16 I saw something else under the sun: in the place of justice, there was wickedness; and in the place of what was right, there was wickedness again!
17 I thought to myself, God will judge both righteous and wicked people, because there’s a time for every matter and every deed.
18 I also thought, Where human beings are concerned, God tests them to show them that they are but animals
19 because human beings and animals share the same fate. One dies just like the other—both have the same life-breath. Humans are no better off than animals because everything is pointless.
20 All go to the same place:
all are from the dust;
all return to the dust.
21 Who knows if a human being’s life-breath rises upward while an animal’s life-breath descends into the earth?
22 So I perceived that there was nothing better for human beings but to enjoy what they do because that’s what they’re allotted in life. Who, really, is able to see what will happen in the future?
Let me pray for us. Great Divine Love, you have called us here to this moment. Something woke us up this morning and drew us near to this place we marked as set apart and sacred, not because the place is special but because we decided together that we will seek you together. And so we seek you now in word and thought, no matter what we may carry with us in our hearts coming in here, whether in despair or in hope, we seek your love, your truth. Humble us, that we may get out of the way of ourselves, and see you, who tell us that we are beloveds. Help us to hear that deeply in our souls as we seek your word. Amen.
I remember when I became a freshman in college, I felt that I had finally stepped into the real world. Here is the world, not in the small confines of my parent’s house. Not the pathetic life of high school drama, not in the small towns which I grew up most of my life, from a small town in Georgia two hours south of Atlanta where I went to elementary school, from a small town in Wichita, Kansas, literally in the middle of nowhere where I went to middle school, or even Fresno, CA which is endearingly(?) called the armpit of California where I finished high school. I was finally in the big real world, UCLA. There was a mix of pride, of having made it there, but also great insecurity, I don’t know what I’m doing here.
I remember becoming aware of the public opinion or persona of Christianity, which growing up as a pastor’s kid, it’s the water we swam in. But here at a “secular” university, it was something different.
There was one day, on Bruinwalk, which is the main walkway everyone took from the dorms to get to classes, often littered with flyers for student organizations, clubs, and fraternity/sorority parties, there was a man set up on Bruinwalk with a microphone and a speaker next to him. You could hear this amplified preaching/chastising,
“If you don’t repent, and admit that you are a sinner, you will face the judgment of God in hell.”
I remember hearing the words, thinking,
“I know what he’s talking about, but gosh why is he yelling it on a speakerphone like this.”
And I felt embarrassed for him, for Christianity. I didn’t want others to know that I was Christian as to not be associated with him.
The worst part about it though was, he had this other mic set up actually, a few feet down from him, him on top of the hill, where students gathered around, that could apparently respond on the microphone. And he’d take questions or comments, or so it seemed. I saw students, eager, smart-looking, well spoken, much like students I sat with in my political theory classes, who I respected with awe at their comments in class, respond to him with great logic. And when they did, at some point, he had a button to shut off the mic of his opponents.
He was controlling the mic, turning it on or off, which then obviously frustrated his “listeners,” It seemed so sick to me. I wondered, how is this helpful in evangelizing the love of God to people? I think that’s when I started to get a bit jaded, not about God, but about Christianity and Christians.
That’s what I appreciate about a text like today’s, Ecclesiastes, a book that many have debated over whether it should even be in the Bible or not. Those books are my favorite! It’s a book of impassioned contradictions. I love a good pessimist or a jaded realist.
I am not one. I am a hopeful optimistic romantic of them all. But an actual realist to go up against, really ruffles my feathers. And that’s what the Ecclesiastes has to offer I think to the hopeful romantics of Easter-loving Christians in this season of Lent. Because before we get to Easter, we’ve got SIX WEEKS of Lent, where this week is about dust.
all are from the dust;
all return to the dust.
Ecclesiastes is like a good satire or dystopian story, like Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, Parasite, Squid Game, or the Walking Dead. It makes you think and question, well, what is the most important thing about life? And the thing is, when you really start to ask that question about life, it quickly does force you to reckon with the opposite of life–death.
In the Pulitzer prize winning book titled “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker, it says that
“the prospect of death… wonderfully concentrates the mind…the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity–activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for (hu)man.”
