Sunday, June 14, 2009

It is God's gift

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

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I found a new treasure this week
in that pessimistic piece of sacred literature we call Ecclesiastes.
Said to be written by wise King Solomon.
But it sounds like the work of a depressed blues musician,
if they sang the blues in the 9th-century BC.
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!

You can almost hear the lyrics:
“I got those low-down, empty,
and meaningless vanity blues.”
There is nothing new under the sun.
all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
“I got those same-old, same-old,
nothing-new and wind-chasing blues.”

It’s always been a challenge finding inspiration in this book.
Except for this one passage we read this morning,
“For everything there is a season,
a time to be born, a time to die, etc...”
Now that’s beautiful poetry, and even profound.
They were inspiring enough that Pete Seeger and the Byrds
and other idealistic and forward-looking folk musicians
took the words and sang them out with hope and gusto.
Became a great peace anthem.

But pretty much the rest of Ecclesiastes . . .
it’s not folk music, it’s the blues.

But I found a treasure in it this week,
and it shows up in one form or another all over Ecclesiastes.
Here’s what we heard this morning:
“It is God’s gift that all should eat and drink
and take pleasure in all their toil.”

The act of eating and drinking,
and all the hard, physical work required to eat and drink well,
is one of God’s generous gifts to us.
A precious gift, lovingly given,
to be treasured and to take pleasure from.

And the preacher in Ecclesiastes echoes that all through the book.
Here’s just a sampling.
“my heart found pleasure in all my toil”
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink,
and find enjoyment in their toil. This is from the hand of God.”
“There is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work,
for that is their lot.”
“It is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment
in all the toil with which one toils under the sun.”
“[To] find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God.”
And there’s more.

These wise words come from a time in human history,
when an extremely high percentage of work
was directed toward food production.
Hard manual labor was required of the vast majority of people,
just to produce life’s basic necessities for the local population—
food, clothing, and shelter.

Everything they ate they grew on their land, or hunted nearby.
Everything they wore came from plant or animal products,
which had to be raised, harvested, shorn, beaten, combed,
twisted, spun, tanned, scraped, dyed, rolled, and/or woven,
and finally cut, fitted, and sewn.
And they lived in houses created from scratch,
from stuff they extracted from the earth surrounding them.
Hard manual labor was the life of the people
to whom the Preacher in Ecclesiastes was preaching.

I wonder how they heard his words.
How did the people of Israel feel about their hard work?
Did they find pleasure in all their toil?
They were a very small nation, a minority culture
surrounded by the culture of empires
that saw the world in a different light.

In the Greco-Roman world
manual labor was de-valued, looked down upon.
It was delegated to the lower working class, and slave class,
who were deemed best suited for manual labor.
The “higher” things in life—
politics, philosophy, the arts, athletics, and leisure—
were activities fit for those with education and power,
those with full and free citizenship in the empire.

The Israelites had a different view of work,
according to a renowned Mennonite OT scholar, Waldemar Janzen.
He says that in contrast to surrounding societies that devalued work,
the biblical view of work, is that it “is deeply and positively
stamped by its association with God.”
God worked!
God worked and worked and worked, to create all things,
all creatures, and all people.
And God said, when he looked upon his work, “It is good.”
And then, God rested.
The Bible develops a strong work ethic,
directly linked to a strong rest ethic.
So according to scripture,
when we work, and when we rest from work,
we are participating with God
in God’s creating and sustaining and restoring work.
We are co-laborers with God.
_____________________

And how we view work
has everything to do with how we view time.
The people of the Bible
had a counter-cultural view of work and time.
How about us?

We live in a society driven by the desire
to achieve greater speed and greater efficiency,
and to work less.
The American lifestyle is all about
accomplishing more and exerting ourselves less.
Technology allows people to work 60-hour weeks—
at a desk, phone, computer,
or at the controls of heavy machinery—
and then come back to a home well-stocked
with convenience food and labor-saving gadgets.
Pop open a can of soup,
pour it in a bowl and nuke it,
and then carry it to the La-Z-Boy chair,
with a built-in pocket for the TV remote.
We have created a disturbing national paradox,
we are a nation of workaholics,
who go to almost any length to avoid work.

We longer need to work with our hands,
and we can still eat all the food we want.
Why spend valuable hours in the kitchen
planning and working and sweating to produce something
you can pull out of the freezer and microwave,
or grab at a drive-through window,
or dump out of a can?

We have come to the point where fast-food and convenience-food
is the norm.
And the cook who regularly creates a labor of love in the kitchen,
is practically a freak of nature,
whose neighbors and friends speak of in hushed reverence
and wonder how in the world they do that.

By forgetting how to grow our own food,
and not having a clue how to cook a meal with
red beets, okra, or kohlrabi,
we have not only lost our direct connection with the earth
which brings forth everything we eat,
we have lost our connection with each other.

The same cultural forces that moved us out of the kitchen
have also moved us away from the table.
It’s a waste of time to sit on our hind ends at a dinner table.
We could save an hour or more,
downing a Whopper or Quarter-Pounder in the car
on the way to a late evening shopping trip or the movies.
Fewer and fewer meals are eaten at home,
with the family,
gathered around a table,
with the TV turned off,
with full attentiveness
to those with whom we are sharing a meal.

