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What the World Needs Now

Sermon - 5/01/11
Rev. April Oristano
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

I will attempt a sermon series this month on the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Environment.  You see I have been looking forward to preaching on Ecclesiastes for some time.  It is one of my favorite books of the Bible.  In short there are some individual verses that stick with me about the power of working together, about not taking myself so seriously, emotion, wisdom, death.  And of course we have Pete Seeger and then the Byrds to thank for helping us memorize Ecc 3. 

But when you look at the big picture, the whole book of Ecclesiastes you hear a voice crying out to the wilderness WHY WHY is this happening, why is life this way, how are we supposed to live and be at peace? It is a powerful witness to the complex and often confusing world we live in.  And a source of validation for me.

And today we celebrate Earth Day.  Earth Day has been long celebrated, this is not new for us.  Thanks to Power and Light we make strides to honor the Earth everyday.  This year, in the month before Earth Day 2011 I was reading a new book proposing the marriage of science and religion, and the headlines were filled (and still are) with environmental news that has been difficult for us all.  I found myself thinking of an Earth Day sermon that would wrestle with the question of  WHY – and HOW – are we to live at peace with one another, with this Earth, with all of creation.  How are we to know the way to go when it all seems to be falling apart around us?  Storms in the Midwest, snow still coming down in Nebraska, Wisconsin.  Japan still rocked by earthquakes.   Throughout the month you’ll hear me speak about the Million Letter March Lunch & Letter Writing Campaign all are invited to come – these are the things I would like to wrestle with you, celebrate with you this month.

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
   vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil
   at which they toil under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
   but the earth remains for ever.
5 The sun rises and the sun goes down,
   and hurries to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south,
   and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
   and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
   but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
   there they continue to flow.
8 All things are wearisome;
   more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
   or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
   and what has been done is what will be done;
   there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
   ‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
   in the ages before us.
11 The people of long ago are not remembered,
   nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
   by those who come after them.


So - Ecclesiastes is categorized as a wisdom book. 

A wisdom writer tries to make sense of life based on his/her observations and practical experiences.  The focus is usually on human nature and the goal is to guide humans into the path of successful living.  Other wisdom books include:  The Wisdom of Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon (Song of Solomon) - all three wrestle with how to live a happy life in a world not so oriented toward human happiness.

And Ecclesiastes in particular – The narrator, who we only know by the name “the teacher” or the leader, details for us his observations of the world – observations of humans and God in the world – desperately trying to make sense of it.  And by the end honestly scholars cannot determine if he did – or was left in a meaningless despair – in fact it was this unclear tone in Ecclesiastes that kept Jewish scholars debating its value in the Hebrew Bible and it was nearly left out.

That. is why. I love. this book – I too am desperate to understand, to share that wisdom with others so that we can make this world a better place.    

We know New Orleans is still recovering.  We know gas prices are still rising. And the EPA has taken a $1.6 billion cut in 2011.  What meaning are we to gain from the continued hardship of the people in Japan, Haiti,? Why God? 

The world in which Ecclesiastes was written is a world just learning to pass wisdom through the written word– just barely awakening to the value of writing down shared wisdom, shared stories.  There isn’t really even an exact understanding of which language “the teacher” uses – some are wholly created words or definitions to fit his situation.  It is a world without any of the conveniences or priorities of our world.  A world that does not know about the other planets.  Does not know about plate tectonics.    A world where “what they knew” was handed down from the elders of a tribe, where the tribe was the only world.  The other tribe is not like us.  They are evil.  Ungodly.  It was a world where understanding how God worked was a matter of observing the world.  In that world, science and religion were really one.  Observations of the world meant observations about God.

And what about this World? – the world where in the last half a millennium we have made amazing leaps and bounds – striking observations, fields of science ranging from biology to astronomy, physics, chemistry, psychology – all these areas building upon one another.  Music, art, technology, and the unlimited access to all of this data - And we are only barely waking to up to the knowledge and wisdom of what to do with all this information we now have.  “What we know” can hardly keep up with what we are discovering – which changes what we know.  Our observations of the world are not just put to the test, hypothesized, tested, retested, stamped, indexed, filed or numbered categorized into truths – and this truth comes from all over the world.   

And in this world, science and religion are not one.  How do we learn about God?  Too often in the world of Christian laboratories, or as we call it “the local church- How do we learn about God? Well, you learn that from the Bible.

To so many of us that is a complete disconnect.

I have been reading Michael Dowd’s book, Thank God for Evolution: How the marriage of science and religion will transform your life and our world.  Highly recommend it – seriously a page turner for me.

Now we’ve all heard a fundamentalist person say:  Don’t tell me I’m related to Monkeys.  Believe me, I’ve been there, I believed what my church said and when my church said, you were created, not evolved there I stayed. 

Marlin Lavanhar, is a UU minister in Oklahoma.  His response to “Don’t tell me I’m related to monkeys:  “The fact of the matter is that now that we have discovered DNA and its code, we know that we are not only related to monkeys, we are related to zucchini. So let's get over it."

Dowd’s mission – and it is ambitious – is to bring us all together, all belief systems, all levels of scientific understanding.  He promises right at the beginning of the book – to the atheists, to the secular humanists, to Christians, to those who reject and embrace evolution, and on and on – that what each holds most dear can be brought into a larger purpose and deeper meaning.

And shared by all. And for Christianity his intent is not to just reinvigorate scripture with scientific data.  But to refresh our own ability to listen for God and the continued revealing of wisdom for our postmodern and highly interconnected world. 

