July 26, 2020 – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
A message from the Rev. Bob Smith
Since the death last week of John Lewis, the American politician and civil rights leader, we have been treated to many quotations from this outstanding leader. One spoke particularly to me. It was offered more as protest against discrimination, but I thought it offered a note of encouragement in the context of our ongoing inability to worship together in person. “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic… We will find a way to make a way out of no way.”
We offer these worship resource in the hope that they will help bridge the gap of our separateness, and remind of Jesus’ promise, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
Grace and peace to you,
Rev. Bob Smith
Book of Praise – 654 “O God of Bethel by whose hand”
- video with no on-screen words; verses 1, 3 and 5 only; text identical to that in the hymnbook; words reprinted just below.
- words by English minister Philip Doddridge (1702–1751); music by Austrian composer Johann Michael Haydn (1737–1806). Words and music in the public domain.
- this recording performed by the Jubilate Singers, from their album “An Hour Of Hymns Of Joy” (2018).
O God of Bethel, by whose hand
thy people still are fed;
who through this weary pilgrimage
hast all our fathers led:
Through each perplexing path of life
our wandering footsteps guide;
give us each day our daily bread,
and raiment fit provide.
Such blessings from thy gracious hand
our humble prayers implore;
and thou shalt be our chosen God
and portion evermore.
Prayers of Adoration and Confession, Lord’s Prayer
Loving God, thank you for gathering us together this morning by faith, if not personally present to one another due to the pandemic. We praise you for the grace you pour out on us even in our separateness, in your presence and blessing in the beauty of your creation, in how you provide for our needs, in the blessing of friends and loved ones around us, in your love which gives us life, and in the call that comes to each of us to serve you through the gifts of your Spirit present in us. All praise be to you, O God, who loves, renews, and sustains us always.
Merciful God, you call, but we confess that we seldom hear. You beckon, but we turn away. Sin keeps us from responding to you, and so often we seem incapable of doing your will. In a moment of silence, hear us as we bring our personal confessions to you…
Forgive our refusal to hear your voice, our lack of attention to things that really matter. Focus us on your call to worship and service. Release us from all that prevents us from being the people you would have us be, so that we may choose the path that points to the way of Jesus Christ. It is in his name that we pray, and we join our voices now in the prayer that he gave us:
Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those
who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
now and forever. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon and the Peace
Friends in Christ, hear the good news. We share in the promises God made to all people. God forgives us and by grace sets us free to live new lives. Thanks be to God.
The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
(And also with you.)
Ecclesiastes 1:1–11 <– this links to on-line text of the NRSV bible
Christian Education Coordinator Laura Alary has crafted videos about two books for this week, about which she writes:
“The second book is also a celebration of wisdom shared by many people in many cultures and many religions. “The Golden Rule” is written by Ilene Cooper and illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (2007, Abrams Books for Young Readers):”
Our series of sermons on little people of the Bible continues,
and today our subject is Qoheleth.
If you went looking for him in your Bible
you might have had difficulty,
because in most, his name appears only as a footnote.
This name really is little.
His name, which is sometimes spelled with a ‘k’,
is Hebrew for “Preacher,” or “Teacher,”
and it is the name by which we know
the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes, with Job, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon,
and even sometimes the Psalms,
are characterized as “wisdom literature”,
where instructions or principles for successful living are given
or the perplexities of life are pondered,
all from the perspective of the faith.
There is a tradition which identifies Qoheleth with King Solomon,
but not many Biblical scholars buy that.
And what I want to do in this sermon
is to explore what sort of person
would write the sort of material
that we find in Ecclesiastes.
Now we all have a sense about who preachers are
and what they do,
but Qoheleth is the sort of preacher
who gives preachers a bad name.
The problem is not
that he’s a pound-on-the-pulpit kind of preacher
or that he’s always beating up on his congregation,
telling them that they’re no good,
and that God is out to get them.
Even that can be a bit of fun in small doses.
That’s what we get from prophets like Jeremiah or Amos,
but that’s not Qoheleth’s problem.
His problem is that he is just so miserable, so pessimistic.
He’s just such a terrible cynic —
he’s irredeemably skeptical,
he’s completely disillusioned,
he makes you wonder
why he even bothered to crawl out of his hole
to face the day.
Not only do we not want to listen to this guy’s preaching for long,
we don’t even want to know him,
or spend time with him.
To be with him is such a downer.
