Our vulnerability and our waiting, our faith, will not be in vain.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 11th August 2019 at 11.15 AM
In the novel Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, (some of you may know the film) one of the stories concerns a human clone, manufactured to perform menial tasks in a restaurant, fed on something called ‘soap’, living a life confined entirely to her place of work. These fabricants are told a story, which becomes for them a matter of faith, that at the end of their working lives they will be exalted to a higher, happier realm of existence. This transition takes place on a ship, called the Xultation, which docks periodically in the nearby port, and to which older fabricants are taken.
But the story of a higher, happier realm of existence turns out to be the most horrific lie. The ship is in fact a large recycling unit, where fabricants are terminated, and turned into the soap that feeds those who continue to work as slaves.
As dystopic visions go, it is pretty horrific, and it is hard not to hear in David Mitchell’s fiction an echo of the Marxist critique of religion: the promise of an afterlife used to legitimise economic exploitation; the promise of heaven used by the powerful to keep the proletariat quiet, compliant and enslaved.
While we might humbly acknowledge the element of truth in this analysis, we would surely want to argue that even if religion is abused in this way, sometimes, it doesn’t thereby render religion untrue.
The fabricants were fed a cynical, humanly-conceived lie. The gospel, on the other hand comes to us as a promise that is beyond human conceiving. The writings of the New Testament themselves, and the doctrinal discussions flowing from them, are all, quite consciously, wrestling with something that has been ‘given’, and which proves, again and again, to be highly resistant to human manipulation, to any attempt to finally nail it down; constantly subverting all attempts to turn it into a set of tidy teachings, let alone a theological justification for the political status quo. The Gospel itself never ceases to be revolutionary, beyond human control, requiring a never-ceasing effort of interpretation; constantly re-emerging as an agitator and an irritant to the powers-that-be.
However, in our cultural context, people are quick to assume that because religion can and has been used as an instrument of oppression, that it must therefore be a lie. This is a serious challenge.
And this challenge is only compounded by the appalling history of abuse within the Church which has been slowly and painfully coming to light over a number of years now. Religion mis-used as a context for abusive power-relationships, and religious institutions incapable or unwilling to address it. The discovery that ‘Religion can be used as a context for abuse’ leads easily to the assumption that religion must therefore be itself abusive; a lie told by those who want to maintain their own abusive power.
It is common at this point for us to want to make a distinction between the potentially abusive institutional structures of religion and the faith itself—separating, as it were, the Church from the Gospel. Certainly, for some who have been abused it feels important to make that clear distinction, if they are to keep any purchase on the love of God in the light of their experience.
But, such a strict separation cannot ultimately be sustained. The institutional structures cannot simply be done away with—they are essential to our reception of the faith and for its communication—but they must be reformed, constantly, in order for the faith to be communicated more truthfully, and in order that the inevitable structures of power are constantly scrutinised and clearly accountable. The Gospel must remain an agitator and an irritant not just to the powers-that-be in the world, but within the Church itself. It’s a matter of keeping us all honest, and especially those to whom we entrust authority and leadership. None of us, least of all priests and bishops, will manage to be Christ-like without this kind of help.
The Church, of course, is not alone, but it has proved itself particularly vulnerable to the kind of betrayal of trust that the clerical abuse scandal so painfully represents—and, more widely, the betrayal of the trusting masses who accepted the hope of eternal life from the hands of those who were softening them up for a lifetime of economic exploitation.
‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, (we heard in the epistle) the conviction of things not seen.’ It is too easy for such faith to be manipulated, precisely because it deals with things hoped-for rather than anything that can be clearly demonstrated. Perhaps we are only just waking up to the sheer responsibility we bear as the Church, because in the arena of faith every one of us is a vulnerable adult—or more properly an ‘adult at risk’—peculiarly vulnerable to those who might want to manipulate us, and our hopes for this world and the next.
Jesus tells his little flock in the gospel reading that they need to be ready, at any moment, for the coming of the Son of Man, and the fulfilling of the Kingdom that he proclaimed. He calls them (and us) into extraordinary vulnerability—selling possessions, giving alms, living the kind of life that treasures things that cannot be seen or possessed, but only hoped-for—living in a constant state of readiness which is inevitably going to be disadvantageous when it comes to earthly possessions and security.
They have to live in a constant state of unknowing—the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour, he tells them. Nothing renders us more vulnerable than being in the dark—waiting for we know not what and we know not when—few of us cope well with feeling so powerless. The writer to the Hebrews goes so far as to commend those who died before they saw any fruition of their hopes, before they could taste the fruits of God’s promise. The risk of being exploited couldn’t be higher.
One of my colleagues reminded me that there is a parallel here with those who built this Abbey over so many centuries. They chiselled away at their own little bit in their own little time, but could have little conception of what it was all for, or what it would all look like. They must have asked themselves what it was all really about. Was their labour being exploited for the sake of some enormous Royal folly?
I suspect we all experience times when life makes little sense, when the big picture is obscure, when we feel like we are hanging onto faith with our finger-nails, if that. Well, this seems to be the kind of faith that is asked of us, ultimately—vulnerable and almost completely unknowing.
So why would we trust Jesus, especially given the Church’s rather patchy record when it comes to protecting the vulnerable? Why wouldn’t we just cut to the conclusion that everything is ultimately meaningless—that heaven could easily be a lie—and claim back whatever little bit of power and control we might be able to exert here on earth, for now at least?
There are certainly days when I feel the appeal of this nihilism—it has an alluring cleanness about it. You live, you die—that’s it. No need for Church; no need for faith. Might as well just be part of one big pitiless recycling scheme. But there is always something else that won’t quite lie down—something that just won’t stay dead however hard it gets beaten. Something that emerges, eventually, in its own time, despite the devastation of disaster and betrayal, despite the failures of institutions, despite the predations of the powerful. And this is something that only the Gospel can account for. Call it love, call it resurrection.
Jesus asks a great deal of us—to wait in vulnerability and unknowing for we know not what, and we know not when. But he gives us this meal, this feast, as a pledge and a promise of the Kingdom of heaven. He offers us not some soft soap, but his own vulnerability—his own abused, crucified, and risen self in bread and wine—to assure us that this heaven is no lie, and that our vulnerability and our waiting, our faith, however abused, will not be in vain.