This a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral at Evensong 22nd January: the texts were Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 and 1 Peter 1:3-12. Reflecting on wisdom, vanity, a living hope and a new creation - in relation to Trump, Brexit and the kind of communities we want to shape.
From the front page of today’s Observer: ‘Trump, as bullishly self-confident as he is ignorant, will not be easily denied. And the crass nationalism that lay at the heart of Friday’s speech is a powerful force. It appeals to the darker side of human nature, bolstering the insidious claims of jealousy, envy, greed and hubris. It thrives on fear, chauvinism and not always subliminal notions of ethnic, racial and moral superiority. It is a product of our time’.
A product of our time. A time of disorder, fear, and anxiety. A time when we grapple with questions of human flourishing: debates about family life, gender and sexuality; changing patterns of work, longevity, technology and social care; advances in genetics, changes in the climate and sustainable food supplies; the power of the 1%, the dynamics of the market, the role and form of the state.
A product of our time. An unsettled time. A time when, to quote the theologian and ethicist Luke Bretherton, ‘the world is out of control [and] the absurd begins to feel like common sense’. The rise of President Trump and the vote for Brexit can be read as attempts to make sense of fear and disorder; how can we ensure that taking back control resists the idolatry of ‘me and mine’ at the expense of others?
A product of our time: a time when we have become sceptical and fearful in the face of seismic shifts; a time when voices of protest rise up in defiance; a time when, in the face of the fragility of goodness, we must pursue the life of the common good.
In this time Ecclesiastes encourages and challenges us. The teacher makes us confront the inevitability of death. He begins by exposing our ‘vanity’ in seeking lasting fame and the pretentiousness of what we count as achievement or impact: ‘all is vanity and chasing after the wind’.
Yet, he is not a doom-monger; he finds hope in humility. We are to be humble; to be earthed; to recognise that life is from God; to be enjoyed in ordinary pleasure; to be endured in hope. Like us, this teacher is aware of human limitations and of the complexity of the world; he knows of suffering, loss of control and the workings of principalities and powers - which might be indifferent at best and abusive at worst.
Where do we find meaning and moral security in a world such as this? Does our quest end in the oblivion of death - the great equaliser, even for those whose names are carved in stone? When we face dislocation - nationally and globally - how can the church offer stability? If we cannot ‘convince’ what might we offer that is authentic and compelling?
Imitating the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, means humility, honesty and hope. We cannot dodge pain and sorrow; we must speak plainly. The teachers adopts a poetic and pithy style - worthy of the 140 character limit of Twitter! On the one hand he explores the meaning of life, unfairness and death itself. It is the recognition of life’s brevity which has implications for our conduct now.
The word which we translate as vanity is the Hebrew ‘hevel’ - a word which means ‘breath’. It can express absurdity; but it also speaks of frailty. And in speaking of frailty, it points us to what is most important.
Life as ‘hevel’ shapes our moral life, our choices and ways of being in relation to each other; it shapes our prayers for President Trump, for our government, our diplomats; for our local councillors and the European leaders; it increases our capacity we resist and name as evil those things which deny human dignity; it increases our vision for the things we strive for, not for me and mine, but for the common good.
Life is short but full of meaning; how we live matters. Breath by breath, the Spirit is at work in us. We need to be wise and humble; not manipulative or selfish. We take on responsibilities for sake of others; living generously within our limitations. We endure, together; we rejoice, together.
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes resonates with our point in human history; it’s very ‘earthiness’ and humble wisdom prepares us to hear afresh the good news of Jesus Christ because it takes seriously the realm of our daily living as the arena for God’s activity.
In the passage we heard this evening, the basic physical - and emotional - rhythms of our live are set out: birth, death, hate, love, harm and healing. Our social world is named - war and peace, uprooting and planting, breaking down and building up. Reading though the BBC news feed, all of human life is there; just as the teacher of Ecclesiastes sets it out. And we must decide how we respond. How do we inhabit these rhythms of life for the common good? We must resist futility and despair; dare we discern the pattern of God at work in our lives - and in our world - and strive for the good?
The first step, according to the teacher of Ecclesiastes, is to be attentive: longing for the past and fear of the future can prevent us from trusting God - from finding out what God has done from the beginning to the end. It’s the light of God which gives hope, clarity and purpose; our love of God calls us to be people of light; shining in darkness, resisting evil; turning the shadow of death into morning. Luke Bretherton makes this plea: ‘I beg those who consider themselves Christians to take up forms of politics oriented to faith, hope and love, yet alive to the fragility of ourselves, others and the world around us and to ignore the siren calls of the politics of nostalgia’.
And we can and must do this because the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ compels us to. In him, God reaches out to seek and save the lost; in him time is redeemed; in him nothing of value is lost or forgotten. And by the power of the Spirit at work in us, new kinds of ways of relating are made possible and a peaceable common life can be nurtured.
It is that vision which is expressed in our second reading: we have a new birth into a living hope. In baptism we are caught up in the new creation. A creation which sows seeds of compassion, hope, kindness. Our inheritance is entrusted to us now - a legacy of light in the face of darkness, truth in the face of lies, humility in the face of the abuse of power.
The letters of Peter, are honest about the suffering and trials of this world; but also secure in the hope of salvation. The power of God is at work in us - in faith, hope and love. We are to be witnesses to a new reality - ambassadors of peace, justice and reconciliation. If President Trump and others play to people’s fears, how can we within the church give voice to people’s hopes? In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we have a role in fostering community and continuing to tell the story of God across Europe and with our brothers and sisters across the Atlantic.
The Roman Catholic theologian Anna Rowlands wrote both of the loss of community in Sunderland and of its aspiration to be a place of real neighbourliness: if a binary question posed in a referendum in June has revealed 'painful fault lines' in our national life, we must pray, struggle and act in such a way that resentments do not become hatreds. How might this cathedral, our schools, our networks be places of 'open-hearted dialogue' - offering space for civic, social and cultural encounter; a community which forms bonds of affection as Rowlands hopes create ‘a sense of shared life across different classes, ethnicity and faiths?’
© Julie Gittoes 2017