Wednesday 23 June 2021

You Make Your Own Luck

A sermon for
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
11th July 2021

Psalm 1
John 9.1-41
Listen to this sermon here:
Ernest Hemingway, the great American author,
            apparently used to tell his children that,
            ‘You make your own luck’.
And I’ve always felt that this philosophy has a certain compelling logic to it;
            I mean, sure, to be lucky you have to be in the right place at the right time,
                        but if you never put yourself out there,
                        you’ll never be in that right place
                                    when luck comes knocking at your door.
It’s a bit like the similar quote attributed to Woody Allen,
            who suggested that 80% of success us just turning up.
If you hide in your room for ever,
            you’re unlikely to meet the person who transforms your world.
But is it true, that you make your own luck?
            Does life really work that way?
Is there some immutable law at work,
            which rewards people for their faithful efforts?
Professor Richard Wiseman,
            - and let’s just take a moment to appreciate how amazing his name is -
            Professor Richard Wiseman ran a study a few years ago on why some people
                        appear to be consistently either lucky or unlucky.
He concluded that for many people,
            the key to unlocking good luck
            lies in a person’s approach to life.
He identified four attitudes shared by those who experience luck:
            Firstly, he says, those who expect good fortune often experience it.
            Secondly, good luck comes to those who maximise their chances of experiencing it,
                        by creating, noticing, and acting on opportunities.
            Thirdly, people who listen to their ‘gut feelings’ and act on ‘hunches’
                        are often lucky in their outcomes.
            Fourthly, people who experience themselves as lucky
                        tend to cope with bad luck by turning it around
                        and imagining how things could have been far worse.
So there we are: science says that you can indeed make your own luck!
            Which is all fine, until that one day when it isn’t.
Because as we all know, even if someone stacks the odds in their favour,
            by keeping their weight down, exercising regularly,
            never smoking, eating their fruit and veg, or whatever,
none of this is any guarantee that the cancer cell won’t suddenly start multiplying;
            and no amount of putting yourself out there in the right place
            actually guarantees that you’ll be there at the right time.
You might be able to improve your chances of being lucky,
            but as any gambler at the roulette table will tell you:
                        winning streaks don’t last,
                        and the house always wins in the end.
Well, Hemingway, Allen, and Wiseman aren’t the first people
            to contemplate whether there is some relationship between what we do,
            and the way we experience the falling of the cards of life.
The ancient Hebrews also sought for meaning in life,
            and for them the question of theology was central to the answer.
The book of Deuteronomy suggests
            that there is a system for winning or losing in life,
            and that it is based on the immutable laws of God’s creation.
And this system is very simple:
            if you remain faithful and obedient to God, you will be blessed;
            but if you are faithless and disobedient, you will experience trouble and trauma.
This system is known by theologians as the Deuteronomic perspective,
            and once you’re alert to it, you can find it cropping up time and again in the Bible,
as the rising and falling fortunes of Israel
            are correlated against their faithfulness or disobedience
            to the demands of the covenant and the laws of the Lord
We can even find it in the New Testament,
            for example in the question asked of Jesus by his disciples
            when they encountered a man born blind.
The question, recorded in John 9, was classic Deuteronomic perspective:
            "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
The underlying assumption is clear:
            if someone has misfortune in their life or family,
            they must in some way have brought it on themselves.
They have failed, so to speak, to make their own luck,
            and instead have made their own bad luck.
We even get echoes of this Deuteronomic perspective
            in some strands of contemporary Christian theology.
There are plenty of preachers around
            who teach a doctrine of health and wealth,
            the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’,
where those who give faithfully to the church
            are promised that they will be rewarded with wealth in return;
while those who live faithfully according to the commands of the church
            are promised healing and health in their lives.
Again, it all works fine, right up until the moment when it doesn’t.
Another place where we get this Deuteronomic perspective
            is in some of the Psalms,
including our reading for this morning, Psalm 1.
We’re beginning a short summer series looking at a selection of Psalms,
            and as we shall discover,
            there are other perspectives in the Psalter on life’s fortune and misfortune;
but this week we’re beginning at the beginning,
            with a Psalm that is deeply rooted in the cause-and-effect logic
            that equates obedience with blessing, and disobedience with disaster.
And my first question, as we come to look in a bit more detail at Psalm 1,
