Sunday, November 14, 1999

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
On Sunday, November 14, 1999
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Ecclesiastes 2:17-26 and John 10:1-10 “The Good Shepherd”

Miss Bradshaw was a most kind and gracious lady. Even in her old age she was still concerned for others and wanted to go out of her way to help whenever possible. Miss Bradshaw had heard that I had a need, for I was in my fourth form in a school in England (the equivalent of our Grade X) and needed to raise funds in order to go on a school trip to the north-east of England and see the places of Lindesfarne, Whitby and Rievaulx Abbey. Realising that I was always trying to scrounge for a bob or two, she phoned me up and said, “Andrew, I wonder if you would like to do me a favour and I could give you a few pennies for doing it? I would love you to clean out my attic for me.” Always eager for a bob or two I said, “Sure, Miss Bradshaw, I'd be more than pleased to do it.” Then there was one codicil at the end, one little caveat, and she said, “And by the way, if you find anything up there you would be able to keep it for yourself. I have no idea what's up there anymore but I suspect there may be a thing or two of interest to you.”

With my curiosity piqued and my bucket and mop in hand I went to her house on the Saturday morning. When I arrived I saw a mass of people gathering outside her home. There were some in white coats, people in business suits, people in long coats, all seemed to be in a frantic rush to do something. I approached one of the gentlemen and I wanted to knock on the door and see Miss Bradshaw and see if I could still clean out her attic and make my bob or two and a man came up to me who was evidently the executor of her will and said, “We're afraid to tell you that last night Miss Bradshaw died.” Not knowing what I should do, whether it would be unseemly for me to rummage around in her attic in my boots and jeans, I asked him what he wanted me to do. He said, “If Miss Bradshaw wanted you to be here, then you go ahead and clean the attic.” So I went up the stairs and sure enough everything was covered in thick dust and I rummaged through the things of her life and felt very queasy about doing something posthumously. I opened a huge trunk with great straps and there was a half-finished wedding dress with some photographs of a man on top of it. Later I was to find out that it was the wedding dress that she was about to wear for her wedding in 1942, except that her fiancé had been killed in France and she never married. I went to a corner where I saw four big books propping up an old door that appeared to be falling down and they too were covered in inches of dust. I blew the dust off the books only to reveal the most gorgeous books I've ever seen. Leather bound copies with gilt edges of the complete works of Byron, Browning, Tennyson and the combined works of William Shakespeare. Then I realised why Miss Bradshaw wanted me to go into her attic: those were the things that she wanted me to have. I brushed them off and put them under my coat and cleaned the rest of the attic and went downstairs to the executor and asked him if it was alright if I could keep these books and he said, “Oh by all means; I don't care.” Meanwhile there were all these members of her extended family putting stickers on things in the living room trying to make a claim on the things she had ? pieces of furniture, crockery and linen. I felt a sense of shame as I carried these books out, but I swear to this day that at the very least I would use these books for something positive. If this is what she wanted me to have, I would use them for creative purposes in honour of her name.

I tell this story because Miss Bradshaw died, so we found out a few days later, almost as a pauper. Apart from the few things she had in her house and the books in her attic, she had 150 Pounds. She left all of it to the church. I can't help when I think of her of the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes that we read this morning. (I'm sure you must have had a moment when you were listening to the writer of Ecclesiastes, called Koheleth, for a little chuckle to yourself. Didn't he sound real? He certainly described me, as the reader at the 9:30 service suggested, as someone who likes to eat and drink and enjoy life.) Koheleth has reached a point in his life where he is dejected, sad and worried. He looks at all the things that his hands have created, all the works that he has produced and he cannot help but think of the overwhelming inequities of life. The people who are going to get their hands on what he has done in his life, (they may be wise or foolish, they may be good or unjust, they may be godly or ungodly,) but he has no control over what his hands have produced and on what those who are his successors will do with it. Then in a famous line he says, “I hated life and all the work I did under the sun seems grievous to me; all is vanity. It is like chasing after the wind.”

Koheleth was not suggesting that there be no succession. He is not suggesting that we do not prepare for the future or for those who follow us. His is simply saying that there is no exact law in this world saying that what you put in to life, you get out. There is no natural justice, no natural law that suggests that there will be equity in this life. On the contrary. In this life there is very often inequity, injustice.

Throughout all this, Koheleth becomes gripped by two very powerful spirits. The first is the spirit of despondency. He says that there is nothing better for us to do than to eat, drink and tell ourselves that our labours are good. In many ways Koheleth sounds like a Hedonist or at the very least like an Epicurean ? that in response to the overwhelming injustice of life, all one can do is eat, drink and enjoy the pleasures experienced at any given moment. In many ways he sounded like Thackeray when he wrote, “O vanity of vanities, O vanity of vanities.” Thackeray, just like Koheleth, saw that the world often is vain, like striving after the wind.

