Sunday 14 October 2012

Glad to see the back of him?

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

I’m now into my last year as your minister, and as we go through the liturgical year, each service now has a particular poignancy to it.  Especially the major festivals. Last Sunday was my last Harvest service.  Next month will see my last Remembrance Sunday service.  In December, Advent and Christmas.  In March, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter.  In May, Pentecost.  But today, to be honest I’ll be glad when it’s over and I never have to preach to you on Mark 10:17-31 again.  The rich guy – I’ll be glad to see the back of him.  I can’t stand the story of the rich guy.  (In Matthew he is “young”, and in Luke he is a “ruler”, but in Mark he’s just some rich guy).  This guy is sand in the preacher’s shoe.  Sand?  More like a beach!  Hit the road, rich guy – and (as Ray Charles sang) “don’t you come back no more.”

Of course, one has tried all the textual manipulation, and special pleading, to avoid the thrust of the story, to dodge the bullet, to deflect it from having anything to with me – or you.  For example, turning the rich guy into a very rich guy, like Bill Gates or Richard Branson, J. K. Rowling or Adele, people out of our financial league.  Maybe the filthy rich will have a hard time getting into the kingdom, but not me – not us.  But that doesn’t work, does it?  Because compared to people who live in Third World rubbish dumps or even UK sink estates, compared to the homeless and the hungry, we might just as well be Gates or Branson, Rowling or Adele.

Another for-example: we say it’s not the man’s money and possessions as such that are the problem, it’s his attitude towards them – he’s got an “attitude problem”.  He wasn’t in control of his wealth, his wealth was in control of him.  Or we suggest that surely he abused his wealth – we might speculate about his voracious or “conspicuous” consumption.  We, however, have our finances under control – savings, standing orders, direct debits – “all things in moderation” is our economic catchphrase.  But, er, where in the text does it say that the rich guy was out of control, or that he was a spendthrift?  On the contrary, doesn’t the text explicitly state that he’s obeyed all the commandments all his life?  Which entails, in fact, that he was diligent in charitable giving, because the provision of alms was a fundamental religious obligation for a pious Israelite.  Indeed, Jesus has snuck in a “Do not” that isn’t actually in the Ten Commandments – “do not cheat”, “do not defraud” – and the rich guy says has obeyed that one too.  He’s not a tax-evader.  So why assume that the rich guy was greedy or gaudy?  And why do we presume that as long as we’re not, as long as we’re modest and generous, there can’t be a problem?

It’s amazing, isn’t it, the way you can avoid seeing something that’s right in your face.  The way you can read, hear the story of the rich guy again and again and not see the connection.  The connection, I mean, between the cash and the commandments.  Because it’s right there in the text.  Some Christians do, of course, see a connection, but, alas, it’s the wrong one.  Prosperity Gospel Christians who claim it’s precisely when you keep the commandments that you get rich, and that being rich is a sign that you’ve kept the commandments – and, of course, that you’re “saved”.  But Jesus says just the opposite!  He says that if you keep the commandments and get rich, so what? – it’s got nothing to do with salvation.  Indeed being rich – and being rich as such – makes it harder, not easier, to enter the kingdom.  With consummate sarcasm Jesus says you might just as well be a great lump of a camel, which was the Porsche of the rich in Judea, trying to squeeze, hump and all, through the eye of a needle.  And yet even this startling image has suffered egregious self-serving spin “at the hands of bourgeois conscience-tranquilizing” interpreters (José Miranda), with the claim (going back to the Middle Ages) that the “eye of the needle” refers to a certain small gate in ancient Jerusalem through which camels could only enter on their knees!

Let’s talk cat, not camel: C-A-T – Close Attention to the Text.  Here in Mark 10:17ff. Jesus encounters a man who is not a hostile or defensive questioner like the Pharisees at the beginning of chapter 10.  No, the question the rich guy asks Jesus is a genuine one about how to order your life in a morally integrated way.  He wants to honour God and treat fellow human beings with dignity and respect.  He begins with a courteous salutation – “Good Rabbi” he calls Jesus – while Jesus replies modestly with a well-known proverb, “No one is good except God alone”.  The stage is set for an honest and constructive conversation, no hidden agenda, no point-scoring.

