Sunday, 16 October 2016

Remedy for our Malady in a Secular Age

Jeremiah 31:27-34, 2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5, Luke 18:1-8

In our modern Western world we have drunk deeply from the well of the Enlightenment and our capacity to understand things, to build things, to solve problems, to heal one another has lead us to worship at the idol of ourselves.  We have a deep and abiding sense that we are in control; that we can do whatever we set our minds to.  This illusion of control is particularly so in Australia which has perpetrated this myth through its isolation from much of the rest of the world because we are an island continent, and because our great wealth has provided most of us with opportunities that the majority of the world’s people simply do not have access to.

Whilst having goals and visions may not be a bad thing, in and of themselves, we have a predilection to promote self-belief, time management and goal setting as the rituals and liturgies for our individualistic culture.  As a culture we have moved from the revelation of God “I am who I am,” to the Cartesian dictum “I think therefore I am,” to the solitary life of “I am”, “I”, “me”.  As we have moved in this direction we have bought into the lie that we are in control.  At the same time as this we have become buffered, shielded, and protected from the divine.  The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor traces this journey of demythologising of the self in his tome “A Secular Age”.  We have traversed the way from the porous receptive self to the buffered self.

In the world of management and leadership we have reduced our teaching to infographics and memes, like the poster I have made for you today.  It reads how to be in control of your life: manage your time, believe in yourself (deliberately the central idea), and set goals and plan to achieve them.  We hear the catch phrases and though they may sound logical and good we have little understanding of the history of how they came to be.  All that matters for many of us in the culture is here and now, and my happiness.

Yet the reality is that we are not happy.  Darrin McMahon in his book “The Pursuit of Happiness”, which is an echo of a line in the American Declaration of Independence, begins with these fate filled words, “Happiness is what happens to us, and over that we have no control.”  In a culture obsessed with individuals carving out their own life the idea of not being in control is anathema.  And this infiltrates our faith and theology in so many ways.  The idea that God is in control, that God is in charge, that God is powerful, that God is sovereign, alongside the idea that we are contingent, is not simply uncomfortable for us it is downright offensive.  Trends in Christian liturgy and practice often wrest the sovereign control away from God in favour of us being in control of our spiritual experience.  Worship so often is about our self-expression or about answering “what’s in it for me?” as if it is another product to consume.

Yet, when we listen, when we deeply listen for the word of God speaking through the scriptures we hear that even our faith comes to us as a gift.  Consider for a moment the language of the prophet Jeremiah that we hear this day.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow.” God sows!
“Just as I have watched over them.”  God watches!
“I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” God promises!
“I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt!” God leads!
“I will put my law within them.” God implants!
“I will write it on their hearts” God writes!
“I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God is!
“I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” God forgives! And, God forgets!

It is God who acts.  God who acts to create this world.  God who acts to give us life!  God who reveals “I am who I am” to us!  God who draws us into relationship and into community!  God who forgives! God who teaches! God who saves! God how loves!

Our modern instinct rails against this possibility of God’s gracious, loving and sovereign control. 

Like the prophet, the Psalmist understood where his knowledge of God and life came from.  He understood where he was to draw his hope from, he declares to God: “you have taught me.”

In this modern world, in this era obsessed with the individual’s right to self-determination, in this time when we have become buffered to the notion of the divine, to enter into the truth and life of God which is already within us involves an act of surrender.  We must give up the myth that we can control life, that we can control the world, which we can even control God and we are called to surrender to God’s presence.

The remedy to our malady offered in today’s readings is twofold:

To meditate on the law of God; and,
To pray, to pray, to pray with persistence, and to pray!

When Paul writes to Timothy encouraging him to accept the worth of the scriptures Paul is affirming the writings that we know as the Old Testament.  It is unclear, but he may even have been affirming the books of the Bible that we Protestants removed.  The so called deuterocanonical books found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.  As Christians we also understand the recognised books of the New Testament as part of this corpus of writings.

Paul writes: All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Reading these ancient and unusual texts remains a doorway into the divine relationship, and so also into the revelation of God.  Lest we make the Bible itself an idol we should understand that the words of the Bible themselves are not God.  They are a witness to God.  The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church reminds us the scriptures are the unique, prophet and apostolic witness in which we hear the word of God and through which our faith and obedience are nourished and regulated.

On Thursday morning this week I was discussing the place of the Bible within our Christian faith with a young adult and the notion of the primacy of the Scriptures was raised.  This is a peculiarly Protestant notion that comes to us as a handed down doctrine from the Reformation when the Reformers were seeking a justification for their actions outside the Magisterium, which is the collection of accepted teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.  One of the catch cries of the Reformation was sola scriptura, by scripture alone. 

To blindly make the Scriptures prime or first without an understanding of this history and context may cause greater harm than good.  I have often heard the words of scripture used like a blunt weapon flailing at the world.  Or we can be left with our heads buried in the sand like Ostriches, ignoring that the Spirit of God is at work in all things, and using the scriptures as a set of historical and scientific facts rather than an invitation to enter into the deeper task of listening for the eternal speaking through the scriptures.

The Reformers also cried out alongside by Scripture alone, sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christi, sola Deo Gloria.  By faith alone, by grace alone, by Christ alone and to the glory of God alone. 

Our approach to the scriptures is not for us to wrestle them into submission as if we can tame them, using the tools of this Secular age, but our approach should be to enter into them gently and reverentially and with the Psalmist to mediate on them, ruminating and listening for God speaking to us through them.

When I was in the midst of doing my training for ministry I can remember my spiritual director constantly challenging me to stop reading the scriptures for understanding and to start reading them to encounter God.  To mediate on them is to pray them.

Which leads me to the second remedy for our buffered lives which is to pray constantly.  Jesus tells a strange story about a persistent widow and an unjust judge.  A cursory reading of the tale might indicate we are to pester God until God gives in.  But the layers of separation between the power of the judge and the woman could be easily glossed over.  One of the inferences in the story is about exactly the issue that was raised at the beginning.  It is God who holds the capacity to change our human realities.

Last weekend most of you will be aware that I attended a retreat.  The whole focus of the retreat was around teaching about the discipline of centring prayer.  It is an approach to prayer which is focussed on simply being present to Christ who already prayers within us.  It involves silence and stillness and listening.  Among the group who gathered were Christians with more experience and life in the faith than me and together we learnt what was for many of us a new discipline of prayer.

As an outcome from this weekend a group of us who met, some as strangers, are coming together this evening to encourage one another in our persistence in prayer and in our seeking for God.

Persistence in prayer is not just about badgering God expecting immediate results but is about entering into the relationship we have with God that has already been offered to us as a gift.

Through these last few months I have encouraged you as a congregation to enter more deeply into your own prayer life and I continue to do the same.  To spend more time with God, whether the expected results come or not.

Just like happiness, spiritual experience and the revelation of God, are not products we can control.  In a utilitarian culture where vision, goals, and strategies dominate our inability to dictate when God will do what we want God to do is more than a little inconvenient.

The comfort and encouragement of Jeremiah, the Psalmist, Paul as he writes to Timothy, and in Jesus’ own words it to persist in our seeking after God.  To read the scriptures and to pray and most of all to trust.  To trust that even when we do not understand or hear or experience or encounter God that God is and that God acts.

God is and God acts whether we know it or not.  God is and God acts whether we experience it or not. And what God does is not simply about you or I as individuals, though it might have incredibly intimate and personal implications, but is about the reconciliation of all things in Christ. 

God who made all things, who sustains all things, who loves, who forgives, who invites is here.

So let us in silence give thanks for God’s presence and meditate on what he might be speaking to us this day.

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