Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Pentecost 2017

By bobosh_t (http://www.flickr.com/photos/frted/5713011900/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Acts 2:1-21
1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13
John 20:19-23

Once again we are in shock at events in our own city, at people whose hatred leads them to murder complete strangers. Our prayers this morning are with the victims and their families, with others throughout the world who suffer similar things, and with the police and those who try to keep our city safe. And, as taught by Jesus, our prayers must also be for our enemies and those who wish us harm, that they may repent and come to a true understanding of the God who loves the world he has created.
This attack, in election week, strikes at the heart of our society. The different political parties have alternative visions of the future and different ideas they want to implement, but all of the mainstream ones at least are motivated by a commitment to work together in a democratic society for the common good. If we don’t agree with them, we don’t need to demonise them, but simply to vote for someone else.
As Christians, whatever may take place in the world, we can still be confident in the vision of the future that opens up today, the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit of God is sent with transforming power upon a little group of disciples, sending them out to change the world. Pentecost gives a new possibility for humanity in which all the ancient divisions of race and culture are overcome, and all peoples can be gathered in unity, understanding the mighty deeds of God each in their own language.
Saint Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians this morning tells us about the new future for humanity that the Holy Spirit makes possible. This is more than just a tick list of spiritual gifts.
We might miss that because for some reason the Lectionary begins today’s extract part way through Paul’s argument. There’s a bit missing from the beginning, in which Paul says, “I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
St Paul is contrasting two different cultures, contrasting world views, one of which is characterised by cursing – even to the extent of saying that ‘Jesus is cursed’. That is, it is the culture that assumes that people who end up on crosses are cursed. It is a culture of violence defined by the victims it casts out. It is driven by accusation, blame and fear. At its heart is a false conception of God as the one who curses. At its most extreme, it leads to the murder of innocent people enjoying a night out. But any culture that treats other people with contempt, as being of lesser value than ourselves, is slipping dangerously into that world view.
The crucified Messiah, the outcast God, is incomprehensible to a culture that needs to make victims. But the Holy Spirit enables us to see through that to the truth that Jesus really is Lord, to see that God in Christ takes the place of the victim. Jesus shows us what God is really like. In the man hanging on the cross he takes on himself all the cursing of which the world is capable, and in his resurrection gratuitously gives back to us, not a curse, but the blessing of forgiveness and new life in the Holy Spirit.
Today’s Gospel reading from John is set on the evening of Easter day, the day of the resurrection. The disciples have locked themselves away out of fear. The last time they had seen Jesus had been Good Friday, when most of them had deserted him and run away. The authorities surely would not stop with killing Jesus, but would want to eliminate all traces of the movement he had started. No wonder they locked the doors.
Then that morning had come the bewildering news that the tomb had been found empty, and Mary Magdalene even claimed to have seen Jesus and talked to him. To the disciples this must have seemed like a ghost story, with the scary dimension that the ghost now apparently roaming abroad was that of a man whom they had abandoned to his death.
Fear and blame, the spectre of a curse, haunt this scene. But when Jesus comes into the closed place of their fear, he doesn’t say to them, “I’ve got you now!”, or “how could you have let me down so badly?”. No. He says, “peace be with you”. And they rejoice. The risen Jesus inhabits a world in which there is no fear, no blame, no curse. In coming to the disciples he draws them into that world, and frees them from their fear.
And he sends them to draw others into that world too. He breathes on them the Holy Spirit, and sends them, as he was sent, on the Father’s mission of forgiveness and reconciliation. The Holy Spirit is given to the Church, as St Peter says in his speech today, so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”.
This is the alternative world, the different story of being human, into which we have been drawn by God’s Holy Spirit, and into which we are called to draw others, too. Love, in place of fear. Forgiveness, instead of blame. Blessing, not curse. The gathering of all people into God’s Kingdom, in place of a culture of violence defined by the victims it casts out.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you”, says Jesus. As the people of God we are sent by God’s Spirit, bearing God’s Spirit, to bring reconciliation and peace, to enlarge the reign of God’s love in the world. This is the alternative world we seek to inhabit, the different way of being human we seek to live, every day, in every situation. We are the Pentecost people of God and we are here to change the world.
This week we have a particular way to do that as we consider how to vote in Thursday’s election. St Paul sees authority in human societies as reflecting the authority of God, to be exercised for the common good, and it’s a huge privilege, something unknown in the New Testament, that ordinary citizens have a part in how society is ordered and governed.
Now of course it is not the business of a preacher to tell you which party to vote for. Christians can and do support all of the mainstream parties. But it is my business, I hope, to encourage you to take your responsibility seriously and reflect on how best to use your vote for the common good, to build a society that is a blessing, not a curse, a society that seeks peace and reconciliation, that draws in the marginalised rather than casting out more victims.
And when it’s not election day, we still need to live in the alternative world of the Holy Spirit, in all of our daily lives and encounters, especially when fear stalks our streets. In ways that may be great or small, seen or unseen, we are called to be those who enlarge the reign of God’s love and make known the good news of Jesus Christ our Lord.
So let us pray and commit this week to the Lord.

