Sermon for Evensong – Lent 3 – Year A 2017

Sermon for Evensong – Lent 3 – Year A 2017

Joshua 1:1-9
Eph 6:10-20

The Subversion of the Gospel in the Modern World

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

In our Lent studies, aside from Father Stephen’s book which explores the Orthodox way of seeing things – we have been considering the Contrast between Christian Existence, or profoundly human existence, and the nature of existence in ‘Modern’ Culture. As we explored a few days ago, one of the deeply troubling aspects of this culture is that it has no explicit account of ‘what it means to be human’. If as a culture we cannot begin to give an answer to that then to use the words of St Paul we open a door wide for ‘the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’. To give an example which I have recently stumbled over; Elon Musk the owner and ‘visionary’ behind Tesla Corporation tells us that ‘we must as human beings merge with the machine if we are to have any future’ (and please be aware that the almost universal use of cell phones is a considerable step in that direction) Why must we merge with machines if we are to have any future? Because as Mr Musk tells us – his corporation is developing Alternative Intelligence, self driving cars which will put millions of people out of work . . .

Note the loss of the human implicit in all of this – if I can put it more clearly  – a small child says ‘look mummy, I’m smashing up my lovely toys and I won’t have any toys when I’m finished . . .’ Elon, if what you are doing is going to put millions out of work, perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it?? We see here a picture of the human as an irresponsible agent swept along by the tides of technological determinism – like any revolutionary impelled by a vision of the future and leaving chaos in its wake.

One of the deep characteristics of the ‘Modern’ culture is its deep and growing enslavement to the Left Brain  – a place which is comfortable with abstract thought and has difficulty engaging with what is – a profoundly antisocial perspective – inhuman we may well say. That all too readily ‘takes things literally’ for it is absorbed with the power of words to describe and define reality – despite their final inability to get anywhere near to the truth of things, which of course also means we live in an age of anger, the Left brain response to this inability. Put another way the Modern culture is one of angry literalists, of various hues, but literalists all the same.

This of course affects us deeply in the Church – all of us even at best are about 95% Modern and 5% Christian in terms of what informs our day to day existence – statistics and numerical measurement are of course also part of the Left Brain dominant philosophy 🙂 So in every issue we end up fighting with one another over, and getting angry about – we are confronted by our mirror image – a group of literalists. Which is why the arguments are so unutterably tedious. For to use Mark Twain’s aphorism, Progressives and Conservatives, or Right and Left, or Evangelicals and Liberals – pick your own preferred Left Brain simplistic duality, the Left brain can’t cope with mess and needs to put everyone in a category – give them a label – We are two nations divided by a common tongue – that is we all speak and operate as Modernists.

To wit our texts this evening – and of course texts are the domain of the ‘literally’ minded. Herein we find two texts ‘about conflict’. In the text from the Tanakh, The LORD tells Joshua to be ‘strong and very courageous’ ‘for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them.’ So here is God commanding Joshua before of course we know he goes into the promised land and commits Genocide – a literal reading and so we dismiss this. Or St Paul who goes on at length about putting our armour on . . . ‘all this militaristic imagery . . .’ so the literalist who says the problem is people taking the text literally, dismisses the text because of its ‘literal’ meaning.

Or as Father Stephen puts it in his book ‘‘Scripture becomes lost in a constant battle between opposing camps of literalists—those who believe literal history negates the Bible and those who believe the Bible is literal history’ Or in this case – those who don’t like the literal interpretation of the Scriptures they find. it is odd that those who dismiss fundamentalists are applying the same literal outlook on the scriptures which they thereby dismiss. One way and another, we are all pretty much fundamentalists now

And this tendency is further strengthened by the Modern perspective of The Observer, who looks out at the world to put their interpretation upon it – again Left Brain work. For Modern existence is one of profound individualism and isolationism. We live often alone, or in very small groups – we don’t have to change our way of life to suit others, for we live in self contained boxes, we may have the privilege of ‘doing the job we always wanted to do’ – rather than slave in sugar fields or electronics factories or indeed far worse, merely to keep body and souls together, and of course as I have said before we live in profound disconnection from the impact of our actions upon the wider world. We live in a profound isolation from all that is – Just like Elon Musk. The idea that I am the centre of existence is reinforced by our separation from those who might make our lives difficult. And SO as separated observers of life we look out at the things of the world and see all the problems and think that we can fix them. Now this is a profound Inversion, or subversion of the Christian tradition which taught that We were the ones who needed to change, that the world was changed as people through patience and discipline were themselves changed into the image and likeness of God.

