SERMON PREACHED AT THE CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND: first cathedral to see the sun)
ORDINARY SUNDAY 30 (27th October) 2013
Readings: Jeremiah 14: 7-10, 19.22
Psalm 84: 1-7
2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18
Luke 18: 9-14
As Jeremiah the prophet turns his scorching gaze on his community he becomes a figure who is unlikely to be popular in the era in which we live, the era of post-modernity or perhaps even post-post-modernity. Jeremiah excoriates his people in chapter after chapter of analysis – analysis and critique that weighed heavily on his shoulders and ensured that his life was spent devoid of party invitations or glitzy coverage in the glossy media equivalent of his day. He ends his life, so far as we can tell, in sorrow-filled exile, probably in Egypt, questioning with the psalmist how he or his people can ever sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, or indeed can ever sing again.
Jeremiah’s scrutiny is miles removed from the mantras of post-modern self-absorption. Enter our bookshops or the internet today and the adult best-sellers are either voyeuristic sexual fantasies, Fifty Shades of whatever your favourite obsession might be, or meaningless tomes telling you that your truth is within you that all you need to do is dig deeper, strive harder, astrologize more confidently, adopt this training fad or that dietary fad or this parenting fad, and your life will be complete, your family perfect, your happiness secured. It’s no accident that life coaches are a growth industry, along with personal trainers, boot camp masters; we are inundated with an endless stream of “selfies” that take over photographic transmissions on the same social media sites that make us lonelier and lonelier.
Sites like Snapchat ensure that we can have our nine seconds of fame, with or without clothes on; sites like Ask.fm not only pollute our computers with destructive malware but ensure that for one fleeting moment we are in the driving seat of fame until things get nasty and teenagers are driven to suicide by outpourings of vitriol from which they wrongly fear they cannot run or hide. For those who don’t pick my allusion, no fewer than nine teenagers have committed suicide after being hounded by hate-posts and vitriol on the enormously popular social media website Ask.fm. There is a huge cost attached to believing you are the centre of the universe, but our society wants us to believe it every day.
Jeremiah would have none of it. His challenge to take a look at ourselves is not aimed at self-obsession, but at our tendency to forget our dependence on our covenant partner and creator, the God of the Hebrews. Jeremiah’s viewpoint was inseparable from that of Jesus or indeed any prophet: turn your eyes off self and see instead the hungry and the needy that surround you, see in them the face of God, and do something about their plight. We need to know in any era that these stern assessments apply to us as individuals and as a collective community (and I freely admit that I fall as short as any). To reject the poor, in Jeremiah’s books, was to reject God: we hear too few of our hellfire preachers emphasizing this dominant strand of prophesy, because it is much easier and safer and more comfortable to condemn sexual lifestyles than economic lifestyles. This is not altogether unrelated to our self-obsession: we are so overfed and over resourced in the west that we have become utterly self-indulgent, while the have-nots of the world’s refugee camps or our streets remain far removed from our thoughts. Fifty Shades of thoughtlessness, fifty shades of amnesia, fifty shades of myopia.
There was much truth in that chorus of the 1920s revival, “turn your eyes upon Jesus”:Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
There is much truth in it - along with some nasty ambivalences. We need to ensure that the Jesus we focus on is not recreated in our own cosy and narcissistic image. To some extent we cannot help doing that: liberals, conservatives and all in-between will inevitably read the Jesus story through our own filters of experience.
Each of the terribly human needs that bring us to surrender to the lordship of Christ will infiltrate our understanding of him – and there is no doubt that a psychologist can have a field day with our motivations for discipleship. But we must strive for honesty nevertheless: conservative readers of the biblical story must ask whether in fact Jesus – or any of the scriptural orators – really spend as much time obsessing with sexuality and sexual practice as many Christians seem to suggest.
Liberal readers of the biblical story must ask whether the resurrection narratives are really as tamely subject to post-Enlightenment, modern analysis as many of us suggest, or whether in fact it is our own scientific method that stands subject to the greater intensity of a Creator God’s immeasurable capability. All of us must again and again remember that there is, no matter what pop-psychological authors might tell us in their self-help books and websites, no way by which we can by ourselves claw our way into the fullness of life the triune Creator designed for us.Ultimately Jesus – and not only Jesus but all who stand in the prophetic line (though he is so much more) – ultimately Jesus challenges us to ensure that we are not putting ourselves in the centre of the universe, in the driving seat of our own existence. To do so is to enter an abominable loneliness. No-one claims it is easy to “let go and let God” – and there is not even any agreement on what those often overused words might mean – but we might well notice that it is to what Bruce Springsteen called “the hungry and the hunted” that Jesus turns over and again as he attempts to portray appropriate, Spirit-filled discipleship. As followers of Jesus the onus is on us to recognize our points of weakness, to confess them, to surrender again and again to divine Lordship, and to stumble on in the path down which the beckonings of the Spirit lead us, paths that will always entail challenges of justice, compassion and love.