Sunday 30 March 2008

The A-Z of faith: a sermon for after Easter

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

I still have this vivid memory, from when I was in primary school. I’d been a naughty boy, and my punishment was to stay after school and write lines on the blackboard. When I had finished I headed home. I always caught the bus to and from school – those big yellow ones – so I’d never walked home before. It was only half a mile, and straight, no complications, nothing to worry about, but shortly after I’d started off I got scared. It looked different, walking from bussing. Was I on the right road? Was I going the right way? It began to get dark. My doubts and fears mounted. In a panic I began to run, dropping my schoolbag, picking it up, running on, faster, faster. And then suddenly LaRue Drive appeared. I was home. But ever after Southdown Road has filled me with mixed feelings of dread and nostalgia.

Banbury Road, Oxford was another significant road in my life. Cycling down to Mansfield College for early morning prayers – or not! Pushing Karl in his pushchair into Summertown – actually pushing with one hand while holding a book in the other, often stopping to mark what I’d just read. And out walking with Angie in the first flush of love, holding hands as we walked passed the shops.

And now, for the last twenty-five years, 17 Carnglas Road, Swansea. I’ve seen it tarmacked, residential parking put in, turned from a two-way into a one-way street. I’ve walked it, run it, cycled it, and driven it. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

A selection, then, from the A – Z of the journey of my life. But what about the journey of faith? Faith too has an A – Z. Let’s dip into it. There will be some significant roads there that we may or may not have travelled – indeed that we may be travelling now.

One I’m sure we’ve all been on – but I hope we’ve left behind – is the Yellow Brick Road. The Yellow Brick Road that leads to the Emerald City, where the Munchkins say the Wizard lives, the Wizard who can grant all our wishes. You know the place, “somewhere over the rainbow, way up high.” Yes, we’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz. But, as we all know, the Wizard turns out to be an imposture, a humbug, a pathetic little old man who shouts into a megaphone for supernatural effect, but who can’t grant wishes – a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man, courage for the Lion.

I wonder if you’ve ever recognised what a clever little atheistic film The Wizard of Oz is. It’s a celluloid homage to Sigmund Freud, who claimed that religion is an illusion driven by wishful thinking, God a human projection into the heavens of the ideal father we never had, who holds our hand by day and watches over us by night. A sheer figment, said Freud, like the Wizard, but a gripping “universal obsessional neurosis” (he called it) nonetheless. Rather the fantasy of Oz than the harsh reality of Kansas. Or is it? At the end of The Wizard of Oz Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home.” Life on the farm may be harsh, but at least it’s real. Do we really prefer to live in the fool’s paradise of an infantile faith?

As a matter of fact, I reckon many people do. The Yellow Brick Road is the way of many a faith journey. We want a God who provides and protects, a celestial insurance agent who guarantees rewards as long as we pay the premium of keeping the commandments, going to church, saying our prayers. Isn’t that the case? How else could we angrily ask, “Why me?” when bad things happen to the pretty good person I am. That the righteous should suffer is not in the contract. In extreme situations people even “lose their faith”. But what sort of faith in what kind of God have they lost? Isn’t it precisely the sort of faith in the kind of God that Freud critiqued? A fantasy faith in the Wizard of Oz? But shouldn’t we then say, “Good riddance!” Hasn’t Freud done us a favour? Simone Weil spoke of a “purifying kind of atheism” which exposes “consolations” as an obstacle to faith in the true God. But to come to this God we must go by another way than the Yellow Brick Road.

Back to the A – Z. Ah, here’s an alternative route, one we’d all like to take: it’s called the Damascus Road. How we envy Paul! A flash of light, a voice from heaven, an awesome experience of the risen, living Christ. I was blind, now I see, not the slightest possibility of doubt. Wouldn’t it be marvellous! Some have a similar kind of conversion experience, but most of us don’t. Most of us can’t find the Damascus Road even with a map. But perhaps it’s just as well. Perhaps the Damascus Road isn’t the easy street it’s often made out to be.

Paul himself certainly found out that it led into some very mean streets indeed. We speak of Paul’s “conversion”, but actually it was more a “calling”. Paul speaks of it in the same way that Jeremiah spoke of his calling to be a prophet – a calling from which Jeremiah tried his darnedest to excuse himself. It did, after all, lead him to forty years of a failure of a ministry, demanding, demeaning, demoralising, rejected as he was by the very people to whom God sent him. And Paul too had a torrid time of it: dangerous journeys, bitter enemies, disloyal friends, disobedient churches. When he’s asked to show his apostolic credentials – how interesting – he doesn’t boast about his experience on the Damascus Road, rather he itemises his sufferings. God in Christ suffered for him, should he not expect to suffer for God in Christ? Do you really wish to travel the Damascus Road? Be careful what you wish for lest your wish come true.