When Science and religion cooperate, share, play well together we are moved to action. 

Says The teacher in Ecc . “It’s Meaningless!  Meaningless!“ For how long have we heard others in the church say the same thing about evolution?  That science has butt in on the mysteries of God – attempted in fact to control God -  takes away the mystery – the power of God – NOT SO!

That is not my experience at all!  

It is because science has so thoroughly studied, observed, tested “what we know – or what we believe to be true” – that we see how much mystery is actually involved – intricate, interconnected, realities, all nested one inside the other, all creating again and again – cooperating, competing, motivating one another.

We are at a critical point in Christianity where many are awakening to the idea that God did not stop communicating truth to us with the revelation of these writings.  Biblical Scholarship is more mainstream every year.  Right here in this church we cover the whole spectrum of beliefs about the Bible – inerrant word of God to “Sister this is a book, don’t make me tell you twice, written by a bunch of men. Doing their best, God knows.  But still.”    And with the newest publications of some of Christianity’s most popular writers, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, popular in the more conservative crowds, publicly applying that scientific method to our sacred texts – studying and meditating upon the many and layered contextual elements at play.  Using personal experience to bring new meaning to the texts.  And this isn’t new to this church but it is new to a whole bunch of churches that think we’re nuts. 

Dowd wants all the Christians who are reading his book to recognize how interconnected science and religion already are.  From the small revelation that we no longer actually understand heaven to be a place in the stars.  But /And also how much we already know about the stars- I’ll talk more about the stars next week.  “The teacher” could not have known that it is in fact the stars that we come from, and he did not know that the Earth turns nor why it rains.

Science and Religion open doors for one another.  Religion gave us a set of truths, and as we sought more truth we found science.  Science has opened up the universe and we are now able to learn so much about living things, how the need to survive is great and also how the need to cooperate is just as great.  Where science once told us that Earth is a machine with its working parts, Scientists are moving away from a view of the universe as a machine, a mechanistic design and recognize more and more how the myriad things in the universe emerge, creatively (random and  purposeful). 

Everything is NOT meaningless – not even Ecclesiastes – because we can make new meaning from what we learn, just like Ecclesiastes.   

Homework can be an act of worship now, children!  Parents this is great news!  And Worship can be educational.  It goes both ways. 

Again – the Teacher says in v. 4 “Generations come and go but the earth remains forever” – Again - NOT SO.  We know that the earth will not be here forever.  It will be here a long time yes, but not forever.  This is what we understand from science. 

And All things die to give way for new life. Ah, who taught us that?  Religion?And Science.   But that is no reason to just let the Earth die, or even worse to accelerate her death. 

God requires all of us to work together to preserve life on Earth.  And Our shared history, as an Earth, as a global community of living things,  is so inescapably wrapped up in the history of all living things that Dowd says, in quoting so many others, “we are the Universe itself learning to reflect, respond, talk, hear, observe itself and move forward.” 

And the sooner we realize that – that we need each other, that we cannot move forward without each other, the more seamless our efforts to unite faith traditions, politicians (God help us!), and all citizens to help our sister earth will be.

Evolution that is explained as only competitive and pointless – meaning ‘without purpose’ is just as bad as being handed a Bible and asked to believe everything you read.  “Question nothing.  God is as it says here.”

The entire body of life is cheering us on – we as a species are the younger brother of the prodigal – we are waking up, growing up, taking responsibility – we are the universe becoming conscious of itself.  It’s like reconnecting to God’s grace – we only now have the eyes to see and ears to hear. 

The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. Says the Teacher. 

We hear the Earth crying out, demanding action be taken.  We feel her pain, it is our pain. 

And Christ teaches us that through the communal experience of God’s activity in the most wounded places of our world, we are empowered and sent out by the spirit to take action in the world.

“We are slowly learning that God gives gifts to us in the most unlikely guises—people we find it hard to like, people with whom we disagree profoundly, and people we would rather ignore or marginalize. We are also learning that we can only be a real community if we’re willing to be faithful to our best and deepest understanding of the truth.”

 -- Presiding Episcopal Bishop Katherine Schiori

It is Thomas who asks to see and touch the wounds of Jesus when he appears to them after his resurrection.  For so long we shamed Thomas and the parts of ourselves that doubt, the part that cannot have blind faith – I say that is not shameful.  We know too much now to be taken in right away – and apparently so did the Disciples and biblical writers. 

What the world does not need now is more division, more denial.  No more shame for being a thinking Christian.  No more scientists, physicians, physicists feeling excluded from meaning making, separated from God.  No more hoping that the rapture comes before we have to deal with the Earth.  No more pretending that the whole Earth, and every single living thing on it is God itself, God incarnate, and a part of us.

We need to keep sounding the alarm- to wake up to recognize the impact we can have on one another globally.  Wake up and understand that we are just one part of the whole – That our “tribe” is really the whole planet, maybe the universe.  Copernicus may have first revealed, back in the 16th century, that we are not the center of the universe but as a species we still behave this way.  We are still waking up as a planet and learning from our mistakes.  We are waking up to the needs of the Earth – she shakes and quakes and storms for her greater good – it’s complicated and I’ll do my best to do it justice next week.

But for all the things the world does not need – air pollution, oil spills, science and religion apart… what the world does need is for us to make the necessary changes together for the greater good.

We are the cantors of the universe, called to sing this Earth into the next millennium.    May it be so.


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