Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig on Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 and Proverbs 6:6-11
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Sermon Part I
This summer as Community Mennonite Church we’ve been preaching against the vices sometimes called the “seven deadly sins” and advocating the virtues of Christian living. Here’s an image of the vices updated for our age of digital technology. [SLIDE #2] Certainly all of these technologies can be put to virtuous uses as well, but some of us can identify with the temptations and traps represented here. Today, we’re focusing on sloth–depicted here as binge-watching Netflix–which seems ironic. This weekend at least 16 of us from CMC participated in the Virginia Mennonite Conference summer assembly. [SLIDE #3] In addition to rich and moving worship services, great Bible teaching by Sarah Bixler who will also be preaching here next month, and a powerful sermon from MDS director Kevin King, the delegates worked for hours–all Friday, and all morning Saturday. In fact, we went overtime yesterday. And, led by our own Sam Miller, the local carpenter guild, framed a house for a WV family in extreme heat and record time on Friday morning. Mennonites are not known for sloth.
[SLIDE #4] Even if sloth is not your besetting sin, you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps you or someone close to you has suffered from this vice at one time or another. Christians through the centuries have valued work and rest, and each generation warns the next about laziness. Jesus himself said: We must work the works of the One who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. (Jn 9:4) There is an urgency about the work of the gospel as well as a necessity for work to meet household needs and give purpose to our days. In the beginning, God gave humanity work–to tend and preserve the earth. This word from God in Genesis dignifies many different types of human work. The VMC assembly focused on cultivating good soil for sowing seeds–the word of God. Some aspects of our society pressure us into overwork. Even if we’re doing good work, lives without rest or refreshment are as unBiblical and unsustainable as lives of laziness and sloth. It’s a challenge each day, each week, each year, each season of life to find rhythms of work and rest that emerge from our relationship with the God who loves us and created us with a purpose.
[SLIDE #5] Today we’re listening for the word of God from two scriptures in the Bible’s wisdom literature: Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. If you haven’t heard of Ecclesiastes, it’s in the Old Testament right after Proverbs, which is the far more popular book of the Bible. [SLIDE #6] Hebel is a Hebrew word repeated 38 times in Ecclesiastes. Hebel gets translated in different ways. It literally means literally mist, vapor, wind and metaphorically vanity. Hebel refers to the fleeting nature of reality and our inability as human beings to grasp life’s meaning or purpose. [SLIDE #7] Ecclesiastes is a Greek name for this Biblical book of wisdom. Ecclesiastes means the teacher or the one who gathers the assembly. The voice we hear in Ecclesiastes is that of a wisdom teacher and also an unknown narrator who comments on the teaching at the very end of the book. And in this book we listen for God’s voice, God’s word, as well.
The Teacher or Preacher, Qoholeth in Hebrew, explains that what we typically pursue in life–careers, pleasure, status, wealth–are in reality–hebel–a vapor, a mist, a chasing after the wind. [SLIDE #8] To the disappointment of the hardworking and industrious folks among us, it turns out that the educated elite of the ancient world discovered that life is temporary; we’re all going to die. Life is enigmatic and paradoxical. If we’re eager to make meaning of our existence, Ecclesiastes disrupts our progress on a ladder of life’s meaning and puts to poetry the gnawing truth that our daily lives and commitments are…hebel.
And so whether or not physical laziness is a problem for us, we are existentially prone to sloth. I know we’ve had a lot of definitions this morning, but here’s one more. [SLIDE #9] Sloth translates the Latin acedia–without care. If sloth were just about physical laziness, then some of us would feel exempt; we’re simply too busy building houses, washing dishes, keeping appointments, planning events, meeting people, doing business, and carrying on as God’s people. Yet, a calendar full of activity does not protect us from this vice. Sometimes what we’re busy doing makes us care-less about God’s priorities for human life–relationships, tending the earth and welcoming the kingdom of God.
