Posted by: owizblog | February 5, 2013

Personal Mail and a Bendy World – Sermon, Kilbarchan East, 7th October 2007

Lamentations 3:19-26, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

Somebody – I don’t know whether it was George Burns, or Sam Goldwyn, or Groucho Marx – once said “Sincerity is everything. If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made…”

We got a fascinating piece of mail the other day. It was actually from the Royal Mail, and they clearly wanted us to feel that we were important people to them. The envelope had a mock-handwriting message just above the address window, which said “With us, it’s always personal!” My heart, like John Wesley’s, was just beginning to feel “strangely warmed”, when my eye fell to the address.

“The Occupier….”

“With us, it’s always personal…” Aye, right!

Miles Kington – I think it was – related in Punch magazine, years ago, how he’d decided to respond to a piece of junk mail as though it were something more personal. He wrote back to them. I wish I’d kept the piece, but from what I can remember, his letter began something like this. “Dear Reader’s Digest. I should like to thank you so much for selecting me out of the millions of people in this country to be included in your Prize Draw. I am overwhelmed to be considered in this way…” I don’t think he got a reply; that sort of mailshot doesn’t come from anyone who could cope with anything so personal as a reply.

That piece comes from just before they started using computer technology to put your first name and your address into the body of the letter, to make it all seem really personal. Unfortunately, computers can’t think. Which means that you would occasionally get wondrous productions like the letter about another prize draw that a young female student got, which read something like: “The prize in our competition is £25, 000! Just imagine, Miss Fiona Potts, (1) what you could do with £25, 000 pounds! You could go for a round the world cruise! Or you could buy that top-of-the-range car you have always dreamed of! Or you could redecorate the whole of Robinson College, Cambridge…”

Ironically enough, I’m almost sure I saw that one in the Reader’s Digest!

But I still think ours of the other day takes the prize for conciseness. The cloyingly personal, and the radically impersonal, held together on one envelope. “With us, it’s always personal…To: The Occupier… ” You matter. You don’t matter at all…

It struck me that these are the two poles of our experience of life in the world. On the one hand, we are reminded in all sorts of ways, especially, perhaps in graphic news reports, that we live in a dangerous world in which all sorts of dangers stalk us. And what we call “society” is millions of people whose ties to each other are radically uncertain.

On the other, all the voices of television, film, advertising everywhere, and any helpline you dial – “Please hold – your call is important to us!” – are telling you that you are not just someone who belongs in the world, but someone who is pretty close to the centre of it.

L’Oreal famously insist that their cosmetics are for you “Because you’re worth it!”

Burger King have actually used “Have it your way!” as a slogan since 1974. But they have recently reintroduced it, and the reason emerges in an interview with their Chief Marketing Officer in Working Knowledge, a weekly newsletter published by the Harvard Business School.

‘When adults have it their way at Burger King they can say to themselves, “My life is unfair, but now I’m in control. I’m the boss, if only for a few minutes.” ‘ (2)

Or think of the phone network T-mobile, that seems to be offering to sell you not just a contract and airtime, but a world with no obstacles, nothing in your way. In one of their adverts, a young man, talking on his mobile, does a backflip through an open window several flights up, and falls slowly, to the dreamlike strains of Vashti Bunyan’s Diamond Day, into a paved city square, and as he lands, the flagstones ripple softly beneath him like a quilt. The waves in the soft pavement flip him upright, and he walks off, past a cafe window, where a girl is sitting. He reaches out his hand, and the glass of the window yields like a bubble to let him touch her and say hello. In another advert, young people talk on their mobiles, and skyscrapers concertina down on themselves, as the whole cityscape flattens to let them not just talk, but see, and get to, each other.

Now, the truth is that we expect adverts to be like this. This is how we are sold things. But it’s perhaps important to ask why adverts should sell us things in this way. A world that centres on us. A world that is soft and yielding. A world in which I am number one. In which I matter, overwhelmingly.

Because the real world isn’t like that. And we know that this is so.

I wonder if you had the sense, when the short Gospel reading this morning was being read, that it sounded like bits of two readings stuck together? Not even stuck together – just lumped together with no connection between them? Firstly, there’s that famous image of faith, which Matthew (2) applies to a mountain, of telling something massive, or deeply-rooted, to move, and having it just do it:

If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

On the other hand, you have this bleak invocation of the life of a slave:

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?

What connects them together? Does anything?

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

Two sayings about faith; the effect of lumping them together is fascinating. It’s exactly like “With us, it’s personal! The Occupier, East Manse…” Luke has Jesus giving the disciples a hugely exalted view of faith as the capacity to give orders to the universe and have them obeyed. And then he presents faith as being like the life of a slave who has duties that won’t go away, and a place in the world that is prescribed, and needs to get his head around the unyielding reality of both.

Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

Faith, you might say, as the boundless understanding that the world can be changed. And faith as the grim reckoning that we’re stuck with the world the way it is. Or, to turn it round, faith saying, on the one hand, “This is the way things are – therefore this is the way God must want them…” and on the other, “God can’t possibly want things to be this way – ‘Thy kingdom come!'”

Luke takes two sayings of Jesus and puts them together, to illustrate the two sides of faith. That faith is about boundless possibilities. And that faith is about keeping the faith and doing what we must when there seems to be no possibility of change. Or, if you like, faith is what connects today with yesterday, in a constant pattern of life and witness, for which there are no prizes, because it’s just what we should do. And faith is what connects today and tomorrow by holding out the promise that they can be disconnected – that, in the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara, “Tomorrow is another day!”

