Monday, November 14, 2011

Babel, Egypt and the Global Financial Crisis

I am fascinated by the 'Occupy' in the Octagon. It was kind of someone to suggest that the sermon at Mattins last week was worth putting on the blog, so here it is for those who want to mull it over and reflect on how our faith might speak 'into' the Global Financial Crisis.

Sunday, 6th November 2011

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Old Testament lesson: Deut 17:14-20

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the Lord has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” ...


We are living in strange times. The letters GFC are now commonly encountered as the acronym for Global Financial Crisis – a crisis which feels so complex that it seems a sort of Gordian knot and impossible to unravel – so we have the unusual spectacle of protestors camping in the Octagon (as part of a world movement): camping, protesting, not because they have a simple solution but because the world has to make a start somewhere. Think of the protestors as seed, sown among us, to help us see past the present world order that has created the GFC, to imagine a new future, a way of being in this world in which we all strive for the common good.

To change the current way of economic thinking and practice that has produced the crisis seems, I know, unimaginably difficult. But that difficulty must be engaged. It is a call of the Spirit for every Christian to engage with; a cause for everyone of good will to engage with.

Theology works through symbols, images and stories and this morning I invite you to think of the current economic order as a modern tower of Babel – a monstrous edifice built upon fear, arrogance and greed – with the protestors camped in the heart of our city encouraging us not to be overwhelmed by the order that threatens to destroy us. Babel is a great image for our contemporary crisis where the global economic order does not serve the common good. In the OT Babel is a symbol that is linked to another image, Egypt (but I run ahead of myself) and here is how I suggest it can be understood.

In the OT the story of Babel is in Genesis: that book that talks of beginnings, of creation and fall, of the development of human nature and the selection of people through whom God acted. At the heart of the Babel story is human fearfulness – the very human anxiety at scarcity of resources – and what happens when that fear drives you to live without the sense of God, and without concern for the common good.

Now the rest of the Torah (first 5 books of the OT) reveals God showing the chosen people (and us) how to get beyond Babel. In the very next chapter after Babel we meet Abraham and the story zips along until we find ourselves in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Take note that Pharaoh has become wealthy by creating a monopoly over grain in a time of famine and in the process the people has become a nation of slaves. They have become so enslaved by Pharaoh’s manipulation of power that by the time we get to Exodus we find a Pharaoh scared of the oppressed work force he has created and those slaves scared of the Pharaoh and his insane policies. Both the Pharaoh and the people he has enslaved are trapped in a ‘kingdom’ (or system) of anxiety.

The Israelites have to make a journey out of this Kingdom of anxiety – a journey out of selfishness and a journey toward a greater common good. Moses leads them – but they struggle with what the journey demands of them and early in Exodus the people want to go back to Egypt. But, in the scarcity of the wilderness and against all expectations, God provides food – quail and manna. They don’t know what to make of the manna, they have never encountered anything like it before – it does not fit with any of the categories of their knowledge. (We may admit that this is also our experience in the mystery of the Eucharist; that we regard the consecrated wafer with the same sense of bewilderment – the strangeness that this tiny thing bears the Christ, holds the love of God.) In the wilderness this heavenly bread, this sign of divine generosity, is in complete contrast to the anxiety and fear of scarcity they knew in Pharaoh’s empire. It comes, as it were, as a sign from another world.

As we know, the Children of Israel persevere and after many adventures, hardships and follies their descendants finally enter the Promised Land.

Which is more or less the point where our First Lesson this morning finds us: but notice what the text says- any ruler in the Promised Land must work for the common good and not acquire great wealth – that ruler must not take the people back to Egypt – back to the Empire of anxiety where greed and fear and oppression abound.

Now can you see how the broad sweep of the Old Testament story is relevant to us today?

Pharaoh’s kingdom of anxiety is alive and well today. The forces of globalization, the deregulated financial markets, are built on fear: but we are called to live very differently. There is an alternative to Pharaoh’s kingdom of scarcity but, if we are to find it there is a journey that has to be undertaken before we can enjoy its freedom. To help us on that journey is the task of the church (and its allies); in its preaching; in its spiritual life; in its generosity; and in its theological education – everything is to encourage and guide us on that journey into freedom which every Christian is called to engage in. We are to make our way out of Egypt and learn to share in God’s abundance and freedom. This is the context against which we understand the Gospel feedings of the 4000 and the 5000: wherever Jesus is the world of scarcity and fear is transformed into a place of abundance and fearlessness.

This Global Financial Crisis shows us the nature of Babel and Egypt – and presents the question is this where we really want to live and what we want to work for? In this crisis is there a challenge or opportunity to work and strive for the common good, for a new way of being in the world?

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