SERMON PREACHED AT
THE CHURCH OF ST FRANCIS, BATCHELOR
ORDINARY SUNDAY 24 (15th September) 2013
Readings: Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28
1 Timothy 1.1-2, 12-19a
While getting a hold of meaningful statistics in any field can be like catching shadows, the suggestions are that Christianity is adhered to by about one third of the world’s population – and whilst there may be varying degrees and shades of belief, as belief is strictly a matter between believer and believed I think we can accept that as a basic starting point for reflection. There are then slightly fewer than 2.2 billion Christians around the world, even though some might not acknowledge one another as Christians and there will be some in that number who would be a little reticent to give themselves that title. While in the western world there is some decline in adherence to Christianity, this is not true of the entire world: one of the most “Christian” of nations – though I abhor that combination of words it will have to do for now – is Mexico, where 95% of the population claim Christianity as their faith. At the moment US adherence is around 78% and falling: in Australia the figure is (2006) 61%, though only about 8.8% actually attend church on any given Sunday. Not quite a tithe of the population, not quite the tenth leper on whom the sun shines and who remembers tpo give thanks, to make eucharist, but close enough.
There is much beating of breasts amongst church leadership about the falling statistics of faith adherence and church attendance. While obviously I would love people to experience the joy I experience in the encounter with and worship of God, I am more at peace than many about the alleged falling numbers. Obviously the present models of church, with heavy infrastructure and stipended clergy, may be under threat, but there are many who suspect that very threat may be a movement of God’s Spirit. In a column I wrote for Market-Place many years ago I wrote of the “creative entropy” of the church: as a church that exists primarily for the maintenance of its infrastructure gradually implodes, by the gifting of God’s Spirit newer and wiser models of ministry and of mission will arise from the ashes. To me the infrastructure matters little: what matters is that we continue to be a Eucharistic and a missiological community of hope.
This was certainly the case with the church-equivalent of Jeremiah’s time: in a time of arid complacency the people of God turned away into Jeremiah’s version of a valley of dry bones, “and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.” I have no doubt that we are experiencing such a time now, though at what stage we are in the journey into the city of ruins I cannot tell: two world wars, a cold war, the so-called “clash of civilizations” between an increasingly decadent west and the more militant and fundamentalist wings of Islam, not to mention global financial crises and ecological brinkmanship all speak to me of dire warnings from the God who has sent many dire warning before. The beefing up of skittish news stories about Miley Cyrus tewking at a time when for example Syria is plunging deeper and deeper into a human crisis, as we saw a few weeks ago, assures me that our media are by and large slaves of entertainment, not information, and that our populace remain duped not by religion but by the controllers of popular media, most noticeably Mr Murdoch. But that is not to paint Rupert Murdoch as the antichrist: all that is antichristian is antichrist, and Murdoch’s self-serving media is only one pawn in a gigantic and demonic game.
Not to know the warmth and love and security of Jesus is, so far as I can see, punishment, not crime. Too much Christian preaching gives the impression that God is adding up our balance sheets, checking the naughty things we have done, and preparing the flames of hell for those who fall short of the equation. Of course I agree with Paul and all orthodox Christianity that we can never balance that ledger, that we universally fall short of the equations of God. My difference with much Christian teaching – though by no means all – is that I believe that to remain embedded in the shortfall is punishment in itself. To journey through life divorced from resurrection hope, and indeed to travel through death devoid of resurrection hope is a terrible burden. To dwell trapped in the valley of dry bones, the unreal city of Baudelaire and TS Eliot, to live a life of hollow-chested half-existence is punishment indeed. To be enslaved to drugs or sex or power or stock markets or all the pantheon of small g gods that stand as ersatz substitutes to the God of Jesus Christ is to live a half-life, or even not to live at all. God’s wrath, I believe – and I think I have Paul’s opening chapters to the Romans on my side – is revealed in the human determination to live without God. This determination to the negative is something those bearing the epithet Christian may often choose to do, too. I think of Christians trapped in lives of fear, fear of the future, fear of change, fear of all that does not resemble their cosy security: theirs is a shadow form of the way of the Cross, and it can become mine, too, if I do not embrace the wideness and the depth and the generosity of the God of Jesus Christ and the Spirit in whom he is known.
I am privileged. I have, for a start, known life without faith, and can safely say that every day I am aware than my own existence would be far more squalid were it not for my encounter with the risen Lord 35 years ago. I make no apology for that. While I am no angel I know I am enabled by God to blunder along in something vaguely resembling the Way of the Cross. I know that compared to my sisters and brothers in lands where Christianity is, statistically, growing, I am a mere shuffler in faith, but pray God I will continue at the very least to keep on shuffling. I am no greater sharer of faith – there are no conversion notches on my belt! – but am not convinced that, in the traditional sense, is what I am called to be (or maybe that is just my excuse to shuffle, not run the race!). I am called to be a signpost towards God, rumouring resurrection hope even when it is considerably unsexy in a post-enlightenment world. To that end, I will shuffle on, perhaps showing some modicum of the passion of the widow as she finds her coin: rejoice with me, though I suspect that metaphor breaks down and I am the coin, not the widow, the sheep not the shepherd. God gives us a future: individually and corporately, and it utterly transcends the limited vision of our perspective. We must shuffle on, remembering, like the tenth leper, to turn back and give thanks from time to time.