Autumn Sermons & Prayers: Lord of Contentment

Sunday 28th October 2007
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Ecclesiastes 11; 12


"Cast your bread upon the waters".

One of my schoolfellows, Paul Chipchase, crystallised an arresting thought: clocks kill time. What he meant by this was that time was the space between this and that until clocks were invented when this and that became the events which took place between markers of time. For the people who lived before the precise measurement of time, whose clock was the seasons, the day of planting and the day of harvest could never be predicted, written down in a diary; it all depended on how the weather affected the seed and the fruit. Today we have lost that uncertainty. True, the farmer still makes a judgment about sowing and harvesting but for most of us the diary and the clock rule our lives.

We talk about "planning blight" in the context of property development but surely we all suffer from it. We are driven by ergonomic imperatives which make us very little different from hamsters on wheels. If we get off for a rest or for reflection, the Parish worthies wonder whether we have lost our moral fibre or whether, much worse, we have gone a bit religious.

What joy there is, then, in today's passage from Ecclesiastes. In all honesty I have to say that there is much of this book which is self-consciously moralising, which seems to define behaviour in a totally abstract way, but the phrase "Cast your bread upon the water" contains a set of profound references.

The first thing we notice is the contrast between the solidity of bread and the mobility of water. We cast our solid, well earned bread upon the wayward water and it might be taken anywhere. Water reaches the parts that no bread can reach of itself, it probes and challenges, it seeps and overthrows, it sustains and destroys, it surrounds and infiltrates. We never know where it might go.

And so, when we cast our bread upon it we cannot calculate the final destination and, worse, from our actuarial perspective, we do not know whether we will get a proper return for our risk. If we cast all this bread upon that unstable water, will we end up in net profit or net loss?

The central point of today's reading is precisely that this actuarial outlook is totally irrelevant. We do not cast our bread upon the waters as if we were a fisherman baiting his hook; neither do we cast our bread upon the waters because we calculate that we have a good percentage chance of obtaining a dividend; neither do we cast our bread at a ceremony in front of the national committee of the bread casting party. We cast our solid bread upon the uncertain waters because that is our nature, that is why we are here. Whereas we are creatures of the Creator who were made to exercise our faculty freely to love, we were not made to be spiritual and moral actuaries, drawing up our accounts with God to see whether we are in credit or debit. We are not supposed to know whether this or that act of goodness will be reciprocated. We were not made to love on the basis of reciprocity. We were made to love freely and blindly to love for love's sake, to love for God's sake.

Our contentment, then, should not lie in achievement, measurable activity against the clock, measurable creativity against an ergonomic standard. Our contentment should lie simply in our possession of bread and our god given capacity to commit it to  the waters. Love is not a contract, it is the creation of space for the other; and casting our bread on the water is the most unconditional thing we can do. We may feel that it is a random act which may result in nothing but we are here to love not calculate; we will have to leave that to God. And we may feel that this casting of bread is hopelessly haphazard and self indulgent but we are surely past the time when we thought that the human race could plan the future of planet earth. Surely we understand that our control of events is extremely limited.

Casting our bread on the waters has a number of gracious dimensions: first, it expresses our humility, that we give of ourselves without condition or self importance, that we trust in the Lord to do what he will with our bread which we were given and which we now return; secondly, we acknowledge that we are simply stewards of the bread and that, having so much, we must commit our substance to the Lord's care; thirdly, we recognise the solidity, perhaps stolidity, of who we are compared with the fluidity of water as a carrier. In the age of triumphalist science now gone, this last point was perhaps the most difficult to grasp because we thought we controlled nature but we are beginning to recognise uncertainty again as the planet reels under our voracious consumerism. Truly, we were never in control but we certainly are not now.

The ergonomics of planning and the reality of contentment are frequently at serious odds. If we cast our bread upon the water we might then sit and watch it drift away or we might discount it and go back into our workshop, office or field. What we must do is write off the self denial; there is no actuarial calculation that can be made on self sacrifice, otherwise it would not be a sacrifice at all but a calculated risk. True contentment arises from a recognition that all the calculation is bogus. If I perform an act of kindness in order to be repaid by a similar or greater act of kindness the result might be (although we never know) a neutral transaction; but if I cast my bread, renouncing any control of its destination, I am affirming the power of God.

But there is a much more practical, mundane lesson to be learned from our Reading. To be truly content does not mean to rejoice in meeting targets because, as we all know, the more targets we meet and the higher the level we achieve, the more targets we are set and the higher the level that is demanded. at a very practical level contentment resides not in imposition but in creating space. The question we need to ask ourselves at the end of every day is not what we have done but what we have enabled others to do. We should not ask what we have built or fenced but what we have cleared or freed. Love is not doing, it is enabling.

There are thousands of stories about messages in bottles which are cast from one shore and which are washed up on another. As Christians we are assigned the task of casting; it is not for us to be the beachcombers, to glean what has been washed ashore. Our contentment is not in what we receive but in what we offer.

Cast your bread upon the water and let God decide what, if anything, will be cast upon your shore.


v: Lord, God we thank you
R: Now and Forever.

Lord God, heavenly father, we cast our bread upon the water in your name that it may work according to your will:

Lord of contentment:

  1. We thank you for making all things that lead to contentment, for family and friends, for solidarity in our community, for the watchful eye and the helping hand, for the friendly smile and the kind word; help us to recognise how fortunate we are, stable, safe and secure in a land of peace and freedom where your word is freely taught and learned; and may we remember how to ask:

    v: Lord, God we thank you
    R: Now and Forever.
  2. 2. We thank you for ourselves, for our good qualities and the immeasurable capacity to improve, for our diversity and unity, for the alternation of giving and taking; help us to be thankful and content with who we are, to cherish your gifts in us and around us and to trust that what you have given us is for the best; and may we remember how to grow

    v: Lord, God we thank you
    R: Now and Forever.

  3. We thank you for your worldly gifts, for those we share and those put into our care, for water, food, light and heat, for health and welfare, for science and commerce; help us to give without calculation, to care equally for gifts we hold in common and those we hold on behalf of others, for those things we hold in trust for the whole world now and in times to come, building the resources of the world through self denial; and may we remember how to fast:

    v: Lord, God we thank you
    R: Now and Forever.

  4. We thank you for your Son who was content to do your will, for his example of gentleness and restraint from harshness and judgment, for treating all your children as one; help us to think before we speak, to assume goodness in others where we are ignorant, to forgive the wrong, hate the sin but love the sinner; and may we remember how to listen

    v: Lord, God we thank you
    R: Now and Forever.

  5. We thank you for all the means for a holy life, for the gift of being your child, for the example of your son, for the power of the Spirit, for the saints and scholars, the mystics and heroic witnesses whose tradition we inherit, for the church and each other; help us to put our relationship with you before any doctrine, to put our conscience before peer pressure, to put prayer before preaching; and may we remember how to pause
  6. We thank you for our health in mind and body, for family and friendship, for hand and brain, for action and repose; help us to share our vigour and restfulness with those who lack them, to minister to the sick and to mourn the dead, to care for the carer and sustain the bereaved; and may we remember how to suffer.

    v: Lord, God we thank you
    R: Now and Forever.

May our earthly contentment be sustained by the anticipation of our eternal life in you. Amen