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Sermon on Trinity Sunday 2001

Proverbs, 'Fate and Reason.'

Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
10 June 2001

I wonder if you have seen the advertisement on the television recently in which a man is on the telephone and he tells the person he is speaking to that he must go because his Feng Shui consultant is coming to redesign the interior of his home? The consultant comes and proceeds to remove practically everything from the room apart from a sofa a television and a fridge full of Fosters lager beer, then the caption comes 'he who drinks Australian, thinks Australian.'

Feng Shui which speaks about living harmoniously with the energy of our environment is being used for such diverse decisions as where to build homes and what to have in them. It draws upon years of wisdom that would suggest, for example, that it is a bad idea to give sharp objects as presents or handkerchiefs, because of the associations which go with them.

Different societies across the world have collected wisdom together and handed it on to generations.

Where do we stand on this 'wisdom' as Christians?

When we go out into the world we go into God's world, he is already there, he goes before us. His wisdom and truth and reason is woven into the fabric of the universe and we should not be surprised therefore as a Christian church that we can learn from the world and yes, learn from other religions too. We have to be very careful, truth is not a smorgasbord in which we can pick and mix and come up with something which just matches our own palette. However we cannot shut our eyes to the illumination which we can find in the revealed truth possessed by other faiths and found enshrined within secular learning. Was not the awareness of the plight of women, and the need to change our practice in the Church of England something which became aggressively championed as a result of the influence on the church from secular feminism? This secular feminism had an effect upon women, upon theologians etc, etc.

The Book of Proverbs which we have in our first reading today is a collection of wise sayings many of them moral teachings, helpful advice on such different subjects as the choice of a woman and how to correct a child. There are instructions about how to live wisely and avoid the pitfalls of life. They were part of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish sayings, but many of them predated even Judaism. They were attributed to Solomon but they were gathered from over the world.

The Proverbs are then often found repeated in the New Testament

Prov 3:34    He mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble.

becomes But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." James 4:6

Proverbs 10:12    Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.

becomes above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.1 Peter 4:8

Now I know I have upset some of you already by suggesting that truth can be found anywhere other than the pages of the Bible. But if knowledge is good then we should prize that knowledge wherever it may be found. Wisdom is not the preserve of Christian thought. God is at work in the world, reason is a God given tool.

There are wise saying from all around the world which we can call proverbs, You may remember Aesop's Fables. 'The Tortoise and the Hare', 'The Boy who Cried Wolf' have all been attributed to Aesop, said to have been a Greek slave in the sixth century BC.

Here is one I like

A dog bearing in his mouth a piece of meat that he had stolen, was crossing a river on his way home when he saw his shadow reflected in the stream below. Thinking that it was another dog with another piece of meat, he snapped at it greedily to get this as well, but by opening his mouth merely dropped the piece that he had.

The moral or Proverb is simply that 'greed begets nothing'.

There are Chinese proverbs, there are Russian proverbs, there are even Welsh wise sayings.

Welsh Proverbs

Ni edrych angau pwy decaf ei dalcen. Death considers not the fairest forehead.

Llaeth i blentyn, cig i wr, cwrw i hen. Milk for a child, meat for a man, beer for the old.

Tri chysir henaint: tan, te a tybaco. Three comforts of old age: fire, tea and tobacco.

O bob trwm, trymaf henaint. Of all weights, old age is the heaviest.

Unwaith yn ddyn, dwywiaith yn blentyn. One time a man, two times a child.

There are Manx Proverbs

Ta'n toshiagh-joarey as yn leighder gaase roauyr er streeu ny blebbinyn
The coroner and the lawyer grow fat on the quarrels of fools.

Ta ushylagh ayns dy-chooilley chuilleig
There is a skeleton in every cupboard.

Reih shiu eshyn son carrey ta griennagh shiu gys obbraghyn mie
Choose him for a friend who incites you to good works.

Eshyn ta ginsh foiljyn sleih elley diu nee eh ginsh ny foiljyn euish dauesyn
He that tells you the faults of others will tell your faults to them.

Baarail ommijagh ta ayr boghtynid
Foolish spending is the father of poverty.

Ta beeal tutler poagey-scrieu jouyll
A gossip's mouth is the devils postbag.

Cha vod shiu jannoo mie da sleih elley fegooish jannoo mie diu-hene
You cannot do good to other people without doing good to yourself.

Cha jean ny traa ny tidey furriaght da dooinney erbee
Time and tide wait for no man.

 

Of course many proverbs have their origin in the Book of Proverbs in the Bible.

One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer;
another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. {Prov 11:24 RSV}

Teaching us that there is the value of generosity over stinginess.


Where is all this going ?

The other night I was out for dinner with friends and I was asked at about 11.00pm whether I believed in fate. It is never a good idea to ask deep theological questions to somebody who has just started on an after dinner cigar and most certainly not after having drunk several glasses of Bombardier.

My answer was 'no,' I do not believe in fate, if by fate you mean that there is a course mapped out for our lives in the face of which we are powerless. If there is a destiny to which we are all consigned and we have no choice over the outcome, then we are reduced to mere puppets in a show in which some powerful being manipulates and toys with us. This is not the picture of life which we are given in Scripture or from the teaching of Christ. Choices, our decisions are not redundant in the face of a divine puppeteer.

My most favourite picture of life is one which sees us as being involved as if we were a swimmer in a river who can choose whether to swim either with or against the current. For surely God has built within the universe rules, principles, and reason or wisdom... There are physical rules and laws, like gravity, there are also moral and spiritual rules and we need to be aware of them and learn what works. Each of us has the ability to decide to either follow or struggle against the rights and wrongs of behaviour which God has built within the fabric of the universe.


