Pure Imagination

 Inspired by Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; 3:1-17

Have you ever watched a movie and have it go right over your head? Or, as soon as the credits start rolling you just think to yourself, “What in the world did I just watch?” I had that experience with the movie “mother!” It stars Jennifer Lawrence. Has anyone seen that? That’s ok, I don’t recommend it. Not that it’s a bad movie, in fact, I thought it was a great movie, that it was wonderfully acted and made. However, it was a very disturbing movie and when it was over, I was left wondering not only what I just watched but why did I just have to endure that? In a nutshell, for those of you who haven’t seen it, Jennifer Lawrence plays a mother who throughout the entire movie is harassed and assaulted, in every way imaginable, with no help from anyone including her husband. 

After she and her baby both die a horrific death, she wakes up in her bedroom, looking different, but having to relive the whole experience once again in a never-ending cycle. Now, in spite of there being clues along the way, I had to look up what I had just watched, and apparently, the movie was about our exploitation and abuse of Mother Earth. Yeah, whoosh, right over my head! Without help, I don’t know how long that would have taken me to get, or I would have just given up thinking that was two hours I was never getting back. It was simply beyond my imagination. When I found out its real meaning, I wasn’t disappointed, I thought it was brilliant, and if it hadn’t been so disturbing, I would have watched it again with the new eyes and ears of my new understanding. 

Our Bible reading for today is a third selection from the Bible’s wisdom literature, this one from Ecclesiastes. If Proverbs was written by a wiser middle-aged Solomon, then the ancient rabbis used to say that Ecclesiastes was written by an old bitter Solomon, long jaded by a long-lived life. Think Walter Matthau from Grumpy Old Men or Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm. This author was wise, sure, but just like in our youth, wisdom can easily come off the tracks in this author’s old age. Today we read two selections from Ecclesiastes, from chapters one and three, and they give us a good taste of what this short little book is about. Let’s just say, we don’t catch the author at their finest hour. If this was a friend of yours talking like this, your first question would be, “Are you ok? Let’s grab a coffee and chat.” 

Clearly, they are not ok. Though we may not know who exactly wrote this, we can surmise that this was someone of great power and experience, someone who has seen the world and all that it has to offer, and is reflecting on what they have seen now that their life is almost over. The author has come to some conclusions, and they are not very positive ones! I want to pause here for just a minute and caution you from the urge to make everything ok for this writer. I think it’s in our nature to not only try and fix other people’s challenges or conclusions they’ve made, but also to try and explain it, make sense of it, make it fit into the nice, neat, safe little boxes that our minds have constructed. Especially when dealing with a Biblical author who is writing some disturbing things! 

But also when in the presence of a friend or family member who is going through something. However, there is something to be said for just sitting in it with them. Allowing them, and ourselves, to express our disappointment, even if it’s in God, to express our anger, our sarcasm, our bitterness, even if it’s directed at God, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even if it’s contradictory to everything they, or we, have said before. It might take some serious restraint, but there is a hidden power in just sitting in it with them. All we can hope is that there is someone willing to sit in it with us as well, if need be. This author is really going through something, and by first just sitting in it with them, you are thereby saving a seat next to you, when you need someone to sit in it with you. By first honoring this author’s challenges, you honor your own. 

But this author, geez, it sounds as if they have lost something, doesn’t it? Was it hope? Faith? Their wisdom? It even sounds like they just don’t care anymore, about anything! The first words are, “Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher, perfectly pointless. Everything is pointless.” The Teacher, by the way, is who the book is named after. In Hebrew it’s not called Ecclesiastes but Koheleth, which can mean the teacher, or speaker, or even preacher. And you probably know that opening line as “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Pointless is probably a better translation, but meaningless is even better than that. This poor writer has concluded that everything is meaningless. After all the hard work of life, the writer has noticed that nothing changes. 

Life is just this endless cycle of repeated patterns, and no matter how much or how little someone does, it never changes. “There’s nothing new under the sun” the author says. Here’s the thing, I don’t think the underlying issue here is a loss of hope. Oh they may have lost that too but I don’t think that’s the core of the problem. Nor do I think it’s a loss of faith or wisdom. What’s been lost by this author is an imagination. Bear with me. Did you notice how black and white their observations were? Birth and death. Uprooting and planting. Crying and laughing. Mourning and dancing. That whole list is full of things that are on opposite ends of their spectrum, but the author is not seeing them as a spectrum, but as if that’s all there is to life. But we know there is so much in between, so much gray to life than that. 

