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Monday, January 16, 2012

Ecclesiastes 4 - Community

God, You, and Me (Ecclesiastes 4:7-12), January 15, 2012

I had a pronounced sense of Christian community – maybe my first experience of Christian community as I understand it – in 1994. I went to visit my college roommate who was in his second year as a missionary in Bolivia. The flight was an overnight flight. I got off the plane exhausted, but it was time for church, so we went. My Spanish was awful. I didn’t understand a thing. Yet, I knew I could trust the words the congregation spoke and sang with full emotion and commitment to God. Because of the Holy Spirit, I was connected to those around me and I was allowed me to rest in the joy of Christian community and fellowship even though the words were mostly foreign to me.

An author/pastor, one I thoroughly trust, describes Ecclesiastes as a type of introduction to the New Testament. He says, Ecclesiastes “empties us of the inner noise that we [thought was] religion and the cluttered piety we [thought was] faith. [Ecclesiastes] throws out the accumulated religious junk and banishes fraud that has paraded as faith. Placing [the] well-orchestrated ‘no!’ [of Ecclesiastes] as a preference to the New Testament provides a pastoral clearing of the air of distractions.”[i] Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, telling the story of Jesus, and the rest of the New Testament, written in an Easter age, respond to the bleak “no!” of Ecclesiastes with the victorious “yes!” of resurrection.

With Ecclesiastes setting the stage for the good news of the coming of Jesus, Ecclesiastes 4 specifically introduces the necessity of community, like welcome and acceptance I felt in Bolivia. As is the case with Ecclesiastes throughout, the table is set in a negative light. “Again I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ they ask. ... This is also vanity and unhappy business” (4:7-8).

I immediately thought of the movie The Bucket List. Jack Nicholson portrays a wealthy business man who has cancer. In the hospital, going through chemo, he meets Morgan Freeman’s character, a blue-collar man, a mechanic. Freeman’s character also has cancer. The two couldn’t be more different, but they share a burden. They’re dying. So, they come up with the idea of the bucket list – things to do before one kicks the bucket.

After their adventures that range from sky-diving to driving race cars, they part, each going back to his own life. The mechanic returns to his wife and kids and grandkids. They enjoy a Thanksgiving-type feast. The colors of the scenes are in soft tones –browns, tans, orange, and golden. The characters are laughing richly, and sitting in theater, I felt the warmth. The wealthy business man is in his plush apartment. In one scene he has a couple of girls, probably not 25 years-old, attracted not to him but to his extravagances. As he ponders his life, he is filled with melancholy. In the background one of the girls says, “I don’t know what’s wrong. He’s usually so much fun.” In another scene, he’s alone. The colors, depicting his penthouse at night are black, gray, and dim. They scream cold, weary. He struggles to get the packaging open on the overly expensive meal he’s purchased. He’ll eat with only the company of the expensive things he’s bought to fill his life. The packaging finally rips open and spills out Broken, he is reduced to weeping, with no one there to wipe his tears. For whom am I toiling? This is also vanity. He could shout Ecclesiastes as his own life conclusion, “This is useless, a miserable way to live” (4:8, Good News Translation).

It makes me think of the man in Jesus’ parable. This rich man stored up his holdings and then acquired so much, he had to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Right at the moment he would retire in wealth and ease, he died and someone else came along and enjoyed all he has saved (Luke 12:20). I also think of another of Jesus’ parables, also about a rich man. In this one, the rich man is condemned to Hell, and while it’s not explicitly stated that he is damned for being rich, the implication and only feasible conclusion is the man is separated from God because he didn’t share his riches with an extremely poor man. “In your lifetime you received your good things and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here [with Abraham] and you are in agony” (Luke 16:24).

In these parables, Jesus is not flatly condemning wealth. He had wealthy followers, and he benefited from their opulence. And that is the point – what are riches for? What is life for? Whatever God gives – material possessions, talent, a mind for science, experiences, musical ability, a servant’s heart – it is to be shared. Life is to be lived in community, in relationship to other people. God is a relational God. This doesn’t mean everyone has to be extroverted, has to be the life of the party. There is room for all personality-types in God’s family and one is not better than the other. Boisterous Peter has his place, but so too do those in the background, the quiet ones like Andrew and Phillip. We are made for relationship. Ecclesiastes condemns the notion of the lonely miser, the rich person who keeps to herself and refuses to let people into her life. We are made for community.

Ecclesiastes 4 is comprised of “better than”statements. “Two are better than one.” The preacher goes through the reasons for his advocacy of partnership. In business, two will accomplish more and have a better chance for a better yield or prophet. In travel, they help one another if injury happens or there is an accident. Two keep one another warm – this is a practical teaching which made sense on cold desert nights where there were no heated hotel rooms to welcome the road-weary sojourner. Two have each other’s backs if bandits attack. Clearly and two are better than one, and life is better when it is shared.

