Ill Fares the Land (Michael Creal’s Homily from January 16th)

“Ill Fares The Land”     (Jan 16, 2011)

I’ve been reading a book by a European historian whom I`ve long admired and who died not long ago of Lou Gehrig’s disease. His name is Tony Judt. This was his final book, published just last year, and it’s a study  of contemporary western culture  entitled “Ill Fares the Land.“  At the the very beginning he writes “The symptoms of collective impoverishment are all about us. Broken roads, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed the uninsured….These shortcomings are so endemic that we no longer know how to talk about what is wrong, much less set about repairing it. And yet something is seriously amiss. Even as the U.S. budgets tens of billions of dollars on a futile military campaign in Afghanistan, we fret nervously at the implications of any increase in public spending on social services  or infrastructure.`
Then consider this also courtesy of Tony Judt: in 1965 the CEO of GM took home in pay and benefits about 66 times the amount paid to a typical GM worker. Today, the CEO of Walmart receives 900 times the wages of his average employee. And, I could add that recently the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives  reported on a quite alarming but not surprising study it did of the growing disparity in Canada between the very rich and the poor.
A friend of ours who is a very successful magazine publisher  in Canada told me that when he was at a meeting of magazine publishers in Atlanta last fall, he happened to mention his concern about this growing gap between the rich and the poor to an American colleague. The person looked at him in disbelief. `But this is how capitalism works“, he said, implying that`s the way it is and there really isn`t much you could do about it and aren’t you glad you’re not one of the poor.
Well Tony Judt`s analysis is much more complex and nuanced that perhaps I`ve suggested but I haven`t distorted the main point, that there’s a profound and deadly disorder in our society and in our world.. And, it seems to me that we have to keep this big picture in mind  as we think about our life and witness as members of a Christian community.
The passage from Isaiah that was read a moment ago was addressed to people in an even more dismal situation than the one I`ve just described.  A relatively small population of Jews, a people in captivity within the great Empire of Babylon  in a world of warring imperial systems. The Persian Empire was about to overwhelm Babylon and provide liberation for the Jews but the Jewish exiles had no power, no influence and yet Isaiah has Yaweh saying “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob….I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach the end of the earth.“
Talk about the audacity of hope: the beleaguered captives in Babylon will have as their vocation to be a light to all the nations!`This is the Redeemer of Israel speaking.  I don’t know if that proposed discussion – proposed by some people on the Holy Trinity list – about the meaning of redemption actually got off the ground last week but let me suggest this. While a root meaning of redemption has to do with recovering – for a price – what one once owned – like going to a pawnbroker and paying for the release of something one had pawned, the  larger meaning  of redemption has the sense of release from some form of bondage. The release of the Jews from captivity in Babylon, for instance.
Well we might ask if we are in bondage today to  cultural norms that are embedded in a consumer society, a society that tends to see everything in terms of commodities with a price attached and to use the language of the market as though that is the ultimate language in which to communicate about life in our world.  So, to speak of things I know a little about,  universities now believe they have to market themselves to prospective buyers, their students , and indeed students naturally have come to expect good returns on their investment,  and churches have to learn the techniques of marketing if they are going to be successful and so on.  Picture Jesus, if you will, and his disciples considering how best to market the Kingdom of God and Judas, perhaps, saying, ìf we could only package this the right way, we could make a killing.` OK, a bit of hyperbole, but isn`t there a case to be made that a redemptive need in our time may be from  bondage to some of the controlling values in our culture, values that are almost second nature to us, that are humanly destructive and destructive of our world and even, perhaps, from bondage to some of the language that conveys these values without our even thinking about it? Maybe James with some of his linguistic expertise can help us here.
In the epistle, Paul is addressing the church in Corinth. He says you are certainly not lacking in gifts. And you are called into a fellowship, a community whose task it is to be the body of Christ. And that is precisely our task in this community. And, as Vivian pointed out in a recent email on the HT list, there are plenty of gifts in this communityl  And there are many expressions of Christian ministry right here  which we are called to sustain and, perhaps, expand. We do have serious financial problems to address but if the Jews captive in Babylon could eventually find a way to rebuild and see their vocation as being a light to the nations, surely we can find our way through a difficult moment in our history and imagine new and different ways of thinking and talking about our world new ways of talking about the meaning of the Gospel in our time. I`ve no doubt the moment can be redeemed and that we can  move forward with our ministry in confidence and faith and hope.
Finally, in this morning’s  Gospel we heard John`s account of the calling of the first disciples. The passage begins with John the Baptist saying behold the lamb of God who lifts up, who breaks the sin of the world. Not sins in the plural but sin, a condition of bondage to structures that compromise our humanness,  a condition that John says is broken in the very person of Jesus, whom he called the Messiah.
So to come back to my starting point, Tony Judt`s description of a culture where wealth accumulates but men decay. That`s a quotation from Oliver Goldsmith. Let`s put it in more contemporary terms: where wealth accumulates in the hands of a few and the fabric of our society decays and in parts of the world is torn to shreds.
A quick fix is certainly not on the horizon and there is good reason to distrust quick fixes but there ARE things to be done and one of the first things is to recognize that the so-called realities of our world are a human construction and we have to break our bondage to some of the ways of thinking and acting that are part of this world, that are destructive of our humanity and the environment. I offer that as a question for all of us to consider. We need to recognize the global forms of bondage that must be broken – people at kairos, for instance, are working on this level and we need to hear them and support them – and, closer to home, we need to address or continue to address the inhumanities that surround us in this city whether in terms of poverty and affordable housing, or in the growing resistance to  strangers, immigrants, refugees, or in the need to recognize the gifts of the so-called disabled or in the need to attack the continuing walls of prejudice against different sexual orientations and so on. This is our vocation. This is the vision we must keep before us as we continue to exercise our ministry as members of a Christian community here at Holy Trinity.


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