7 Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: 8 There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless—a miserable business!
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: 10 If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. 11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
We all know how embarrassing it can be to mistake someone for someone else. For instance, the other day I was in a restaurant when I thought I saw a rope that I knew. I went up to the rope and I asked him, “Excuse me, aren’t you that rope that I know?” He answered, “Nope, I’m a frayed knot.”
How many of you have been thinking, “It has been too long since I heard a sermon from Ecclesiastes.”? And how many of you had to use the table of contents in your Bible to find Ecclesiastes?
Ecclesiastes is a part of the Bible that we call the Wisdom Literature. Ecclesiastes is similar to the Proverbs in that they are both filled with wise sayings meant to bring us more in line with God’s will. And like the book of Proverbs, the wise king of Israel, Solomon, is usually given credit for writing Ecclesiastes.
I want to look at our text from today, which is probably one of the most well-known passages from Ecclesiastes, to see what wise old Solomon had to say about working together. And because I’m kind of a backwards person, I’m going to approach this scripture from the back and work our way forward.
Solomon is very practical in verses 9-12. He says that two people working together is better than one because…they get a better return on their labor. It is more efficient to work on something together than it is to go at it alone. He gives three practical examples. If you are working with someone else and you fall down, the other person can help you up. If you get cold, the other person can warm you up. And if you are attacked, you can scare off a would-be attacker if there are two of you.
Solomon then shares the metaphor that makes this passage so well-known in verse 12: “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
I believe we make a mistake if we try to stretch this metaphor to mean something that Solomon didn’t intend for it to mean. When we Christians hear the number three, we automatically think of the Trinity. So of course Solomon is talking about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! Or maybe not. A rope of the Trinity would not be broken at all, let alone quickly!
I don’t think that Solomon is trying to be all figurative here with the number three. I think that what he is referring to is a braided rope rather than a twisted rope.
I laughed a bit when I thought of this example because I used to braid ropes for fun growing up on the farm. That’s how exciting my life was at times! I used to take old pieces of baler twine and just start braiding them, right over center, left over center, and repeat. And Solomon is right, a braided rope is strong, exponentially stronger than any one of those individual pieces of baler twine would have been.
But what do you think would happen if I tried to twist the twine together rather than braid it? Would it be as strong? Maybe. But it would quickly unravel on its own.
When Solomon speaks of a cord of three strands, I think that he is intentionally drawing our attention to a braided rope because not only is it stronger, it does not easily come undone. To undo a braid takes some effort.
I feel that I can say with confidence that we as a church are better off together than we are all alone. You could have stayed at home today by yourself and read your Bible, listened to some Christian music, and maybe even watched or listened to some preaching on TV or the radio. And that preaching would have probably been better than what you are hearing now! You could go out and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and preach the good news all by yourself. And if you did those things, I would call you a Christian. But would you be a healthy Christian? If you fell down, who would help you up? If you were cold, who would keep you warm?
One of the best stories I ever heard on the power of being together came from a pastor named Paula. When she started a new church in a very unchurched community, her congregation made it a part of their mission to show hospitality to their neighbors. And when one neighbor, Elaine, got sick and needed surgery, Paula showed up with meal for Elaine and her family. And when Elaine got better, she brought her family to church and got involved in the hospitality ministry of the congregation.
One day, maybe a year after Elaine started coming to the church, Paula asked Elaine what it was that made her show up and become active in her small church plant. Elaine said something like, “I’ve been a Christian my whole life. I read my Bible and pray every day. But my Bible never made me a casserole.”
We as a church are stronger together than we would be on our own. We achieve more together and we reach more people together. When we fall down, we help each other up. When we get cold, we provide warmth. And when we have surgery, we make casseroles. A strand of three cords is not easily broken.
When I say we as a church, I also mean the broader church. We need each other for many reasons. When I think of some of the greatest minds that Christianity has ever produced, very few of them come from the Mennonite Church. How much have we all benefited from Martin Luther and John Calvin? From Bonhoeffer and Barth? From Augustine and Aquinas? You may not be able to name for me how you have benefitted from some of these people from different traditions, but they have given shape to centuries of church history.
I believe that as Christianity continues to shrink in power and numbers in the United States that we need to repent for how easily we have untwisted the three-stranded cord of our religion. Christianity was never meant to be a twisted rope that could just unravel on its own. It was intended to be a braided rope that supports itself and gives each cord additional strength.
Moving backwards in the scripture now, I see Solomon getting philosophical on us. Verses 9-12 are very practical, addressing why it is better to work together. But the verses 7 and 8 address what happens if you do choose to go at it alone and are successful.
If you read Ecclesiastes in the King James Version, you will often hear Solomon speak of “vanity.” Today’s passage in the KJV says, “Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.” The Hebrew word that is translated as vanity is hebel.
When I think of vanity the first thing that comes to mind is the song, “You’re so Vain.” You probably think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you? When I think of vanity I think of someone that is in love with their self. They can’t get enough of their own image in the mirror. They always talk about their life, their job, their hair, and why they are so much better than everyone else.
