Sermon: Being wowsers, do-gooders, virtue signallers, etc

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
For the New Year, 2nd of January, 2022

Revelation 21:1-6a
Matthew 25:31-46

Here we stand in the liminal moment between the old year and the new. Literary heroine Anne of Green Gables once said, after flavouring a cake with liniment instead of vanilla, ‘Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day without any mistakes in it yet?’[1] At this time of year I always think: isn’t it nice to be on the threshold of a new year without any mistakes in it yet?

Between Christmas and New Year two comments were made that I have been pondering ever since. One was to me personally and was roughly that I was a hypocrite who hid my inherent nastiness by donating money to charity and talking about it. The other was a tweet by Sydney Daily Telegraph politics editor James Morrow that said, ‘Public health has always been about endorsing a particular sort of politicised virtuous liberalism’ (liberalism with a small ‘l’, obviously). Both statements had me thinking about the relationship between doing and speaking, and the dangers that Christians fall into if we do not merely try to follow Jesus, but dare to do it publicly and talk about what it is we are doing. And then I saw today’s Bible readings and it all made sense.

The New Testament readings that the Uniting Church has suggested for New Year’s Day are both about the end times and the Parousia, the second coming of Jesus whose first coming we are still celebrating. As we look forward into a new year we are encouraged to look even further forward into the end of time, when God will create a new heaven and a new earth and come to live among humanity, when those who are blessed by God will inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, when those who have not cared for the least of these and so are accursed will be sent into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. These are interesting choices.

I suspect that we are being offered these readings about the rewards that will await us after death in recognition that, if we truly seek to follow Jesus, we are probably not going to be rewarded during life. Here is Australia we are unlikely to face serious persecution, but people will sneer at us. This has always been true. Some of you may have been called ‘wowsers’ in the days of your youth. Historian Shirley Swain says that the word ‘wowser’ was created by John Norton, editor of the Truth, in 1906 when the churches launched a campaign for the reform of alcohol sales and gambling. There was a wonderful article published in The Age a mere five years after the word was coined which reported an address given by Rev. A. Madsen at the Collingwood Methodist Mission Church titled ‘What is a wowser?’ In it, Mr Madsen said that:

… a wowser was in the first instance a church-going man, a man who believed in the public worship of God, and a man who was not ashamed of being seen going to worship. He was a Bible-reading man, who believed that the message was applicable to everyday affairs. He was a keeper of his own conscience, and a keeper of his own soul …

Mr Madsen also pointed out that the terms ‘Christian,’ ‘Protestant’ and ‘Methodist’ were originally used as terms of abuse, too, and he predicted that in time ‘wowser’ would eventually be seen to be ‘as significant of noble endeavour and splendid work’ as they are.

This never came to pass; the term ‘wowser’ remains derogatory, if no longer much used. When I was growing up Christians were less likely to be called ‘wowsers’ and were instead called ‘do gooders’, which used to anger me until a youth leader asked me whether I would prefer to be called a ‘do badder’. Today if we visibly care about the vulnerable, about animals or the environment, if we speak up for justice, even if we dare to support measures to preserve public health in a time of covid19, we are accused of being ‘woke’ or of ‘virtue signalling’ or, in the words of James Morrow, of ‘endorsing a particular sort of politicised virtuous liberalism’. People who noticeably and publicly seek to do good have always been criticised by those who would prefer not to have their own indifference exposed by comparison. In the Gospel according to John we read, ‘the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed’. (John 3:19-20) But it is not just those who do evil who hate the light, it is also those who simply cannot be bothered to do good.

We do not have that option. As today’s gospel reading reminds us, claiming to follow Jesus has implications for the way we live. It is a prophecy, not a parable, a foretelling and a forth-telling. It tells us four times how it is that we identify ourselves as sheep or goats, long before the Son of Man comes to confirm it. Four times the criteria of judgment are given: twice by the Son of Man, once by the sheep and once by the goats: I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me. What God cares about most is not how we think, or what we believe, but how we live. And not just how we live with those close to us, our family and friends, but how we act towards those most in need, the last and least. We must care about the vulnerable, about animals or the environment, we must speak up for justice, we must support measures to preserve public health in a time of covid19, because we are followers of the Son of Man.

Yes, you may say, but what does this have to do with ‘virtue signalling’? After all, the accusation made against virtue signallers is that they are not as virtuous as they pretend to be. We could feed the hungry and clothe the naked quietly, so no one would know. Except that Christians have a specific duty not simply to do good. We also have a duty to talk about it. Every time we baptise someone we give them a candle and tell them: ‘You belong to Christ, the light of the world. Let your light so shine before the world that all may see your good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.’ As long as we do not do good in order to seek glory for ourselves, virtue signalling, letting our light shine in the sight of the world, is part of being Christian.

Here at the beginning of the new year we are reminded of the imperative to live out our faith by doing good, knowing that this will sometimes be misunderstood, and that we will sometimes be called names. But if we are, if people accuse us of being wowsers or do-gooders, of being woke or virtue signalling, of being hypocrites or of endorsing a particular sort of politicised virtuous liberalism, we can still rejoice. We know where we are going; to that time and place beyond all times and places when God himself will be with us; God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things will have passed away, and everyone will live in joy and peace. Knowing that this is our destination, let us commit ourselves to living as sheep and not goats, as the people of God, through the Methodist covenant prayer:

The Covenant Prayer

Let us pray: Lord God, in baptism, you brought us into union with Christ who fulfils your gracious covenant; and in bread and wine we receive the fruit of his obedience. So with joy we take upon ourselves the yoke of obedience, and commit ourselves to seek and do your perfect will.

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you; exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours, to the glory and praise of your name. Amen.

[1] Chapter 21, ‘A New Departure in Flavorings,’ in L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908).

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