Saturday 29 March 2014

Faith in the dark: Lenten meditations on the creed

I believe
Not I know. Not I think. Not I feel. Not I understand. But I believe. When I am in darkness, when I do not know the way, when every step is uncertain, I walk. I live not by what I know or feel but by a trust that proves itself only after each new step is safely taken.

In God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth

Not in magic or manipulation. Not in divine powers that I can wield for my own purposes. Not in heavenly voodoo. But in God, source of a light that is still hidden to me, source of a life towards which I grope with death hard at my heels, source of a joy that lies in waiting somewhere beneath or beyond or within this darkness.

And in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord
Not in an idea. Not in a philosophy. Not in a system of knowledge. Not in a doctrine (not even a true doctrine). But in one terrific Someone. In a person who inhabits not the world of books and ideas but the world of raw body and raw fact. Whom human eyes have seen and human hands have handled. Whose human face is living icon of a Life whose face is hidden and whose mind is oceans deep.

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary
Who did not come wielding power. Who did not come to dominate or control. Who did not come in service to any agenda. But who was conceived. A human foetus in a human womb. Whose hands and feet and thumping heart took shape slowly in the watery dark, tiny fingers moving in the abyss. And was born. And came shrieking into the world of flesh, the naked crying joy of all the earth.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate
Who was not exactly the picture of health and wholeness, serenity and good luck. Who was not an example to be followed by all who seek a better life. But who suffered. Whose body was circumcised the eighth day, who saw the bloodied knife and screamed out across the centuries to his great father Abraham (who had seen this day, and was glad). Who grew up in the howling darkness, his spirit a naked unprotected flame.

Was crucified, died, and was buried
Who did not flee the darkness. Who sought no protection, no place of refuge. Who was led defenceless to a naked death. Who was hurt. Whose body became a horror to himself. Whose last hour was a deepening descent into the dark, followed by a deeper darkness that brought no relief.

He descended into hell

He did not go gentle into that good night. He did not rest in peace. He did not partake of any pie in the sky. But descended. Since the world's great darkness was not dark enough for him, down he went into the world of shadow. Down he went to where the human spirit is a horror to itself. Down he went to the place where death wraps its roots around the hidden heart of things. Down he went, the silenced Word, the dead and buried Life, the world's true Light shrouded in darkness. Down he went, a dead one seeking out the horrors of the dead. Down he went until he found them. Adam. Eve. And took their hands.

The third day he rose again from the dead
His life and death were not an inspiring illustration. He was not a symbol of a higher truth (that spring follows winter, that every cloud has a silver lining, that things will generally work out in the end if only you believe in yourself). Was not resuscitated. Was not hallucinated back to life by his grief-stricken companions. Deep in the world of flesh, the tectonic plates were shifting and Big Things happened. He had clutched death by the roots and dragged it up. When the grieving woman saw him at the tomb, she thought he was a gardener. She thought he had been weeding. So well she knew him.

He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father
He does not belong to the past, was not the founder of a religion, was not a great leader who needs to be memorialised. But he is present tense. He has leapt like lightning in reverse, straight up, higher than he had fallen. The gates have burst open and all the chains of those who died have turned to ash. The world of darkness has became a world of light. He has emptied hell of all its emptiness. And is the fullness that fills heaven. In heaven and earth and under the earth his name is revered. At his ascent, the morning stars sing together and all the sons of God shout for joy.

And he will come again to judge the living and the dead
He will not come in wrath and retaliation. Will not come to crush the living or the dead. He will not come as the sinister twin brother of the teacher from Galilee. The same one who was crucified will come again. He comes to speak the word of truth to every human heart. He comes to burn all falsehood into ash. He comes to weed out the works of death from history and every human life. He comes dividing being from non-being, light from shadow, life from death. His judgment is purgation and the world's salvation.

I believe in the Holy Spirit

Not in the progress of the human spirit. Not in élan vital. Not in the Force. But in one who broods over every abyss, gathers whatever has been scattered, unfolds her wings and rests healingly upon the damaged world of flesh. Whose comfort in my life's abyss comes from beyond myself, from another abyss, older and deeper, the place where all the springs start and where the world is always young.

The holy catholic church

Not a religion, a collective principle, a theory of social organisation. Not character-forming practices. Not an alternative to the nation state (not an alternative to anything). But an assembly whose boundaries are as wide as the human race. Which is holy not because of the achievements of any of its members but because of the one who raises it into being out of nothing and who descends upon it in tongues of fire, translating human voices into tongues of angels and earthly gifts into heavenly mysteries.

The communion of saints
Not sympathy for the dead. Not a cult of memory. Not the bitter-sweet nostalgia for what is gone. But one human community, the dead among the living and the living with the dead, the ancestor and the little child, light-dwellers and worshippers of light, all assembled to partake of holy mysteries, unbound in their communion by anything that binds.

The forgiveness of sins
Not therapy, self-help, or positive thinking. Not the ability to make this vale of tears a little more bearable. But a forgiveness that reaches to the roots of my being, since that is where the problem lies. There will come a day when I will hear an absolution so final and so comprehensive that there is nothing left to do except to hear its verdict and be glad. On that day I will learn to love as I am loved. On that day even the great mistakes that have ruled my life will seem more precious to me than any perfection. On that day I will recognise my enemy as my brother. And those who have wronged me most I will love the most.

The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting

Not in the immortality of the soul. Not in an other-worldly heaven. Not in some insufferable quality of spiritual repose. But in bodily life. The body: site of so much joy, humiliation, weakness, passion, and pain. The body: meeting-place of love and hate, hope and despair. The body: so much like an animal, so much like a god. The body: the place where death meets me and reminds me of its dominion and my servitude. The body: the place where death and all its darkness have been confronted, absorbed, and overcome.

Not hopefully. Not perhaps or if all goes well. But Amen! Amen into the darkness! In fear and doubt I dare to take another step. Not because I understand, not because I am sure, not because faith makes it any easier. But because within the darkness I have heard deep call lovingly to deep, and my heart cries out in answer to the mystery of faith: Amen!

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Favourite novels of 50 contemporary theologians

by Kim Fabricius

James Alison: Rivals
Rob Bell: In the First Circle
Wendell Berry: The Good Earth
Nadia Bolz-Weber: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Greg Boyd: God Knows
Douglas Campbell: Deliverance
George Carey: Persecution
William Cavanaugh: Eat, Pray, Love
Shane Claiborne: Revolutionary Road
James Cone: The White Tiger
Charles Coulson: Escape from Alcatraz
William Lane Craig: Persuasion
Kevin DeYoung: No Country for Old Men
Mark Driscoll: Little Women
Peter Enns: East of Eden
Rachel Held Evans: The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year
Austin Fischer: We Need to Talk about Kevin
Billy Graham: The Godfather
Wayne Grudem: Excellent Women
Gustavo Gutierrez: Praxis
John Hagee: Catching Fire
Ken Ham: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
David Bentley Hart: The Line of Beauty
Stanley Hauerwas: A Farewell to Arms
Carter Heyward: Women in Love
George Hunsinger: Alias Grace
Bill Hybels: The Big Chapel
Werner Jeanrond: The History of Love
Robert Jenson: The Long Song
Hans Küng: Pope Joan
Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins: A Confederacy of Dunces
Andrew Linzey: Animal Farm
Diarmaid MacCulloch: The History Man
Alasdair MacIntyre: Waiting for the Barbarians
John Milbank: Talk Talk
Al Mohler: The Poisonwood Bible
Jürgen Moltmann: Great Expectations
Ben Myers: The Wizard of Oz
Alexei Osipov: From Russia, with Love
Joel Osteen: Money
J. I. Packer: The Big Sleep
Ian Paisley: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Eugene Peterson: American Pastoral
John Piper: The Power and the Glory
Peter Rollins: The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub
John Spong: Vernon God Little
Thomas Talbott: Enduring Love
Iain and Alan Torrance: Fathers and Sons
Delores Williams: Black Beauty
Rowan Williams: The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Thursday 20 March 2014

In which an intruder is murdered, and everyone lives happily ever after

In our back yard there lives a pair of guinea pigs. They live in a wooden hutch, small but comfy, and we love them. The chestnut-coloured guinea pig is named Chestnut and the ginger-coloured guinea pig is named Ginger. A couple of weeks ago we noticed that the guinea pigs were eating quite a lot yet always still seemed to be hungry. Each night we topped up their food, yet in the morning there they were, peering hungrily out from behind the bars of the hutch. We did not understand why the guinea pigs were so hungry. Not until, late one night, we noticed the adorable little brown bush rat creeping in through the bars of the hutch. There he was, whiskers twitching in the moonlight, shamelessly standing right on top of the guinea pigs' food bowl and gobbling up their food without a care in the world. The guinea pigs seemed very understanding. They ambled about unobtrusively, polite spinsters that they are, while from time to time their visitor looked up from the bowl to smile courteously, as if to reassure his hosts that the meal was excellent, quite excellent, and that everything was perfectly in order.

