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Sunday, July 21, 2013

The better way

Texts: Amos 8.1-12; Psalm 52; Col 1.15-28; Luke 10.38-42

A few years ago I saw a film which I hesitate to recommend because it was depressing even by my own rather bleak standards.  Requiem for a Dream is about four adults—an aging mother and her son, his girlfriend and their best mate—who live in Coney Island, New York.  It is a film about the desperate blandness of their lives and the way they try to spice that blandness with artificial sweeteners, namely television, diet pills, and heroin.  It is about their thirst for trust, hope and love in relationships, and their utter failure to find it.  It is about the way in which drugs come to anesthetise the protagonists against the pain of their failure and, more tragically still, about how their drug-taking renders them incapable of actually recognising the presence of faith, hope or love when it is standing right in front of them.  Requiem for a Dream  is one of the saddest, bleakest films I have ever seen, and I wish to God that it were only fiction.  But it is not.  You know, and I know, that substance abuse is so common in modern, western societies, that there is barely a single household that has not been effected by it in some way or other.  Statistically, I would be on pretty firm ground in assuming that there are families in this very church who have experienced the hell of a son or a daughter, a mother or a father, stolen away by the demon bottle, or the demon syringe, or the demon slot-machine, or whatever.

Now, I am not an expert on addiction and its treatment, and would never claim to be.  I know very little about the biochemistry or social-psychology of how and why particular individuals lose their capacity to face life apart from the aid of their favourite drug.  Nevertheless, I would seek to make a contribution to the debate, a contribution which is specifically theological in perspective and is therefore, I would argue, exactly what is missing from the usual analysis.  In summary, my contribution would go something like this: (A) that the prevalence of substance abuse in modern western societies can be read as a sign and a symptom not of sick individuals or families, first of all, but of a more general malaise or sickness in Western culture as a whole; and that (B), this malaise or sickness, which afflicts us all in one way or another, may be understood as a deep, deep grieving, a grief attending the loss of a cosmic story which was able to tell us (1) who we are, (2) where, and to whom, we belong, and (3) how to live a life that is not only happy, but also good.  Let me repeat all that in case you missed it.   The wide-spread prevalence of substance abuse can be read as a sign and a symptom not of sick individuals and families, first of all, but of a sick culture, a culture that is grieving the loss of a cosmic story which was able to tell us (1) who we are, (2) where, and to whom, we belong, and (3) how to live lives that are happy and good.  

As I see it, our own cultural situation is not entirely different to that of Israel in the 8th century BCE, at the time when the prophet Amos was preaching.  We live in a dog-eat-dog society where anyone is fair game because few of us know, or want to know, the answers to those three cosmic questions any more.  The strong exploit the weak because they no longer know, deep in their bones, that they are God’s handiwork, created for a communal sharing, with every other creature, of the bounty given us in creation.  The weak allow the strong to treat them so because they no longer believe, deep in their bones, that they belong not to the market or to the owner of the farm, but to each other, and to each other in a God who enfolds and dignifies us all.  And the very fact that there are those who are weak and those who are strong bears witness to a forgetting that one’s own happiness is tied up with the good one renders another, that the other has an ancient and primeval claim on me such that I can never be happy myself unless I also seek the good or happiness of the other.

I venture to suggest, therefore, that we are living (again) in that time of famine that Amos prophesied for Israel, a famine not of bread or water first of all, but a famine with regard to the word (or story) given us by God.  Each of us feels, do we not, a hunger and a thirst for something better—a better way, a better country, a better life?  Yet most of us, even many who call themselves Christians, wander through the wastelands of our society without finding that better something.  What we find, more often than not, is mere chimeras and dreams.  At first we are enamoured, attracted by a bright comeliness that seems novel or new.  But after only a short while we begin to realize that the newness we saw was nothing more than a pizzaz we longed for, a pizzazz  never really there in the thing itself, save only as a mirroring or reflecting-back of our own wish-fulfilment.  Let me suggest, therefore, that there is a rather simple reason why most of us never find what we are looking for:  that we lack a story which is able to tell us what we actually need, and therefore how to recognise what we need when it comes along.  If we don’t know what to look for, how shall we ever find it?  We live in a culture which has largely lost its capacity to know what it needs.  That is a great loss, and very painful loss.  It is a loss that can make you want to anesthetise yourself against the pain of being lost.  Everyone has their favourite drug.  For some it is endless hours of television, web-surfing or romance novels.  For others it is casual sex, or alcohol, or heroin.  Whatever your addiction, isn’t the motivation always the same, deep down?  Isn’t it to anesthetise yourself against the pain of not knowing who you are, to whom you belong, and how to live a life that is good and happy?

