October 5, 2008

Denise Kelsall

Pentecost 22     Exodus 20:1-20     Matthew 21:33-46


Spring 2008 has been a disturbing time from the global to the local. And it continues to be. We are warned of dire global shockwaves if a financial meltdown is allowed to happen in America. Even an obscene bail-out does not reduce the fury or the apprehension over such blatant greed and misuse of power. Locally we witness sheer goodness being rewarded with an ignominious, pointless and tragic death in the street. One stab is all it took.


Our anxieties rise as we consider the supposed fall out and we discuss and condemn an economic system gone ballistic or should I say bankrupt. The spectre of the Great Depression of the 1930’s is invoked and we remember our parents speaking of it with grave and sombre voices.


We wonder if we would rush to help someone in distress anymore and we worry about a society where random acts of murder are becoming more commonplace. It could so easily have been a member of our own family – someone we love. What are we to make of it all?


We have just listened to the 10 commandments – ancient edicts given so a people can live together and flourish. ‘Given that the people may believe, walk in them and be blessed thereby’ as one commentator puts it. Belief in God is primary and personal – upon which all else hinges.


The first four commandments are about our obligations to God and the second six are about our obligations to our neighbour. Mostly they continue to underpin our 21st century relationships, our society and culture just as they did then. In all the commandments love is the overriding motive - directed in a way that prohibits those things that warp or destroy love. They apply to all areas of life and fall into three main categories. These are the moral which appeals to our individual hearts and minds, the civic – how we live together equably and administer justice, and third is religious – how we live our relationship with God and how this underpins all life.


The two commandments that speak to the local and global events expressed are those that enjoin us not to murder and not to covet. Murder is the most extreme contempt for the sanctity of life. Covetousness is a deep craving for that which does not belong to a person and surfaces in acts of murder. It underpins the insatiable greed which led to the current financial crisis in America.


Underscoring both events is gross limitless and psychotic self-interest. Both are about death – the death of goodness, the death of love, the death of God.


Our world is wildly diverse, crazy and wonderful, and increasingly shrill and worrisome. Bombarded as we are with media and the restless immediacy it brings, issues get lost and we roll over as the next one appears on the horizon. We live our lives as well as possible and we try to have a good time. But sometimes things happen that cause enough shock and dismay to make us stop and think longer and more deeply as these two events have.


We are presented with a society become shallow, based upon accumulation and greed and the fallout from that – murder in the streets maybe. That’s not new – it has happened since time immemorial, but in today’s world it is much more lethal. It also rejects God.


Post-modernity and the way in which everything is made relative to this or to that, has, in a way, made mush of us all – we also can become shallow by diminishing our own Christian faith, in our desire to include other faiths. We have largely assumed a bystander’s point of view in matters other than ecclesial and personal much of the time. We don’t actually assert much other than our desire for peace and love. We don’t really hustle for justice or scream for truth, or tell people they need God in their lives.


Over these last couple of weeks, alongside being a pluralist hands-off liberal or progressive Christian, I have moved towards thinking that I must strongly profess the goodness and truth of my own faith perspective and be vigilant in what I perceive as public debate from that standpoint. As many people have asserted, Christian fundamentalism (by that phrase I mean those who understand the Bible as literal truth and believe the world is divided into the saved and the damned) has dominated the Christian airwaves for too long. We cannot be passive any longer. The world needs all the help it can get and we really say very little.


On the bright side, however, I must admit to being surprised and pleased when I heard on BBC radio that Rowan Williams and the Archbishop of York both strongly condemned the repugnant and deathly greed in America that led to the virtual collapse of the market.


But, they didn’t say we need God or any such thing did they, and that’s because God and anything spiritual has been sort of privatized. Most rational good Christian people are reticent about what makes their world turn, and in the wake of our modern world God has got lost for the vast majority. And perhaps – perhaps this loss of God has taken away an anchor that held things in check. That kept people ethical and concerned. That pricked our consciences when we let things slide. That held us true to a credo, a person, a spiritually inspired hope that we could believe in.


On a personal level and as a single woman some rather hilarious experiences have happened to me since becoming a Priest. There I am looking sharp at a party and this guy and I get chatting and we laugh over common points of interest and everything is hunky-dory. Then I casually mention I am a priest and – all of a sudden he starts talking about moral issues and gets all righteous about things … amazing! But I also realize that his perspective on Christianity is the old-school control/fear/judgement/hell stuff that our more fundamentalist brethren tend to promote. So instead of yawning next time I am going to give him or her a blast.


What am I going to blast them with? I guess I shall talk about what are experiential realities for me. I need God. I’m not sure whether God needs me or even what God is really. But I know that I have an inward space, a relationship with something infinitely mysterious and greater than me that draws me to truth and love and justice and all those bedrock values that make life good and worth living.


To return to the commandments I also know that I have awful weaknesses and ugly bits too – and often I glimpse them in my family history. Our sentence for the day reiterates this when it says we will be punished for the iniquity of the parents and so on – reflecting the legacy we all receive in our different ways from within our families. I suffer hugely when I do something mean and regret dogs my footsteps for days. As our prayer states – this is a function of love.


The commandments all turn on the first. “I am the Lord your God and you shall have no other Gods but me.” To me this asks us to look towards something infinitely greater than we are, something quite cosmic that rests in goodness and love and mutuality. It asks us to turn inwards to find the space and time for the God who inexplicably dwells within. Without that life can indeed become shallow, and desire twists and snakes into greed – the greed of men who amass sordid fortunes on the turn of a wheel, who trade in death.


When we lose sight of the first commandment the rest become merely rules and rules are, as some wits like to say, ‘made to be broken.’ And in doing so we break ourselves, our families, our societies and our world. That is the message of the commandments.

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