Now your Australian bush rat is a fine little animal. He is not at all like his European cousin, the black rat, that intolerable propagator of iniquity whose nature is nothing but a laboratory of diseases drawn about by two sharp teeth and a stomach as insatiable as the grave. The bush rat is a good-natured fellow. His ears are the shape of buttercup petals, not at all like the satanically pointed auricles of the black rat. His tail is short and sweet as a lullaby, bearing no resemblance to the sinister tapered whip of the black rat. Our Australian rat has created no plagues, provoked no policies of national flooding. He has, as far as anybody knows, never devastated a civilisation. He does not invade houses. He is a rather shy, well-mannered little creature who would rather scavenge discreetly at a respectable distance from human habitations before retiring at dawn to the domestic comforts of his cosy burrow. The black rat is a problem for philosophers and experts in theodicy; he is the trump card of Manichaean heretics and all cosmic pessimists. But I bless the Australian bush rat. I have no hesitation in regarding him as one of God's creatures. If I would not, perhaps, offer him my seat on the bus, I would certainly tip my hat to him and wish him good-morning.

And yet, reader, the dear little critter is dead, for I have killed him. I would not want you to get the wrong idea: I am not habitually a murderer. Killing of any kind is prohibited in my household. I once issued my young son with a stern rebuke when he confessed that he had, with malice aforethought, deliberately taken the life of a single ant. I have on other occasions – disregarding all extenuating circumstances – prevented the children from killing each other. In order not to appear hypocritical, my wife and I have also made a conscious effort to refrain from killing one another. That's how strongly we feel about this matter.

So it was no small thing when I resolved that the bush rat had to die. I did not kill him until all other avenues had been exhausted. When we learned of his existence the children created a trap for him, and for three whole days we dreamed of capturing him and making him our pet. We would place him in a cage; we would feed him; we would take his photograph; we would give him a name. No longer would he need to steal from the helpless guinea pigs, for now he would have food and every other modern luxury, all to his heart's content.

But the trap was not as good as we thought. It consisted of a clothes basket, a food bowl, a stick, and a piece of string. It was not, apparently, constructed according to sound engineering principles. The smallest breeze could trigger it; a rat could stroll in and eat all the food without setting it off. Not only was the trap a failure, but it also led the rat to discover a secret that would, in the end, prove to be his undoing. We had placed the trap – don't ask me why – near the entrance to the laundry. That is how the rat learned that we have been stockpiling foods in the laundry. Huge bags of dog food, bird seed, fish food in plastic containers, sweet-smelling bags of hay, together with an entire plastic bin brim-full of the most succulent guinea pig food you have ever tasted. 

It was riches beyond compare. 

It was like discovering America. 

Poor little rat; how quickly power and riches can go to one's head.

Two nights later, our rat had chewed through the side of the plastic bin and was draining guinea pig food right from the source. The following night he chewed through the bird seed bag for an hors d'oeuvre. He cleansed his palate with a few liver-flavoured dog treats. He munched thoughtfully on his guinea pig food. Then finally he belched like a king, cleaned his whiskers, and staggered back home, where I imagine it must have taken quite some effort to squeeze his corpulent frame through the strangely shrunken doorway, before he curled up in the deepest corner of the burrow and sank into an even deeper sleep.

For ten minutes we stood in the laundry, my children and I, and contemplated the crime scene. Step by step we followed the trail of wanton culinary destruction. We inspected the torn bird seed bag and the nibbled liver-flavoured dog treats and the scattered guinea pig food. We took measurements. We examined evidence under UV lights. We made sketches in yellow notebooks. We interviewed witnesses. (The guinea pigs weren't saying a word. Typical.) We observed that the gap under the laundry door is unnaturally wide, easily wide enough for a small Australian bush rat. He had discovered the laundry and from now until the end of the world there would be no way to keep him out.
I kissed my children goodbye. I left the laundry and drove straight to the store and purchased a mousetrap. Three dollars seemed too small a price for such a lethal apparatus. I followed all the directions on the packet. I spread the trap with peanut butter. I placed it in a suitable location. I said a prayer for the death of the rat. "Thank you, O God, for this fine small creature that you have made. Thank you for his cunning ways and his indomitable spirit. Help me now, I pray, to kill him."

But the mousetrap did not kill him. Two nights later he had still not eaten the peanut butter, the trap had not been triggered, and I had not woken up to find him lying in a pool of blood with a broken neck and a look of disappointment on his face. Poor rat. The mousetrap would have been so swift and painless. Even for a human being, a mousetrap would not be a bad way to go – especially if you got a taste of peanut butter just before the bitter end.

I drove back to the store. I spent five dollars on six smooth pellets of rat poison. Gingerly I unwrapped two of the deceitful little parcels and placed them in a tray. I sprinkled guinea pig food over the tray. I placed the tray near the door to the laundry. The children locked the dog inside for fear that he would eat the poison. They set up a station at one of the bedroom windows where they could maintain round-the-clock observation of the poison tray. (We have problems with another native marsupial pest, the bandicoot, who comes out at night and digs holes all over the lawn in search of insects; it would be humiliating, not to say immoral, if we poisoned the wrong pest by mistake.)

8.29 p.m. 

Out comes the bush rat, sauntering across the lawn. He can hop – did you know that? – like a tiny kangaroo. All that guinea pig food really puts the spring in one's step. Hop, hop, hop, over to the guinea pig hutch. He goes inside, orders a drink, chats at the bar for a while with Chestnut and Ginger. Then he's off again. Squeezes through the bars. Hop, hop, hop. Now he's outside the laundry. He's seen the food. His whiskers twitch suspiciously: you don't get to survive on the Australian continent for a million years without having razor-sharp instincts. But no. Poor little chap, his instincts have let him down. Like so many noble men before him, his greed has been his downfall. Quick as a flash he chews through the first poison pallet, then the second. Later, on his way home that night he bids farewell to the guinea pig sisters, who wave their silk handkerchiefs in the air as when a friend departs for a long and lonely voyage.

When I found him two days later dead on the lawn, he was curled up like a sleeping mouse. From the look on his face you would have thought he was dreaming.

I came inside and told the children that our bush rat was dead. My son wanted to know what I had done with the body. I explained that I had placed it in a plastic bag and tied the bag shut and dumped it in the rubbish bin. I saw the shocked disapproval on my son's face, and all at once I understood that there was no getting around it: we would have to give that rat a Christian burial. So now we have laid his bones to rest, and I have written him this eulogy too. No rat could ask for more.

Monday 17 March 2014

Patristic peculiarities: John Chrysostom and the poison eucharist

This is the start of a new occasional series on some of the more peculiar arguments I've come across in early Christian literature. These are the quirky bits that somehow never made it into the textbooks. 

John Chrysostom, the great fourth-century preacher, described Christ's descent into hell as a kind of poison eucharist. When Christ died, his body descended into the ground. Death ingested his body like food. But this was no ordinary food. It was a fatal poison. It brought on violent stomach cramps, worse (Chrysostom assures us) than the agony of a woman in labour. Death could not digest Christ's body. Death writhed in pain, then vomited: "Like those who take food and vomit it up because they can't retain it, so death vomited. He received the body which he could not digest, and so he had to throw it up again" (all this is from homily 24 on 1 Cor).