Which takes us back to the A – Z of Faith, to locate one final road: the Emmaus Road. It runs parallel with the Damascus Road, but in the opposite direction to the Yellow Brick Road. It’s a road not of childish desires and pipe dreams but of encounter and exposure. It begins not with Paul’s huffing-and-puffing against the church but with grief, yet not with just a personal tragedy – though no doubt Cleopas and his unnamed companion, his wife perhaps, or a close friend, were nursing a deep sense of loss at the death of Jesus – but, more than that, they were in despair over a national catastrophe: “we had hoped that he was going to be the one to set Israel free.” Jesus had promised so much – nothing less than the kingdom of God – liberation from oppression, peace on earth – and it had all come to nothing. Imagine their feelings – their shock and confusion, their fear for the future, their sense of utter hopelessness. They staked everything on the prophet from Nazareth – and they lost. Their life is in tatters, and so is the cause they believed in and committed to. Here was a chance for the world to be good just and good again – and suddenly it is violently snuffed out. In my own life: the assassinations, in 1968, one after the other, of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War Movements suddenly in disarray, the sense of total disillusionment. And Ahdaf Soueif, in her wonderful novel The Map of Love, speaks of how, “after the war of ‘67, a whole generation [of Egyptians] had seemed to sense what the defeat would do to them, how it would stretch its ill shadow over all the years of their lives.”

They are inadequate analogies, I know, but they’re the closest I can come to this combination of personal loss and collective collapse experienced by Cleopas and his companion, walking among the ruins of their lives. No lightning thunders from the clear sky to direct them to Damascus. And the road is dirt and dust, no yellow brick paving. But then a stranger overtakes them and warms hearts gone cadaverously cold. How? By interpreting the scriptures to them, by explaining that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer, that God does not protect us from suffering but rather uses suffering to bring healing and salvation. We don’t usually recognise it at the time, nor do we recognise that endings are always new beginnings, even as it was only with hindsight that Cleopas and his companion began to piece events together. But then, over supper, the penny drops, and they recognise the crucified and risen Lord as, with familiar gestures, he breaks bread and shares wine – and then vanishes. Where? On ahead, of course, into the future, to leads us on – Jesus is always going further – though he will continue to join his people, for a while, wherever they read the Bible and have a meal. It’s a promise.

How foolish, childish, disheartened we can be! How slow to believe, how quick to lose our nerve, how we would always rather be elsewhere, looking for shortcuts on the Yellow Brick Road of consolation, or the Damascus Road of “religious” experience. Let us be content, nay, let us rejoice in being exactly where we are – which is always the hardest thing – for Christ the stranger is with us, sneaking up behind and then striding on ahead, on the road to and from Emmaus, otherwise known as Swansea.


Unknown said...

Thank you for these thoughts Kim - I'll have to reflect more on them.

I think lots of us who have grown up knowing Jesus struggle that we can't remember a turning point even beginning to resemble a Damascus road encounter..and so in moments of doubt we search in vain for it as a source of assurance.

But I love your point that Paul never boasts about his conversion experience...and maybe you could say from his writings that he sees his own personal turning point happening ultimately at the cross and the resurrection. In which case, Paul and I were converted at the same evangelistic event!

Anonymous said...

Hi Christian,

I agree. When anyone asks me if I am saved, I say, "Sure." If they then ask me when I was saved, I reply, "About noon on the first Good Friday."

Anonymous said...

Hiya Kim, I don't suppose you remember me, I was involved in Open Doors back in the day, back in '87 to 90'and look back very fondly on swansea days (although hope I am less pompous than in those days). Came upon your blog by accident and have found what have read so far helpful, still trying to find my place with God and this is a good reminder to not infantalise my faith and scream 'its not fair' like my toddler does!
As an aside, the Wizard of Oz film can be contrasted with the original Frank L Baum book where, of course, Oz was real and probably more real than Kansas for Dorothy. Not my insight, again takes me back to Swansea days and lectures with D Z Philips - there is a chapter on The Wizard of Oz in his From Fantasy To Faith.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,

Of course I remember you! It's great to hear from you - and to hear that you're still "wrestling with angels" (the title of Rowan Williams' most recent book).

However I think that From Fantasy to Faith actually confirms my analysis of Oz as unreal. DZ links the song "Somewhere over the Rainbow" with Feuerbach's critique of religion, and he agrees that Kansas is, at least, not a projection (though I suspect that DZ never made it to Kansas!); and he approvingly cites Dorothy's reply to the Scarecrow, who cannot understand why she would want to go home: "That's because you have no brains."

Of course I would not agree with the conclusion that Feuerbach/Baum then draw about the bottom line of self-reliance, as the god they quite rightly deconstruct is not the God of Jesus Christ.

Anyway, take care, and all my love to your family. And if you're ever in Swansea ...

Anonymous said...

I'll have to re read my Phillips, have obviously mis remembered it!
Will be coming through swansea later in the year so would be good to catch up.

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