[Break – sermon preached in two halves]

Faith connects the discipline – and drudgery and harshness – of today with boundless hope that things can be changed. That tomorrow can be different.

For me – and maybe you’d expect to hear me say this – the clearest place in my experience where this can be seen is in the life of the Church in Zimbabwe. God’s people bearing with a today that seems unbearable, and which seems worse than yesterday, with only the promise that tomorrow will likely be worse again. The Church just doing what it has to do, being the Church, serving God, dreadfully aware of its own powerlessness. But also the Church that knows that all things are in God’s hands, that its faith is in the one who can change all of this.

Of course, it’s possible to look at this, and acknowledge its human beauty, and the gentle, strong self-discipline of the Zimbabwean church, and ask “Well, if things are so bad, and God is able to change them, why doesn’t he?” And such a viewpoint would find nothing but problems with the perception often expressed by the Zimbabweans, that things aren’t changing because they don’t have enough faith – because they don’t have the faith that moves mountains. I should say right here that the perception of all of us who have been to Zimbabwe is that the Zimbabweans dohave that faith, and that it will eventually move the mountain – and that in all these respects, the Zimbabweans have a faith that is a salutary example for us!

But the point is that they are not where we are. We live in a culture in which moving mountains and trees and other obstacles – T-mobile will shift skyscrapers for you! – is what postmodern society is all about! If the world isn’t working properly, somebody isn’t delivering the service. And that somebody is probably God.

And we read Jesus’ words in this setting. Where, inevitably, moving mountains and trees by faith sounds like a cool way of landscaping the garden – getting it just the way we want it. And in a world of computer graphics, it’s not too hard to imagine what it would look like!

But we know, too, that alongside this bendy, yielding world where our wish is somebody’s command, is some kind of reality that isn’t that. A hard reality in which we only count as statistics, probably sales figures. A reality which is hidden from us by – well, actually, by another reality, which we know only too well. The shiny surface of this superficial world, which doesn’t have any depth.

The reality isn’t under the surface any more. The reality of our reality is that depth and surface have somehow blended together. What we know to be the case, and what we’re pretty sure is not the case, are both the same thing.

“With us, it’s always personal… The Occupier…”

In one way, we’ve lost the hard world in which faith is a daily discipline. In another sense, we haven’t yet quite discovered that ourhard world, in which faith must be our daily discipline, is the world which sells itself to us as soft, yielding, and able to meet all our needs. A world which tells us that there’s no need to hope for tomorrow – tomorrow is already here.

“One day a car will come along that is powered very differently. Dramatically enhanced performance will be combined with lower CO2 emissions… that day is today.” (3)

And that, of course, means that we don’t have to think about a day when we’ll have to reckon with global warming…

Faith that can move trees and mountains is faith in change. We hear it as faith that we will be able to arrange everything to suit ourselves – because we live in such an individualistic culture, that’s the only way we can hear it. But that’s not what the words mean. Faith that can move trees and mountains is faith that God will make things different – and faith that wants to play its part in that, by inviting God into the situation. By being taken up into what God is doing. Faith that can move trees and mountains isn’t about magical landscape gardening. It’s about standing between things as they are and things as they should be, and offering ourselves to the bringing-about of the latter.

That’s what the Zimbabwean Church know, that we have forgotten. But our job is not the same as theirs. They live in a hard, unyielding today. We live in a soft, bendy, malleable today that gives whenever we touch it. That assures us that we matter in the ways we really want to matter – even though we know that all of this is sham. It may be sham – but it’s also, for us, reality, in a way it never has been before in human history. We live in the world of real fake sincerity.

So what are we to do?

Back to the Gospel reading – faith as the boundless hope that things can be changed, faith as the grim reckoning that we’re stuck with the world the way it is. But for us, the grim reality of the world, the world the way it is, is that it promises us the moving of mountains without the changing of the world. It promises to make our dreams come true even as it takes away our hope.

But faith is bearing with the present as it is, while witnessing against it in the name of what should and shall be.Faith is taking things the way they are desperately seriously, but not so seriously that it can’t see God as the possibility of change. Faith is sticking with today, without losing sight of a different tomorrow. Faith is living fully in the reality of the world, even when this is an unreal reality, and looking beyond it. Because faith is the discipline of living with reality and living with God, and doing both at the same time.

We’re about to come to the Communion Table – the point where God’s transforming love in Christ intersects with the harsh reality of the world as it is. In effect, the foot of the Cross. And we come in this faith. We come from the world as we know it to be, and from our lives as they are. And we approach the table and are fed. And we eat and drink the promises of the Kingdom. And we go back out to the discipline of the real world. But something has shifted. In fact, everythinghas moved. Because we can look at the world the way it is, and see it for what it is, and look through and beyond it.

We have faith.

“Lord, increase our faith…”

(1) Names have been changed, to protect the innocent!

(2) You’ll find the article at http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/4105.html – it’s worth a read!

(3) This advertisement is at YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxR4K-QFCqk

(4) Matthew 17:20. Paul, of course, uses it as well, in his famous 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians.

(5) Advertisement for Toyota Lexus Hybrid Drive.

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