Things Work Until They Don’t

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8; Matthew 16:13-18, preached by Paula Moyer on July 07, 2024

Good morning. I’m Paula Moyer, a member of University Baptist Church and one of the substitutes filling in for Pastor Doug Donley during his medical leave. Full disclosure: I am nowhere close to being ordained and have no plans to do so. Therefore, I am deeply honored to be preaching today for the first of our two congregations’ joint services this summer. I love that tradition and the friendships that have been formed because of our close ties. I regret that my COVID infection keeps me from being present.

When I first volunteered to be one of the stand-ins for Pastor Doug, I did not know that our respective ministers had decided that our joint services would focus on passages from Ecclesiastes, known as “Qoheleth” in the Hebrew Bible. Once I knew, I still said yes, and “I’ll just use that thing about ‘for everything there is a season.’ It’ll be easy.” 

Then, still naïve, I felt that it was prudent to read at least the preceding chapters and some commentary, so that I could get a sense of this passage’s context. And I borrowed a theological study entitled Qoheleth from Pastor Doug, just to be very well prepared. 

Let me share what I found. First, the narrator is King Solomon, who died about 950 years before the Common Era. The book, however, seems to have been written just after the Babylonian exile had ended. This would be 500 years after Solomon died. It may have been written even later.

We should not be surprised. Authors often use narrators as a way to convey a story’s message and power. After all, what is the opening sentence of Moby Dick? “Call me Ishmael.” So with Ecclesiastes, as with literature in general, we honor the author by accepting the narrator and listening to the story.

Now, about those first two chapters—the ones I thought would be helpful to read? Oh, Lord.

They’re a belabored lament about the futility of all human endeavor. The narrator says that he amassed wealth, acquired knowledge, and even enjoyed himself. And it all amounted to nothing: “just chasing the wind.” What to do with that?

And then comes the passage that opens the third chapter: “For every thing there is a season.” We have all heard it many times, often at funerals.

We’ve heard the Pete Seeger song—people in my generation, anyway.

But now the context threw me. It seemed a non sequitur, like that line in the old television show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “And now for something completely different.” At best, it seemed an inadequate comfort: “Don’t worry, be happy. Everything may be pointless, but there is a flow to it.” 

Remember, though—this is what Solomon says to comfort himself. And somehow, we must find the passage comforting, too, because it’s stood the test of time.

As I looked at that portion with more of an open mind, I realized that it articulates a universally recognized truth: change is constant. In dialectical materialism, the philosophical undergirding of Marxism, the idea is that this constant change eventually becomes a series of incremental changes by degree. As those deviations accumulate, they eventually amount to a change in kind, a transformation.

For example, look at babies. A child grows and keeps growing. Last week the onesie fit; this week the crotch snaps will barely come together. Then, suddenly, the voice starts changing, or the bust starts developing.

Then you blink.

Voila—a young adult is standing alongside you, taller than you. This competent person is making gourmet mashed potatoes for your family’s holiday dinner, with a recipe from YouTube. How did that onesie get too small so fast?

There is a time to burp the baby, and a time to welcome our offspring’s adulthood.

On a more general level, look at how this passage prepares us for changing all manner of things that need to change; hence the sermon title “Things work until they don’t.” There is a time to get fulfillment from a job, and a time to face another truth: either the new manager gets an exorcism, or you start updating your résumé.

There is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. Anyone who has been through a divorce knows this. That time to refrain from embracing? It often creeps up incrementally. When my children’s dad and I separated, a friend asked me: “Was this a surprise or were there rumblings?” My answer? “There were rumblings, but I thought it was just the bus going by.”

As I prepared for today, I was initially baffled by the futility in the preceding chapters. What was I to say about that? Then I had—well, nothing as dramatic as an epiphany. Let’s just call it a moment of clarity. The immediate audience for Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth was this defeated nation. As they limped back from exile and beheld the wreckage of the Babylonian invasion, they must have felt overwhelmed. What would it take to put things back together? If the book was written even later, those feelings of defeat and humiliation most definitely would have continued. The glory days of the nation of Israel were long gone. By that time, they had experienced multiple foreign occupations.

Then they hear that Solomon, this giant in their history—a successful, powerful, wise ruler—had a season of sighing and wondering: What was the point of it all? They were not alone in their despair. And today? Well, many and perhaps all of us know this feeling.

To continue with the divorce example: sometime after the initial shock and numbness, an emptiness creeps in. We divide up those personal effects, those photo albums, that carefully selected dinnerware. It held a prominent place in the gift registry; friends and family gave place settings and serving pieces as a blessing, as a show of their faith that the marriage would be forever. The dinnerware pattern may have had a whimsical name that you just can’t forget. Mine was “Upsa-Daisy.”