But after developing this vomiting image in graphic detail, Chrysostom changes his mind. No, he observes, Christ didn't come back out of the mouth of death. He didn't come out the same way he went in. Death didn't merely vomit; it suffered a massive abdominal rupture. After death had ingested Christ's body – I warn you, this is pretty grisly – it suffered violent convulsions, and then its stomach burst open. Everything came out. Chrysostom is thinking here of the story in Bel and the Dragon, where Daniel killed the dragon by feeding it a concoction of pitch and fat and hair; upon eating this vicious recipe, the dragon's stomach burst open and it died. "For Christ didn't come forth again from the mouth of death, but issued forth from the belly of the dragon, bursting it and ripping it open from within."

Thus the body of Christ proves to be a fatal poison. It destroys death from within. When the stomach of death is violently emptied, it's not only Christ's body that is released. Everything else that death had ever ingested is released as well. The contents of death's stomach are completely emptied. Hell is left empty, and not a single one who died is left in the grave.

And Chrysostom's point? "This is the body that he has given to us to hold and to eat!" These grisly reflections come, after all, in a sermon on the eucharist. Chrysostom is reminding his congregation never to come carelessly or irreverently to the table. "Purify your soul, prepare your mind for the reception of these mysteries!" The same body that poisoned death and emptied the grave is now ingested by the believer. It is the same body, the same potent food. "So," Chrysostom cautions, "let us stir ourselves and be filled with horror." When you come to the table, don't forget what you're about to eat!

"Because of this body I am no longer earth and ashes, no longer a prisoner, but free…. This body, nailed and scourged, was more than death could stand against. The sun turned aside its beams when it saw this body sacrificed. The veil was rent for this body, and the rocks burst open and the whole earth was shaken. This is the very same body!" At the Lord's table we hold this body in our hands. We "kiss" it and "bite it with our teeth." (Chrysostom observes that lovers often nibble each other when they're passionately kissing: in the same way we lovingly nibble the consecrated bread.) Death ingested this body, not knowing that it was eating its own death. The same body is life to us when we eat it. By poisoning and slaying all death's power, this food has become "our hope, our salvation, our light, our life."

Sunday 16 March 2014

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

“What a loser!” A phrase of the most dismissive social contempt which, on the lips of Christians, becomes the opening gambit of all truly counter-cultural evangelism.

On the other hand, some Christians think they are being “fools for Christ” when they are ridiculed for standing up in the public square, say, by picketing cinemas that show “blasphemous” films, or by making apocalyptic pronouncements about same-sex relationships, or by deploying pseudo-science in defence of young-earth creationism. These people fail to consider the possibility that their felt integrity is but mulish obstinacy; that their nonconformity is actually a form of self-validation confirmed by the applause of “the faithful”; and, above all, that their claims of persecution are fatally compromised by the sanctimoniousness of their witness. Self-proclaimed victims are, ipso facto, bogus victims; there is nothing cruciform about them. Secular contempt is neither here nor there, but bringing the faith into theological disrepute – that is not to be a fool for Christ, just a jerk for Jesus.

In regione caecorum rex est luscus. Credited to the humanist Erasmus, this doodling came to mind when I saw a clip of the fundamentalist Pat Robertson debunking young-earth creationism. Yes, even a luscus with glaucoma reigns among the sightless. Robertson began by saying, “There was a bishop in the Middle Ages, ah, 1800-something …” Presumably he was referring to James Ussher, ah, 1581-1656.

What’s my take on the fierce culture wars that rage in the US on “evangelical identity”? I refer you to the famous Neo-Freudian developmental psychologist Erik Erikson who coined the term “identity crisis” – and his observation that, fundamentally, it is an adolescent phenomenon.

As Samuel Beckett might advise Christians on contentious issues: “Ever discussed. Ever disagreed. Discuss again. Disagree again. Disagree better.”

For heaven’s sake, C of E: you should be paying less attention to liturgical wardrobes and more attention to episcopal closets.

When they’re planning a holiday to the US, Brits sometimes ask me what cities they should visit. “New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco,” I tell them. “If you’ve got a couple of minutes to spare …” – I mention a few others. Basically, however – to riff on Mark Twain – I tell them: “See the Big Apple and then die – but endeavour to die before you see Miami, Dallas, or LA. (Unless, of course, you’re an anthropologist.)”

Want to pare your Christmas card list? Ask yourself: if I am afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, who will come to visit me, sit with me, stay with me, speak my name, talk about the old days, and, above all, tell me how wonderful it is to see me?

Bumper sticker: “Christians aren’t perfect – just forgiven.” Just?

There once was a nomad named Abe,
a magnet to Beersheba babes;
he mated with Sarah,
but not till Viagra
was Isaac so mirthfully made.

The certainty is that there is always a calamity coming; the tragedy is that it is never the one we expect.

In the lexicon of grief, the pages are blank.

Among contemporary bullshit virtues right up there with the faux-empathy of “I feel your pain”, the pseudo-fidelity of “being true to your feelings”, and the cod-authenticity of “being real”, is sincerity, which is usually saccharine and smug doublespeak for either shameless mendacity or pathetic self-deceit.

So the first known written use of the F-word in English – “fuckin abbot” – was written by a disgruntled monk in 1528 as a marginal note in a manuscript of Cicero’s De Officiis (ironically, an authoritative text on public rectitude, particularly temperance and self-control). Was the monk describing the hypocritical sexual activity of his superior, i.e., “the abbot who fucks”? Or rather, with modern usage, deploying the term for angry emphasis? In which case, I wonder what his superior had done to piss him off so much. Whatever, the potty-mouth language clearly suggests that the monk was Lutheran. Mind, Cicero himself could resort to squalid invective (check out his diatribes against Antony after the assassination of Caesar).

There is extreme heavy lifting, but some things also require an enormous effort to put down – like words on A4.

A question occurs to me after rehearsing this scene from John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing. Hunting a huge herd of buffalo in the mountains of Colorado, four men are caught by a blizzard and snowed in for the winter. Miller, Andrews, and Schneider set about constructing a life-saving lean-to. Schneider cuts some thongs from a frozen-hard hide and throws them into a kettle. Then he calls over Andrews and Miller. “Piss in it,” he says. Andrews looks dubiously at Miller. Miller says: “He’s right. That’s the way the Indians do it. It helps draw the stiffness from the hide.” Here’s my question: Do you think this technique would work on a church-full of Presbyterians?

Of course the church is a whore. Why else would Jesus so enjoy our company?

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? That depends. Is the liquid sour milk or single malt?

According to Samuel Johnson, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Of course, had Johnson been American, the “last” would be “first”.

“May I spend eternity in hwyl!” is the prayer of every preacher in Wales.

There once was a preacher with attitude,
whose sermons weren’t greeted with gratitude;
he preached the beJesus
too gracious and grievous
for people inspired by platitudes.

If sugar is the new tobacco, does that make Mary Poppins guilty of child abuse?

It is said that there is no communication in hell, because of the pandemonium, the torment, the tedium, the vanity, the mutual abuse. This is false. There is Twitter. Hell is the telos of tweeting. In hell tweeting is compulsory.

At the icy windswept centre of Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell, a three-faced Satan chews on the triumvirate of history’s greatest betrayers: to the left and right, their heads visible, Brutus and Cassius; but – behold! – in the central maw, the “soul … which has the greatest pain”, his writhing legs protruding – hang on … – what’s that? – blood-soaked skinny jeans… Hey, it’s Rob Bell!

