I preached this sermon on the evening of Tuesday, March 16th, 2021, during our communal exploration of Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:7. I’m not a huge fan of Ecclesiastes as a book, so I used George Harrison as a hook and a foil. 🙂
Here Comes the Sun: Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:7 (WBB, March 16th, 2021)
First off, can folks hear me? Good. Thanks. Then I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In roughly April of 1969, George Harrison—in my opinion, the best of the Beatles; I’ll substantiate that claim later—was hanging out at his friend Eric Clapton’s house, having decided not to go to a business meeting with the accountants at Apple. He’d temporarily quit the band, and had a little while earlier been busted for possession of weed…and in response to the sunlight that he felt as he walked around Clapton’s garden, Harrison wrote “Here Comes the Sun.” Little darlin’, I feel the ice is slowly melting; little darlin’, it feels like YEARS since it’s been clear. It’s a wonderfully-optimistic song, especially given how isolated Harrison likely felt.
Then later, in late 1988, after the shine had come off Harrison’s optimism—for instance, long after the Beatles broke up, John Lennon died by gunshot, his father had died, and his first marriage had broken down—an older and wiser Harrison wrote the song “End of the Line” with four of his friends, including Bob Dylan and the late, great Tom Petty. In the very last stanza of that song, Harrison sings, “It’s all right, even if the sun don’t shine / It’s all right / we’re going to the end of the line.” I love listening to that song, no matter my mood, because it feels so complete, and so hopeful. It feels like an excellent summation of a storied career.
Having said all that, I have to wonder if Harrison had ever read our passage from Ecclesiastes for this evening before he wrote either of those songs. I wonder that because the passage begins with how pleasant sunlight is…and clearly, Harrison was a fan of sunlight. Since I’ve gone for a walk most days since early April 2020, I can verify that sunlight is pleasant, but I’m not sure that either Qohelet, or Harrison, is trying to say that we need more vitamin D! Of course, as Hana made clear last week, the Teacher is very privileged, so maybe he is saying something like that. We don’t have to argue about that right now. 😊
I think that, broadly speaking, the Teacher is saying three big things in this passage that we need to consider. First, sunlight (along with other good things!) is pleasant, and we should immerse ourselves in good things. Second, and subsequently, we ought to experience these good things while we’re young, before bad things start to happen; and we shouldn’t worry about things…until the bad days come along. Third and finally, we need to remember God during the good days, because the bad days—especially, the Really Bad Days—are gonna come. The Teacher gives a number of poetic examples to illustrate the Bad Days, including the sun, moon, and stars ceasing to shine, workers no longer grinding grain, and a silver cord snapping in two. During those days, the Teacher clarifies, people will feel great fear and anxiety. In fact, it’ll be difficult during that liminal period to feel anything except pain and grief…
…and that leads us, somewhat neatly, to part of the passage’s import for us as a community. God may be nudging us gently towards mental health with 11:7, but I contend that most of the passage represents the author asking us to remember God during really bad times. The Teacher claims, “Don’t worry about things when you’re young. Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body. Don’t worry; be happy.” But really…
Really, how can we not worry? As the Teacher claims, the bad days have come. We, the children of song, are brought low, for there are fewer songs, and no true concert tours, in the age of COVID-19. Plus, the guards of the house have trembled, and the strong men become bent, as they did both during the grievous insurrection in Washington, D.C. on January 6th, and later during Mr. Trump’s farcical second impeachment trial. The workers who grind grain, and pick fruit for our groceries, and harvest the coffee that sustains us in our greed, have become fewer and fewer. Our Black and Brown and Indigenous siblings are abused and killed, in Canada and the States; people are shamed, and hurt, and killed for their gender and sexuality; and the atmosphere and water of our planet grow warmer as many people in the global North pour more fossil fuels onto the fire. And don’t even get me started on how people with disabilities are treated. Even in Canada, our existence is erased, and glossed over with pretty-sounding words, while legislators of able body make specious distinctions about medically-assisted suicide instead of building a society where human beings can have good, fulfilling lives before death.
So, things are really bad already! As William Butler Yeats claims in his classic poem “The Second Coming,”
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
How can we not worry? The best don’t entirely lack all conviction—for instance, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez in NYC, or Joel Harden here in Ottawa, are deeply-impassioned advocates for the kind of human flourishing we’re talking about—but they don’t have as much social capital as the people who favour the status quo, and have the money to keep things the way they want them. Thus, in light of the perils confronting the Earth and human societies, most of us are worried. How can we not be?! Every day is full of anxiety. We wake, we drink our coffee or tea, we pray for our loved ones, and we sign that letter in support of the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples…dammit, wait, I haven’t done that yet…
and we wait. And we yearn.
