Sermon - 25th August 2013
Scripture - Ecclesiastes chapters 1 & 2
Rev Andy Braunston
It's the Pride weekend again and many of us and of our community have been out enjoying the festival. We have three days of the “Big Weekend” with music, socializing, community groups offering their wares, club nights as well as the Fringe events that happened in the week leading up to Pride.
It is a time of celebration, of fun and of freedom. Every year people go to the Pride March and festival for the first time and have a sense of “wow” as they realise they're not alone, that there are many people who are part of the LGBT community and, increasingly, as they realise that the people of Manchester are, generally, supportive of us. It is an exciting weekend, a friend of mine describes it as the LGBT Christmas and the sights and sounds of Canal Street and the Village are incredible over this weekend.
Those of us who are a little older will remember the hard won battles that have taken place over the years. The first march I ever went on was to protest at the passing of Section 28 of the Local Government Act – a silly bit of legislation which tried to stop schools talking about homosexuality in a positive way. I joined with friends on the “Never Going Underground” march. I remember my first gay pride marches in London and was amazed that few thousand walked through the streets to proclaim who we were.
Since those marches in the late 80s we've seen a lot of change. First an equal age of consent debate in Parliament which failed but did, at least, reduce the Age of Consent for gay men from 21 to 18, then a proper equal age of consent, the repeal of Section 28, the introduction of Civil Partnerships, the Gender Recognition Act, the Equalities Act and now equal marriage. We've come a long way over the years and in an age of great equality it's tempting to forget what Gay Pride is all about.
The first Pride march took place, in Los Angeles, in 1969 to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in New York City the year before. These riots were the first time that lgbt people fought back against the police who had raided the Stonewall bar. Troy Perry, founder of MCC was one of the organisers of that first march. Quickly gay pride marches took place all over America, and Europe – normally in June to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. The first Pride March in Britain took place in June 1972 with around 2,000 people. They were, for a long time, political. They were about demonstrating we existed, that we deserved the same rights as everyone else, they were about making us visible, and proud, of who we are.
Now the marches in the UK are about celebration more than anything else. We've won the political battles. It is almost inconceivable to think that the clock will turn back – we've had openly gay and lesbian cabinet ministers, a Tory Prime Minister has pushed equal marriage through his party against strong opposition, Bishops of the Church of England now think Civil Partnerships are wonderful (despite voting against them in the first place) – mainly because they are so worried about gays marrying. Even the pope has said that he is not here to judge gay priests. Given all this it's tempting to celebrate, to join the party and just have a good time.
But there is more to life than partying. The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is one that is not read a lot these days. It's supposed to have been written by King Solomon but was probably written in his voice. It's a book where the writer comes across as a bit jaded:
The writer wonders what we gain from all our hard work as the world continues much as before. He wonders at the pointlessness of life, and notes how people aren't satisfied with life at all. At first hearing it all sounds a bit cynical and we wonder why words like this are in the Bible! After all, the Bible is supposed to be about Good News, about positive things, it's supposed to make us feel better and this passage is, well, rather glum!
The writer, however, continues and we start to see a bit more of what concerns him.
Ecclesiastes 1:12 – 2:11
The book is written from the perspective of Solomon who was the son of King David. David was the most successful of the Jewish kings. He had secured Israel's borders so that the kingdom was safe, he had married the daughter of the previous king giving him a certain legitimacy to take the throne – although it wasn't a happy marriage. He had moved the most sacred object of the Jewish faith, the chest holding the tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments to Jerusalem and housed it next to his Royal Palace. Those coming on pilgrimage to see the Ark of the Covenant would also see the Royal Palace and associate the monarchy with the faith. Whilst his personal life was complicated – the only person he truly seems to have been happy with was Jonathan the old king's son - he left a secure kingdom to his son Solomon.
Solomon is often thought to have been wise, but his reign was a disaster. He expanded Israel's borders – and that made enemies of neighbours. He built the first Temple and this was an amazing achievement but in order to complete this, and other building projects, he had to enslave Jewish people. His wars, apart from annoying his neighbours, cost money and the people had to pay taxes. He also took many foreign wives and concubines in order to seal foreign alliances. This didn't go down well with the religious establishment which was concerned that these women were pagans and worshipped their own gods whilst in Israel. This was seen as disloyal to God. After he died all these tensions erupted and the kingdom split in two with different monarchies in the north and south.
So Solomon achieved much but, after his death, his kingdom was in tatters. The foreign alliances fell part and as the global power blocks changed a divided Israel fared badly as other powers asserted themselves in the region. Solomon had everything he wanted, money, power, women but, in the end, these things didn't matter as everything he worked for fell apart. No wonder that the book of Ecclesiastes, written in his name, starts with the words “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” as the writer realised that Solomon's life didn't amount to very much. All that he had achieved turned to dust.
