by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
19 March 2023
Today we conclude our Lenten worship series Words of Wisdom. Each week we’ve drawn from a different Wisdom Book in the Bible. Looking in each for what theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw describes as rhythms of the spiritual life.
Today finds us in the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is one of the strangest books in the Bible. The author takes an often negative, even cynical view, counter to the testimony recorded in many other books.
First, a note about the title of the book. “Ecclesiastes” is a strange English translation of the Hebrew title, which is the word Qohelet. That word is sometimes translated “teacher” or “preacher.” But if we were to use the most literal translation it would be “She who assembles.” Yes, it is, in fact, a feminine word in the Hebrew. Creating the tantalizing possibility that this book just might be written by a female sage.
Today I will be reading from the magisterial translation of the book by the great Hebrew scholar Robert Alter:
Back in the now faraway summer of 1980, the workers in the Gdansk, Poland shipyard had had enough. Enough of forty years of political oppression. Enough of a stalled economy. Enough of the boredom of life under the Communist regime. The workers were inspired by the visit the year before of John Paul II, the new Polish pope. The Pope's ability to move the people demonstrated the irrelevance of the government. And so the Gdansk shipyard strike began.
The strike spread to other workers in Gdansk and then all over Poland. A national strike was building. One electrician, a devout Catholic named Lech Walesa, scaled the shipyard walls in order to become part of the strike.
The Communist regime responded. It first tried to end the original strike by offering conditions to the workers that the workers might accept. But the government was caught off guard when the local strikers rejected the offer. Even if their original demands were met, now the strike had expanded and was bigger than them. Now those shipyard workers were standing in solidarity with those on strike around the nation. All the workers’s needs should be met.
So, a movement was born -- an independent trade union with a long official name but the nickname of “Solidarity.” The new movement claimed that the people should "carry each other's burdens." Altars and crosses were erected. Father Jerzy Popieluszko became chaplain for the union, holding masses in the shipyard. [some information from Secrets of Solidarity by Patricia B. Bozell, National Review, 19 February 1988 and Wikipedia].
On December 13, 1981 at 2 a.m. the secret police arrested thousands of Solidarity activists. The military secured the borders, declared martial law, and proceeded to invade their own country. The regime took over the media and declared a "state of war" in which the government was acting for "national salvation." [David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb].
In the years that followed the crackdown, Solidarity went underground with its own press, universities, and plays. Many of the leaders were jailed. Father Popieluszko, who continued to preach against the human rights abuses of the government, was kidnapped and brutally murdered.
Finally, in 1989, the government began to negotiate again with Solidarity. By August a power-sharing deal was in place. And you might know what happened from there. The winds of change blew from Warsaw throughout Eastern Europe. By November of that year the Berlin Wall came down. In December, Lech Walesa, the electrician and former political prisoner, became President of a democratic Poland, and within two more years the Soviet Union would cease to exist.
This world-changing movement for liberty and democracy was deeply rooted in a theological notion of solidarity. A central Christian idea that God has invited us to share in the very life of God and along with that, to live in solidarity with all creation.
The laborers of the Gdansk shipyard succeeded in a world-wide revolution because of their faith and their commitment to one another. Their insistence on sharing burdens and seeking the good of the larger movement of the people. Father Popieluszko may have been martyred, but his death was part of something far larger. He proved that solidarity is more powerful than death itself.
According to theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw, the Book of Ecclesiastes reflects a time when traditional institutions are breaking down, when people are skeptical of government and society. It was also a period of economic insecurity, when people felt like even if they worked hard, they could never get ahead. It was a time of uncertainty and disillusionment. Sounds timely, right?
I just happened to be teaching Ecclesiastes in our Wednesday night class back in the spring of 2020. We completed the study over Zoom. It was pretty much the perfect book to be reading and discussing at that time.
Last year, during Omaha’s Fringe Festival, I attended a performance of Ecclesiastes at the Blackstone Theatre, just a couple of blocks from here. It was a one man show, in which he acted out the entire book. It was marvelous, thought-provoking theatre. At times hilarious. Watching it performed live made me think that’s probably the best way to encounter this book.
Ecclesiastes is the most cynical and skeptical book in the Bible, as if it was written by an existentialist philosopher. And one with an absurdist, comic streak.
The main point of the entire book is that pretty much everything we humans try to do is vanity. Not vanity as in an over-confident sense of how pretty we are, but vanity as in futile. The Hebrew word is hevel and conveys a cluster of English concepts, among them absurdity, insubstantiality, ephemerality, and elusiveness. The great translator Robert Alter translates the word “mere breath” and clarifies that this isn’t the life-breath identified with the spirit, but the “waste-product of breathing.” He describes it as “the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day.”
Alter uses the phrase “herding the wind” to convey the futility of the notion “everything is vanity.” The Book of Ecclesiastes marches through most human pursuits—riches, fame, power, education, work—and finds each of them meaningless, futile, like trying to herd the wind.
So, what do we do? If pretty much everything is futile, what wisdom does Ecclesiastes offer us for how to live?
Elsewhere in the book she emphasizes enjoying life the best we can, particularly the little and everyday things like a good meal and a good drink. But in this passage we’ve read today, Ecclesiastes offers “modest forms of creaturely solidarity.” Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, Ecclesiastes’ “response to oppression, envy, and selfishness is to commend concrete forms of human solidarity: working together, lifting one another up, keeping one another warm, defending one another.” We are called to comfort people, to advocate on their behalf, to relieve suffering.
Whereas the Hebrew prophets loudly and publicly denounced the social, political, and economic injustices of their day, Ecclesiastes offers instead what Pauw calls “quiet resilience.” She suggests that Ecclesiastes might be the perfect book for contemporary Christian communities who find themselves dealing with broken political institutions and threatening laws. Ecclesiastes shows how we continue to resist, by fostering solidarity.
This is Holy Week. We begin with children singing and palms waving and then move through a challenge to the political powers that be, their violent reaction, betrayal, through pain to death, then darkness and silence, all before we rise again in glory on Easter morning.
The movements of this week, and our emotional responses to them, parallel experiences in our own lives. The yearly activity of moving through these stories is part of our formation as faithful followers of Jesus, so that we can learn how to respond to the parallel moments in our own lives with faith.
And another thing we learn as we worship together over these days is that we support one another through the darkness and celebrate with one another through the joys. That we make this journey by joining together.
And so the sixth and final rhythm of life attuned to the Spirit is joining, in particular how we join hands with one another in solidarity and support. As Pauw writes, “Life in the Spirit is life that is opened toward the other.”
One way to view the entire Biblical story is that it is about joining—about bringing people together, about creating community, about bridging human divisions.
And so the six rhythms of the wise life we’ve explored—making do and making new, giving, longing, suffering, rejoicing, and joining are all practices that attune us to God and help us to lead rich and full human lives.
Amy Plantinga Pauw summarizes what we’ve learned this Lent:
As creator, God gives human creatures a lifelong vocation to pursue wisdom. Human wisdom is patient, attentive discernment of the character and quality of life as God has given it. Human beings flourish not by evading or overcoming the ambiguities of their finite and contingent life as creatures, but by recognizing and coming to terms with them and by seeing the opportunities of this creaturely life as God’s gracious gift.