Sermon for Evensong on the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 23rd October 2016
Ecclesiastes 11,12, 2 Timothy 2:1-7 Falling off the High Wire

Cast your bread on the waters. Take a risk. Buy a ticket in the lottery, perhaps. ‘Have a portion in seven, or in eight’. What on earth does all this mean? 

In Hebrew Qoheleth, the ‘preacher’, or ‘teacher’, or ‘the speaker’ – whatever the Latin word ‘ecclesiastes’ means – has a rather cynical outlook. You don’t know how a baby takes shape in the mother’s womb. You don’t know how God decides that one baby should spring to life and another not. If you are a young person with all the grace and beauty and energy of youth, make the most of it. Because it won’t last. 

But this wonderful asset, of being young, is ultimately useless, is ultimately ‘vanity’. We will all have to meet our maker at some stage and account for what we have done in our lives. There is nothing for it; the only thing you can do is to obey God’s commandments and do your best.

It’s rather an odd set of sentiments to find in the Bible. Usually we read about how God cares for us; that if we follow God’s commandments, or turn away from bad things that we have been doing, we will be ‘saved’. What sort of salvation is it? Perhaps we shall be saved, in the sense that the Good Samaritan saved the man who had fallen among thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho: saved, taken to hospital, picked up in a lifeboat – saved in an earthly sense. Or alternatively, there is the vision of heaven, the vision of eternal life. Being saved in the sense of having eternal life. 

I gave a birthday present to the lady who is my personal trainer at David Lloyd’s gym the other day. I should say that, as you can see, I am not her model student, apparently because of the things I like eating and drinking rather than because I’m doing the wrong exercises. But even Charles Atlas couldn’t do a better job on me than Liz Ferrari.

Anyway, I decided to give her a book, a book that she would enjoy; and I found a lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced travel book. But it was a travel book with a twist. The idea was that, in each of the exciting or beautiful places around the world, there was an activity which you could do. You could run up mountains or cross bottomless gorges on rickety rope bridges. You know, all those rather extreme sports. She likes that sort of thing.

Liz was pleased with the book. But it got us talking about risky activities. I confessed that I don’t really like going to the circus. I know that unfortunately the lion tamer and the elephant man or the beautiful girl choreographing sea lions in evening dress are not what they seem, and circuses don’t have them any more. Unfortunately there was a lot of cruelty involved in training those animals. We know better now.

But what about the Cirque du Soleil, those circuses that have no animals, but just have acrobats, trapeze artists and people on high wires? I can’t bear to look. I can’t bear to look because it seems to me that the risk of falling is terrible. Is there a safety net? If there is a safety net, thank goodness, because if they fall, we can hope that they will not be badly hurt.

But why is it often somehow more exciting, a bigger box-office draw, if the artist on the high wire does it without a safety net? Why do people pay more to see something like that? Something really dangerous. When Philippe Petit walked on the tight-rope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, 107 storeys up, why was that to be celebrated? If he had fallen, like the people who jumped out of the windows of the burning towers on 9/11, he would likely have been dead, we understand, before he hit the ground. 

I can’t bear to watch it. I don’t want these people to risk being maimed or killed just for the sake of giving spectators a thrill. I’m not even sure what that thrill is, really. We don’t have wild beast shows like the ancient Romans – and that’s good. The Romans who went to the arena to watch these shows – gladiators and Christians against each other, and against lions – and, I suppose, people who go to bullfights or boxing matches – all go because they want to see somebody surviving even through there is a terrible risk, and some people get hurt. 

They want to see Cassius Clay; but they’re not so fussed about Joe Frazier or Sonny Liston or George Foreman. I don’t think people really want to go to see people or animals being hurt, but I really wonder how the thrill works. Because it could happen. The man could fall off the high wire. The girl might not catch the hands of her partner hanging down from the trapeze. It’s a risk. 

And somehow people say that it is a good thing to have an ‘appetite for risk’. It’s supposed to be good for the character of children to do risky things. Of course there has to be a ‘risk assessment’ to make sure that the risk is not too great.

I’m sorry, but I think this is all nonsense. ‘They shall not hurt or kill on my holy mountain,’ says God, through the prophet Isaiah. ‘The lion shall lie down with the lamb, and the little child shall play on the hole of the asp’. There will be salvation. But how? Ecclesiastes points out how in individual cases it may not work. ‘Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity.’ 

I just went to see probably one of the most disturbing and terrifying films that I’ve ever seen. It didn’t involve dinosaurs; mountains didn’t explode like they do in James Bond films; Bruce Willis didn’t slaughter half the world. There was no terrifying car chase, and there was no love interest.

But nevertheless, it’s a film which will live on in my mind’s eye for a very long time. It was about what happens when you fall. Why do you fall? Why could you fall? Was it because you were a bad acrobat, if you somehow deserved to fall? When you are lying, maimed, on the ground, can you reasonably expect that there will be somebody to care for you and put you back together again? 

I won’t spoil the plot for you. All I would say to you is that you should go and see ‘I, Daniel Blake’ before very long. 

Ecclesiastes doesn’t really offer any answers, for all his pretty words. ‘A time to laugh: a time to cry. … For everything there is a season.’ That’s Ecclesiastes. Vanity. Is that what we believe? Where are the seeds of salvation, and what is salvation? On God’s holy mountain, there. And there, ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’.

But where is that mountain? It’s not a place for extreme sports. Is it all right that in the trapeze artistry of life, some people don’t make it? They fall. But as Ecclesiastes says, we don’t know which ones they will be. Then we see the refugees in their dangerous boats, or the young ones in Calais, who, whatever the newspapers may say, are young – but look old. They look old because of the risks that they take every night, trying to jump on trains and into lorries to get through the tunnel.

They are risk-takers. But they’re not risk takers for someone else’s enjoyment. They have no alternative. Their houses are destroyed. Their relatives are gone. They are unable to work – although they’d like to. Why them, and why not us?

What is it about the fact that we happen to live here, where they want to be? For them to be in England represents salvation. In Ecclesiastes, there is no salvation. It’s just the luck of the draw. Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity. What a bleak vision. It must look like that when the bulldozers come, and the gendarmes escort you to a bus, to take you heaven knows where. Where they definitely don’t speak English. 

But Jesus says, ‘Love your neighbour’ – love that young man, who is, you know, just an economic migrant. Think about it. Of course he’s an economic migrant. He is hungry. He has no money. He has no money and he is hungry, because he is a refugee, because he has been driven out of his home. 

How would we feel, if we were driven out from our home? Just imagine if London had been invaded by IS/Daesh. Just imagine if large parts of greater London, including Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, had been flattened in the fight. If our brave boys had had to become guerrillas and fight house to house. In the eyes of the enemy, we had become combatants. And we had to leave. We had to get away from our dangerous place. Everybody who could had to pack up their cars and get away. But where would we go?

Could we get on a ferry, or through the Tunnel? And find a new life in safety, in Europe? Would they welcome us? Would we be able to speak the language? That must be what it feels like to be a refugee. There are hundreds of thousands of them – millions, even – and about 12,000 of them on our doorstep. About 1,000 of them are children. Is it vanity? Is it emptiness, just a spectator sport?

Although some people do like watching people on the high wire, I do hope that, in this area, we won’t: I hope that we realise, as a society, and for those in power as a government, that there are some risks that should not be taken. There should always be a safety net. Not as in Ecclesiastes, for whom, however awful things are, it’s just too bad: everything is vanity. 

Instead, we Christians should feel very confident that we have a better example, the example of the man who said that we should love our neighbour.

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