Then Jesus draws the man’s attention to the commandments that come from the so-called Second Table of the Law, dealing with our behaviour towards our neighbours.  Interesting that.  People ask what they have to do to be “saved” and they get a lecture about believing X, Y, and Z, or being “born again”, or getting “baptised in the Spirit”.  But Jesus says nothing about these things, nothing, in fact, about God at all.  As I say, interesting.

Then, yes, the rich guy says he’s kept all these commandments – including that extra one – and observe that Jesus doesn’t contradict him, he takes him at his word.  But then Jesus adds, “Oh, I forgot one thing, a small point: sell everything you own and give the proceeds to the poor.”  Which sounds extreme enough to us, but in first-century Palestine it’s extremer still, even inhumane, because it meant parting with your property, your land – and you know how important land is to the Jewish people.  And that this is precisely what Jesus means is confirmed when he shortly refers to would-be disciples leaving their land.  So make no mistake: Jesus is demanding a sacrifice beyond measure.  Is it any wonder that the rich guy can’t make it?

But Jesus still hasn’t delivered the knock-out punch.  That comes after the rich guy has walked away, and Jesus discusses what’s just happened with his disciples.  For there we see, unmistakably, that it’s not only those with loads o’ money who are rich, it’s anyone with any money who is rich.  The disciples’ question “Then who can be saved?”, and Jesus’ reply “Humanly speaking, no one”, make this absolutely clear.  Whether you own a new Porsche or an old Punto, no chance.

But look – there is nothing personal here.  Again, there is no suggestion that you and I are personally unjust, avaricious, or irresponsible.  The point is systemic: that is, it is simply the case that people with money, and nations like the US and UK, live in and off an unjust system – a deliberately fixed and intrinsically biased market – which ensures that poor people and nations in the South remain poor.  As the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas starkly puts it: “The truth of the matter is that all wealth is the result of murder.”  The colour of money looks green, but in fact it is claret.

So then, is this one of those sermons that simply leaves everyone feeling guilty?  Absolutely not.  There is good news here.  First, because there is truth here.  Avoiding reality, living in denial, looking for alibis may make us feel more comfortable, even righteous, but it won’t set us free.  Only the truth will set us free.  Even when painful, the truth is always good news.

Second, though keeping the commandments will not save us, it is better to keep them than to break them – it is better to be generous than selfish.  For then we can be sure that there is at least a little bit of God in us, for God is generous, not selfish.  And then who knows what may happen, for didn’t Jesus say that, yes, on our own, no chance of salvation, but with God – with God there is every chance?

And a final thought: there is only one time in the whole of the gospel of Mark where Jesus is said to love someone – and it is here, it is this rich guy: “Jesus looked straight at him with love” (Mark 10:21).  Jesus loves rich people!  Whew, is that good news, or what!  For a moment there … God certainly has a bias for the poor, because the poor are always getting screwed, and because the rich can – and do – look after themselves – thank you very much – but God loves the rich just as much as he loves the poor.  And, yes, love can work wonders.  Indeed, I wonder whether we should automatically assume, as we do, that the rich man rejected Jesus’ call, for he walks away with a heavy heart, grieving, not scoffing, and it is precisely such distress, when one feels disorientated, that marks the start of personal transformation.  In fact, early church tradition has it that that rich guy was named Barnabas, a cousin of the evangelist Mark, one of the earliest church leaders in Jerusalem, and the disciple who first introduced Paul to the apostles, and who became a companion of Paul on his missionary journeys.

