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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 13, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
June 30, 2013

Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62

‘Restless religiousness’

In today’s Gospel, Jesus sets his face for Jerusalem. It’s a fitting text for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, a season of discipleship, which means following after Jesus and learning from him. Jesus is on a journey marked by compassion and confrontation, and so are we. Specifically, we are told that Jesus, the Human One, refuses to endorse violent responses to conflict. We are shown a wandering Saviour with no guaranteed lodging. And we’re taught that the reign of God takes priority over familial and civic duties. As disciples of Jesus, as students of the Way, in Ordinary Time, today, here, we are called to live with compassion, prepared for confrontation, humanely, in a Spirit of religious restlessness or restless religiousness. God be with you

These themes evoke the work and witness of an eccentric and brilliant Christian thinker by the name of Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen 200 years ago. He was a poet-philosopher and a writer of religious texts, sometimes satirical, often polemical. Towards the end of his life (he died in 1855 at the age of 42) Kierkegaard staged an impassioned “attack upon Christendom”, the state-church sponsored patriotism and middle-class spirituality he regarded a dumbed-down/watered-down version of Christianity. Kierkegaard argued that Christian faith, properly speaking, was the task of a lifetime and entailed nothing less than becoming a human being – a human one in whom the works of love are seen and known.

There’s a whole lot to explore in his writings (over 30 volumes). One idea I’ve found useful, though, is Kierkegaard’s notion of the “three spheres of existence”. These are three ways to be in the world, three modes of being or perhaps levels/forms of consciousness. He calls them the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious.

The aesthete, concerned primarily to maximise pleasure and minimise pain, is focused on beauty – the attractive, the interesting, the stimulating. The aesthete is a hedonist. The aesthetic sphere of existence has nothing to do with right and wrong, good and evil; it is a pre-moral or amoral stage. We might symbolise this by placing a sparkly gold cloth on the altar-table. The aesthete hides (from) a true self within folds of pleasure-seeking behaviour – distractions, entertainments, and so on.

Kierkegaard suggests there’s something unsatisfying about this kind of pleasure-seeking existence, in which the self is just a bundle of events without an inner core to constitute identity or cohesion over time.

An ethical moment involves choosing to commit to someone or something in life – taking responsibility in some way for one’s family, community or nation. In such an ethical sphere, beauty is not abolished but ennobled. One takes one’s place in society as a responsible member of it, a bearer of tradition – a faithful spouse, a dependable friend, a diligent worker, doctor, writer, and so on. Let’s place a symbol of the ethical life on the altar-table … a crisp blue tie!

While it’s true that the ethical sphere represents a deeper and more satisfying existence, Kierkegaard saw the danger in deifying the finite social order – in making one’s social and cultural commitments an ultimate good or goal. Giving allegiance in this way to the state amounts to reducing faith to reason.

Kierkegaard presents the religious stage as “the choice not to allow the laws and customs of one’s people to be one’s highest norm – not to equate socialisation with sanctity and salvation but to be open to a voice of greater authority, namely God” (Merold Westphal).

The blue tie, quite plainly, can be seen as an ideological symbol. It is a symbol of Western patriarchy – a symbol of 1950s white, male leadership, not to mention rationalism, moralism, colonialism, capitalism. This is how Kierkegaard wants us to see all claims to ethical ultimacy. They are time-bound, cultural and interested. Like the aesthetic sphere, the ethical sphere can be a kind of trap. It’s hard to breathe within this sphere – it’s stuffy – and one soon experiences despair of a guilty or defensive/aggressive kind. This is why Kierkegaard was so passionate about a project he called “re-introducing Christianity into Christendom”.

Jesus, as our Gospel today clearly shows, was no simple model citizen. He taught allegiance to the reign of God, not to any worldly institution or doctrine. His teaching offended those whose real allegiance was to culture, state or family. Following him, imitating him, was/is no guarantee of securing honour or power in the world. It’s something more akin to restlessness, an absurd insistence on compassion and non-violence. The cross is a symbol for the violence of the establishment or social order – not just one time, but in every time and place. The cross is the point of ethical and moral failure, the point of cultural crisis (Karl Barth). Positively, it is the space – by virtue of a greater awareness and forgiveness engendered there – that prevents the social order from closing in on itself, and on us.

Bill Loader says: “Churches have often reinforced the values that have prevented people from growing up.” Kierkegaard would agree.

“It is not just a therapeutic issue for individuals … It is also what it does to our community and our world when local family values, systems and loyalties, even local racial and national loyalties, lead us to betray other people, usually those much worse off than ourselves. What are the shock tactics of today to free people from such seductions or simply to lift them beyond the limited horizons of their own legitimate caring? The point is not the tactics but the invitation to a new kind of journeying, a new way of setting one’s face for Jerusalem.”

The religious sphere, according to Kierkegaard, entails ultimate concern for a reality to come. One way of picturing this is in terms of love for the excluded and disempowered – love for the homeless and the stateless, the outsider and the one regarded mad, absurd, irrational. It’s no coincidence that our Gospel text inspires folk spirituals such as this: “Well, I never been to heaven but I’ve been told / Streets up there are lined with gold / Keep your hand on that plow, hold on / Oh Lord, Oh Lord / Keep your hand on that plow, hold on.” (“Gospel Plow” is a slave song that held the Civil Rights Movement in the US to its task of confronting the hard-hearted establishment of its day.)

Love for the outsider, the enslaved, for the one who longs to be free. Is this not a love for the Human One with nowhere to lay his head, the Human One ever on the move?

It’s not that beauty and morality have no place, not at all. It’s that fully human life is more than merely seeking after pleasures, and more than mere socialisation. Aesthetics and ethics find fulfillment in commitment to what Jesus calls the reign of God. Kierkegaard’s spheres pose certain questions. The religious sphere poses the question: How might you become all you can be for others? How do you live a fully human life – enjoying life, beauty and art, playing a positive and responsible part in the life of your family/community/nation – as a follower/student of Jesus who confronts and offends? … Amen.