One of the great writers who talks in cynical terms, yet in many ways sets the stage for our Christian faith, is Albert Camus. He tells the story of the stranger who believes that he is no longer a participant in his own life. He is simply sitting at a distance looking at what is transpiring. He no longer feels that he is emotionally engaged in life; he's decided to distance himself from everything. When his mother dies he goes to the funeral but does not cry. He is not worried about the fact that he doesn't cry; he's worried about the fact that other people will see him not crying. He enters into a romantic relationship where he thinks he should have love, but he has no feeling for this person; he's simply going through the process of the relationship. Then the piece de resistance, he finally commits a senseless murder. When he is brought before the judge and the verdict is going to be brought down on him, that he is going to die for what he has done, he has no remorse, no feeling, no sorrow. He is completely detached from his own life. The stranger goes on to say, “Life is absurd! It isn't a priceless gift from God.” There are many people who, like Koheleth and the stranger in Camus' story, feel that life has led them to that degree on despondency.

Some years ago I visited a lady who was a member of my congregation who had invested all her retirement savings in the Principle Group (many of you know that Group was dissolved). Two-thirds of all her retirement savings just simply disappeared before her eyes. She was the one who came to me and said, “It is all vanity, Andrew, isn't it? It's all striving after wind. In the end there is nothing there to sustain me. Nothing that I can pass on.” Or think of the people who become disenchanted with life, who see that those who work less, are less qualified, get paid more and move ahead. Or those who by virtue of their own avarice or manipulation, are able to get ahead in business or the world even though you yourself are trying to be moral and right and pure. It seems all like striving after the wind.

Like the experience of one of my best friends who was for awhile one of the chief designers of a high-tech software company. He led the jet-set life. He was going to Singapore, Bermuda, Barbados, Florida every week or so; he was the guru and loved in Silicone Valley. He was loved in Massachusetts and he was loved in Manchester, England. Wherever there was high technology, he was one of the big names, until one day, an eighteen year old man from Massachusetts discovered something just a little bit better! Now you never hear from him and nobody wants to talk to him and he's alone. It's like striving after wind. “The work that I do becomes grievous unto me; I hated life. It is like striving after the wind.”

A couple of weeks ago someone gave me an article from the New York Times and it's title was “It Is More Than The Economy, Stupid.” (Seeing “stupid” in there made me immediately sit up and think it was written for me.) I read the article and it talks about how people in The United States and Canada are experiencing tremendous growth and wealth within society. We have bigger houses by square footage, we have bigger vehicles, unemployment is at an all-time low, the productivity is up, we have a bull market rather than a bear market. We're living in a time of great prosperity in North America. All is well! Yet the big question that people are starting to ask themselves is: “Is this everything? Are the products of my hands and the wealth that I'm generating, not that they're inherently evil or bad, but are they sufficient?” This editorial argues that there is a hunger inside people; they are looking for more. They realise that things are vanity, vanity, because there is something missing in their lives just as Koheleth realised there was something missing in his life.

Then Koheleth was seized by a second spirit: the spirit of the power of life. Koheleth concludes after he has said all this and made a mockery of life and said all is vanity and despondency, “For who can enjoy life without God?” Even if you have all the things to eat and drink, even if you live the life of a Hedonist, even if you just enjoy all the pleasurable things, the true enjoyment and pleasure, the true meaning of life is found not in those things per se, but is found in the power and presence of Almighty God. Never was this more born into me than when I picked up a book that was given to me by Miss Bradshaw, the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson. In the great poem In Memoriam, he talks about his friends and his faith. If Miss Bradshaw could hear this today! There are two powerful stanzas:

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust.
Thou made us man, he knows not why.
He thinks he was not made to die
And thou hast made him, thou art just.

Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness, let it grow.
They are but broken lights of thee
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
Our little systems have their day,
But thou, O Lord, art more than they.

This becomes so apparent in our reading from John's Gospel today. We see the fulfilment of all Koheleth hoped for. All the fulfilment of the dreams and wishes he had are found in our story from John's Gospel, where Jesus is depicted as the Good Shepherd. This is the Good Shepherd who becomes the gate and calls the sheep by name, who tells them that despite all the works that seem like vanity, they are valuable in the eyes of God, they have a meaning and a purpose. He says that he is both the gate and the Shepherd to the kingdom of God. The sheep through him will be able to come in and go out and have the freedom and liberation they desire. They will find the meaning and purpose of life because, he says, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” How many people are seeking that degree of freedom in their lives, who need to be taken by the hand of God, by the hand of the Good Shepherd and led into that land and freedom that really makes life meaningful and gives it purpose?

