2011 Sermons

Sermon – September 18th, 2005
Breathing Through the Wilderness
Rev. Beth Ann Estock

Text: Ecclesiastes 1:2

Emptiness! Emptiness upon emptiness!
The world is fleeting of form,
Empty of permanence,
Void of surety,
Without certainty.
Like a breath breathed once and gone,
All things rise and fall.
Understand emptiness, and tranquility replaces anxiety.
Understand emptiness, and compassion replaces jealousy.
Understand emptiness, and you will cease to excuse suffering and begin to alleviate it.
Ecclesiastes 1:2
Translated by Rami Shapiro

“The words of the Teacher, the son of David, King in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

What a way to start out a book of wisdom, or any book for that matter with the declaration that all is vanity. But especially a book that makes it into the Bible. Are we not to be a people of hope, joy and love? Are we not to come here on Sunday with praises and thanksgiving for life?

And here we are confronted in black and white with “vanity of all vanities.” How cynical and pessimistic! If life is so worthless why should we go any further?

Maybe we could discount this book as written by a spoiled king who had access to everything and was having a pity party on a day when he wrote this. But these words must have some truth if the council of Nicea way back in 325 AD decided that this book of wisdom merited the seal of Holy Scripture.

A few years ago I came across a new interpretation of Ecclesiastes entitled “The Way of Solomon” written by Rabbi Rami Shapiro who throughout his years has felt a strong connection to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. His interpretation comes with a prayerful, studied reading of not only the words but also what he believes to be the soul of the message of this book. (show the book)

He sees Ecclesiastes as a “brilliant paring away of our illusions about life.” He says that Solomon was not despairing of life rather he celebrates life and knows how to live it well. He believes Solomon wrote this book to help us to understand life correctly. So that we can embrace our lives with joy and contentment.

Last Sunday Joyce and I referred to this time in the life of our Church as being in the wilderness – the in between time. This can be a scary place but it can also be a place where we can find new direction and hope. So this Sunday we turn to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes to help us on our journey through the wilderness as we search for new life.

So what would Solomon say is the key to life? Havel havalim — which is not vanity or futility the way most Bible scholars translate it, but rather empty of permanence, full of change and surprise.

In Hebrew the phrase havel havalim literally means “breath of breaths.” The Teacher Solomon would say that life is no more substantial than a breath. Life is fleeting, impermanent, in a state of constant change.

I know, at first glance this is not something that brings much comfort. But sometimes the truth hurts.

Two years ago this month I was preaching at Aloha UMC from a wheel chair. I had lived 41 years of my life with the illusion of perfect bones. As far as I was concerned I would never break a bone, that was not in my life plan and certainly not two within a month of each other. Then in a havel havalim down I went, not once but twice. I broke my wrist and then a month later my foot. The permanence I sought was an illusion. Life does not stay the same. We are born and grow and change. We experience health and sickness, marriage and divorce, life and death, work and unemployment, joy and pain, whole bones and broken ones, sunshine and hurricanes, Everything changes.

Yet we so easily want to forget that life is fleeting as we whisper in our prayers, “Maybe it happens to others but not to me. God forbid not to me.” We hold our breath and close our eyes against anything that would threaten our craving for permanence. We second-guess, make excuses and find fault, not wanting to look at our own mortality.

“If she had taken better care of herself she wouldn’t have died so soon.” “If he had listened to the doctor he wouldn’t have had the stroke.” ” If I would have only had a better childhood I wouldn’t be so angry, depressed or alone.” “If the government had done a better job of maintaining the levees New Orleans would not be under water.” “If the conference leadership had done a better job managing people we wouldn’t have to be going through this process as a church right now.” Then if all else fails us we pull this one out of the hat. “There is no God. How could a God have let this happen?”

The Truth, as painful as it may be is this — Life is a gift. It is not something that is owed to us. It is not something we deserve or earn. It simply is havel havalim. Breath of breaths. Moments, this one and this one and this one. Like a breath breathed once and gone. To make it more than this is to make ourselves into gods trying to micro-manage a world beyond our control.

Now before we all slump over into a depression let us ponder this breath a little bit more.

What else does our faith tell us about breath? Rauch — life force, God essence, creative spirit. Out of nothing, out of emptiness, God breathed life and made our world.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the wind (The breath) from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…. And then God created humankind in God’s image.” (Genesis 1)

God continues to breathe life into us with every breath that we take. Not only that but we participate in creation as we live and grow, as we work and share, as we create families and communities.

Breath is powerful. And it comes out of the void, out of emptiness. To breathe deeply we have to let go of the air already in us. When we have nothing everything is possible. Emptiness is an invitation to creativity.

Emptiness! Emptiness upon emptiness!

Possibility upon possibility — a blank slate, a void, a new beginning.

