Sermon for Evensong on the 21st Sunday after Trinity 2015

Ecclesiastes 11 and 12; 2 Timothy 2:1–7
Cast your bread upon the waters; don’t have all your eggs in one basket. This is a strange lesson. “‘Vanity of vanities,….’ saith the Preacher”. All is vanity, emptiness, worthlessness. Whatever we do, whatever we enjoy, whatever the books we read, all are pointless. But nevertheless, ‘fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man’. God will judge everybody at the end of the world.
This is in that part of the Old Testament called the Wisdom literature, written relatively late in the Old Testament history of the Jewish people, when they were ruled by Alexander the Great, around 300 BC. Ecclesiastes, the name of the book, is sometimes translated as ‘the preacher’ or the ‘teacher’ or the ‘speaker’. Or it might be, “commentator”. Somebody at the back of the church listening to the preacher, perhaps – and making rather cynical comments. [I got this idea from Charpentier, E., 1981, How to read the Old Testament, London, SCM Press, p87]
God, according to the man actually in the pulpit, is good and just. The world goes on in accordance with his plan. Ecclesiastes, at the back, mutters, “No, it doesn’t”. Whatever you do will all come to nothing. When you’re young, you can exult in the joys of youth. “The light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is to behold the sun.” But, there will be darkness. “All that cometh is vanity.” There is no attempt to explain this rather uncompromising and gloomy message. Why would the creator, the good God, allow everything to come to nothing? Ecclesiastes simply says, you have to accept it, worship God and hope for the best.
When the second letter to Timothy was written, maybe 450 years later, Timothy was told to teach the early Christians that he visited. Although he may have to endure hardship, “share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus”, and it will come out all right. No one is crowned, no one wins the race, without completing according to the rules. The farmer who does the work is allowed to enjoy the first fruits of his work. He should have the first pick of the crop. There is no talk of vanity, “everything is vanity”. God is good, because God sent Jesus to demonstrate his love, and that is the gospel message which Timothy has to pass on.
I went to a learned seminar in Oxford on Monday night concerned with this problem of evil. If God is good and loving, why do bad things happen? Why would it be that the ‘preacher sitting at the back of the church’, Ecclesiastes, would say that, however good it may look at first, everything is empty and pointless? ‘Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity’. Some people have argued that, because clearly there are bad things, there are natural disasters and there is man’s inhumanity to man, this must call into question either the very existence of God at all, or certainly the goodness of God. How could a good God allow all these bad things to happen?
The paper that I was listening to dealt with the answer which has been given by theologians all down the ages, from Saint Augustine onwards, to this problem of evil, which is that it is explained by the existence of free will. God created us with free will, in other words, the freedom of ourselves to choose to do good or bad things.
If free will consists in having a free choice whether to do a good thing or whether to pursue a bad course of action, equally, in order for us to be able to understand what the good is at all, there must be some bad things for us to contrast with it. The idea is that it is not God treating us as robots, so that we always do the right thing. We are made free. We can certainly choose to do the right thing, but we may not do so. It’s our own free choice.
The speaker on Monday night was examining the relative worth of free will as against the damage that it causes. If God gave us free will so as to demonstrate that he wasn’t creating all the bad things alongside the good things, is that a good bargain? Would we not perhaps be better off being predetermined just to do good things? Well, that was a rather deep theoretical discussion, and I think that you might complain that it is a little too recondite for Evensong!
But it does remind us of the sort of thing that Ecclesiastes, the teacher or the preacher, was bringing up. You can do the best things in the world: they may all come to nothing. If so, where is God in all that? The second letter to Timothy gives you the answer. In the light of the fact that Jesus has come, and in the light of who Jesus is, we can now be confident that it is not the case that everything is pointless, not true that everything is vanity.
That’s all rather dry stuff. I think I can bring it to life, can illustrate what I mean, by mentioning some things which have happened in the last week: which you can contrast them with what things looked like to Ecclesiastes, under the reign of Alexander the Great in 300 BC, or to Timothy, perhaps about 120AD.
I want to mention two happy things that happened this week. They are not intended to be the be-all and end-all, but simply to demonstrate that there are cases where prayers are answered, and that, although there may be evil in the world, there is also a lot of good. Things are not absolutely pointless.
The first story is all about a little black and white cat called Dottie. All round our road and quite a long way up Sandy Lane, for the last couple of weeks notices have been stuck to fences and gates – there have even been notices through everyone’s letterboxes – telling us that Dottie had gone missing and asking us to look in our garages and sheds in case she was locked in.
I know what that feels like, because I lost one of my Bengal cats, Poppadum, a few years ago. She went missing for two whole weeks. I looked everywhere; advertised on the Internet and on posters, and I went to see all my neighbours to ask whether she was stuck in their garages or in their sheds.
All to no avail. I said my prayers; I am sure that Dottie’s owner also said her prayers. Well, happiness of happiness, not vanity of vanities. Both cats reappeared safe and sound.
Prayers answered, surely. But I suppose you might be a bit sceptical if I based all my theology on stories of lost cats. Let me try another story. What do you think about footballers? Do you think of them as rather overpaid oafs rushing about in Ferraris? Or plonking their Range Rovers in disabled parking spaces outside pizzerias in Esher? You tend not to think of them as doing anything morally uplifting, however skilful they may be.
Now I swear that this is not intended to be a eulogy of Manchester United at the expense of our local teams, but you may have read in the newspaper this last week about the two great former Manchester United players, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, who bought the former Manchester Stock Exchange in the centre of Manchester with the intention of turning it into a boutique hotel with smart restaurant and spa facilities; all very chi-chi and no doubt, very expensive.
But before they had a chance to start work, squatters moved in and took it over. What do you think the two Manchester United players did when they found that the building was occupied by squatters? Do you think they called the police or went to court for an injunction? Did they hire bailiffs to remove the squatters?
They didn’t do any of those things. Instead, they welcomed the squatters, and told them they could stay till the spring. They realised that these were homeless people who faced spending the winter on the streets. The squatters say they are now able to have a roof over their heads, hot food, health checkups, benefit advice, signposting to other services and help with securing permanent long-term accommodation. They have renamed the former stock exchange building the ‘Sock Exchange’ as they will be distributing clothing as well.
The squatters have agreed to keep the building scrupulously clean and some of them are even working for the builders converting the building. Gary Neville said, ‘From my point of view, I’m quite relaxed about this.’ For the last 10 years he has been offering support to homeless people whom he has encountered on the streets of Manchester as he has walked about.
It could be something out of Saint Matthew chapter 25. You remember the story of the sheep and the goats at the time of the final judgement. ‘The king will say, when I was hungry, you gave me food; when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you took me into your home. And they will say, ‘When was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, and so on?’ And the king will answer, ‘I tell you this. Anything you did for one of the least of these my brothers here, you did for me.’ Anything you did for one of those down-and-outs. Like Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs did for them.
Not vanity, not emptiness. Even today, not in the hands of saints, but even among some premiership footballers, Jesus’s words have come true. Hallelujah!