Ecclesiastes: A Time To Break Down, A Time To Build Up

June 25, 2017
by Seminarian Katie Froehlich

      LHUMC 6-25-2017 Sermon

View, print, or save PDF: Sermon.06.25.17.A Time For Tearing Down and A Time For Building Up

(Ecclesiastes Sermon Series)

Scripture Text June 25

 

Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3b

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to break down, and a time to build up…

Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

Sermon – Seminarian Katie Froehlich

Hi everyone! I’m excited to be here today, back home at Lake Harriet UMC. This place has meant so much to me over the years, and it is always exciting to be back with all of you. I recently finished my second year of a four year masters of divinity/masters of social work program at Boston University. I’m also a declared candidate for ministry in the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, with hopes of serving as a Deacon. The road in front of me is long, and I’m so grateful to have this congregation standing behind me.

Melanie called me a few months back and asked me which Sunday I planned to come preach at LHUMC this summer, and I believe I told her that summer of 2018 worked a lot better for me, but I would be coming home for Annual Conference and could maybe be talked into preaching that Sunday.

She enthusiastically jumped on that day, and I suddenly remembered a comment she made last year ringing in my head – that most pastors try to find a guest preacher the Sunday after Annual Conference because the week before is so exhausting. I pushed that memory to the back of my head, thinking I’d have PLENTY of time to write a sermon, that my Semester would be long over by then, and plus, I could write up in Saint Cloud during the less exciting legislative sessions.

I got the theme for this week – “a time to break down and a time to build up” a few weeks ago and have been turning it over in my head ever since. Based on a quick search of that portion of Ecclesiastes 3, it appears that this text may specifically, literally refer to the removal of old and decaying buildings and the replacement of them with newer, more secure structures.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all my experiences of breaking down and building up in a figurative sense, both at the personal and communal level. It seems to me that we are constantly in both of these seasons – things are rarely static; we are always either breaking down or building up. In part, that’s what makes life exciting! What if things stayed the same day after day and year after year, if our interests, relationships or beliefs never evolved. That would get pretty old – and change would most likely come about a lot slower in society.

In all honesty, even a little more static of a life sounds a bit nice to me right now. I realize that I literally just said breaking down and building up is a necessary and even good part of life, but as many of you know, it’s one thing to say something and believe it rationally, and quite another to want to live it out in every moment of your life.

Constantly breaking down and building up is good and important, but it’s not always the most fun work.

One of my favorite books growing up was the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants – I read it so many times the cover literally fell off. In it, one of the main characters, Tibby, reflected on her pet guinea pig, Mimi. (Stick with me – this is going somewhere; I promise):

One day, around the time Tibby was twelve, she realized she could judge her happiness by her guinea pig, Mimi. When she was feeling busy, full of plans and purpose, she raced out of her room, past Mimi’s glass box, feeling faintly sad that Mimi just had to lie there lumpen in her wood shavings while Tibby’s life was so big.

 

She could tell she was miserable when she stared at Mimi with envy, wishing it was her who got to drink fat water droplets from a dispenser positioned at exactly the height of her mouth. Wishing it was her who could snuggle into the warm shavings and decide only whether to spin a few rotations on her exercise wheel or just take another nap. No decisions, no disappointments.”[1]

I think of this quote from time to time, and it popped into my head as I thought about writing this sermon. In many ways, that guinea pig represents what happens when breaking down and building up isn’t constantly happening. Her life is static – no matter what, she is in her cage, spending her days running on the exercise wheel, napping, and eating the food Tibby served her.

Most of the time that sounds pretty boring – the guinea pig is missing out on so many good things! No relationships, parties, trips to the cabin, or even ice cream! But sometimes, that life doesn’t sound so bad – the world is complicated, wouldn’t it be nice to sometimes not have to deal with it? No decisions and no disappointments is kind of attractive to me at times.

As I put off writing this sermon, I realized that one of the reasons I was struggling with it was that I am currently jealous of my metaphorical guinea pig. I’m not miserable by any means, but my faith is solidly at the ‘breaking down’ stage of the cycle. How could it not be? Society seems to be crumbling around us. My friends and neighbors are afraid for their livelihood.