And now? All of those things that were once linked to treasured memories of a shared life, shared dreams? Well, it’s all business: you get this, I get that, we negotiate over another; the pieces of “Upsa-Daisy” are divided between the parties. What was the point of it all?

Many situations can evoke this feeling. After successfully defending her dissertation, a friend told me she had a letdown. All that effort, for so many years. And now it was done. What was the point of it all?

I had a similar feeling about a year after I had moved to Minnesota to go to graduate school. My major and I had become not a good fit. I would walk through the periodical stacks at Wilson Library, look at this gigantic quantity of publications, and sigh: What was the point of it all?

My grandfather felt it. He had served in France during World War I. In the months after the Armistice, he came in handy as a civil engineer. His contribution consisted of rebuilding roads and bridges that had been destroyed by German artillery shells.

A little more than twenty years later, on a spring day in 1940, my mother came home from school to see her father sitting in front of the radio, openly weeping. He was listening to the news of France’s surrender to Germany in the early days of World War II. Many of those roads and bridges that he had designed—and of which he had overseen the construction—had probably been destroyed during the horrific aerial bombing that preceded the surrender. Through his tears, her father coughed out the words, “France will never be the same.” What was the point of it all?

This futility is what so many healthcare professionals feel as the result of the COVID pandemic. Facilities are still short-staffed. As patients, we often get bare-bones treatment. Our physicians and nurses know that they should do more for us, but they can’t, and they know that we know. We can see the exhaustion in their bodies: the hollow look around the eyes, and the sag in the shoulders. All that education and training, that nobility of purpose, and it’s come to this. What was the point of it all?

In today’s passage from the Gospel, Jesus knew that the disciples may have been feeling, if not hopelessness, at least some questioning. They had left everything to follow this itinerant rabbi around. Jesus had felt it in the desert when He was alone and tempted for 40 days. Hence His questioning: who do people say that I am? What do you say?

And then comes the antidote to this doubt: the declaration of the disciple who was still called Simon: You are the One chosen by the Living God. And Jesus’ affirmation: you are now Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

This passage establishes Peter’s role in the founding of the church. And what did he do? He did what we are asked to do: he bore witness to his faith. And we are reminded in this story that Peter was the rock because of his faith, and that faith, too, is the rock. Without faith, we would have no church. 

When I was growing up, I often heard the expression that faith is the difference between believing in something and believing on it. The difference between looking in awe at Jesus walking on the water and doing what Peter did, as Pastor Matty reminded us so compellingly in their sermon at UBC two weeks ago. 

Peter got out of the boat and walked toward Jesus. On the water. That walk, brief as it was, also showed Peter’s faith—the reason Jesus called him “the rock.”

We all know that Peter went on to deny Jesus after our Lord’s arrest. However, we need to be more like Jesus. He did not define Peter by his worst moment, but by his better ones. Peter had the faith to say what he saw in Jesus. The faith to walk on the water. Similarly, we ought not define ourselves or each other by our most frail, most exposed moments.

Faith helps us not only to accept the seasons of change but to believe that there is a purpose to life. Or, at least, faith gives us the courage to put purpose into our lives.

I want to qualify that process of acceptance, though. It requires me to swim in my own lane. If I want to see meaning in a misfortune that has befallen me, that is certainly fine. However, I need to refrain from assuming that someone else has the same need. They probably don’t need to hear anything from me along the lines of: “things happen for a reason.”

Instead, when a friend is mourning or suffering otherwise, they may need to lean into the pain of hopelessness. The pain may never go away, but in time, with proper support, the time of mourning will become complete. There will be a season for dancing—even for Baptists. 

Yes, that was an inside remark. In the old days some Baptists frowned on dancing; hence the joke: “Why don’t Baptists make love standing up? Because it leads to dancing.”

When we comfort mourners, we can help them complete that process. We are most helpful when we remember that listening is more helpful than talking. A hot dish never hurts, either.

I will leave the rest of Ecclesiastes to the other preachers for our joint services. For now, I want to come back to that third chapter. The time and season for most things in our lives don’t announce themselves suddenly. It’s more a series of incremental changes that eventually cause a big change—like that baby—suddenly all grown up, seemingly in a matter of seconds. Blink.

Now that adult is no longer assisting you, but taking charge of the dinner. You’re the one making the side dishes, while you still can. Until you blink again.  

We often accept difficult changes in our lives—well, with difficulty. But things work until they don’t. And our acceptance in and of itself is one of the things for which there is a season. It comes at the end of the journey, in its own time. It can’t be rushed. In the meantime, there is a time to mourn—a time to feel hopeless, a time to throw up our hands and say, What was the point of it all? Let’s not rush that time—neither for ourselves nor for others.

Rather, let us embrace ourselves and each other in exactly the season where we are—walking on the water, or crouching in shame. Let us offer fewer words, more companionship, and more hot dishes.

And let our actions be the evidence of our faith. Amen.