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

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Location, location, location.

Sermon at Parish Mass Saints Peter & Paul 2020
 Banias (Caesarea Philippi), with niches for statues of deities: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Zechariah 4.1-6a,10b-14
Acts 12:1-11
Matthew 16:13-19

“When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’”
Location, location, location. Why ask that question, there?
Jesus travelled around quite a lot in the gospels, but most of the time he was either in Jerusalem in the south, or Galilee, in the north. Caesarea Philippi was further north than that. Jesus has taken his disciples deep into Gentile territory, and not just to any old Gentile town. Caesarea Philippi was an in-your-face celebration of pagan gods and the Roman Empire. Built around an ancient sanctuary of Pan, the horned god of nature and wildness, by the time of Jesus it was full of temples and shrines, cults and priesthoods serving the gods and offering sacrifices to their images.
It was also a place for the rich, full of luxury villas, in a cool valley watered by a mountain river, the perfect summer retreat. Philip the Tetrarch, the local ruler, had named it “Caesarea Philippi” in honour of Caesar Augustus and himself, and had put up the biggest and newest temple of all, in gleaming white marble, dedicated to Caesar. The Emperor, a mortal man who lived in Rome, was worshipped at Caesarea as a god.
To devout Jews, Caesarea was alien and shocking. But it was here that Jesus brought his disciples to ask them the crucial question: ‘Who do people say that I am?’ By asking that question there Jesus shows what is at stake. The disciples are faced by a choice, a decision. What is it that is ultimately true about the world? What are the highest values that we can embrace?
On the one hand, there was everything that Caesarea stood for: the worship of riches and power. In the Roman Empire might was right, and anything that you could achieve by power and force was permissible. There was no higher authority. The weak and the poor didn’t count.
But if Jesus is the Messiah, that is, God’s anointed leader, then the Roman Emperor is not. If Jesus is the Messiah, then the one he called “Father” is the one true God, the creator of all things, and him alone must we serve. If Jesus is the Messiah then his law is the highest authority: the law of love and compassion, especially for the poorest, the weakest, the most marginalized.
In this choice there is no middle ground. It is one or the other. So when Peter says to Jesus, “you are the Messiah”, he is making a bold and risky statement of faith. He is rejecting Caesar’s claim on the world, and choosing to follow Jesus as God’s true anointed leader. And he was doing that right there where Caesar was worshipped as a god.
Even so, Peter’s faith has not yet led him to full understanding. He sees that Jesus is the alternative to Caesar. But as the gospel goes on we will see that he does not yet see how very different those alternatives are. So when Jesus goes on to tell the disciples that he must – must – “undergo great sufferings… and be killed”, this to Peter seems to be nonsense, and he rejects it.
Peter imagines that if Jesus is to oust Caesar from his place of authority, then he has to operate in the same way as Caesar, only more powerfully. He has to be a stronger “strong man”, and conquer by force.
But Jesus is the love of God in person, come into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved. And the world needs saving, because the world is deeply resistant to love. The world, in the words of Saint Paul, is in slavery to sin and death.
Love, come into the world, can only win the victory and remain love by freely suffering what the world inflicts. Love has come to suffer the consequences of sin, so that the world might be freed from sin. And this means that Love, in the world as it is, must follow the way of the cross.
And so, too, must his disciples. Those who make the choice to follow Jesus, and not the powers of the world, are choosing to follow in his path of rejection and suffering and death. But we do so in faith that by sharing in Christ’s sufferings we will share in his resurrection. The way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace.
This is the pattern that is marked on every Christian life, in one way or another, the truth that every person lives who has made the choice to follow Jesus. The choice for Christ. The choice for who will be Lord. The way of love, not the way of might.
This time next week we will be beginning to emerge from three months of isolation, beginning to re-engage with the world around us once again. We have lived through a time of great challenge and anxiety, but also a time of reflection on what our values are, on how we are going to live. A time to re-evaluate how we cherish both one another and this good earth that God has given us.
The way of Jesus, the way of love and self-giving, is something, then, that should permeate our daily lives and decisions as we take them up again. A conscious choice that we make as we go out into the world once again.
For example, in how we notice and care for the poor and marginalized. In being kind to others, especially when that’s an effort. In what we do with the power that money gives us. In our personal relationships, in how we seek the other’s good and deny ourselves. If we have authority because of our role at work or in our family, let us remember that authority in Christ means to serve, and never to exalt ourselves over against someone else.