Which makes me rethink my opening gambit about the rich guy: perhaps I’m not glad to see the back of him at all.  In fact, I may even be beginning to like him.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Prayer from the beach

I praise you, God of creation's joy, for this town where I have stayed the last five weekends. I praise you for the beaches and the headlands and the sea. I praise you for the house where we stayed and were happy together. I praise you for the kitchen and the table and the chairs, and I praise you for the trampoline and the swimming pool where the water dragons sunbaked, terrorising my children. I praise you for the chooks and for the eggs they laid for us, and I praise you for the outdoor pizza oven and for the mushrooms that tasted so smoky when we cooked them. 

I praise you for sunrise at the beach (or just-after-sunrise: for we always slept, I praise you, longer than we'd planned). I praise you for the meal of fish and chips that we ate from paper trays while the sun was going down. I praise you for the seagulls that smile indignantly because we will not give them any chips, and I praise you for the pelican that drifts on the water like a fishing trawler and then heaves itself into the air like a 747, fat and majestic, wonderful to see.

I praise you for the girls in summer dresses on the street, for the girls basking nearly naked on the sand, for the young men playing volleyball and running with their shirts off to show the world that they are young and strong, and I praise you for the old men in swimming caps who go down into the water even when it is very cold, and for the old women who walk their dogs and stop to greet one another beside the sea.

I praise you for the surfers and the kayakers and the stand-up paddlers, and I praise you for all the boats and for all who love boats and who go out on the water, and I praise you for the man who had built his own houseboat and told me gently with a sunburnt voice, 'You have time for things on the water.'

I praise you for the wide flat rocks where my children roamed at low tide. I praise you for my son who licked the glistening dry salt off the rock and said it tasted good. I praise you for my daughters' glee and horror when they found a crab in the little pool. I praise you for the terrible high rocks where we saw the teenagers playing, lying facedown while the waves swept over them (and I praise you that they were not swept away). 

I praise you for the Aboriginal woman who calls the whales, and for all those hours I stared at the water hoping to see whales spouting, and I praise you for those two unforgettable mornings when I woke from dreaming of whales, filled with gratitude that I had seen them even in my dreams. 

I praise you for the lake where we paddled with my friend while the dog swam alongside, right round that little island. I praise you for the way the silver light shimmered on the branches that hung over the water, and for my friend who said it was his favourite thing to see. I praise you for the way the dog rested his face on his paw on the side when we brought him on board because of his exhaustion, because he had swum so far and so well. I praise you for the fish that I saw jumping near the boat. And I praise you for the fish my children saw when they had waited a long time for it, looking. 

May your praise be always on my lips and in my heart. For life is not long enough to praise you; and were all the oceans ink and all the skies a scroll, it would not be enough to tell of all your goodness in a town like this, on a day like this, when the sun is in the sky and the water shines like glass, a mirror of your glory, God of creation's joy.

Friday 5 October 2012

Gospel of John: audio sermons

I spent my weekends last month at the wonderful Terrigal Uniting Church, and I preached a five-week series on the Gospel of John. If you're interested, the sermons are available in audio. I love John's Gospel very much, and it was a treat to be able to speak about it.

My five texts and topics were:

1. The Word Made Flesh (John 1)
2. The Coming of the Light (John 9)
3. The Triumph of Life (John 11)
4. The Doorway to Eternity (John 17)
5. The Way of Discipleship (John 21)

I'd say the best response was to the fourth one, on John 17, which I did as a first-person narrative, seated on a chair with a shawl around my shoulders. I've never done that kind of dramatised sermon before, but I enjoyed the experience and found it quite moving. 

I gave similar versions of these sermons in the evening service, and these were filmed. The first video is available here, and I'm told the others will be added eventually too. [Update: second video available here.]

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Devilish doodlings

by Kim Fabricius
Cardinal George Pell –
Death by climate – went to hell.
The archbishop, frying, said, “Jesus, it’s hot!”
The devil, denying, said, “Hot?  No, it’s not.”

What is the difference between Global Warming Denial and Holocaust Denial? Both are ideologically motivated and doctrinaire, overwhelmingly from the right. Informing both is quack science, and sustaining both are bogus statistics. Both concern anthropogenic phenomena reliant for their implementation on exceptional technological sophistication and public moral indifference. Both consolidate their identities by appealing to conspiracies against them. But here is a difference: the number of deaths due to Global Warming will finally, sickeningly, far surpass the Eight Million.

