Most of us who have been around more than a few decades became familiar with today’s words of Ecclesiastes from a Pete Seeger song recorded by Roger McGuinn’s rock-band The Byrds back in 1965 (some might say “way back”). It is considered by many to be one of the defining songs of its time.
To Everything (turn, turn, turn);
There is a season (turn, turn, turn);
And a time for every purpose
These song lyrics, from a piece of Old Testament scripture written some 3,000 years ago, struck a resonant chord in the latter 60’s, offering a message of calm in those tumultuous years of civil rights struggles, the women’s liberation movement, and Viet Nam war protests.
The world has turned on its axis forty three years since. Some things have passed, and some things as ever, remain the same. While the civil rights struggle continues, there has been notable progress – we may very well have a person of African descent as the Democratic party candidate for President this fall. Great strides have been made by smart, successful women in the work place. And today, Viet Nam is a trading partner of the U.S., as well as a tourist destination.
Turn, turn, turn. Our country is once again engaged in a war that has created division in our country. The shadow cast over the role of motherhood and homemaker by the liberation movement has thankfully receded. Immigrant marches have replaced civil rights marches. And so maybe it is like the writer of Ecclesiastes saw it those thousands of years ago. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecc. 1:9)
In other words, there’s a predictable, circular cycle to the ways of the world. Is that a cynical or fatalistic perspective, do you think? Some scholars say so.
The historical time at which Ecclesiastes was written was itself a time of great change and upheaval. Judah, the Southern kingdom of Israel had come through a time of terrible destruction, followed by long years of exile in Babylon. Then the Persian Empire rose up and defeated the Babylonians. As a result, the Jewish exiles were finally permitted to return to their homeland.
Ecclesiastes was also written during a time of great change in the daily life of ordinary people. Their world was transitioning from an agrarian and bartering society to a marketplace economy. Standardized coins were created to buy and sell goods and pay Persian taxes. The pursuit of money and accumulated wealth emerged as a goal for many. Some people were able to do extremely well in this competitive environment; while other people went into enormous debt. Interest rates rose and default payments on loans were onerous. Anxiety increased as people tried to get ahead and keep what they had gained.
It was into this age that was a mixture of entrepreneurial excitement and great disillusionment that a person who introduces himself as Qohelet (This Hebrew word, translated, means teacher or preacher.) offered to his community a startling brand of wisdom. A wisdom quite different than any other found in the Bible – a more concrete wisdom, a more critical wisdom. He begins his writing with the memorable ords, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Then continues, “What do people gain from the work at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” (Ecc. 1:2-4)
Although his identity is uncertain, there are some things about the preacher Qohelet we can surmise. At one time he was rich, and most likely still was at the time of writing Ecclesiastes. Certainly he was a respected teacher. Moreover, he was a man of faith. Embedded in his writing is a faith that trusts in God’s ways. Yet Qohelet is frustrated because for all his riches, for all his knowledge, and for all his faith, it only gets him so far. One person imagined Qohelet lamenting: “I know that life must have some meaning, but I cannot grasp it. I have been permitted to see pieces of truth, but I can never see truth except in pieces…I am a creature of time…a prisoner of time. And sooner or later time will pin me to the mat for the count, just as it has pinned everybody else for the count. Some early. Some late.”
I suppose there is something of the cynic in Ecclesiastes. But I would suggest that Qohelet speaks more from the perspective of a realist.
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes says that we cannot keep the past. Nor can we own the future. And so Qohelet reminds us that “there is a time and a season” for everything that we experience here in our lives “under heaven.” “A time to be born, and a time to die,” he proclaims at the outset. Then he lists 13 pairs of what appear to be opposites as he does a quick two step through the inevitabilities of life. But he is not saying that one is good and the other is bad, only that all these things come to us at one time or another in life. He ends his poetic reflection with the line, “A time for war, and a time for peace.” Bracketed then by birth and peace, there is a time and season for everything, including even death and war…though it is important to note that death and war have neither the first, nor the last word.
On this Memorial Day weekend as we pause to remember the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who gave their life for this country we love, that could well be message enough – that in this world God created, death and war do not have the first or the last word. Further along in Ecclesiastes, the preacher advises, “In a time of good fortune, enjoy the good fortune; in a time of misfortune, reflect.” (Ecc. 7:14) To reflect is to remember, and that is also a part of what Memorial Day is about.
