A Lively Hope

Sunday 22nd January 2017
Year A, The Third Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
Ecclesiastes 3.1-11
1 Peter 1.3-12

There's a lovely little marriage sketch in I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again, a radio precursor of Monty Python, where the Vicar does not stop between the contractual clauses, so he says to the groom: "For better for worse? For richer for poorer?" To which the groom responds: "I'll take better and richer!"

This was my immediate reaction to the somewhat pious sentiments which occupy large parts of the Book of Ecclesiastes, from which our First Reading is taken, and other Wisdom Literature. It's all very well in its theoretical way; but who actually wants the downside of all these alternatives? Granted, there has to be a time to die as well as to be born, but war, weeping, loss and destruction are hardly attractive. They may be inevitable but, on the surface at least, there is hardly a proper time for them.

But think again. Whether we like it or not, there is, sadly, a time for war and for weeping, a time for pulling down and a time for loss. But we have been lulled by our ever more comfortable lives at the back end of the 20th Century and into the 21st living continually in a time of improvement even, after a while, overcoming the temporary economic setback of 2008. And, looked at in the longer perspective, since the Second World War we have lived in an anomalous golden age of prosperity, our ever improving standard of living only marred by the occasional blip such that as a married couple our combined state pension has greater purchasing power than the combined incomes of my parents both in full time employment in the early 1960s. As for peace, after the gradual settlement of the Refugee Crisis after 1945, there were the crises, beginning with the 1948 Berlin Blockade, engendered by Russian aggression, and the civil war in the former Yugoslavia; but only in the past three years have we seen the annexation of European territory by a foreign power in the Russian annexation of the Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine.

But this passage from Ecclesiastes properly reminds us of life's precariousness from which simply being citizens of Western Europe will not save us. It is not, for example, the scale of terrorism which frightens us - indeed, taking a global perspective, deaths from terrorism have been steadily falling for some years - it is the fear, in a deadly lottery, that it could be us!

And, in the perspective of the economic crisis of 2008, from which many poor people have not fully recovered, and the reality of massive terrorist acts in Paris, Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere, we are all too apt to demand solutions, implicitly urged on by politicians who claim that there are solutions: but the root cause of our trouble is that the kind of experiments that are undertaken in laboratory conditions can't be written across to economics and social policy: what was the liberal establishment until it was thrown over after the 1986 'Big bang', promised too much because it vastly exaggerated what was predictable and what was doable. We did not understand that there was a time for weeping.

This intellectual carelessness or arrogance accounts to a large extent for our smugness, bordering on pride, which has down-graded worship from prostration to a pleasant communal, quasi-cultural, activity. I remember from my childhood those crushing Good Friday hours during which we took up the abandoned Medieval practice of 'creeping to the Cross'; but most of us are no longer creeping people but stand in our places, mentally, intellectually, marking the death of Jesus but neither feeling responsible for it nor pained by it.

Often, when we are in the street or in a train we will hear people who never go to church exclaiming "My God" and I must say that I find this somewhat uncomfortable until I recall that the greatest incentive in history to be a worshipper has been to get the salvation insurance policy properly filed - the greater the earthly uncertainty, the greater the craving for heavenly comfort - but we, in the light of the grand introduction of the  First Letter to Peter, our Second Reading, are surely in a different category, not better nor worse in ourselves, but surely with a different attitude to our future. The NRSV refers to a "living hope" but I prefer the more traditional translation of "lively hope" and, likewise, I prefer "incorruptible" to "imperishable". The joy which the Resurrection brings is compared with the present suffering of the author's contemporaries, some of whom were suffering persecution and martyrdom and most of whom were poor, if not slaves. Perhaps, sadly, our relative prosperity does not allow us to realise the starkness of the contrast between our earthly woes and heavenly bliss. If not, then a bit of down-grading of our earthly comfort to give us a better realisation of the comparison would not come amiss. But, more than that, we need to understand the fundamental shift brought about by the Resurrection. There was no clear answer to the two-facedness of life for the author of Ecclesiastes but we ought to be able to bear any earthly hardship in the light of the promise of the Resurrection, always bearing in mind that God has always kept his promises to us.

Perhaps it is our cultural caution against excessive optimism, or our experience of disappointment, or our need to watch our back, which drives us to be pessimistic. I never tire of telling my Director of Finance that it is as inaccurate to under-estimate income as to over-estimate it, that such pessimism is not justified by history and that he won't be blamed if the figures aren't good because he is only responsible for compiling the figures which aggregate the efforts of others; but it makes no difference. Year after year the forecasts under-estimate the out-turn.

But we really must not apply the same gloomy criteria to the Resurrection that we apply to human affairs. The Book of Ecclesiastes is sadly right about the human condition but, more relevant, the First Letter of Peter is to be absolutely relied upon as a statement of our heavenly prospects.