Posted by: owizblog | February 9, 2014

Living Life in the Dead Zoo: Sermon, UCB, 9 February 2014

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Isaiah 58:1-12; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20

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We had a great time in Dublin, thanks for asking! As far as I’m concerned, the only bits that weren’t highlights were when I was asleep – and that’s no criticism of the excellent hotel bed! And one of the best things we decided to do was to take the green Tourbus, with the audio commentary delivered live by the driver, on the basis of an extremely reasonable two-day hop on, hop-off, use it as much as you like, ticket. The open top of a bus isn’t the most congenial place in February, even as far south as Dublin, but the sheer joy of the commentary – the live interaction between the drivers and the city they loved as they drove you round it – well, to slip in a literary reference to James Joyce, it was like Ulysses on wheels, but spread over two days instead of one.

They were ceaseless in their patter, which would have graced a comedy club as a standup routine. “And here’s the statue of Justice, with her back turned to Dublin, you’ll notice. In fact, the only time that statue ever turned round was when Sinead O’Connor was performing the other side of her…” “A piece of advice, folks – if at first you don’t succeed, maybe hang-gliding isn’t the sport for you!” “My wife: I call her Google, because she knows everything…”

And every one of the drivers – and this was a personal favourite of mine – when they drove us past the wonderful Georgian buildings around Leinster House, pointed out the Natural History Museum of Ireland, with its twomillion stuffed animals, monuments of the taxdermist’s art, said “And every child in Dublin knows that as “the Dead Zoo.”

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The Dead Zoo. Isn’t that a brilliant name? The very word “zoo” comes, as we all know, is a contraction of “zoological gardens”,  derived from “zoology”, derived from the Greek word “zoe” meaning “life.” And not just any kind of life, either. As so often, the Greeks have not one, but two words for “life”. There’s “bios” which gives us “biology” and which means basically the life of something that isn’t dead, Span of life, state of life, physiological life.

“Zoe” is what life-as-existence is about, it’s the life that is really living. We said in the Nicene Creed last week that we “look for the life of the age to come” – zwh to mellontos ’aiwnos – real life, authentic, lively, death-defying (and in our faith, ultimately, death-defeating) life. I’d far rather have a zoography than a biography written about me, but zoe is impossible to capture in pages and ink, or, for that matter in a museum. The Dead Zoo. Death where there should be life.

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That’s what your shared life is like, says the prophet to the people, in our Old Testament reading this morning. The very life of your national community – your relationship with God – is dead. You go through the motions, you select and observe the religious niceties, the feasts and the fasts, the commandments you choose to highlight – but it’s a Dead Zoo.

Listen to these lines from his very angry poem. It seems to rant on about the emptiness, the hollowness – “seem”, he says, “as if”, “they say” – of the community’s life, but as the prophet rages on, we find ourselves asking, presumably as his first hearers would have been asking “What’s his problem?” “What’s actually wrong?” “What’s missing…?”

And he tells them right at the end, in the very last line.

For day after day they seek me out;

they seem eager to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that does what is right

and has not forsaken the commands of its God.

They ask me for just decisions

and seem eager for God to come near them.

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,

‘and you have not seen it?

Why have we humbled ourselves,

and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please

    and exploit all your workers.”

 

You are a Dead Zoo. The life you have, which ought to come from God, and his justice, and his love and care for all of you, is a mere existence.

Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,

and in striking each other with wicked fists…

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen…

Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed

and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Is that what you call a fast,

a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free…”

 

He’s obviously angry. But that’s not the point. The prophet is expressing God’s anger, and speaking it in God’s name. You have made the life of your whole national community about something other than what it’s supposed to be about. You have made it about rules, and regulations, traditions and performances, and not about life. Not about how people live, day by day. Not about how your shared, communal life is God’s gift, and how you must share it justly among yourselves. It’s not the life of God’s people! It’s the life of a museum…

 

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One of the reasons I use the Lectionary is that we are today considering the same readings as tens of thousands of other congregations, of all Christian traditions. Do you know what that means? It means that in churches all over Somerset, these readings – this particular reading from Isaiah 58 – will be being read also. I wonder how these words will play in congregations in the Somerset Levels?

It was a sad counterpoint to our delightful Dublin break that we were watching extensive coverage of the flooding in Somerset; such an awful and long-drawn out horror for so many people. I wonder where the thoughts of Somerset churchgoers will be this morning?

Because there are people who offer their own hyper-religious insights into what’s happening to our weather, globally. I wonder how well received an American televangelist would be in Somerset this morning, if he were to proclaim there the imbecility that the weather is caused by gay weddings!

Weather is weather – but out of situations like these there emerge profound questions about God’s demands, and they are nothing to do with gay marriage! They are to do with our shared life before God, the life of community and society, with who we include and who we exclude.

I don’t know whether, as the people there seem to feel,  the Government has “written off” the Somerset Levels. I don’t know how adequate or otherwise the Government’s response has been. I’m not in a position to assess or judge, and what really needs to be said isn’t about the Government, anyway. It’s about society. It’s about us. Are we a society that writes people off? Are we a society that won’t bear the burdens of others, weaker than we are? Are we a society that’s become so selfish that Governments of any hue daren’t tax us enough to do the necessary work of including?

