Friday, August 06, 2010

Pentecost +11C

In the recent TV series, Life on Mars, detective Sam Tyler gets shot by a drug dealer and wakes up in 1973.  Once a cop, always a cop, I guess – so he finds himself still working at the same inner-city police station in Manchester in a CID squad led by a boozy, on-the-take DCI who gets results the good old-fashioned way using violence, corruption and gut instinct.  Has Sam gone mad?  Is he in a coma?  Has he really travelled back in time?  What can he do to get back to 2006?  Sam is suffering from the worst-possible case of culture shock, bewildering cops and robbers alike in 1973 with his new-fangled 21st century ideas, getting the occasional cryptic message from 2006, all the while looking for clues, trying to work out what he’s here for, what he has to do in order to get home.  Meanwhile his romantic interest in 1973, uniformed police officer Annie Cartwright, gradually comes to realise that it’s a choice between believing Sam is off his rocker, or that she herself is a figment of his imagination.

Welcome to the world of the letter to the Hebrews.  To be fair, it’s not just the writer of Hebrews who works on the assumption that the world we live in is just a pale imitation of reality, a sort of maze we wander around in while we try to figure out how to get home.  Some Christians live like that, even today.  But we need to start at the beginning, and we’re going to need to help of St Augustine to make sense of it all.

Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading this morning that where our treasure is, our hearts will follow.  He isn’t just being poetic, this is straightforward, practical advice.  Your treasure is what you invest in, where you put your energy, what you commit yourself to; and Jesus is telling us that what we do with passion and energy and commitment, we come to love.  You might think it should be the other way around – that what you love, you work for – but Jesus is too good a psychologist.  He knows that what builds love is work and energy and commitment.  What you take seriously, what you’re prepared to spend your time and energy and resources on, that’s what you’ll come to love.  It means that love doesn’t just happen, we choose it by deciding what we’re prepared to give ourselves to.

So where do we put our energy – in this world or the next?  Where do we save up the sort of currency that doesn’t get nibbled away by the inflation of disappointment and failure and wasted good intentions?  What lasts?  Which world is our true heart’s home and how do we learn to invest in it?

This is a real question for Christians who, from time to time, feel that they’ve lost their way, wonder whether their lives are really headed somewhere, whether their faith is ultimately just a dead end, or who just feel spiritually run down.  And the writer of Hebrews starts today’s passage with this wonderful, elliptical definition: ‘faith’, he tells us, ‘is the assurance of things unseen’.  All the way through his letter he has been reassuring his community who apparently are facing persecution or disappointment with the promise that there is something more secure, more enduring and infinitely more worth having than everything that their faithfulness has cost them.  And he makes the big claim that the perspective of God is wider than the perspective of the here and now, that there is something more permanent that we are heading towards that makes it all worthwhile.  Maybe as 21st century Christians we can relate to this - most of us, after all, grew up in a Church that was the hub of the community, the socially respectable place to be in a world that for the most part listened to what the Church had to say.  But somewhere along the way the pattern changed, we started to feel - not persecution, exactly, but the dull frustration of belonging to a Church relegated to the sidelines, an irrelevant Church, a Church that has to recalibrate its message in order to be heard at all in a culture that is tuned to a different wavelength.  And Hebrews says, if you feel you don’t quite belong, that’s because you don’t.  Your true home isn’t here.  Your true travelling companions are the ancient heroes of faith who stuck with confidence to what they believed and remained faithful to it.

And our passage gives the example of Abraham, always a good example if you are talking about the sort of faith that takes risks, that dares to trust even though the outcome can’t be seen.  And Hebrews reminds us Abraham sets out on the strength of God’s promise of a bright future, then gives the story a bit of a twist by saying that the promise Abraham was travelling towards was not earthly descendents or the physical land of Canaan but a heavenly city, the city of God or the temple of God of which earthly cities and temples are just pale copies.  Well, of course, at one level the writer of Hebrews is just making this up.  If you read Genesis, Abraham packs up and leaves Mesopotamia on the promise of real descendents, real grazing land and a bit of elbow room.  There’s nothing in Genesis to even remotely suggest that Abraham would have even known what this heavenly city was supposed to be about.  God’s blessings in Genesis are always connected with good earthy realities in the lives of men and women.  The writer of Hebrews is simply using what we politely refer to as poetic licence.