“Smoke, nothing but smoke…
There’s nothing to anything—it’s all just smoke.
What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old planet earth.
The sun comes up and the sun goes down,
then does it again, and again—the same old round.
Everything’s boring, utterly boring—
no one can find any meaning in it…
What was, will be again,
what happened, will happen again.
There’s nothing new on this earth.
Year after year it’s the same old thing.
Does someone call out, “Hey, this is new”?
Don’t get excited—it’s always just the same old story.”
He reminds me of Eyore in “Winnie-the-Pooh”,
always looking for the worst.
Nothing adds up to anything in the long run.
Life is meaningless and futile.
There, now don’t you feel a lot better
for having come to church
to hear that sermon today?
“For everything there is a season,” Qoheleth writes,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to break down, a time to build up;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace;
a time to be born, and a time to die.”
But even that has its problems.
There is a kind of natural “wisdom” to it,
that we all know there are going to be good times and bad,
times when the bread falls with the butter side up,
and times when it will be down,
and we’d be just as well to figure out a mindset
that allows us to deal with that.
But it almost sounds like
one side of each statement
is just as good as the other,
and that whichever turns up on any given day
is just a toss-up,
or the luck of the draw.
It all seems so fatalistic.
Whatever will be, will be,
and we are just the very little players
in a drama over which we have no control
or even anything to contribute.
Qoheleth the Preacher says,
It’s all vanity,
just us getting carried away
with overblown illusions about our own importance,
when really, we are nothing,
and life is meaningless.
Which somehow doesn’t sound very much
like the faith that we’ve all grown to know and love.
Where is God in Qoheleth’s preaching?
Where is the grace, the good news?
Where is the hope that in following God’s ways,
even if it leads through suffering,
will ultimately result in some good,
some sense of peace,
some new life?
In fact, why is this material even in our Bibles at all?
You know, when the Jewish scholars sat down in the 2nd or 3rd century BC
to determine what would be considered their sacred scripture
(our Old Testament)
Qoheleth almost didn’t make it, and you can see why.
But maybe, just maybe, the reason it’s in our Bibles
is because we have all been there,
in the place where this preacher stands,
and walked through valley of hopelessness
in which Qoheleth seems to be stuck.
We have been honest and faithful in what we do
been true to others,
and disciplined in ourselves;
but we have watched things not work out for us
and begun to believe that they are always slanted against us.
We have worked hard at our jobs,
shown up on time
and given the best of our energy, skill and insight to our work;
but have seen the recognition, the promotions and the better pay cheques
go to others who have what seems to us
half the competence
none of the work ethic.
We have given our very best to be good parents,
read the books, maybe even went to classes and support groups
tried to be good examples
tried to be fair and reasonable with our kids
always asked what love would do, and tried to do it;
but have watched them make bad choices,
and hook up with the wrong friends,
and reject our values,
and get into trouble that just breaks our hearts.
We have watched loved ones die far too young
leaving a devastation touching everything in its path —
we prayed ourselves silly seeking healing for them,
sat in endless vigils with them;
but they died anyway,
illness or accident robbing all around them of their life and love.
And I’ll bet there a lot of days
when we might sound a lot like Qoheleth, and say:
“What’s the point?
Whatever you try, it’s all pointless.
Life is meaningless, and nothing is fair.
It makes no difference how you live,
or how good you are.
Life is nothing more than a roll of the dice.”
Qoheleth, the cynic, is in our Bibles
to remind people in pain
that there is a voice there for you,
that you are not the first person
who has struggled with the unfairness or tragedy of human life,
and raged with God,
about the turns your life has taken.
So where is the good news in all this?
Actually, I’ve been just a little hard on Qoheleth.
Those little bits of grace are there,
and he does offer us a bit of hope.
But there isn’t much of it,
and you have to look hard for it.
If you drift off for even a second in Qoheleth’s sermon
you are going to miss it.
It’s a matter of debate,
but Qoheleth may be acknowledging,
as Isaiah does,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” (Isa. 55:8)
His sermon may be a warning against human arrogance,
a call for humility before the majesty and greatness of God.
Which is something we probably need to hear
from time to time.
You have to look for it, but maybe Qoheleth is saying,
the seasons of our lives are shaped by their content,
and a good deal of the time, it’s a pretty rough go.
Each life will have its taste
of pain, suffering and unfairness —
the point is not to say it’s just fate whatever happens,
but to look for God’s presence to guide and sustain us
whatever events our days bring us.
