St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 9 (24.07.2016)

Tony Dickinson

One of the reasons for the startling rise of Donald Trump, and of similar populist movements around the world, is the anger which is felt by many ordinary people at what they see as their betrayal by those who have power and influence. They have indeed been given a scorpion when they asked for an egg. They have been sold a dream which has turned out to be a delusion, if not a downright fraud, and as a result they have handed themselves over to an even greater delusion, the belief that one human being (or one political party) can somehow solve all their problems – usually at the expense of other, equally marginalised groups.

Sadly, even Church leaders have gone along with this delusion. They have been seduced by its success and have forgotten pretty well the whole of the Christian tradition, summed in today’s second reading from the letters of St Paul: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” And if Donald Trump’s ego isn’t one of those “elemental spirits of the universe”, it must come pretty close!

That is, perhaps, an extreme case. There are many others. In parts of Africa and South-East Asia, as well as in the western world, Christians have parted with their money to preachers of the so-called “prosperity Gospel”, with the result that the preachers have prospered, while those who have enriched them remain in poverty. Across our culture generally there has been an obsession with success, material progress, riches and celebrity – an obsession nurtured by the tabloid press and the broadcast media and indulged by political leaders of pretty well every party.

But now the party is over and the hang-over is kicking in. Those who have are increasingly anxious and defensive and those who have not are similarly resentful and angry. Violence lies only just below the surface – and with increasing frequency it is breaking through, often in speech but also, frighteningly, in action, as the people of Nice and Munich, Istanbul and Baton Rouge have discovered in recent weeks.

These past few days have been a stark reminder that Émile Coué’s mantra “Every day and in every way, I am getting better and better” is an inadequate basis for creating human community. They have reminded us, too, that Abraham’s haggling with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah is based on rules which no longer seem to apply to our world. Here the upright citizen is just likely as the greatest villain to have her, or his, life wrecked, by the actions of a disturbed teenager or a violent sociopath. Goodness is no guarantee of protection.

So what are we to do?

First, let us take seriously what St Paul writes in his letters to the earliest Christian communities. Let us take seriously what he writes about living our lives in Christ, “rooted and built up in him, and established in the faith”, open to the promptings of his Spirit.

Second, let us take seriously the content of that faith, which is not about material success, nor about being nice people, but is about laying aside any sense of privilege or entitlement and taking seriously the pattern of a shared life in Christ. That is costly and painful. St Paul uses repeatedly the image of physical mutilation. It is centred on crucifixion and resurrection, descending to the depths before we are “raised with him through faith in the power of God”. That, after all, is the pattern of our patron St Francis, who, quite literally, stripped himself of everything that linked him to his earthly father’s wealth and power because he could see how they got in the way of his relationship with his heavenly Father.

Third, let us accept humiliation for the sake of Christ, recognising that it is not until we have faced the dark and painful places deep within us that we find the way by which to ascend towards that life in Christ for which we were created. We cannot work our passage to heaven. We cannot rise without first having fallen. It is only when we recognise that we have no claim on God other than God’s own goodness and generosity that we can receive God’s gift of life. Otherwise we remain dead in our complacency and imagined self-sufficiency. One guide to the spiritual life advises those who come to him to pray for one major humiliation each day.

Finally, let us engage with the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be, the world in which we pray, as Jesus taught us, for the coming of God’s kingdom, the world for which he died. Let us engage with that world with the same shameless persistence as the man in the story that Jesus told in this morning’s Gospel, and with the joyful hope that comes from knowing that we are the loved, accepted children of our heavenly Father – loved and accepted not because we are good, but because God is good. As St Paul reminds us it was “when [we] were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of [our] flesh” that “God… forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.”

God has cancelled our sins. God has raised us to life in Christ. God is present among us as the one who gives, the one who opens, the one who is the goal of all our seeking. And neither the gates of hell, nor the glass doors of Trump Tower, can prevail against his love. It is that love, revealed in the humiliation and helplessness of Jesus, in the darkness of Good Friday and the silence of the tomb – it is that love which has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross].”

And so to God the Father, who first loved us…