But what are we yearning for? It’s not pointed out in this passage, or even in this book as a whole, but what we’re waiting for is what the prophets call the “Day of the Lord” elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures, and what Jesus sketches for his friends in Mark 13. We talked about it a lot with Amos last semester, and we’ve talked about it a great deal ever since I came to this community in the autumn of 2012. The Teacher is pointing us to the topsy-turvy time when – the prophets claim – justice will roll like rivers, and everything will be made right again. We need to remember God, says the Teacher, because bad stuff is going to happen, and through that turmoil, we will witness, and hopefully experience, the birth of a new world. A world where we will eat at table again with our friends, and where everyone will have what they need.
That isn’t all I can say about this passage, though. In the midst of our hope, and our yearning for the turning of the world towards God’s great desire for equity, we still have to wait…and often, especially now, that waiting feels like a great sacrifice. I know something of the sacrifice that we need to make, and would outline what I know pretty simply and bluntly.
The Teacher says in Ecclesiastes 11:9, “Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgement.” For much of my life, until I was thirty-three, I did follow the desires of my heart and my eyes. I went from my tiny Island home almost directly to Toronto, the city where many of us in this Zoom room dwell…and I got a doctorate, and I learned to dance, and I gained a group of friends…and then I got a cool job in Chicago, where many of those patterns continued, to varying degrees…
But then in mid-March 2020, the pandemic struck, and it felt like a judgment on me. I felt like I lost everything. I got rid of the vast majority of my books and papers, which felt like tearing out a part of my soul; I left the small, wonderful community I had made for myself in my church; I left my extraordinarily-spacious and well-lit apartment…and I fled to Ottawa…where I lived in my brother’s spare room over the summer, and felt shame every day for five of the last nine months…and it has taken me literally weeks and months to form community in my new city. I felt judged, and harshly; and I certainly felt like the days of trouble were upon me!!
I’ve felt up and down for a very long time, and for months, most of what I’ve known is hustle. On this 370th day of Lent, and the eleventy-first day of the pandemic, even the good personal and professional things in my life have come at a cost during the pandemic. For example, after weeks of work in January, I was in competition for a wicked-awesome tenure-track position in theology in Edmonton, and I didn’t get an interview; that, amongst other pains, hurt me very deeply, and undermined the little self-confidence that I had…
So, even at good times since the spring of 2020, I’ve felt like the golden bowl has broken, and the silver cord has snapped, for me. Between July of 2020, and about two weeks ago, I’ve struggled to banish anxiety from my mind, and put away pain from my body, as the Teacher instructs in our passage. (I’ve actually inflicted pain on my body, via weight-training; that’s a separate sermon.) It’s been very difficult for me to feel hopeful, because as the text makes clear, there are few songs in the streets, and I feel like I’m one of the only ones out there milling the grain. I know that isn’t true—when I use my head, I can see that I’m not alone—but knowing it and feeling it are two different things…and so, at several points, I’ve felt despair.
This is where Harrison comes back in, for me at least. In “Here Comes the Sun,” and (to some degree) in “End of the Line,” Harrison allows his listeners to hear a wholehearted and dialectical acceptance of things as they are, precisely because things can change. Harrison is the best of the Beatles, for me, because he sees in a Zen-like manner through the absurdity of the way things are, to the wonderful way that things can be. In all his songs, Harrison makes a point of noticing the change inherent in human life. As the Teacher points out, God is the one doing the changing…and God is gonna make things happen. I can’t say that great depth, unlimited benevolence, or irrepressible righteousness, as some of us can…
But I can sing, alongside Harrison, Here comes the sun…it’s all right.And even on March 16th, this eleventy-first day of the pandemic, the sun has come, and it is all right! It’s been much warmer in Ottawa in the past week than it has been since like mid-November. Seasons change, and we can change with them. When we feel like our golden bowls are broken, as we very well may during this pandemic, and when the silver cords of relationship have snapped, we can remember that things are changing…
And we can be part of that change. Here comes the sun…it’s all right. Not the Matthew McConaughey “all right, all right, all right,” and not even the Trinitarian call-and-response that Bono does with the Edge on U2’s “Mysterious Ways”…
But it is all right. It’s all right, or at least, it’s gonna be. I promise. 😊
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer…AMEN.