And I don’t know about you but I have shed tears of sadness and laughed at the same time! I have also inadvertently planted something while I was uprooting something else only to find out when that something sprouted. Likewise, I guarantee you that the parents of a wedding couple who are dancing at the reception are also mourning the loss of their once baby who is now going off to make a life of their own without them. And we who dwell on this side of the cross, we people of death and resurrection, we know that death and birth happen simultaneously all the time. But all these things aren’t so obvious are they? They aren’t always seen with the naked eye. But take some imagination in order to really see them, to see the grays of life. But oh the love and grace and richness you will see! 

With just a little imagination, you will see what makes life worth living, generation after generation, even though not a whole lot really changes. Or in the words of Willy Wonka, “There is no life I know, to compare with pure imagination. Living there, you'll be free if you truly wish to be. If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There's nothing to it.” Now, I could have ended my sermon right there, but, speaking of changing the world, I think a lot of the world's problems are caused by a lack of imagination. For instance, it takes no imagination to see an unhoused person on the street and think they’re lazy. But it doesn’t take much to begin to ask questions like, I wonder how she got to that point in her life? What led to this? 

It takes no imagination for a white person to see a black man and begin to feel some apprehension or fear, and maybe even assume he’s up to no good. But just a little bit of imagination could not only convince that white person that they have no reason to suspect anything, but may even get that person to begin to explore where those feelings and thoughts came from. It takes no imagination to ask a brown person where they come from. But with some imagination, you might think, I bet that person gets asked that all the time, even though they’re just as “American” as I am. And with one more dash of imagination, you might even ask yourself, “I wonder what that feels like, to be asked that all the time, in your own home country.” 

Like watching a movie that goes over your head like a fighter jet, or in the case of this author, after watching so much of life and their world, and it still not making sense or seeming pointless, meaningless. Don’t despair. Sit with Koheleth for a bit. Take your time. But don’t stay there. Ask yourself how much of your imagination you are using. Is it even turned on? When something doesn’t make sense to me, that’s usually the case. But don’t just do it for your own benefit, but for the benefit of the world, as you see the world, and the people therein, with new eyes, the eyes of your God-given imagination, giving you the power to pass on the love, and grace, and richness of life, that have been opened up for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.


What the World Needs Now is Wisdom, Sweet Wisdom

2nd of 4 Week Series on Biblical Wisdom Literature

Inspired by Proverbs 8:1-11, 22-36

What is wisdom? Boy, that sounds like the beginning of the most boring sermon you’ve ever heard, doesn’t it? I hope it is not! But we’ll see. However, writing a sermon in the COVID fog that I have been in, I had no idea what might come out of my brain! I can only hope that the Holy Spirit has fog lights. So, Sarah started a four-week series on Biblical wisdom literature with you last week. And I honestly have no idea how much introductory info she gave you on that topic so forgive me if I end up repeating something she already shared with you. It’s difficult for me to not give you any of it though because the books that we are reading from are not usually given much attention, and so to have this opportunity is very exciting for a Bible geek like myself! But I’ll try not to bore you with a bunch of textbook mumbo jumbo. Well, not too much anyway! 

Biblical wisdom literature contains five books: Job and Psalms, each of which I’ve done a series on in the past, as well as the three books we will read selections from over these four weeks, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Of the three I’d say Proverbs gets the most attention, at least as far as personal study or devotion go, but none of them really get much attention in worship. And to be honest with you, seminary does not teach much on any of these books either. Unless they offered a class specifically on these, you’d be lucky to get one class session on any of them. Which is why I jumped at the chance to do this series with you! I’m always up to learn new things, but learning new things with you all is just icing on the cake! 

As far as authorship goes, it’s the same old story. These books were probably not written by who we’ve been taught they were, in this case, King Solomon, David’s son. Oh, some of the content I’m sure, especially from Proverbs, was preserved from Solomon, but like most Bible books, they were written and compiled each by multiple authors. However, there is an interesting story that I found helpful that the ancient rabbis used to tell about these three books. They would say that Song of Songs was written by a young amorous Solomon, Proverbs was written by a much wiser middle-aged Solomon, and Ecclesiastes was written by a bitter old Solomon. Though their authorship was a bit off, I liked how they gave a tone to each of these books, to help us approach each differently, because I think you’ll see that they were mostly right. 

