Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

Deal or No Deal – Sermon 7th March 2010

One of the old words that’s apparently acquired a marvellous new life in teen and twenty-something culture is “random”.  Something happens unexpectedly, and “Wow, that was totally random…” Or “This totally random person came up and said…” Apparently, a young man terminating his relationship with his girlfriend for no good reason is known as a “totally random babe dump.” Something meaningless can be “random,” so can something that just doesn’t fit in to the story of your life at the moment.  You might say that part of the experience of life nowadays is a load of random stuff.

Here’s something random.

For years, Carolyn and I watched Neighbours. Our excuse that we’d started watching when the children were babies, and after their middle of the day feed, one of them would go to sleep on each of us. Pinned to the settee, we naturally watched whatever was on TV. For years, Neighbours was the only soap-opera we watched. Finally, about a year ago, the bizarre plots and amoral, manipulative characters got to be more than flesh and blood can stand, and we stopped. 

And another TV routine promptly took its place.

Now, about 5.15, we sit down to watch the second showing, on Channel 4+1, of Deal or No Deal, hosted by Noel Edmonds.

It’s mesmerizing! Twenty-two big red boxes, each with a sum of money on a plaque inside its lid sealed shut, and placed before twenty-two competitors. The sums rise from 1p in uneven steps up to a quarter of a million pounds; eleven of the amounts are on blue plaques; they are the sums under a thousand pounds. The eleven amounts above a thousand are in red.

Each day, one contestant is selected to play “her game.” After a long wait – participating in the game must be a bit like jury service, and I’ve no idea how they organize it – she takes her box, comes forward, and places it on a central table. The sum of money displayed inside it, which she can have no way of knowing,  is what she will take home with her if the game plays through to its end.

In a series of rounds, the player chooses other contestants, one at a time, to open their boxes. Each revealed sum is removed from the big game-board.

The other component in all of this, however, is the contribution of a figure known as “The Banker,” who never appears. He speaks to Noel Edmonds – and sometimes to the competitors – by telephone. After each round he offers to “buy” the box in front of today’s competitor for a sum of money.  His role is to try to get the competitor to settle for a sum that will cost him less than if the competitor presses on to try to win one of the big sums still in play, and maybe therefore still be in the box in front of her.

The Banker thinks about: how many big sums of money are still in play on the game board; which sums – were they big or small? – were taken out of the game during the previous round; and also how confident, or even reckless, today’s player seems. Does she feel it’s her day? Does she feel that her box contains a really big sum? And how likely, statistically, is it that that might be true?

So either the contestant of the day accepts the banker’s offer to buy her box, (“Deal!”) or she presses on to another round. (“No deal!”) A run of low-value boxes opened will mean an increased, maybe hugely increased, offer, or a string of high-value boxes lost will mean that the previous offer is slashed in value. 

You look at the format, and you think: “It’s a game of chance! And that’s all it is!” How could a format like that possibly sustain the interest of a TV audience for more than a week or two? 

But if the game is just a game of chance, the programme isn’t. Because – and here’s the really crucial thing – there is also the way in which, as each game unfolds, Noel Edmonds and the contestants talk about it.  Edmonds himself is clearly a genius at manufacturing meaning. He invites this week’s randomly selected contestant to “Take the Walk of Wealth.” After days of waiting, he reminds them that “This is your game, Senga…” and the possibility is held out to them that they might win “life-changing money.” The contestant is invited to bow to the two rows of other contestants, the “East Wing” and the “West Wing.” The studio audience is referred to as “Pilgrims,” and at various points the box in front of today’s contestant is referred to as “your destiny…” “Senga – you dealt at £26, 000, but was it your destiny to win the quarter of a million…?” – and the oddly religious overtones of all of this start to become unmissable.  Some of the language is just decaffeinated superstition: Box 22 seems to be held as especially unlucky, and is referred to as “The Death Box” even though it produces good results as often as bad – in other words, statistically, and by chance. But the talk about meaning circles around the hard realities of the gameas it stands, the possibilities of things improving, or – and this is crucial – the need to accept that this is how things are.

Really interesting things happen when people start telling their personal stories, and opening up about what a substantial sum of money would do to change their lives. Noel Edmonds is brilliant at this sort of thing. He teases elements of their stories out of people, but often heads off, in a very sensitive way, the temptation for them to tell too much. Yet often it’s clear that here are people with hopes and dreams. And sometimes people who would be helped a lot by a middling-sized sum of money press on, in the hope that this is their day, that the chance is there that by opening the right sequence of randomized boxes, they could win really big money. And sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes people forego the bird in the hand, and leave with nothing.  Sometimes – as Noel Edmonds himself puts it – “courage is rewarded”; and sometimes it isn’t.

