Posted by: owizblog | February 22, 2013

Interesting Times: Sermon, Kilbarchan East, 21 November 2010

I

This isn’t a hint for what I’d like for Christmas; my family already have the information they need.

There’s a new advert out, for a coffee-maker. George Clooney – for it is he – is dispensing himself an espresso from a bank of state-of-the-art coffee-machines in a state-of-the-art coffee shop. The sophisticated woman seated next to him smiles with a suave raised eyebrow of recognition. At the counter, a warmly-intelligent and sophisticated young woman hands him one of those upmarket carrier-bags; you know: thick, crinkly paper and string handles that are soft and almost woollen to the touch. “Here’s your machine, sir…”

Out steps Mr. Clooney into the brilliant sunshine of a swish city street, looks up – and, like Tom in that Tom and Jerry cartoon, beholds a grand piano inexplicably falling from many storeys up, on his head. Fade to black, and Mr. Clooney, under a different, somehow cooler and more impressive blue sky, is walking up an immense white staircase swathed in clouds, towards a solitary figure in a white suit. Everything, apart from George himself and the blue sky, seems to be white, or dressed in white…

“Where am I?”

“Take an educated guess…”

“It’s not my time…” pleads Clooney, with sad dignity.

The figure’s eyes go to the upmarket carrier bag, with the upmarket coffee-maker.

“Maybe we could make an arrangement…”

Fade to black again, and George C. is once more coming out of the coffee-house, but this time the falling piano misses him by eighteen inches.

And the message is clear. All the beautiful, refined people in George Clooney’s world, even George himself, desire good coffee. Even St. Peter in heaven, with all that heaven has to offer, desires a coffee-maker such as this.

 

Don’t you desire one too?

It’s not quite Clooney’s finest work; that, as you’d expect me to say, is the science fiction masterpiece Solaris. But it’s pretty good.

Desire. It’s what drives our society.  Though at the moment, it’s not managing that too efficiently…

II

There can’t be many of us who haven’t heard the so called “Chinese curse”: “May you live in interesting times.” There can’t be many of us who haven’t either used or heard it while reflecting on the state of the world we are living in. Yet still it makes us shudder from its understated power. However much we say we long for more excitement, less routine, in our lives, we draw a lot of comfort from all those predictabilities that come together to make life boring and safe. We play off the boring, and the safe, against the bits of adventure we do subscribe to. We say that we would like a bit more adventure and excitement in our lives. But the truth is that we like the interesting bits of our lives to shine like jewels against the dark velvet cushion of the predictable. The uninteresting. And now, we find, the times have become “interesting.”

And we hear the curse: “May you live in interesting times.” And we shudder at the threat.  Because now, we worry about the actuality.

Apparently, though, this is merely the first of three “Chinese curses” of increasing severity.  Savour them, and the escalating threat they contain.

  • May you live in interesting times.
  • May the government become aware of you.
  • May you find what you are looking for.

Well, in these “interesting times” one component of our unease might well be that the government has become aware of us. I don’t mean this in a party-political sense. Cuts, taxation, funding of local government services, public sector employment, benefits, things that have just been part of the background of our shared life in society, some of them touching us directly, some of them just numbers we would hear read on the television news occasionally; yet now, suddenly, it all seems to apply to us. It’s all become personal, because the numbers are changing, and the numbers behind the numbers are huge, and some of the numbers are to do with Ireland, and Greece, and the Euro zone, just as not long ago they were to do with sub-prime debt in the U.S. Yet these huge numbers aren’t distant. They are to do with us, and what our lives are going to be like. And it feels as though each one of us has come to the attention of the systems that run the world.

May the government become aware of you…

May you find what you are looking for…

And that’s the most chilling curse of all. What were we looking for, through the credit boom, the house price inflation boom, the years when consumer spending spiralled up on wings of consumer debt? Were we looking for the happiness you can get from things?

Were we looking for this?

Did we know what we are looking for?

And maybe this is a good moment to ask: do we know what we are looking for?

III

And that’s not a stupid question. The great psychiatrist – and that word means “doctor of the soul” – Sigmund Freud, taught us that desire is basically for what we don’t have. As soon as we get what we want – desire moves on. I can certainly remember wanting something for Christmas with all my heart, when I was a child (and a lot more recently than that, if I’m honest!) and getting it – and twenty minutes later, playing with the box.

May you find what you are looking for…

Because desire is not the same as hope.

And part of what has happened to us as a society, is that we have been a society built on, fuelled by, desire. And desire is a picture of what we want, that makes us yearn for it. And it doesn’t have to be our picture. In fact in our society, it usually isn’t. That’s what advertising is for. That’s what the adverts are.  Pictures of desire, with an invitation to make this our desire!

If what we want is to get back to where we were before, that isn’t hope. It’s desire. It’s desire, not hope, because we didn’t know where we were before, but that was OK, because there were possibilities, and we could pick among all the possibilities, and desire them. The meaning of that second curse – “May the government become aware of you!” – is that we aren’t left to ourselves. We are hedged in, fenced about. We don’t have a limitless range of possibilities. There are harsh realities that get in the way of our desiring.