This final bit of Ecclesiastes is striking in that it states that the writer hated life. It's a bit strong isn't it? Most of us wouldn't say that we hate life would we? Yet our society often seems to be in love with death and destruction. Our economy relies on the armaments industry, most of our pension funds are invested in these industries which rely on conflict and death for markets. The trade in our world is unfair and those who grow the things we need don't earn a living wage for their labour. But more than that, our culture is fascinated by death – from the US imported TV shows which focus on vampires and demons, to the glorification of war, violence and violent offenders. Theologian Matthew Fox wrote back in the 90s that our culture was in love with death and decay. We see this in the gay male community where drug taking is often seen as an acceptable way to have fun – with little thought to what is in the drugs nor the human misery that they represent. Some gay men are “bug chasers” who seem to want to be infected with HIV. We see it in our wider culture too where consumerism is more important than justice and life itself.
Maybe our culture isn't so far from Solomon's who lived around 3,000 years ago. All that Solomon touched had turned to dust and ashes not long after he died. It was just vanity. The world turned, he would have been forgotten if it weren't for the Bible. So what did his life mean? Where was his purpose? Where was his real identity found? What did he have to be truly proud of?
These are questions that we could ask of ourselves and our own culture. In a society that values people for what they earn, how good they look and how young they are where do we stand? How do we find meaning and purpose in our own lives in a society which has little time for these things. Where do we find long-lasting values in a society which, like the things it sells, has built in obsolescence?
In our church we bridge, at least, two worlds. We are, in the main, from the LGBT community but we are, as well, Christian. Sometimes this is an uneasy place to be – much of the Church has been hostile to us and even in our more tolerant age many Christians find LGBT folk problematic. At the same time many LGBT folk aren't interested in the Church – often because of how we've been treated by Christians. Yet we have much to offer the wider Church with our perspectives on love and gender and much to offer the LGBT community which, so often, is tired of the vanity and meaninglessness of life.
So this weekend when many of us are celebrating part of our identity, it's good to think about our core identity. This weekend when we've mused on the purpose of Pride, it's good to think about our own purpose. This weekend when we've celebrated Pride, it's useful to think about what we should be proud of in our lives.
We have many identities. Speaking for myself my identities are complex, I'm male, I'm from the south but live in, and identify with, the north, I'm a priest, I'm a husband, I'm gay, I'm middle aged. These are all part of my identity but, the core of my identity is my relationship with Christ. In baptism we were united with Christ and made his own. Through our faith we nurture an ongoing relationship with God. Once we're marked as God's own all other distinctions become secondary. Age, race, gender, class, sexuality, politics or anything else – these are all secondary to our primary identity in Christ.
This weekend we have celebrated Pride. When I first came out as a gay man I was a little uncomfortable with the word Pride – after all I'd been taught that it was sinful to be proud. I came to realise that there is a healthy way to take pride in ourselves, to banish the demons of self doubt and hatred. I learnt to be proud of who God created me to be. But there is more to be proud of: proud of what God has done for us; proud that God loves us; proud that Christ died for us. In the words of Issac Watts' great hymn When I survey the wondrous cross, “Forbid it Lord, that I should boast, save in the Cross of Christ my God, all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes struggled with working out his purpose when the world keeps on spinning no matter what. All the things he had used to try and find happiness – wealth, relationships, power – had let him down. That is the contemporary dilemma of our world – we find that life can be meaningless. We have 100s of channels to watch on the TV, lots of films at the cinema, labour saving devices to give us spare time but are bored. We are closer than ever before to our friends and family, no matter where they live. We can keep up with them through email, Facebook, Skype, Google Hangouts - but feel lonely. We live in one of the richest countries of the world yet are spiritually poor as we don't see the poor and destitute around us. We need to re-find our purpose in life.
St Augustine, who lived a thousand or so years after Solomon, held that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. The Christian Church has always taught a similar idea – God made us to know him, love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next. It's a simple idea – we find our purpose in life through our relationship with God. Our purpose is about knowing, loving and serving God. In serving God we serve others. Life isn't about how much we can get, but about how much we can serve. It's not about how much wealth we can earn but about how much wealth we can give away. Life isn't about how much romance we can have, but how loving we can be. Our purpose isn't about having a good time but about doing good.
It's quite a contrast to how our society thinks – but our society is unhappy, yearning for a fulfilment it can't find, and relief for it's boredom.
Our purpose as Christians in serving God is to proclaim the coming Kingdom that Jesus preached, lived and inaugurated. In this kingdom all will be just. We won't need to strive for our rights as justice will reign. We won't need to have borders as everyone will have all they need. We won't need to despair of Russian homophobia, African oppression, or American imperialism as God will be in our midst. We won't need to agonise over Israel and Palestine, Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan as God will make all things new. We proclaim this coming kingdom but we do more than that – we work to make it a reality. This is our purpose, this is how we show that we know and love and serve God. This is what we are proud off. This is where we find our true identity.