My first experience of community within the Christian family was a small evangelical Bolivian church. By worshipping God and welcoming me, they invited me, a gringo into their fellowship. In the singing and the exaltation of God, I was not “other.” I was one of them. But, I am wrong in saying that was my first time receiving the invitation to community. The first time, I was visiting a church in the rural farming country of the Lower Peninsula Michigan. I had been a ministry intern there that summer, the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I learned about ministry and about farming. Then at Christmas, I went back to visit. I didn’t know those people that well, but they welcomed me like a son. They even had Christmas presents. They made sure I was fully a part of their family gathering even though I was not a relation. In their eyes, I was their son, their brother, in Christ.
That was not the first time ... I remember my baptism in 1981. I was 11 and our family was Baptist, but all our extended family was Lutheran or Methodist. Up in the baptismal pool which felt very high up in the air to me at 11 years old, I could see the entire congregation of a couple 100 people. One entire row was full of Tennants, Galvins, and Biscombs – my people! I was surrounded by my church family. And the family in which I was raised had come, leaving their Lutheran and Methodist churches for one Sunday to come be a part: God’s people together to celebrate.
I experienced the community of saints before that in 1973, and I didn’t even know it. I was three, my dad was in the army, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and my mom was pregnant. The pregnancy was in grave danger. It would likely be a baby that had severe problems. The army doctors told my parents an abortion might be a good idea. My parents stopped talking to army doctors and started talking to army chaplains who prayed. My brother was born healthy and is fine today. The entire drama played out with my parents, thus me, surrounded by people who follow Jesus and put their trust in Him – the community of faith.
Two are better than one ... a three-fold chord is not easily broken. AMEN, shouts Jesus!
Even before I was born ... my parents met at Wayne State University in Detroit, and where? Did they meet in a night club? Did they meet at a dance? At protest rally of some sort? They met on the lawn of the Wesley Foundation. It was the mid 60’s. They were not experimenting with drugs. They were not exploring this new idea of“free love,” which was and is sex without responsibility or concern for the consequences. They went where Christian college students gathered to be together, the Wesley Foundation. They went because two are better than one, true relationship with God in Jesus Christ can only be had in community, and the craziness of the drug culture that so many people say defines the 1960’s is vanity, empty, useless, spitting into the wind.
A lot of people did not come from a Christian background. That's OK. I've shared bits of my story. Every one’s story is unique. One story is not better than another. I simply lay this out because I am grateful that my entire understanding of life, of reality, and of God is born in community, not my own, solitary experience. If someone tries to practice Christianity alone – just me and God – “For whom he is toiling” in his religious endeavors?
If one claims he doesn’t need church to follow Jesus, how can he follow Jesus’ two great commands – to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love neighbor as the self? Our love of God is seen in our love of one another and in our worship of Him. We cannot be who God wants us to be unless we are growing together. Just me and God – it doesn’t fit the picture of faith that we see in the New Testament.
The most known of Jesus' parables, the Prodigal Son, ended with a party. The story of Zaccheus the short tax collector turning from greed to discipleship ends with a grand dinner as Zacchaeus’ house. When Jesus called Matthew to leave his very prophet tax-collecting business and embrace the hard life of discipleship, Matthew celebrated by throwing a huge party.
Ecclesiastes shows the futility of a lonely life. The gospels show the joy of life lived with others – people to laugh with, cry with, and people that celebrate good the things of God together. In our church, we try to extend the New Testament parties into our time. We enjoy fellowship dinners whenever we have communion. Our small groups are intimate, inviting, and warm. Our Sunday morning includes together time in the hallway, with coffee, sometimes treats, and always laughter.
Some Sunday morning, when everything is over, just watch this room. I usually stand at the backdoor and shake hands with people as they leave. Most of the time, people don't leave. They stick around to talk, exchange hugs, and be together. One of the ways we please God is to enjoy one another. Just me and God - that's faith Jesus doesn't recognize. Following him, we follow him into a familt that is called church.more than half the group sticks around to talk, exchange hugs – just be together. I really believe one of things we do that is most pleasing to God is that we enjoy being together. Just me and God – that’s faith Jesus wouldn’t recognize. Following Him, we follow Him into a family that is called church.
Here’s what he said, some of Jesus’ final words before the arrest and crucifixion. This is from John’s Gospel.
John 15
9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
John 17
1 After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed ...
13“I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by[d]the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. 20“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
With the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, we reject the solitarly life that shuts out others. Following Jesus' lead, we rejoice in the joy of shared life. He wasn't just punching tickets to Heaven. He was establishing a Kingdom. He is sending us to the lost, lonely, frustrated world around us. In God – Father, Son-Jesus, and Holy Spirit, we are saved, and we are called to invited others into the Kingdom, into fellowship, into the joy of Jesus; a joy only fully known when we are together. You, me and Jesus together – that works! That is the life we are called to live.
i]Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (1980), Wm. B, Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mi, p,188.

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