Sermon for Second Sunday before Advent – High Mass Sunday 15 November 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Two texts for you, the first from the Gospel:
Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed;
‘The devil doesn’t carry a gun: the devil carries fast food, cheap appliances and bad television.’
That’s from one of my favourite films, Children of the Revolution (the comic portrait of the rise and fall of a Union official who turns out to be Joseph Stalin’s love child).
We know, this weekend, that the devil, or someone he dupes, does sometimes carry a gun. But the serious point of both those texts is that a myopic focus on obvious evil can leave us prey to losing our souls, without even noticing. Not only should we not be perpetually alarmed, as Jesus reminds us yet again in today’s Gospel, but we should also beware all attempts by both the terrorists of this world and the powers of this world to convince us that these things are the greatest threat to our deepest selves. Attacks such as those in Paris and political constructs like ‘the war on terror’ of a few years ago are terrible but misleading signals, insistently diverting our attention from truly living, diminishing our sense of common humanity and what we know as the kingdom of God. More insidious attacks overtake every one of our lives from day to day and we fail to notice.
That film, Children of the Revolution is predicated on the primacy of human values over those of states and systems: Stalinist Communism and those who naively believed in it in places like Australia are gently mocked (my other favourite line comes from Stalin himself: ‘never underestimate Australians – they are not as silly as they sound’). It is about the importance and tragedy of the human relationships which dash themselves against ideologies in its characters’ lives and the ordinary madness which follows; not as spectacular as becoming a suicide bomber, but far more common.
Hence,‘The devil doesn’t carry a gun: the devil carries fast food, cheap appliances and bad television’, a line written and delivered even before the advent of ‘reality TV’. We are imperceptibly overwhelmed, especially in properly emotional moments of response to acts of outrageous evil, by beguiling and soulless homogenizing influences which detract from our own history and civilities. It doesn’t even take terror and murder; inadequate or corrupt planning regimes will get you there. The less and less distinctive High Streets of towns, cities and even villages are often rightly lamented; examples of homogenizing banality are not difficult to find. There is, of course, a very seductive and dangerous alternative – quaint nostalgia, ‘Heritage’ as we call it when we want funding. That seductive sense of the past, located architecturally around us here, is also addressed in today’s gospel reading.
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
I’m not suggesting, as Jesus was, that we only have about 40 years’ life left here. But the left-overs of past grandeur are salutary. Hitler’s thousand year Reich is a recent piece of laughable hubris. More tellingly, the North Africa of St Augustine’s day was a flourishing Christian civilization resting on the securities of an Empire which believed itself eternal. Within a few years of his death all was swept away, literally ‘thrown down’, yet it is his Christianity that has endured; he remains arguably the most influential Christian writer outside those who penned the scriptures. More prosaically, I think of ghost towns I’ve seen in Chile and Australia where phosphate or gold mining have come and gone and the desert is reclaiming what remains of substantial and wealthy communities and their buildings. Ancient civilizations may even be painstakingly recovered and curated, only for religious fanatics to come and blow them up. Even All Saints Margaret Street will not be here for ever either. And the belief that it will always be here (as a monument to us who have built or cared for it) is another diabolical delusion: that diverts us from the God to whom it was built as a pointer.
I didn’t come to Britain to live in a theme park. If I am asked to describe what attracted me to this society, I suppose I would scrabble about for over-used words like liberal, humane and tolerant (the echoes of Christianity, if you like). Of course those qualities are not everywhere in British society, though they do survive here to, I think, an unusual degree. But such civilities are eroded, not by some fanatical gun-toting Satan, nor one dripping with immorality and undermining wholesome family values, but by the ‘devil [who] carries fast food, cheap appliances and bad television.’ That devil is also behind wars and rumours of wars, both the terrorist-sponsored and government-sponsored, because they divide us from our neighbour in fear and suspicion.
Jesus and the Kingdom which he proclaimed were not agents of democracy, or any system of human government. He was, of course, murdered by the empire of his day, possibly because he appeared to be in opposition to it (a mistake easily made when someone speaks in metaphors about kingdoms to local civil servants of any empire), but he demanded no vengeful response to that violent crime against his person. He advocated the worth of every human being as equally children of God; proclaiming an equality located in that relationship, not in any political (or religious) system.
It is easy to be beguiled by what is easy. The ‘subprime’ mortgage scare which heralded the last financial crisis is a recent example of where that can lead (one that is stealthily returning). The end of capitalism heralded by some at that time has proved as inaccurate as many religious predictions of the end of the world as we know it. Terrorism is, horribly, easy. The careless erosion of our liberties and civilities, the content of our relationships with each other, is an equally easy response. What is difficult, but also worthy, is insisting that these liberties and civilities matter more than will be gained by losing them. They are, incrementally, lost every time we believe, share and absorb dog-whistle headlines which divide (and therefore rule) us by demonising every ‘other’ we fear.
The message of Jesus, as opposed to control-freaks, prophets of doom and fear-mongers, is always ‘do not be afraid’. The wars and rumours of wars, the terrorists and counter-terrorists are not the main game; they (and their values) are marginal to the Kingdom. You can’t say that out loud today to someone who has just lost a parent or a child or a lover in Paris, but the truth of it remains: if we are merely paralytically afraid, if do not behave as believers in the kingship of God and his will for human flourishing, if we merely capitulate to the various terrors which seek to threaten us, then the insidious empire of creeping banality and reduced humanity always wins.
God’s kingdom is one of love, acceptance and freedom from fear; its true enemy is a convenience Beelzebub.