On the other hand, he’s got a point.  Abraham, he’s saying, is driven by something he can’t articulate or explain.  That beneath the hard-headed decisions of our lives there is a longing for something without which we are never quite complete and never quite arrive.  That what drives Abraham’s life and ours as well is the need to be where God is.  And that the pioneers of our faith have recognised this and responded to it, that they have dared to travel by the invisible compass of faith, and that, in a sense, unless we allow ourselves to be pulled by the deep-down ache for what we can’t name but know as the promise of our own completion – unless we are prepared to make that fearful and open-ended journey of faith then we lose our moorings, preoccupied with what doesn’t really matter and pushed around by the external circumstances of our lives.

It’s true enough, but then Hebrews pushes a step further, with half an eye, it seems, on the fashionable philosophy of the day that says the real world is not this one.  Created things are just shadows of what is really real, just copies of which the reality is in heaven.  Abraham, the writer of Hebrews insists, refuses to settle for the pale imitation of God’s promises in the here and now, because he knows he is just passing through and doesn’t really belong here, and that his true home and his true goal is in heaven.  (Although of course the real Abraham of Genesis was more than happy to settle for actual cattle and land and descendents).  And Hebrews suggests that God approves of Abraham, basically, because Abraham doesn’t get distracted by all this not-quite-real stuff that he is travelling through.

Which, basically, is where it starts to get a bit scary.  Because it leads to a sort of Christianity that says, look, this world is just a practice one, not for keeps so we don’t have to really look after it or worry too much what happens in it.  A sort of Christianity that withdraws from the problems of the real world, and that refuses to speak out against injustice or human activities that destroy the natural environment.  A sort of over-spiritualised Christianity, in other words, that is not much help to real people in intolerable circumstances, and that also fails to see the joy and beauty in God’s creation.  The sort of Christianity that deprives us of the opportunity, not only to experience the simple joys and pleasures of life in the real world, but for compassion and deep engagement with the world we live in.  The sort of Christianity, in other words, that doesn’t look anything like Jesus of the Nazareth.

Which brings me to St Augustine, who, 250 or so years later, pointed out something so simple that it needed a lifetime of thought and prayer to realise.  ‘Well’, he says – more or less – ‘if the created world is only let’s pretend and the only really real world is in the mind of God that’s perfectly OK.  Because the Word of God – the creative self-expression of God that sets creation going – is also Jesus who is born and lives in this world and that’s what makes it real and holy’. [1] Creation – which from the very beginning is the Word of God in flesh and blood – is joined to God’s own life because God chooses to step inside, to live and die and rise again in order to communicate that here and now and nowhere else is where human creatures get to be sacraments of salvation.  Which makes the here and now pretty special, and serves to remind us that every single day is a never-to-be-repeated opportunity to enact God’s love.

But how do you invest in it?  Sam Tyler, it seems to me, never does quite work out which of his two realities is the real one, but he eventually works out that the one he has to take the risk of being real in himself, is the one where Annie is.  You make your decision, and you store up your treasure because the only alternative is to be disconnected.  Choosing not to put your money where your mouth is, means choosing not to be real yourself.  But how?  Coming where it does in Luke’s Gospel, just after the parable of the rich fool, the answer is obvious.  Build up your treasure by giving it away.  What are you giving yourself to?  That’s where your heart really is.


[1] A very loose interpretation of the position Augustine takes in de ideis,  concerning middle Platonism’s doctrine of divine ‘ideas’.