Sunday, Trinity 7

Collect

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: graft in our hearts the love of your name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of your great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Generous God, you give us gifts and make them grow: though our faith is small as mustard seed, make it grow to your glory and the flourishing of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord God, whose Son is the true vine and the source of life, ever giving himself that the world may live: may we so receive within ourselves the power of his death and passion that, in his saving cup, we may share his glory and be made perfect in his love; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament


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.

Ecclesiastes 1.2,12–14; 2.18–23

Psalm

1    Hear this, all you peoples;
listen, all you that dwell in the world,

2    You of low or high degree,
both rich and poor together.

3    My mouth shall speak of wisdom
and my heart shall meditate on understanding.

4    I will incline my ear to a parable;
I will unfold my riddle with the lyre.

5    Why should I fear in evil days,
when the malice of my foes surrounds me,

6    Such as trust in their goods
and glory in the abundance of their riches?

7    For no one can indeed ransom another
or pay to God the price of deliverance.

8    To ransom a soul is too costly;
there is no price one could pay for it,

9    So that they might live for ever,
and never see the grave.

10    For we see that the wise die also; with the foolish and ignorant they perish
and leave their riches to others.

11    Their tomb is their home for ever, their dwelling through all generations,
though they call their lands after their own names.

12    Those who have honour, but lack understanding,
are like the beasts that perish.

Psalm 49.1–12

Epistle

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!

Colossians 3.1–11

Gospel

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.’

Luke 12.13–21

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 7

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Teacher, “All is vanity.”

We all know this saying, don’t we? We quote it when everything seems absurd, when we feel there is no sense to events around us. We express this sentiment when we are alienated from everything that once made life worth living – when we experience confusion – when we wonder why everything seems to be a chasing after wind. This, I would say, is universally human.

What is the context of this very well known quotation? I would like to take a step into Biblical Studies to think about what is called “Wisdom Literature” – and the book of Ecclesiastes from which we read this morning, is an example of this type of writing. It is not prophetic like Amos or Isaiah, nor is it history like the book of Kings or Exodus. It is not anything like the poetry of the Psalms – even though it does express itself poetically – unlike the Psalms, Ecclesiastes does not speak about God in terms of praise and thanksgiving. Rather, its purpose is like that of the book of Job – to find sense, a book in which we find very human questions expressed in simply comprehensible language. In Job, for instance, the very human problem of suffering is the focus of the whole book. Wisdom literature gives voice to the questions each of us has about the whence and whither of time and life, more often it turns to the existential question “Why? – why is there being and not nothing?” a question the philosopher asks so pointedly.

These questions confront us in those very human moments of wondering doubt, when we consider life in the concrete terms of our lives, when we question everything, especially where life in all its fullness has disappeared. Don’t we ask ourselves, “Is everything in life just our own vanity over against the world?” Our readings both ask why we do things, don’t they? – Questions, questions, questions, none of which seem to have anything to do with our everyday routine. All these questions, the majority of people don’t address at any point in their everyday lives. Perhaps they do toward the end, at retirement or in hospital in the course of a long illness, like those deathbed confessions of belief we heard of in school. We do ask these questions when there is a crisis. There is, however, no one to reply when we voice our doubts in the blackness of the dark night, as each of us stands at the edge of a decision of conscience – the choice between life in all it fullness or not, as that wonderful Welsh hymn sings, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide.”

This hardly known wisdom literature has been remembered and stored in the Bible to help us in these moments of dread. However, it is not at the front and centre of the great festivals of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Rather, and I think more appropriately, the books of the wisdom literature are to be found in this great green season of Trinity – in other words, we find wisdom in “ordinary” time.

The Teacher spends all her hours in ordinary time. She wonders about the everyday and its implications for the Good, what is right, what is moral. The philosopher cogitates and eventually comes to a conclusion which everyone agrees, “is so obvious”. We all know, as Socrates was quick to elicit in his dialogues, just what we know to be good. But the philosopher wants to know why we consider this or that better than something else. – Don’t we also? Don’t we want to know with certainty why this is the Good in our lives so we might pursue it with a clear conscience vigorously? Don’t we want to live that examined life?

However, when we start on this train of self-discovery, don’t we get confused? Don’t we want to surrender our ticket and get off this express to confusion? The conformity of the everyday is much more comforting than moral certainty, much more easy than standing alone in righteousness. The express train to clarity is a singular journey, one that can be  perilously lonely. To be honest, it seems to be a trip everyone avoids, many call it a train to nowhere. We “blunder in confusion”, as the Cagdwith Anthem sings out, as we consider the vanities of our lives.

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?

The Teacher is non-plussed by everything around her, she asks about life and its vanity, whether all we want and do exposes our wisdom or our foolishness. Another philosopher calls life “short and brutish”, reflecting on all that hated toil undertaken in the heat of the sun, a heat we now know since we have suffered those 40°
temperatures.

We should all become pupils of this Teacher as she asks about the everyday in order to expose those deeper meanings, as the philosopher examines through the broken hammer. We all question when our worlds are torn apart by the broken-ness of something we rely on in our everyday lives. The teacher and the philosopher agree that wisdom must be pursued in order to banish vanity.

We experience this vanity now, don’t we? We see the four horsemen of the apocalypse charging through what we thought was an ordered life of commerce and ordinariness. The events of the past six months have disabused us of that vanity, haven’t they? The wars and rumours of wars of that horseman since the end of World War II should have made us question our everyday assumptions. The horseman of plagues has ridden through our lives. Covid should have put an end to our vain thoughts of what is “normal” – and yet here we are confused and asking the questions our Teacher has already posed in this wisdom literature. The horseman of famine has reared up lately, hasn’t he? And now everyone can see that final horseman of death riding the skies threatening everything people have built up. We can understand the book of Revelations quite clearly now, can’t we? – Our Lord has posed the questions as our Teacher. The four horsemen, I believe can be seen as the background for the parable of the rich man and his barns. It reflects the vanity of our ordinary way of life. That man builds barns larger and larger and yet in vain, for that very night he was taken. So it is with all of us. We fasten our claws onto the ephemeral in the vain hope that they will be eternal and, despairing, we see them pass away. We have not learned from the Teacher, have we? Are we aware of what wisdom has taught? As a society, have we heard the lessons from Wisdom herself? Whether it is from the bible or another world religion? whether it is from the Buddha or Mohammed? whether Ecclesiastes or from the lips of Jesus. Have we listened?

Let us have those eyes to see and those ears to hear what wisdom teaches are the real prizes, the reality in which we comprehend life in all its fullness as our own.

Amen