Spiritual writer Kathleen Norris has written Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life. In one passage she clarifies:
“Acedia is not a relic of the fourth century or a hang-up of some weird
Christian monks, but a force we ignore at our peril. Whenever we focus
on the foibles of celebrities to the detriment of learning more about the
real world- the emergence of fundamentalist religious and nationalist
movements, the economic factors endangering our reefs and rain
forests, the social and ecological damage caused by factory farming –
acedia is at work. Wherever we run to escape it, acedia is there,
propelling us to 'the next best thing,' another paradise to revel in and
wantonly destroy. It also sends us backward, prettying the past with the
gloss of nostalgia. Acedia has come so far with us that it easily attached
to our hectic and overburdened schedules. We appear to be anything but
slothful, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and
feel pressured to do still more.” ― Kathleen Norris
The New Testament wisdom writer James was quite familiar with the Biblical idea of hebel. In fact, James takes the whole matter further. Listen: Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (James 4:13-14)
James says you and I are nothing but an ephemeral mist! These Biblical wisdom writings in Ecclesiastes and James go to great lengths to say that in the big picture our life is next to nothing. We all die–by crucifixion or otherwise. That’s true, but it’s also a device. Sure, we’re soon to vanish off the earth, but the good news is that God is everything. God is our only source of life or meaning. Rather than chasing after the wind to give our life meaning, or being victims of acedia and ceasing to care about God’s priorities, Biblical wisdom writings–Old and New–urge human beings to live all day every day as a response to God! The triune life of God is the ultimate reality and our lives are a response to the truth and love of God. This is human life Jesus lived.
What kinds of work do you do inside your house?
Jobs or chores in the kitchen? Jobs or chores in your bedroom?
What kinds of work do they do outside?
Do you have any jobs or chores in the garden? In the yard?
God wants us to have good work in our lives. God also wants to rest.
What kind of work do your parents do? At home? Somewhere else?
Do your parents sometimes work too much?
Do you know what my job is? I’m a pastor.
Listening prayer. We’re going to listen for God’s word.
God might want to tell us who God wants us to be.
God might want to tell us what God wants us to do.
And we won’t know if we don’t listen.
So for our listening prayer–the adults, youth and older children can
join us. We’re going to be very quiet. We don’t want to be frozen, but we
want to be relaxed and alert. Because we’re listening for God’s word.
So, let’s begin by letting our shoulders relax and taking a deep breath. Now let’s close our eyes. And listen for a sound that is very far away. Maybe you can hear a car outside. Or even a bird if we’re very quiet. [PAUSE]
Now listen for a sound that is across the room.
Maybe you can hear someone moving in their chair.
Or maybe one of the little babies is making sounds.
Now listen for a sound that is very close to you.
Maybe you can hear someone breathing if you’re very quiet.
[PAUSE] Now let’s listen for God’s word inside us. God might be quiet or tell us something. We’ll be quiet together for just a minute, so we can all listen.
Thank you, God, that you speak to us with patience and love.
Thank you for your word for our lives. AMEN.
Did you hear something from God?
Sometimes I don’t hear anything when I listen for God’s word.
When I don’t hear anything I believe God is still saying–thank you for listening.
You might still hear something from God during worship today.
So keep listening to the Bible, to the sermon, to the songs and prayers.
Sermon Part II
We have to be careful when we speak about sloth or acedia as vices because many of the signs of sloth are similar to clinical depression and need some special care. After hearing Proverbs 6–a salute to the industrious ant!–we don’t want to apply it to the wrong circumstances. [SLIDE #10] And if you’re interested in how we read the Bible and connect these sometimes odd and always ancient words with our life today, consider an adult ed class this fall where we’ll study a couple books that will help. The Bible Unwrapped: Making Sense of Scripture Today by Megan Larissa Good and Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament by Melissa Florer-Bixler.