As we resume daily life, every day will be full of choices, small but significant, little forks in the road. We can go one way and seek power and self-exaltation and our own satisfaction whatever the cost to others. Or we can go the way of Jesus, the way of love and compassion and self-giving. That is the way of the cross, even in little things, because it always costs us something, always involves self-emptying. But that is to choose what is ultimately true about the world. And that is to embrace the world, as we return to it, for the sake of Jesus, in faith, and hope, and love.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

There is nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered

Sermon at Parish Mass, Trinity 2 2020

Planned monument to enslaved people in London. Not yet built. Source:

Jeremiah 20.7-13                    
Romans 6.1b-11                     
Matthew 10.24-39
About thirty years ago, I used to attend a church in the City of London, a church well known for its commitment to inclusion and social justice. In the baptistery, prominently looking at you as you went in, there was a bust of a local dignitary and philanthropist called Sir John Cass, who died in 1718, and with his wealth founded a school and a charitable foundation which are still going. I must have walked past that bust very many times without giving it a second thought.
On Thursday last week, the bust was removed from the church, after an emergency meeting of the PCC and a very rapidly granted Faculty from the Chancellor of the Diocese. Sir John Cass had made his fortune by trading in enslaved people. The sudden focus on public memorials has put figures like John Cass in the spotlight, and aspects of our history are being revealed that are deeply painful to acknowledge.
Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known”. But he warns that this uncovering will lead to conflict. Truth telling is not popular, the powers that be very often don’t want the truth told.
The issues around statues and public monuments are complicated of course. Everyone has done good and evil in their lives. But if a monument in a public space is effectively concealing the truth about exploitation and oppression, then the demand that the truth be told still needs to be addressed, somehow. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered.
The truth must be told. But that will not always be popular. It will lead to opposition, as Jesus clearly warns. In only a minor example, the church in London that removed the bust last week has been subjected to a storm of abuse on Twitter.
There is nothing new in this.  Jeremiah laments in the first reading today, complaining that God has overpowered him, and made him tell the truth that no-one wants to hear. Violence and destruction are at hand for the wayward people of Jerusalem, but they don’t want to see it or hear about it. If only they would repent and mend their ways. God wants to save them, but they won’t listen.
And in the Gospels, Jesus, the prophet who is the Truth in person, meets opposition. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Not a literal sword, of course. Later in the Gospels Jesus rebukes Peter when he tries to use an actual sword. In Luke’s version of this same passage Jesus says instead “I have not come to bring peace, but division”, which helps us understand the meaning as we read it in Matthew. A sword is a thing that divides, a symbol of division.
The mechanisms of oppression in the world tend to work in secret. There are the secret police of authoritarian states, and plans for persecution hatched behind closed doors. But there are also the secret mechanisms in our own hearts by which we collude with oppression, and don’t even know we’re doing it.
Do we see the victims of oppression? Do we see what we are doing, and our own need to change? The call to repent, to change, is the beginning of the gospel. To examine the depths of our hearts in the light of God’s searching but kindly Spirit, to uncover our own sin in order that we can know the deeper truth that we are loved. If we read the scriptures only as addressed to other people and their need to repent, then we are missing step one: what is this saying to me?
Jesus, the Truth in person, has come into a world of falsehood and oppression. His truth exposes what the world is, uncovers its division and violence, all the ways in which its security is maintained, precariously, not with peace but with a sword. His truth calls the world to repentance. His truth calls us to repentance.
And Jesus forms around him a community whose task is to tell the truth. First of all, the truth that involves searching our hearts, confessing our sins, and following the path of repentance. But then, also, because we have learned to tell the truth about ourselves, we are called also to tell the truth about injustice and oppression. In spite of the risks and the opposition. And Jesus promises his community of truth-tellers that we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free.
The Church fails in this, often. Most recently we may think of the ways in which many senior figures in the Church ignored or covered up allegations of sexual abuse by clergy. And the current debate about statues reminds us of the past collusion of many prominent church figures in the slave trade. In Germany in the 1930s many Christians seemed to sleep-walk into the rise of Nazism, not noticing or wanting to notice what was going on.
Many, but not all. In every generation the Spirit of Jesus in his Church raises up some who are valiant for truth, who speak out prophetically in spite of what it might cost, for it might indeed, as Jesus says, cost them their lives.
The first stage in following Jesus in the path of truth, is to examine ourselves, to let ourselves be examined and judged by the Spirit speaking through the scriptures. We can’t just look back and say, well, they got it wrong in the past, but we are better than that.
We might ask, how will we our generation be judged, in a century or two? Whose statues will be taken down in years to come? Yesterday the Pope added a new invocation to the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Comfort of Migrants, pray for us.” A fitting title for Mary, who with Joseph carried her Son into Egypt, a refugee from Herod’s murderous rage. But are we, is our nation, a comfort of migrants?
Again, are we listening to those prophetic voices who warn us about the consequences of climate change, and the abuse of the environment? Or about the relentless rise of inequality and exclusion? Those voices that lament, “all is not well with you”, the voices like Jeremiah that society does not want to hear.

But the Gospel is good news, and the good news is that truth-telling is the beginning of repentance. And repentance is the only sure beginning of true and lasting peace, for building that justice in which all may live. The voice of truth calls us to repent, but also says to us, “Do not be afraid… What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops”.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

What stories will we tell about this time, when it is over?

