Our teaching over the past few months has been largely thematic - the Big Story, God in popular culture, the Lord's Prayer - and so I wanted to go back to something that took scripture as its starting point. We are heading into a funny season of the year however - a frighteningly short time until Advent, with a handful of special services thrown in before we get there - so I thought we could have a look at the Hamesh Megillot, the five scrolls that make up part of the section of the Hebrew Bible known as the Ketuvim or the Writings. I have no idea where this idea came from, so it is either divine inspiration or complete madness, and we may not find out which it is until we get to the end of it.
The five books we will be looking at are Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Ruth, Esther and Song of Songs, and I think they’ve been lumped together mostly because nobody had any idea how else to categorise them. They are all quite unusual and challenging in their own way, and the fact that they made it into the Bible at all speaks volumes about the importance of hearing different and even dissonant voices.
One thing they do have in common is that God is not active in any of them. That’s not to say that God is not present, or that they have nothing to do with God, but there are no divine speeches or commands, no pillars of flame or whispers of wind. These books are really about people responding to and expressing and trying to make sense of the situation they are in, whether that is told through narrative or poetry, and whether the situation is political or personal.
We will be starting today with Ecclesiastes, which in my experience has inspired more aphorisms and pop songs than it has sermons. Perhaps that’s not surprising, because it is a strange and spiky little book, and it’s not easy to know what to make of it.
After a brief introduction which explains that these are the words of Qohelet, normally translated as the Teacher, it starts with a declaration that everything is meaningless, and straightaway we can see that we are being catapulted headfirst into one man’s existential crisis.
The book comes back time and time again to the idea that there is a great futility and deep unfairness to life - there is beauty and goodness but it disappears like breath or vapour, and the wicked prosper while the good suffer. Life is uncontrollable and unknowable, it doesn’t work the way we think it should.
Perhaps we don’t expect to find those words in scripture, but who hasn’t thought them or said them or heard another express them with deep sighs? We often use scripture as a self-help manual, pulling out words of comfort and encouragement, but it doesn’t just offer those up, it works them out through this kind of deep wrestling, the same deep wrestling that we ourselves engage with. I find it deeply comforting to read my own questions and fears and anxieties in the pages of the Bible, to know that working them out in the presence of God and the context of a community of belief is part of what it means to live faithfully.
The author who collected the words of the Teacher and those who decided to include them as part of the scriptures obviously believed that they had something profound and theological and spiritual to say, but they are a deeply personal reflection on life, and I think that means there is even more room than usual for us to get inside the text and push at it, to challenge it and question it and disagree with it. The text is offered to us as wisdom, but as ever we need to apply our own discernment to it. That’s what we tried to do on Sunday, as we explored two passages from the book in conversation with one another, as we met for a cafe style service.
I offer up the passages we heard and the questions we considered, as a prompt for your own thoughts and reflections, as well as some snippets of toddler wisdom from my three year old. Ecclesiastes offers a distinctive voice in the canon of scripture, and it is good that we hear it and engage with it, without trying to make it agree with every other voice, because both the Bible and life are too rich and too complex for that. So read the passage and reflect on the questions, and don't worry if you don't come to quick or easy answers. [And if you want to know a little more about Ecclesiasters, the short video below is not a bad place to start.]
There is a Season
The first reading we heard was Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, and our starter questions were
Is there really a season for everything? Must there be a time to kill or to hate?
What season are we in now? As individuals or a community or a country?
My son insisted that there is no time to kill because killing is not kind, but as someone else suggested after the service, even that may need to be more nuanced if we consider arguments for euthanasia. And while I want to say that there is never a time for hating anyone, hating deceit or injustice...that's a different matter.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Our second reading was Ecclesiastes 8:14-17, and our starter questions for this one were
Is the teacher right to say life is meaningless? Is there more than eat, drink and be merry?
What is that makes you glad? Is there enough of it in your life?
When I asked my son recently about his hopes and dreams, he said "that everyone will be happy", and for me that is the something more and what makes me glad. I believe that we can find and create meaning and joy in a chaotic world by doing all we can to spread as much happiness as possible.
I leave you with a prayer based on the first reading, a prayer for good times.
O Lord, You remind us that there is a time for everything:
let today be a time to love
and a time for peace.
Let today be a time to heal the hurts of the body
and the hurts of the heart,
to mend what has been broken.
Let today be a time to embrace our fellowship with you
and with each other,
to build up your beloved community.
Let today be a time to speak out for justice,
to scatter the stones of ill-will
and plant compassion in their place.
Let today be a time to keep watch
with those who work or wait or mourn,
with those whose times are in Your hand.