Cast your bread upon the waters

Food morning, Friends! We’re looking at some Old Testament readings this month.

Today’s reading is from the book of Ecclesiastes, which is one of the shortest books in the Old Testament. In the Bible, it comes right after the book of Psalms and the book of Proverbs, and it’s usually referred to as one of the “wisdom” books of the Bible.

You want to know a little bit of trivia? Ecclesiastes almost didn’t make it into the Bible. When Jewish scholars were assembling the Old Testament, they nearly decided to leave Ecclesiastes out of it. It almost didn’t make the final cut.

For one thing, Ecclesiastes doesn’t include any history. It doesn’t tell the story of God’s people, the way books like Genesis and Exodus do. It doesn’t include any prayers, the way the Psalms do.

Ecclesiastes doesn’t have any prophetic words in it – not once in the entire book does the writer say, “Thus says the Lord. . .” or anything like that. It doesn’t rip politicians for being bad. It doesn’t talk about oppression and social injustice.

So, what’s it good for?

Ecclesiastes is really the anonymous reflections of a thoughtful individual, someone whose name we don’t know, someone who is thinking about life. It’s kind of like listening to your grandfather, talking quietly in a rocking chair out on the front porch on a summer evening. It rambles. It’s got a lot more questions than answers. And it’s kind of pieced together, like a scrapbook of thoughts collected at different times.

Sometimes Ecclesiastes is humorous. Sometimes it’s deeply compassionate. And sometimes it feels as if the writer is close to despair.

“Vanity of vanities,” the book begins, “All is vanity! What do people gain from all the toil at which they work so hard under the sun? A generation comes, and a generation goes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and goes down, the winds blow, the streams run into the sea. . .What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. . .” (1:2-7, 9)

My grandmother had a German woman named Beatrice who used to come in and clean for her. Beatrice always sounded just like Ecclesiastes.  When my grandmother told her to clean the floor, Beatrice would say, “Vhat’s de use? Vhat’s de use, Mrs. Mooney? It’ll chust get dirty all over again!”

But Ecclesiastes is also where we find verses which have given comfort to so many people over the years:

“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:  a time to be born and a time to die,  a time to plant and a time to reap,  a time to kill and a time to heal,  a time to break and a time to build,  a time to weep and a time to laugh,  a time to mourn and a time to dance,  a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together, a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. . . a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. . .” (3:1-4, 7)

Ecclesiastes dares to ask questions which almost no one else in the Bible dares to ask:

“. . .the fate of human beings and the fate of animals is the same. . .they all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over animals. . .all go to the same place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?” (3:19-21)

But then it says,

“Whoever is joined with life has hope; a living dog is better than a dead lion. . .Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white, and do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your life. . .Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might. . .” (3:4, 7-10)

It’s an affirmation of life, even though the writer of Ecclesiastes realizes the limitations of what we can achieve. There’s a kind of balance in Ecclesiastes, a sense of humility and proportion, which is probably why they kept it in the Bible. And it’s probably why we still open the book, and read it now and then.

Then we get to today’s verse, which I chose because it’s hard to understand. Most of Ecclesiastes is pretty straightforward, but this verse is really obscure.

“Cast your bread upon the waters; for after many days you will get it back. . .”- Ecclesiastes 11:1

What the heck does that mean?

One interpretation is that it means to give generously to charity. Give to the poor. Give to those who need it. “Cast your bread upon the waters. . .” 

The support for this interpretation comes from the very next verse – “Share what you have with seven or eight others, because you never know when disaster may strike. . .”

It’s a nice idea. It’s like saying, “Be good to other people. Maybe someday they’ll be good to you. What goes around, comes around. Be generous – some day you’ll be rewarded.”

I can’t argue with that, but I’m not sure that’s the real meaning. Because right before today’s verse are a whole bunch of disconnected sayings.

  • “Some people are too lazy to fix a leaky roof; then the house falls in.” (10:18)
  • “Eating and drinking make you feel happy, and bribes can buy you everything you need.” (10:19) I’m not sure that’s the kind of advice we want to be handing out!
  • “Don’t curse the government, even in your thoughts; don’t curse the rich, even in your bedroom. . .” (Ecclesiastes 10:20) Wow! I don’t know if they think Big Brother is watching you, or if your cell phone or your fillings are picking up whatever you say. I know lots of people who curse the government and curse the rich all the time.
  • “Rain clouds always bring rain; trees always stay wherever they fall. . .” (11:3) Well, duh!
  • “If you worry about the weather and don’t plant seeds, you won’t harvest a crop. . .” (11:4) Well, I guess that makes sense.

That’s the kind of material surrounding today’s verse. I don’t think there’s enough of a connection here, to say that it definitely applies to charitable giving.

“Cast your bread upon the waters; for after many days it will come back to you. . .”

On the face of it, this seems like pretty pointless advice. I mean, picture this: go down to the river, and take a loaf of bread, and toss it in. What’s the Bible talking about here – feeding the ducks?

But bread in the Bible, is a symbol for everything we have, for everything we need. Bread is what God supplies us with – “Give us this day our daily bread”. It’s the manna in the wilderness that God gives us fresh, every day. It’s the result of our everyday work, our labor. It’s our groceries, and our checkbooks, and our possessions, and our Visa cards, all rolled up into one symbol.

“Cast your bread upon the waters. . .” 

