Sermon preached on 4 August 2013

I used to work in a church with murals. Well one mural. It wasn’t this church and it wasn’t these glorious murals. It was somewhere else entirely.

(By which I mean Edinburgh).

Throughout the late fifties, the sixties and early seventies, a sustained period of liturgical reform had happened. The altar had been pulled away from the wall. The priest now faced the people. The peace was shared and communion started to happen every Sunday. Those of you who have been around for a bit might remember that story from all kinds of contexts. Those who are new to Episcopal worship might be surprised to learn that how we do things is not in fact as old as the hills at all.

Anyway, these liturgical reforms in this church had left a big space to fill. Somewhere along the way, the East Window had been bricked up and whitewashed over and now there was a giant wall to fill.

And, of course, just as we can be sure that someone was heartily trying to encourage the congregation to sing Kum By Yah. so, inevitably, someone got to paint a mural.

Unlike Gwyneth Leech’s paintings, which surround me here in this church. this was a rather less successful piece. It showed Jesus Christ enthroned in Glory (like the one above my head). But in this picture, Christ was very much the judge.

And you could see on one side of him the saved going off to heaven. And on his other hand the damned going to their doom.

(I think I’ve preached about that mural before, but can’t remember in what context, but it doesn’t matter. It is a useful illustration anyway).

And the interesting thing about it, I think, is that that idea of the saved going one way and the damned the other doesn’t really fit with the spirituality of that place. Rather like here, there are a lot of people in that congregation who don’t really think of heaven and hell and death and judgement in that way at all. It is a place, rather like this place, where you are more likely to hear about God’s universal love than God dividing people into the naughty and the good.

And gradually, that congregation has turned away from its great mural. Experimenting with a central altar so that they don’t all face the thing. (Which I have to confess, I would have wanted to block out if I had ever stayed there. It is a mural which seems to me to show one what a tin of magnolia and a paintbrush is really for).

Now, the question that I think I want to raise in connection with the readings this morning is this:

Is our view of this parable of Jesus coherent. Does it have an integrity with the way we live. Does Jesus’s words about judgement match who we are?

Do we have a way of living with this picture of judgement that he paints?

Is our response to proclaim that it is true. Or is there truth to be found in it. Or do we want to block it out, and pour paint all over the picture of judgement that he paints and begin again.

Let’s see.

Firstly, Jesus says – who set me to be a judge or arbiter over you.

(Note the echo of that in Pope Francis’s reply to the journalists on the plane back from Brazil this week – Who am I to judge gay people? Maybe he had this Sunday’s gospel on his mind, for generally we share the same lectionary).

Back to Jesus, he paints his picture.

The man eats, drinks and is merry for his barns are filled. But God seems to laugh at him – You fool he says – this night your life is demanded of you and the treasures you have stored up are useless.

So, Jesus tells people not to store up treasures for themselves but be rich towards God.

It seems to me that Jesus is not talking about death itself. He is not teaching us how to die or indeed what lies beyond death. More importantly, he is teaching us how to live.

The first reading that we had this morning was from the book of Ecclesiastes – that strange book written by someone who dares not speak his name.

You won’t hear many sermons on Ecclesiastes in the mainstream churches precisely because it is barely included in the readings that we read in church. We only get it once in the three year cycle and that Sunday is today.

I find the book of Ecclesiastes something of a breath of fresh air.

At morning prayer recently we’ve been reading some terrible stories – lots of war and violence and trouble.

A while ago, someone commented after morning prayer that we should listen more to the wisdom tradition of the bible because it comes from a milieu more like our own than the inheritance battles of some of the history books in the bible.

The thing is, the wisdom books (of which, despite rather an ambivalent attitude towards Wisdom, Ecclesiastes is one) come from a people who are relatively settled.

The basic plot of Ecclesiastes is that the writer has enough to live on. Has money. Has opportunity. Has relative peace to try to work out how to live.

The suggestion is that we should listen to that tradition more because for some, though not all of us, that more closely resembles our life and our vocation than the God of battle and vengeance and war that we find elsewhere.

The writer of Ecclesiastes has tried it all. He has eaten. He had drunk. He has made merry.

And still he seeks how to live.

If you’ve never read it through as a book, I commend it. Good holiday reading for sitting by the pool is Ecclesiastes. Download it to your iPad before you set off for Lanzarote.

In some ways, it works as a kind of mirror. If you do read it, ask yourself how you would advise the person writing it. In doing that, it holds up a mirror to what how we believe life should be lived.

Some people read the Bible as though it is a unitary narrative whereby God gradually reveals a story that inevitably ends with judging the saved and the damned and whisking one lot off to a great reward and punishes the others by exclusion and rejection.

But the thing is, that isn’t necessarily how it is. That really describes the boardroom of the Apprentice where Lord Sugar sends the winning team off for a massage or a day at the races and looks round and the rest ready to

point his finger and say, Your Fired.

Is your God like that? The God I know is entirely unlike that.

And the Wisdom literature from which we get Ecclesiastes and which undoubtedly sustained Jesus himself suggests something different. It suggests that God is busy within us helping us to work out how to live life to the full.

And it isn’t about filling your barns with plenty but about filling your heart with love.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.



  1. frdougal says

    I do agree about that mural: it’s frankly horrible and probably has a preservation order on it. I much preferred the steam train at St Ninian’s on the South Side! Good sermon btw.

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