We didn’t look out at say Donald Trump and go ‘image of God?? Seriously??? We need to get rid of him!! Instead we discovered that to use a turn of phrase ‘there was a bit of Donald Trump inside all of us’ and that the best thing we might perhaps do is to deal with that first.

As Jesus teaches us – ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.’ The Modern person is profoundly a Judge. We are all asked ‘what is your opinion about this or that or the other – as if it was a thing of ‘Great Consequence’  – you might even get on the TV ‘giving your opinion.’ and so we are obsessed with Opinion polls which ‘tell us what we think’ – and are in the end a way to the mob for they cause those who are in a minority to conform to the majority and finally unleash yet more violence in the name of Justice, or Freedom Liberty and Equality – those bastions of the French Revolution – utterly abstract and thus inhuman constructs  – the realm of the Left Brain 🙂

Jesus goes on – For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the [TINY} speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the [ENORMOUS] log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.

I’ll come back to the last clause in a moment. Firstly to note that the work of co-operating with God in our own healing is a far greater work than that of ‘fixing’ my neighbour. So as St Paul says we need significant armoury – for example to be alert to our profound susceptibility to self deception. Of course if we are busy looking out at the world making our judgements of this or that person or this or that situation we are distracted from the fundamental deceits of our own heart which are fueling our Sense of Righteous Injustice, or worse our Anger. If you are angry with your brother – you will be liable to the counsel, says ?? Jesus. It is a HARD work, and it is not about flesh and blood , its not about ‘those people out there’ – it is about to use Paul’s language again
“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
It is only when we begin to treat with seriousness our own deep rooted sinful tendency that we begin to realise the scale of the battle – that there is a land which must be taken and the conflict to take it will require us to be strong and very courageous because it is looking the truth of our inner lives clearly in the eye’ Put another way you cannot heal another whom you hate.

But if we seek first the Kingdom – if we face up to and with God;s grace begin the long slow journey to our own healing, then that makes a HUGE difference to how we live in the world. ‘You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.’ to See clearly is to Perceive – the discern beyond the ‘literal’ to Behold – to Know things in their truth and in relationship with all people and all things created.

Just the other evening a crowd of us gathered at Holy Name to listen to Shane Claybourne. His is a name with which you may well not be familiar. He is famous as a Social Justice activist in the United States – but that is a most unhelpful label . . .

He too was a literalist in some regards – one of THAT sort – brought up the ‘the deep south’. But when he went to college in Philadelphia he noted something was perhaps amiss. For local homeless people, largely women with children had en masse taken over a derelict Catholic church and the Archdiocese wanted them out!! So he and some fellow students along with quite a few others went to support the homeless – for they saw there was something Wrong going on. Well one thing led to another, he and his friends phoned up Mother Theresa to ask if they could work with her for a time in Calcutta – she said come!! They said ‘but where will we sleep? What will we eat and Mother replied over the phone, God provides for the birds of the air – Come he will even provide for you’ 🙂

After that they went to live in one of the most poverty stricken areas of Philadelphia – to form community and to live amongst the poor – and they FOUND community – they found these people whom they had thought they were going to help were teaching them so much. The community is beautified – people are working together to grow their own food. The homeless are being homed and fed . . . Shane has gone to jail once – for feeding homeless people – and at present he is waiting another day in court for being involved in a protest on the steps of the supreme court with a huge banner which said ‘End Executions’

Shane it seems to me is a great example of the deep truth of the parable of splinters and logs. As I listened – what struck me more than anything was his complete lack of rancour about things – there was no ‘righteous’ anger about ‘what’s wrong in the world’  this is why I think the label social activist is so unhelpful – for these are usually deeply angry people — indeed much of what he said was stories against himself about his weaknesses and failings. He was constantly laughing, at himself 🙂 Here wasn’t a typical Modern person fighting for getting things right – he can SEE things aren’t good – but because he is very aware of the logs in his own eyes there was tremendous humility – and not a hint of Anger. Here I thought was a man on the way to healing who was becoming a healer . . .

As we closed he led us in a series of prayer meditations and one was on the fruit of the Spirit – which is Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, goodness and self control.

And it struck me how alternative these are to the Modern world and it ways – which can only bring healing through the violence of war or armed struggle or anger or  . . . I mentioned the French Revolution which was for ‘Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood’ and stopped at nothing to get there

The Life of Jesus was springing up in that young man. He knew and was realistic about the powers that held the lives of others, because he knew them within himself – he knows that you cannot be part of any solution unless you recognise that you  are just as much part of the problem – that you too need a healing from sin and its power. That is the Real conflict – the one closest to home, the one inner hearts – but literalists of any bent cannot see this. May God give us grace to see where the real problems lie

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