Every One a Winner!

Sunday 17th October 2010
Year C, The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Genesis 31:22-31
Luke 18:1-8

Occasionally, as in the case of Scott of the Antarctic, there is poignant evidence of a failed mission but more often the best we can hope for is wreckage. Most of the time the narrative of our relationship with the world around us is written by the survivors; so we have been enthralled by the continuing drama of the miners of the San Jose mine in Chile;  and we have grasped the significance of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo; but there are countless more tales of miners who never got out, in spite of bravery and persistence; and, contrary to understandable adulation for heroes, the continuing story of North Korea and the rise of Kim Jong-Un is a much more typical tale of our world than the brave exploits of Liu Xiaobo who might just achieve a human rights breakthrough in China. Contrary to most of our popular fiction and film, dictatorship, repression and torture are immensely effective at maintaining power and privilege; that is why they are so widely used. What we think of as democracy is fragile and, in the history of humanity, fleeting.

Politicians and philosophers rightly warn us that the price of our freedom is eternal vigilance and that phrase immediately takes me to the word vigil, the act of bearing witness in the night, usually with candles, to draw attention to an injustice; and that, in turn, leads me to the question of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: could you not watch and pray with me a while?

At first sight, our Old Testament and Gospel readings are far apart: in the first, a desperate, dusty and no doubt sweaty Jacob wrestled in the night with God and in the other an apparently buttoned-up battleaxe of a widow pesters a corrupt judge until she gets the justice she seeks. But these two incidents are inextricably connected as they each speak of getting to grips with God.

The way we think of God, what we might call our history of god, shows us how the terms of that struggle largely represent the kind of people we are; so we might call our history of God anthropocentric, in other words, it's a history of us and our God much more than it's a history of our God and us; so, through the ages, the invisible God of the Chosen People, the invisible YHWH, turns out to be Holman Hunt's The Light of The World. This is nothing strange: in Latin America you can see paintings of the Last Supper with Indian Apostles and guinea pig on the menu; in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem there is a picture of the Annunciation with a Japanese Virgin Mary; and the history of European painting from Fra Angelico to John Piper shows us how we have seen ourselves as actors in God's story and God as an actor in our story. I have put these two ideas deliberately this way round because there has been more evidence of us putting God into our story than us putting ourselves into God's story. And you only have to look at the literature from the writing of hymns to military orders of the day to see God, in various guises, supporting our form of government, judiciary, empire or social arrangements.

Now some people who no doubt know better, rather frown on this anthropocentric approach; after all, they say, we should know better: it is scandalous that we ever thought that God was on the side of our army in any war, or any army in any war; and God doesn't particularly like our form of democracy and welfarism any more than 'he' likes fundamentalist Republicans in the United States; and we ought to be careful of enculturation, of thinking that God is like us!

Well, I'm not so sure. Of course I don't want us to think that God approves of all of our political and social arrangements; but if anyone insists that God should be part of our everyday lives, and we attempt to make that a reality, God is bound to become entangled in what we think and do. It will be mighty imperfect; but that's our nature. We exist for the struggle.

And that's where we need to do better. If God and ourselves are inextricably tangled up, too often it's more like a gentleman's agreement than wrestling. In an odd way, it's near to the truth to say that when we deal with God we don't get our hands dirty. We don't fight; we don't take the risk of encounter.

How might we do better? Well, for a start, it might help if we try to get rid of as much baggage as we can, largely from painters but also from literature and commentators, and get back to the God of the bible, not content with what others say but what we find out for ourselves. Secondly, we might follow the example of the widow in Luke and persist. Jesus says that God will not give up on us but there is an equal exhortation that we should not give up on God.

But, thirdly, and by far the most important thing to bear in mind, trying to establish a deep relationship between the Creator and creatures, between God and humanity, is necessarily tense. You have heard of the expression "if it isn't hurting, it isn't working"; well, that isn't a bad way of looking at our relationship with God. If you look at it objectively, the idea of "gentle Jesus" can't be a cop-out, it's a tough act to follow; but behind that is the reality that encounter with God is right on the edge of our experience. To try to transact with God in some way is like being an athlete; if you aren't close to breakdown you haven't exerted yourself enough; and to get close to that ultimate pitch of fitness you have to work at it. Just as athletes work for unglamorous hundreds of hours in the gym for the Olympic prize, so we need to labour in unglamorous and often unrewarding prayer in order to make ourselves fit for our struggle with god. Some of us seem to be satisfied with a pallid sort of God who doesn't ask much and doesn't get much; others of us seem to be satisfied with a God who runs on fairly regular rails, with a Creed and a set of hymns; but we must do better. If God put 'himself' out to cause 'his' son to take flesh, the least we can do is to try and make a move in the opposite direction.

But the difference between our struggle and that of secular heroes is that, at the end, there will be no sad epitaphs and no wreckage; in this struggle, every one is a winner; we will triumph.