Tuesday, October 21, 2008
whose image is this...
Some reflections on last Sunday's lectionary. This was, more or less, the sermon.
Of all the phrases that jump up for attention in this morning's readings...the one that caught me was Paul's phrase about "serving a living and true God" and what that might mean.
I have been pondering it in the light of the bishop's charge to synod this week, and the concerns expressed by the church locally, and nationally, and internationally, for MISSION: the missio Dei, the "mission of God."
How are we to be a missionary church. And of course this is near the heart of Paul's concern here as well, the question of how the gospel is spread. In fact he sounds quite Anglican, there, I think, when he speaks to his friends in Thessalonika about how the Good News has somehow "spread from them" -- and this is the Anglican part, "so that I have no need to speak about it." What a happy thought, that people might just "get it," without our actually having to utter something.
But taking into account that we DO have to "speak about it," and that the world is plainly, in some sense or another, in need of it, the question that keeps nagging at me is this:
"How are we to preach the Gospel, and evangelize, without turning the Good News of Jesus Christ into just another variety of imperial currency?"
Because make no mistake -- the coinage of the Empire of this world, "legal tender," is also a proclaimer of Good News, of a sort. And most of the people who haven't heard the Gospel (just like most of the people who have), figure that a little more abundance of the coin of the realm is all the Good News they need right now, thank you. A tax cut. A raise. A dividend. A stock split. A legacy. A lottery jackpot. Now THAT is Good News.
But the imperial currency isn't only cash: it's all those symbols of value in our society -- attractiveness, prestige, mobility, power...the list goes on and on.
And in this we are not nearly distinct enough from the people among whom we live and to whom we are supposed to be in mission.
Perhaps in this light we can hear and even recognize Moses' anxiety, as he beseeches God to give him some kind of a glimpse of what isn't clear to him: "or I'm not going any further," he says, "I'm going to park it right here. Enough is enough." (And do you know why Moses was in such a snit at this exact moment?...OK, this afternoon you are going to read through the book of Exodus, right? He has just come down from Sinai with the law, with this wonderful expression of God's concern for his people, and he's found them all perfectly happy doing the golden calf stunt. And he's tired, and disappointed, and angry, and afraid.)
"Show me your glory," he says. "Show me your face."
And the Lord says, "Well, no. How about my goodness, instead? How about I make a lovely parade of all my goodness, and you can stand right here and watch it? And you can see my back. But not my face -- not yet -- and not my glory -- not yet."
So if we are in Moses' quandary, face to face with people who aren't all that interested in our "fresh expression" of the Gospel; and if we still share Paul's sense of mission, then how do we sound forth the word? how do we do this work of faith, this labour of love; how do we realize this steadfastness of hope?
One of the answers -- and we heard it in the Bishop's charge -- is that we carry out "needs-based evangelism." Which sounds very sensible -- we find out what people need, and we answer that need with the Good News of Jesus Christ. But again -- how do we do that without just sliding into the currency of pandering, bribing, and flattering, which is so infinitely marketable--so that we become just another "self-help" pusher...telling people that they themselves are the pivot of the universe, the measure of all things...traders, again, in the currency of the empire.
Elton Trueblood has pointed out that it is a perversion of the Gospel to present it as a success story: "The gospel may do a great many things for us, but is deeply misunderstood if it is interpreted merely as a psychological instrument for our help. It is, instead, a relationship which begins with a dangerous and uncalculating commitment."
And Fr. Martin Smith has written a sharp and helpful essay on what the church's "mission" has meant since the beginning, in terms of the "needs" that it has undertaken to meet: first of all the nightmare of mortality, emptiness, futility. The resurrection of Jesus Christ spoke to that nightmare and said, "Not so."
In later years, the nightmare became one of alienation...separation from God because of one's own guilt and sinfulness. And again, the resurrection of Jesus Christ spoke to that nightmare and said, "Not so."
And finally in our own time Fr. Smith suggests that the nightmare is the one of loss of meaning, the fear that perhaps Feuerbach was right all along, and we've been simply, in all faiths, "making up" something to comfort us in the face of the abyss of meaninglessness, randomness, the void.
And perhaps, if we carry the good news of Jesus Christ into that need and nightmare, we may be able to show ur neighbours the glory of God, at long last, in the cross. And the face of God, at long last, in the one who died on it...and then at last we and they may come to see that face in the faces we meet, and carry that glory into a confused and frightened world...