Well, what can the preacher say to a culture such as this?  How might the Christian theologian address the pain and the grief at the heart of it all?  My answer may not seem profound to you, it may sound far too simple.  Yet it is profound, I suspect, in its very simplicity.  What the preacher can do is nothing other than he or she has always done.  To tell the story of Christ, and to live as though this story were true for all creatures.  Let me repeat that, lest it seem too simple.  To tell the story of Christ, and to live as though this story were true for all creatures.

According to St. Paul, the story of Christ is not just one story amongst others one may choose from the smorgasboard on offer.  It is the meta-story, the one story is which all other stories find both their origin and their fulfilment.  The whole universe, he says, was created, and continues to unfold, within a material body which is cosmic in scale, and yet has a personal name:  Christ.  Christ, he says, is the larger and far more ultimate reality from which, and in which, the universe was created.  Christ, he says, is God in material form.  He is the universe, and yet he is much more than the universe.  For the universe is, in a sense, independent of God.  It moves according to a will other than God’s.  Very often, that will is the very contrary of what God intends.  And yet, even in that independent movement, the universe depends upon God for its very existence.  So God, in the materiality of Christ, seeks to reconcile the estranged independence of the universe with God’s own will and way.  By suffering the estrangement of the universe in Christ’s very real and human suffering on the cross, God establishes a way of reconciliation:  if we will give ourselves utterly to Christ, and trust ourselves to his way of living humanly toward God, then the ways of creature and creature will be rejoined.  Having emerged from God in the beginning we may, with all creatures, return to God through the creaturely Christ who is also the very humanity of God.  Though we are sinners, adrift in the consequences of our creaturely choices, God has not abandoned us.  The mystery of human existence, according to Paul, is that even when we are furthest from God, Christ has traversed the distance between us.  ‘Christ is in us’, and therefore there are legitimate grounds for a hope that we may enjoy a glorious future with and in God.

The great thing about this story is that is answers those three deeply human questions I referred to earlier.  It tells us who we are:  God’s creatures, free to be what we choose to be, even sinners who run from God’s purposes, and yet we are never beyond the reach of God because we share our material existence with that of Christ.  The story also tells us, therefore, to whom we belong.  We have our home in God, ultimately, because it is God, paradoxically, who guarantees our freedom from God.  We belong, also, to other people and to the whole creation, because it is Christ who knits us all together in a body of mutual interdependence and co-operation.  If one suffers, all suffers; if one rejoices, all rejoice.  Finally, Paul’s story tells us how to live good and happy lives.  By entrusting ourselves to the way of Christ, by refusing to privilege our own lives over that of our neighbours, we shall find a freedom to live deliberately, to be free from the compulsion to gain the world because we understand that the world is only gained by letting it be.  In Christ, after all, God gains the world back again, of its own free will, by letting it be other than Godself.

Now this stuff is dynamite, I reckon.  If we were to know and believe this story, and then live our lives as though it were true, the world would change.  It would be transformed.  We would no longer need to forever live in shock, or in grief, or in an addicted stupor.  We could live our lives as though they mattered.  As though they mattered to God.  Because we would know that they do matter to God.

But this is the catch, see.  The preacher may be telling the story, but that’s no guarantee that anyone is listening.  In the Christian tradition, there is only one preacher worthy of the name, and that is Christ.  By the Spirit he comes, in every new moment, to tell his story anew.  In his words are life, and health, and peace.  The words of this preacher are food and drink for the hungry soul, food and drink that are able to satisfy because they have a genuine substance, they are real in a way that the contrivances of ‘reality-tv’ would struggle to imagine!

Yet one must listen carefully to hear these words, if they are to do their healing.  You actually have to spend time with them.  There’s no point in rushing around like Martha in Luke’s story, thinking that you are serving the Lord just because you want to.  How do you know that you are serving the Lord unless you actually take the time to listen to what Jesus says?  That is the substance of prayer after all:  not talking to God, first of all, but listening for the word of the preacher, of Christ, as he comes to your stilled and silent soul in the gentle companionship of the Holy Spirit.  How will you know who you are, to whom you belong, and to what your life is ordained unless you devote serious time to a prayerful listening for the word of Christ in the word of Scripture?

Now, this preacher has come amongst you with only one real priority.  Not to set the church alight with the warm glow of his charismatic personality.  Not to start a whole heap of new mission activities, especially if they are really there to make us feel that we are relevant before the eyes of the watching world.  God forbid!  No, what I have come to do is simply this: to teach you how to pray, and to remind those of you who already know how to pray to return to it again.  For in prayer is our salvation, and the salvation of our world.  In prayer we shall hear and know and begin, finally, to live the truth of the gospel:  “Christ in us: the hope of glory”. 

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