Sermon given at Evensong on the Last Sunday after Trinity 2022
‘Vanity of Vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.’
The Venerable Tricia Hillas Canon in Residence
Sunday, 23rd October 2022 at 3.00 PM
‘Vanity of Vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity’
Not exactly the most likely slogan for a sell out a fridge magnet.
Not entirely what one might expect when asking a friend how their week has been going...though at the end of this last week....
‘Vanity of Vanities; all is Vanity’, a phrase within our reading from the book of Ecclesiastes. The central figure of the book is referred to as ‘The Teacher’. He explores meaning, and meaninglessness, in a world of turbulent socio-politics in which questions arise about how to find wisdom by which to live in troubled times.
How to find meaning and wisdom, how to make sense of the world, how to live, are eternal human questions. In response I’d like to draw out three threads from the words of the Teacher which we’ve just heard.
The first thread is to take hold of REALITY, including its more tragic and wearisome aspects.
Throughout Ecclesiastes the Teacher takes observations of life. In doing so he frequently strikes a melancholic, questioning tone amidst a cultural landscape of disillusionment. The book really isn’t light reading. The words of the Teacher speak of darkness and the days of trouble which will surely come.
He addresses the certainties of life: that there will be good times, reasons for joy but these will be woven alongside difficulty. The Teacher then points to the absolute certainty of life: that it is partnered with death. and secondly that with life will come death.
Not for the Teacher the naïve glib denial which hides from the truth. He crafts a word picture of energy diminishing away, songs ceasing, once powerful guards trembling and even the grasshopper dragging itself along. Then the metaphors pile up; the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl, pitcher and wheel are broken, as the breath returns to God who gave it. This would indeed be dreadful if there was nothing more to say—but thankfully there is much more to follow.
But before we get there, the Teacher invites us to face reality, to understand the diagnosis, to take the lie of the land. In doing so we may find more hope than we might expect. In facing its challenges, and yes, its limits we may discover with fresh zeal the preciousness of life. Life’s finitude might serve, not as a cause for despair, but as a wakeup call to its absolute value. We might be encouraged, mindful of waning power, even in the face of death, to really live.
Pastor, author and Professor of Sociology Dr Tony Compolo describes teaching a University course entitled ‘Existentialism and Sociologism’.
One day—the first day of class- he pointed to an unsuspecting student and asked ‘How long have you lived? Taken aback the student answered ‘I’m twenty-two’.
‘No, No, No!’ replied the Professor, ‘what you’ve told me is how long you’ve breathed air’. I’m asking ‘How long have you lived?’
The Professor then told this story: aged around 14 his school went to visit the Empire State Building. As usual he and his friends messed about chasing one another. Then suddenly walking to the edge of the observation area he looked out, really looked, out over the edge of the building. For the first time he saw the whole of the city running far out of view. ‘In one mystical moment’, he said, ‘I absorbed the city, I gazed at it with such intensity that if I were to live a million years that moment would still be part of my consciousness. I was so fully alive at that moment, that I sensed it had become part of my eternal now’
Looking at the student he again posed the question. ‘So, how long have you lived?’
‘When you put it that way’, came the reply, ‘it’s hard to say, maybe a couple of minutes. Most of my life has been meaningless passage of time between all too few moments of being genuinely alive?’
This afternoon, I ask you as I ask myself, ‘How long have you lived?’
What would you discern to be the qualities of those moments when you’ve been truly alive? How did or didn’t these relate to a sense of God? What might these moments suggest about what is really important, what gives life meaning? Imagine if we could learn to live and not to simply exist. Jesus said that he came that we might have life to the full... he also said ‘come follow me’.
From that first thread, REALITY, we come to our second strand: REFLECTION.
This second thread invites us to another element of the wisdom tradition, that of observation, attending, noticing and reflecting. Separate from knowledge, Wisdom is the result of experience attended to and reflected upon. For people of faith it leads towards the wise ordering of life, flowing into wise actions, based on the order and meaning which God weaves into the world.
To take hold of such wisdom, to grasp such meaning we attune our hearts and souls to be attentive for God and to the life to the full which Jesus has promised.
To reflect is important because the riches of life here and now can be squandered between regret for what has been—or what could have been - and fear of what may be to come. Here, now take a look around and think wisely on these things—and most of all bring God into your looking and reflecting. ‘Remember then your creator’ says the Teacher’. Remember and don’t let things slide past you until it is too late.
Which brings us to the third strand: the serious matter of REJOICING.
Knowing that our human span on earth are finite, we are charged to rejoice in wonder of life; to take hold of it with enjoyment and gratitude.
Gratitude, instead of the self-serving which leaves us empty the joyful enchantment which points to that for which we are made.
Gratitude, not the gritted teeth striving which wears us out, but, as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes and Jesus the Teacher tell us, the recognition that, life is more than material striving for gain, it is a gift.
3 strands then Reality. Reflect. Rejoice.
Now some have wondered whether Ecclesiastes is a book worthy of our study, seeing it as a strange inclusion within the Bible. It is certainly challenging,but to disregard it would be to misunderstand its purpose and would miss the wisdom it offers us when it seems as though all around us is vanity.
Wisdom which teaches that:
Life is best lived facing the reality that things may not always be easy but that God is faithful.
Life is best lived when we dare take on its depths and prioritise reflecting on them, remembering our creator, looking, listening and attending.
And life is best lived as we choose to rejoice before God who rejoices over us all the days of our lives and who at their earthly conclusion rejoices over us as we return to him and life in its very fullest.
Reality. Reflection. Rejoicing.