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

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 7 2019

David Wilkie, The Reading of the Will, 1820. Wikimedia Commons.

Ecclesiastes 1.2,12-14;2.18-23
Colossians 3.1-11
Luke 12.13-21

As I may have mentioned before, I’m a fan of detective stories. A quiet evening at the Vicarage often concludes with an old episode of Poirot, or Inspector Montalbano. In these fictional stories inheritance is frequently the motive for murder, and the key to unlocking the mystery. Who is the unknown heir to the estate? Or who will lose out if the cantankerous old uncle changes his will? Jealously, desire and violence lurk beneath the surface, waiting to be uncovered.
Today in the Gospel a man asks, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me”. But Jesus refuses to have anything to do with it. He sees to the heart of the matter. Jealously, desire, and the potential for violence are all there. No wonder Jesus warns him, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed!”.
Questions about inheritance were not new, even in the time of Jesus. There is a great deal in the Old Testament about inheritance, but it is mostly about Israel inheriting collectively what God wants to give to his people – the land and its blessings. Inheritance in the Old Testament is about the community living in harmony, not about rivalrous individuals. It is about the common good, all the people benefiting together.
This acknowledges that all the good things we receive are not ours to possess, but gifts of God to be received. And ultimately it is God who is the inheritance of his people, “The Lord himself is my inheritance”, says Psalm 16. Earthly inheritances will pass away, they are in the end vanity, as the reading from Ecclesiastes reminded us this morning. But God will never pass away.
The irony of today’s Gospel passage is that a man is asking about inheritance, but he doesn’t realise that his real inheritance is standing in front of him: it is Jesus, God himself come among us in human flesh, who is the inheritance of his people. And there is no need for any dispute about that inheritance, because God gives himself in Jesus without limit and there is enough for everyone. God in Jesus is creating a holy people, a new community, to inherit the fullness of life he has promised.
But that inheritance requires that we leave behind all our rivalries and divisions. God in Christ is creating a whole new humanity in which all divisions are reconciled and all are made one. This is more than the common good that human beings seek. It is the common good raised and transformed by grace into a common sharing in the life of God.
The man who asked Jesus to intervene in his dispute could not have been more wrong. He did not understand that God was his true inheritance standing in front of him in Jesus. And he did not understand that we have to leave behind our rivalrous desires if we are to receive what God wants to give us, which is himself.
Humanity of course still persists in following such rivalries. In our better nature we strive for the common good, and yet on every side we hear versions of the brother’s demand, “tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me”. Division, rivalry, desire for possessions that are not God and can never ultimately satisfy.
Jesus’s teaching today challenges us not to cling on to possessions, to be unselfish as individuals in our personal lives and relationships, to put others first and become more aware of our motives, the hidden rivalries and desires that drive our actions.
And in our communities, we live in a plural society of many different races and faiths, and that is a great strength. But it only works where there is common recognition of the common good. We all need each other. Building a good community is something we can only do together, by including everyone. Followers of Jesus have an insight and a role in helping to do that.
In our national life, too, we are going through troubled times. Whatever your view on current political issues, when one faction or another demands the sole ownership of the nation’s identity, the sole right to determine its future direction, then we have division and rivalry, rather than the seeking of the common good. “Give ME the inheritance.” Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed!
At a recent PCC meeting we discussed our response to the Diocese of London’s consultation, asking what we thought the Church in London should prioritise over the next ten years. It was a really insightful discussion and we were able to feed back to the Diocese a number of points. We recognized that, yes, the Church is small, but not without influence, a community of faith and worship that is able to effect change in society, change for the common good.
We spoke, for instance, of the work of the Barnet Multi-Faith Forum in promoting community cohesion, in our local community. We spoke of the urgent need to care for the environment and the lead the Church can take.
We raised concerns about knife crime and gangs, and the dehumanisation of estates. About new developments driving out existing populations, and increasing isolation. We noted intergenerational problems, and the way the Church can help to build connections.
The Church is a forum for people to encounter and talk to each other across social divisions, an agent to enable and inform things we can’t do ourselves. We can help people in need by giving and by offering our estate for the use of the community. The Church has a role in speaking up to policy makers about cutbacks in social services, children’s services, housing, and mental health provision.

