Sunday, 11 May 2008

A bargain with God?

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Not long after I became a Christian, a friend of mine gave me a collection of sermons by Karl Barth. The collection was appropriately entitled Deliverance to the Captives; all the sermons were preached towards the end of Barth’s life in the city prison in Basel. One sermon in particular shocked and overwhelmed me. It was entitled “The Criminals with Him”, and took as its text a verse from Luke’s passion narrative: “They crucified him with the criminals, one on either side of him” (Luke 23:33). “Do you know what this implies?” asked Barth. “Don’t be too surprised if I tell you that this was the first Christian fellowship.” And Barth went on to conclude: “In reality we all are these crucified criminals. And only one thing matters now. Are we ready to be told what we are? Are we ready to hear the promise given to the condemned, [and] to ‘get in line behind’ [them]?”

“Get in line behind them?” I thought. Hang on a minute, Karl! I know you’re big on grace, but aren’t you getting carried away, isn’t this taking grace a bit too far? I mean isn’t this unjust, criminals at the front of the queue to the kingdom, evil folk ahead of the good? I was particularly miffed at what Barth preached because I myself came to Christ – or rather Christ to me – out of a rather sordid existence, having lived for a time on the streets of Amsterdam and London, homeless and broke, begging, taking drugs, shoplifting just to survive. I knew what kind of people wheeled and dealed there, the crime and the violence. And now Barth tells me that I’m going to have to get in line behind this scum? And, adding insult to injury, observe: Barth made no distinction between the penitent and the impenitent thief – both were going to precede me. And, in fact, these weren’t just thieves, they were what we would now call terrorists.

Can you sympathise with my annoyance and discomfort? I’m sure you can. For my anger and confusion are, I think, typical of Christians – indeed they are the temptation of all good people, especially all good religious people. For here is what religion, at bottom, is all about: it’s about making a bargain with God. And the bargain goes like this: Lord, I give you my faith and all that goes with it: the church-going, the praying, the giving, the rectitude, the extra mile, and so on; and you, God, in return, you’ve got to be fair. If I keep my side of the bargain, I expect you to bless me with good things – health, work, family. I don’t expect life to be all strawberries and cream, but I do expect a sense of proportion – no serious illnesses, traumatic divorce, or kids on crack. Of course if I don’t keep my side of the bargain, if I lapse and behave very badly – hey, nobody’s perfect! – fair enough, I get what’s coming to me. But, Lord, we both keep to the contract. And there is an unwritten codicil to this contract: other people – they too must get what they deserve: as the righteous must prosper, so the sinner must suffer.

This is religion. Isn’t that the way it is? Isn’t that why we get so bloody, viciously vengeful, when criminals and murderers “get off lightly”? That’s not in the contract! May they rot in hell! And isn’t that why suffering, especially seemingly undeserved suffering, especially my underserved suffering, is so faith-threatening? How can it be that my child is crippled in a car accident, or my wife gets ovarian cancer and dies in a matter of months? That’s not part of the bargain!

Well, today I am here to tell you that God doesn’t do bargains. I mean the whole idea, really, is a no-brainer. Why should God do deals with us? What do we have to offer God that he doesn’t already have? And indeed – pardon the sacrilege – why should we trust God to deliver the goods we’re expecting? I mean the deity has form, doesn’t he? Two words should suffice: Good Friday. For heaven’s sake, man, God didn’t deliver his own totally sinless and obedient Son from torture and death, he watched him get strung up between those two thieves, terrorists – so what, am I God’s gift that I am going to be exempted from fortune’s slings and arrows? What makes me a special case? The idea that God might owe me for good – or them for bad – really, folks, it is fairyland. Deserve? As outlaw William Munny (Clint Eastwood) says in that great line from Unforgiven: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

A bargain? Think again. But we can only think again when we abandon religion and accept revelation – which is what Christianity is: revelation. Unlike religion, revelation is not something that confirms the way we think and what we think we know. On the contrary, revelation rudely interrupts the way we go about our existential business, shaking and shattering our conventional norms and complacent assurances. Although revelation is a gift – it is good news – our first response is always recoil, resistance, outrage at such an unexpected and unasked-for invasion of our moral space. In order to be redeemed, our cover must be blown, and our worlds blown away.

Do you know Flannery O’Connor’s short story entitled – succinctly – “Revelation”? It is about one Mrs Turpin from the deep South. Mrs Turpin is a hard-working, upright, church-going farmer’s wife. One day, at her doctor’s office, she is bad-mouthing the white trash and lazy blacks she has to put up with. Suddenly a mentally disturbed girl in the waiting room throws a book at her and calls her a “wart hog from hell”. Visibly shaken, Mrs Turpin returns to her farm, unable to get the girl’s offensive words out of her mind. “Wart hog” indeed! For Mrs Turpin knows that she is a good person, certainly far superior to red necks and “niggers”, and she reminds God of her rectitude, as well as of all the good work she does, especially for the church. Then she angrily asks, referring to the girl’s outrageous insult, “What did you send me a message like that for?” And then, suddenly – revelation! As she stares into the pigpen, Mrs Turpin is given a glimpse of “the very heart of mystery,” and she begins to absorb some “abysmal life-giving knowledge.” She has a vision of a parade of souls marching to heaven, with white trash, blacks, freaks, lunatics and other social outcasts up front, leading the way, and, taking up the rear, folk like herself, “marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behaviour. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Yes, religion is a bargain, but revelation is no bargain, revelation is grace, it is free. Nothing is necessary, all is a gift. We have no rights, we are never owed, and we are never one up on the bastards and undeserving. That “scum” I thought I’d left behind – I didn’t: it was me too, and I took it with me. But no matter: God’s sun shines and his rain falls on the good and the evil without distinction. As Oxford Regius Professor of Divinity Marilyn McCord Adams puts it: “Expecting God to be interested in invidious distinctions among us would be like our judging the ladybugs to see which had paid us the appropriate honour!”

God is sheer, exuberant, overflowing, prodigal love, inside and out, from top to bottom. May God grant us the insight and wisdom that Mrs Turpin takes home with her that fateful night: “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”


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