On the other hand, if we have a clear picture, or think we do, of where we want to go, what we want to happen, if we think we know what we desire, then we head off towards it – but when we get there, it isn’t at all what we wanted, or where we wanted to go. We look back nostalgically, to the days when the only people who knew the name Northern Rock were the people who had mortgages with Northern Rock. But do we really want to go back to those days?

Why?

So that we can travel again from there to here?

Desire doesn’t get us out of the loop. In fact, it’s desire that fuels us as we travel round and round on the loop, like some endless bypass that keeps us within sight of a destination, but never gets us there. Desire, you see, isn’t hope.

So what is hope?

Hope, as Paul tells us, is very closely related to faith. And faith, as we have said so many times before, is trust.

 

 

 

 

Jeremiah, in this morning’s reading, stands at the end of a political process built on desire. On what we want – even though we don’t know what we want. Eighth-century Israel and Judah were wealthy societies, but deeply divided, powered by an economics of desire, of conspicuous consumption, of acquisition. Amos, in the middle of that century, had weighed into them:

[T]hey sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes – they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted

Isaiah of Jerusalem was seeing and saying the same sort of thing:

Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field,until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.

The Assyrians came along and finished off the Kingdom of Israel before that century was out; the little hill-kingdom of Judah, with its disproportionately big capital of Jerusalem, hung on through the next century and into the following one, on the basis of compromise in the present, and a strange attitude to the future that may have looked and felt a lot like hope, but was really just desire – for God to put back things just the way they liked them, just the way they thought they remembered them, just the way they thought they should be.

 

Just the way they desired.

But, says Jeremiah, this is real life. And real life, ultimately, isn’t about what you desire, but about what comes your way, and about what you need.

And, says Jeremiah, what you need is hope.

Because hope is trust in God.

Not in a specific future, not in a future as we can imagine it, or as we can plan or dictate it. Hope is the radical trust in God which sets us free from all of that. Which breaks the curse:  may you find what you are looking for. Because hope directs us to look in all things for God.

Perhaps the greatest prayer on desire ever written is that of St. Augustine.

You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.

Of course, St. Augustine also wrote what may be the most insightful prayer into desire – a prayer he wrote before his conversion to Christianity, when he was still living the desire-fuelled life of a sophisticated and sensuous intellectual in the later Roman empire:

Lord, make me chaste and continent – but not yet.

We smirk and snigger at that, when perhaps we ought just to laugh out loud at its outrageous honesty. Chastity and continence may not be everyone’s issues – but putting off a wrestling with the real meaning of our existence, in order to pursue desire from this butterfly moment into the next, well, we all know about that. Didn’t we open the sermon with an advert in which George Clooney puts off heaven, in order to have some time with his sophisticated coffee machine?

Lord… not yet…

But when the future is cut off from our imagination, and we can’t see a clear way from here to there, when the present has closed in on us and the past caught up with us, when life has become interesting, and the eyes of authority are taking an interest in our lives with a view to shaking them up, and we realize that we now seem to have what we had been wanting all this time, and are asking ourselves is this it…?

 

When there is no room left for desire…

Then what we have is hope.

Did you see how I put that?

I might have said “All we have is hope.”

But I didn’t. I said:

 

What we have is hope…”

Because when everything else has gone, hope is still everything.

 

Because that’s where God is.

Jesus hangs on the cross, and two men on either side of him. Each of them has come, a cynic might say, to the most interesting of times.  Each of them is here because they have come to the attention of the government. Jesus too, of course.  And, as the second thief points out, after the first has done with insulting Jesus, each of the two of them is there because they have, in the most terribly ironic of ways, attained what they wanted all their lives. This is it.

We indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds…

And then he nods in the direction of Jesus, who also is there because everything he did, everything he was, everything his life was about, has put him there. In that sense, you could say, this is Jesus of Nazareth “finding what he is looking for…”

Yet the second thief adds:

… but this man has done nothing wrong.

And a penny seems to drop. He seems to grasp something about this man whom the Romans are killing to show that he is no threat, no power, no king.

And he says:

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Hope. Not just when the future seems clouded and uncertain. When the future is gone. When there is nothing but the present, and there should logically be nothing beyond that. When desire is irrelevant, and the past catches up with the present, and seems to snuff it out.

Hope. There, still, is hope. Because there, still, is God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis on the ninth of April 1945, when the Americans were known to be within six miles of the Flossenburg concentration camp. There was no hope for the Nazi regime he had sought to help overthrow; characteristically, they seem to have wanted to extinguish the hope the Christian minister stood for, even as Gotterdammerung enfolded the Third Reich.

Yet Bonhoeffer’s last recorded words were “This, for me, is death – the beginning of life.”

There is always hope. Because hope is where God is.

I’m not going to spell out what this means for us in Kilbarchan East. Our times are interesting, certainly. But in all this uncertainty, there is hope, because here is God. Likewise in the lives of each of us today, whatever we are facing, there is hope, because here is God. Beyond what we thought we wanted, how we though things would go, how much or how little we think we can see where things go from here, there is hope, because God is here.

Go out in that hope. That’s where God is, and nothing in the world can take it from you. Go out in that hope. And do have coffee after the service.

And do watch out for falling grand pianos.

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