One of my favorite stories when I was a little girl was about the ant and the grasshopper. It wasn’t in a storybook. My mother just told it from memory and it always changed a little bit in the telling. I only learned as an adult that it was one of Aesop’s fables. [SLIDE #11] This is the illustration from The Library of Congress. As I got older my mother would tell part of the story and I would tell part–each of us making up new details. My mother was usually the grasshopper suffering from acedia, playing the fiddle and singing songs rather than caring about winter preparations. My mother would dance and sing and I would laugh. I was usually the ant collecting my food for the winter and storing it up with my family of ants. The moral is “there’s a time for work and a time for play.” Looking back I think this story was funny to me because my mother was the one who did a lot of the work in our family and made sure that there was enough of what we needed. But telling this story over and over to each other and laughing together was one way I knew that her work of raising children was part of her joy in life.
What if our work and activity this week were truly focused on the God’s word to us for this season in terms of relationships, tending the earth and welcoming the word of God? Who does God want us to be? What does God want us to do? There is joy in responding to God’s word in our lives. The narrator of Ecclesiastes–who comments at the very end of the book–claims that in the end our reverence for God and the commands of love will be the measure of our mist-like days of life. We don’t determine life’s meaning and if we try, we will not be able to grasp it, but God speaks a good word to us like good soil, we can receive it with joy.
[SLIDE #12] Zoologist Lucy Cooke has a heart for misunderstood animals. So you can well imagine that she’s interested in rehabilitating the image of the sloth. Cooke claims that for our health and that of our planet, human beings should learn from the sloth who consumes little and lives a slow sustainable life. She has written Life in the Sloth Lane: Slow Down and Smell the Hibiscus. [SLIDE #13]
The point of her book, in addition to great photos and insight about these amazing creatures is “slowing down and appreciating life for what it is instead of chasing after what you want it to be.” Chasing after the wind. This chasing after is the overworked, over scheduled lives that some of us live. But there is joy in receiving our creator’s word for us.
[SLIDE #14] What is life, but a gift from a loving God who created all things–including animals like sloths and grasshoppers and ants from whom we learn so much? Slowing down enough to see God’s handiwork in the world and hear God’s word–especially with respect to work and rest–will protect us from sloth and give us joy in Christ. In spite of Aesop’s fable, animals don’t suffer these vices, nor do they develop these virtues. Human beings are unique among the animals. We are made in the image of God. Our ephemeral lives, though nothing but a mist, are valuable to God. And because of Christ we can enter into the work of God in the world. This week let’s listen for God’s word to us about work and rest. Share what you hear with me or another pastor or someone else you trust. As we hear and respond to God’s word for our lives, joy can break into a day of work or a season of life that is stressful or difficult.
At the very end of Ecclesiastes after the wisdom teacher has expounded on the vanities of human life. The narrator says: When all is said and done, here is the last word: worship in reverence the one True God, and keep God’s word, for this is our work.
Yesterday at the delegate assembly when things were getting difficult, Executive Conference Minister Clyde Kratz spontaneously shared God’s word for the conference. It felt like he was pastoring us. [SLIDE #15] Clyde spoke about our VMC’s commitment to evangelism through VMMissions and recalled the mission workers and credentialed leaders we had commissioned in a beautiful worship service Thu evening. Clyde celebrated our commitment to service, and the recent example of building a house for the West Virginian Walker family. Then, he referred to social transformation. Clyde believes VMC congregations often neglect or ignore this kingdom work. He didn’t use the term sloth or acedia, but he was concerned that we easily become care-less about social transformation. He credited Community Mennonite with being the only folks currently urging VMC to attend to social transformation. He mentioned my recent request that he sign on to a petition for abolishing the death penalty in VA and share this with conference pastors and leaders.
Hardworking Mennonites can slip into this deadly vice and care-less about God’s word in terms of social transformation, staying busy with aspects of mission and service more comfortable for us. Even our gospel work of sharing God’s word, serving others in need and social transformation in terms of justice and peacemaking is a vapor. Our lives, like Jesus’ earthly life are fleeting. It is only because the risen Lord Jesus is rescuing us from acedia, sloth, every vice and even death, that we have life. It is only because Christ has sown a word into our lives that we work and rest in joy. This week, listen for God’s word for your own life and for our life together that we may labor in the joy of the Lord and rest in Christ’s peace.[/otw_shortcode_content_toggle]
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