            is, ‘who on earth writes this kind of stuff?’
It’s always a good idea to try and contextualise a passage from the Bible,
            before we start to try and apply it to today,
            and there are a few clues available to help us here.
Firstly, we can observe that this Psalm is written for people who are literate.
            If the expectation is that in order to be blessed, you will meditate on God’s law,
            this infers an ability to read the books of the Law in the first place.
So, we might conclude that it’s written for, and presumably by,
            the educated elite of ancient Israel.
Secondly, it’s written for those with time on their hands.
            Not only does the Psalm expect you to read the Law of the Lord,
            but you are expected to do it day and night.
This Psalm doesn’t target those who are out working in the fields all day,
            and then collapsing into bed exhausted as the sun goes down.
Rather, it’s written for those who have free time,
            and it wants them to use that time in a certain way.
Thirdly, it’s use of agrarian imagery is rather idealised,
            envisaging verdant trees planted by fresh flowing water,
            consistently yielding their fruit in season.
There’s no recognition here that most trees in Israel
            eked out their existence on bare hillsides
            with failed harvests an ever-present threat.
Rather, this Psalm presents the metronomic turning of the seasons
            as a somewhat romanticised metaphor for human existence,
with those who meditate on the Law of God day and night
            flourishing and bearing fruit,
whilst those who don’t do this are blown away like chaff.
Which brings me to my fourth observation on this Psalm:
            it has absolutely no middle ground at all.
There’s no room here for compromise:
            you’re either living the perfect life, or you’re not;
you’re either righteous or you’re wicked;
            you’re either innocent or you’re guilty;
you either live a life that conforms to God’s purpose,
            or you’re ignoring God and disrupting the good ordering of creation;
you’re either happy or you’re unhappy;
            you’re either well orientated or you’re disintegrating.
For this psalmist, the connection between devotion and destiny is non-negotiable:
            you will stand or fall, according to your faithfulness to the Law.
And taking these points together, we start to get a picture emerging
            of who this Psalm was written by, and who it was written for.
It’s a Psalm for the elite, for the well-off,
            for the economically secure, the potentially significant, and the self-assured.
It’s a Psalm for those who experience life’s breaks as falling their way,
            and who want to believe that they deserve their good fortune,
            that they have, in some way, made their own luck.
But there’s another aspect of this Psalm that I’d like us to notice,
            and this is the way it justifies its Deuteronomic perspective
            by appealing to the rhythms of nature.
Psalms such as this, sometimes known as the ‘Creation Psalms’,
            present their theology as an outworking of creation itself.
Their message is that
            ‘this is the way things are, because this is the way God made them to be’.
And a creation-orientated theological perspective such as this
            will typically be articulated by the more powerful people in society,
            because social conservatism find a natural partner in creation spirituality.
The truth is that the experience of a ‘well ordered’ life for some,
            is typically achieved at the expense of others,
and those on the winning end of this formula
            want to keep those on the losing end of it in their place.
So, claiming that it is this way, because God make it this way,
            becomes a powerful justification for social control.
A few weeks ago, I cited the example of a twentieth century creation hymn
            greatly loved by many of us, and often sung in Sunday School.
Listen to the words again:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.
It’s another idealised vision of creation,
            skating over the reality of the death and destruction
            that are also part of nature’s rhythm and cycle.
It’s a sanitised, child-friendly hymn,
            embedding in the psyche of those who sing it
                        a conviction that all is as it is
                        because that is how God made it;
            and the corresponding conviction to this
                        is that the way things are
                        is the way God wants them.
But as we noted a couple of weeks ago,
            there is a more sinister verse to this hymn,
            which thankfully we don’t sing any more.
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate;
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
In an article on this hymn, my friend Mark Woods notes the context
            in which Cecil Frances Alexander wrote these words.
He says:
The real tragedy behind that verse lies in when and where it was written. Mrs Alexander was rooted in Protestant Ireland, and a stalwart defender of the establishment.
The 'rich man in his castle' was an English Protestant; the 'poor man at his gate' was an Irish peasant.
The Irish potato famine killed a million people in Ireland between 1845 and 1852, and caused another million to emigrate, mainly to the United States.
There were terrible scenes as tenants were evicted from their cottages, unable to pay the rent.
Cannibalism was not unknown. The government's response was completely inadequate.
‘All things bright and beautiful’ was written while this was at its height.
