Under the Sun
Yesterday afternoon, a group of fifteen riders on horseback began a long trek from Fairview High School here in Boulder to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The riders are supporting the work of Tipi-Raisers and several of them are known to members of our congregation who worked beside them on the reservation in June. Please pray for their safety and success as they travel for three hundred and fifty miles, most of which will be ridden under the searing sun. It is likely that temperatures will exceed one hundred degrees on some of the days they ride.
It’s hard to be under the sun when it is especially hot. Standing without shade during the opening ceremonies for the ride yesterday, I was intensely aware of the fiery planet ninety-three million miles away. My baseball cap shaded part of my face, and my 100-PDF sunblock protected my nose and ears from further damage after recklessly welcoming the sun during my younger and more foolish days. Those of us who are fortunate to live in Colorado are closer to the sun and exposed to it for more days than most people.
The writer of the little Old Testament poetic book of Ecclesiastes uses the phrase “under the sun” thirty-one times in twelve chapters. Probably the most famous example is the doleful saying, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes is a curious book, and many Bible scholars have scratched their heads and wondered how it ended up in the canon of Hebrew scriptures in the first place. It doesn’t extol the character of a great and powerful God. It doesn’t record any history, in fact it falls into the category of fictional autobiography which was common in the ancient middle-east. Some people have believed at times that it was an actual autobiography of King Solomon, which may very well explain why it made it into the Bible. It’s sandwiched between the book of Proverbs which is often attributed to Solomon and The Song of Solomon which probably wasn’t written by him but bears his name.
Ecclesiastes is one of several biblical books that are described as Wisdom Literature. The wisdom books are practical and often brutally honest reflections on life. Job and Psalms and Proverbs are examples of Wisdom Literature. Job’s story of suffering has parallels to the life of the fictional king that is described in Ecclesiastes. It’s not that this king, writing in the third person, has such a rough life. It’s just that he ends up questioning why things happen and what the purpose of life really is. The author is fond of reminding his readers that no matter what we achieve in life, we’re all going to die in the end. It’s not a cheery book, and it’s not surprising that it’s not very well known or often quoted apart from the familiar “there is a time for everything under heaven.”
What happens “under the sun” is of great interest to the king whose thoughts are described in Ecclesiastes. In fact, he looks at life as though it is a grand experiment to be fully experienced and then reflected upon in a search for meaning. This king goes by the Hebrew name “Koheleth” which means “teacher.” What is troubling for those who like the Bible to provide clear answers or for those who just like their stories tied up with a nice bow, is that it’s hard to tell whether the teacher has anything to teach about life or not. One commentator expressed that uncertainty in these questions: Is Ecclesiastes positive and life-affirming or deeply pessimistic? Is Koheleth coherent or incoherent, insightful, or confused? Orthodox or heterodox (meaning heretical)? It’s hard to see past the cynicism of this odd little book when the protagonist keeps saying “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”
Do you know what a “red letter Bible” is? It’s a Bible printed with all of the words of Jesus in red. I think those pages filled with red letters could also be considered Wisdom Literature. Today’s Gospel reading is a great example as Jesus waxes poetically about birds and barns and flowers and grass. “Consider the ravens that don’t sow or reap, yet they are fed.” “Consider the lilies that don’t toil or spin, yet are better dressed than Solomon in all his finery.” So why be so uptight about what we have? Or don’t have? Jesus recognizes the human tendency to worry about matters that we can’t do anything about. Like Koheleth, he reminds us that we’re going to die some day, and he says that we can’t add a single hour to our life by worrying about it. He questions the ultimate value of food and clothing, just as the writer of Ecclesiastes wondered why we keep working so hard for things that won’t last. There are some strong similarities. The difference, I think, is that Jesus’ purpose in all of this is to inspire trust in a God who knows our needs and loves us and will make sure that we are OK.
Koheleth and Jesus seemed to start with the same reality but looked at that reality through different lenses and drew different conclusions. Or at least Jesus didn’t dwell as long on the downside of what he described. If you have been watching the political conventions in the last two weeks, or at least their coverage in the media, you know that two quite different speeches were given by the presidential nominees of our two parties. One speech has most often been described as a dark and pessimistic view of our country. The other was more likely to be described as positive and hopeful. This is not a political sermon, so I’m not trying to make a political point. The point is that we often see reality in the way we wish to see it. And sometimes internal forces unknown even to ourselves determine whether we will get stuck in the gloom of what is or whether we will find a way through it.
There is a lot to see and experience under the sun, but sometimes the clouds make it hard to believe that the sun will shine again. Those who experience clinical depression as a medical reality know that looking on the positive side of life does not always come easily and is not just a simple decision. I guess you could look at the words of Koheleth in Ecclesiastes and wonder if he might have been dealing with chronic depression. Just in the nine verses we read, he describes life as an unhappy business and a chasing after the wind. He says he hates his work and gave his heart up to despair. Koheleth is certainly more down than up in his assessment of life.
Greek Mythology includes the story of Icarus who was imprisoned on the island of Crete and with his father created a pair of wings covered with wax that allowed the two men to escape by flying away from the island. Icarus’ father had warned him about being either too complacent or too prideful as they took flight. Unfortunately, Icarus succumbed to the latter and in his giddiness flew too close to the sun. The wax melted, and he fell to his death in the sea. Being “under the sun” presents all sorts of dangers, just as Koheleth complained as he considered the meaning of life and its trials and questioned what we benefit from all of our toil under the sun.
As our planet heats up due to global warming, and as our ozone layer diminishes, like Icarus we are in effect closer to the sun than ever. The melting ice caps and increase of greenhouse gasses due to our habits of consumption are not something we can just dismiss with an optimistic wave of the hand and a belief that things are bound to get better. For those of us who live under the sun, the sun is an ever-present danger even as it provides much of what we need for life itself. Regardless of our emotional response, whether we despair like Koheleth or trust implicitly in a good God as Jesus did, working to diminish our impact on the atmosphere is a critical if not the critical task of our generation.
Thankfully, Koheleth does seem to emerge from his dark assessment of life at points in the book of Ecclesiastes. He acknowledges sources of joy as he asserts that there is a time to love and dance and heal and even laugh. The bottom line for him is that we cannot control all of life and its outcome, especially its final outcome, but we can enjoy God’s good gifts today. In this moment. We can celebrate everything that is evidence of a loving God who makes the sun shine and allows us to work and love and play beneath it.
You are still writing your own autobiography. Not a fictional one about a king and his made-up trials, but a real one with real trials and also real people who love and share this life with you. Don’t be afraid to be honest, as Koheleth was, about the struggles of life and your own questions. And don’t stop looking around for the evidence that God is concerned about your life and cares for you deeply. Embrace each day with a determination to live fully and enjoy the good gifts that we experience here – under the sun.