Michelangelo, Ecclesiastes, & Vapor
Teaching Segment Notes by Randell Neudorf
Sunday, May 4th, 2014
On Sunday May 4th, 2014 we were looking at Ecclesiastes 6:10-7:14. For the scripture reading we decided to read the passage thought by thought in both the NIV and The Message.
New International Version (NIV)
The Message (MSG)
|10 Whatever exists has already been named,
and what humanity is has been known;
no one can contend
with someone who is stronger.
|10 Whatever happens, happens. Its destiny is fixed.
You can’t argue with fate.
|11 The more the words,
the less the meaning,
and how does that profit anyone?12 For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?
|11-12 The more words that are spoken, the more smoke there is in the air. And who is any better off? And who knows what’s best for us as we live out our meager smoke-and-shadow lives? And who can tell any of us the next chapter of our lives?|
|7 A good name is better than fine perfume,
and the day of death better than the day of birth.
|7 A good reputation is better than a fat bank account.
Your death date tells more than your birth date.
|2 It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart.
|2 You learn more at a funeral than at a feast—
After all, that’s where we’ll end up. We might discover
something from it.
|3 Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.
|3 Crying is better than laughing.
It blotches the face but it scours the heart.
|4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
|4 Sages invest themselves in hurt and grieving.
Fools waste their lives in fun and games.
|5 It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person
than to listen to the song of fools.
|5 You’ll get more from the rebuke of a sage
Than from the song and dance of fools.
|6 Like the crackling of thorns under the pot,
so is the laughter of fools.
This too is meaningless.
|6 The giggles of fools are like the crackling of twigs
Under the cooking pot. And like smoke.
|7 Extortion turns a wise person into a fool,
and a bribe corrupts the heart.
|7 Brutality stupefies even the wise
And destroys the strongest heart.
|8 The end of a matter is better than its beginning,
and patience is better than pride.
|8 Endings are better than beginnings.
Sticking to it is better than standing out.
|9 Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,
for anger resides in the lap of fools.
|9 Don’t be quick to fly off the handle.
Anger boomerangs. You can spot a fool by the lumps on his head.
|10 Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions.
|10 Don’t always be asking, “Where are the good old days?”
Wise folks don’t ask questions like that.
|11 Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing
and benefits those who see the sun.
12 Wisdom is a shelter
as money is a shelter,
but the advantage of knowledge is this:
Wisdom preserves those who have it.
|11-12 Wisdom is better when it’s paired with money,
Especially if you get both while you’re still living.
Double protection: wisdom and wealth!
Plus this bonus: Wisdom energizes its owner.
|13 Consider what God has done:Who can straighten
what he has made crooked?
|13 Take a good look at God’s work.
Who could simplify and reduce Creation’s curves and angles
To a plain straight line?
|14 When times are good, be happy;
but when times are bad, consider this:
God has made the one
as well as the other.
Therefore, no one can discover
anything about their future.
|14 On a good day, enjoy yourself;
On a bad day, examine your conscience.
God arranges for both kinds of days
So that we won’t take anything for granted.
I have to admit that every time it is my turn to teach at The Commons and we are looking at a book in the Old Testament (the stuff that comes before Jesus) it makes me a little nervous. These writings are so old; some scholars date the writing of Ecclesiastes as around 950 BC. That is almost 3000 years old. That is so far from our own experience, and about 1000 years before even the context of the early church. These words are really old!
One of the things I really value about the Mennonites & Anabaptists (the tradition we are a part of) is the idea that when we read the bible, we need to interpret everything through the life and teachings of Jesus. It’s a Christo Centric view that everything in the past and everything in the future hinges on Jesus. Jesus is the lynch pin that all the other learnings pivot on.
Another thing that is a very Anabaptist-y idea is that there is an end point to the story of Humans and God. In the Peace Class I took at Conrad Grebel this winter there was a lot of talk about this
My prof., Matthew Bailey-Dick called it the “Christian Story Trajectory” and he loved to use the image of an Arc to illustrate this. Here is a picture of the hand out Matthew used (along with my notes from his talk):
The important thing to note is that God had an original plan in creation. This plan is described by words like Shalom and Peace. People screwed up and God repeatedly calls us humans back to the plan. There is a fundamental shift when God shows up in the form of Jesus, and the trajectory shifts to a new destination. This destination is sometimes called the Reign of God or The Kingdom and it is a return to the original plan, it is a return to Shalom.
As I was thinking of this Arc, this Trajectory, this Story, I kept thinking about how the artist Michelangelo tried to illustrate all these things as well in the Sistine Chapel.
Here we see many of the individual stories, illustrated on a vaulted ceiling (kind of like an Arc), with the story of Human kind’s beginning as a center piece, and the other stories ripple out from there.
I really like how The Message words Ecclesiastes 7:13 (MSG): “Take a good look at God’s work. Who could simplify and reduce Creation’s curves and angles to a plain straight line?”
And in Ecclesiastes 6:10-12 (CEV) we read:
10 Everything that happens was decided long ago. We humans know what we are like, and we can’t argue with God, because he is[a] too strong for us. 11 The more we talk, the less sense we make, so what good does it do to talk? 12 Life is short and meaningless, and it fades away like a shadow. Who knows what is best for us? Who knows what will happen after we are gone?
When being asked “Who knows what is best for us?” there is a sense of hopelessness in that from a human perspective but there is also a sense that “God knows what is best for us.” There is a destination.