Many of us are like an inebriated man in a story I read of a pub owner. The Yorkshire pub owner went to bed around three in the morning after closing up and finally lay his head down and after a couple of minutes' sleep, the phone rang. It was a man who said, “Excuse me but what time do you open up in the morning?” Thinking the caller was a complete fool and being angry he simply hung up. He rolled over and went back to sleep. A few minutes later the ”˜phone rang again. The same drunken man was on the line and said, “Excuse me but I'm wondering what time you open up in the morning.” The pub owner said, “Look you inebriated drunk, I wouldn't let someone like you into my place at any time!” “I know,” said the drunk. “I'm not trying to get in, I'm trying to get out!”

Aren't we sometimes like that? (Not inebriated! I have to be careful what I say this morning. One of my teachers from primary school in Bermuda is in the congregation this morning and I'm feeling a very bad boy at the moment! I just can't help it.) But don't you feel that you're trying to break free and break out of the despondency and difficulties and things that grip our lives? Jesus says, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

What concretely does this mean? First it means that in the midst of this life that may or may not be just, that may be fleeting with its righteousness or passing with its righteousness, the one who gives it meaning and purpose is none other than God himself. When Jesus is addressing these people, addressing the Disciples, he is saying that as the Good Shepherd, as the shepherd of Israel, of the people, as the gate, as the way in, I have come that you might have life. God is not standing from a distance looking at the injustices of the world in a dispassionate and detached way. God has come incarnately into the midst of the world to say “Here I am. I want to call you by name.” God is not aloof and distant, God is present.

The Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian Church says that the chief aim of man is to know God and to enjoy God forever. That is what Jesus Christ was doing. That his very presence, as we prepare ourselves in a couple of weeks for Advent and the Incarnation, was a time of preparation, a time that we must indeed look to the one who comes and dwells in our midst. The one who allows us to enjoy God forever. Not just now, but into eternity. Not just into eternity, but just now! For that is the power of Christ's presence in our lives. It is through Christ's presence with us that the eating and drinking and the labour and the work and the commitments that we make in this life find their meaning and purpose and power and inspiration.

It speaks secondly of another powerful thing: the victory of God's justice. Jesus said, “The thief comes to kill and to steal and destroy.” The thief often tells us, like that stranger in Camus, that all that matters and is important is what we glean and grab for ourselves. Then we become despondent; then we become discouraged and think that life is absurd. That is to steal the very thing that God wants us to have: Life! That is the ultimate work of the thief, to believe somehow that injustice does reign, that inequities are the end, that all is absurd and chasing after wind. But the presence of Jesus Christ, the presence of the Good Shepherd says, “No! And I'll show you why because I, the Shepherd, lay down my life for the sake of the sheep. Not only have I come to give you life, I have come to make the sacrifice for you to have life and not only that but through my death, my giving of myself, through my forcing myself on the hands of the unjust, I will rise from the dead and give you the life and power and grace that you need.” That is the ultimate confirmation that God's justice is greater than the chasing after the wind.

A couple of weeks after Miss Bradshaw died, there was a memorial service and my father conducted it. For this poor lady who left almost no legacy to the Church, to a lady who had had all her things grabbed by her extended family and even me with my four books, we went to the service and I asked my father (because I had never been to a funeral before) if this would be appropriate and he said that she would love to have me here. I went to the service; it was very simple. There was nothing elaborate, no great cars bringing people to it, no great coffin, just a little wooden box with her ashes in it. It was a very simple Congregationalist service, no great high and wonderful music, no special liturgy and yet there were two hundred and fifty people there! We realised that Miss Bradshaw had lived a life way, way beyond her apparent earthly wealth. During the war after her fiancé had been killed, she decided to go to France and work on the battlefields as a nurse in order that she might give something back to those who were similarly suffering and dying. This is a woman who, when she came back, worked with young children in our town to make sure they had the benefits of life. This is a young woman who worked with the Girl Guides. This woman served as a Deacon in the church and visited people in their hour of need. All the people whom she had touched in her life came to her service and remembered Miss Bradshaw and then I asked myself: “Who then is rich? Who dies with the greatest legacy?” The woman who had the greatest faith and whose faith had made her life so rich as she touched so many. Is it any wonder that at the end of the service we sang a final hymn from the Psalms? You know which one it was: ”˜The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.' Life is not the chasing after the wind; life is lived in God who gives it its power, life and its meaning. Miss Bradshaw has left quite a legacy, hasn't she? Amen