Last Sunday, as is the custom in the village of Kenilworth, Memorial Day was acknowledged with a parade and a ceremony on the park grounds next to the Historical Society. In the address that preceded the naming of young men from the village who served and died, I spoke about the Ken Burns’ documentary that ran on PBS earlier this year. It was entitled simply, The War. Ken Burns was asked in an interview why he chose to make this documentary at this particular time. (There were some who had accused Burns of doing it as an anti-war effort.) He replied that it came to him after he had read that World War II veterans were dying off at the rate of 1,000 per day. Burns felt it important to capture their first-hand accounts. He said, “Someone once told me that when a man dies, it’s like a library burning down. All those stories and memories are the volumes of the library, completely gone. I loved that image.”
I don’t know how many of you might have seen any of the 15 hours of this documentary which focused on the personal stories of men from four different towns in America. But it was a thoughtful, powerful, and at moments, painful reminder about the reality of the cost of war. The interviews were intercut with historical footage, providing a compelling portrayal of combat. The men spoke plainly, honestly, regretfully…and hopefully. Notable in all they said was the absence of any sense of nostalgia or sentimentality.
I paid particular attention to the segment about the battle for Saipan, an island in the Pacific. My father served in the Pacific theater in the Marshall Islands and in occupied Japan. My Uncle Roe, who was a prisoner of war, died in the Bataan death march on the Philippine island of Corregidor. As a remembrance, I carry his name as my middle name. I never met him and have only seen some black and white pictures of him before he shipped out. His youthful face is aglow with a smile. Like many, I am sure he looked forward to life after the war – a future that was sadly cut short.
I want to quote two veterans from the documentary who did come home after the war. Sam Hynes was a twenty-year- old captain in the infantry from Minneapolis. He commented on the ambiguity of war: “I don’t think there is such a thing as a good war. There are sometimes necessary wars. And I think one might say “just” wars. I never questioned the necessity of that war.” Quentin Aanenson, from a farm near Laverne, Minnesota, said something I found to be particularly moving, and haunting. Right after the Normandy invasion that turned around the direction of the war in Europe, Captain Aanenson and others in the 391st fighter squadron were assigned to bomb bridges and railroads and to strafe enemy forces trying to get to the battlefield. Here is what he said. “We caught a group of Germans that were in a road in an area where there were no trees, and so there was no place for them to hide…and I remember the impact it had on me when I could see my bullets tearing into them…As I was doing this, I was doing it knowing I had to do it…This is what I had been trained to do…But when I got back home to the base in Normandy and landed, I got sick. I had to think about what I had done. Now, that didn’t change my resolve for the next day. I went out and did it again.”
“A time to kill, and a time to heal.” I have never felt very comfortable reading that particular couplet. But I now understand it better in terms of Qohelet’s observation that: “The heart of wisdom is in the house of mourning; the more knowledge, the more sorrow.” (Ecc. 7:4) Today, the Germans and the Japanese are our allies. The time of their being our enemy has thankfully past. Turn, turn, turn.
Though a realist, Qohelet is prone to pessimism. In the opening chapter he writes, “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.” (Ecc. 1:11) Well that is not our experience. Remembering is an important part of our lives, our faith, and our country. This weekend is all about remembering — remembering those who have sacrificed their lives in battle, remembering those who have served and survived, remembering those currently serving our country, remembering innocent civilian lives lost as a result of war and terrorist attack.
This weekend, our Youth Minister, Sarah Garcia, and Silvi Vahtra, who works with Sarah as a youth leader, are with our Junior High Youth Group in New York City on the Quest mission trip. They spent yesterday working at a soup kitchen and a homeless shelter for youth. This afternoon, after a “gospel tour” of Harlem, they will go to “ground zero,” the site of the Twin Towers. Sarah’s mother, who volunteered with the Red Cross for eight months following 9-11, will be their guide and she will describe how people worked together to help do what needed to be done in the aftermath of 3,000 innocent lives lost. The Quest group is not going to “ground zero” as tourists, but to remember.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says God has put a sense of the past and future in our minds, yet has not given us the ability to understand fully what God has done and is doing from the beginning to the end. We can grasp the present, but only hope to have a glimpse of eternity. God alone is the One in charge of all of time – past, present, and future. In the last verse of the passage we read today, Qohelet sums it up with these words: “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.” (Ecc. 3:15) It is a statement of trust in God. Because for all those things we pursue in our own time, for all those things that seem out of our control, God looks after.
And so today it is fitting that we come to the table of the Lord to remember that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all of time has been redeemed. “Do this, in remembrance of me,” he said at his meal. Let us use this time to remember him and all those who have given of their lives to make today possible for us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.