Lectionary Passages for August 4. Eccl. 1:2, 13-14, 2:18-23, Ps. 49:1-12, Col 3: 1-11, Luke 12:13-21
We're back at home now, after spending a month in Quebec and Ontario as part of our sabbatical. The bulk of our time away, 2.5 weeks, was spent in Montreal. We lived at the "House of Friendship" (supported by Mennonite Church Eastern Canada until recent budget cuts), and volunteered at the St. James Drop-In Centre, a ministry for street people. One of the directors there is Alain Spitzer, an associate member of our church in Edmonton. We wanted to get to know the people at the centre, spend time with Alain, and think about how faith and life fit together.
In presentations Alain does with various groups, he emphasizes that anyone can end up on the street. Anyone, even people like us. And we saw the truth of that. Among the men we met were incredible musicians, artists, people with university educations (even professors), young good-looking guys, those who were clean cut and articulate, and those who were dishevelled and smelly. Recovered and current addicts. Some were mentally disabled. Some had dysfunctional families, some had families trying to reach out to them. They end up on the street for a variety of reasons including; lack of support, addictions, mental illness, financial crisis, and often simple bad luck. The St. James Centre isn't a "hand-outs" place, it is involved with it's members for the long haul-developing relationships and a supportive community.
Reading Ecclesiastes, I can see some of these people and myself. (I read the whole thing-if you just read the bits suggested, it leaves no room for hope and I wanted to find out what made life worth living for the author!) 9:11 says; "...The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all." What a clear summation of the people at the centre-and people like me who seem to have it made. It's humbling to face the fact that our successes and failures have more to do with chance than personal merit or deservedness. The author states repeatedly that "there is nothing better than to do good and be happy while we live-God is in charge." 3:12-13 There is a call to contentment, to doing good, and to crediting God whatever our lot. No room for puffed-up self satisfaction in any of life, all of us are on the same footing with God. This gives value to the downcast, and I think, pushes us "haves" to be realistic and quit deluding ourselves that somehow we deserve our good fortune. We are perhaps the deluded ones, to think we deserve what we have. Those who have nothing understand some things better than we do.
The other readings fit well with Ecclesiastes, and help push toward repairing the feeling of "meaninglessness" expressed there. Psalm 49 levels the field between rich and poor and verse 13 warns of the fate of those who trust in themselves, and verse 20 says that a man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish. Obviously, meaning is not to be found in riches or social status. The story of the rich fool in Luke personifies the issue.
Colossians emphasizes that meaning is found in God. "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." 3:2 It then urges righteous living, a life that stops hurting others, and understands that "there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all." 3:11. This is a helpful ALL, again emphasizing that we all have equal worth before God, and that is meaningful!
None of this is new thinking-it's material that we've heard in church many times over the years. (And it's not unique to the church, we hear this in human rights talk too.) It is, however, so much more real and resonant for me when I hear these scriptures while thinking about the people I met at the St. James Centre. I so much appreciated meeting them face to face, hearing some of their ideas and hard stories, laughing with them, and just being God's people together despite the chances that life has thrown all of us. Many of the members at the Centre have significant problems they have to take responsibility for, but really, so do I. Mine are just hidden a little better, from others and myself. Maybe together the "haves" and have-nots" can figure out a meaningful way to respond to each other and to God.