Now I don’t want to get into the theology of each little part of this piece, more I would like to use it as an illustration that there is a plan, there is a destination. The Complexity of God’s plan that often seems crooked and confusing to us is in the vapor, has an outcome. So even though this piece is about judgement, I am more concerned with Jesus in this picture. This picture boils down to Jesus making things right. There is a going to be a return to the original vision (whatever that might be, this is just one man’s painting).
In last week’s passage we heard Caleb read that “Naked we enter the world, and naked we leave it.” That is the truth that we can’t take any material things with us when we die. In this Last Judgement image, there is a lot of nakedness. The nakedness is Michelangelo saying that God is going to return us to our original state of innocence, a return to peace and shalom.
What I want you to internalize with all these images is this Trajectory.
Creation = Original Plan
Kingdom = A Return to this Plan
So in this imperfect reality, this vapor, Ecclesiastes rings true.
“The more words that are spoken, the more smoke there is in the air. And who is any better off?” Ecclesiastes 6:11 (MSG)
there is modern expression that is pretty close to this, something about “Blowing smoke up your…”
If you happen to be laughing, here is another good one for you…
“ The giggles of fools are like the crackling of twigs.
Under the cooking pot. And like smoke.”
– Ecclesiastes 7:6 (MSG)
In the vapor, there is anguish, there is death, there is grieving. It is not part of the plan, but it is part of our present life.
Here is a sculpture by Michelangelo called “Pieta” I believe it is also in the Sistine Chapel and it is Jesus after he died being held by his mom. This is where God’s story and our story collide. There is death, there is grieving, and there is also (strangely enough) wisdom.
“It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.”
– Ecclesiastes 7:2 (NIV)
“Crying is better than laughing.
It blotches the face but it scours the heart.”
Ecclesiastes 7:3 (MSG)
“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.”
– Ecclesiastes 7:4 (NIV)
“Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions.”
– Ecclesiastes 7:10 (NIV)
I think this is last verse is pointing to not being nostalgic in our anguish & grieving. You can grieve, it wise to do this, but don’t do it out of a place of nostalgia. That nostalgia is just another form of vapor.
But in this aknowlegement that it is wise to stay near grief it does not give us permission to cause grief:
“Brutality stupefies even the wise
And destroys the strongest heart.” – Ecclesiastes 7:7 (MSG)
“Don’t be quick to fly off the handle.
Anger boomerangs. You can spot a fool by the lumps on his head.”
– Ecclesiastes 7:9 (MSG)
There is an element of peacemaking in this. Avoid brutality, avoid anger, and avoid injustice, but stay with those who are in a place grief. Those who have experienced loss and injustice. Be with them. That is part of peacemaking, being in solidarity with those who are in the middle of loss. When the wise go to this place, they are meeting God in the form of Jesus, they are not just spending time with people they are also being near the “Pieta” the dead Saviour in the arms of humanity.
While in this vapor, this house of morning there is still a hint of the original intent, the original plan.
What does incense and candles both produce?
Or we might even want to call it Vapor
For many years Michalangelo‘s was talked about at being an artist that was most concerned with line and shadow. Books and books were written about the subdued and reverent forms of the Sistine Chapel. But after almost 500 years of smoke and vapor were cleaned off the paintings, it turns out that Michelangelo was a brilliant colourist (that is what art historians write about now). His original vision of stunning colour almost got lost under layers of soot and smoke.
Sometimes our own original plans get lost in the smoke and vapor. Often we do this all on our own by having mixed up priorities, and sometimes just the vapor of the world around us confuses things for us.
As I was researching for today I found a podcast by a guy named Tuck Bartholomew from a church in Philadelphia, and I liked where he went with this passage. Tuck really emphasised the verses about good endings and our reputation:
“A good reputation is better than a fat bank account.
Your death date tells more than your birth date”.
– Ecclesiastes 7:1 (MSG)
“Endings are better than beginnings.
Sticking to it is better than standing out.”
-Ecclesiastes 7:8 (MSG)
Tuck links this to a beautiful story from the life of Jesus. The story of the unnamed women who anoints Jesus’ head with perfume.
3-5 Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper. While he was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head. Some of the guests became furious among themselves. “That’s criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year’s wages and handed out to the poor.” They swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her.
6-9 But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives. Whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them. Not so with me. She did what she could when she could—she pre-anointed my body for burial. And you can be sure that wherever in the whole world the Message is preached, what she just did is going to be talked about admiringly.”
– Mark 14: 3-9 The Message (MSG)
Listen to some questions Tuck asks us:
“Will you remember that she wasted her wealth?
Will you remember that some neglected the poor?
Jesus says, the thing that we will remember about this woman is this:
She gave up her costly ointment to prepare him for “the house of mourning.”
For death. For His full decent into the suffering of our world, and the deepest dark places of our life.”
Tuck goes on to say that this women risked her cultural and community reputation to show her love for Jesus, and Jesus realigns her reputation with His path, with His story. Even in the vapor, even in being close to death, this woman is now part of the bigger arc (the kingdom story) that is heading towards a predefined ending. And this is what we are invited into.
When looking at Ecclesiastes, it seems that every section ends with a bit of perspective on the hard things talked about. It doesn’t do a neat wrap up but it does give some hope.
I would like to end off with reading Ecclesiastes 7:14 (MSG) as a benediction for us before we move into communion (which is another place where we enter the house of mourning, remembering sacrifice). Please stand if you are able, and accept these words for yourself.
“On a good day, enjoy yourself;
On a bad day, examine your conscience.
God arranges for both kinds of days
So that we won’t take anything for granted.”