Daniel Wolpert, September 2, 2018
Texts Ecclesiastes 2:18–23; John 6:25–35
On my way up here, I already received two joking comments about this—this is a Bible. So I thought I would share with you my fool-proof guide to understanding what kind of Christian setting you are in. I do a lot of work in different retreat settings and other places, and I quickly came up with a little code to tell where you were. If you’re in a Catholic setting, you can’t find a Bible at all. If you’re in an evangelical setting, everybody is clutching a Bible like it’s some kind of a life raft. And if you’re in a mainline Protestant setting, you can find Bibles but nobody’s read them.
It is hard to remember in a society that practically worships work that, in our spiritual heritage, work arises as the result of a curse. In the second story of the first human beings, work is foisted upon the humans after they become self-aware. Work arises as a curse because of this change in our being—an ontological change. The nature of our being is changed from one in which we are not aware but we are provided for—the Garden of Eden really is a California hippie commune. Those of you who are not aware of this, everyone is running around naked, eating vegetables—this is true, it’s right in there. So the human being goes from someone who is not aware of themselves to now somebody who realizes they are a separate self. And they become concerned then, about their well-being and about who they are, about getting clothes, about where their food is going to come from. And God sends them out of the Garden, and, as part of their curse for their self-awareness, they are told: Now you have to work for a living. This is kind of what every parent goes through when their kid turns about 18.
So this ontological transformation is in many ways the problem that the entire scriptural history in our spiritual heritage is trying to solve. We become separated from ourselves, from the rest of the world, from the Divine essence, and we are forced to worry about our toil. We are forced to focus upon this issue of work and accumulation and survival. This becomes a primary focus of our lives. Think about how much energy, how much time, how much worrying, how many evenings we, like Solomon, lie awake at night, being concerned about what we are up to, what is going to happen to us. This is now the new way that the human being lives in the world.
The thing that our scripture, our heritage, is trying to do is heal that old curse. What is the new way we are trying to be in the world? The book of Ecclesiastes is probably the most misunderstood book in the Bible. It is one that is very bizarre and confusing. The one part of it that everybody knows is that nice little jingle, how there’s a time for everything—we even had a nice little hippie song about that, to go with the hippie commune. But the rest of it is just weird, just bizarre. Here is Solomon, on the one hand, saying his work is useless. And this word vanity is one of the most difficult words to translate from the Hebrew. It has been translated a number of ways: It is a sense of both emptiness and meaninglessness but also implying that our focus on something is a kind of pointless arrogance. So here is Solomon, on the one hand, he’s worried about the fact that his work might go to some fool—and he says that it’s vanity to worry that. Then he’s depressed and upset about this—and he says that it’s vanity to be worried about that.
The book of Ecclesiastes is not so much a straightforward set of stories or teachings—rather, it is a methodology. The book of Ecclesiastes is the beginning of a very long tradition in our heritage, which later comes to be called the apophatic tradition, which is a word that comes from the Greek directly, which means “without images”: Prayer without images. This is a tradition that says a human being is to draw closer and closer to God by letting go of all that we know and understand. The path to God is not a path of concrete realization of truths, but the path of God is in fact is a path of transforming our ontology so that we know nothing. Our being becomes open to everything, becomes open to this vast mystery. And most primarily, it overcomes the fundamental alienation we experience by being open to the true, deep connection that is in fact a part of us all the time yet we spend most of our time ignoring.
So the first method that Solomon is trying to get his leaders to engage in, as we enter this spiritual life, is to all increasingly let go, to let go of what we know, of what we do, of the importance our work gives us, of the worry our work gives us. We are called into a different state of being. Now many of you have engaged in different contemplative practices and you understand what that is like. Often, at the end of a period of quiet prayer, there is this stillness in the room. Everybody is sort of stunned into a kind of silence. There is a connection between the people who are there together. This is something we can actually document on brain scans. People who come to a state of retreat together, their brains actually show signs of syncing up, in the part of the brain that is responsible for love and empathy. They literally begin to become different human beings.