Black and brown humans are being killed for simply trying to exist and no one is being held accountable. Men get away with horrible acts of sexual abuse; then announce they’re going to teach workshops so other men can learn how not get accused of abuse. Millions of lives are at stake because our leaders are choosing tax cuts for the already well-off over a basic provision of healthcare. People across the world are being forced to leave their home in search of safety, and they are having trouble finding it. I see the denial of basic human dignity to so many individuals, often from people who claim to worship the same God that I do.

On a societal level, things feel pretty bleak. Things have also been tough on the personal level. I’m sure you’ve heard Melanie, Chris, or Jen talk about how Seminary breaks down everything you believe.

You’re allegedly then supposed to rebuild your faith by the time you graduate, but I guess I haven’t hit that phase yet. In addition, I was a full time Social Work student this past year, in which I was confronted daily with the sheer number of economic, structural, and racial inequities this country faces. In short, I wasn’t exactly a singsongy, optimistic, praise filled human this year. Then, right in the midst of things, I hit my head in late February. It was a totally random accident – I hit my head on a radiator while sitting down on my living room floor to play cards with my roommates – but it was just hard enough and in just the right spot that it gave me a concussion that took months to recover from. Suddenly, I was unable to do anything besides lay in bed, listen to podcasts, and cross stitch.

As someone used to 12 hour days juggling class, work, internship and volunteering, this change in lifestyle was difficult, to say the least. We live in a culture that sets your worth according to what you are able to produce, and all I was producing were some floral cross stitches with witty sayings on them. Combine that with a head that just wouldn’t get better, and my sense of value took a real hit.

So yeah – it feels like my faith is breaking down. One of my favorite spiritual practices is the Ignatian Examen, which Father Dennis Hamm, SJ describes as “rummaging through your day for God.”[2] One of the purposes of the Examen is to become aware of where God is acting in your life and in the world.

A lot of days, it has been really, really hard to see God at work. There seems to be a disconnect between this great God I’m learning about in the classroom and what I’m actually experiencing on the ground. A lot of days, I’m desperately seeking more confidence in my faith.

I met with my spiritual director, Susan, about a month ago and we had a conversation more or less on this subject. Susan is a brilliant, kind, gentle older woman who is also tough as nails. She was one of the first women ordained in the Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, and she had to wait three years after ordination to receive an appointment because no church would take a woman pastor. Susan was eventually elected as Bishop in the UMC, and is now Bishop in Residence at BU School of Theology.

In her tenure with the UMC, Susan has been through just about everything – she comes off as sweet and innocent, but she does not put up with unequal treatment. Over the past year and a half, Susan has been one of my greatest resources in dealing with my doubts, questions and discernment. As I sat in her office describing all the different ways the world – and my faith – seemed to be breaking down, Susan smiled at me, then asked if it would be all right if she read a Psalm. She pulled out her Bible, leafed through to Psalm 130, then read it softy, emphasizing these first two verses:

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.

2     Lord, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive

    to the voice of my supplications!

 

Susan’s message to me, through this Psalm, was that lamentation is not only okay – it is part of having faith. I am not the first person – nor will I be the last – to cry out to God from the depths of my heart. So often, we focus on the cheerful, celebratory aspects of Christianity – Christ was Born! Christ has Risen! The Lord is our Savior! However, lament is an essential part of our faith. There’s even a book in the Old Testament called Lamentations! Soong-Chan Rah says “lament recognizes the struggles of life and cries out for justice against existing injustices. To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message.

Lament and praise must go hand in hand.”[3] Lament is an natural, essential part of the complete Biblical narrative – it allows us have an “authentic encounter with the fullness of truth.”[4]

The thing about lamentation is that it isn’t the end of the story, or even the full story. Lament is just part of it, a practice that allows for despair to come through, the reality of human suffering to be acknowledged, and hope to eventually be found. Yes, there is a time for breaking down, but there is also a time for building up.

