29 Aug Sermon: Trinity 7/Proper 13, Year C
July 31st, 2022
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher… all is vanity” [Eccles. 1: 2]
Those who like to ascribe all the Wisdom books in the bible to particular biblical characters, typically ascribe three books to King Solomon: they suggest that he wrote the Song of Songs when he was in his prime, the Wisdom of Solomon when he was middle aged, and this book – Ecclesiastes – in bitter, or at least weary, old age. Weariness will affect us all, at times throughout our life, but bitterness is a sad end for one who believes in God: some argue that Solomon only reached that end because he forsook God and worshipped the gods of other nations [cf I Kings 11].
Whoever wrote Ecclesiastes, and whatever their understanding of the One they worshipped, it is a dispiriting book, despairing of this life ‘under the sun’ and decrying its ‘vanity’ or pointlessness:
“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” [Eccles. 1: 22]
The logical end here is despair, apathy and – in a later age, also – millenarianism.
There is a different but related risk from today’s Gospel passage. Jesus is asked for a rabbinic legal judgement, effectively. It may be anachronistic to apply to Jesus a role from rabbinic Judaism, since the first century CE was a time of huge cultural and spiritual upheaval including the development of pharisaism and the destruction of the Second Temple, but whether or not we call it a ‘halakhic ruling’ we see here, as elsewhere in the gospels, Jews asking this charismatic teacher to pronounce on matters of godly living. And Jesus declines:
“Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” [Luke 12: 14]
He does not give a legal judgement but he does – as a spiritual guide – address what he sees as the root of the question. He gives a parable, warning people not to be greedy or to count on earthly, tangible things because the future is unknowable: what matters is to be “rich towards God” [Luke 12: 21]
But the risk here is that we devalue – even dismiss – human concerns as we concentrate on the pious, the supposedly ‘spiritual’. Ruth Burrows, in her book The Interior Castle Explored, warns:
“God may be calling us to toil in his vineyard, bearing the burden and the heat of the day, while we insist we are called to a more austere form of life, a life of ‘deeper prayer’… Intent, as we think, on the higher reaches of spirituality, we can overlook the warp and weft of holiness.”
A similar risk also arises from today’s epistle. Here the author urges us:
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. … Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly.” [Col. 3: 2ff]
In this text there is a double danger – which was all too evident in the dualist heresies of the early Church. There is the tendency to malign or reject God’s good Creation – including our very physicality – in our yearning for the ‘life above’. Too often this leads to callous indifference in the face of climate change, or disregard of famine and disease, on the specious grounds that the life of this earth is merely a random obstacle course on our way to the true life of the soul in God. Such an attitude violates the doctrine of Creation: that God made the world and all that is in it, that God loves it, and that the Creation remains God’s precious possession while we are only temporary stewards of it in some degree.
The second part of this danger is to think our life on earth – our ‘earthly’ life – is merely something to be endured, survived, in the belief and hope that it will soon be over and we shall ‘rise’ to the kingdom of God – the spiritual world. In that case we could say, as someone amended Thomas Hobbes, that ‘life is nasty, brutish, and too damn long!’ But that stems, I suggest, from a misunderstanding of the kingdom of God. Such a kingdom is not some ethereal existence, floating on a distant cloud, but something that has begun already and which we are building, step by step in the here-and-now, for the fuller kingdom of God in the resurrection life to come.
As Tom Wright expresses it, in Surprised by Hope:
“what has begun with the resurrection of Christ, continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of the Spirit…therefore every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow non-human creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed which spreads the Gospel, builds up the Church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, … all of this action in the present is not wasted… but means we are building for the kingdom that is to come.”
This, here and now, has eternal value – in itself, for our neighbour, and not just to win us approval – and constitutes the will of the Father which Jesus set himself to obey.
Let me end with a further exhortation from Ruth Burrows. She says:
“Let us remind ourselves over and over again, that holiness has to do with very ordinary things: truthfulness, kindness, gentleness, contentment with our lot, consideration for others, honesty and courage in the face of life, reliability, dutifulness.”
This is the call of our God, the holy wisdom which will not end in bitterness or despair but in resounding praise of our Creator.
Image: Jean-François Millet, Man Turning over the Soil, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons