There was a Victorian Bishop here in England who left a rather unusual request in his will. He had penned a short verse and he asked for it to be read to his clergy on his death. It ran:
Tell my priests when I am gone
O´er me to shed no tears.
For I shall be no deader then
Than they have been for years.
Well, it is true that we clergy are not always the new creation we are invited to be. I remember one priest in the London Diocese who said his motto in life was start each day with a smile – get it over with. No wonder Nietsche said that Christianity would be a lot more convincing if Christians actually looked redeemed!
We are fast approaching Advent, that season of the year when we asked to wake up, to stop sleepwalking through life and to live in the light of the things that matter and last. Advent is a season in the vocative, crying out to God to come and touch us for, by ourselves, we are as yet incomplete. We call out for the Christ who, Aslan-like, comes to de-frost humanity.
The reading from Matthew´s gospel tonight reveals a part of the de-frosting process, showing that for a human self to be most itself it is not to be selfish, that there is no smaller package in the world than a person who is all wrapped up in himself. Of course, there is always the danger that we can set about helping others as part of our own self-help therapy. CS Lewis once spoke of someone who knew who lived for others ”and you can tell the others” he said, ”by their hunted expression”. We are not called as Christians to serve people´s wants. We are called to serve their true needs.
The problem is that today we don´t always know the difference. Jeremiah´s God longs to be our God again so we can see but the truth is, as in former days, we are busy in the temples of all the other gods of the day. It is not always easy to recognise the power of these gods in our time. But let´s not fool ourselves. The gods are still with us. There are many of them and they have many shrines but here are just four particularly active at the moment.
The first is called Gloss, the goddess of beauty and surfaces – a fickle being, incarnated in paper and adverts, a god so big she makes us all feel small and ugly. We are drawn by her siren voice but her perfection is impossible even for those who anoint themselves with her many sensuous creams and labels. She is cunning too – she makes humans confuse their wants for their needs and this leads to many tears. She teaches that life is survival of the fittest. Fit for what she never reveals. She makes objects into people and people into objects so in her adverts you can never work out if the man is having an affair with the woman or with the car. Obese is the god of gathering, of acquiring, who is never satisified: happiness for him is having what you want not wanting what you have. And he always wants more even when bloated. Although people say he is seen on earth at the moment in the form of British children, in fact he is found in the hearts of parents and grandparents just as much over much of the world. He is related to that great god who makes us buy things we don´t need called Ikea (mainly worshipped on a Saturday). Together they magic us into spending money we don´t have on things we don´t want in order to impress people we don´t like.
Instantaneous is the goddess of now. She cannot wait. She must have fast cars, fast food, fast money, fast death. She is blind, never having the time to stop and see anything. She often gets into a mess too because she never has the patience to listen to anyone either. She beckons people to live full lives but strangely leaves them feeling empty. She is afraid of people meeting face to face in case they discover the joys of wasting time together, and so she invents screens and devices that trick us into thinking we are communicating but which actually add to our loneliness. She seduces with quick clarity and easy answers, and hates ambiguity, poetry, faith. And finally there is Punch, the god of violence and division. If hate can be escalated he´ll have a go – if they don´t agree with you, lash out. If they´re different, slap them down. If they´re not in the majority, don´t invite them. When in doubt, just punch them. Now obviously Punch is the creator of some computer games, street gangs, film directors and state leaders. Religious leaders are are often drawn to his clarifying power too. But also, Punch can be a subtle god and can hide in the consensus of the middle classes, and his punch can be made, not of a fist but of plausible, respectable, articulate words. Punch can be very charming as he drives around in his bandwagon. He can make you feel better. And he loves to play a little trick – he likes to make people yawn whenever the conversation turns to human rights and responsibilties, refugees, the poor, the environment, equality – in fact, anything that Christians believe are close to God´s heart. We need to resist Punch with every bit of energy we have.
These gods are alive and well and fracturing and splintering humanity. We need Advent to call us back to the one living God, source of life and love. We need Advent, not to draw us to an institutionalised Jesus who pleases everyone, or no-one, but to the Jesus who questions all our answers, gently but relentlessly questioning who we have become. We need Advent to tell us not to listen to all the stories that are being told to us by opinion columnists, the fashionable and the chique – and not to listen to the often damaging and unobjective stories we can begin to tell ourselves as a consequence, often beating ourselves up, shrinking into our low expectations. We need Adventto tell us instead to listen to the story that God is telling us about ourselves, of our uniqueness and wonder, of our loveableness and forgiveableness. God loves us exactly the way we are and God loves us so much he doesn´t want us to stay like this. We are not made to be consumers but citizens, citizens of the Kingdom of God, citizens whose spiritual life is not turned in on itself or hobby-like, advertising itself somewhere between gardening and the obituaries in the Times, but whose perception is our need of God and the need of those hungry, imprisoned, in a strange land.
God turns existence into life, and life into a pilgrimage. And what he says to us he says to everyone, making us non-negotiable in our calling to love our God and our neighbour and so to maintain the dignity of difference and erase the scandal of indifference, practicing what we pray for. God deserves a people who celebrate him by capacious souls, by a relentless capacity for friendships, and by a love that is frankly a bit reckless. It means opening doors, in ourselves and others, to see how God might strangely walk in.
I end with words by the Austrian poet Erich Fried:
It is nonsense, says reason
It is what it is says love.
It is unhappiness says reflection
It is nothing but pain says fear
It is hopeless says insight
It is what it is says love
It is ridiculous says pride
It is frivilous says caution
It is impossible says experience
It is what it is says love.
Ven. Mark Oakley, Archdeacon of Germany and Northern Europe
18th November 2007