Finally, still on hell … Young-earth creationism is an intellectual disaster, but anthropogenic climate-change denial is, more, a moral disaster. It is not merely risible, it is repugnant; not just bad science but odious ideology. And world leaders for whom the penny has finally dropped – what do they do but loiter without intent, hands in pockets, counting their change? To wilful ignorance, economic self-interest, and political opportunism, add the global “bystander effect” – the more nations that witness other nations in even more distress than their own, the less likely any one nation will say “Enough is enough!” and act – well, one despairs even of damage limitation (like chemo with late-stage cancer). And you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows: extreme meteorological events, environmental devastation, human suffering will worsen; mass migrations and territorial conflict will ensue; only fundamentalists will rejoice – they’ll have a sodden field day with the book of Revelation. We say climate-change denial is an “opinion”; our grandchildren will ask us why we didn’t call it like it is – a sociopathology.

Monday 10 March 2014

Google it: 20 questions Google can and can't answer

I went to the cemetery to eat my lunch. I always like it there. There are plenty of shady trees and places to sit. The human inhabitants of the place are uncharacteristically quiet. You can hear every bird and cricket. I ate my sandwich and read some of the gravestones – Mary, aged 42 years; Henry, aged 67 years; Margaret, aged 2 weeks; John, aged 6 years – and it got me thinking. Leaning back against a cool stone I thought to myself: 

I wonder how old I'll be when I die? 

By some automatic almost-biological instinct I noticed my hand reaching for the phone in my pocket. Can you believe it, reader? Faced with the burning riddle of my own mortality, my first instinct was to Google it. How old will I be when I die? That is how ingrained the habit has become of turning to Google whenever I want to know the answer to some minor factual question. Luckily I realised my mistake before I had typed the question. How embarrassing! I don't have to tell you that I felt pretty foolish. What would Google have thought of me if I entered a question like that? What would the dead think? (Blushing, I glanced around to check that none of them were looking.)

I'm grateful to be able to use a tool like Google. I rejoice in the ability to procure instant answers to some of life's niggling questions. It's a relief to be able to terminate one's curiosities within seconds of their gestation. No mistake about it, there are some questions for which Google proves to be an indispensable aid. These include, but are not limited to:

1. Which is cooler, Gangnam style or tattoos?
2. But will facial tattoos hurt?
3. Recipes for boiling an egg?
4. What is twerking and why does Miley Cyrus do it?
5. Best ways to cheat at scrabble?
6. How to lose weight and influence people?
7. Best kids iPad games about wanton killing?
8. Did the tv show Lost mean anything?
9. How do hippos mate?
10. Why are all Australians so lovable?
11. How to get a perfect body in 30 days?
12. Things to do while waiting for the next episode of True Detective?
13. I keep fainting while driving truck: IS THIS DANGEROUS?
14. Who is Justin Bieber?
15. Best pickup lines from bollywood movies?
16. Why are Christians on facebook always so angry?
17. Why do all my plants keep dying? Where can I buy better plants?
18. Help!!! What is the number for 911?
19. How to train labrador to stop chewing socks?
20. How to train children to behave as good as labrador?

But then there are other questions that Google cannot answer. These are things we have to carry around a little longer inside us. Such questions include, but are not limited to:

1. Why is music so beautiful?
2. Did I cry from pain when I was born or mostly from surprise?
3. Have I ever ruined anybody's life, and, if so, will I be forgiven?
4. What are the first things?
5. Am I a good father? If not, what does my life mean?
6. Why do I ask questions?
7. Who would I be if one day my brain was damaged so that I couldn't use language anymore? What would become of all my questions?
8. What is the truest thing I have ever done?
9. What is the truest thing anyone has ever done for me?
10. Am I lucky to be alive, or unlucky? Does it make any difference?
11. Will I ever be truly happy, and, if so, will I know it at the time?
12. Am I loved? (And how would I know for sure?)
13. Do I love? (And how would I know for sure?)
14. Was it my fault the bus driver was so rude to me? Am I an objectionable person?
15. Do I have a soul?
16. Why are human beings so cruel?
17. If something happened a very very very long time ago, is it still true?
18. Why are human beings so wonderful?
19. Is there a God, and, if so, where is the best place to hide?
20. How do I find the right questions? And who am I asking when I ask them?

Sunday 9 March 2014

Lenten reflection with James McAuley

For some Lenten meditation, here's a poem by the Australian poet and literary critic James McAuley. It's called "In the Twentieth Century," from his 1969 collection Surprises of the Sun.

Christ, you walked on the sea,

But cannot walk in a poem,

Not in our century.

There's something deeply wrong

Either with us or with you.

Our bright loud world is strong

And better in some ways

Than the old haunting kingdoms:

 I don't reject our days.

But in you I taste bread,

Freshness, the honey of being,

And rising from the dead:

Like yolk in a warm shell—

Simplicities of power,

And water from a well.

We live like diagrams

Moving on a screen.

Somewhere a door slams

Shut, and emptiness spreads.

Our loves are processes

Upon foam-rubber beds.

Our speech is chemical waste;

The words have a plastic feel,

An antibiotic taste.

And yet we dream of song

Like parables of joy.

There's something deeply wrong.

Like shades we must drink blood

To find the living voice

That flesh once understood.

Saturday 8 March 2014

Sliding scales: one last time on the parables

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Picture a sort of sliding scale, from hell to heaven. On this scale let’s place some people, from very wicked people to very good people, and let’s keep it to famous – and infamous – people from modern times. Let’s start, at the bottom, with Hitler. I mean you gotta start with Hitler, right? Then let’s move on to, say, Osama bin Laden, who is kind of the personification of evil in the 21st century (so far – long way to go yet). Okay, now let’s move on to some indisputably good characters. How about Desmond Tutu or, earlier, Martin Luther King? But I guess we should remember that King was an adulterer. Mother Theresa then – there’s a saint for sure. But then remember that, in her letters, she confessed to doubting the very existence of God. Still, I guess a little atheism doesn’t stack up to the heaps and heaps of her good works.

But enough. You can argue about your own personal sliding scale of sinners and saints over lunch, but I think you get the picture: some people further away – maybe even out of sight – from being good with God, and others closer and closer.

Now picture a pub in, say, Guildford. A minister walks in with a bag full of Christian Aid envelopes. His collection has exceeded all expectations. He’s got a bruise on his left cheek. That’s because he turned it to the right cross delivered by a householder who thinks the church is full of hypocrites and he’d rather gnaw off his right arm than give to one of their bloody charities. The minister asks for a glass of mineral water. “Ice with a slice?” asks the elderly landlord. “Yes, please,” says the minister politely. “Anything to eat?” asks the landlord. “No thank you,” says the minister politely, “I’m fasting today.” He notices a collection container on the bar – two, in fact, one for the British Heart Foundation, the other for Macmillan Cancer Support. He puts a fiver in each. Then, just before he takes a sip from his mineral water, he says a little grace, in thanksgiving for the money he’s raised – and now given – for good causes. Then he takes his bag and his drink and goes to the rear of the pub to sit down. But there – there is this guy, slumped in a lounge chair, fashionably dressed but stinking of booze. The minister has seen this young man before. Yes, he lives in that huge gated house and commutes to the City. And he’s heard him bad-mouthing the Occupy Movement on a radio programme. “Merchant bankers,” thinks the minister, “what a bunch of crooks. And there he is, dead drunk on his unmerited bonuses and dodgy investments.” Then the minister hears the banker mutter something. He leans closer to hear. “What a mess I’ve made of my life! What a mess I’ve made of the lives of others! God, look what I’ve become!” And the minister thinks, “There but for the grace of God …”

The minister goes back to the bar. “Excuse me,” he says, “there’s a drunk sitting at the back. Could you get rid of him, please?” “Sorry, no,” says the landlord. “He’s my son. You can sit somewhere else – or leave.” “Well, I never!” exclaims the minister. Then he slams down his drink and leaves.

Another sliding scale of – only two – rather ordinary people this time, but one not so moral, a white collar criminal and sot, and the other a religious man living quite ethically, if a bit bad-tempered. Sort of contemporary Pharisee and tax collector, from our parable.

