There is nothing new under the sun. Can I get an “amen”? [sigh] There is nothing new under the sun.
I’m going to be honest with you all, I don’t know what to do about B. B’s a homeless guy who hangs out on the porch at the Edge campus ministry house where I work. He sits on a chair, watches folks pass by, tells us the same story ten times in as many minutes, eats a sandwich when we offer it—he’s clearly unbalanced, but he always seemed harmless. But he’s been sleeping on the porch, too, sleeping off a drunk. And he’s been leaving garbage. And peeing on the porch. And just two days ago, he kicked one of my ministry partners when she told him he needed to leave. According to the public defender’s office, he’s the current record-holder for arrests in Hamilton County with more than 470 and has more than three warrants out right now. And he’s a violent, mean drunk who has walked away from or been kicked out of every social service agency in town.
So, what to do, eh? As a person of faith, what do I do? He can’t sleep and pee on the porch, that much is clear. And I can’t have someone who could turn violent in a moment around my students—that’s not fair to anyone. So, we have set up a no trespassing order and, after the kicking incident, have filled out an arrest warrant—so we’re one of the three. The behavior cannot go on—and I think Jesus would be with us on that, at least. Jesus was no doormat and offered challenges to those he met both in word and action. But what’s the hospitality side of this? How can we actually help B in any meaningful way? Can we, even? I don’t know. I don’t know.
And this might lead some folk to despair. Some of ya’ll might be thinking “all is vanity and a chasing after wind”. Maybe. “There is nothing new under the sun” you might be thinking, and you’d be right. We’re not the only ones to deal with friends or relatives who have mental illness or alcoholism or even poor table manners. We’re not the first people to feel overwhelmed by poverty or to struggle with evangelism. On the deeply spiritual TV show Battlestar Galactica, a line which gets repeated often is “All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.” No seriously, it’s a great show.
Y’all might know Ecclesiastes better by another passage: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…” That’s chapter three, almost directly after this reading we heard from ______________.
Ecclesiastes might have been a crotchety old man or maybe he was just a realist. Either way, his book is filled with a kind of heaviness. He seeks after and finds wisdom, yet it does not last and only shows him the futility of human endeavors. He seeks after pleasure, yet it does not last and dies with the person. He builds and plants and creates and, though he enjoys the building and planting and creating themselves, the results do not last but crumble and cannot be taken past the grave. “All is vanity and a chasing after wind.” And who among us has not had a similar experience? At the very least, many of us have watched toddlers play. Or, rather, destroy. Typical of preachers, I’m talking about my own family—my daughter Abby is a year and a half and she loves building towers. Or my building towers for her. She loves admiring them for a moment, then destroying them like Godzilla. And I could take the depressing route and say, “Why should I toil in vain and build towers that my daughter knocks down? It is vanity and a chasing after wind” No, I build it again, because I see her delight. Maybe you know more viscerally that experience of “chasing after wind”—maybe you have built a business only to see it fail or to succeed better for another owner, maybe you poured your heart and soul into someone beloved who was suffering only to see her die.
Many folks think Ecclesiastes is depressing, but some of us find it comforting. Perhaps it’s the Lutherans I work with rubbing off on me, but it suggests to me that it’s not our works—good or evil—that save us. God does that. What we do or create is important, but that ultimately, it’s all in God’s hands. That I don’t have responsibility for making everything turn out okay. Phew.
I wonder if we have a hard time with evangelism because maybe we think the story ends with “this is vanity” rather than how it actually ends. The assigned lesson for today ends with “all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” Did you find yourself wondering what you’re supposed to do with that? A bit like my quandary about B, you had something complicated and heavy dropped on you and now what? I’m not sure why this is, but the compilers of the lectionary often cut off the reading before it is ripe. Remember that more famous bit of Ecclesiastes that I mentioned comes almost directly after our reading? Yeah, Here’s part of what we missed:
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” This changes everything.
I think we sometimes dislike Ecclesiastes because he is us. He writes what we all think—that we have a hope, but it’s pretty tissue thin and what does what we do amount to anyway? Particularly when it comes to spirituality? We think, if we shared our stories with friends, neighbors, strangers, no one would listen to us, and even if they did, what would we say in the first place? It’s pointless and a chasing after wind. We think we have to have all the answers—about how salvation works, about who’s in and who’s out, about the church’s problematic history, about the Trinity or the two natures of Christ or whatever—but we don’t. That’s not the story! That’s not the good news that God offered in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We only need to be honest with one another about our lives and our experiences of God. This, brothers and sisters, is evangelism. It’s sharing part of your story with someone else, it’s building relationships with folks you meet, from friends to aggressive homeless guys who pee on your porch. It’s certainly not easy, and I don’t yet know how to build relationship with B. It’s not easy, but it is freeing.
The good news is that we don’t have to shoulder the responsibility of fixing everything. The good news is that eating, drinking, and enjoying our toil—whether it’s our paying job, whether it’s putting storm windows on someone’s house, whether it’s writing a song or running a marathon, or being rejected in our attempts to connect—the good news is there is nothing better for us than to try and all of it comes from God.
The good news is “there is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil” because as brother Paul of Tarsus wrote, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Hallelujah.