Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14; 2:18-23
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me —and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labours under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 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. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
I am treading carefully, since I have been reminded that for those of you who were here three years ago when these readings were last appointed, this too is vanity became something of a catchphrase, as did my sermon the following week about not keeping to your own trampoline [see the service sheet]….
I have also learnt that anything I refer to, however obscure, will elicit some knowledgeable reaction from this extraordinary congregation. So I must assume that at least one of you has visited Waxham Great Barn, in a tiny hamlet on the north Norfolk coast. I know it well, since it is just a few miles from the spot where we once had a holiday shack, which fared less well: the area has gone over the eroding cliff edge.
Waxham Great Barn is one of the largest medieval tithe barns in England. East Anglia was once the most heavily-populated part of the country, but the area is now very isolated. The barn is a beautiful structure – timber framed, wattled, and thatched – and it was lovingly restored by English Heritage some years ago, at great cost, having been derelict for many years; but they then wondered what to do with it. A few exhibitions were held there, but without much success as it's so much off the beaten track. However, the modern solution has now emerged: it is licensed as a wedding venue (yours for a minimum of £2k), where people may eat, drink and be merry: how ironic, in the light of today's readings.
An empty barn, like an empty church, is a contradiction in terms. It has ceased to do the job for which it is built. In many parts of the world, of course, an empty barn is something much worse – a sign of disaster, a sign that crops have failed and people are starving. Or, as is increasingly the case in our distorted global economy, it shows that the people are producing food, but not for themselves: they are producing cash crops for export, to set against crippling national debts. They have nothing in store for their own future. Much of the development work of Christian Aid and other agencies is directed at reversing this trend, and enabling local communities to become self-sufficient once more. We too may need to learn lessons about self-sufficiency for our own future.
The psalmist sees a full barn as a sign of God’s blessing, a sign that all is well with the community:
May our barns be filled with all manner of store; our flocks bearing thousands and ten thousands in our fields; our cattle be heavy with young; may there be no miscarriage or untimely birth, no cry of distress in our streets. Happy are the people whose blessing this is; happy are the people who have the Lord for their God (Ps 144.13-16).
Ecclesiastes, the gloomy Preacher (whose writings form part of the Wisdom canon of the Hebrew scriptures, alongside the more optimistic Book of Proverbs, and the wonderfully-nuanced thoughts of the Book of Job) tells us that this is all vanity; all the toil and labour under the sun, all human attempts to build a new future, are a chasing after wind – something that can't be contained. His Hebrew title Qoheleth, is a pen-name, and it has been suggested that it could just as well have been Eeyore, because the writer’s view of the world is so bleak and negative. This commentator recommends that today's first reading should be read slowly, sadly and wearily, interspersed with the occasional deep melancholy sigh (but I didn't pass this suggestion to Barbara, who read it with a different kind of authority).
He has had his fans; the agnostic Herman Melville in Moby Dick called Ecclesiastes the truest of all books; Thomas Wolfe in his novel You Can’t Go Home Again said Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound; and the great Martin Luther said that this noble little book should be read every day because it firmly rejected a sentimental religiosity. Ecclesiastes' message was: there is no security to be found in saving up for a rainy day; all we have is the present moment, so we might as well make the best of it:, and not worry if our barns fall into disrepair.
Why is he so negative? This is certainly not the way empires are built, or wars are won. This is not the way governments should work: agricultural policies have to look five or ten years ahead (that’s the theory, at least). The Preacher does not seem to be aware of one of the foundation stories of Israel: how Joseph, banished to Egypt by his brothers, rose to power in the land, and being warned in dreams of a seven-year famine throughout the region, had the foresight to build and fill granaries from which he was able to supply the region – including his brothers – when they were desperate to buy food. An entrepreneur indeed.
I make no comment or connection with our new Prime Minister's wilder pronouncements about the golden uplands ahead for those who are ready to take the risks, or about plans to stockpile pharmaceuticals, but would simply note that there are times when we need to hear the Preacher’s Eeyoreish message: when we become too anxious or obsessed with the future that we lose sight of the present and what it has to offer.
One of the spiritual classics, written by an obscure 18th century French Jesuit called Jean-Pierre de Caussade, is entitled Abandonment to the Divine Providence. What he meant by ‘abandonment’ is not fatalism, inshallah, or the kind of passivity that some Christians, called Quietists, taught, but a sense of assurance in God’s unalterable love: let go, and let God. In spite of the suffering and evil which we see around us, he says we can be sure that God’s love ever streams to us, like that sublime sun, which from dawn to dusk – however dark and heavy the clouds which hide it – illuminates, warms and inspires us (maybe too much in these days times of climate change).
The sure and solid foundation, he wrote, is to give ourselves to God and to put ourselves entirely in his hands, body and soul. He says that this giving of ourselves to God in gratitude and love, worked out in every detail of personal and corporate life, is what St Paul in Romans means by present yourselves, your souls and bodies, as a living sacrifice, which is your spiritual worship and service. And the way in which we can live in this way is summed up in his own suggestive phrase the sacrament of the present moment. God intends that his love should reach us through the experience, and the obligations, of the here and now. We cannot live in yesterday’s solar heat nor in tomorrow’s, but only in its present warmth. In the same way we can only receive God’s love through each of today’s events, not yesterday’s or tomorrow’s. God makes of all things mysteries and sacraments of love, he writes. Why should not every moment of our lives be a sort of communion with the divine love? In the spirit of calm trust, we should put aside anxiety about the future or regret about the past, and live in the sacrament of the present moment.
This, of course, is a far cry from the negligence of the man in the parable that Jesus told, who was not consumed with regret about the past or anxiety about the future. Quite the reverse; he reckons that because he has done well for himself in the past he doesn’t need to worry about the future. He has worked hard, building his new barns and filling them, and can now enjoy the well-earned retirement he has planned. On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with that: it’s what many of us hope to do, or have already done. The problem is that there is one bit of the future for which he has not planned. He doesn’t actually say eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die – he has left that bit out of the equation, and what he has stored up will not be of much use after he has gone. Indeed, even while he lives it is precarious – who knows what will happen to his big barns? Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The point about the sacrament of the present moment is that it has constantly to be renewed and re-experienced if it is to yield heavenly treasure. It’s not like a pension fund or an endowment, where you stop paying and then start drawing the benefits. Ten years’ attendance at Sunday School, even if it was every week, or even fifty years of faithful worship, are of no account if here and now you have given up on God. Of course, all that you have done in the past will have shaped and deepened your Christian life – or should have done – but unless you come to God new every morning, your treasure has gone, your barn will be empty.
A better text than eat, drink and be merry for the man who thought he was rich is the final verses of Psalm 4:
Lord, lift up the light of your countenance upon us.
You have put gladness in my heart, more than when their corn and wine and oil increase.
In peace I will lie down and sleep, for it is you, Lord, only, who make me dwell in safety.