To make the connections you must, first, eliminate the idea that the Pharisee, or the minister, are hypocrites. Jesus says nothing about hypocrisy in the Pharisee, nor do I in the minister. The Pharisee tithes, that is, he gives a tenth of his goods for the upkeep of the Temple. By tradition there are numerous exemptions, but this Pharisee makes no exceptions, he tithes all his income. He’s a Big Giver. And his outward rectitude is matched by a spiritual discipline: he fasts. According to the Torah, fasting is required only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Pharisees, however, chose to fast two days before, and two days after, the three major Jewish feasts, twelve days a year. But this particular Pharisee fasts two days a week, over a hundred days a year! And here, in the Temple, he gives thanks, “There but for the grace of God ...” Yes, a very religious man.

Similarly, my minister works tirelessly for Christian Aid and he gives generously to any number of charities – and I could go on to tell you about his work with the homeless and asylum seekers, and about all the church committees on which he serves, and that he’s even written a book. And his spiritual discipline is as conscientious as it gets. Here he is fasting during Christian Aid Week – in May, not during Lent. And he says a little grace even before having a drink in a pub – non-alcoholic, of course. And in the manse he’s on his knees in the study before nine, and in bed, before going to sleep, he prays for his church members and family, and for desperate situations in the world. His church adores him.

Analogously, that tax collector and my banker – they are bad dudes. Remember tax collectors in first-century Israel were Jews who worked for the Romans. They were quislings. And they were notorious big-time rip-offs, working on a franchise, owing the exchequer a flat fee while collecting from their compatriots all they can squeeze out of them. Similarly my merchant banker. He is a crook, a white-collar criminal, and he’s an alcoholic as well. Both guys are morally repugnant. But the Pharisee leaves the Temple as a son on bad terms with the God who happens to be the Father of the tax collector too, and the minister leaves the pub on bad terms with the landlord who also happens to be the father of the banker.

The Pharisee and the minister – thank God we’re not like them. “There but for the grace of God…” But oops – that’s their line! Still, modestly, humbly, we can all say that we don’t look down on people who aren’t as virtuous as we are, on a sliding scale, I mean. And we’re delighted, aren’t we, that the tax collector and the banker go home right with God? (Yeah, I know I’ve made a pub-owner a stand-in for God. In defence I’d say that that is just the kind of scandalous thing that Jesus would do.) I mean, we’re not bothered that Jesus doesn’t say anything about the tax collector repenting and turning his life around, nor I, likewise, about the banker? So imagine, if you will, going back to Temple or pub a fortnight later, and there is the tax collector again, still bleeding people dry, and there is the banker again, still wheeling and dealing and drinking 20-year-old malts, both woe-is-me-ing and trusting to mercy – and getting it. And we’re not bothered, right? Right?

Or do we not choke, morally, on the unfairness of such a scenario? Imagine it repeating itself yet again. Surely there’s got to come a time – three strikes and you’re out – when the tax collector and the banker have got to resign from their occupations, the one taking his savings to reimburse those he’s defrauded, the other sending a five-figure cheque to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. A time when the Lord and the landlord can congratulate their children for their impressive repentance and new-found civic virtue.

But then, wasn’t it precisely their virtue and achievements that the Lord and landlord ignored in the Pharisee and the minister? Do we really want to say that, after all, it would be better if the tax collector were more like the Pharisee, the banker more like the minister? That mercy is all very well, but surely not without a little reform, and if no reform, then some divine vengeance? But if we do want to say that – and I think we all probably do, at least a bit – don’t we demonstrate that we’ve missed the point of Jesus’ parable?

The thing is, once we start sliding scales, from real bad guys right down to, well, me – and while I might not be a saint, hey, I’m not that bad a guy – which the tax collector and the banker, not making comparisons, precisely do not think, but which the Pharisee and the minister do – well, then grace has left the building. Unconditional grace. Limitless forgiveness. I know it’s foolish, crazy, certifiably insane. And I could tell you, more sensibly, that the scales of divine judgement are sliding scales, that God has only so much patience, that that the time will come when he turns nasty – Pay-Back Day when the worse-than-me will finally get what they deserve. Which the church often teaches, and it really packs them in. But not, as far as I can tell, Jesus, who died preaching to a congregation of two – one of whom heckled – and lives for everyone. Everyone. God’s scales don’t slide like ours. Jesus goes down – all the way down – and Jesus takes all of us back up with him. The self-sufficiency of religion – get over it. The all-sufficiency of grace – get used to it. That is the odd, disturbing, but very good news that we are privileged to hear again today.

Bethel URC, Swansea
12 May 2013, Easter 7 (Christian Aid Week)

Thursday 6 March 2014

The smart and the stupid

A sermon by Kim Fabricius
A year ago last Saturday there was a wedding at Bethel Some of you may remember it. The bride was a stunning blonde. The two bridesmaids were also rather easy on the eye. The groom was tall, dark, and handsome. And the father-in-law-to-be was a dead-ringer for George Clooney. I know – in my dreams! – because the bride was, of course – my Katie! Great wedding, great reception, great day. Katie and Paul, by the way, are still together – and just back from a fortnight in Bali and Singapore, poor kids!

We’ve just heard the story of another wedding. It used to be called the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (AV). Not anymore. Perhaps because the idea of virgins at a wedding stretches the bounds of contemporary credulity. So now we call it the parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (NRSV), Young Women, or even Girls (REB, GNB), because they were probably teenagers.    

Let’s set the scene as Jesus paints it, with the colours of first century Palestine. We’re talking a bit of a nuptial do – and then some. The wedding feast takes place not at the local Dragon Hotel but at the home of the groom. A crowd of family, friends, and neighbours fills the house and spills into the street. Meanwhile, the groom and his best men (if you like) make their way to the bride’s house. From there the groom collects his bride (sorry, Dad!), puts her on a donkey (not a Daimler!), and escorts her back to his house. But not directly: the high-spirited entourage takes an extended detour through as many streets as possible, to show off the bride to the whole village. By the time the party arrives, it’s nightfall, and the waiting guests are well ready to party – including our ten teenagers.

What’s with the lamps? Well, it was one thing for young men to be out on the streets at night, but women, young or old, always carried lamps. Not to see by, mind, but to ensure that passers-by wouldn’t hassle them, or think that they were out on the pull – reputation was, is, everything in the Middle East. So all ten young women are being prudent and proper. Each has a lamp. Ah, but only half of them have brought extra fuel, small flasks of olive oil, just in case the bridal party, in its youthful exuberance, takes even longer than usual to parade its way back to the groom’s house. So long, in this case, that they become sleepy and nod off…

When, at the stroke of midnight, from the dark a cry is heard. “Here they come!” “Oops!” say the gaggle of girls who didn’t plan ahead. And then to those who did, “Give us some oil!” “No way!” comes the reply. “Not our problem.” Miffed and muttering, the former five storm off to beg, borrow, or buy some oil. But it’s the middle of the night. It takes a while. And when they finally return to the banquet, now in full flow, it’s too late – the door is shut. “Open the door!” they shout. “Sorry,” says the groom, “Do I know you?” End of.

And the point is …? “Be prepared”? Well, of course, advanced planning is always a good thing. Whether or not Jesus himself is referring, in the parable, to his second coming, St Matthew has certainly adapted the story with the Lord’s return – his delayed return – in mind. By the time the evangelist is writing, maybe fifty years after the first Easter, he advises the church to be ready for the long haul. And we’re still long-hauling it. But “be prepared” – is that it?

Let me tease out two further points (parables are always a tease). First, how do we react to failure? When we screw up, what do we do next? I think the parable puts to us this important question. How do the young women who weren’t prepared react, first, when they discover that they didn’t bring enough oil to see them through the evening, and, second, when they find the door shut in their face? They shout, that’s how they react. Although the awkward position in which they find themselves is their own fault, they shout, first at their five friends, “Give us some oil!”, and then at the groom, “Open the door!” That’s foolish. That’s stupid. As foolish and stupid as being unprepared in the first place. In the world, in the church, “barking orders at others is not an acceptable way to try to solve problems created by our own inadequacies” (Kenneth Bailey).