We then come to John’s gospel. John’s gospel is, of course, very different from the other three gospels. It was written much later, in a different time and for a different purpose. It is mostly a demonstration and a reflection and a discussion about who Jesus is. One of the things that it is continually trying to point out is that Jesus is a new type of human being. His ontology is different. And it is something that he is trying to draw us into. Again it is part of this long flow of history, trying to overcome the curse of the separate self. In this particular passage, Jesus is talking about his work. That’s one of the things about John’s gospel: He uses this word work more than any other book in the New Testament—the only other one that is even close is Romans, and there Paul is actually talking about a different sort of thing. But John’s gospel, by far, reflects on this idea of work more than any other. The funny thing about it is that Jesus never seems to do much of anything. He’s always talking about work, but all he is doing is wandering around, running across the sea, hiding from people, occasionally healing and then making sure everyone has plenty of drink. In our day and age, if we saw such a person, we would for sure say they were pretty lazy. And yet, he is always talking about our work and his work.
One of the most famous and successful Church constitutional documents in our history is the Rule of St. Benedict, which has been in existence for over 1,500 years and has been a simple guide for millions of faithful people. It begins by defining the nature of the work of faith. It says that, “I propose to create a school for the work of the Lord.” The work that he’s talking about is not the garden in the monastery, it’s not fixing bricks of the monastery, it’s not taking the sheep up to the pasture—all of those things are very important for the functioning of the community. But the work of God that Benedict refers to is the prayer of the people of the monastery. That is the work. And the reason that is the work is because it is understood that it is that activity that initiates and allows this transformation of us as human beings. So that really is our work.
The hint that we have of this in this particular passage of John and throughout this gospel is this “I am” phrase. Jesus is always saying this in John’s gospel: “I am this”; “I am that.” This is, of course, a resonance to Moses and the burning bush. Moses encounters this burning bush, which is a manifestation of the Divine, and Moses says, “Who are you?” And God answers with this wonderful phrase that is much more interesting in Hebrew than it is in English—basically, God says, “I am pure being. I am what I am. I am the nature of all being itself.” So when Jesus repeats this phrase over and over again, he encourages us to enter into that full, holy, luminous being of the Divine, where all our divisions disappear, all our petty needs and concerns, fights and arguments vanish.
The truth is, we all have experiences of this. We all have experienced moments when this happens. And one of the clearest examples of this, of course, is tragedy. This is one of the reasons that there is an old monastic admonition—which of course made a lot more sense in the 11th century when plague was killing half of Europe than it does now—the monks were told to remember, every time they entered into prayer, that death strikes without warning. At any moment, your being could be fundamentally altered. Some of you may be aware of the fact that several days ago, a young woman who serves with Jeff Sartain in a church here in town, after a medical procedure, fell over in her house, had a massive heart attack and a brain bleed and is in very severe critical condition in the hospital. The response to this, of course, is the kind of response we all know and understand and would immediately respond in our own way when a tragedy strikes near us: There’s a tremendous outpouring of love and concern; suddenly people drop everything they are doing and figure out ways to be of help. When tragedy hits, it blows through all of the other little things we normally worry about. People say, we have a new perspective. We have suddenly this open moment when we realize what is truly and deeply important. We get a glimpse of ontological transformation.
People have studied what has happened to congregations whose churches burned down. And they found one overwhelmingly consistent result of that study. Congregations always describe, later on, that that was the best thing that happened to their congregation. And yet, I’ve never heard in the prayers of the people anybody praying for a church to burn down. And the reason they say this is one of the best things to happen to their congregation is exactly this same issue that we have been talking about—at that point, they have to let go of all the things they have been worrying about and holding on to. They suddenly see and realize what is the most important thing: which is the relationships of the people to themselves, to each other and to God. It creates this open space and moment to be new and different human beings. So really the purposes of our spiritual life, the focus of our spiritual practice, is to encourage all of us to enter in to this emptiness, this nothingness, this seeming void that we are always trying to avoid. As each thought and feeling passes, we recognize it as vanity and emptiness, and we are drawn into that ultimate being, that being of God who is always feeding us well. Amen.