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Friday, 30 January 2015

Nostradamus and wibbly wobbly words


SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY
(1st FEBRUARY) 2015
       
 Readings:   Deuteronomy 18:15-20
                    Psalm 111
                    1 Corinthians 8:1-13
                    Mark 1:21-28

More years ago than I dare to remember I was talking about prophets in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Someone raised the question as to whether prophets spoke today, and began to answer his own question, suggesting that Nostradamus was the last prophet.

I’d never even heard of Nostradamus. I went to the university library, but it had not heard of him, either. Eventually I found some of his writings. They were profound sayings open to endless interpretations (like clouds in the sky):

The young lion will overcome the older one,
On the field of combat in a single battle;
He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage,
Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death.


They remain popular, cosy, unthreatening. Realistically this typical example was so meaningless it could be applied to countless scenes, though it has generally been applied to the joust between Henry of France and the younger Comte de Montgomery. Things ended badly for Henry: he died as a result of injuries to the eye.

Nostradamus was a soothsayer, not a prophet in the Judaeo-Christian sense. As time passed, I refined my response to the question: do prophets spoke today? They do, but they speak a searing word of justice into the midst of injustice, reconciliation amidst revenge, compassion amidst greed. The future is God’s and God’s alone. So I think of Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King, James K. Baxter, Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai: many of you will have heard me on these and other names before. Some stand within the faith traditions of Jesus, others do not: the Spirit of God is not limited to institutions.

It is no accident that the Hebrew lawmakers spoke out against soothsayers: those who offer false narratives are very different to the great men and women of justice who speak with God’s voice of justice and compassion. Jesus warned: “On judgement day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name’” (Mt 7:22). In Matthew’s account those who practice charlatanism in the name of faith get short shrift indeed. There are many examples, and we will all be aware of damage done in and to the name of Christ.

Jules Gomes, Canon Theologian of Liverpool Cathedral, observes, “As you read the prophets you will discover that biblical faith is not compliance but defiance; it is not passivity but protest. ‘It is protest against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be,’ says Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks.”[1] Prophesy, biblically, is not soothsaying, but searing analysis of the present in the light of God and God’s future judgement.

Paul gets prophesy. He gets that if the Christ community is to speak with an authentic voice in the corrupt communities that surround it then its members must look to the integrity of their own lives. Paul was vehemently opposing inauthenticity, every form of hypocrisy and abuse, in the Corinthian Christian community.

We need to get away from the habit of simply translating his words through 2000 years to the present, need to dig deeper and find out why he was speaking to each situation. If he makes a pronouncement about meat offered to idols then it is not our task blithely to pronounce that no meat that we eat has been used in such a way, and then eat nonchalantly, but to ask deeper questions of our food. Does genetic modification of crops threaten the well-being of future generations, thus becoming an idol to current gods of commerce? Are we breathing new life and meaning into Rachel Carson’s prophetic 1960s stance against pesticides in Silent Spring now applicable to genetic engineering? Are we consuming more than we need? Are we keeping the poor, present and future, trapped in hunger? Prophesy is “protest against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be,” says Rabbi Sachs.

When Paul speaks of being “puffed up” he is playing with words. He is using the Greek word for “enthusiasm.” It is where we become puffed up, filled with the wind of our own self-importance rather than the wind of God’s Spirit, that we become the foci of Paul’s wrath. If we are arrogant, full of our own cultural or aesthetic self-importance, using our privilege to oppress others, then we become the proud and the arrogant who are the recipients of Paul’s prophetic fury. When the Corinthians ate meat they did so in elitist riot, keeping the underclass believers in their place. The poor could not afford meat except the second hand meat previously offered to idols, and so were kept from the Eucharistic feast. What are we doing to keep others from the Eucharistic feast? The issue of meat is an issue of justice: what are we doing to ensure that our place of worship and encounter with Christ is open to the strugglers and the illiterate and the unsophisticated and the tone-deaf and the underclasses? Where do we stand under Paul’s prophetic glare?

The psalm perhaps tells us. The doctrine of the “fear of God” is unpopular. We remake God as a plaything in the image of our own preferences. To do so is dangerous. Today we commission Sam as an intern, the beginnings of a new journey, but by our baptism we are in any case all commissioned. If we carry out our commission of faith haphazardly or nonchalantly or arrogantly then we play nothing more than the Nostradamus game, sending neat but empty syllables into the ether of time and space.

Mark tells us of the early public observations of Jesus: “they were amazed, for he taught as one having authority.” We might today say “mana”: that wonderful word from the depths of Polynesian languages, including Māori, that speaks not of some pretentious badge or title but of deep, deep authenticity. It is to that that the readings command us today. May we too address with integrity the unclean spirits, the social and economic and ecological and psychological and spiritual oppressions that permeate every nook and cranny of the world into which God commands us to go, proclaim, baptize.

Amen.




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[1] Gomes, “Prophets of Justice vs. Profits of Injustice.”  www.liverpoolcathedral.org.uk/642/ajax.aspx/download/209

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