And yet isn’t that precisely the way some people in the church are reacting to our own failures? The church is in trouble and sometimes you’d think we were in those old Laurel and Hardy sketches where Ollie says to Stan, “That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!” “You” being the liberals if you’re an evangelical, and the evangelicals if you’re a liberal, or – outside the church – the secularists, or the Muslims, or “the world” as such. Christians aren’t in charge anymore, we feel marginalised, and we don’t like it. And it can’t be our fault, can it? For centuries we’ve more or less acquiesced in being the nation’s Department of Religion and, as court chaplain, we’ve blessed its deployment of wealth and power. We’ve colluded in the domestication of the gospel, the privatisation of faith, and the reduction of morality to family values and good citizenship. We’ve conceded that the Sermon on the Mount is quite lovely, but altogether impractical, and totally irrelevant to the real business of living. And now governments of the left and the right don’t do God anymore and – what? – we’re surprised? When the church itself hasn’t been doing God – not really, not radically, not riskily – not like Amos did God, not like Jesus did God, since almost forever?

No, whatever state we’re in, it’s not our fault, blame this or that, bark at him or her, play the victim, raise the volume. Can this be right? Or is it not a sign of both denial and panic, and a sure indication that we’ve lost both the argument and the plot? What about taking responsibility for our failure to be the Israel of Amos, the church Jesus? And what about having the good grace to announce the wedding feast of the kingdom, not with a paranoid posture and a shrill voice, but with a calm confidence that Christ is risen and reigns, and a tone in our evangelism that is joyful without being cheesy, and bold without being bolshie? Hey, it’s a wedding we’re talking about!

And the second thing I tease out of our parable is this. Note well: it’s not about good and bad people, it’s about smart and stupid people. Of course Jesus came to take away our sins, but the way some Christians talk you’d think he also came to take away our minds. Jesus himself enjoyed the company of bad people – the gospels call them “tax collectors and sinners”. The good people – the gospels call them “scribes and Pharisees” – they didn’t like that at all. And, of course, it was these good folk, not the bad folk, who conspired to kill Jesus. Why? Because they thought that because they weren’t bad they could do no wrong – which is a fatally stupid conclusion to draw. Bad people certainly do harm, but it’s stupid people that wreak the real havoc in the world, people with a catastrophic combination of self-importance, conviction, and complacency.

By “smart”, of course, I don’t mean having academic intelligence but nous, practical intelligence, which includes having your deception detector in good working order, to see through the posturing and guff we get every day from the corridors of political and financial power, precisely from people educated at Oxford and the London School of Economics, the so-called great and, yes, the “good.” By “smart” I mean carrying your lamp, with plenty of oil, to shine light into the dark places we encounter. By “smart” I mean having the wise-as-a-serpent mind of Christ.

We live in benighted times where lying has become routine, systemic, and very lucrative, while truth-telling is ever threatened by the demands of social stability and so-called economic necessity. Pilate can only look askance at the very idea of truth, while mendacity is the morality of Mammon. But Jesus looks at the world and asks: What is really going on here? Who is really smart? Who is really stupid? He means according to the standards, not of Whitehall or the City of London, but of God’s covenant and kingdom. The standards of justice and compassion that drove Amos to lodge his protest on behalf of the dispossessed outside the temple in Bethel. The same standards that will drive our Lord to stage a demonstration on behalf of the dispossessed outside the great Temple in Jerusalem. Which, interestingly, was the political and banking centre of the nation. In fact, the St Paul’s Cathedral of his day. If you catch my drift.

Bethel URC
11 November 2011, Pentecost 21

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Essential reading on the parables

A guest-post by Jeff Aernie

1. Interpreting the Parables
Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008)

Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (2d ed.; Downers Grove: IVP, 2012)

Richard Longenecker, ed., The Challenge of Jesus' Parables (McMaster New Testament Studies; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000)

Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008)

2. Helpful Pastoral Resources

Craig Blomberg, Preaching the Parables: From Responsible Interpretation to Powerful Proclamation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004).

Gerald M. Bilkes, Glory Veiled and Unveiled: A Heart-Searching Look at Christ's Parables (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012)

3. Important Earlier Volumes

C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (London: Ni
sbet, 1936)

J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribner, 1963)

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Tertullian on interpreting parables

The parables of Jesus were all the rage in the second century. Gnostic teachers like Valentinus hung lavish esoteric cosmologies from the parables. Not even the smallest detail was safe from allegorising interpreters. This exegetical excess led second-century writers like Irenaeus and Tertullian to formulate rules for interpreting the parables. Irenaeus' rule is pretty simple (Against Heresies 2.27): stick to the clear kanon of truth, and don't read anything into the parable that would contradict the plain sense of the apostolic faith. For example: don't interpret a parable to mean that there's more than one god, since this would be out of harmony with the faith.

Tertullian is more interesting (On Purity 8-9). He makes the same observation as Irenaeus: interpretations of the parables should be rejected if they "destroy the whole economy of salvation". And he insists that parables should be interpreted in light of the Christian faith: "We do not take take the parables as sources of doctrine, but rather we take doctrine as a norm for interpreting the parables." But he is not concerned only to rule out heterodox interpretations; he also dwells on the characteristics of good interpretation of the parables. He assumes that the good interpreter will take in the whole parable at a single glance, while the heterodox interpreter scrutinises every little detail and loses the wood for the trees. In an age that loved allegory and typology, Tertullian is bracingly straightforward: "Why a 'hundred' sheep? and why, indeed, 'ten' drachmas? and what does that 'broom' stand for? Well, when he wanted to show how pleased God is at the salvation of one sinner, he had to mention some numerical quantity from which one could be described as 'lost'. And in view of the ordinary procedure of a woman who looks for a drachma in the house, he had to supply the assistance of a broom and lamp."

Tertullian thus happily admits that some elements of the parable might remain unexplained. The heterodox interpreters, he says, are driven by a lust for coherence and comprehensiveness. They want every detail to fit. They "work out these parables with perfect consistency." Theirs is a kind of conspiracy-theory theology: a perfect account that explains everything and leaves nothing out. By contrast, good interpreters of the parables should allow for a measure of imperfection and inconsistency. "We make no effort to twist everything so that it fits our own explanation, striving to avoid every discrepancy." An exegetical argument, Tertullian says, "should not be extended beyond the limits of the subject matter with which it is concerned." It is better to have a general sketch of what the parable means than to be lost in a maze of hyper-interpretation. "If needs must be, we prefer to have an incomplete rather than an incorrect understanding of the scripture."

And why does all this matter? Because "bad exegesis is no less serious than bad conduct."

Monday 3 March 2014

The parable of the feuding farmers

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

We’re still down on the farm this week. Last week we were doing the theological horticulture of seeds and soil. This week, in the parable Jesus tells, the planting has been done and the crop is growing. What a relief! The farmer can sleep at night with a peasant’s pleasant dreams of a harvest. Can’t he? Not so fast! As it turns out, no, he can’t. As if rocky soil, weeds, weather, and pests weren’t problem enough, there’s a people problem. The traditional name for this parable is the Wheat and the Tares. You could also call it the parable of the Feuding Farmers.

Feuding families were a common outcrop on the social landscape of the world in which Jesus lived. Indeed you didn’t have to start a fight with your neighbours. Simply by being born you inherited from your parents and kinship group a ready-made set of friends and enemies. In American folklore we have the famous feud in Pike County, Kentucky during the second half of the nineteenth century between the clans of the Hatfields and the McCoys. It escalated into open warfare claiming over a dozen lives. We’ve got a situation like that in this parable, without the bloodshed. A feud (let’s say) between the Waites and the Wrenchworts.

What happens? One night, while farmer Waite and his family are counting sheep, one of the Wrenchwort clan hops the fence, sneaks into his neighbour’s field, and sows some weed seeds. In fact, the vandal is particularly dastardly because the seed he sows – in the Greek, zizania – is a particular species of grass known as darnel. Darnel grows like wheat, and looks like wheat, but it’s poisonous – and that will put farmer Waite in a position between a rock and a hard place.

