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Ecclesiastes 3.1-15

III John 1-8, 11-15

Holy Hedonism

(Overlooked and Underpreached – VI)

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

I told a bit of this story before, but I once sang onstage with Pete Seeger.  Pete’s brother John was a member of one of my former churches, and Pete agreed to do a fundraising concert for our purchase of a new church organ.  He asked the church choir to accompany him on one of his songs, so for one brief, shining moment, I became a member of the choir.  One of the things I learned the night of the concert was that Pete composed the popular song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  I had always assumed that it was Bob Dylan who wrote it, since the version I knew best was by the Byrds, a group that made a small cottage industry of covering Dylan songs.  But when I heard Pete sing it, I could tell immediately it was his – just the way he adds the wry phrase, “Turn, Turn, Turn” to the words of Ecclesiastes 3 is purely Pete Seeger.  If you’ve never heard him sing it, give it a listen, and I think you’ll hear what I mean.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”  It is one of those wonderfully memorable Old Testament songs – and I do think we can call it a song, even before Pete put it to music – a song whose lyrics show a great deal of wisdom about life and the human experience.  It describes a sense of balance, of time and eternity, a plainspoken wisdom, a set of truisms that on the one hand can be recognized as simple observations about life, yet on the other possess a profundity that speaks to a deeper place in the human spirit.  For some of them the meaning is as plain as day:  “A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”  But others make you stop and wonder:  “A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”  Well now, healing and love and peace are all wonderfully welcome biblical virtues, but a time to kill?  A time to hate?  A time for war?  Is the Bible really telling us these are OK?  Well, I don’t see the writer sanctioning hate and killing and war, but rather recognizing that these too are realities of the human experience, and the Bible is seldom afraid to confront the messier parts of living.  I think their inclusion is what makes the entire passage so credible, so relatable, along with some of those other realities we would prefer to avoid, like mourning, and weeping, and losing.  What gives them their value, the writer is telling us, is that in God’s mind there is a time for everything.  What we do with these times, how we seize them, the ways we respond to them, are in some ways what make us the most human.  For as simple as this passage is, there is also a good deal of breadth and depth, and this is why, I think, we resonate so much with these words whenever we hear them.  As I wrote on Friday, the third chapter of Ecclesiastes is one of the most familiar parts of the Bible, and thanks to Pete Seeger and the Byrds, its familiarity endures whether you connect it to the church or the radio..

But there is something else going on in this passage that never made it into music, where the poetry ends and the prose begins.  You probably noticed that we didn’t have room in the bulletin this week for the entire reading, but I hope we listened closely to what Michele read after the familiar words of the first nine verses.  After repeating the word “time” 29 times in the first eight verses, the writer – who calls himself Qoheleth, meaning “teacher” or “preacher,” – Qoheleth offers up this mystical notion of time:  “God has made everything suitable for its time;” there is a time for everything.  And he goes on:  “Moreover, God has put a sense of past and future into our minds, yet we cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”  It contains the sense that all those “times” for everything we’ve heard about are not only divinely sanctioned, but can also be found somewhere within the human experience.  And then we find the reason for this – and for me, this is the centerpiece of the entire passage: “I know that there is nothing better for us than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we live; moreover, it is God’s gift – it is God’s gift - that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all our toil.”  Let me ask you the question: how often do we hear this from the pulpit, that God wants nothing more for us – note, I didn’t say from us, but for us – God wants nothing more for us than that we are happy and enjoy ourselves, that we should eat and drink and take pleasure in everything we do.  We’re used to hearing things like, “God wants us to believe – God wants us to obey – God wants us to behave – God wants us to be faithful…”  And it may well be that God wants all these things in us, but how often do we hear that above all things, God wants us to be happy and enjoy ourselves.  And by the way just in case you think I’m making a bit too much of this one sentence in Ecclesiastes’ twelve chapters and 222 verses, Qoheleth writes about the enjoyment of life no fewer that fifteen times in this brief book.  From chapter two:  “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their work.”  From chapter five:  “It is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in… the life that God gives us.”  From chapter 8:  “So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves.”  From chapter nine:  “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.”  And also from chapter nine:  “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love… for that is your portion in life.”

The Greeks have a word for this kind of enjoyment and pleasure:  it is hdonh (hēdoneh), which gives us the word “hedonism,” the idea that enjoyment and pleasure is the chief good in life.  And so it probably won’t surprise you that as the canon of the scriptures was being formed, there were more than a few church leaders who wanted nothing to do with the book.  How often does the church tell us to go out and have a good time?  It was H. L. Mencken who once described Puritanism, that lineage from which the Congregational church descended, as harboring the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.”  Now, I don’t want to overstate Qolheleth’s case here, because Ecclesiastes has its dark corners as well – after all, if you’re writing about what it means to be human and alive, and you’re striving for honesty and credibility, you can’t pretend everything is pleasant and enjoyable.  It is not, and Qoheleth knows it.  But here in this section, the message is clear:  it is not only permissible for us to find pleasure in life, it is what God has hoped for us from the start.  Where hedonism gets a bad rap is in the act of indulgence or overindulgence, or the sacrifice of the good of the other in the pursuit of the good for the self. 

In fact, it is this balance, the good for the other and the good for the self, that led me to John’s third letter this morning.  John is writing to commend Gaius, evidently a leader of a local congregation, for his and his congregation’s hospitality toward both friend and stranger alike.  “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends,” – by which John means, the brothers and sisters within his own church as well as the wider church as a whole – “even when they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church.”  And John conveys that same sense of joy we find in Ecclesiastes:  “I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness…  I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”  The evidence of Gaius’ faithfulness is his hospitality, his and his church’s welcoming of both friend and stranger alike without distinction.  I’m not going to say this was the first Open and Affirming congregation, but the kind of welcome and hospitality we have seen Jesus offer again and again to people of every stripe, was evident in abundance in Gaius and his congregation.

And this too is a source of joy, just as much as eating and drinking and taking pleasure in everything we do.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism is a teaching tool that has been used by the Presbyterian Church since the seventeenth century.  Today we might compare it to confirmation, since it was a way of teaching the principles of reformed faith to youth.  The very first question in the catechism seems to be a grand and sweeping one:  “What is the chief end of Man?”  Or put another way, “What is the primary reason God created humanity?”  The response is at once both elementary and deeply theological.  “The chief end of humanity is to glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.”  This is the kind of thing you learn at an early age when you’re Presbyterian, and if you ask me, it is a lesson that more of us could stand to learn.  God has created us that we might glorify God by who we are and what we do, and that we might enjoy God forever.  There is that word again, the word Ecclesiastes employs fifteen times in twelve chapters, “enjoy.”  It must be pretty important.

I’ll close this morning with something I wrote on Friday.  They are the words of Frederick Buechner, who died on Monday at the age of 96.  A prolific writer, Buechner possessed a deep religious sensibility and was able to communicate in plainspoken terms.  I think you’ll hear the sense of joy and enjoyment of which John and Qoheleth write in the epigram to my Friday blog.  It was Buechner who wrote that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  Whatever it is that brings us joy, and I hope many things do, wherever and whenever they intersect with what the world needs most, these are the places God is calling you and me to live, and to enjoy God with everything we do. 

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


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