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Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Is there no balm in Gilead? (So long, and thanks for all the fish)

final sermon at the Parish of the Good Shepherd, Fred’s Pass and Batchelor

Readings:        Jeremiah 8.18 – 9.1
                        Psalm 79.1-9
                        1 Timothy 2.1-10
                        Luke 16.1-13

If a first-comer were to pick up the books of the New Testament and read them from the opening pronouncement “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ” of Matthew to the closing “amen” of Revelation, even though these are not in any sort of chronological sequence, the reader would be hard pressed to miss gleaning something of a sense of urgency. Mark’s gospel-account is particularly urgent, as the author tells the Jesus-story in the shadow of what he considered to be the imminent return of Jesus. Can we or even should we still do this two millennia later?
For that matter, can we maintain any such sense of urgency even in the small time-frame of our own lives? Scholars used to say that there was a diminishment of apocalyptic urgency in the writing of Paul, occurring over a period of less than a decade. That is a less popular view these days, and I think it is more likely that his expectation of the triumphant apocalyptic return of Jesus came and went in waves of circumstance, and was gradually overtaken by his expectation of meeting Jesus (again) in his own forthcoming death, but the case remains:  his writings are full of apocalyptic urgency. But can we – should we – maintain that urgency?
For centuries that apocalyptic dimension of Christianity was suppressed. I do not mean it was suppressed in a Da Vinci Code sort of manner, but simply that it was put in the too hard basket of Christian teaching. There were moments of apocalyptic fervour: the lead-up to the end of the first millennium was one such moment, and the events of the Reformation led to another, but on the whole apocalyptic ferment was left neatly filed under “I” for ignore or “E” for excruciatingly embarrassing. In particular it was embarrassing to perpetrators of state religion – unfortunately deep in the DNA of Anglican Christianity – and even in my 1960s exposure to Christianity any notion of a second coming was seen as quaint and embarrassing. It’s no coincidence that it’s only since the detonation of the bomb obscenely named “Trinity” in the Jornada del Muerto desert on July 16th, 1945, that any notion of apocalyptic has escaped the clutches of the idiot fringes of Christianity and returned to the mainstream (which, despite appearances to the contrary, does not indicate that the millennialist idiot fringes were or are not idiotic after all, for their focus remains deeply askew). Apocalptic has drifted very slowly into Anglican thought, so we have been deeply embarrassed when Jesus appears to teach that we should have so great a sense of urgency that we should behave like a rotten and corrupt farm manager. Jesus clearly was not terribly Anglican.
Yet this strand of New Testament thought is deeply important. If we lose it, then we run the risk of becoming precisely the sort of visionless Christianity that has often dominated our history. We run the risk, and this is deep in the essence of Anglicanism, of believing that civic leadership is the ultimate expression of divine will: as our formative Book of Common Prayer tended to express it, God appoints kings first, then magistrates, then bishops, then mere clergy, and last of all you, hoi poloi, whose task it is to do exactly what you are told, and ensure no boat is ever rocked. It is a miracle that Anglicanism has ever produced figures the likes of Trevor Huddleston, or his protégé Desmond Tutu, or the current ecclesiastical leadership who tend to be more prepared to critique corrupt or self-seeking governments. For a doctrine of apocalyptic, at the very least, reminds us that God is, as the Veggie Tales so aptly put it, bigger than the boogie man, bigger than corrupt or myopic governments, as well as being bigger than the calamities that may devastate our individual existences.
I would not want to suggest that Jeremiah lost sight of God: far from it! The abject heaviness of heart that characterises his world view is a direct result of his critical analysis of the corruption of the leadership of his day. I make no secret of my belief that our own civic leadership deserve the same scorn, as they use asylum seekers as cannon fodder in games of political one-upmanship, though I would add that our church leaders, too, have been utterly self-seeking as they spent decades hiding corrupt and exploitative predators within our own ranks, desperately attempting to avoid shame and fiscal horror of exposure to the powerful scrutiny of the law. For that matter we would do well to remember, as the Fitzgerald Enquiry reminded us a decade or two ago, that the law itself is not above corruption: and so the cycles of human sinfulness continue.
So is there indeed no balm in Gilead? There certainly is not if we either deaden the voice of conscience, that gift of God that inconveniently reverberates around the human soul until we cauterize it, or if we remove any sense of the judgement of God from our life-equation altogether.  We can take these options in a myriad ways, pushing God’s “still small voice” out into realms of irrelevancy, deadening divine scrutiny, making excuses: we can’t afford to be exposed to legal scrutiny in case we are bankrupted by legal proceedings, and how could we carry out our task then? So said the gospel never. I suggest that if we believe that – and I fear we have – then we have set up, like Jeremiah’s people, false gods, and worshipped them. Or, indeed, as Jesus put it: we have served Mammon, not God.
The winds of change are blowing through the church in all its forms. Our infrastructures are being stretched and broken, for I fear we have believed they, not the Spirit of God, would save us. God knows I do it too: anyone who claims perfection is a liar, and anyone who claims it is easy to face a shifting, uncertain future is not really much more honest. Is there no balm in Gilead?
Jeremiah was a miserable old soul, so much so that for a while the name Jeremiah was common parlance for a party pooper. He was far more John the Baptist than party-going, story-telling Jesus, though the prophetic tradition of justice-seeking embraces both of course. In the end though Jeremiah was kept on focus through his dark night of the soul by his constant awareness of the presence of God, a presence far greater than the corruption that surrounded him, far greater than doubt and despair. Such awareness is both a gift of God and, paradoxically, the result of discipline and hard work. I don’t set myself up as an example, but pray God that my life and yours can be a learning curve in that direction.
The author of 1 Timothy’s injunction to “lift up holy hands” is no more than an invitation to pray – the so-called orans position of prayer adopted in charismatic-pentecostal worship was probably the original and most appropriate pose, though I make no secret of my belief we lose bent knees at great peril.  The author’s invitation is neither more nor less than a demand that we work hard at the experience of closeness to God. We need though a reality check: are we worshipping because it brings us warm-fuzzy feelings as individuals?
Our paths have briefly crossed but the challenges put to us by Jesus’ story of a corrupt steward are applicable in all our individual journeys and in our corporate journey as members of faith communities in the service of God: Are we talking about mission and evangelism and justice and other ministries of the Church because we want to prop up shaky institutions? Jeremiah, would have no time for either, and Jesus stands firmly in Jeremiah’s footsteps, even if he has a better sense of humour. Or are we engaging with God because we love God, because our lives are touched and transformed by God, because we want others to know and share this side of the grave the warmth and the magnificence of the One we will encounter in our own personal death or in the final apocalypse of human history, whichever, whatever form that may take? May the answer be the love of God, for you and for me, as we tread the tracks God has beaten for us.

*Please note there will now be a break in sermons until October 20th, after I am installed as Dean of Waiapu in New Zealand
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