Read on for the sermon and a video of the service.
Imagine you’re walking down the street somewhere in the city and a person comes up and says to you that they’ve got a small library of books, most of them written more than 2,000 years ago that’s still incredibly relevant to today – I think my reaction would be ‘Oh yeah?’ or maybe even ‘Yeah right!’ – A Tui billboard moment. And yet, when I read today’s readings, that was my first reaction. They could have been written for today. The Teacher or Preacher in Ecclesiastes is just so up-to-date – ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. ‘What do mortals gain from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?’ I’ve been wise and careful but I’ve got to leave my work to someone else who may not look after it properly. And I’m hearing this sort of ‘vanity of vanities’ complaint all the time about Covid – ‘I’m over it’, ‘I’m so over masks’, ‘It’s time to move on’, ‘open the country up’, ‘I really am over it’ – and at the same time I’m horrified at the number of deaths either with Covid or from Covid within this country – when we went into strict lockdowns I was really grateful that our death rate was so low, because I really didn’t think NZers would accept the sorts of tolls we’ve been seeing overseas and yet ours is now almost 1500 people by the new way of only counting deaths from Covid, which, of course, makes the total lower and more ‘acceptable’. I truly didn’t think we’d see this. Truly vanity of vanities – what’s the point, why try.
And then the rich fool – again vanity of vanities – what’s the point of doing so well if you don’t have a chance to enjoy the fruits of your labour? And note that there’s no criticism at all of the man as a bad or cruel farmer – no suggestion that he exploited his workers or anything else. He was obviously a good farmer – presumably helped by a good growing season! And he was being prudent and looking towards the future. A future he didn’t live to enjoy. So what was his problem? Apparently his main problem was that his total focus was on his work – rather like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, his work was all-important. And for many of us our work is what defines us – we identify ourselves through what we do. And there is nothing wrong with that – and nor is there anything wrong with making prudent preparations for the future – one of my commentaries wryly said that it’s totally OK to take out insurance policies – that’s not what Jesus is condemning here. Rather it’s the total focus on material things – whether it was growing his crops, prudently storing them or deciding that now he could sit back, relax and enjoy himself – and there’s nothing wrong with sitting back and enjoying yourself either, it’s the total focus that’s criticised!
But as I reflected on these readings what struck me was that there really weren’t any solutions in them – our Gospel is supposedly ‘good news’ and I was having real trouble finding anything that even looked like good news in today’s readings. And then, paradoxically, I realised that that, in itself, is good news. Our faith, our scriptures, don’t sugar coat things. Today’s readings tell it like it is. Things don’t always come out the way we’d like – we only have to look round Christchurch this last week (or the rest of the country for that matter) to realise just how badly things have gone for so many people with the weather – and we’re promised yet more rain. The cartoon in the paper this week with the spaceship veering away from a planet that was burning up in the north and flooding in the south said it all ‘Trip advisor didn’t warn us it’d be like this’ – well our Scriptures do warn us – we might not like it, but the warnings are there. And the miracle is that scribes over the centuries didn’t smooth everything out, to make it all nice and acceptable, to tie up all the rough bits.
When I was growing up, the understanding in the diocese of Sydney was that if you were a Christian, things would be rosy – all would be well, and if you weren’t happy all the time then you weren’t a ‘proper’ Christian. It has been a great relief to drop those expectations, to realise that our faith acknowledges the horrible times as well as the good – Fr Peter referred last week to the Psalms where the psalmist rails against God. Usually the psalmist comes back to faith and even acceptance at the end, but not always – sometimes the acceptance isn’t actually expressed. And these Psalms also are a really important part of our Scripture – a part of the ‘good news’ of telling things like they really are, of acknowledging the realities of life under God.
And for many of us who have times of depression – whether clinical depression, seasonal affective disorder, or just down times – it’s really important to acknowledge that there isn’t always a ‘simple’ solution. Julian of Norwich said ‘ All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’ – but she didn’t specify when – in this life, or in the next?? Just because we have faith, just because we pray and do our best to live Christian lives, to be rich towards God, this doesn’t mean that everything will go well for us – and nor does it mean that those who don’t try to be rich towards God will do badly in life. But the good news is that our faith, our scriptures acknowledge this. And so, it really isn’t a Tui billboard moment as I imagined at the start. This mini library – 66 books – most written over 2,000 years ago really is relevant to us today. It does contain material that could have been written for 2022. And when we do feel that everything we’ve done is vanity and a chasing after wind, or when we become totally focused on our own concerns and forget about wanting to be rich towards God, God, through the Bible, can gently nudge us back, gently nudge us towards a more God-directed focus, and paradoxically again, a richer life, even if it’s not richer in material things. And that, indeed, is good news! Thanks be to God. Amen