Death is a reality check. I know this conceptually, and I also know that some of you have personally experienced the “wonderful” concentrating of mind at the prospect of death of loved ones or scary health diagnosis. When one of my close friend’s dad passed away about a year ago, when it’s not just a hypothetical situation in a screen or a book, it was sobering to see that it really does both blur everything that’s unnecessary and focuses on the realest things about life. I remember her sharing with us in an update email, as she was approaching her dad’s last days, she said,
“It is uncomfortable to talk about death, especially when we’re young, showing off great memories on social media, and just living it up. And we should live it up!” Ecclesiastes 5 says that “it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them.” But Ecclesiastes 7 also says: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” This is a wake up call for me. I don’t know exactly how my life will change from this moment on, but at 42, I’m about halfway through life and it is a good lesson in wisdom to know my days are numbered, that life really is short, and that everyone I love will either go to my funeral or I will go to theirs. If I don’t learn and change, then my dad’s painful death is in vain.”
As much as I felt embarrassed by the Christian guy on the mic on Bruinwalk, I do think the message of Christianity does have this wake up call kind of warning to many of us who drift through our days and weeks, with great aspirations and guilty pleasures, even with meaning and purpose, but there is this reality check like Ecclesiastes chapter 1 offers,
“meaningless meaningless. All is meaningless.”
I personally wouldn’t lead with that message, optimistic personality and all, and for the record, biblically, that’s not where it starts. Yes I am going to take a hopeful romantic break before I get back to death, dust, and meaninglessness. The Bible begins with the Creation which is called good, before “the Fall.” Before Original Sin, there was Original Good. Human beings, made in the image of God, to which God called good. How come we don’t talk about that as much when we’re evangelizing?
Okay, back to realism. There is something very compelling and sobering about the reality check of the Christian message. That there is sin. There is “evil,” however we define it. There are limits to humans. That there is suffering and death. I actually think the reason why the Christian message in one sense, is provocative yet widely received in many situations is because it speaks to the stark and dark reality of our world. Yelling into a mic, “You are a sinner” is powerful because we are so entangled in so much, daunting, powerless-evoking, sin and darkness in our world. Coming to terms with that is so freeing! You’re not invincible. You don’t have to be a hero or make something of yourself.
The “heroism” concept is human nature though. Becker says, in The Denial of Death,
“One of the key concepts for understanding man’s urge to heroism is the idea of “narcissism.”
As Erich Fromm has so well reminded us, this idea is one of Freud’s great and lasting contributions. Freud discovered that each of us repeats the tragedy of the mythical Greek Narcissus: we are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves. If we care about anyone it is usually ourselves first of all. As Aristotle somewhere put it:
luck is when the guy next to you gets hit with the arrow…
This narcissism is what keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him. Freud’s explanation for this was that the unconscious does not know death or time: in man’s physicochemical, inner organic recesses he feels immortal (and by he, he means, human beings, all humans, outdated, you get the point). He goes on to talk about the nature of children, their unashamed demands for their wants and needs, which I will tell you that my two year old exerts all his tiny might and power to get my attention, relentlessly and impossible to ignore.
This week I attended our Ash Wednesday service that our Worship and Arts Director Matt Henderson and some members of our community beautifully and thoughtfully curated. At some point, Jenae, who’s a therapist and a yoga instructor, invited us to grab a handful of dirt in our hands and led us through some prompts.
The dirt? It was dirty. As I was holding it in my hand I was reflecting on how much anxiety it brings me when my little girl wants to play with kinetic sand. I hate Kinetic sand. There’s nothing kinetic about it. It gets everywhere. And I don’t know what life trauma or trigger it touches upon but it makes me completely on edge to let her play with sand.
So when Jenae asked us to feel the dirt in our fingers, all I could think was how gross and dirty it was. And then at some point I realized, oh right, the invitation to Ash Wednesday and Lent is that,
“From dust we all come and to dust we return.”
Dang it, that’s going to be me someday, after I die and decompose. It was humbling. And yet, it was also freeing. Like all the ways I worried about things, really, as Ecclesiastes says, nothing mattered. Nothing mattered that much. Or as my husband puts it,
“nobody cares about you as much as you care about you.”