There's no reason to suppose Mrs Alexander was anything other than horrified by the famine whose effects she must have seen.
But there's something chilling at the thought that she could live through such an experience and remain completely unchallenged by any thought that things ought to be different; that God did not "order the estate" of those who were dying of hunger and cold while others were well-fed and warm.[1]
And here we have the problem in a nutshell.
Creation hymns which celebrate the good order of creation
            are typically representative
            of the perspective of those for whom life is good.
And they can so easily become
            not only a self-justifying defence of the status quo,
            but also a mechanism for social control;
embedding in those who are required to sing them
            an attitude of obedience and acquiescence,
            and a resistance to rebellion and resistance.
And so Psalm 1 articulates a creation-theology of obedience,
            striking a note of Torah-observance
            as the basis for a good and Godly life.
But before we close our Bibles and give up on Psalm 1,
            I think there is another perspective here that might help us.
Because whenever God is at work,
            things are rarely quite as they appear to be.
We’ve been reading Psalm 1 from the perspective of its author,
            as a piece of theology to justify the powerful,
            and control the powerless.
But, as is so often the case,
            when you read it from a different perspective,
            it starts to sound rather different.
Psalm 1 condemns those it calls ‘the wicked’,
            those who it says fail to keep the commands of the Law.
It doesn’t, actually, condemn the poor, or the vulnerable,
            it doesn’t condemn the weak, or the defenceless.
In fact, it offers those whose experience of life is terrible
            a glimmer of hope that God’s good intention for creation
            transcends the present reality of human suffering.
Elsewhere in the Psalms, it becomes clear that ‘the wicked’
            are those who oppress the poor and the needy (Pss. 10; 37.14)
And Walter Brueggemann, the great Christian scholar of the Psalms,
            suggests that Psalms such as this,
provide a point of reference, even for those who share in none of the present “goodies,” but who cling in hope to the conviction that God’s good intention for creation will finally triumph and there will be an equity and a Sabbath for all God’s creatures.[2]
In other words,
            if Psalms such as Psalm 1 create a thought-world
            where God rewards the faithful,
then those who are currently experiencing life as catastrophe,
            can reasonably hope that they will get their reward in some other way,
                        at some other time.
For some, this becomes the hope of heaven,
            and you get emerging within Judaism in the centuries before Jesus
            a strand of belief that looks to the afterlife
                        for the righting of the wrongs of this world.
But this too is open to abuse by the powers-that-be,
            because they can keep people subservient in this life
            by promising them liberation in the next.
But another, more radical strand, also emerges,
            which says that whilst God’s ideal world
            may be one where the faithful are rewarded,
the reality of this present world is that sometimes the faithful suffer unjustly,
            as the wicked who oppress the poor go unpunished.
But rather than pushing the solution for this into the future,
            they rather adopt a principle of seeking to bring God’s future into the present.
This is the theology behind Jesus saying to his disciples
            that the Kingdom of God has come near (Matt. 3.2, 4:17; Mark 1:15),
            through his ministry of healing and reconciliation.
It is the theology behind the Lord’s prayer,
            when Christians pray that the God’s kingdom come on earth,
            as it already is in heaven.
It is the theology of social transformation,
            as God’s people are motivated to overthrow the powers of oppression,
            and bring into being a world of justice.
As Walter Brueggemann notes,
            a Psalm of social control can become a Psalm of social anticipation,
            which in turn can become a Psalm of social criticism,
            which in turn can become Psalm of revolution.
And so we discover here what Martin Luther King declared
            at the height of his struggle against racism:
That the arc of the moral universe is long,
            but it tends towards justice.
Those who seek to construct theologies of control,
            will discover that their liturgies of domination
            contain within themselves the seeds of their own deconstruction;
as stories of oppression
            always give way to narratives of liberation.
The Deuteronomic Perspective ultimately fails in the face of the Exodus and the Exile,
            as God’s nature is revealed,
            not as the God of the status quo,
            but the God of disruption.
And this trajectory continues into the life and ministry of Jesus,
            who declared of the man born blind
            that ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned’;
and then proceeded to heal him on the Sabbath,
            to the great consternation of the Pharisees.
And this trajectory continues
            into the life and ministry of the church of Christ’s followers,
as we too are called resist all attempts to enshrine power and justify privilege,
            and to declare that the kingdom of Heaven draws near
            to bring freedom and liberation to all.

[2] Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, p.28 

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