16th May, 2004

Sixth Sunday of Easter

The Reverend Canon Mark Kowalewski

In 1999 the Wacowski Brothers made a film that has become a cult classic, The Matrix. The world we see in the Matrix appears to be reality as we know it or at least we can believe it is real. As the film progresses, however, we learn that the reality we have seen is not physically real. The city we see represented is a cyber-city, a virtual reality. The Humans that inhabit it are images created in the digital world known as the matrix. Real flesh and blood humans live in isolated pods as solitary atoms, in a continual cyber dream, they cannot see or move, never participate in embodied reality. They are plugged in to the virtual reality their minds experience as real, but totally controlled through the virtual reality of the matrix. Only a few real flesh and blood human beings have been freed from the matrix. They are awake; they can see and move and relate to real others in a new community. They take the risk of attempting to destroy the matrix in order to free others from sleep.

It makes sense that The Matrix, the movie, has been created as an artifact of our contemporary culture. This is the culture that brings us simulated cities of endless desire. We can jump on a plane and be in Paris in under an hour – Paris created in the Nevada desert, in that place where what you do there stays there, Las Vegas.

The creation of alternate cityscapes – like Paris isn’t so hard to believe in the land of the “happiest place on earth.” We have a tradition here in Southern California of creating experiences, of making a place that looks like something else, but shorn of its less than idealized elements, like grime, crime and poverty – just go over the hill from where we sit right now and find a virtual reality of what we here have just down the street. Universal City – Hollywood, the cyber version, only prettier and more like the internalized images shared by millions of Americans. Hollywood and Vine is even a caricature of itself, reality and its simulation occupying the same space. The critical theorist Michel De Certeau comments that we inhabit a space of “consumable fictions.”

Our culture is creating a story, or performing a story, through all of these cultural artifacts and social practices. The story seems to be that human beings are essentially consumers of commodities. We have endless desires we seek to fulfill. Individuals can have a tailor-made reality crafted from all the choices that commodity producers have available and who have produced those desires in the first place. We will never cease from exploration, to find the next experience to fulfill our desires world without end. Amen.

That seems to be the culture story of contemporary Western Societies. Yet it is a story that leaves an absence, a story of continual seeking but never fulfilling, of creating ephemeral realities, simulated cities that vanish seemingly as quickly as they appear and little sense of shared history. And, if we can afford it, we do not have to interact with any other reality beyond our own most of the time. Yet we can never be too far from the realities that fly in the face of what we have created: Alienation, loneliness, death, injustice, violence, war, terror.

And yet, Christian faith presents an alternative story. We say that there is a reality behind the cyber-world of our own making. We say that the created world is good, a gift, and that real flesh and blood human beings are good. We say that God created us for participation in the life of God and in the lives of one another. We say that human desires will never find fulfillment if they mask the deeper spiritual desire. “O God,” St. Augustine cries out, “our hearts are restless and they will not rest until they rest in thee.”

In his book Cities of God, theologian Graham Ward discusses this redirection of desire. He says that desire in the secular story of culture is canabalistic. “…It preys on others for its own satisfaction.” He writes that “Christian desire is always excessive, generous beyond what is asked. It is a desire not to consume the other, but to let the other be in the perfection they are called to grow into (p.77).”

We Christians form communities in which we live out this alternative story. And when we gather we look forward to another city, a city that God does not create anew, but a city in which what already has been created is made new. The city of God is not a place in which we are taken away from the world, but a city that comes down from God, a new city, a transformed city made out of the human desire for community, sanctified and restored to God’s original goodness. If we remember, our Judeo-Christian story begins in a garden, but it ends in a city. God creates the beauty of the world, and humankind participates with God in the forming of community with ourselves and with God. God’s dream for us is the city of the Book of Revelation and we live that reality Sunday after Sunday as we come to share in this feast at God’s table.

In this reality that we share at this time in this place, we hear Jesus’ words: “This is my Body, This is my blood.” The telling of that story, the performing of that story reflects the reality of who we are and our place in that story. We too are Christ’s body; we are his blood. We are the flesh and blood of Christ in the world. We are the gathered community, made one in Christ. Yet, we take that bread and we break it. We call that the fraction, the fracturing, the breaking apart of the body of Christ. We pour out the blood of Christ, so that each of us can participate in it and in so doing we share in the reality we say we believe: we are in fact joined as one Body through the one whose body was broken on the cross and whose blood was poured out for you and for me.

Then this body, joined together in this place, is broken open and sent forth so that we can be signs of a new reality to our culture. Christianity isn’t all about us. Christianity is about telling and performing the story we perform here. We are sent forth to be story tellers. We are sent forth to make the dream of the heavenly city a reality here in this city of the angels, not to hide ourselves away, but to be agents of transformation and to bring others to this table so that they too can hear and live out another story, a different reality.

It seems to me that our job is similar to what we see Jesus doing in the Gospel account today. There is a man who sits among the blind and the paralyzed who has a desire for another reality. He longs to be brought to the water so that he might be healed. Jesus speaks a new reality for him and he gets up and walks. That story it seems to me is a metaphor for our mission. So many in our world are like those entrapped in the world of the matrix. Blind, asleep and paralyzed they know of no other reality. They live in the city of endless desires. It is your job and mine to bring them to the water, to the water of baptism, the place of new vision, the vision of the city of God, a city not of individual consumers, but that community of lovers who seek generously to give and serve and in so doing receive from one another.

We Christians are those people who look for signs, for glimmers of the in-breaking of that shining city in the midst of the city of endless desires. We Christians are those people who know God’s dream is a living reality, because we live it, because we look for that city and are citizens of that city that has no need of the sun or of the moon, for the glory of God illumines it, and its doors are always open.

 

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