Shuck and Jive

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Life is a Verb--A Sermon

Life is a Verb
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 26, 2011

Selections from Ecclesiastes
Lloyd Geering, Such is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), 1:1; 1:16; 2:4-9a; 2:11; 2:22-24, pp. 171-192.

The Words of the Proclaimer, son of David, king in Jerusalem.
“Fast-fleeting,” says the Proclaimer. “Impermanent!
Everything dissolves into nothingness.”

I said to myself, “Look! I’ve greatly increased in wisdom;
I’ve surpassed all who lived in Jerusalem before me.
My mind has absorbed a vast amount of knowledge and

I did things on a grand scale.
I built myself mansions and I planted myself vineyards.
I laid out for myself gardens and parks
and planted in them every kind of fruit tree.
I made myself reservoirs of water
to irrigate the orchard then sprouting with trees.
I acquired for myself slaves and servant-girls
even though I already had a large household
and already possessed cattle, sheep and goats
more numerous than all my Jerusalem forbears had owned.
I amassed for myself such treasures of silver and gold
as only kings and nations can boats.
I acquired men and women singers,
and what delights all men most—mistresses galore!
And so I grew great, surpassing all who had lived before me in

And yet, (since my wisdom remained with me)
when I surveyed all that my hands had done,
all that I had struggled to achieve,
everything was as futile as chasing after the wind.
I had made no gain at all in this world.

What comes to people for all the hard work and mental stress
their occupation has force them to endure in this world?
For all of their days bring pain and grief;
even at night their minds get no rest. This too is futile.
The best that any of us can do
is to eat and drink and enjoy ourselves in our work.

It is summertime! A new season is a chance to start afresh. When we are intentional about observing the seasons we get to start over four times a year.

This is a new season. For the past couple of years I have been designing our worship services around the seasons, Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. We have been attaching to each season a path from Creation Spirituality.

The path for summer is the way of awe and wonder. In the Latin, it is the via positiva. The three other paths are the way of letting go, the way of creativity, and the way compassionate action. Theologian Matthew Fox, says that these paths are not ladders to climb but spirals to dance.

I have to say a little about Matthew Fox. I have had the honor of meeting him a couple of times and hearing him speak. I am impressed with him. He is a prolific and creative writer. He is an Episcopalian priest because he was kicked out of the Roman Catholic priesthood for promoting heretical views.

His 1983 book,
Original Blessing, which is an introduction to Creation Spirituality, put him on the wrong side of the church. He challenged the notion of original sin. Fox’s innovation was this: rather than think of ourselves as born into original sin we should think of ourselves as born into original blessing.

That may sound innocent enough. However, when you unravel original sin, (that is the notion that we are all born sinful because of Adam and Eve) then the whole theological superstructure crumbles.
  • If there no original sin, there is no need for punishment, so we don’t need hell.
  • If we don’t have hell we don’t need anyone to save us from hell, such as Christ dying on the cross for our sins.
  • If we don’t need Christ dying for our sins to save us from hell, then we don’t need the church’s sacraments (that is Christ’s presence) to keep that salvation machine going.
  • Before you know it the church is out of business.
You can’t have that. So Matthew Fox was invited to leave the Roman Catholic Church. And he has been doing his heretical thing ever since.

Heresy comes from the Greek word that means choice. The heretic chooses for himself or herself what to believe. The conversation goes like this:
Here is what you must believe.
I don’t believe all of that.
You must believe it.
I choose to believe this instead.
Then you are a heretic. You will burned at the stake at dusk.
The church has done that. It once had power to do that. The modern era, the Enlightenment, was a response to this power and control. The modern era encourages freedom of thought and freedom to choose. In that sense, in the modern era, we are all heretics. We all choose. If we were all examined regarding our doctrine today, the church would be lighting up the sky burning heretics day and night. It is really an anachronism to even talk about such a thing as heresy today. Ideas change so quickly, it is impossible to even keep up.

Old habits do die hard. And our religious institutions still cling to the notion that to be a Christian you need to believe certain things and not believe other things (even as Christians don’t even agree on what those things are). It is helpful to look at our tradition and see that it is far more diverse than it is often portrayed. This includes the Bible itself.

