One criterion of a good sermon is movement beyond belief that can be taken for granted, into territory that and go to where it feels unsafe to the preacher, who has to address an issue personally, without being sure how it will come out. Maybe it won’t come out at all this time, and will have to be left in suspense for weeks, or forever. A preacher needs to count on the hearers’ willingness to engage in such grappling when operating in this mode of risk. Hopefully, the risk of the thing communicates as excitement; the hearers are drawn in by the spectacle of someone skating close to the edge.
A minimally honest preacher will soon be forced to address the unfairness of life. Bad things happen to good people. Bullies make headway when gentle people don’t. These facts fly in the teeth of the civic virtue of optimism, the “positive outlook” which is often taken as the litmus test of Christian faith.
The Unfairness of Life
Knowing all this, rejecting the litmus test, it is still painful to see bullies get ahead. It is tempting to think my life has some twist to it that holds me down while others go blithely on. A counselor recommended a book on self esteem, which made the flat-footed assertion that things are fair in the end. The only way this could be so would be by divine intervention outside this life. The book had nothing to say about theology; it only stated unapologetically that you’ll make yourself crazy if you believe anything else.
But was faith supposed to be a cure for craziness? No. The Gospel was and is addressed to crazy people too. Moreover, it is an end in itself, not a means to something better; not even good mental hygiene. One conundrum opens onto another.
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When a person says life is not fair, he is not necessarily complaining on his own behalf, but he is touching on a real pastoral problem. We cope with it by denial; we push it back with relentless pleasantness, the Christian rictus at coffee hour. We know the problem will be back as soon as we get to work on Monday, because other people don’t Get It as we do. For that hour on Sunday we agree to deny it among friends.
As if it were part of Gospel, Church promotes the belief that life ought to be fair. But oughtn’t it? if not for us, at least for the poor? the marginalized? the widows, orphans, and resident aliens who reverberate through the prophets? It is a vexed question. An authentic solution must confront a dilemma; trying to effect practical improvements in the world, while keeping faith without expectations. The Myth of Sisyphus is an existentialist expression of Gospel truth, more forthright than many a cheery sermon.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ holds the dilemma in perfect balance. But when we talk about him, we avoid it. We make a separation between his ministry and his death. The ministry shows us how to live; the death and ensuing events are on another plane; “theological” or “mythical.” They bring us into discourse about Resurrection. Better to leave that out of account, confine it to one day of the year, leave it to overachievers the rest of the time.
Reverting to Jesus’ ministry of works, we concentrate on his miraculous power and success, healing and feeding people. We avoid seeing the mob that gathers when it comes to the crucifixion—even demands it. So much for his attractive personality, his sweet charisma. Even without the crucifixion, in any reasonable pre-resurrection terms, Jesus is a failure. Undoubtedly there were many lame, blind, and crazy people left uncured when he departed the scene. If not, they have certainly resurfaced since. Presumably Lazarus goes on to die again.
A corrective to this avoidance is the Mass my friend Ev Simson attended in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. At the offertory, everybody pushed forward to make donations. Imagine, people crushing each other’s shoulders to get near the altar to give something, in a place where people have as close to nothing as can be. When Ev turned around to go back to his place he was amazed at the number present, standing everywhere they could find room, hanging from brackets on the walls. There is no material explanation for these people’s love. It can only be that Jesus lives in them. They have more to teach us than any number of mood-enforcing Sunday coffees.
Having admitted something of the darker aspects of life as lived, it remains true that God is Love. We persist in longing to see its manifestations. There is a constant wish to be relieved of faith by the imposition of certainty; to see God for oneself. This wish has been partially granted, as to Moses on Sinai, but only at the moment when God is in retreat. Jesus offers a vision of God in his own person (the transfiguration, the resurrection, on the road to Emmaus), but those are realized only in retrospect. But we need not despair, for a vision is available to us still, in the love we show each other. The love of God is not just a metaphor for human love, it is the sine qua non. A wise preacher told his brothers, “Were it not for the love of God, there is not a man of you I would cross the street to save.” The love of underlies human love, and exceeds every other love in importance. But even in that case, its realization is retrospective. In the moment when it is undertaken it remains a risk, performed in a vacuum, without assurance.
As Karl Rahner puts the matter in Visions and Prophecies, (1963, pages 105 – 106):
. . . divine interventions whose purpose is human salvation . . . will not take from man the burden and grace of free decision in courageous and trusting faith. They do not intend to provide man with a device for cleverly avoiding the difficult passages of his history and securing himself a safe and comfortable life (from the worldly point of view). They are not instructions for fleeing the cross of Christ. Where prophecies are so understood they are misunderstood, though genuine and of divine origin in themselves. . . . Divine prophecies will warn us against worldly optimism, against the mania for progress and against the utopian attempt to realize on this earth a kingdom of universal bliss. For this reason they constantly announce a dark future. True prophecies call us to penance, conversion, prayer, trust in the victory of Christ, hope in God eternal.