The Koheleth Syndrome

This Sunday we’re going to hear from two very different voices in the Bible. The first voice is from a man called “Koheleth” (Hebrew for “the Preacher”) who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes. Folks of my generation (and older) may remember the song “Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There is a Season)” in which the late Pete Seeger put the words of Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 to music: “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 plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up” and so on.

The focus on Sunday will be on Chapter 1, in which Koheleth writes, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanities of vanities! All is vanity! What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? . . .What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. . .I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind.”

Oh, my! What a downer, we might say. Apparently there was some debate among the rabbis when they were putting together the canon of the Hebrew Bible as to whether Koheleth’s voice should be included. Ultimately, his voice is heard, and in fact the whole book of Ecclesiastes is read during the Jewish festival of Sukkoth, or the Feast of Tabernacles, an especially joyous time. Koheleth’s voice is read to add a serious note to the festivities. Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner summarizes Koheleth’s message this way: “There is nothing new under the sun, Koheleth says, with the result that everything that there is under the sun is both old, and as you might imagine in all that heat, it stinks.”

Over against Koheleth we will hear the voice of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, the 5th chapter, where he heals a woman who has suffered a terrible physical condition over the course of many years, finding no relief in doctors or other helpers. In the midst of a chaotic crowd pressing in on Jesus, who is on his way to respond to another request for help, she touches his cloak—and is healed, with Jesus saying “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease. ” She can live once again in wholeness.

Jill Duffield, editor of the Presbyterian Outlook points out that out of chaos and confusion, there can be newness and healing as she reflects on the church murders in Charleston SC, and the powerful voices of forgiveness that have been raised. Little did Jill know and little would Koheleth suspect that by the end of the week, many states, corporations, and institutions would take the step of removing the Confederate flag, due to its association with past terror and racism. Yes Koheleth, there is much that does not change, but as Jesus said in Revelation, “Behold, I make all things new.”


Why I Love the Catholic Church

This Sunday our scripture lesson will be taken from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the 12th chapter, which includes these words in verses 9 through 13: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” 

In my HarperCollins Study Bible, that portion is entitled, “Marks of the True Christian”. Notice that “hospitality” is an important mark of the Christian life. Paul is referring to hospitality in its deepest, spiritual sense, which is about creating a safe place for the stranger or for one in need, as opposed to having a nice dinner party with your best china for your closest friends. The 23rd Psalm has the image of God as a shepherd, but toward the end the image of God is that of a host, “preparing a table before me”. That’s a reference to the Middle Eastern custom of welcoming strangers in need, even if they were from a different tribe, because you yourself never knew when you might be on a journey, run out of water, and need to knock on a stranger’s door.

Words that include the root of hospitality are, of course, “hospital” and “hospice”, and it’s no accident that the Christian Church going back many years established the first hospitals and hospices to care for the sick and the dying.

Which leads me to my sermon for this Sunday: “Why I Love the Catholic Church”. I’ll pause for a moment to let that sink it. Here’s a clue about what I plan to preach on: it’s not about doctrine, it’s not about church structure, it’s not about the hieararchy—-it is about how the Catholic church in mission very directly impacted my father’s life. My father lived his life in a very small geographical circle, never going any further than perhaps 20 miles or so from New York City, but in his early years and in his last days he was nurtured by the Roman Catholic Church, and for that I am eternally grateful. It’s about how an Irish kid named Johnny O’Brien learned some important lessons that made him into a very good man, and how the people of the Roman Catholic Church were very much part of both his living and his dying. So, on Father’s Day, I invite you to be at church, sing “Faith of Our Fathers (and Mothers)”, and let me share the story of “Why I Love the Catholic Church.”

Miss Amy Womble Speaks Up

Apropos to this Sunday when we recognize and thank our Church School teachers and aides, the title of my sermon is “Miss Amy Womble Speaks Up”. I know that doesn’t give you much information, but trust me that when this retired first grade teacher did speak up in 1960’s North Carolina, the Holy Spirit was likely speaking through her.

Our scripture lesson for Sunday is Acts of the Apostles 15: 1-21, which is the account of the Great Council in Jerusalem where the Apostles wrestled with a major question for the first century church: should Gentiles–non-Jews–be required to submit to certain Jewish rituals before they could join the Christian church? After all, the Apostles had all been raised Jewish, and that’s what they had done, so why shouldn’t these new believers have to do the same thing we did? There was much discussion, and more to the point, much discernment, a word originating in Latin, meaning to “sort by sifting”, and ultimately “to distinguish”; “to perceive or recognize”; or to “make out clearly”. 

In a spiritual sense, Episcopal priest Frederick Schmidt observes, “discernment is fundamentally a practice of asking “God” questions instead of “I” questions. Discernment is less focused on our judgments, conclusions, and opinions, and involves opening up to what God wants in a particular situation.”

My sermon is a follow up to last week’s sermon in which we heard the words of John Calvin: “We are not our own; let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own; let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us….We are God’s; let God’s wisdom and God’s will therefore rule all our actions.”

Those first Christian Apostles were in a discernment process, which involves framing the issue, hearing testimony, and looking to scripture, and making a decision. We’ll understand how they did that—and then understand how a Christian woman named Miss Amy Womble shared her testimony that ultimately carried the day.

We Are Not Our Own

Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion,
“We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal. (Rom. 14:8; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19) 

My sermon is drawn from I Peter 2: 1-12, in which Peter writes to his brothers and sisters in Christ, “Come to him (Christ), a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house……”

Calvin says “We are not our own”; Peter writes, “Let yourselves be built (note that he does not say ‘build yourselves up’!) Looking to BPC’s future, we’re reminded that in all our deliberations and discussions, God is present and active through the power of the Spirit. Yes, in one sense this is “our church”, but ultimately it is God’s, and we need to be attentive to the work of the Spirit. Pastor Anthony Robinson, a respected church consultant, says more bluntly, “The church belongs to and owes it existence to God and not to us. God has created and claimed the church for God’s own purposes. The church, then, is not simply whatever we want it to be or what we choose to make of it. It is not simply a consumer-driven entity.”

Love One Another

The scripture lesson for Sunday is taken from the First Epistle of John, Chapter 4, verses 7 through 21. The focus of John’s message is Love: God’s love for us and our love for God and one another. The lesson contains some wonderful memory verses: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (v.7); “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them”. (v.16b) ; “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (v.18a); and “We love because he first loved us”. (v.19)
In a commentary on this passage, the Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright observes, “At the heart of this passage we find, repeated, a little word which means a whole world to John, as in his gospel it means so much to Jesus himself. ‘Those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. The word is a simple one, meaning ‘dwell’ or ‘remain’ or ‘make one’s home'; but the reality is profound, going to the heart of what Christian faith is all about…. It is a mutual indwelling: we in God and God in us.”