The things you have prepared, whose will they be?

June 17, 2022 by Rev. Ivan Herman

For the season following Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary offers two different tracks of readings from the Hebrew Scriptures. The first track (the semicontinuous readings) provides an opportunity to sample from a selection of significant themes and memorable stories from 1 Kings and prophets Amos and Hosea. The second track (the complementary readings) connects imagery and themes across Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. This provides the preacher and congregation a chance to explore not only how the New and Old Testaments inform each other, but also to connect the teachings of Jesus to their Jewish roots and scriptural heritage.

If you’re a bit squeamish about trying to explain the unsavory methods of Hosea to speak prophetic truth on the final Sunday in July, then let me encourage you to instead consider Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 and its connection to Luke 12:13-21. This is the only time in the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary that worshipers get a chance to learn from Ecclesiastes, the wisdom writings that just barely squeaked by the entrance exam to get into the biblical canon.

Part of the fun of preaching from Ecclesiastes is that the wisdom writings require very little contextualization or historical knowledge of ancient Israel on the part of the listener. Because wisdom is based on experience, the congregation is invited to use their own experiences to judge whether a proverb or a description of life rings true for them. Preachers often proclaim truth with either a prophetic or pastoral edge, but this Ecclesiastes text (and its corresponding Gospel parable) invites preachers to raise questions, leave them unanswered, and then let their listener’s lives to do the proclaiming according to how they find the teaching to be true.

The first selection of verses (1:2, 12-14) allows the preacher to introduce the major theme and voice of the Wisdom Teacher and Preacher (Qoheleth) who draws upon the wisdom tradition and the authority of Solomon, the son of David legendary for his wisdom.

“Random.” It’s a word that has bloomed in its usage over the past few decades. The young adults in my life use it to describe things that are peculiar or unexpected. The food I prepare tends to be described as random. Kiwi on pizza is “random.” Kale in scrambled eggs is “random.” The voice in my head sounds like Inigo Montoya saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I think the same of some translations of the Qoheleth’s primary metaphor, vanity.  “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2 KJV, NRSV is similar) “You keep using that word…”  In this case vanity is not about taking pride in one’s appearance, but rather the secondary meaning that all is emptiness or absurdity. The NIV interprets the word hebel as “meaningless,” and the CEB as “perfectly pointless.” This Hebrew word is not an abstract philosophical concept, but rather describes a real thing that has no significant substance such as fog, mist, or vapor. This imagery swirls through the whole book as the Preacher explores life’s futility and how all effort is like “chasing after the wind.”

This theme resonates with listeners and readers. It always has. It might seem melancholy or pessimistic, but there’s also a playful quality to show there is still engagement. It’s like a kid in the pews who draws cartoons about the sermon in the bulletin or a back-row presbyter who tweets snarky comments during General Assembly yet follows every overture. The Preacher’s observations about life connect easily with the burnout culture in which we live and work.

The latter selection of verses from chapter two explores the ultimate futility of all our efforts at laboring and toiling. In the end we will still die. Jesus draws on this same imagery for his parable of the rich man who plans to build ever-bigger barns to keep his harvest for himself, yet death comes anyway. The enjoyment of life is not pointless, but amassing wealth beyond the point of need is vanity. Contrary to how this parable is often preached, Jesus does not deny the Wisdom Teacher’s encouragement to eat, drink, and take pleasure in work. He echoes it and agrees with it! Keeping death in the picture allows us to appreciate what is important in life.

The best stewardship sermons I’ve ever heard are the ones I didn’t know were stewardship sermons. Stewardship is rooted in gratitude. Gratitude moves us away from determining what is good based upon how it serves the self, and toward valuing what is good in relationship and community. Qoheleth bemoans the futility of labor upon knowing that it must be left to those who come after. “Who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?” Standing in contrast to Qoheleth’s myopic wisdom, your congregation probably has faithful members of past generations who have left gifts that continue to support the mission and ministries. Presbyteries sometimes have forward-thinking congregations that have closed and left a legacy to fund ministry for the next generation. Even if endowments are few and reserve funds slim in your community, there are still saints who have left a legacy of faith, engagement, or mission. Tell their stories and express gratitude for the gifts of those who have not seen the fruits of their labors. Gratitude fosters a culture of generosity.

At the heart of Qoheleth’s theology is the truth that God is not absent from our lives. It is our attempts at Divine domestication that are futile, and our toiling to control the future for our present benefit is like chasing the wind. Our past, present, and future is held in God’s hands, and God’s grace is not dispensed at random. When we live in a way that is “rich toward God” (Lk 12:21) and that places our trust in those divine hands, are we wise or are we foolish?

Rev. Ivan Herman has served as the associate pastor at Carmichael Presbyterian Church since 2009 and is active in the Presbytery of North Central California. He grew up in Ecuador and Colombia, and has previously served as pastor or ruling elder in Presbyterian congregations in Memphis, TN, Washington, DC, and San Antonio, TX. He holds an annual pass to U.S. National Parks as well as degrees from American University, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Wake Forest University. Ivan lives in Sacramento with his spouse, Susan, and their two children and might be found hiking trails in the Sierra Nevada foothills, around Lake Tahoe, or in Yosemite, just don’t look for him at the top of El Capitan.