Now Waite is not a tenant farmer or a sharecropper; apparently he owns his own land, because he employs several labourers. A few weeks after he plants his crop, some of these farmhands come to him and say, “Mr. Waite, we’ve got a problem: weeds. But we know you planted good seed, so where did they come from?” Waite knows at once: “It’s that klutz Wrenchwort.” “Don’t worry, sir,” the farmhands say, “Weeds R Us.”

Now it was usual agricultural practice to weed out darnel, perhaps several times a season, precisely because zizania is so toxic that it can easily destroy a crop – that’s the rock I mentioned. But then there’s the hard place: if there is a profusion of these weeds, their roots can become so intertwined with the roots of the wheat that neatly separating the two is well-nigh impossible, and certainly a very risky business. So what does farmer Waite do? “Leave it,” he says to his workers. “We’ll sort it at the harvest.” And there the parable ends. After telling another couple of parables – one about mustard seed and another about leaven – Jesus goes on to explain the parable to his disciples, but most scholars agree that this explanation is actually Matthew’s, not Jesus’ – Matthew is really into fiery furnaces and folk weeping, and wailing, and gnashing their teeth – so we’ll just stick with the original. In this scripture, what might the Spirit be saying to the church today, to us here and now?

Well, the basic point isn’t rocket salad – I mean rocket science! It’s a parable about patience. I have preached many times on patience – most recently last Advent – and confessed that patience is a virtue with which I, personally, have constantly struggled. But I think we live in an age – the age of Information Technology – that particularly conspires against patience. In April I got a new PC. I was pretty happy with the old one until my kids, when visiting, wore me down complaining how s-s-slow (“Dad!”) the old one was. We live in a culture of speed where delivery has to be swift. But today, taking our cue from the parable, just what is the Spirit saying about patience?

You see – to continue the PC metaphor – the church gets infected by all sorts of viruses from the culture in which we live. I want to suggest that impatience, though it sounds like a rather minor vice, is actually one of the worst of them, because it drives us to do not just stupid, but sometimes quite sub-Christian things. Indeed, as a church we do these stupid, sub-Christian things precisely to the people represented by the person on whom the parable turns: that lowlife Wrenchwort – the enemy.

Jesus talked a lot about enemies. That’s because he made a lot of enemies. Powerful enemies who eventually killed him. The first Christians, indeed the early church for three hundred years, also made a lot of enemies, suffered persecution at their hands, were fed to lions by them – the martyrs who refused to bow the knee to Caesar, refused to fight in Caesar’s wars. Then Caesar – one Emperor Constantine – himself became a Christian and everything changed. Ever since, apart from the historic peace churches like the Mennonites and the Quakers, we have done Caesar’s bidding and spread Caesar’s carnage. When the state says, “Kill!”, we kill, even other Christians. That’s because we take the Sermon on the Mount as if Jesus preached it for us to break into groups and discuss it instead of to obey it. Indeed the church has deployed our parable itself to justify compromises with state power, arguing that good and evil – the wheat and the tares – are far too mixed together for us to be decisive witnesses to the radical nonviolence of Jesus. We must be – the weasel-word – “prudent”.

But Jesus was anything but prudent. Nor does his parable teach prudence. Jesus knew evil when he saw it, and he named it, he spoke truth to power – that’s why he made enemies – and so does his parable. Wrenchwort is a villain. Evil is not obscure: if someone or some system does violence to people by excluding them, or impoverishing them, or, finally, by killing them – that is evil and followers of Jesus can have no truck with it. Prudence is not a Christian virtue.

Patience, on the other hand, patience is an altogether different matter. With evil, followers of Jesus must be patient as Jesus himself was patient, even with Judas, as God himself is patient, even with the devil himself. Jesus never excluded Judas, even sharing the last supper with him. And surely you must have wondered why God has given the devil his leash, why he’s never reeled him in, why, indeed, he’s never destroyed him. But surely the answer is obvious: because Jesus and the Father of Jesus don’t do violence – don’t do either pre-emptive strikes, or “payback” – no, because they are patient.

You know why people are impatient? Because we need to be in control, to feel that we are in charge. Not being in a hurry, knowing how to wait: that takes trust in the providence of God, faith that God is in control of events. The early church had that faith. That’s how it could resist Caesar. But then slowly but surely, with Constantine, with Christendom, and finally with the rise of the modern state, the church lost that faith, or rather repositioned that faith in kings, parliaments, and presidents, who now, self-evidently, controlled the course of history. Being loyal subjects or citizens trumps being obedient disciples. And still we do pretty much what the state tells us to do – the state which (as Alastair Campbell bluntly but brilliantly put it) doesn’t “do God” – because belonging to Britain or America is evidently more compelling than belonging to Christ and his church.

And the connection with patience and impatience? Isn’t violence the sin par excellence of not taking time, of being in a hurry, of the rush of blood and the angry outburst in personal relationships; of speed of delivery, of doing it to them before they do it to you, of war-war rather than jaw-jaw in international relations? Did you ever notice that Jesus doesn’t do velocity, that even when he does hurry-up he makes haste slowly, deliberately? And, of course, in his passion, he gives himself up, hands himself over, relinquishes all control to the powers of evil. Why? Because he knows that Pilate is just a pawn, and his Father has things well in hand. And because, as he says, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Speed, violence, and impatience on the one hand; slowness, peace, and patience on the other. Do you see the connection?

And the conclusion I draw is this. Within the church we must accept that we are all sorts, and be inclusive of those who, personally, get on our nerves and, theologically, interpret the faith differently from the way we do. So no stomping off in a huff, or excluding those to the left of you or those to the right of you! And in the way the church interfaces with the world, a distinct identity with the courage of its convictions, including the refusal to deploy violence either against the state or on behalf of it. In the church and in the world, “all false zeal must be checked, the field must be left to ripen in patience, … and everything else left to God in faith, until his hour comes” (Joachim Jeremias).

Bethel URC
17 July 2011, Pentecost 5

The parable of the sower

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Let’s make some connections. At the beginning of Matthew 5, there is Jesus and there is a crowd; so too here at the beginning of Matthew 13, there is Jesus and there is a crowd. It’s time to teach. The crowds are big, so in Matthew 5 Jesus sits on a hill to teach, while here in Matthew 13 he gets into a boat. In Matthew 5 he gives instructions, while in Matthew 13 he deploys a different didactic strategy: parables, stories.

Stories? Well, yes, parables are stories, very short stories. But don’t think you can relax and take it easy-peasy. It’s not as if the Sermon on the Mount is a lecture, while Matthew 13 is a children’s talk. Not a bit of it. Kids can listen in on these stories, but parables are seriously adult. They’re artful and arch, they tease and twist, they mess with your mind. The materials on which Jesus draws are commonplace – nature, agriculture, village life – but the punch lines to which they lead are always strange, unexpected, and – crucially – interrogative. So they require a nimble mind, a lively imagination, and – finally – an audacious determination to engage them and answer the question. 

Parables take you from the mundane world and the conventional ways we negotiate it, confront us with a different picture of the world, and challenge us with two questions: “Do you get it?” and “Will you live it?” Parables aren’t illustrations, certainly not illustrations of what we call – mistakenly call – reality. Rather they picture a new reality, God’s reality – Jesus calls it the “kingdom of heaven”. And, yes, explicitly or implicitly, all the parables end with the burning question: Will you make this reality your reality? Thus, finally, the parables are dangerous because they confront the listener with judgement, they sift us, they separate those who will say Yes and take a risk and follow Jesus, and those who will say No and travel by sat nav. The sting is that those who play safe are, in fact, living in a world that, for all its apparent givenness and permanence, is passing away – and so they are, if you like, comfortably heading for oblivion.

Okay – the parable of the sower, the first of a septet of parables in Matthew 13 (Matthew loves the number seven). These parables were no doubt originally told by Jesus at different times and places, parables which Matthew, clever rabbi that he is, has grouped together for the purposes of teaching in his own church. And because it’s parable number one, you can be sure that it’s important, programmatic. So what’s this new world, God’s world, and therefore the real world, like?

