Toorak Uniting Church

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Philippians 4: 11 – 13
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
1 June 2014

The best films always have some sense of moral ambiguity. While we all like our heroes to be good, strong, compassionate and caring; and our villains to be bad, ugly and selfish; something doesn’t ring true to life if there isn’t a bit of good in the bad guy and a degree of "fallenness" in the good guy. Life calls us to see the shades of grey that uncomfortably sit between that which is totally evil and that which is pure and good.

I watched the film titled "Good" recently. It is based on a stage play by C. P. Taylor. It stars Viggo Mortensen and was released in 2008.

The main character is a German literature professor who, in the 1930s, is reluctant to accept the ideas of the Nazi Party. He is pulled in different emotional directions by his wife, his mother, his mistress and Isaacs his Jewish friend. Eventually, he gives in to Nazism, primarily to advance his career. He is granted an honorary position in the SS, due to his writings in support of euthanasia. His involvement in the party makes his relationship with his Jewish friend more and more fraught. Finally, he finds himself working for Adolf Eichmann. Under the pretext of work, he engineers a visit to a concentration camp. He is horrified when he sees the inmates arriving and their suffering, caused by the words he has written. (Adapted from Wikipedia)

Halden, the main character in the film, is a good man. But he is diminished by his ambition and incrementally he descends into the evil of the age in which he lives. At the end he was horrified at what his ideas had produced.

The oft quoted words of the British philosopher Edmund Burke, All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing - those words are as true today as they have ever been. History has seen many good men and women remain silent at the sight of persecution and injustice.

Living life as a River Flows
I think this is where the Apostle Paul begins and that is to enter more fully into the experiences of others. Or as ancient Native American wisdom suggests, Never criticise a person until you've walked a mile in his moccasins.

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi puts it a little differently:

I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself. I know how to get along with humble means, but I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need; for I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Life can deal us very different hands of cards, to descend into a gambling metaphor. And perhaps one of the great secrets of life, which should be no secret at all, is that we should all live into the life which has been gifted to us. And I will not deflect from the idea that luck has a great deal to do with the life you have; a life given as a gift, which you did not create but came from someone else. So be the best you can at this life that you call you own. Be a good liver… But recognise that this life you hold in your hand, in your mind and in your heart may not always remain as it is. Katrina Kaif, a journalist with the Indian Times newspaper, writes with simple wisdom

Going by my past journey, I am not certain where life will take me, what turns and twists will happen; nobody knows where they will end up. As life changes direction, I'll flow with it.

Life can be good. But at times it can be bad and often we can experience the ugliness of this life and world in which we live. But it is a flow of life and not a stagnant pond. I cannot resist quoting John O’Donohue: I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.

The willingness to go with the flow - and by that I don’t mean to tolerate injustice, prejudice, inequality or cruelty; I mean it is to experience what other human beings feel and sense. The Apostle wisely says that he has known the plight of the hungry, the experience of suffering, and even what it is like to be prosperous, and accepted that this is the flow of the river of life.

There is an ancient Chinese story that I will abridge for this sermon:

Once a king called upon all of his wise men and asked them, "Is there a mantra which works in every situation, in every circumstance, in every place and in every time – in every joy, every sorrow, every defeat, and every victory – one answer for all questions? Something which can help me when none of you is able to advise me? Tell me, is there any mantra?"

All the wise men were puzzled by the King’s question. After a lengthy discussion, an old man suggested something which appealed to all of them. They went to the King and gave him a ring with words engraved into it, with a condition that the King was not to read it out of curiosity. Only if, in extreme danger, when the King finds himself alone and there seems to be no way out, only then he can read it. The King wore the ring without reading the engraving.

Sometime later, the neighbours attacked the kingdom. The King and his army fought bravely but lost the battle. The King fled on his horse and the enemies followed him. The King found himself standing at the mouth of a deep ditch. If he jumped into it, there would be no way out. The sound of the enemy horses was approaching fast and the King became restless. There was nowhere else to go.

The King remembered his ring and about the engraving. He decided to read the message.

"This, too, shall pass."

The King read it again and again until something struck him. Yes! This, too, will pass. Only a few days ago, I was enjoying my kingdom; I was the mightiest of all the Kings. Yet today, the Kingdom and all its pleasures are gone. I am trying to flee from my enemies. But just as those days of luxuries have gone, this time of danger will pass, too. Calm came over the King. He remained still and silent. The King looked around at the place where he was standing and realised how beautiful it was. He had never known that such a beautiful place existed in his Kingdom.

The revelation of the ring’s message had a great effect on him. He relaxed and forgot about his pursuing enemies. After a while, he realised that the noise of galloping horses had receded and that his enemies had lost him.

The King gathered himself and reorganised his shambled forces and fought again. He defeated the enemy and reclaimed his empire. When he returned to the city after the victory, he was received with much fanfare. The whole capital was rejoicing and everyone was in a festive mood. Flowers rained down upon the King from every house, from every terrace as he trotted by. People were dancing and singing. In this moment the King thought to himself, "I am one of the bravest and greatest Kings. It is not easy to defeat me." In all of the celebration an ego emerged in the King.

Then a ray of sunlight caught the King’s ring and sharply flashed into his eye reminding him of its message, "This, too, shall pass."
He lowered his gaze and his valiant expression changed to one of humility. He realised, again, that if this, too, is going to pass, it is not yours. The defeat was not yours. The victory was not yours. You are just a player. Everything passes by. We are witnesses of all of this. We are the beholders.
Happiness comes and goes. Sorrow comes and goes. And Life?
This, too, shall pass.

This story parallels Julian of Norwich’s words repeated in T.S. Eliot’s poem The Four Quartets, "All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well".

But we also find these words in the ancient Hebrew words, particularly when we don’t overly personalise the God of Life. Then it becomes a call to enter fully into life. I’ll finish with these words:

Psalm 30

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up and have not let my foes rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment and his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity, "I shall never be moved."
By your favour, O Lord, you made my mountain stand strong; and yet you hid your face and I was dismayed….

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, so that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.

O Lord God of life, I am forever grateful!

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

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