Thankfully, some of these things I’m lamenting,
are beginning to trend a different direction.
The booming success of the Harrisonburg Farmers’ Market
is a very hopeful sign.
People are being introduced to new vegetables,
and need to figure out what to do with them,
and whatever they come up with,
will very likely not be consumed in a car.
It will be savored, appreciated,
and often shared with loved ones.

But making these lifestyle changes requires work,
and therefore, time. Lots of time.
More time than what we think we have.

But the wisdom of Ecclesiastes would suggest
doing so is not just the smart thing to do,
it aligns us with God’s very intentions for our lives.
“It is God’s gift that all should eat and drink
and take pleasure in all their toil.”
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink,
and find enjoyment in their toil.
This is from the hand of God.”

By rushing through life trying to maximize speed and efficiency,
we are spurning a gift
offered to us from the very hand of God.

God knows, and we know, that time is stuff of relationships.
Without time, there can be no nurture of relationships.

In God’s great economy,
time is what gives us the capacity to grow,
the capacity to change,
the capacity to create deep connections with others,
the capacity to develop into the persons God desires us to be.

Time is the realm within which relationships become possible,
within which true community is formed.
Time is the realm within which God moves among us,
where it becomes possible to experience the activity of God.
Why, in our obsession with doing more in less time,
would we intentionally turn down a gift God is wanting to give us.
“It is God’s gift that all should eat and drink
and take pleasure in all their toil.”

Every moment we have is really a gift of God to savor,
a gift for which to be grateful,
a gift to receive and to use well, as good stewards.

Recently when Irene was working in the church nursery
2-year-old Isaac Sachs wanted a rice cake to eat,
and Irene gave it to him.
But he stood there holding it, and wouldn’t eat it,
and finally asked Irene for a chair.
When he got his little chair,
he pulled it up to a little table and sat down.
Then he sat down and happily ate his rice cake.
Someone is raising him well.

Eating at a table slows . . . things . . . down.
By slowing down, breathing more deeply,
being more attentive to the world around us,
being more attentive to the people with whom we share space,
by taking more time to enjoy the pleasures of toil
involved in good eating and drinking,
and in other activities of living well,
we are opening ourselves to greater possibilities for God to act,
and to move in and among us,
and to heal the brokenness and alienation
that we have brought on ourselves.

When we rush through life inattentively,
when we gulp down food and drink alone,
without a thought of gratitude,
We are effectively separating ourselves from God,
from other people,
from ourselves,
and from the earth itself.

The simple act of sitting at a table with neighbors or family,
around dishes of food over which someone has lovingly toiled,
and offering thanks to God for these gifts
of food and drink . . . and work . . .
that is a communal act of healing and peace-building.
And it is one we should do far more often.

Now, I am not calling for instant perfection,
and I’m not suggesting we can live without any compromise.
There are some food pleasures rooted in our fast-food culture
that I am not quite ready to give up completely.
I think I can assure you that I have not ordered my last
Whopper-no-cheese-hold-the-mayo, with a side of small fries,
at a Drive-thru window.

I don’t do it often. And I could do it less.
But I’m not asking us all to be the perfect gardeners,
and perfect cooks, and perfect eaters all the time.

What I am asking us to do, all the time,
is to take time to be more attentive and more grateful.

Despite the current popularity of local foods,
and farmers’ markets, and community agriculture,
we are still fighting against a culture that, as much as ever,
worships speed and efficiency,
and hates unnecessary manual labor.

I invite us today to make a counter-cultural commitment.
This commitment is for one week only.
For some of us, it might be a very easy commitment to make,
because we are doing it already.
For others, myself included, it might be a challenge.
In a way, it’s building on Barbara’s challenge last Sunday—
to eat less, more often, and with more friends.
This one is getting pretty specific.

Here it is. In two parts.
First, today and every day the rest of this week,
let us commit to sitting down to a table,
with undivided attention on the activity of the meal itself,
in the morning, and around noon, and in the evening.
Three times a day, we sit down at a table.
That is, a table intended for dining.
A desk with a computer monitor on it
doesn’t count as a table.
Neither does a TV tray in the living room.
Second, at least one of those daily meals
will be shared with friends or family.

I realize right away the challenges this will present to some.
It means some will have to get up 5 or 10 minutes earlier,
so their granola bar and juice can be eaten at a table,
instead of grabbed on the way out the door.
Or you might have to adjust an evening ritual
of eating in front of the TV watching the news.
It means some, like myself,
cannot stay in my office working through lunch.
I’ll need to walk out of my office,
and find a real table and eat a real lunch,
It means that some who live alone will have a real challenge
to find ways to share a meal with others at least once a day.
It might mean more inviting others in,
or inviting yourself to someone else’s table,
even if you offer to bring the food.
And some of you might be saying, “What?
I already do this. Everyday.”
That’s great, just keep doing it,
and realize what a gift that is to yourself and to others.

I do think it’s something that everyone of us is capable of doing.
Whether we’re willing to accept the imposition of time,
or inconvenience, is another question.
But it’s only a one-week challenge.

I am committing myself to it.
And I invite all of you to join me.
And when the week is over,
let’s talk to each other about what we learned.
It might turn out to be a change we want to keep.
And if so, it will be God’s gift.

—Phil Kniss, June 14, 2009




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