The fact that we are looking at a piece of scripture this morning called Proverbs should teach us that we have choices to make in life which will change for better or worse the pattern of our life. Individual Proverbs teach us many different things. BUT The fact that there are Biblical Proverbs at all teaches us about choices in life, about the fact that we have the ability to choose and make mistakes. There is no fate over which we have no control, we all have the choice to either work hard and achieve the best from our God given gifts, or sit on our backsides and grow idle. Proverbs is about choices in life, about the fact that we have the ability to choose and make mistakes. Yet we also have the choice to make the very most of all that God has given to us.

 

Does this mean that God is absent from the world and everything is purely at the mercy of human choices?

This is where things become really complicated! It is clear and obvious that we have the ability to make decisions, but where is God in all of this. Has God abdicated all responsibility in the world, is it in the control of human power, or even worse at the mercy of an evil power or Devil?

Romans 8: 28 tells us

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

How does this work out?

Proverbs teaches us that God is found in common sense. The statement that obedience to God is common sense is perhaps a controversial statement. Ever since the Christian Gnostic heresies of the 2nd and 3rd centuries many Christians have stressed how very uncommon God is. There was considered among the early Christian Gnostics, like Valentinus who nearly became bishop of Rome in AD 144, to be a special knowledge (greek 'gnosis' meaning knowledge —see below) possessed only by insiders. Today we may see similar movements inside Christian Groups which claim to be special. Of course for such a theology of exclusive knowledge to be effective it has to deny the existence of acceptable knowledge elsewhere. So necessarily at the core of Gnosticism lay the insistence on dualism the created world was evil; only a spiritual elite who had a divine spark within them would return to the spiritual sphere like homing pigeons enabled by special knowledge

The early Christian Church had to think through this and the early church theologians (Fathers—patristics) such as Irenaeus rejected the concept entirely. He quoted psalm 24 'The earth is the Lord's.' Because the earth was God's, God was intimately involved in his creation. So Christians should be equally involved. Christians should be involved in politics, hunting, seafaring, medicine, botany, poetry.

Today is Trinity Sunday and we struggle to think through what this means. For Irenaeus struggling with the early stages of this concept God was responsible for the work of creation using his two hands the Son and the Spirit. There was therefore no dualism between spirit and matter. Christ was the word made flesh, so it was right to use the elements of bread and wine produced from earthly crops like bread and wine.

There is no divine opposition of a bad god who created the world and a good god who was of the Spirit. God created the world with his two hands and although creation has fallen, redemption is not cancelling out creation or escaping from it, it is rather to be seen in working with creation.

There is a human tendency to like to gather into closely defined groups sharing special and beliefs which mark us out as being different from those on the outside. It gives vulnerable the sense of belonging and being special in a big anonymous and threatening world. This is the sin of denominationalism, which desires to perpetuate badges and labels which mark us out as different from other Christians. Gnostics were great at the 'them and us' method of differentiation, we must act differently and value our traditions less and our unity more.

It has been said this week that one of the reasons why the Conservative party has lost the election so overwhelmingly is because it is seen as being unwelcoming and exclusive. I heard it said 'it is not the sort of party to which somebody who is black or gay can feel comfortable.' It is then said that the party must restructure itself so that it offers a home to those who are from different ethnic groups, so that people of different ethnic background or sexualities can feel they belong. Now I do not want to bash the Conservatives when they are down, I am sure many people would want to say that the Conservative party was welcoming anyway. The point that I am making is not a party political one it is simply to acknowledge that this is the common sense ideal to which we must all aspire. We must have a church which embraces and makes the circle of inclusion as wide as possible. That wonderful statement from Galatians comes to mind

Galatians 3:26

'You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'

Such a statement from Galatians would be unacceptable to Gnostics because it is too inclusive. Such statements are unacceptable to many Christians today, who try to circumscribe this teaching and define it more narrowly. But the inescapable truth of that statement given in Galatians seem to me to indicate that in Christ ethnic grouping, social status or sexuality is an irrelevance.

Scripture is a vital tool for understanding our faith, but the source of our knowledge must not stop there. Irenaeus said that we should use 'everything before our eyes.' God is at work in the world. Every man is a creation of God even though he may be ignorant of God. It is this which gives rise to the Apostle Paul saying that the powers that be are ordained by God.

  • Does a person have to be converted and come to church to be God's ?
  • Do they have to understand their spiritual origins for God to be able to use them in his purpose.
  • Does a surgeon who heals a sick patient not possess the healing of God in his hands irrespective of whether they know their source of their skill?

God is firmly the creator of this world, there is nothing independent of God since he is sovereign. Only from him did anything come.

For this reason freedom is very important. We are free to choose between good and evil. I am sure that God has a special will for each one of us, a perfect desire for what we are able to achieve with the special gifts that he has given to each one of us. We can choose whether we are going to co-operate with God in achieving this, or whether we are going to swim against the current and foul up our lives.

You will know perhaps whether you are co-operating with God or trying to do you own thing. If you don't then ask God and seek out his will for you. You are not a victim of fate, you have a choice and it is largely up to you whether you screw up or not.

 

A final thought—Positive about the world

Because we see God in the world and at work in the world we can afford to be optimistic about the world. We are not ones who want to escape from it because it is doomed at likely to be destroyed at any time. Rather we are God's troops at work in the world to help change and transform it. Gnostics were pessimistic about the world, they looked on the black side of the world and its inhabitants, Christians must be positive about the world because it is God's and positive about people who are also God's.

Note

There was a radical cosmological dualism The created order was evil and in opposition to a world of the spirit. There was a supreme God but he was completely unapproachable, it was an inferior god (Demiurge) often associated with Jehovah of the Old Testament who was responsible for the creation of matter. This Demiurge was inferior to the God of Light.