Risen Lord Jesus, come in to all the closed places of our fear. Breath on us your peace. Renew in us the gift of the Holy Spirit. Send us in peace, send us in forgiveness, to enlarge the reign of your love in the world. For you have conquered death and hell, and are alive and reign for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, Easter 7 2017


The Mosque of the Ascension, Jerusalem. Photo: Matthew Duckett

Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11
John 17:1-11

At the summit of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem stands the Mosque of the Ascension. On a site sacred to Christians and Muslims, who venerate Jesus as a prophet and acknowledge his ascension into heaven, it has changed hands several times, being variously a church and a mosque. But Christians are still welcome to pray there, and to celebrate the Eucharist on the Feast of the Ascension.
The mosque is a large octagonal enclosure, originally belonging to a Byzantine church, and stands open to the sky. In the centre a small dome covers the site of Christ’s ascension. Inside, a gap in the marble pavement exposes the bedrock in which a faint depression vaguely suggests a footprint. Some believe this to be the last footprint of Jesus, left as he ascended. Others suggest more prosaically that it is a votive offering from the Byzantine period.
It’s a curious monument, not to someone’s presence, but to their absence. A foot is something you can hold on to, and Mary Magdalene indeed was told not to cling on to Jesus after his resurrection. But a footprint is a negative impression, a space where someone used to be but is no longer. You can’t hold on to a footprint.
Centuries before Jesus, and in a different culture, when the Buddha was dying, he told his disciples not to make any image of him or to worship him, but rather to follow his teaching. For centuries they obeyed him, and the earliest representations of the Buddha that survive are not images representing his presence, but footprints carved to represent his absence.
There’s something of that in this footprint on the Mount of Olives. Whatever its origin, it represents the mystery of Christ’s Ascension. It says to us that Jesus isn’t around any more in the way that he used to be. A cloud took him from their sight, says Luke in the reading from Acts this morning.
Throughout his earthly life Jesus was present to the disciples as we are to one another, as a living human body. Even after his resurrection, for forty days he remained as a visible tangible presence. But in the Ascension that way of being present comes to an end. The humanity of Jesus is taken up into heaven, and removed from the disciples’ sight.
After the joy of the resurrection this departure of Jesus must have been bewildering for the first disciples. Clearly they didn’t know what to make of it, as the angels had to say to them, “why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” Jesus, they are told, has been taken from you, but he will come again. His own last words to them had been that the Holy Spirit would come upon them, to make them his witnesses throughout the earth. The absence of Jesus leaves a space, an emptiness, in the disciples’ lives, but that is to prepare them for a new kind of presence.
As we’ve considered at various points in the year, in every event of his life, in all that he did, Jesus was working our salvation.  All of the mysteries of Christ, as they are called, convey grace to us.