I thought since it is summer, the season of awe, wonder, and blessing, I would honor our heretics by celebrating the most heretical book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes.

I invite you to take home a worship guide for the summer or download it from our website. It will provide the themes for the summer. We are always looking for creative input. If you have a poem, song, dance, a meditation, a children’s sermon, that you think might be of interest, do not be bashful.

A helpful friend in working through the Book of Ecclesiastes is another heretic, Lloyd Geering. There is a documentary about Lloyd Geering’s life that you can watch on Youtube. It is called “The Last Western Heretic.” Geering is a Presbyterian minister in New Zealand. He was tried for heresy in the 1960s. It was a public deal. The trial was televised. He was tried for disturbing the peace of the church by writing that he didn’t believe that Jesus rose physically from the dead. He was acquitted.

The larger story is seen in the title of the documentary, “The Last Western Heretic.” The title implies that we don’t do that anymore. Trying people for heresy is no longer a serious practice. The ideas that Geering brought forth are becoming more and more accepted. Views of the Bible, the person of Jesus, cosmology, God, and so on, have been changing in large part because we view the universe differently than we did in previous times.

Some religious organizations are slower to embrace this reality than others. The truth is dawning on institutions (and the authorities who run them) that if they don't catch up they will lose influence and become little more than antiquities dealers.

There is however, a hunger for spirituality and meaning.
  • What does it mean to be a human being?
  • What does it mean to be an Earthling?
  • Who am I?
  • What am I here for?
  • What can I do that matters?
  • What is happiness?
  • How do I cope with suffering?
  • Who are we as a species?
  • What are we doing to our home?
  • What choices can I make that will make life more fulfilling for me and for others?
  • What is a just and compassionate life?
  • How can we live sustainably with Earth?
Those are just a sampling of the great questions that we are asking ourselves. We are finding resources for those questions in many places. We are finding resources from secular sources, from traditional religious sources (including other traditions than the one we are most familiar), from esoteric spiritual sources, all over. People are finding that they can give themselves permission to form their own answers to these questions.

They are heretics. God love ya.

I entitled this sermon, “Life is a Verb” to emphasize this search as ongoing and active. We don’t necessarily arrive at the answers to our questions, recite the creed, and go on with our business. Instead many of us keep asking questions because Life is not static. Life is not satisfied by a creed. Life is a verb.

Lloyd Geering’s latest book is a conversation with the author of Ecclesiastes. The book is called Such is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes. Geering pretends to go back in time and speak to the author of this book.

He has Ecclesiastes respond to Geering’s questions in Ecclesiastes’ own words. Geering also provides his own translation of
Ecclesiastes that is very readable and insightful. He has a conversation in which he seeks to understand Ecclesiastes from his world and seeks to find points of connection with ours and to recognize where there is not a connection.

I am going to follow Geering’s chapter guidelines for these eight sermons during the summer. Some of the questions Geering explores with Ecclesiastes are
  • What do you mean by “God”?
  • Is life unfair?
  • Is death the end of us?
  • Is it chance or purpose?
  • Why search for wisdom?
Today I am setting it up and asking the first question, “Who is Ecclesiastes?”

Ecclesiastes is a small book in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is twelve chapters. Ecclesiastes comes from ecclesia, a word we associate with church or congregation. Ecclesiastes is the Greek and Latin form of the Hebrew word Qoheleth, which is literally, “leader of the assembly.” Qoheleth is like a philosopher or a teacher, perhaps preacher or proclaimer.

Whenever I use any of those terms, Qoheleth, or the teacher, philosopher, preacher, it refers to the author of the work which is called Ecclesiastes. I will try to reserve the term Ecclesiastes for the work and Qoheleth or one of the other titles for the author.

Ecclesiastes is all in the first person. It is as though someone put a tape recorder up to him and recorded his most profound thoughts on life. What is life about?