Sermon at Parish Mass, the First Sunday after Trinity 2020
Vincent Malo  (1585–1649): Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt
Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie de Châlons-en-Champagne
Via Wikimedia Commons

Exodus 19.2–8a                     
Romans 5.1–8                        
Matthew 9.35 – 10.8

What stories will we tell of this time, when it is over? What will those stories tell about who we are?
I remember my parents’ stories of the war, and my grandmother’s, too. Stories of resilience, hopefulness, comradeship. Stories of everyday life, keeping going, make do and mend, the inventive recipes of rationing. The time when all the windows got blown out, but the family was ok in the Anderson shelter. Not much about the dark times, the terrible threat of Nazism, or the global struggle. Historians tell us that there was a lot of crime and disorder in society at large, that the “blitz spirit” was largely a myth. But those weren’t the stories that I heard. The stories we tell about ourselves are about remembering who we are, and when people go wrong it’s because they’ve forgotten who they are.
What stories will we tell about this time, when it is over? What will those stories tell about who we are? Yes, there’s a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty in our lives at the moment. Yes, there’s tension, threat and violence on our streets, a cry for justice amid racism and inequality. But I hope the stories we’ll be telling in 20 or 40 years will be about how we got through, how things got better, and how in the midst of it we didn’t forget who we are. We will have learned more about who we are in this testing time., and our stories are about remembering who we are.
The people of Israel knew who they were because of the stories they told. The story of Exodus, liberation from slavery in Egypt, yes, but liberation into 40 years of wandering in the desert. Not knowing where they were going or when they would get there. Following Moses like sheep following a shepherd. And not always making a very good job of it. But learning to follow, learning to trust the one God who had revealed himself to them, learning to believe even in the darkness and the unknowing of the journey.
Exodus is the story that has been passed on. It’s what tells the people of Israel who they are. It’s not all of what happened. Archaeologists tells us that the arrival of peoples in the land that became Israel was more complicated, a series of migrations over a long period. But the identity of the people, as they looked back, is found in the story of slowly learned trust that was the story told in Exodus.
Cut forward many centuries, to the time of Jesus. The story is the same. The identity of the people of Israel is found in the slowly learned trust of the time of wandering and testing. But they had lost the thread of their own story. Occupied by the Romans, the ordinary people abandoned by the religious leaders. The crowds were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. They didn’t know who they were or where they were going. And Jesus had compassion on them. Like Moses of old. It’s a comparison that Matthew’s Gospel often makes, Jesus is the new prophet like Moses of old, the new Shepherd sent to guide and save the sheep of Israel like Moses in the Exodus.
So, Jesus sends his disciples, and they are named, twelve of them. Just as the twelve tribes of Israel had been named in their story. Naming them is the first part of giving them back their story, so the people can remember who they are. They are sent to the lost sheep of Israel, not to the Samaritans or the Gentiles. Those will come later, they will be included in Israel’s story, the revelation of the one God, the salvation that will reach to the ends of the earth. But Israel has to remember its own story first, before other nations can find their place in it.
The disciples are sent to cleanse, to heal, to cast out demons, all those powers of division and destruction that work against human flourishing. They are sent to raise the dead. Like Ezekiel of old, in the valley of dry bones that were the people of Israel, the people will be raised up, they will live. And because God’s Spirit moves, and they live, others will live as well.
The people will find their place once more in their own story. They will remember who they are.
Remembering. The word is the opposite of dismembering. Like the bones that came back together in Ezekiel’s valley, remembering is putting back together a body that it might live.
The Church continues that task of re-membering. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of re-membering, do this in remembrance of me. Putting back together and raising the dead, the story told at the altar that is our story, in which we find our place, in which Christ the good shepherd remembers who we are, making us his body, his ongoing story.
Healing, cleansing, casting out the demons of society. Which are very much in evidence at this time. We are broken divided, scared. The people are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. We need to remember our story, to remember how to trust in wandering and affliction. 
What stories will you tell of this time, when it is over? Anger? Violence? Fear? Division? I don’t think so. Those things are all around us, but they are not who we are. There are others stories to tell. There will be stories of sorrow and loss, of course, people gone from us, and fondly remembered. But they will be framed by stories of goodness, of remembering that things can be better, of kindness, good neighbourliness, love, clean air.
And there will be the ordinary human stories, of keeping calm and carrying on. Stories of empty tube trains, bad haircuts, and face masks as fashion statements. Going to church in your pyjamas. All the stories we tell, the great and the ordinary, will remind us who we are, all will be stories of learning to trust in the darkness of unknowing.
What story will we, the Church, tell of this time, when it is over? The story we always tell, the story of who we are, of who we are in Christ. Found, gathered, healed, cleansed. Re-membered. Redeemed. God’s people. In all this, still.