Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
text: “all is vanity and a vexation of spirit” (Ecc. 1:17, KJV)
The Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – 16.Nov.2008
Lime Rock Baptist Church – Lincoln, RI
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell
This Fall marks my eighth year as a Christian minister, I’m not longer a neophyte but I’m not a seasoned journeymen either. I have been spending a fair amount of time reflecting on my first seven years – I have entitled this year my working sabbatical. At one time in my life I was sure my model for ministry would be the priestly model: helping to correct and make relevant a “right order” to life. As divinity school commenced I was sure the prophetic model would be the model for my career: helping to make a more just and more righteous world. After seven years I see a different model, the wisdom model: the results of an examined and reflected religious life.
In the 12th century an Englishman, a one John of Salisbury, a man who studied with the Christian theologian Abelard (whom you may know from his well-known love affair with Heloise), was a secretary for Thomas Beckett (the archbishop of Canterbury who was executed by four knights due to comments made by King Henry the Young, you may also know this story by the play written by T.S. Eliot A Murder in the Cathedral), and later made bishop of Chartres in France. You have a little of the time and life this man lived, I mention it to give note of the circles of great people whom this man walked with; which is significant because the one lasting bit passed onto us from John of Salisbury comes from a letter where he quotes an associate of his which reads:
Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.
When we read the Bible, especially the books from the wisdom tradition we are climbing the backs of the giants who went, experienced, and lived life before us and standing on their shoulders and seeing life at a greater distance and with a bit more clarity.
The wisdom tradition is a minority voice in the Old Testament, primarily confined to the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. These books represent a tradition that is bespeckled throughout the biblical narrative of “counter-testimony.” They are the voices of skeptics, cynics, pessimists, and naysayers. When other voices say how great life is, how great there religion is, how sure they are of their belief these books say lets hold on a minute and examine the situation, let us climb on the shoulders of giants and see what life looks like from that perspective.
Let us pause for a moment and tease further the meaning of wisdom. Since we are all getting over the buzz of politics let us start there. When President William Jefferson Clinton told the rationalized to the grand jury why he was not lying "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the--if he--if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not--that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement... This statement may very well be an act of quick and wily genius but I would not say it was wise. To keep this bi-partisan, my next example. Our current Vice President Richard Bruce Cheney rarely writes anything down, records, or emails his thoughts or conversations. The majority of his directives are voiced from person to person, therefore leaving no paper trail or physical evidence. I think this too is a brilliant and smart action to practice but I do not think it is wise for posterity or history.
On the day we entered this world, the day we passed the threshold from our mother’s womb to the outside world we were already encoded with the Deoxyribonucleic acid of our mother and father and the 1000s of generations before them. We are the products of an evolutionary process that separates us from the rest of creation. We are able to walk upright, communicate, make tools, write, develop relationships, love, forgive, laugh, cry, dream, hold several ideas simultaneously, and cook. All of these are passed on with no work or effort on our part, they are simply bestowed on us due to the advances of our forefathers and foremothers. Wisdom, however, is not passed from one generation to another. Wisdom must be learned, accepted, adapted and received.
Will we accept the wisdom of the Bible? The Bible offers us the ability, the chance, to climb onto the shoulders of giants and see the world from a clearer point of view. When we climb onto the shoulders of the writer of Ecclesiastes what do we see? The wisdom of Ecclesiastes, the words of the Teacher Qoheleth? All is vanity.
We may buck and disregard the wisdom of Qoheleth but truly consider it for a moment. Right now we are being asked to put our full trust in political and financial institutions. Institutions which have been in cahoots with each other for a good number of years now. So much so that Kevin Philips says there is no longer parties in America there is simply one party of big business with a Republican and Democratic wing. I am very hopeful and will be praying for real growth and positive developments during the Obama presidency but I am also sure it will fail to fully correct, heal, and satisfy the hungers of our souls. If we look for the financial and political realms to bring us salvation we will not find it, indeed a vain attempt to self-medicate. Perhaps more than ever we need to hear the words of the pessimist, the cynic, and skeptic that awaits us in the book of Ecclesiastes.
Now before you run out the doors of this sanctuary and decide to become a nihilist saying to everyone and everything all is vain, forget about even trying… Take the book of Ecclesiastes as a whole. There is one caveat to the teaching of Qoheleth of all is vanity, all is vanity if our lives are not predicated on a life relation with the Living God.
The book of Ecclesiastes ends with what some scholars term an orthodox ending. I say hogwash to such a premise. Hear the ending: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.”
Qoheleth leads us to believe that his book was written during the reign of King Solomon. Solomon was a man blessed with a great heritage, knowledge, ability but squandered it all. During his reign the United Kingdom of Israel crumbled before his eyes. The book of Ecclesiastes came to prominence after Exile, after the time of deep reflection and examination. After a time Israel in some way said if our lives are not centered on the Living God then all is vain, all is a chasing after the wind and cause of vexed spirits. The community stood on the shoulders of giants and reconsidered their lives in relation with the Living God.
We are here together trying to carry out decent, honorable lives in the name of Christ in the world. We are engaging in worthy and noble work as ambassadors of Christ in the world. In the times we live in I believe we have a unique opportunity to offer a reflected and examined perspective of this life we are living, a perspective deeply rooted in the wisdom tradition of the biblical narrative. We have a chance to share the good news of God in Jesus Christ from the wisdom tradition: what the good life looks and feels like, what a life that matters looks and feels like, how to live the good life, and how to make a difference in this world that affects the very essence of being a human being.
Let us not simply live lives grasping after shadows and vapors, let us live the good life standing on the shoulders of giants, fearing God and keeping his commandments.
Amen and Amen.