In my quest to continue putting off this sermon, I asked Chris what he thought I should preach about while at Annual Conference. He told me that most Pastors (or I guess the ones who weren’t able to find a guest preacher that Sunday) incorporated the themes of the conference into their sermon, and suggested that may be a good route to take.

This seemed like maybe an easy out to me, but as I prepared to write the “time for building up” portion of this sermon, the words of conference speaker Junius B. Dotson resurfaced. In his teaching session, Rev. Dotson, the General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries encouraged us to find our WHY. He was specifically referring to the reason for our church existing, but it applies at the personal level as well. Per Rev. Dotson, staying connected to your WHY keeps you grounded and allows you to keep doing the work.

Since hearing Rev. Dotson, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on my why. Things are breaking down, I’m full of lament, but I’m still here. I still feel called to ministry, still want this set of degrees, still believe in a loving, forgiving God. I think my why, at least for right now, is grace.

In addition to being a Psalm of lament, Psalm 130 is also a Psalm of grace. The Message paraphrasing of the Psalm helps us see that:

3-4 If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings,

    who would stand a chance?

As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit,

    and that’s why you’re worshiped.

Grace is at the heart of what we believe as United Methodists. As it turns out, our founder John Wesley heard Psalm 130 sung on the very same day he went to Aldersgate, where his heart was “strangely warmed.”[5] The United Methodist Website describes grace as “the love and mercy given to us by God because God wants us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it.”[6] No matter what, God loves us. No. Matter. What.

As I struggled to recover from my concussion this spring, I found myself understanding grace in a new way. Like so many others in this capitalistic, consumeristic culture, I measure myself and my worth in terms of what I am able to produce and do in any given day. When I view myself in this way, it’s really easy to imagine that God also views me in this way. Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that in order to really, truly be worthy in God’s eyes, I need to constantly be performing, excelling, succeeding, contributing, helping. I study and embrace a radical theology of forgiveness, yet I had forgotten to apply this concept to myself. When I suddenly wasn’t able to participate in the culture of production, I had to find my worth elsewhere. This is where God came in.

As Psalm 130 demonstrates, “the way out of the depths begins in the possibly of prayer and in the awareness that only the One who hears that prayer can draw us out of the depths.”[7] Out of my lament came the recognition that God doesn’t actually care whether I’m able to write a good paper or get all of my reading done. As Micah reminds us, all that is required of us is to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”[8] And even when we don’t succeed at that – God still loves us. During my recovery, I was forced to rethink how I measure my self-worth and began to see myself as God does: as worthy, loved and forgiven. No matter what.

Grace means that we don’t have to justify ourselves to God – our salvation is a gift by the grace of God, not the result of our works. Right now, grace is my why.

The knowledge that I am unconditionally, radically worthy and beloved in the eyes of God and that every single other person in the world is as well is why I continue to seek to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. I am here because of what this Psalm points to: “The character of God is neither bent against us, nor neutral in his justice and righteousness, but is bent toward us in grace and mercy.”[9]

Breaking down is an important, necessary, part of our faith – it makes room for us to build something bigger and better. I’m beginning to enter into a season of building up, and grace is the foundation on which I am building. This isn’t easy – I have a feeling that the problems we are facing right now are only the beginning – but it is time. It is time to remember the duality of Christianity – the lament and the praise. It is time to cry out to God but also to recognize the wonder of God.

It is time to find our WHY, to figure out what keeps us showing up week after week professing our faith, regardless of what else is going on in. It is time to begin building back up, to continue on in our quest for justice.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brashares, Chapter 2

[2] http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/rummaging-for-god-praying-backward-through-your-day

[3] http://thewell.intervarsity.org/spiritual-formation/lament-spiritual-practice

[4] https://sojo.net/articles/faith-action/lament-necessary-step-toward-healing

[5] Psalm 130, Keith Nickle

[6] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-wesleyan-heritage

[7] Psalm 130, Keith Nickle

[8] Micah 6:8 NRSV

[9] Psalm 130, Keith Nickle