Last week saw the publication of the annual survey of what are referred to as `British Social attitudes`. It was an attempt to provide a snap shot of where public opinion lies on a range of social and political issues and to see if it`s possible to discern any particular trends or changes. This always provides good newspaper copy and much to talk about and I noticed that this year the media were keen to highlight some findings which seem to indicate that attitudes among Christians seem rather `liberal` particularly in regard to matters of gender and sexuality than they have been in former years.
You`ll know which hot topics I`m referring to but it`s the tone of surveys like this which fascinates me. Putting it simply, I`m intrigued by two particular assumptions which seem built in to the whole process. The first is that any serious conversation or debate is frankly, closed down because it`s always taken for granted that what the majority thinks must be right.
And secondly, it always seems like an exercise in attempting to prove a particular view of the world; namely that we are on an inexorable path towards sweeping away most if not all of the patterns by which our lives have been shaped for many generations. In short, especially where matters relating to sexuality are concerned we will they imply, inevitably become more liberal and what we used to call `permissive` and of course, they say, this is undeniably a good thing.
So, that Christians might have been caught up in this is therefore a matter encouragement to them. This would seem to prove these underlying assumptions; and reaffirms that oft heard mantra that somehow it`s the Church`s obligation to `keep up with the times`; to become more modern, progressive, open, inclusive and all the rest… We hear words like these bandied around all the time, don`t we? And they tell us by way of warning, that the consequence of our failure to `liberalize` will mean we`re on the wrong side of history…..we`ll be irrelevant.
Now, I`m not going to get into any of these specific `hot topics` about which people obsess so much these days, I simply want to make the point that just in case you haven`t noticed, this is the kind of environment in which we now have to live out our faith. You hardly need me to tell you that these, shall we call them `liberalizing` influences on our attitudes and behavior are very strong indeed; it`s easy to be swept along by pragmatic phrases like `everyone`s doing it` and `it`s just the way things are these days`, isn`t it? It`s so much more convenient to assume that the only point of reference I have is whether it feels good or right to me… and besides I`m not harming anyone else….. and so on.
So how do we live in this kind of context…? How do we remain faithful to Christ? How do we discern the difference between a pattern of living which reflects God`s way for us from one which is a selling out to the spirit of an all too adolescent and self-indulgent age? Well, the first thing I would want to say is that half the battle is recognizing that there is an issue. It helps to at least try to affirm that the Christian life is not a matter of “I did it my way”, that our scriptures warn us against letting the world squeeze us into its likeness…(Romans 12.2) and that Christ tells us that `the way to life is a narrow way.. for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it`. (Matthew 7.13).
What I mean is that every so often it`s good just to acknowledge that to be a Christian is to live in a place of tension and choice. A very pointed verse in the Book of Deuteronomy says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”. (30.19)
The second thing is that we need to learn to pray with this tension. The best way to do this I think is to become familiar with the Psalms. The Psalms are the Prayer Book which undoubtedly formed Jesus… We say them at Morning and Evening Prayer… The first thing I do every day is to pray one of them. And one Psalm I often return to is the one we used this morning; Psalm 73. Not least because if you were paying attention you will have realized that it deals with this very issue of living in tension with the values of the surrounding culture.
The writer begins by saying (1) `Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart`. He knows the theory of God`s goodness and providence but looking around him he feels strangely out of sorts (2) He says, `As for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped`.
He`s perplexed, not just by the injustices of the world but by the way those who couldn`t give `tuppence` for God go along in their own sweet way and seem to thrive and prosper… (3-5)
He says, `I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
What makes matters worse is that these people revel in their good fortune-
(6-9) `Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth`.
And to cap it all they become role models… Celebrities! Everybody thinks this is the way to get on life….
Seeing no justice in the world he turns to self-pity. Verse 13 `All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning`. He clearly thinks, there`s obviously no point in all this religion, since I don`t get anything out of it; I must have backed the wrong horse.. It`s all out – dated.
But then a change comes over him….. (15) If I had said, ‘I will talk on in this way’, I would have been untrue to the circle of your children`, he says. He realizes there`s a bigger story going on; something bigger than his life experience and that not all people of faith respond to this injustice as he does. So, he`s even more perplexed… He says in verse 16 `When I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task`. It was metaphorically `doing his head in`!
But …… what makes the difference is Worship. (17) He says `(When) I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end. This is the place of vision. And what opens his eyes, what gives him a proper perspective again, is Worship. It`s here that he sees the underlying truth of things. How fragile their lives, how transitory their popularity is, how foolish their life choices. In worship, he begins to see how silly he`s been; how lacking in perspective: (21-22) `When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast towards you`. And what turns things is one word: `Nevertheless` (23-24) `Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will receive me with honour`.
It`s easy to believe that Christians might find themselves swept up in a tide of liberal propaganda. It always sounds so compelling and so reasonable, especially when you employ the language of `rights` and `equality` and `the majority says..` according to our survey or opinion poll. But it really doesn`t work like that. Our moral choices are not to be determined by the outcome of social surveys or the bland emotionalism of so-called celebrities. Neither is it a matter of enforcing rules and long lists of `thou shalt nots`… The moral life is not an exercise in avoiding walking on the cracks in the pavement… that`s really not how Christian ethics works. No, this morning I`ve asked us to reflect on one of the Psalms… a Psalm which teaches us that our understanding (and our practical action in the world) is best formed not by bullying or survey but by worship… By the vision of God and of a fully human life revealed in the Scriptures.
The Duke of Wellington once famously said that the “Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” He was basically saying that his victory depended mostly on the character of his soldiers… `Eton` represented that long period of preparation and character formation which yielded its fruit in the heat of battle. In the midst of the apparent randomness of the battlefield the men responded appropriately because their behaviors had become instinctive. The problem, as Sam Wells rightly says, is that `Ethics has become the study of the battlefield without much recognition of the training ground`. It might sound old-fashioned to talk about training in virtue but maybe that`s an indication of how formed we have been by a somewhat liberal agenda. I`m suggesting that Church, Worship… (the Psalms especially) are our training ground. It`s here that we learn to think and speak `Christian`. It`s here that we learn not to give `tuppence` for what the surveys say.
From the very beginning humankind`s greatest problem has been idolatry; wrong worship. This is what you will find at the back of most, if not all of our red hot moral dilemmas. Our Psalm highlights the importance of `right worship` (letting God be God) and provokes us to ask the question, “So, what kind of community do we need to be so that we learn to think and speak `Christian`; and form and nurture lives that will be Christ-shaped witnesses to him in the world?”