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"Is it Meaningless or Meaningful?" (07/24/22)

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

Sermon, July 24, 2022

Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC

There is an arts festival going on in Kansas City right now called the Fringe Festival. This is new to me - I only know about it because a friend of mine in Chicago sent me the information with the strong recommendation to see a certain performer. The Fringe Festival seems to be a spattering of visual arts, storytelling, spoken word, one-man-shows, choreography and even improv. The moderately priced shows are scattered at 8 or 10 different venues in KC from last week to next Saturday, and next week I’ve got plans to see a performance called “Meaningless” - which is described as “The most controversial book of the Bible as a live show!” It continues, “see why Ecclesiastes has fascinated everyone from Shakespeare to Samuel Beckett - with revelations of hard-learned and unexpected answers to life’s big questions. Whether Religious or not, you’ll be intrigued by this mystifying 2222ish-year-old text.” (If I’ve intrigued you, there is a showing of this tonight at 6, as well as next Friday and Saturday at 4:30.)

Ecclesiastes is a rare book to preach on. It doesn’t show up in the lectionary often, and for most people there’s only one thing they know from Ecclesiastes - that for every day (turn turn turn) there is a season (turn turn turn). (Yep, the Birds were quoting the bible, in case you hadn’t heard.)

From start to finish, the book of Ecclesiastes declares the futility and meaninglessness of life. Whether it is referring to work or pleasure, wisdom or wealth, power or prestige, entertainment or virility, life or death, the author struggles to find value in it. Solomon is the suspected author of Ecclesiastes, the king who was chosen by God to succeed his father, king David. When faced with the great responsibility of leading the nation, he humbly confessed that he was unable to do so without help from the Lord.

And yet, the book is a meandering of a person who had ‘toiled and labored’ all they could on their own, but in the end calls it all ‘vanity’ and ‘chasing wind’.

According to the author of Ecclesiastes, after all that toiling, we must leave it to those who come after us, and who knows if they be wise or foolish?

As I watched the summer conclusion of the January 6th hearings this week, this two-thousand-two-hundred-22 year old piece of wisdom kept echoing in my head.

We must leave it to those who come after us, and who knows if they be wise or foolish?

Back in 2016 when the former President Trump was elected, as most of the modern ‘Blue’ world (including me) was panicking and near pulling their hair out, I had one liberal friend in Chicago who was reassuring. This guy was really very calm. He admonished us in our panic and said, let the system work. He said, Just wait. Just watch. Let the institutions do what they do.

I really appreciated that calm, steady voice. And as I watched the January 6th hearings - and I watched every single one with rapt attention - I am so very grateful that he was right. After the hearings thus far, I am so relieved, and so heartened, that there are still those in our country who uphold integrity, honesty, and understand their oaths are to the institution of the United States Government rather than an individual - even when they themselves might prefer that individual. I am so thankful that some of the noble statesmanship of public service still survives in this day and age in our Republic. It was scary how close it came to buckling, but Alan was right - the systems held. The institutions did their work. We did not build in vain.

Last fall, as Bryan Williams left his show The 11th Hour on MSNBC, he gave a farewell speech that was poignant even as it sounded an alarm. He started it with,

“The truth is, I’m not a Liberal or a Conservative. I’m an institutionalist. …. I believe in this place…”

I had never heard anyone use that word institutionalist, but after the years we have had, I felt that deeply in my bones. I am also an institutionalist. And part of the reason I am is because of this, the church.

I don’t think you can be engaged in a church and not be an institutionalist - at least, not a church like ours. Perhaps you can go anonymously to a Mega Church where your only responsibility is to show up, sing, and toss a few dollars in the coffers. But you can’t be a longtime member of a church like ours and not be an institutionalist. In order to endure the highs and the lows of church membership in a place like the UCC, you must be an institutionalist. (It’s worth noting here that autocorrect kept trying to change my word institutionalist to institutionalized…which can feel appropriate in church life at times)

We in the UCC believe in governance by the majority. We believe in having a big, wide tent as a denomination, and not forcing anyone to profess to believe exactly the way someone else believes. There are no confessions of dogma in the UCC; we’ve deemed that reasonable people can find inspiration in each other without complete adherence to faith litmus test. We believe that all are welcome and all are capable of contributing to our governance - regardless of age, gender, orientation, physical ability, or education. We give each local church autonomy - autonomy over their finances and missions, their liturgy and worship style, their language and new member procedures, their chosen creeds and their pastoral choices. This allows us to be a denomination that resembles the face of the United States; individuals and institutions with autonomy and diversity coming together to work for a common purpose and consensus government. In fact, it is a point of pride for me that the Congregationalist churches trace their lineage back to the pilgrims who settled this country - and the Pilgrims helped lay the foundation for our style of government.

