Sermon - 31st July 2016
The Jesus Way
Scripture - Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
When coming along to church, have you ever wondered how the Bible texts are chosen for a service? The answer, in short, is the Revised Common Lectionary, which was drawn up and published in 1994 by a collaboration of most Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic. It is a three-year cycle of readings spanning 156 Sundays which sets for each Sunday two Old Testament readings, a Psalm, a reading from one of the four Gospels and a reading from one of the other books in the New Testament, so that over the three-year cycle, people coming to church will experience a full range of the Bible’s core teaching.
The preacher will then choose which reading or readings on which to base the sermon and the theme of the service. Sometimes, we do vary from the Lectionary to cover particular themes: for example, in January, we looked at those texts, both positive and negative, relating to us as LGBT people; and, in September this year, we will be having a series of sermons on the topic of prayer.
Today is unique in the Lectionary calendar. It is the only one in the 156 Sundays when there is a reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which was our first reading, and indeed its contents are somewhat unusual! From the description of himself, the author of the book is held to be King Solomon, the son of David, the great King of Israel. King Solomon is known in popular history for three things: his wealth, his wisdom and his many wives! His most well-known act of wisdom was when two women were brought before him in a dispute as to who was the mother of a child.
Despite its obscurity in the church’s Sunday lectionary, some parts of the book of Ecclesiastes are extremely well know. In popular culture, in 1965, the pop group “The Byrds” released their single “Turn! Turn! Turn”, setting part of Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 to music.
Part of Chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes is often read at weddings, where preachers will often speak of the couple being stronger together (v.9), and the importance of God in their shared life, where “a rope made of three cords is hard to break.” (v.12)
Perhaps the most famous of all the quotes from Ecclesiastes is from Chapter 8: “a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry”.
The Book of Ecclesiastes is certainly a strange one, put into the category of “Wisdom Literature” in the Old Testament. The author is writing as an old man with his life largely behind him, taking stock of the world as he has experienced it between the horizons of birth and death. He reflects on all aspects of humanity, human wisdom and enterprise. Certainly, as King of Israel, Solomon had riches and power beyond our imagining, and listening as we have to this extract from Ecclesiastes, it can seem negative and rather depressing: “It is useless, useless, said the Philosopher. Life is useless, all useless.” (v.2)
The word used in the Hebrew text is “hebel”, and it is a difficult word to translate. Here are some ways it has been translated: “useless” (Good News Bible); “meaningless” (New International Version); “futile” (New English Translation); however, most English translations render this word as “vanity”. The French translation we use, Segond 21, uses “comble de l’inconsistance” – “height of inconsistency”.
The Singaporean theologian Choon-Leong Seow, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee said this:
“’Hebel’ refers to anything that is superficial, ephemeral, insubstantial, incomprehensible, enigmatic, inconsistent, or contradictory. Something that is ‘hebel’ cannot be grasped or controlled. It may refer to something that one encounters or experiences for only a moment, but it cannot be grasped either physically nor intellectually.”
I think we can all identify with this description in moments and aspect of our own lives. And the fact that ‘hebel’ is used in parallel with the image "chasing the wind" further illustrates our inability to grab hold of life, which has the nagging tendency to slip through our fingers!
The latter part of today’s reading from Ecclesiastes comes from Chapter 2, and King Solomon was reflecting on his life’s work as king. Like many of us, he was uncertain of the future, a future when he would no longer be around. If you have children, you will almost certainly consider what sort of a world they will inherit once we are gone.
The Revised Common Lectionary has sadly bypassed Ecclesiastes, except for today’s brief reading; and despite the overwhelmingly depressing outlook from this one set passage, the overall message of the Book is a positive one, giving much wisdom and advice on all aspects of our lives - some practical, some moral - not only for us as individuals, but for the world in its communities and countries. I would recommend you read it all. Solomon was also certainly an advocate for social justice!
Here are some examples:
“Don't be surprised when you see that the government oppresses the poor and denies them justice and their rights. Every official is protected by someone higher, and both are protected by still higher officials.” (5:8)
“…the best thing we can do is eat and drink and enjoy what we have worked for during the short life that God has given us; this is our fate. Since God has allowed us to be happy, we will not worry too much about how short life is.” (5:18,20)
“God made us plain and simple, but we have made ourselves very complicated.” (7:29)
“I have always said that wisdom is better than strength, but no one thinks of the poor as wise or pays any attention to what they say… Wisdom does more good than weapons…” (9:16,18a)
“Dead flies can make a whole bottle of perfume stink, and a little stupidity can cancel out the greatest wisdom.” (10:1)
“When you are too lazy to repair your roof, it will leak, and the house will fall in.” (10:18)
“So remember your Creator while you are still young.” (12:1a)
“There is no end to the writing of books, and too much study will wear you out.” (12:12)
At the end of his book, however, Solomon The Wise saves his best advice to the very end: “After all this, there is only one thing to say: Have reverence for God, and obey his commands, because this is all that we were created for.” (12:13)
And that brings us to our reading from the New Testament, from St Paul’s letter to the young church in Colossae, located in what is now modern Turkey. It was a large town on the important West-East trading route.