But the Ascension is perhaps the most mysterious of the mysteries of Christ. In the ascension, Christ works our salvation through his absence, by leaving and making space for what is to come. The nine days between Ascension and Pentecost were a time of absence and waiting for the first disciples. They were told that power from on high would come upon them, but they cannot have known when it would come, what form it would take, or what would happen after.
And yet this mystery of absence and loss, this time of waiting, has grace for us, as do all the mysteries of Christ. Of course, it has a positive aspect. In the Ascension the humanity of Jesus has been taken into heaven. He is seated at the right hand of the Father, the place that is his by right as the Son of God. But he goes to prepare a place for us. Where he, the Head, has ascended by right, the Church, his Body, will ascend by grace. Jesus has gone to the Father so that we too can go to the Father.
But the ascension also has a negative aspect, the absence of Jesus, the loss of his bodily presence. Anything the disciples might have clung on to was taken away. But this loss was necessary. It hollowed out a space, like a footprint in the rock, a space where God could be present in a new way, doing new things.  
When the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, the disciples were transformed, becoming the visible proclamation of God’s Kingdom in the world, sent out to be present in every time and place. That new presence could not have happened if the disciples had remained looking for a tangible presence of Jesus that had gone from them. They needed to experience his absence, their own emptiness, in order for him to become present through them in a new way.
In our lives the experience of loss can be devastating. We will all know in some way or another the hollowed out space where a loved one used to be, or where a relationship ended, or where we once were fit and healthy and aren’t any more. We know that those absences can be deep wounds. But the mystery of the Ascension tells us that absence is also the space where the Spirit of God can work in us, bringing unexpected new life, given prayer and time and the willingness to wait.
And also in the church, absence and loss are perhaps the things that we are most averse to. We want to cling on to what we know. We don’t want to lose security and certainty.
Of course, the Church is a visible body, constituted in its essential form by word and sacrament – or as Acts says, by “the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers”. There are certain things that are just given.
But the Church is also a living growing body, that cannot be pinned down. If ever we are tempted to think, “this is how we like it, let’s keep it like this”, then we need to remember the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The wind of the Spirit blows the Church in new and unexpected ways, and guides us into new things. That is part of what it is to be the Church. Bishop Rob’s watchword for the Edmonton Area is “roots down, walls down”. That is to say, be rooted and confident in your tradition, your local expression of the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

But also place no walls in the way of the Spirit, to impede the new things that God will have us do. And be ready in those new things for partnership with others moved by the same Spirit. And do not be afraid of the loss of the familiar or the absence of certainty. Because those are the spaces that need to be empty, for them to be filled by the Spirit of God.