Maybe in chapter 3 where he says,
“there is a time for this, and a time for that,”
he is saying that there is a time for every matter under heaven,
that life has these opposites —
the question is:
How will we deal with them?
How will we find meaning in them?
How will we discern God’s hand in them?
He does conclude that chapter with these words,
“I know that whatever God does endures forever;
nothing can be added to it,
nor anything taken from it;
God has done this,
so that all should stand in awe before him.”
So I would like to think
that Qoheleth is not giving in completely to pessimism and despair,
but also rejoicing in the cycles of human life,
and the presence and providence of God in all of it.
But I still say he’s cynical,
and I don’t recommend your reading too much of him
at one sitting.
I was struck by Frederick Buechner’s take
on Qoheleth’s place in the canon of Biblical literature.
He points out that those scholars who determined the Hebrew scripture
put Qoheleth not far from the Psalms of David on one side
and the prophecy of Isaiah on the other,
and that maybe, he suggests, that was in the hope
that a little of David and Isaiah might rub off on him.
Because one insight that both those giants of the faith shared,
and about which our miserable preacher maybe needs to be reminded,
is that we are closest to God when we need God the most
and that we know God best sometimes
when God is apparently nowhere to be found.
For everything there is a season
and, by the grace of God,
a time for every matter under heaven.
Maybe we could leave Qoheleth with the thought
that he invites us
to be reflective about life,
and the vanity of much of it,
to ponder the measure of our days
and the days of those whom we love,
and to praise God for the blessing
of living under God’s gracious and watchful care
and, whatever our circumstances,
of being able to live to give God glory.
- “How Great Thou Art”. Words by Swedish poet Carl Boberg (1859–1940); English text by English missionary Stuart K. Hine (1899–1989); music based on a traditional Swedish folk melody. This text and arrangement © copyright 1955 Manna Music, Inc.
- Music used by permission of One License, license number 722141-A.
- Audio recording © copyright 2020 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church.
We remind everyone that we must continue to pay our bills; in the absence of Sunday worship, you may sign up for pre-authorized remittance (PAR), donate online via our CanadaHelps page, or drop off your offering envelope in the mailbox at the church. Do not leave a cash donation unattended in the mailbox; instead, please call the office (416.261.4037) to ensure someone will be there to receive it. The building will be checked daily for mail and phone messages. If you are not comfortable leaving an envelope, you are welcome to contact the office (once again, 416.261.4037) and someone will pick up your offering.
Prayers of Thanksgiving and Hope
Loving God, as we praise you, and celebrate the love you have for us, and the life you have given us, our thoughts turn to those who are in need of your help and your blessing. And so we bring our prayers:
- for those who suffer pain, your relief;
- for those who are troubled, your peace;
- for those who struggle without their basic needs being met — without a home, without food, without a job, your providence;
- for those who know nothing of your love, your compassion;
- for those who are filled with guilt and shame, your forgiveness;
- for those who act on their anger and hurt through violence, your shalom;
- for those who are the victims of that violence, your embrace;
- for those who are alone and cut off, your companionship;
- for those who have suffered loss, and know the pain of grief, your hope;
- for those who know that their own death is near, your presence.
Your grace, loving God, is greater than our need, your love deeper than our pain. We know that your son Jesus has taken the sufferings of the world on himself on the cross, and transformed them through the resurrection.
We pray for every follower of your son, men and women, young and old, those in the limelight and those with supporting role, all of them blessed with gifts through your spirit, and all of them fulfilling your purposes in the establishment of your kingdom. Give us grace, we pray, to see your hand at work in our world, and in our lives. Bless us all, whatever our role, and whatever gifts we have been given, and give us grace to know that each offering made in your Son’s name is sacred to you and critical to your work. It is to that work that we dedicate ourselves in love, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Book of Praise – 625 “Seek ye first”
- video with on-screen words; sung words are almost identical to the hymnbook, but are sung in the order of verse 1, verse 3, verse 2, with additional alleluias at the end of each verse.
- words and music by American musician Karen Lafferty (1948–)
- this recording from a March 1, 1992 ITV broadcast at St. Catherine’s Church, Gorseinon, Swansea, Wales.
Commissioning and Benediction
Go in peace, in the knowledge that God’s love surrounds you.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all, now and forever. Amen.
© Copyright 2020 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church