Certainly a great deal, if not all, human evil is a product of the inferiority complex.  Satan is the archetypal case.  He wreaks his havoc because, due to self-esteem issues, his “sense of injur’d merit” (Paradise Lost, I/98), he’s soooo pissed off.

The problem with writing fiction about Satan is that it’s really hard to make him the minor character he is.

Satan is the supreme intellectual. Sexual sarxian vices are mere peccadilloes compared to the sins of feverish cogitation. Of course, Satan may come on as a sexual predator, and boast of his amorous exploits, but remember, he is a liar. In fact, the Devil is impotent.

Being “spiritual” but not religious, and averse to the somatic, the material, and the quotidian messy – these too are characteristic of the demonic.  Satan – OCD for sure.

On Judgement Day, God will ask us not what we have done, or what we believe, but what we desire, what we love.

“Unforgiven Sinners” is any empty set.  If there are any sinners in hell, it is not because they are unforgiven but unforgiving – of themselves as well as others. 

Acknowledgements I’d like to see in a book on theodicy: “I dedicate this book to Satan, without whom it could not have been written. God, of course, carries the can for all the many errors it no doubt contains.”

What is the Free-Will Defence but the title of a theological Just So Story that for the liberal theodicist lets God off the hook of the Holocaust, and for the Arminian infernologist lets God off the hook of Hell?  And this is supposed to be a win-win discourse?  The apotheosis of human “choice” on the one hand, and either a morally repugnant or an impotent deity on the other? 

In the parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-8), Jesus (in)famously praises a crook for his sense of urgency, presence of mind, dedication, resourcefulness, and cunning.  A contemporary version might be called the parable of the Desperate Junkie.

When God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the knowledge-of-good-and-evil tree, he was saying that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

John cried, “Repent!”, not “Repaint.”  Not “Change the decor”, but “Here comes the wrecking ball!”

Mirabile dictu: thirty years of ministry and I’m still a Christian.  I put it down to the suffering and sorrow I have seen and shared, and to the unpleasant confrontations with intellectual and moral squalor. With a not altogether ungrudging nod to the Holy Spirit.

You can always spot an optimist: they are the ones who laugh at their own jokes.

“O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers …”
Jeez, I see a bunch of constellations like Orion and Cassiopeia named after pagan mythical figures.  And what’s with the Babylonian/Egyptian astrological signs, a goat, a crab, a scorpion …? 
O Lord, our Sovereign, how crummy is your astronomical marketing technique!

Despair is God’s strange way of keeping faith honest.

Happiness is a banquet for sharing; sorrow is a meal-for-one, picked at alone.

“Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing” (Matthew 13:34).  And the scribes and Pharisees said, “We’ve been counting the number times you use the word ‘Yahweh’ and ‘faith’ in your stories.  The concordance does not look good.  Furthermore, you seem reluctant to tell the crowds ‘The Torah says …’ on a whole raft of issues.  This excision of God from your manifesto is a scandalous affront to the national narrative. We’ll be endorsing Caiaphas.”

It is (as Eliot observed) a sign of faith’s decay when the Bible is judged on its artistic merits – and (I would add) when church music isn’t.

“Hey Jesus,” said Satan to Jesus at Golgotha, “the Romans are about to round up your disciples, rape your mother and sisters, and torch the town of Nazareth. And you’re just gonna hang there?”

Question: What is the “invisible church”? Answer: The Christian Right.

If the famous parable of Jesus were an allegory of religion and American politics, the brigands who mug the nation/world and leave it for dead would be the Religious Right, the passing priest and Levite would be Democrats, and the Good Samaritan would be – an atheist.

God invented the church to give atheists a fighting chance.

Once there were the New Atheists. Now there are the New New Atheists. Sort of like the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea. Prognosticating from the membership of the Popular Front of Judea, I suppose we can look forward to the Post New New Atheist. 


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