Paul’s reason for writing the letter was that things were going wrong in that young church, and its people were being led astray. The church was getting itself wrapped up in issues such as what foods Christians should and should not eat, whether the men should be circumcised, personal purity, which days were more holy than others, and even the worship of angels!
In short, the young church in Colossae had lost its focus on Jesus Christ, and Paul was writing to them to bring them back to the Jesus Way, just as Solomon wrote to bring the people of his time to the God Way.
The Colossian church was focused on earthly matters, and in many ways, parts of the church today, despite its 2000-year age, experience and alleged acquired wisdom, has lost its focus on Jesus Christ. Much of the church is preoccupied with human sexuality. The voices within the African churches against lesbian and gay people, and the outworking of their views in many African countries, are the very reason many of you are here today! Even though such hate-mongers might try to use Scripture selectively against lesbian and gay people, they need to hear again Colossians 3:8: “But now you must get rid of all these things: anger, passion, and hateful feelings. No insults or obscene talk must ever come from your lips.” The African churches’ homophobic rants are hateful and insulting. St Paul writes that these have no place in the Jesus Way.
Today’s reading from Colossians concludes (v.11) with St Paul’s firm and resolute statement about the equality of all with no divisions in the Jesus Way. In the Jesus Way, non-Jews and Jews are equal. (The word “barbarians” used by St Paul refers to non-Greeks; the word “savages” is actually Scythians, an ancient nomadic people.) St Paul is saying that in the Jesus Way, these so-called “barbarians” and “savages” are equal. Slavery was common-place in the ancient world, and St Paul setting them as equals to “free men” in the Jesus Way would have made for very shocking words, as they were read out to the Colossian church.
In another letter, one to the young church in Galatia, St Paul wrote something very similar, talking of how we are all equal in the Jesus Way. The gay theologian Thomas Bohache wrote:
“the Christian message, indeed the very integrity of the gospel, depended upon universality and inclusivity – the welcoming into God’s realm of all people through Jesus Christ”. (In: “A Queer Bible Commentary”, p.662)
Maybe if St Paul were writing this passage today, I would like to think he might have gone out of his way to add the words, taking Galatians 3 and Colossians 3 together: “As a result, there is no longer any distinction between Gentiles and Jews, male or female, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarians, savages, slaves, and free, gay and straight, but Christ is all, Christ is in all.”
Now despite St Paul’s absolute and clear declaration of inclusion, he does talk about how we should conduct our lives. Just as King Solomon in his book of Ecclesiastes did not mince his words, St Paul is equally forthright about personal conduct.
Firstly, he set us a goal, someone on Whom to focus: Jesus. He goes on to describe what behaviour that it is that will set us apart as people on the Jesus Way. All of us face ideas, desires and challenges. St Paul does mention “sexual immorality, indecency and lust”, but as LGBT Christians, we must not fall into reading these through the eyes of those Christians who do not see the all-inclusive nature of the Gospel. Meaningless, loveless sexual encounters are not good for anyone, irrespective of the sexual orientation: that is the message that St Paul has.
About ‘greed’ in a commentary on this passage in Colossians, the American theologian John Shelley from Furman University wrote::
“Our forebears, on the other hand, including Ambrose, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, and Calvin, had much to say about greed. Greed is not simply a craving for money, material goods, and honours; it is the inordinate desire for precisely those goods that the culture has determined bestow status and privilege on their owner. Greed is, therefore, idolatry, as the writer says, because greed deceives one into overvaluing finite goods, thinking that this house, this car, or this promotion can satisfy the soul's deepest longings. Greed is yet more insidious, often disguising itself as prudent planning for the future, like the rich fool in Jesus' parable (Luke 12:13-21). Greed destroys community and spawns other vices: oppression, exploitation, and self-deception. As Jesus repeatedly warns his followers, "You cannot serve God and wealth" (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13). [Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 3: Proper 13-16]
These are messages that we as LGBT Christians need to take to the wider LGBT community. How many gay people do we know who find their lives empty: the random sexual encounters and the lovely homes, expensive cars and shiny gadgets a-plenty.
Finally, St Paul speaks about change. Today’s readings have all been about how we live out our lives. Going the Jesus Way is not a one-time happening: indeed, like every journey, it does begin with one step in a new direction, but St Paul tells us that in becoming a Christian, we have “put on the new self” and “This is the new being which God, [our] Creator, is constantly renewing in His own image, in order to bring [us] to a full knowledge of Himself.” (3:10)
Each day for us is a new day, one more step along The Jesus Way: “Your real life is Christ and when he appears, then you too will appear with him and share his glory!” (3:4)