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Saturday, 30 July 2011

On Being the Tenth Leper

SUNDAY, JULY 31st 2011

Readings: Genesis 32.22-31
Ps 17.1-7, 16
Romans 9.1-16
Matthew 14.13-21

I mentioned two weeks ago (and am not expecting you to remember!) that the word ‘calling’ in its theological and liturgical sense, in its preaching sense, is always a word laden with meaning. The same must now be said for its near-synonym, the theologically laden word ‘naming’. Throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptural records the verb ‘to name’ and the process of naming is riddled with divine intention and divine meaning. This has never changed, as we name our children, and perhaps in other contexts too: our churches, our schools, our businesses, even to a lesser extent our pets – are given labels that are saturated with our hopes and expectations, as well as with our own story and life-map.

Even today, if we name our child ‘Jjjayck’, spelling it ‘with three Js and a Y (the Y is silent)’, we make a statement. We make a statement about our individuality, about the child’s individuality, or perhaps about our post-modern nonchalance towards rules and social norms of any form, including those of education and grammar. (I should add that I personally resent the rugby league player Micheal Luck, whose name is deliberately or accidentally but nevertheless legally spelt the way Michael should not be spelt!). Naming is an act of control, however vacuous, exercised over the lives of those subject to us; some children will later opt to change their names, in adulthood, an act of gentle rebellion against something in the dreams and expectations of their parents.

When the narrator of the story of Jacob’s wrestling match creates his tale he plays games with us, his audience. We unfortunately hear the story, most of us, with not only our own life-time or partial life-time of familiarity with the tale and its ending but with perhaps three thousand years of telling and re-telling. That is one of the reasons that there is so much room for creative negotiation with the text, finding the meaning and nuance between the words: in much Jewish reading of scripture the meaning is found not in the words but in the blank, interactive spaces between the words and letters, or even within the shapes of the words and letters. There are boundaries to interpretation, but they are fluid, allowing for change and growth in the Spirit of God. So we are not told that Jacob is wrestling with an angel, only that he is wrestling with a stranger (and every stranger might, after all, be an angel, as the author of Hebrews intriguingly reminds us [Heb. 13.2]). There comes a moment, though, when Jacob unwittingly oversteps his boundaries, inquiring of the stranger a name, an identity, and, in this context, a hard-won familiarity. God, as Moses discovered, does not give out the divine name, does not surrender identity to we who are ultimately mere created beings. We are not God’s boss, no matter how much some forms of Christianity or perhaps even pseudo-Christianity give the impression of turning God into a form of entertainment.

It is this tradition that informed the now less than popular theological insight of the theologian who most profoundly and I believe wisely informed the thought of the twentieth century. It was the timeless insight of Karl Barth that we are not ever in a position to question, much less control the thoughts of the Creator. We may have moments in which it appears to us that we wrestle with God, but on the whole we are not Jacob, and it is unlikely we will prevail. The passage in Jacob’s life in any case is a metaphor of his entire life to this point: Jacob the underhand, Jacob the deceitful, becomes in encounter with God Jacob the chosen bearer of God’s purposes and plans. He is re-named, ‘re-identitied’ accordingly (a name change that may have come as something of a surprise to his ‘two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children’!). Karl Barth’s reclaiming, in the twentieth century, of the absolute authority of God may not, in the twenty-first century, be popular, but it is a fundamentally biblical insight, and fundamental to the integrity of our faith: all things, we might echo Paul in saying, ‘depend not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy’.

If this is the case, are we left with nothing to say or believe when a self-righteous and deluded gunman takes bombs into the heart of his city to create a distraction, and then takes an arsenal of automatic weapons into the heart of a young people’s holiday camp? There is in fact very little anyone can say in the face of injustice and cruelty, whether of humans or of fate (and is there a difference)? When a tsunami shakes the life out of Japanese cities, or tectonic plates turn a New Zealand city into blancmange, or when a lonely gunman turns Port Arthur into a graveyard, then words are utterly inadequate. When aboriginal communities not only in Australia but in the Americas and the Pacific have been decimated and sometimes even eradicated by expansionist histories and collisions with modernity, there are no words to suffice, beyond genuine expressions of sorrow. This is so whether they be the words of an atheist or the words of a Christian, the words of a Richard Dawkins or the words of a Rowan Williams.

Our beliefs and actions though cannot be separated, and it is only to be hoped that in the face of tragedy we will work, always alongside those of other beliefs and no belief, to proclaim light in darkness and Easter in Good Friday. We can believe, too, that our God is big enough to work divine love and compassion through the hands of an atheistic Fred Nile or Stephen Hawkins or Richard Dawkins, whenever they too act with Christlike compassion (for sometimes they will), and do so as easily as God can work through Jacob’s deceitful hands or Paul’s feisty hands or your flawed hands or my flawed hands.

Where then does this leave us? When Jesus saw the suffering of his people, he withdrew. For those who are activists this may seem a strange strategy. At the very least it demonstrates the prioritizing of prayer over action – though not the substitution of prayer for action. It can remind us that we are called to be primarily a people of prayer. Like the tenth leper, who I mentioned two weeks ago (and again don’t yet expect you to remember!!) we are called to be a people who turn back and, in all circumstances, give thanks, in all circumstances acknowledge the presence of God, breathe God’s hope-filled energies into a context before we blaze in with strategies and ideologies.

By being a Eucharistic people, a people of prayer and of connection to God in bread and wine and water we become bearers of a great if unseen, intangible hope in a world in which hopelessness and despair often seem to be final. No one claims this is easy – nor even that the Christ community will be thanked for its words. Nevertheless that is our task, as it was the task of the first disciples, speaking words of resurrection hope in a culture of corruption. The great Feast of Pentecost and the season that follows it should remind us that we do not do this in our own strength, but in the strength of the one who named Israel.

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