In all these different ways, this is about seeking and serving the common good, and seeking to bring reconciliation where there are divisions and rivalries that hinder the common good. As Christians we believe that the Church is the custodian and messenger of an inheritance in Jesus Christ that is not ours exclusively, but in fact belongs to the whole of humanity. And recognizing that is at the heart of what it means to be a community with a mission.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

A Day of Wrath

A Day of Wrath.

Wrath is an important concept in the scriptures, ὀργὴ, appearing ten times in Romans and six in Revelation, the same root as “orgy”, and “engorge”, the image being that of a desert cucumber that, apparently, will absorb all the water you pour on it until it bursts. Wrath is disordered desire, desire that can never be satisfied, desire that spirals out of control until it destroys you. 

Wrath, it must be insisted, is not an attribute of God, it is something we do to ourselves, but in the scriptures it can be used by God nonetheless to save us from our death-bound desires, for when we realise that what we desire can never satisfy us, that is judgement, a moment of truth that can at last turn us back to the deepest and life-giving desire for which we were made.

So today is a day of wrath, nothing unique about that, indeed it has been a time of wrath, but a moment of truth when we are confronted by our desires that can never satisfy. The membership of a particular political party, like one bewitched, has elected as its leader a man of whose gross unfitness for public office they can hardly have been unaware, and whom Her Majesty the Queen must now, perforce, invite to form a government. This is a deeply shaming day for this nation.

This is not however a time to jump on the moral indignation bandwagon but, rather, to reflect on how it has come to this, and what part we have all had to play. This incipient premiership is a judgement on our society, a mirror held up to the nation’s soul, reflecting back to us what we have become: our insatiable desires, our escalating cycle of consumption and waste, our wanting everything except responsibility for our actions, our contempt for the poor and marginalised, the easy group security that comes from scapegoating the outsider, our disregard for truth.

And what is Brexit, this escalating hostility between Leave and Remain, which has led us to this point (and it isn’t finished yet), but wrath? A paroxysm of desire, that can never be satisfied, for the nation-as-idol (or, for that matter, a union-of-nations-as-idol), and that will end up destroying us if we are not saved from it. 

As in the scriptures, often the only way that we can be saved from our idols is to be thrown back on them, until we discover that they cannot save us. When we have done the worst to ourselves, God remains, and the living water is there for us still. But we humans are in such a pitiable state that we have to drink the bitter cup of wrath to the dregs before we realise that there is nothing in it for us.

Sisters and brothers, pray that this time of wrath may be shortened, for it will likely get worse before it gets better. But do not despair. “Yes, but God”, as my spiritual director often reminds me.

St Augustine knew all about wrath. But he also knew, much more importantly, about being saved. He is the only person I am naming in this post, because he, at least, has something of value to say to us. So here is his word of hope on a day of wrath, his hymn to the God who is still there when we finally come to our senses, utterly wearied by our death-bound desires:

“Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!

“Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.

“You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;

you touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

Monday, 22 July 2019

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 5 2019

Bassano (follower) Christ in the house of Martha and Mary

Genesis 18.1-10a
Colossians 1.15-28
Luke 10.38-42

What sort of hospitality do you offer the unexpected guest? Do you have something in a tin, or some half-baked scones in the freezer ready to warm up in the oven? Well there were no freezers back in the Book of Genesis. Sarah and Abraham seem to be taken by surprise by their visitor, and run around preparing food, little realizing that their mysterious guest, who appears as three persons and yet is addressed as one, is none other than the Lord.
In the Gospel, Mary and Martha too welcome the Lord into their home. Jesus and his disciples have arrived at Martha’s house. And Martha is running round doing all the work. Mary, instead, sits at the Lord’s feet and listens to his words. Which of them is offering the better hospitality?
And of course, we know, because Jesus tells us that she has chosen the better part, it’s Mary. The one who sits as Jesus’ feet and listens. Mary recognises that Jesus is no ordinary guest, but is a teacher, a prophet, who has come to speak the word of God to his people. And the best way to welcome a Prophet is to listen to him. To pay attention. There is nothing more important than what God wants to say to his people. So Mary is offering Jesus the hospitality of her attention, of receiving what he has come to give, his teaching, his presence.
Whereas Martha in all her frantic busyness has missed the main point, the one big thing that was more important than any amount of cooking and serving. The problem is not that Martha is busy. Rather, she is so occupied with her tasks that she is failing to offer the most necessary hospitality, that of her attention.
And, therefore, she is missing out. To meet the Lord, and to be attentive to his word, opens new possibilities, things that perhaps we had never even dreamed of – such as a woman taking the place of a disciple, which is precisely what is meant when we read that Mary “sat at [the] feet” of Jesus.
Being disciples of course is what we are about. We are ambassadors for Christ, we are to bring his word, his teaching, to others. But we can’t do that unless we are attentive to him ourselves. We can be busy, that’s alright – and in a parish church there are few times when we are not! But we must not become so distracted by the tasks of discipleship that we fail to be disciples. We must always give Jesus the most necessary hospitality of our attention.
So we need to ask ourselves, “where is Jesus, and what is he doing?”. Where should our attention be directed?
The hospitality of our attention requires that we look to Jesus where he already is, in the world with which we seek to engage. Jesus was already present in Martha’s house, but she was so distracted that she hadn’t really noticed him, whereas Mary had. And Jesus is already present in the world he has created and redeemed.
St Paul tells us, in our reading from Colossians this morning, that Christ is the ultimate reality filling the universe, all things were created through him and for him, in him all things hold together, through him all things are reconciled, whether on earth or in heaven. It’s like a drum beat with St Paul, “All things, all things, all things.” The Christian vision encompasses the universe.
Sometimes Christians talk about evangelism and mission as though somehow we have to bring Christ into places and lives where he hasn’t yet arrived. But that falls short of the vision of scripture. Christ is the Word of creation, who has ascended to fill the universe he has made.
True catholic evangelism recognizes that Christ is already present in every person’s life, in every human culture. The task of the disciple is to give him our attention where he already is, and so to awaken other people’s attention to his presence as well, so they can receive the fullness of grace that he offers.
We live in a privileged age, when we encounter more diversity in race, culture and religion than any generation before us. And in this global city of London that is particularly true. But this puts the Church in a new context, that we are not used to. We believe that Jesus Christ alone is the way, the truth and the life. What, then, are we to make of the plural world in which we live?
The Catholic Faith, rooted in Scripture, teaches us, firstly, that Christ is present everywhere, and that God’s spirit is constantly leading people to him. It also teaches us that God wishes everyone to be saved, and so gives to all people the grace necessary for salvation.
It is half a century since the Second Vatican Council gave a new expression to the faith of the Church, in recognizing explicitly the presence of grace among all people, whether they are Christians or not. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World says: “the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every [person] the possibility of being associated with [the] paschal mystery”, the death and resurrection of Christ.
The vision of the Second Vatican Council has proved to be truly prophetic. In a world of great diversity and change we can begin to see new depths in the scriptural vision of Colossians, the universal Christ who reconciles the whole world, which exists in him and for him. Our task as the Church bearing the Good News is to be good hosts to Christ present in the world, pointing to the salvation he offers to all. It is to offer him the hospitality of our attention in the wonderful diversity of the world he has made and redeemed.
This means welcoming Christ in our neighbour, in the stranger, in the refugee, in the marginalized and the outcast, in the person of different race or faith or gender or sexuality. Christ is present to all. It means rejecting racism and prejudice of any kind, as these are a denial that Christ is present in the world. It means not being threatened by difference, and diversity. In the diverse cultures we encounter we can discover something new of Christ, who is already there before us. And, by our attention to him, we can awaken other people’s attention, too.

The task of evangelism is not about bringing Christ into a world from which he is absent, but is about discovering the Christ who is already there, and who waits for our full attention. The world is worried and distracted by many things, but Christ is the better part, and will not be taken away from those who find him, whoever they may be.