First, observe that while Jesus speaks to the crowd, he is actually instructing the disciples, who, however, are not as smart as they think. In fact, they’re in danger of backsliding, of being recaptured by the world of 24/7. You see the forces of opposition to Jesus have been gathering. The Pharisees and scribes, Israel’s lay leaders and public intellectuals, are spitting venom, what with Jesus’ indiscriminate association with outsiders, and his cavalier attitude to purity regulations and Sabbath observance. He’s not acting like a holy man, a religious person, at all. John the Baptist, from prison, has recently sent messengers expressing second thoughts about whether Jesus is, in fact, the Christ, or whether it’s a case of mistaken identity. And in the passage immediately preceding our parable, Jesus’s own mother wants to have a chat with her boy about his ministry, which started with such promise but now looks to be losing its way. The twelve have been watching as all these events unfold. It doesn’t look good, and they are worried men.

What does Jesus do? He paints them a narrative picture. It’s a picture they have seen many times. It’s the picture of a farmer farming the way Palestinian farmers farm. It’s not a practice Gower farmers would recognise. The farmer does not plough before he sows, and he does not plant his seeds in a calculated manner. No, the farmer walks along a path well-trodden by his fellow sharecroppers, stubble really, and he tosses on the seed. There are thistle bushes to his left and right – he tosses some seed there too. In some places there are outcrops of limestone barely covered by soil – he throws some seed on these unpromising places too. Basically, the farmer chucks the seed all over the place. Like Jesus in his own ministry, this farmer is quite undiscriminating.

What happens next? What else but what would be bitterly familiar to any Palestinian farmer whose seed was his cash-flow? Indeed Jesus actually soft-peddles the frustrations against which farmers contended: wind (the scorching sirocco sweeping up from North Africa), drought, locusts – Jesus doesn’t even mention these agricultural menaces. No, the picture he paints is depressing enough. The vast majority of the seed bears no fruit during the best of growing seasons. Some of it dies from the get-go, or gets snapped up by the crows. Some of it sprouts, but soon shrivels in the heat. Some of it actually does grow among the thorns, which, however, choke the life out of the neonatal blades. That’s the way it goes in the cruel, unforgiving world of Galilean agriculture. And even if by good fortune you get a yield, your ruthless landlord will be sure to extract more than enough of the harvest to ensure that you remain indentured to the land without any economic security whatsoever, debt and unemployment just a bad summer away.

But what’s this? What’s this Jesus is saying? Do we hear him correctly? Do the maths: the best one can expect to get is a four- or fivefold yield. But a thirtyfold yield? A sixtyfold yield? A blooming hundredfold yield?! It figures – he’s a carpenter, not a farmer. What does he know? But that’s what he claims. Is he having us on? What is he saying?

For those first disciples, as I’ve suggested, the parable undoubtedly spoke to their growing suspicions that they might be backing the wrong (plough) horse. But those scribes and Pharisees who just don’t get it – consider them the rocky places, Jesus is saying. And John the Baptist who once exclaimed at the Jordan, “I ought to be baptised by you, and you have come to me!”, but now behind bars has his doubts – put it down to that old crow Herod pecking away at his faith. And my mum who is now telling me, naughty boy, to come home and get a job, well, maybe her soil was just too thin, or maybe the weeds of village opinion engulfed it. But you, my friends, you’re the good soil, and as unlikely – nay, as impossible – as it seems – what? Work hard and you shall have your reward? Or, don’t worry, the opposition will come around in the end? Not a bit of it! That ridiculously humungous yield – up to a hundredfold! – no way that either huge exertions or optimal circumstances are going to produce it. Only God can give – give! – that kind of result. And God will! That’s the deal.

And what about us, the friends of Jesus today? Does this scripture speak to our need and condition? And if it does, what does it say?

What is our condition? It is not good: rocky soil, weeds, pests. The church is in decline. What should be our response? Hard work? Well, sure, work is good. But things can only get better? No, things are looking to get a lot worse. But here’s a quaint idea: God! In the URC – and I suspect in the Methodist Church too – there are those who think that only a cunning plan will save us: better management and more assessments; a new programme with a catchy advertising campaign; cutting-edge entrepreneurialism; state-of-the-art technology; and so on. And some of these ideas may indeed be worth trying. But none of them is going to save the church. And to think otherwise is not only faithless, it is quite idolatrous, trusting that the deities of effort, or ideas, or techniques will kick-start mission – by which is usually meant getting more people in the pews and on the books.

Me... I actually think... if you take my meaning... that we need fewer Christians and more disciples. Followers of the Jesus who says that following him will not make you balanced, liked, successful, or safe, no, it will put you on a collision course with the world and cause you a lot of trouble and grief. Followers of the Jesus who says you can’t worship both me and Mammon (otherwise known as the Market), can’t worship both me and Venus (otherwise known as Health and Beauty), can’t worship both me and Mars (otherwise known as the War on Terror). 

Frankly, at the moment, I think the soil of the church is too culturally contaminated to grow anything much good at all. But I also think that “a church that is shrinking in membership may actually be a church in which the soil of the gospel is being prepared in which deeper roots are possible” (Stanley Hauerwas). In other words, there is no point having more plants – more Christians – unless we have richer soil – the practices of Jesus – in which to grow them. In short, the Sermon on the Mount. Here is the soil for growing people who are serious about living the new reality of God, the soil with the promise of a yield of thirtyfold, sixtyfold, hundredfold. Here is our judgement. And here, ultimately, is our only hope.

Bethel URC, Swansea
10 July 2011, Pentecost 4

Sunday 2 March 2014

A week of parables

"Why speakest thou unto them in parables?" (Matt 13.10). He answered: "Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand" (Matt 13.13) – one of the few instances in which our Lord specifically referred to the work of Christian preachers. In solidarity with all those preachers who are gearing up for another year in St Matthew's Gospel, we'll be devoting the coming week here to the parables. This will include several of Kim's sermons on the parables, plus a few other odds and ends. It follows my rules for preaching the parables – rules that I have learned by breaking each one of them, and sometimes all of them at once.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Hayao Miyazaki: in praise of air

Hayao Miyazaki! Lover of air, lover of the wind, lover of flight! Lover of human beings and umbrellas and flying machines! Lover of all that flies or that dreams of flight or that flies only in dreams! Of the four mythical elements, Tarkovsky made films out of Earth, Kubrick made them from Fire, Orson Welles from Water – but to you belongs the consummate artistry of Air.

On the poisoned earth at the world's end, hope is the colour of blue: a girl's dress washed blue in blue blood, as blue as the hopeful sky.

Castle in the Sky (1986)
In my mind the flying castle had become so natural, so taken for granted, that when the girl in the blue dress levitated, when she floated on pure air, I was stunned. Only later did I remember that everything that passed before my eyes had been levitating, floating on pure air.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Standing in the rain at the bus stop with an umbrella in my hand, by the light of the street lamp I saw its feet, its big shy feet, and fell in love with a flying creature as strange as dreaming.

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
The bakery, the broomstick, the black cat, the girl with the wind in her hair, the magic of small things: "We fly with our spirit."

Princess Mononoke (1997)
Gods and demons, wolves and blood, prostitutes and lepers. It all sounds perfectly regular, but in fact it is the strangest thing in the world: a Miyazaki film with no flying. Luckily there is a beheading, so my children liked it all the same.

Spirited Away (2001)
Of all the Disney children's horror films set in brothels, this is quite possibly the best.

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
I love you, old lovely wise young Sophie! I love you, Howl, you and your feathered wings, you and your generous lost heart! I love you, O wondrous ever-changing castle that creeps upon the earth! I love you, Turnip Head, magic scarecrow, you whose changeless face expresses more than symphonies!

Ponyo (2008)
After I watched it the first time, I hurried to put the children to bed and then sat down and watched it all again. It was midnight when it finished for the second time, and I leaned back in the darkness and thought: truly it takes magic and mermaids and flying things to show the ocean for what it really is.

The Wind Rises (2013)
Driving home from the cinema today I saw in the distance an aeroplane, an ordinary flying machine lumbering its way across the Sydney sky, and for just one second my heart thrilled as if at the sight of magic.


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