Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
In this week’s headlines, Greenland’s ice sheet is at risk of a record melt, as the high temperatures we’ve been experiencing move north. A broken reservoir wall, battered during rainstorms, threatens the Derbyshire town below it. Ebola has reached the Congolese border city of Goma, home to 2 million people. Meanwhile the UK is turbo-charging preparations for a no-deal Brexit while a report tells us that 4 million Britons are living below the breadline, with a further 7 million living in persistent poverty.
‘Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher’. ‘All is vanity.’ ‘It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.’ This ancient text can sound a strikingly contemporary note, faced as we are with situations that seem immense and intractable. The author of Ecclesiastes also faced a bleak situation. The Jewish people had returned from exile in Babylon, which seemed like good news, but they remained subject to a much stronger foreign power; they were taxed into poverty; the poor were exploited and forgotten; justice and the rule of law proved unreliable guides to the good ordering of society. Even God seemed distant and uninterested, faith offering scant comfort to a people battered by forces beyond their control.
What’s the point? asks the Teacher. You work hard, you try to live well and do good, you say your prayers and follow the Law, and still bad things happen. All the things for which you’ve laboured, the things to which you have given your life’s energy, can be squandered by those who come after you. In the end money can’t save you, or reputation, or hard work or influence. At times in Ecclesiastes, the Teacher is not even sure that God can save you.
And yet, as the book of Ecclesiastes unfolds, this is more than the counsel of despair. The Teacher’s willingness to look unflinchingly at the world, and at himself, helps him to discern where God is present and active. His faith demands a truthful engagement with reality, rather than a retreat into despair or cynicism.
The Teacher, along with the rest of the people of Israel, had learnt some hard truths through the experience of exile and return. With the destruction of the temple they learnt that God is not confined to a building. With the loss of the Promised Land they learnt that God’s promise is not limited by geography or influence. As they faced economic uncertainty and poverty they heard anew God’s consistent siding with the poor and the outcast through the Law and the Prophets.
And they learnt that ‘one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ There is a thread that runs through the Old Testament which finds confirmation of God’s blessing in signs of abundance – be that offspring or crops or herds or food or materials for building or trade. And there is something important to be learnt from this: God’s desire for us, shown in creation, shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, is for abundant life, and that does not mean disdaining the creation that God has declared good.
But neither does it mean mistaking created things for God and finding our security in them. It’s but a small leap from enjoying the good things God gives to presuming they are a sign of God’s favour and one’s right relationship with God – an attitude which can lead to a form of idolatry on the one hand and contempt for the poor on the other.
Ecclesiastes, in common with a lot of the rest of the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, as well as the witness of the New, resists making this leap. The Teacher has looked and looked, and has not found the meaning of life in possessions or learning or reputation or influence or even in the forms of religious and cultic life on whose presence Israel thought its very existence depended. All of these things provided a veneer of security, but in the experience of dispossession, of exile and subjugation, of learning to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, it was God who remained steadfast, God who proved to be the one unmoveable giver of Israel’s life and identity. Though they were far from home and the land they loved, far from the temple and the sacrifices that assured their righteousness, far from influence and power, they were not far from God, for he would not let his people go.
And this hard-won knowledge is what makes the Teacher in Ecclesiastes a voice of hope rather than despair. He may start off saying that all is vanity, but his exploration, his refusal to flinch from reality, helps him in the end to receive life as a gift. He does not have to keep striving to secure the future by piling up possessions, or establishing a reputation or legacy, or living in a fearful way to defend himself from the threat of an unknown or uncertain future. There is freedom in being called and loved by God: freedom from needing to be creators and curators of our own lives, and freedom to trust in his love for our identity.
Writing in a very different time and context, Paul says something similar in Colossians. ‘You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’, he writes. He means that in baptism they have died with Christ and been raised to new life in him. They are no longer their own: it is now Christ who lives in them, and they who live in Christ. Marked with the cross they have a new identity, an identity they can trust God to hold onto. Their life in Christ, our life in Christ, does not depend primarily on their choice of God, on their devotion or virtue or practice. It depends first on God’s steadfast love. Because of that, their lives, our lives, are hidden with Christ in God.
There follows from that a certain pattern of life: a seeking after those things that are above, as Paul writes. Or as Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, being rich towards God. And this puts other things into perspective.
St Ignatius of Loyola, the co-founder of the Jesuits and a great spiritual director, put it like this:
‘We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a more loving response to our life forever with God. Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.’ (Spiritual Exercises §23)
This is called the principle of indifference. It doesn’t mean not caring about anything, but it’s about being free to embrace what it is that will lead to growing in relationship with God and sharing in his work – and being free to let go of what doesn’t do this. The rich man’s possessions could have given him a great ability to join in with God’s work of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and bringing comfort to the afflicted. But he stored up his possessions in ever bigger barns, thinking that by doing this his own future was secure. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, had learnt that on their own work and study and possessions and reputation could not secure the future. God’s presence and love, and our worth and life in his sight, does not depend on these things.
This knowledge is a great gift. When God’s love is the basis of our security and identity, we are truly free: free to love others as God loves them; free to act and live in God’s world in accordance with his purposes. An unholy indifference would stop with the Teacher’s conclusion that all is vanity, and retreat into building the sorts of barns that we think we need to secure our future. A holy indifference on the other hand will always refuse such retreat, for it knows that God’s love cannot be shaken, but neither can it be stored away as our own possession. It is given to be shared and lived, so that God’s deepening life in us may lead to God’s deepening life in all creation. In the midst of climate change, austerity and division, this is the very opposite of vanity, but the very gift the world needs.