And when it isn’t, what is significant, and often very poignant, is the way in which a whole structure of belief – “This is my day, my game…” – often supported from the sidelines by contestants shouting encouragement like “You’ve got to believe in yourself…” or “You need the faith to go on…” or “You’re only here once;  you have to have the faith that this is your day…” can just collapse at the very last moment, when the wrong boxes are opened.  And in fairness, Noel Edmonds and the unseen Banker – who often comes up with mathematical analyses of the chances of doing well – often pitch in to try to talk down this kind of reckless talk.

But it isn’t just reckless talk; it’s reckless religious talk.

And what’s staggering to realize is that we hear a lot of it nowadays within the Christian tradition. “You have to have faith… You have to believe…”

And some people would just respond to this observation by saying “Well yes! Of course!  Isn’t that what faith is all about?”

Which is a very good question – but only if we are prepared for the answer “No…”

Our next hymn is actually an extended meditation on this very subject. Note the second couplet of verse one especially, as we sing it, note also that it’s been changed slightly in CH4, from

Me through change and chance he guideth,

Only good and only true. 

I think they were just trying to get rid of that old-fashioned “guideth” – but what does the additional word “safe” do to the sense? I’m not sure, and it’s something to think about. But as we sing, let the words of the hymn interact in your minds with what we’ve just been saying about Deal or No Deal…

[Hymn 192: All my hope on God is founded…]

On one level, Deal or No Deal is about negotiating your way through stuff that happens.  Random stuff. But it’s also about spreading a net of meaning over the random stuff. And you can do this broadly in two ways. You can do it in terms of the way things are actually going, or you can do it in terms of the way you really want them to go.

Here’s some more random stuff, but of a very different order.

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. [Clearly this is an incident suppressed by the usual rather indiscriminate violence of Roman colonial policing.]He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans…? Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?

Stuff happens.

And, says Jesus, you can’t draw any conclusions from that. Such as: their game went badly, yours will go well; they must have been bad people, but because you are good people, you don’t have to reckon with random stuff like theirs. It doesn’t work that way. That’s not the way the world is.

Because we don’t live in Haiti, we weren’t affected by the earthquake in Haiti. And we don’t live in Chile, either. If we had, we wouldn’t have been spared the devastation.

Neither do we live in Iceland, and the rather unpleasant things that are being insinuated about the Icelanders because they voted in their referendum not to accept a severe regime of repayment to make good the fallout from their particular version of the banking crisis and credit crunch shouldn’t blind us to the fact that this was, for most Icelanders, as much something that happened to them as it was, for us, something that happened to us. It’s so easy to insinuate that people are in bad places because they are bad people – unlike us (because that’s always what we are really saying). That’s the standard Pharisaic practice, and even the disciples sucked that one up. This man is blind because he was born in sin.  Was it his sin, or his parents’? And Jesus says “It’s nothing to do with sin. It’s stuff that happened. The important thing is what happens next, because that’s about what God does…”

So Jesus says to the people who report to him, maybe a tad judgmentally, even gleefully, that a Roman police operation has generated some “collateral damage” – “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” “Don’t let that distract you. That doesn’t mean that you are better than them. Just because stuff happened to them…”

There was a report this week on the BBC that a huge percentage of the aid generated in 1985 for the Ethiopian famine was siphoned off to arm the soldiers of the various warlords in the area, One of the truly dispiriting things about it was the way in which people jumped on a vicious and unpleasant bandwagon. Things like “Well, that’s just Africa, isn’t it?” and “I’m so glad now that I didn’t donate!” – and much worse. The report seems to have been substantially discredited, but even if there is substance in it – and this isn’t something we can afford to be naive about if we truly want to help Africa – there is something quite revolting about the impulse to blame starving people for their own fate. And it’s connected to this understanding that my current good fortune must be a sign of God’s blessing, and their catastrophe is somehow their own fault, and maybe even God saying so.

If that is truly how we believe – what happens when things go badly for us? What happens when difficulties descend on our lives? Where does God go then? More even than that – and here we are in Lent, with Holy Week speeding up – if we really do believe, even in some recess of our being, that God is correlated with success, and prosperity, and things going well for us; if we really do believe  that faith is supposed to solve the problems of living, so that all our difficulties go away, if we really do believe that faith is supposed to make the real world soft and pliable, and melt away its jaggy edges – what sense can we make of the Cross?

So what is faith about?

It’s about where we are in the real world. It’s about taking the real world totally seriously, radically seriously. It’s not about wishing, or dreaming, or imagining what could change our living for the better – like winning one of the big “Power Five” boxes, from £35, 000 to a quarter of a million, on Deal or No Deal.

Faith, for us, is the faith that God will bring us through. In ways we can’t understand, in situations that terrify us and sap our strength just from thinking about them, in circumstances where everything seems to go wrong, and nothing right, it’s trust that God is still with us, and we are his, and that his demand that we be faithful, and do what we must do, is met by his total commitment to us.

Because faith is following Christ through the real world, and having him go before us – “the author and pioneer of our faith…”

Duty and promise belong together: living as we should live in a world where we have to live here, now, like this; but trusting and knowing that God will bring us through.

Hear Christ call

one and all

those who follow shall not fall.

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