(He’s that realist I like in my life) Which gets at that both heroism of my own self worth and the macro-perspective of the reality that I am just dust.
There’s an equalizer here for all. The text does this with humans and animals,
“human beings and animals share the same fate. One dies just like the other—both have the same life-breath. Humans are no better off than animals”
it says. Which again, is humbling from our human centeredness and human ego. Death is the leveler for all. Our Lent Devotional guide juxtaposes Scripture with the voice of an indigenous leader, Randy Woodley a Cherokee descendant, and he puts it like this:
“In the western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings with, of course, the human being on top – the pinnacle of evolution, the darling creation – and the plant at the bottom. But in native way of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brother of creation.””
I love that our church seeks wisdom from both the scriptures and Christian leaders, which in seminary we called them special revelation, as well as from general revelation, which is in our lived experiences, wisdom of non-codified indigenous voices, which as a woman of color, it is not only in the scholarism of feminist thought that is truth and life for me, but in the daily lived experiences of “uneducated” immigrant, working class, wisdom of a mom, like my own mother that sometimes strikes the greatest chord in me, rather than the smarts of things I heard in the halls of a university.
The Christian wisdom of this liturgical invitation, of six weeks of this, Lent, where we think about our mortality, humility, death, and suffering, before we get to Easter, I think is brilliant–and hard. Lent is hard for me. I much rather do Advent and Christmas, expecting and celebrating. Not this dreadful thing.
But if death and suffering is a leveler, I also have experienced it as deepening and expansion of our life as a container. Our text today says,
“I also thought, Where human beings are concerned, God tests them to show them that they are but animals.”
And to this, in our Lent Guide, Steve writes in the Point of Interest section,
“I have no idea what the author of this text means by God testing us through our mortality… One of those ideas is that maybe God is testing us, or helping us grow, through these challenges. Maybe. But not necessarily, and definitely not always.”
Is God testing us with suffering?
Well, Ecclesiastes, though it is a part of the Holy Bible, says,
“I also thought…”
which is to say, it’s merely an opinion. So it sounds like the writer thinks they are a test from God. Steve says,
“maybe, but not necessarily, and definitely not always.”
I agree with that. Not always, a test. But if you’ve experienced any kind of suffering in your life, it sure is, maybe not a test, but it pushes you.
How low can you go? How deep is the depths of despair? And when you have seen rock bottom, as they say, you can only go up, and the way up is long. Which means, since you’re so so low, since your suffering is so great, your rise from it can only be so so high. Jesus said this once before a sinful woman that I felt deeply in my soul.
“Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”
When I heard this, I thought,
“oh you have no idea how much I love you Jesus.”
You know this in the simplest examples of when you’re sick, and you’re congested and coughing from your chest, it’s hard to eat, it’s hard to sleep, but when you get better, your nose is amazing in its capability to take in breath that is life! You can smell and taste food that is amazing. Your cold has been given away and your love for life has been renewed. You thank the Lord for each breath you take without coughing!
And many of you know this in more complex ways. If you’ve been through bankruptcy, to have a credit line. If you’ve been through a breakup, to find love again. If you’ve experienced homelessness, to just have a bed and a table to sit and eat at. If your child’s been sick or struggling through an especially difficult time, to see them come through on the other side, gratitude upon gratitude upon gratitude is something that no sermon can teach you.
So let us not deny death, or our mortality, or even suffering, because for one thing, it’s a sure and absolute final destiny for us all, but also because at the face of the realities of it all, our heart expands, somehow, I don’t know how, with great hope, greater joy, and greater sense of gratitude at life.
May this Lenten season take you through this annoying knowledgment to Easter when we can genuinely celebrate, not at the denial of death with resurrection, but with clear and well awareness of death and life, both. Let me pray for us.
Our Suffering Christ, God who went through death just like us, take us through our days. In the most mundane of days, even as it feels like just groundhog day, day in day out… would you walk with us, showing us the beautiful and brokenness of this world. Help us through the darkest of our times, and lift our chins up to see the vistas from the mountaintop. Reveal to us there through it all, you are there, with us, even in the nothingness and meaningless of it all, you hold us. Would you help us to there find somehow uninhibited joy, pure joy, we ask you, would you grant us that we pray. Amen.