Sermon at Parish Mass Easter 6 2017

Image: starwars.com

Acts 17:22-31
1 Peter 3:13-end
John 14:15-21

Saint Paul’s speech to the Athenians at the Areopagus was an absolutely critical moment in the history of Christianity. It was the moment when the Gospel stepped across a deep divide, into new and uncharted territory.
Before this, the Gospel had been preached to Jews, and to those Gentiles who had already become believers in Israel’s God and attached themselves to the synagogue. So Christianity was initially a movement within Judaism – both ethnic Judaism, and the wider community that was attached to it.
When Paul came to Athens those were the people he spoke to initially – the Jewish community, and its Gentiles followers. But word had got out beyond those circles. And Athenian Greeks who knew nothing about Judaism wanted to know what Paul was preaching.
So Paul spoke to them, too, for the first time. And it is important to note both what he does say, and what he does not say.
He speaks to the Athenians in terms that they would have understood. He refers to the religious practices of the Greeks. He sets out a logical argument, very different in style from the midrash of the rabbis that Paul used when speaking to Jews. He quotes Greek philosophers. And he does all this so that he can tell the Athenians about Jesus, a man whom God had raised from the dead.
What Paul does not do is quote the Bible. He does not quote a single verse of Scripture. These Athenians did not know the Jewish Scriptures., so Paul stuck to what they did know, using terms and ideas that they would have understood.
The world we live in is much more like Athens than the Synagogue. Like Paul, we can assume no knowledge of the Scriptures and Christian faith. When I was on retreat last week the conductor told a story of a priest she knew who had popped into the National Gallery in a spare moment. He’d gone into a room full of paintings of the Madonna and Child. In front of him stood a couple, and one said to the other, “what I don’t understand, is why they always make the baby a boy”.
In a world where people who go to galleries can stand in front of a painting of the Madonna and Child, a monument of Christian art and culture, and not realise that the two people in the picture are Mary and Jesus, not know the story, then we can assume nothing.
On my way into the parish I often pass the Jehovah’s Witnesses with their stand of literature. Their sign proclaims, “What does the Bible really teach?” Now, as a Christian I have issues with the way Jehovah’s Witnesses read the Bible and the doctrines they claim to find there.
But I suspect that the reaction of most people passing that sign would be, “Who cares what the Bible teaches? It’s a collection of ancient texts from a faraway culture, what on earth could it possibly have to do with me or my life?”
The indifference of our culture to Christian faith is something we can’t simply ignore. Like St Paul, we have to begin by speaking to our culture in language that it does understand. Start from where people are.
This should not discourage us. On the contrary, this is a moment of great opportunity, and the Spirit of God is at work. Jesus in the Gospel promises the gift of God’s spirit, the Spirit of Truth who will guide us into all truth. The Spirit sends us on our mission, as he did St Paul, pushing him across the great divide between Jewish and Gentile culture for the first time as he spoke to the Athenians. This was a moment of truth for the Athenians, as they first heard the Gospel. But also I suspect a moment of truth for St Paul, as he faced the challenge of finding new words to speak about Jesus to an alien culture.
So what language does our culture speak? The language of science, for many people. We are often invited to assume that science has made faith redundant. But the basic assumption of science, the idea that the universe is rational and consistent, is an act of faith. You can’t actually prove that scientifically, you just have to believe it. And it is a belief rooted in theology, in the doctrine of creation. Modern science began with Christian and Muslim scholars in the middle ages exploring the universe, sure in their belief that it was rational and consistent because they believed that its Creator was rational and consistent.
Our society has its own myths, too. Another person at the retreat last week was Fr Richard Peers, the Superior of the Sodality of Mary, the community of priests I belong to. He has worked in education for a long time and told us that when children ask him why he became a priest, he answers, “I became a priest because it was the nearest thing I could find to being a Jedi Knight”.
Simple, but profound. Children might not know the Christian story, but they know Star Wars. They know its mythology, the cosmic struggle between good and evil, the endurance of love and hope amid deeds of darkness, and the Jedi, people who have a call to live out intensely the energy of that struggle on behalf of other people. There is a lot about priesthood in Jedi knights!
Our society may not know the Bible, but it has its own myths and heroes nonetheless. It has its stories that embody meaning and tell us about ourselves. Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings. These are epic tales that grip people. And they are all really the same story, in different guises: the struggle between good and evil, temptation and fall, sacrifice and redemption.
These stories are endlessly fascinating because they are our story. They tell us about who we are deep down and what we aspire to be. Like St Paul, if people don’t know the stories of scripture we need to start with the stories they do know, and speak to the myths and hopes and aspirations that people do have.
Because the myths and heroes that beguile our culture are not simply a wistful dream of a world we can never enter. They are more than a make-believe escape from a grim world that has no hope. Rather, they tell us about who we are, and the meaning of our life in the world.

Christians are those who can say that the great myths of human origin and purpose have entered the world in concrete form, in a solid human life really lived. For the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus good has triumphed over evil in this world and not just in myth, the wreck of sin is really undone, and eternal life definitively lies open. Myth and history have joined hands at last, and salvation has entered the world for all. And, one way or another, all need to hear.