You see, we all know the story about religious folk who sailed to the newly discovered American continent looking for religious freedom. But there were two ships of zealots that set sail, and those on the Mayflower had to make some adjustments while at sea. William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, told the story of an “epic voyage that is eloquent testimony to the indomitable spirit of those pilgrims who knew themselves ‘not as their own but God’s’”. As with all sea voyages, illness struck, and as I remember it, some passengers in the authority structure died. Others then engaged in “discontented and mutinous speeches” according to Bradford, necessitating an approach to decision making that included all aboard the vessel to achieve compliance. These decisions at sea were resolved by a social contract, called the Mayflower Compact, which is ‘nothing more than a church covenant adopted for civic use’. To quote my textbook,

“the establishment of a ‘civill body politick” based on social contract and not upon the authority of magistrates appointed by the Crown …differentiated the Plymouth Colony from Massachusetts Bay… From the beginning, the Plymouth [Pilgrims] were a covenant-based church. The covenant was the ‘authority’ that founded order in the life of the church.”

It is because those struggles on the ship were reconciled by social contract that the Plymouth Colony, those who became the Congregationalists, were more experienced with practical questions about authority structures and how to live in covenant when they landed in America. And this idea, radical at the time, contributed to that revolutionary American democratic principle of ‘consent of the governed’ by social contract.

So, there you go. Another one of our faith values present in our governmental system that we can be proud of. Church people, especially Congregationalists (and let’s not forget that this is a Congregationalist church, even it it’s not in our title anymore) are perhaps the first American institutionalists. We believe in working together for the common good.

And that, honestly, is part of the reason I’m in ministry. I believe in the church. I believe in the capacity of people to work together to bring goodness to fruition. I believe the in the tenacity of people united in mission. I believe in the process of working through differences of opinion by committee and eventually coming to consensus. I believe that great things are possible when humanity finds a way to cooperate. And I learned those values in church.

This is what’s behind the letters from the Apostle Paul, known as the Epistles. Now, there’s a great divide in biblical appreciation amongst Christians of differing traditions, specifically which parts of the bible we appreciate. We in the mainline traditions tend to spend more of our time on the Gospel, on the life and teachings of Jesus, with some wisdom from the Old Testament thrown in. In the 15 years of my childhood spent in church, I’m not sure I ever studied a letter from the Apostle Paul. But Evangelicals - as I learned during my time in Hastings - spend most of their Sunday sermon lessons on the instructions from Paul as to how to follow Christ, rather than contemplating the nuance and hidden meanings of Jesus’ parables and teachings. Many mainline protestants have difficulty getting past some of the more narrow opinions in Paul’s letters, like how women should be silent in church. I think y’all know how I feel about that.

But when we can look past some of those offensive nuggets in his letters, what we see is how Paul constantly counseled his communities with compassion and wisdom and forgiveness. Paul was the first institutionalist. Paul was the one who was trying to build social covenants of mutual understanding and mutual care. Paul was constantly trying to instill values of respect, and autonomy, and appreciation for others. With calming grace, unending patience, and with steadfastness modeled only after YHWH, Paul channeled his love and his hope for the future into these communications with such intensity that they themselves could almost manifest his vision.

So we can always look to his letters for encouragement. As he says,

My friends, if anyone has transgressed, let us restore that person with a spirit of gentleness. Let us bear one another's burdens, for all must carry their own loads, but not alone. Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. [And] whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all.

In Ecclesiastes, the Hebrew word translated as ‘meaninglessness’ is actually Hevel, and a more literal translation is smoke or vapor. The author of Ecclesiastes seems to be inferring that life is temporary, fleeting, like a wisp of smoke, and mysterious in that it appears to be a solid but when you try to grasp it, there’s nothing there. There is nothing we can hold tight to, and We must leave it to those who come after us, whether they be wise or foolish. And that’s a scary prospect.

But while we can’t ensure the exact parameters that we hand down will be sustained, we can instill the values and guideposts of the institution with expectation that the foundation will endure, as it has since those first Congregationalists on the Mayflower. We can continue to teach the concepts of a social contract and make it stronger in all parts of our lives. We can model cooperation, collaboration and reasonable consensus to our younger generations, so that they may know, inherently, how to work well with others. May we continue to work toward the health our institutions that support the common good throughout all our lives and the life of the church. Amen and Amen.

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