Take everything we have, everything we own, everything we need for our daily lives, and cast it away. Throw it into the river. Throw it out into the ocean. Let it float away, till it’s out of sight. Hmm.

I don’t think it’s about being wasteful. I think it’s about letting go. It’s about a way of life, or an attitude. It’s about how we treat the things we have. It’s about how we act, in our everyday lives.

One way to live – and it’s not a bad way – is for us to set goals and priorities. Plan your work, and work your plan. Keep a prayer list, and check things off as your prayers are answered. Organize your life, and set your world in order.

That’s not a bad way to live. A lot of us – myself included – could do with more organization. I never get all the things done which I need to do. I always have unfinished tasks. My life would probably be easier if I kept up with these things.

At the same time, that’s not the only way to live. There’s another sense, in which the most important thing for us to do, is to let go of all those never-ending lists of things we’re supposed to get done. If all I do is make lists, I’m going to be checking off things till the day I die. I’ll never be done. I’ll never be perfect. No matter how much I try, there will always be something more for me to do. Maybe what would make more sense, would be for me to let go of a few things.

“Cast your bread upon the waters. . .”

Let go, and let God. Let God take care of a few things instead. Let God take charge of my stuff, and my life, and my direction.

Have you ever heard people use the phrase, to “live large”? It means a kind of an attitude, a style of living or being. One way to live is to live small – to count every penny, to draw your circle smaller, to protect what you have.

Living large is the opposite – not being wasteful, but living open-handedly, with an open heart, an open mind, ready to reach out, quick to make friends.

I remember a friend of mine, years ago, who knew what “living large” meant. When he was a boy, his mother had some kind of a breakdown, and placed him and his siblings in an orphanage in the Midwest. He lived there till he was 18, and then joined the Navy at the beginning of WWII. He was a radio man and served in the Pacific, and survived a near miss when a Japanese kamikazi plane skimmed just three feet over his head and slammed into the next ship in line and destroyed it.

When Arthur came home from the war, he got a job at a newspaper. He never married. But he made friends and was involved with his church. Every year, he would send 24 pairs of blue jeans and 24 pairs of sneakers to the orphanage, because he remembered what it was like growing up without those things. He sent presents to the orphanage, too, all wrapped up for kids who needed something special.

Over the years, he let a number of students board with him in his modest little home. When he retired, he decided he wanted to see some of our Quaker missions in Africa, but he didn’t do it the way most tourists do. He went and lived in homes, in villages, for 2 or 3 months at a time. He got to know the families. He helped with the education of their children. I think that there are 8 or 10 Kenyan children who were named after him. He took his bread, and cast it on the waters.

I also like the idea, in “casting our bread upon the waters,” of there being a little more of the surprise element in the way we live. I’m not sure that even God knows where every seed is going to fall. I think that even God waits sometimes to see  how things will work out.

There’s a phrase that was going around a few years ago in pop culture – “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty. . .” I always liked that. Sometimes we do things in a planned and purposeful way, and sometimes we do things which are kind, or beautiful, or merciful, or loving, almost at random.

It isn’t always about being effective. Sometimes it’s about being joyful, or just alive. To re-phrase Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything.

There is a time for setting goals and priorities and organizing structures. But there’s also a time for us simply to enjoy being together.

There’s a time to plan for serious reflection about Christian Education, but there’s also a time for us just to play with the kids. If we do either one all the time, and never do the other, we’re missing something.

There’s a time to pray specifically, to pray with discipline and passion and direction. Most of us could stand to pray that way a lot more than we do.

But there’s also a time to pray without direction, simply to be in the presence of God, for us to be inwardly quiet and to let the wind of the Spirit blow us wherever it wills.

Either way, prayer is important! But there are different ways to pray. And there are times when we need to try them both.

“Casting your bread on the waters” is also about ministries and missions. We give to support ministries, we send people out, we support them faithfully, we pray for them – but we almost never know who will hear, who will respond, who will be helped, who will be changed. And sometimes – we don’t know when – the fruits of their love and labor come back to us.

But some day – we don’t know when – the seed will take root. God’s love and God’s word will flower, in places we never expected it to. And there will be fruit, delicious fruit, more fruit than we could ever dream of.

The child we play with in the nursery today may grow up and never be involved with the church. Or they may grow up, and remember that this was a place that older people loved them, and told them that God loves them.

The poor family we help may never pay us back, or even be grateful. That’s a risk I’m willing to take! Jesus didn’t say for us to help the poor because it’s effective outreach, or build houses with Habitat for Humanity because it would make our church grow.

He said, “When you do it to the least of these, my brothers and my sisters, you do it to Me. . .” (Matthew 25:40)

We can all find our own examples. It’s not a difficult idea. “Cast your bread upon the waters; it will come back to you after many days. . .”

Write a book, or read a book, or give a book away. Buy somebody lunch. Fix something. Paint something. Make something more beautiful.

Hold somebody’s hand. Write someone a letter. Write a letter to the editor.

Be a friend. Plant a seed. Say a prayer. Love someone. Give somebody flowers. Forgive someone. Give somebody one of your own favorite pieces of clothing. Be creative, and have fun with it. “Cast your bread upon the waters. . .”

As we settle into worship together, may these words fill our hearts and minds.
And in our time of prayer and sharing, let’s see how we can try to live them.

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