10% of all fraternities and sororities in Grade Point Average.  We also were very good at applying strong effort to determining which bar within walking distance of our house was the best.

It was easy for me to take the motto to heart.  It fit my natural personality and certainly could be observed in the way my father lived his life, both at work as an attorney and at home.  Even as an out of context snippet, the motto seemed like wise advice.  But for years, I always wondered about the greater Biblical context of 9:10 but never spent the time to research it.  If I wasn’t going to take the time to examine the passage “with all my might”, I just wasn’t going to do it.  Seemed like a justified excuse for procrastination!

So I sat out in the congregation hoping to some Sunday hear the passage come up and be put into context for me.  Years went by, and it never came up and rarely did any of the other verses from Ecclesiastes.  Even when verses did come up, they were usually secondary passages.  I thought maybe I just missed that Sunday.  But I have since discovered that is not the case.  Ecclesiastes is barely touched by the lectionary cycle as it winds its way through the Bible.  That is unfortunate.  In researching for this sermon I have discovered it is a very intriguing book that does not require much knowledge of Israel’s history, a rarity for the Old Testament.  That makes it easy to work with on its own merits.

Since we so rarely spend any time in Ecclesiastes, I’m going to broaden the scope and use the entire book to set the context of 9:10.  Using the whole book is appropriate as it is somewhat repetitive; making the same points several times but in different ways.

There is not an overwhelming academic consensus of how to interpret the writings.  Some biblical experts are surprised it qualified to be in the Bible and find it quite pessimistic.  This is an easy interpretation to take.  In trying to verbally explain the book to some friends, they initially took that interpretation.  I respect how one could reach that conclusion, but it is not the one I see.  I draw very positive and reaffirming advice, an advice that I was glad to refresh.

Although the author of Ecclesiastes in the early sections writes from the perspective of King Solomon, the book is likely far too new to have been actually written by King Solomon.  It is thought to be one of the most recent books of the Old Testament, estimated to have been written somewhere around 300 to 250 BCE.  “Ecclesiastes” is the Greek translation of a Hebrew name for the position of “wisdom teacher”.  Therefore, we don’t know the exact individual that wrote the book, just his title.  The wisdom teacher was probably working from the temple in Jerusalem.

Writing from the perspective of King Solomon is a stroke of brilliance by the author.  King Solomon is one of the greatest examples of a man that had it all: wisdom, power, fame, wealth, pleasure, and security.  But what is obviously missing from this list is satisfaction or alternatively phrased peace of mind.  In Ecclesiastes the King indicates he has spent time lacking such satisfaction in spite of having great conventional success.  The King equates the gathering of the conventional list of items to being as futile as chasing the wind.  His experience does not match the bumper sticker slogan of “he who dies with the most toys wins” as he had all of the toys anyone could want.

So how does the author suggest we avoid chasing the wind and get peace of mind?  Is it the conventional “Live simply and righteously and all will be well” message?  No, the author skewers that conventional wisdom quite thoroughly.  He testifies that he has seen the righteous die young and the wicked prolong their lives through evil.  The righteous tortured and the wicked lauded, the race not won by the swift, the riches not to the intelligent.  Again and again, the author sites that all will die, no matter what happens in our lives.  “Time and chance happen to us all” are his words in Chapter 9 Verse 11.

Even though it is 2200 years later, don’t those themes sound like any given broadcast of the evening news?  These ancient words are still the reality of the world we live in.  And the teacher would not be surprised as part of the opening in Chapter 1 Verse 9 he says: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun”.  We clearly have yet to meet Jesus’ challenge to bring the ways of heaven to earth and break this cycle.

Well, that all seems pretty depressing, a great King without peace of mind and a world were righteousness and ability are not able to overcome randomness.  It is pretty obvious how those with pessimistic interpretations of Ecclesiastes reach their conclusion.  But all of this just sets the stage for the positive message.  The author uses way fewer words in the point than in the setup.  So one must be careful to not just blow right past it.  We can see how eloquent his positive message is starting in 9:7.  “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved of what you do.”  It might be easy to jump to conclusions at this point that we just need to quit worrying and be happy.  But our author does not make things quite that simple.  In 9:10 he goes on to give us the clause used as the Theta Tau motto (this time from New Revised Standard Version): “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might”.  We get different wordings on the same theme in 2:24 and 3:12-13.

So what are we left with here for the point?  “Don’t worry, be happy”? “Eat, drink, and be merry”?  “Work hard”?  Or should we just go away depressed?  Let’s dig a little bit deeper and listen to a few of the words from the most famous part of the book, chapter 3:1-8: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die; … a time to mourn, and a time to dance … a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace”.  These words were performed in song most notably recorded by The Byrds during the Vietnam War.  The recording went to number one on the pop charts in 1965 and will be reprised by our own Sunday News in a few moments.  The use of the words in the context of that song, as many of you might recall, was to emphasize that our politicians were forcing us on the wrong side of each of the pairs; that now should be a time for world peace not a time for war.  Using that thinking, the interpretation of the fraternity motto could then be “go work hard in some way to move the world toward peace”.

That interpretation doesn’t seem to fit within the greater context of the Ecclesiastes author however.  Nowhere in the entire book does he try to force a moral message on society.  He is simply observing this is the way of the world and makes that clear just a few verses after the song lyrics end in 3:11 “(God) has made everything suitable for its time”.   This section to me makes it clear that the author is not just trying to be depressing, but that his point with all of this is that we need to keep our eyes open and realize the world for what it is, the mysterious and wonderful creation of God that is more complex than we can comprehend.

Marcus Borg in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time provides the insight that pulls of all of this together.  Marcus notes the similarities of the Ecclesiastes message to some messages seen in a 6th century BCE work by Chinese wisdom teacher Lau-tzu and to some of the teachings of Buddhism.  Through grasping at things, we are trying to control reality and hence control the world.  Borg further notes in Buddhism such grasping is considered the primary source of suffering in life.  In Ecclesiastes, the author has King Solomon suffering a lack of piece of mind even though he has grasped so much.   The parallel from other societies that invest much in trying to seek inner peace is helpful as it gives a validation to the Ecclesiastes words that gathering many of the things that society values is as futile as “chasing the wind”.

The instruction for achieving inner piece in Ecclesiastes it turns out is quite simple.  Remember that God has made a time for everything.  You cannot control what time brings at the macro level, therefore live with it (1).  Do not force your ways on others as no one knows what is good for all mortals (2).  Respect and awe God, for he determines the opportunities presented to you (3).  Go ahead and enjoy the opportunities presented to you and rest easy in doing it as God has long ago approved it (4).  Work hard and be satisfied by the positive results of your labor (5).

So how do we translate this to action?  Live strong, live fully.  Don’t waste time and effort chasing the values that society seems to think will bring pleasure and satisfaction, don’t be jealous as those you observe may not be happy.  And most importantly enjoy what is available to you and let others do the same.

On every single day, remind yourself not to throw away the day in favor of tomorrow or yesterday, but take advantage of it through what it presents, be it a day for work or a day for celebration.

(1) Chapter 3
(2) Chapter 6:10-7:14
(3) Chapter 5:1-7
(4) Chapter 9:7-9
(5) Chapter 2:24-26

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