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Saturday, 2 July 2016

Bentleys and baptisms


SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’, CHARLEVILLE
and at St Luke’s, Augathella
NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (1st August) 2004

  

Readings:

Hosea 11.1-11
Psalm 107.1-9
Col. 3.1-11
Luke 12.13-21


Every time we gather, or on occasions when I join with a family in private, to baptise a child, we promise to “reject selfish living and all that is false and unjust.” Many of us feel a degree of sorrow that such a promise, along with those to “turn to Christ and reject all that is evil” and to “repent of my sins” are made glibly in baptismal gatherings. We perjure ourselves within a context of worship of the God we call Truth, uttering commitments we have no intention to keep. Many clergy have responded with harsh programmes of preparation for such rites. I haven’t, because I am aware at baptism after baptism that the congregation gathered also promise “to support these our brothers and sisters in their calling.” We to a person fall short of that serious undertaking, too.

I recall too, at each baptism, that I cannot claim to have upheld my promise to “reject selfish living and all that is false and unjust.” I am reminded each time I look into the eyes of a photo of a Sudanese child, or any of the other dying children of the world, that ours is a world based on Darwinianism gone mad. Our globalised world is based on survival of the fittest played out to its utmost degree, a survival struggle in which the rich nations get richer and the poor get poorer, and the rich within the rich nations get richer and the poor get poorer. That attitude, driven sadly by the once Christian nations of the West, fuelled the fires that produced el Qaeda and its cohorts. Strangely, this cruel form of Darwinianism is most strongly adhered to by those flat earth churches that reject Darwin’s theory of evolution, though that is a discussion for another time and place.

Our post-Christian European world is based on capitalism, a creed that decrees that the acquisition of wealth is the greatest purpose of being human. Our capitalist society is built on the same desire we claim to reject at baptismal ceremonies, the desire to have better than others have, better than we already have. The desire to have the coffee or the car or the clothing that advertisers tell us we don’t have and do need if we are to be more fulfilled than we currently are. The father of capitalism, Adam Smith, wrote “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but their self love.”[1] Capitalism means that the baker grows rich by feeding us, but he or she doesn’t need an ounce of compassion. If the Sudanese children are dying so what, says capitalism, because they can’t pay the butcher’s or the baker’s bills in any case.

Yet says our baptismal service, and our reading from Colossians, we the people of God, are called to be a different culture, a counter­culture: Put to death… whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). Put to death that part of ourselves that is sold products by the sight of Elle McPherson or our new Miss Universe: because that is what fornication in part is, says Jesus who warns us that we all sin if we cast a wayward eye. Put to death that part of ourselves that, as a nation, spends more than $2.2 billion per annum on pet products, $200 million more than we spend on foreign aid. For that is impurity. (That figure, incidentally, includes expenditure in some households on upmarket pet foods at over $100 per kilo).[2]

A still more obscene form of this is the aberrant Christian doctrine espoused by many Pentecostal churches, that the sign of our faithfulness to God will be the size of our hip pocket, the so-called prosperity doctrine. Buy a Bentley as a sign of God’s graciousness to you, and turn off your television, presumably, or watch rubbish news services, or in other ways deaden your conscience, as refugee camps of Eastern Chad swell with desperate women and children fleeing the killing fields of Sudan.

In our liturgical rites as Anglican Christians, we gather and confess our need for God’s forgiveness. We need (I speak to myself as much as to anyone here) to recall before God that our hearts are hardened by the scleroses of media: a coffee ad may well impact more on our consciousness than the need for compassionate aid. We need to confess that for ourselves, and, as a priestly people, to confess it on behalf of a world too busy or disinterested to have a conscience left over such matters. We need too to thank God where there are compassionate organizations, Christian and others, carrying out works of salvation and of justice and of love.

We need to prioritize. Do we care even for the work of the people of God at a local level? Do we care for the existence and the continuation of the church of God? Do we give as if our lives and the lives of others depend on it, or do we cast the equivalent of a meat pie or two cans of dog food in the offertory each week, month, or year?  The questions hurt, but we need to ask them, as we reorder our lives to prioritize God’s compassionate dreams.

Wealth or riches are not evil in themselves, but an opportunity to exercise that ancient principle of largesse. That principle we might say theologically was lost in Fall, in the greed of being fallen humankind. We might also say historically it has become even more lost since the greed-stricken ’80s and ’90s of last century.  Possessions are gaseous, spreading out to fill the space of our lifestyle and tempting us to leave no room for the needs of others.

We are challenged by the author of Colossians and by our baptismal vows to live a conspicuously different lifestyle. We are challenged by our baptismal vows and by the author of Colossians to create a counterculture of carelessness, not in the normal meaning of that word, but living without a care for material wealth and riches. We are called to live as a community whose only care is the advancement of the reign of God, advanced by acts of compassionate love, justice, by proclaiming the values of God revealed in Christ the Christ of the gospels. We are called to live out a counterculture by our standards of care.
Such is the challenge of the author of Colossians, such is the challenge of our baptism.


TLBWY



[1] Adam Smith Wealth of Nations (1776) bk 1 ch 2.
[2] Details from The Australia Institute report, 27.07.04.
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