ECCLESIASTES WALKED OFF WITH MY WINEGUMS!
a sermon preached at S.LUKE'S QUEEN'S PARK, BRIGHTON on 4th August 2019
The blood donor starring Tony Hancock? I suspect our average age here is high enough for that to ring a bell.
It’s the best known and best loved episode of Hancock’s Half Hour and, in my favourite scene, Tony is lying on a bed having a cup of tea, recovering from giving what he thought was “nearly an armful” of blood. Lying on the bed next to him is a fellow donor played by that wonderful character actor Hugh Lloyd, and they proceed to swap a series of mind-numbingly boring clichés. Along the lines of
· There’s no smoke without fire – no there isn’t
· More haste, less speed – very true
· No man is an island – that’s right
And after a few more such pearls of wisdom, Hugh Lloyd gets up and leaves. What a very nice man, says Hancock to himself, very intelligent……. Oi! He’s walked off with my winegums!
Now one of the platitudes they might well have exchanged is
· You can’t take it with you when you’ve gone – no, you can’t
And if they had trotted that one out, they would have been echoing the thoughts of Ecclesiastes in the first reading today:
All is vanity. A man who has laboured successfully must leave what is his to someone who has not toiled for it at all.
And this broad theme is echoed (but with a different point) in the other readings:
S.Paul says that those who follow Christ must set their sights on what is in heaven, and give up earthly passions, especially greed.
And in the gospel, Our Lord warns the successful farmer of the futility of building more and more barns to house more and more crops.
Ecclesiastes reminds me so much of the Tony Hancock character in The Blood Donor that I’d like to talk about him first.
So who is this Old Testament writer? We hardly ever hear from him in our church readings. Probably because he, unlike Isaiah or the Psalmist, is never quoted by Our Lord or anyone else in the New Testament. And I can’t say I’m surprised. When I first read Ecclesiastes, I honestly couldn’t understand why this book had ever got into the Jewish scriptures at all.
He’s called Ko’heleth which is Hebrew for “The Preacher” or "The Teacher" I quickly re-named him “The Joker”.
Everything he says is completely cynical. He’s a satirist of human life. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher. All is vanity (which means emptiness). Work is a waste of time. Wisdom is a waste of time. Every effort or even pleasure is ultimately rendered meaningless by death, the great leveller.
And he comes up with some portentous platitudes worthy of Tony Hancock in the Blood Donor. There is a time to live and a time to die. (Yes, very true). A time for war and a time for peace.(You’re right there). A time for loving and a time for hating. (Couldn’t agree more. Oi! He’s walked off with my wine gums!)
In this morning’s passage, Ecclesiastes (the Joker) says he thinks it’s a great evil or injustice that what you have earned or acquired goes to someone else when you die.
Evil? Why evil? That’s a very different attitude to “taking nothing out of this world” than we get from Paul and Christ.
Paul’s whole approach is living IN Christ and letting Christ live IN you. That way, you are likely to spend your life following Christ’s example of living a life poured out in the service of others, rather than devoting all your time and efforts to building up a selfish empire or power and wealth.
And Our Lord Himself in the Gospel emphasises that a person’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs. What He says to the rich farmer with too many crops to store in his barns is This very night the demand will be made for your soul. In other words, the farmer should have spent his life making himself rich in the sight of God.
And how do you make yourself rich in the sight of God? By living generously and unselfishly, whether you are a have or a have not.
There is nothing sinful about generating wealth if you use it to benefit, rather than impoverish, others.
The thing that hurts and offends God is the fatal mixture of greed and meanness. We sometimes call it the unacceptable face of capitalism. Like some business magnate who lines his own pockets one devious way or another at the expense of his employees, pensioners and shareholders. Having plundered his fortune, he washes his hands of all these vulnerable people by selling the company for 1p and walking away.
Well, that's an extreme example.
But I must be careful not to cast the first stone. Most of us are to a greater or lesser extent materialistic. It is easy enough to become over-attached to an easy lifestyle or to possessions and to harbour an exaggerated fear of being deprived of them.
Exaggerated fear of being deprived. Now. Think back for a moment about the type of human behaviour which broke out whenever there was a petrol shortage.
Some went without petrol. Was this because others panicked and bought up more petrol than they needed?
Psychologists suggest buying up excess supplies of petrol is not strictly panic (in the sense of irrational) behaviour at all but more a calculated act of self-interest born of a distrust, and consequent disregard, of others.
In other words, not “If we each only take what we need, there will still be enough to go round” but “I’m going to make sure I get in first even if that means there won’t be enough to go round.”
Topically enough, we are now warned that, if our extreme right-wing government is hell-bent on pushing through its ideologically driven no-deal Brexit “come what may”, we might soon see an ugly jostling, not only for petrol, but even for food and medicines.
There is of course a very strong instinct for self-preservation in human nature.
Unfortunately, the instinct brings out the worst, rather than the best, in us, simply because it takes no account of the needs of others and betrays no concern for them.
Let’s go back to the farmer with too many crops for his barns.
The fact that he can’t have his crops or his barns buried with him, or the question of who will inherit them when he dies, is really not the point. The point is that, when he dies, his soul will be demanded of him. He will have to give an account of how he has spent his life – generously or selfishly?
It is perfectly possible for those who have acquired wealth to give a good account before Christ when the sheep are sorted from the goats. Did they use their wealth charitably? Were they philanthropists? And did they LEAVE the assets they left behind when they died to their dependants and to good, not undeserving causes?
We brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out. Familiar words at funerals but I sometimes think they would be better directed at those in the prime of life!
Everything from life itself to achievements and material goods are a gift from God. We don’t keep them for ever. We hold them on trust.
As Christians, we must believe in the sanctity of this world and everything it produces. All God’s creation is holy. Bread, fruit, vegetables, meat (some of us), wine, clothes, books, DVDs, furniture, houses, even petrol until it is phased out! - all these things are a blessing if they are used generously, shared when needed and not hoarded, either gloatingly or defensively.
When God created the world, He saw that everything was very good and He made us humans in His own image and gave us everything. Not for us to jealously possess but to enjoy together.
And of course, as we go on with our Mass this morning towards the mystery of communion, never forget that the greatest gift to all mankind for all time is God’s only Son - God once here in flesh and blood, to be gawped at, talked to, pinched to prove it’s not a dream. And 2000 years later, God’s flesh and blood still here in bread and wine.
I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE, says Jesus, WHOEVER COMES TO ME WILL NEVER BE HUNGRY.
And, you know, the most wonderful thing about the Blessed Sacrament, the bread of life, is that it can’t be bought. It can’t be bought up by the rich to deprive others. It is God’s free gift of Himself and there is always enough to go round. The more the partakers, the more the consecrated Host can be divided, because in this case size doesn’t matter. Bigger isn’t better. The whole of Christ’s body is shared in the tiniest fragments of the sacred bread.
A body given once for all in selfless sacrifice, out of the reach or understanding of the greedy, for the life of the world.