Perhaps the starkness of this question is more easily seen, when the people who think that they have been written off and forgotten about are nice, articulate, middle-class people of means, with homes that they have worked for and built up over lifetimes, now rendered uninhabitable, and probably unsaleable, by the waters coursing through them.

But it’s the same question, whoever is asking it. Have we been written off? Have you written us off?  

I’m not a hydrologist. I don’t know whether the Somerset Levels can be rescued, or should, sensibly be written off – which isn’t the same thing as writing the people off.

But I do know that a society that writes people off is under the condemnation of God. Are we a society like that? A spiritual Dead Zoo, which talks about values, but has none worth speaking of.

Especially when we know how God wants things:

Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;

you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,

with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,

then your light will rise in the darkness,

and your night will become like the noonday…

 

And I wonder how this bit will sound, in the churches of Somerset this morning?

 

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins

and will raise up the age-old foundations;

you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,

Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

 

[BREAK: hymn  ]

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The prophet’s message to his people is a difficult one. It’s difficult, because it’s demanding. But it’s also difficult for us, we denizens of the twenty-first century, because it’s hard to take seriously. If we arrange our shared life, our community, the life of our society, so that it’s inclusive of everyone, then things will flourish. We’ll prosper. If we don’t do that, if we leave people out, if we don’t care how the struggling, and the weak, and the defenceless live, things will go badly wrong. The life will have gone out of our shared life, so to speak, and we will be a Dead Zoo.

But that hasn’t been the wisdom of the world for decades now. Global wisdom is that you let certain things take care of themselves, and everything will balance out. Slowly, everything will improve for everybody. The last eight years have called that set of assumptions into severe doubt; even people who hold to the basic understanding have, not just misgivings, but the most trenchant criticisms , of the way in which the interests of a few have prevailed, and the financial institutions of the world haven’t just allowed a few, unimaginably wealthy people to increase their fortunes vastly, but that the way this has happened has actually destroyed wealth. It isn’t just that as the wealth of the planet has increased, some people have got a bigger and bigger share of the cake. It’s that the cake hasn’t grown as much as it could have – that wealth has actually been destroyed – by the way global finance has enriched itself. And that’s not Karl Marx talking. That’s the internationally-respected, Nobel Prize winning economist Josef Stiglitz, a man praised for his understanding, explanation and defence of many aspects of the way the world economy works. That’s how he sees things.

The problem is imaginging how things might be different. And Stiglitz has a really good go, in his book The Price of Inequality. But the power of the system, and the power it gives to certain interests at the expense of others, to human greed, is truly enormous. And terrifying.

And what’s it all got to do with God, anyway, you ask? Isn’t that just the way the world works?

Well, here’s the thing. What’s not to do with God? And that’s the question the prophet, the Third Isaiah, poses in our Old Testament reading.  To confine “religion” to the “religious” bits of life, to worry about the rituals and minutiae, about fasting and ritual, to become distracted from the whole of life, and what the whole of life is like for everybody, is to treat God as dead, to put the living God into a museum. To imagine that we can subject God to the spiritual equivalent of taxidermy, and to preserve God in a religious Dead Zoo.

And if it was easy for Israel, and, in the Third Isaiah’s time for the Jewish community after the Babylonian exile, to do that, to get sidetracked from understanding religion as life, and all of life as relevant to religion – if a national community could do that, could lose the sense of God’s involvement with the whole of life and experience of the world – how much easier if the community is a community within the community? If, instead of speaking to the whole people, you were speaking to a distinct community among the people?

As Jesus was?

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“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

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I was a candidate for the ministry while I was still at school. My old chemistry teacher, Islwyn Jones, once asked me what sense I made of Jesus’ saying about salt. “How can salt lose its flavor? It’s just NaCl! A sodium atom and a chlorine atom! Salt is what it tastes like! How can salt lose its saltiness, without ceasing to be salt?”

He was absolutely right. Salt without saltiness makes as much sense as a Dead Zoo. It isn’t what it is. And a community of faith in God, a community of faith in Jesus, that isn’t engaged in the whole life of the world, is a Dead Zoo, just as much as it’s the impossibility of salt without saltiness, of NaCl that tastes of nothing.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

And “your good deeds” doesn’t mean helping old people across the road (and somebody offered to help me across the road only last summer! At 56!) and it doesn’t mean being respectable. It means living out God’s love and God’s justice in a world in which that seems like irresponsibility and stupidity. It means living out the values of the kingdom, in which the first is last,  and the last is first, in a world that shows no signs of working that way. It means, as Paul said, living apparently upside down, in a world that thinks it’s the right way up.

It means watching the news coverage of the flooding in Somerset, and not sitting in judgment on your own half-baked understanding of what might or might not be going on, but being absolutely determined not to be part of a society that writes anyone off – and then applying that insight, that God-given insight, to life here on Bute.

Because our calling, as Paul says, is to know the mind of Christ.

And the mind of Christ is life, where there was only death, hope where there was no hope, and the lived reality of the world stood on its head.


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