Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sermon: There's Nothing New Under the Sun

A reflection on Ecclesiastes 1:2-11
Rev. Gregg Brekke
Delivered 10/29/2008 at the United Church of Christ Amistad Chapel service in Cleveland, Ohio.

Change. It is on the minds of Americans – on the minds of people around the world.

If you have any doubt, just look at your 401k account. There has been a little change there - you may feel like all you have left is spare change... Bad change – a reduction in value of at least a third for most of us. That is change I didn’t ask for.

Both candidates for president are talking about change. Either it’s the change that we need or the change we’ve been asking for. Some how, some way, after next Tuesday there will be change. But this is merely promised change…

For others around the world change is a constant factor – often leading to life altering circumstances. Regime change, change in local government, change in ruling religious authority – has meant exodus and genocide and exploitation. Surely this is change they didn’t ask for.

In the midst of all this change – how can the Teacher be right? How can he say that there is nothing new under the sun? Doesn’t he recognize how change often brings with it suffering and fear?

I believe we are living in days where the words of the Teacher from Ecclesiastes ring truer than any time in our lives. When we have plenty yet we are not satisfied; and all we work for is taken away…

It does seem a wearisome toil.

And for those who already live at the limits of their income, we see the cost of living increasing in disproportionate measure to increases in wages. People of all income levels have had to make choices about how they spend their money.

It is surely a wearisome toil.

Home foreclosures, bank buyouts, a decrease in charitable giving – including to our churches, if that matters to anyone here – is a load of bad news on top of bad news.

All does seem to be vanity, and a wearisome toil.

I don’t mean to reiterate our current situation to increase fear or raise anxiety – these feelings are already present for most of us. But I am aware that situations like this have happened before – in recent memory and throughout history.

From many camps – political, economic, sociologic and religious – there is a race to find out who we can blame for the financial mess the world is in. We can blame deregulation, we can blame corporate greed, or we can blame the devil.

But somewhere we have to look at ourselves and wonder how the desire to have what we cannot afford, to gain what we didn’t truly work for, and to put our needs before the needs of others, is at the heart of the problem. Our “eyes have not been satisfied with seeing.” Window shopping hasn’t satisfied us, owning is the only option.

And so I think it is appropriate to ask myself, how did I find comfort in the lure of easy money. The camera I bought at 18 months without interest, or my no-interest car loan that is now finally paid off. If I, and millions others just like me, had not demanded access to easy money – would the banking system have needed to respond with higher and higher risk investments?

The tiresome nature of our desires is more than we can express, it is a vanity.

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes not only warns about vanity and how quickly what we want most dearly fades, but also warns that we need to remember those who have gone before us, not just so that we can learn, but so we will be remembered by and leave a legacy to those who come after us.

My parents were children growing up in rural America during the depression and WWII. Any of you with parents of that similar generation will certainly have heard the stories of how hard these times were, how their worlds changed due to economic circumstances.

I heard the proverbial stories of walking five miles to school – into the wind, uphill, in the driving snow. I heard stories recounting the great floods and subsequently droughts that ruined harvests and forced many families to the brink of starvation. I understood the hyperbole in the story about plowing the back 40 with a blind three-legged mule…

But for all the stories of hardship and loss, what most sticks in my head and resonates through my heart are the stories of how people came together to help one another.

One farmer had a steam powered threshing machine and would work with the others to harvest their grain. In turn the other farmers helped him plow. In turn others grew and cut hay – distributing it to the dairy farmer who in turn made sure everyone in the area had fresh milk.

There were less pragmatic but touching stories too. Families who lost fathers and sons in the war had little to worry about when planting and harvesting times came – everyone knew what they must do. My father and his classmates were required to bring wood to heat their elementary one-room schoolhouse. They would take turns “filling in” for those who were unable to bring wood.

It was what you did – it was the right thing to do. I am so glad I have those stories – no matter how my parents and I have gotten along through the years, their memories are a legacy of a time when community meant more to people than the value of their 401k. When a community was considered strong only when its most vulnerable members had what they needed.

I’m no seer – none of us can predict how long this recession (some are saying depression) will last, no one knows if it will get better soon.

Wise people have recognized this uncertainty.

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes says the turmoil of today is old news; there is nothing new under the sun. He writes probably after the third return from exile – and possibly when Alexander was conquering Israel. Being subject to foreign rulers was not new under his sun – how faithful people respond however is new.

Jesus says we shouldn’t be alarmed by wars and rumors of war. He even gave us a warning about filling our earthly storehouses – who knows when it will all be taken away. Nothing new, vanities – but how faithful people respond will be their test.

What will be our response in a time of upheaval, change and need? Will we merely admit defeat to the forces of the market? Will we seek to find blame and demand that someone pay? Will we “stop doing and pray something” as I’ve heard advocated from one corner of Christendom recently?

Or will we learn from the wisdom of the past, our forbears? Will we learn from other Teachers like Gandhi who said “you must be the change you want to see in the world?”

You see, real change has nothing to do with a new president. It has nothing to do with an overhauled and tightly regulated banking system. But as Christians, we have two ideals of what this sort of change looks like.

Real change has everything to do with what the Greek writers of the New Testament called evangaleon – “the Good News” and basilia tou theou – “the Kingdom of God.”

So are we ready to be Good News? I’m talking about being Good News, not just talking about it! Are we ready to be the Kingdom of God? Again, being the Kingdom of God, not just having a Bible study to discuss what the Kingdom of God may or may not mean!

When I read my Bible and study the first Christians I see that people were drawn to this new religious expression because it met their needs: spiritual, emotional and physical. It gave them a place to belong, and it included them in a vision that was bigger than their current condition offered.

It gave them hope when political and spiritual oppression all seemed a wearisome toil. Early Christians believed their work would change the world and remove an oppression they had become so accustomed to they no longer noticed it.

And their hope wasn’t limited to the afterlife as some promote – it wasn’t escapism; that happened later in Christian theology – the first Christians’ hope rested in the community of believers being Good News and offering the Kingdom of God to one another and to the world around them. That hope rocked the world of early Christianity.

My community of Lakewood has over 20 churches offering an evening meal – all are invited, no questions asked. They even work together so they don’t overlap. Almost any day of the week you can get a hot meal in Lakewood from a Christian church – that is being Good News; that is offering the Kingdom of God.

Several churches I know have started a backpack program where they work with schools to send meals home with at risk elementary students over the weekend. They may not eat on the weekend if it weren’t for the food secretly stashed in their packs – that is being Good News; that is serving the Kingdom of God.

Another church I know is taking donations of bicycles, repairing them, and giving them to low income workers so they can get to jobs that would have been out of reach by foot and are not serviced by public transportation – that is being Good News; that is showing the Kingdom of God.

I could go on and on – my email box receives a steady stream of similar stories. So although there is bad news, and worse news being heaped upon bad news, I am sure there is hope. I am assured that Jesus was teaching his disciples, and teaching us, to be Good News.

Economist and sustainability author, Anna LappĂ©, says, “Hope doesn’t come from calculating whether the good news is winning out over the bad. It’s simply a choice to take action.”

May it be said of our generation and in this time that we were Good News, that we offered hope to the most vulnerable, that we put others before ourselves. There may be nothing new under the sun, but the moment is upon us to prove that Good News lives continually and the Kingdom of God is present in the hearts of those who call upon Christ as their hope in all times.


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