Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 29 October 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning.
Ecclesiastes. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity.
I made a vow early on in my ministry not to be one of those clergymen who preach about their holidays, which is what they often did back then. But last month I went on the Society of Mary Pilgrimage to Austria, and I want to bring just one aspect of that pilgrimage holiday to your attention tonight. We were a large group, thirty-four souls, including one bishop and eight priests, and this was the first pilgrimage to Austria. We descended on some pretty upscale places, including St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Kloster Neuberg Monastery, Mariazell, the Austrian equivalent to Walsingham, and the great Benedictine monastery of Melk, and at these famous churches, each day, we had arranged to say Mass. What I noticed, and what I want to share with you, is that at all these grand churches, packed with treasures and tourists and pilgrims, our reception by the authorities was underwhelming, in the best possible sense of that word. It didn’t matter who we were. A sacristan in shirt sleeves would show us into a sacristy the size of this church; we could borrow what we liked and do whatever we were planning to do, and nobody came to check. There was no fuss, no worry about who might communicate, no ecumenical agenda, no play for denominational advantage, no exchange of compliments, no list of what was allowed. Just a brotherly welcome in the Benedictine way, complete trust, and the presence of God in word and sacrament. That was the only agenda. In other words, there was no vanity.
Vanity is self-consciousness, which then becomes self-obsession. It can find expression in the Church in a permanent tan of sunny confidence and success. There’s always a new initiative. These suit the professionals, because then we’ve got something to sell, the attractive answers which you haven’t got yet. Do watch out for clerical and church person’s vanity, starting with our own. We have to leave behind the Pharisee, our official religious selves, because as Jesus tells us, to follow Him we must leave self behind. But time and time again a false note is struck, and we offer each other not a full and complete life in the presence of God, but our own plan for self-improvement and success. Most of that is pretence, or vanity. As Tolstoy said: ‘Everyone wants to change humanity, but no one wants to change him or herself.’ The strain of this sort of upbeat religion is ‘full of weariness’ as the Preacher says.
Ecclesiastes is a warning against pride, including our pride in our achievements in the spiritual life. As if they’re going to matter. I am reminded what the Carmelite Ruth Burrows once wrote: ‘The way we worry about spiritual failure, the inability to pray, distractions, ugly thoughts and temptations we can’t get rid of .. [we’re worrying] not because God is defrauded, for he isn’t, it’s because we are not as beautiful as we would like to be.’
The Preacher doesn’t see God’s purpose in the world, so he doesn’t take it over as his own, as we are tempted to do. God is with us, yet He is infinitely beyond us. The Preacher sees that there is nothing new under the sun, and everything is repeated because nothing is remembered. He doesn’t see God in other people. He sees the world as a good place, but he is pessimistic about the human race; he sees greed, ignorance, madness, no progress. He despairs of all he has done, and all his achievements and possessions, because he knows that those who come after him will ruin everything. Being clever doesn’t help him to see a meaning in this life. It just leads to sleepless nights. He doesn’t get within talking distance of God. Yet we know that this is a religious man. His pessimism is attractive, because it is the pessimism of a genuine seeker after truth. God has put eternity into man’s mind, says the Preacher. The honest seeker after truth remains in touch with reality. The Church of England has always been home for those on that lonely quest. But we sometimes give the impression that if the church members don’t have a close relationship with God, getting closer week by week, then they are somehow not up to scratch. That’s so unfair.
In the end the Preacher’s faith is that with God alone lie the answers we’re looking for. Faith isn’t knowing all the answers. Faith is a decision. We have chosen the Christian faith, the Christian way of living. To have faith is to be faithful, to persist in the honest search for religious truth, even when the world appears to us as it appeared to the author of Ecclesiastes, a meaningless random sort of place, sometimes pleasant, sometimes hateful. So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun; and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter. This is a very English, or perhaps I should say old fashioned Anglican book, in its depiction of a single faithful soul trying to make sense of the world, and it is real and hopeful and true. It’s what Newman saw, that we don’t need to know all the answers, if we walk by faith. Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom. God has put eternity into our minds. The answer to life is to live life as eternal life, as divine life. This is what God has given us to do.