Proverbs often comes across like just a collection of wise sayings whose chapters sometimes follow a theme, and sometimes are just random one-offs thrown together. However, in this eighth chapter that I just read from, we get something a little different. It’s not a list of wise sayings. And it’s not a story either. What we get is a voice. A new character enters the scene, who has come to be known as Lady Wisdom. Sounds very Arthurian, doesn’t it? But there are no swords in stones here, this character is even bigger than that! You might be surprised, even a bit impressed, that they would make this character a woman. Before you give them too much credit, you should know that wisdom literature was directed at young men. And so, to attract them to these teachings, wisdom was often portrayed as an attractive woman. 

Regardless of the intentions, today I think we can and should celebrate any powerful, loving, female voice that we can get our ears on, especially when it comes to scripture. We are thankfully not obligated to use a female voice the way the author or original readers did. So, as we take a look at this character, there are three questions that I’d like us to explore: What is wisdom? Who is wisdom? And why is she so important? Alright, what is wisdom? And again, my apologies if Sarah already went over this last week. How do we define wisdom? Ok, I hate when pastors do this but sometimes you just have to! The dictionary definition of the word wisdom is, “having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” Now, far be it from me to disagree with the holy dictionary, so I’ll let Lady Wisdom do that. 

Let’s talk about what wisdom is not. Wisdom is not a good education. Some of the wisest people I’ve known in my life didn’t have a high school diploma. Something I’ve heard often is, wisdom isn’t just about having book smarts but street smarts. However, I’m not so sure Lady Wisdom would agree with that either. I think she’d say it’s more than just street smarts too. It’s more than just having common sense. Here’s another one, wisdom doesn’t mean sinlessness or perfection. In fact, wisdom can often cause you to sin, like when you have to choose between the lesser of two evils. Wisdom also doesn’t mean playing it safe, because wisdom often causes us to take risks. And lastly, but this is by no means an exhaustive list, wisdom doesn’t guarantee a good life, particularly by society's standards. 

So what is it!? Wisdom, in the biblical sense, is knowledge, combined with common sense, bound by love—whether that be love for yourself, for those around you, or for strangers—knowledge combined with common sense, bound by love. We’re gonna circle back to that. Let’s tackle the second question. Who is Wisdom? It’s hard to say but that hasn’t stopped scholars from trying. Some say she is the literary personification of a concept. Others say that she is one of the many voices or manifestations of God found throughout scripture. Some say she was Christ, others say she was the Holy Spirit, and others say she is God. I’ll let you decide, as any of those answers have merit. What I think will help us explore who she is though, is to focus on what she is doing in this passage. 

A narrator begins the chapter by telling us that Wisdom cries out to us, signifying not only a yearning for a relationship with us, but also that she is the initiator of that relationship. The narrator goes on to say she does this from any place that we can hear, including by the city gates. Not a minor detail because who else is known for trying to get people’s attention at the city gates? Prophets and prostitutes—speaking to both the divine and alluring nature of Lady Wisdom. Then it quickly switches to first person and we hear her voice directly. After trying her hardest to convince us to listen to her because of how important she can be for us, she launches into a lecture on where she comes from, or should I say, when she comes from, from before the beginning of creation. 

Everything we know, has been touched by, influenced by, co-created by her. Which brings us to our final question of the day, “Why is she so important?” Well, if the fact that she represents knowledge combined with common sense bound by love, and that all we know has been co-created by her, isn’t enough to seek and follow her, she gives us one more reason at the end. She says, “Those who find me find life…And those who hate me love death.” I typically don’t succumb to absolutes like that but I gotta be honest, it’s kind of refreshing to hear her be so black and white with us. Life, or death, you choose, there’s no in-between. And though life is surely full of gray, we also know that we’re faced with black and white, right and wrong decisions all the time. 

And how we decide at each of those instances, is dependent upon whether we have sought and found Lady Wisdom and chosen to follow her, or not. Will we choose the way of knowledge combined with common sense and bound by love, the way of life, or the way of death? Look, I’m all about education, but education alone is not what will make this planet a better place to live in for future generations. And I’m all about good ol’ fashioned common sense, but common sense alone ain’t gonna do it either. 

Theologian Craig Koester once said, “Doing God's work is what we do with the rest of our lives outside of church, and Wisdom literature is deeply invested in that.” And so we are called, from the city gates, to seek and follow Lady Wisdom, thereby becoming cocreators with her. Creating life, wherever we can, whenever we can, in a world filled with so many kinds of death—with our knowledge, combined with our common sense, bound by love—love for ourselves, love for those we surround ourselves with, and love for the stranger. Seek wisdom, my friends! Not just for your sake, but for the sake of the world, and generations to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.