How many of us spend much time simply being empty? Empty stomach, empty mind, empty agenda? How many of us live in the state of total possibility?

You see there is a difference in trying to control the outcome of our lives and living into new possibilities. When we try to be in control we are in effect turning our backs to God. “NO God, I don’t trust that your divine possibilities for my life could be any better than what I have planned. Not your will God, but mine be done.”

One of the problems with this kind of controlled living is that if things don’t go our way we can get very stressed out and worried. We have to get out our plan b, c and d’s and even they don’t work as well as we thought they should.

What would it be like to let go of our need to control, our need to look good, our need to be free of suffering? What would it be like to ponder emptiness everyday?

Solomon the teacher says that if we spent some time practicing emptiness our anxiety would melt away.

Understand emptiness and tranquility replaces anxiety.

If we practiced emptiness we could experience life as an unmerited gift — not to be compared to other’s lives.

Understand emptiness and compassion replaces jealousy.

If life is truly empty of permanence, a breath breathed once and gone, then we could be free to live each moment as new. We could be released from a past that haunts us, binds us, or scars us.

How can I live this moment fully — and this one, and this one? What I am holding back? What thought or experience is preventing me from living fully now? What am I afraid to let go of?

If we understood that we are the creators of our stories – our blame, our resentments, our fears — then we could be free to make up other stories that free us from the burdens of the past and of who we think we are or need to be. There is no past to redo or future to worry about. There are no more distractions, nothing to defend, nothing to attack, nothing to compare. There is only this moment and our embracing of it. And in this very moment there is potential for anything – for insight, for quiet joy, for connection, for peace. The cup half-empty could become the cup half-full.

Understand emptiness, and you’ll cease to excuse suffering and begin to alleviate it.

If we really could sit in emptiness, experience emptiness even for a few minutes a day we could begin to embrace the present with freshness. We could find each breath breathed, even those that are painful and sad, an opportunity for blessing and joy.

Two years ago when I broke my foot after breaking my wrist I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I did plenty of both.

At first I was terrified because I could do nothing except lay in bed with my foot up. I had to face my need to constantly do, to be busy, to be of worth, to give. Instead I was forced to sit — pondering emptiness and receiving help. I had plenty of time to look at my life and what I had been running away from. And of course time to try to find the blessing in all of it.

The blessing in that moment was feeling the support of my faith community, family and friends. It was the opportunity to have the sometimes painful and awkward conversations with loved ones about how I was living my life. The blessing was learning how to let go of things that really didn’t matter. The blessing was having the time to ponder my priorities and listen to the yearnings of my soul. It was a painfully good time and a powerful turning point for me.

The image I had of my life before my broken bones was of me trying to enjoy a walk on the beach but instead finding myself balancing on a ball and juggling three others at the same time.

As I ponder that image I realize that when I broke my wrist I could no longer juggle the three balls in the air and when I broke my foot 5 weeks later I could not balance on the ball any longer. And I was finally free to enjoy the beach! I finally had some clarity about what was most important and a powerful reminder that we learn the most through our pain.

Those broken bones gave me the courage to step out in faith, to take a family leave last year. Those same bones have allowed me to take another leap by coming here this year.

I bring to you my experience of brokenness in hopes that we can travel together during this church’s time of brokenness as well. What I learned is healing is a slow process that cannot be rushed if we want to learn all that God is trying to teach us about ourselves and our life together. I also learned that healing begins deep within.

God has blessed us with this opportunity. Let us travel through the wilderness breathing deeply, trusting what comes to us in each moment.

I invite you to practice this emptiness, this breath of breaths this week with a centering prayer practice found in the back of your bulletin. Try sitting quietly for 5 minutes every day this week.

Time to be curious about what comes up for you. Not a test but a spiritual practice – a way for us to open to God working in and through us.

Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer is a contemplative prayer practice that helps us to first notice and then let go of our inner chatter so that we can be open to the still small voice of God.

Find a comfortable sitting position with your feet firmly on the ground and your hands resting on your lap in a turned-up position. Close you eyes and sink into your chair.

Focus on your breathing. As you breathe in become aware of your inner body. As you exhale become aware of where your skin touches the air. Then as you continue to breath become aware of where your breath ends and where it begins. Linger in that space for a while.

Begin to focus on feelings of peace and tranquility that naturally arise when we breathe deeply.

When you begin to think mentally repeat a word or phrase of your choice – prayer words like thank you, peace, I am that I am. As soon as your mind quiets down again, let go of the words. Your intention is to sit quietly in the peace of God’s presence.

Try this form of prayer for 5 minutes every day and then if you find it comforting add 5 more minutes until you are sitting for 20 minutes every day. As you practice this pay attention to what comes up for you – not judging but simply being curious.