Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 26 January 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
3 EPIPHANY, 2014 EVENSONG
If you were around in the 1960s, and especially if you were young, those words we heard from Ecclesiastes formed part of the background music of life – even if many who heard them had no idea that they came from the Bible and simply assumed that they had been written by the American folk singer Pete Seeger whose voice we heard singing them: “For everything there is a season, turn, turn, turn.”
The scriptures have a capacity to speak to us, even when we know little or nothing about the historical and cultural background, or the meaning of some of the words used. But the existence of a huge body of commentary and critical study, not forgetting our recurring differences about its meaning in controversial areas of life, reminds us that scripture is not always as straightforward as we might like it to be.
While we do not need to be a fully-trained in the ways of biblical criticism, which has sometimes shown itself adept at taking the Bible but less so at putting it back together again – there are times when some background knowledge can help us negotiate writings which are unfamiliar and strange; which sometimes seem to sit uneasily within the canon of scripture.
One such book is Ecclesiastes, with its almost relentless scepticism. If we find this puzzling, we can take comfort from the fact that both Jewish and Christians scholars have long felt the same.. Like a number of other books, there was considerable debate over its inclusion in the canon.
For one thing, it doesn’t seem very theological. God hardly gets a mention. It doesn’t have much hope for those life, and none at all for the next. Its recurring refrain, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” can convey an air of unleavened pessimism; a relentlessly sceptical attitude to life and human endeavour. It is far removed from the joyful celebration of the resurrection hope in the First Letter of Peter which was our second reading. Ecclesiastes does not seem to convey much in the way of good news.
But we should not expect every book in the Bible to convey the whole of revelation. If that were the case, we would only need one book and all the previous ones could be discarded. That is where the scriptures differ from the Koran, which Muslims see as superseding all previous revelations.
Even within the group of books called by Jews “The Writings”, or the Wisdom Literature of both the Hebrew Canon and the Deuteron-Canonical books of the Apocrypha, Ecclesiastes sounds an odd and distinctly negative note.
If we read straight on from Proverbs, the preceding book, we notice this quickly. Proverbs is a collection of sanctified common sense. While clearly rooted in Jewish theology, it has much in common with similar collections in other ancient cultures. Something that should remind us that wisdom, and the work of the Spirit, is not confined to Church or Bible.
Proverbs and other Wisdom literature assume that through the exercise of God-given reason or wisdom, we are able to understand the world and our place in it, and our relationship with God, the source of that reason and wisdom, and so live devout, ordered, moral and fruitful lives – at peace with God and the world.
Ecclesiastes will have none of this optimism. The Preacher or Teacher questions all assumptions, even those about the capacity of human reason. Ecclesiastes is not the only such contrarian voice in Scripture. Job questions the simplistic equations between piety and prosperity voiced by his “comforters” – based on the observation of reality; the reality he has experienced. The small books of Ruth and Jonah counter the Jewish exclusivism of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Ecclesiastes is scripture’s own antidote to sentimental and simplistic pieties which do not face up to the realities of life. Such pieties are as alive now as they were then – and they are just as inadequate, as I was reminded during the last week, as I conducted the funeral of a still-born child.
Ecclesiastes is scripture’s critique of philosophies and ideologies of human self-improvement which blithely ignore the evidence of history and experience about the realities of sin and evil, our human capacity for self-delusion, which dog our efforts at improvement.
Professor Ellen Davis, who teaches Old Testament at Virginia Seminary, recalls in her commentary on Ecclesiastes a former army chaplain who had served in the Vietnam War – raging at the time Seeger was singing his song – that Ecclesiastes, with its bleak realism, indeed because of it, was the part of scripture to which his men responded to. They were mostly young conscripts from poor white and black communities – unable to obtain the exemptions from the draft available to their better-off and better-educated contemporaries. Now, in the midst of a futile and seemingly endless conflict, they no longer believed generals and politicians who told them that they were fighting and dying in a noble cause and that victory was in sight.
Often those Christians who proclaim their biblical credentials most loudly and regard any sign of questioning or doubt as a spiritual failing, prefer to side-line this critical element in scripture. While this may work as a short-term evangelistic tactic, as a long-term spiritual strategy it ignores the questions which will almost inevitably come to believers who take the world around them, and the scriptures they read, seriously; who can no longer be content with glib and easy answers.
It is then that we need writers like the Preacher. It is then that we need Paul’s reminder that the wisdom of God is wiser than human wisdom.
The this-worldly horizon and questioning approach of Ecclesiastes might lead us to think of it leading us to a hopeless and joyless fatalism; life is something endured rather than enjoyed; to faith as a grim stoicism rather than a celebration.
But for all his remorseless critique of easy answers and pious platitudes,
he does not quite give in to this temptation. Unlike our contemporary critics of faith, he does not believe that our life is the product of accident. He does believe that there is an order and pattern in life. The Preacher does not suggest that we live in an entirely random and unpredictable universe, the products of some chaotic chemical process -but in a universe which has some order and purpose. There are things on which we can generally rely. It is the role of wisdom to discern that order and to relate creatively to it. That, after all, is the basis of human scientific endeavour.
There are limits to what we can know and do. There is a time to die as well as to live. We are given no infallibility in our decisions. Part of wisdom is knowing when we have got it wrong and being willing to change rather than go on stubbornly in error: a lesson politicians of all varieties need to learn, however idealistic and visionary they, especially when they are idealistic and visionary.
There are times when we must act as best we can in the circumstances, even though we know that there are likely to be consequences we cannot foresee. It is better to risk than simply do nothing. There are times when we have to fight as well as times when we should make peace.
But we should not go away thinking that Ecclesiastes is unremittingly negative: an exercise in hopelessness, a counsel of despair. The Preacher stops short of fatalism, a total predestination which leaves human beings with no active role at all. For all the limitations on what we can know, we can and should seek to enjoy life.
What the rest of Scripture points us to is the wider horizon of God’s purposes for us but lest we get carried away with that dream in this life, so that we are no earthly use, we need to keep on listening to the Preacher.