Apologies to regular readers - last week I was on holiday (Devon - lovely!) & I'm back this Sunday for just one week before 2 more weeks off - normal blogging will resume for August 22nd.
But here's this week's:
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
I’m delighted to have had a reading from the book of Ecclesiastes this morning. It has long been a favourite of mine, since discovering chapter 12, verse 12 whilst studying for school exams:
“there is no end to the writing of books, and too much study is wearisome”.
That could, of course, be the end of this sermon: but I think it’s worth our risking getting weary for a little while, to look at what our readings have been saying about priorities.
A few weeks ago we were looking at the story of Martha & Mary.
Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is not helping to prepare the meal as she should, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to get on with the work all by myself?”.
In today’s gospel reading the dispute is between 2 brothers:
“Master, tell my brother to divide the family property with me”.
Jesus’ advice to Martha was to look beyond the norms of her society (where the women would automatically be expected to wait at table) to see what was really important at that moment – Mary has chosen the ‘better part’ in listening to Jesus. Martha has to adjust her priorities.
Jesus’ advice to this brother is to look beyond the priority of material wealth & fair play, to see what really brings life – “Be on your guard against greed of every kind, for even when someone has more than enough, his possessions do not bring him life”. To drive the message home he tells the parable of the rich fool.
The parable is not unlike a warning from Jeremiah (ch17):
“Like a partridge sitting on a clutch of eggs which it has not laid, so is he who amasses wealth unjustly.
Before his days are half done it will leave him, and he will be a fool at the last”.
In a sense Jesus is more harsh to the fool in his story – he doesn’t suggest that the man has gained his wealth by unjust means: but the judgement is just as real and as final. It is not how the fool gains his wealth that is the problem, it is his attitude to possessions once he has got them. His thoughts are dominated by how can he capitalise on his wealth and gain more, rather than how he can use his wealth for the good of others, or even how he can really enjoy it himself.
Jesus concludes: “that is how it is with the man who piles up treasure for himself and remains a pauper in the sight of God”.
At the beginning of the book of Ecclesiastes, as we heard, the writer points out the futility of all endeavour. He agrees with Jesus that it is not just immoral gain that is futile, but then goes further and claims that it is not even just selfish gain that is wrong - it is all gain, all work, all effort – even wisdom itself – because “both wise and foolish are doomed to die”.
“Futility, utter futility, everything is futile!” says the writer.
So what is the point of life? On the one hand, this teaching about the transient nature of life can feel depressing & yet it can re-align our priorities.
Our priority should be relationship, love, that part of life which goes beyond the time-bound.
The poet Raymond Carver expresses it this way:
“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
Earthly possessions, in the end, are of no account: we are here to love and be loved.
But the critique of this attitude from the liberation theologians of Latin America, working with the poorest of the poor, has been that the contemplation of the things of heaven should not become a substitute for involvement here on earth. A proper consideration for relationship with God and concern for his priorities should educate us as to how to deal with earthly matters and possessions, and how to relate to other people - especially poor people.
So what are our priorities as we meet here to worship today? Presumably not the acquisition of wealth above all else, or we would be out earning money, not sitting here at all.
But as we come to this communion table we are faced with God’s priorities in this world.
Self-giving even to and through the point of death.
A body broken to be shared by all.
Love stronger than death.
This communion can act as a point of reference for us, to help to get our priorities right, whatever the decisions we face in the days to come.
So this is not going to turn into a sermon about the importance of giving money to charity, or about the evils of filthy luchre: Jesus challenges us to be released from all greed to live our lives and enjoy the gift of love.
To God’s greater glory.