But when we read Ecclesiastes and Solomon repeatedly calls things “vanity,” this understanding of the word doesn’t really make sense. I saw vanity under the sun? We must keep in mind that the King James Version was written in 1611 and our language has changed a bit in the last 400 years. King James probably didn’t know some of the words teenagers use these days like “probs” and “hater” and he likely never took a selfie. Of course, if he had taken a selfie, someone would probs accuse him of vanity, and he would just call them a hater.
When Solomon writes that he sees vanity we should remember that the King James is using the word like we find it in the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:7 says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”
To take something in vain means to make light of it, to use it so often and so loosely that it loses its meaning. It is like when someone says they love everything. I love my wife, I love my cat, I love my new shoes, I love that song… After a while, the word loses some of its significance. It becomes meaningless. Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain; don’t use it to the point that it becomes meaningless.
The NIV translates hebel as “meaningless,” and in verse 7 we find this, “Again I saw something meaningless under the sun.”
Solomon is really laying it on here. What is meaningless? Working really hard and being successful is meaningless. Solomon speaks of a man who labors and toils and has great wealth. But he has no brother, and he has no son. He has nobody to share his wealth with, he has no one to share his life with. Even though this person is successful by the standards of his day, Solomon says that it is all meaningless without someone else to share it with.
Notice that Solomon is not saying that a person needs to be married in order for his or her life to have meaning. Single people don’t need to get married for their life to have meaning. But he is saying that without someone to love, someone to care about, someone to call brother or sister, all of the hard work and success of this world is utterly meaningless.
So let’s put it all together now.
Sonya and I had the opportunity to go to Richmond Friday and Saturday where I got to dress up in a funny robe and hat and got a piece of paper with my name on it. It has been a full month since my last paper was submitted and I did not need to take a May term class, so it seemed a little bit strange finally celebrating this event that we call graduation.
I wanted to take a little bit of time explaining this morning what my degree is because I know it is a little bit confusing, even for other people in my line of work. One of the confusing things is that I already have a seminary degree. In 2008 I finished my Master of Divinity degree, which is a three-year, practical degree designed for people looking at careers in pastoral ministry. So you would think that the next degree would be a doctorate, right? Wrong! You may not call me doctor at this point, and I had to correct a fellow pastor a couple of weeks ago when he overheard another pastor congratulating me on finishing my degree. I have 129 graduate-level credits, but not a doctorate.
The degree that I received yesterday was a Master of Theology, which is a one-year research component that is only available to people who hold a Master of Divinity. So in 2008 I mastered divinity, and in 2015 I mastered theology. What a misnomer!
To the best of my knowledge, no other active pastor in congregational ministry in Virginia Mennonite Conference has a Th.M. There is one active pastor with a terminal degree for practitioners, so I am either the highest-educated pastor in the conference or the second-highest-educated pastor in the conference, depending on which post-M.Div. degree you consider higher, the research degree or the practical degree.
All of that is really hard for me to even talk about because I am not one who likes to toot my own horn. Humility is a virtue, after all. So if it sounds like I’m bragging a bit this morning, please forgive me, because I’m going to brag this morning no matter what. While I am indeed bragging, I’m not bragging on myself today. I’m bragging on all of you.
It didn’t take long for me to come to the conclusion that there was no way that I could go back to school without the support of my church community and family. The first thing that you did was allow me to take a sabbatical leave this past fall, which seems like forever ago. I was able to focus a significant amount of time on my studies during that period and that really helped me to get back into the habit of studying and cranking out papers. But more than that, many of you helped watch my children, some helped with visitation in the church. Someone even helped by paying some of my travel expenses to get to Richmond and back on a weekly basis!
My wife had to feed and put children to bed one night a week while I was away. My mother-in-law helped by dropping off and picking up Paxton at preschool a day or two each week. And since I have returned from sabbatical, all of you have probably sat through some bad sermons, especially over the last couple of weeks when I just didn’t have as much time to put into sermon preparation as I would like to.
So if I stand before you today and I sound like I’m bragging, you better believe I’m bragging. I’m bragging because I have a great church and a great family. I could not have done this without you. A cord of three strands is not easily broken, and we have proven that to be true.
But even more so, I know that what I have accomplished would be totally meaningless without you. I have another piece of paper to hang on my wall and three more letters after my name. If I don’t have anyone to share the learning that I have acquired over the last nine months, it is all meaningless. And in this case, I think that the King James Version puts it just right. If I don’t use what I have learned to help you all in your discipleship, it was all not only meaningless, it was vanity.
In Jesus’ three years of public ministry he surrounded himself with 12 other men who followed him around, ate with him, prayed with him, worked with him, and ministered with him. When Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to do ministry, he sent them out together.
We need one another. Practically speaking, it makes life easier. Philosophically speaking, it makes life worth living.