Ecclesiastes has traditionally been attributed to Solomon. Chapter 1 verse 1 says,
“The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”
That sounds like Solomon. Scholars believe, however, that an editor added that verse. In other words, Solomon didn’t write this even as it might have been written in the persona of Solomon. Solomon was king in Israel in the 10th century BCE and this work was probably written 700 years later in 300 BCE or so. Scholars determine that because of writing style and themes that would echo style and themes of that later era.

Qoheleth might not have been King Solomon, but he was a man of means. He had the luxury to write his thoughts. From his own story he had wealth and the resources for knowledge. As we read him we should keep in mind his class which was likely, "super upper." He is also a male and that comes through. He boasts of mistresses galore. He is a person of privilege. He has wealth, power, and access to the resources of his time. He is literate and writes quite well. As opposed to Jesus, for instance, who was likely illiterate and poor.

Is he happy or sad? Someone said to me that Ecclesiastes is a mystic who had a bad day. Maybe he was generally a happy guy, but was feeling down when he wrote this out. Catch him on another day, he might have been happier.

A side note. I remember a teacher in seminary whose name was Karlfried Froelich. He taught church history and had studied under Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian. I remember one day when I became endeared to Dr. Froelich. He told us quite candidly with his German accent:
“Some days I wake up and I believe in God. And some days I don’t.”
I thought now that is real. That is honest.

That is how I find Qoheleth. We may have caught him on one of those downer days, but it is an honest day nonetheless. In an age and time, that is today, when we happy believers are all supposed to put on our fake smiles and just believe Jesus, a little honesty is refreshing.

The thing about Qoheleth is that he never gives up or gives in to easy answers. He begins his work with a refrain that he will repeat throughout:
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
The word translated as vanity in Hebrew is hevel which means “vapor” or “mist”. Lloyd Geering translates the verse this way:
“Fast-fleeting,” says the Proclaimer. “Impermanent! Everything dissolves into nothingness.”
That I think is a more accurate translation. Life is impermanent. Life is a verb. He sounds a bit like Buddha. All is impermanent. That is true. As my great, great grandmother said,
“This too, shall pass.”
That is true whether the “this” appears for us good or bad. It will pass. Life is not permanent. No matter how hard we try. No matter how much we worry. No matter what we do, we cannot stop change. Our bodies change. Our relationships change. Our minds change. Things change more quickly than we expect them to change.

So “vanity” is a more negative word than what Qoheleth was saying. He is stating a truth. Life is impermanent. Once we decide to stop denying that reality and stop pretending that life is permanent, then we can be aware of how we might like to respond.

For Qoheleth, impermanence is an absurdity and an insult. What is the point of life if it doesn’t last, if I am not remembered forever? I wonder if Qoheleth might be revealing his privilege here. He can't imagine that a man of means like himself will no more be remembered than the most common person.

We may have our own responses to him. Perhaps we have asked those questions ourselves. It is good to hear him out. Ecclesiastes did make it into the Bible. To me, that says that there is room even in our tradition for the skeptics to have their voice.

Sometimes you have to ask the hardest questions and go behind and beyond the platitudes. The skeptics and the heretics have provided that path. They are the ones who have been the models for honest, real searching. We don’t have to accept their answers. We don’t have to accept the conclusions of Ecclesiastes or Lloyd Geering or Matthew Fox or even Jesus himself. Their gift is to show us how to search and how to be honest and real.

There are times in which Ecclesiastes does get down.
“It is better to have not been born”
he says on one occasion. Then he comes around again. As you read him you experience his mood swings. Whatever he is, he is always real. He comes back again and again to this advice, which all in all is pretty good advice:
The best that any of us can do
is to eat and drink and enjoy ourselves in our work.
Life is a verb.

Live it!


  1. Life is a disease that is, always, 100% fatal.

  2. I am sending links to this to my UU Christian group "the Servetus Society" and to my colleagues in my Clinical Pastoral Education class in Martinsburg, WV, who are -- by and large -- pretty conservative Christians. I let them know on a regular basis what my theology is -- and it's terrific to tell them my favorite heretic (aside from Matt Fox) is an East Tennessee Presbyterian minister.

    Have a great summer.

  3. @Tor true, true!

    @Sea Wow, what a compliment! Thank you. I would like to be a member of the Servetus Society!

    I will have a great summer, you too!