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

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Sermon at Parish Mass Christmas 1 2017

In the Church of the Shepherds' Field, Bethlehem. Photo: Matthew Duckett

Isaiah 61.10  -  62.3
Galatians 4.4-7
Luke 2.15-21

Today’s gospel picks up the story where we left off on Christmas night, with the visit of the shepherds to the manger, and we are reminded that the good news of Jesus is first made known to people on the margins, outsiders to the society of their day.
But we are also reminded that this is part of Israel’s story. Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day, in accordance with the Law and Covenant. God has chosen and called this people, so that not only the Jews but also, through them, the whole world, might know the salvation of God. As Paul reminds us in Galatians, Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law”.
This is a new story for humanity, the dawn of a new hope. And the place where it begins is a family: the Holy Family, of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. This has not come about by chance. This scene has been in the mind of God from the beginning. The birth of Jesus fulfils the first prophesy in the Bible, in Genesis 3.15, when God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” Jesus was born to destroy the works of the Devil; he is the offspring of the woman who strikes the serpent’s head. And if you’ve ever wondered why some images of the Virgin Mary show her standing on a snake, that is the reason.
So the Holy Family has been in the mind of God from all eternity, but it is a real family. This is no pretence. At this time of year it’s customary for certain pundits to remind us that plenty of pre-Christian myths and pagan legends feature virgin births and gods becoming incarnate. That’s perfectly true. But those are stories of gods masquerading as humans until they are unmasked at the end of the story, or the birth of heroes who were hybrid half-gods and half-humans.
The Bible is at pains to point out that the story of Jesus is not like those. This is a real baby, fully human, born in time, constrained by culture and religion just as he is wrapped in the swaddling clothes. He is laid in the manger, an animal feeding trough, with all the mess and improvisation and risk that goes with that. As St Paul says in Philippians, he emptied himself.
His circumcision, the first shedding of his blood, points not only to his religious inculturation, but also to his being really human. This first blood shed by Jesus the Human One foreshadows the cross; this baby who can really bleed will really die.
When we speak of Jesus and the Holy Family, we need to be clear: this is a real child, a real family, a real human situation with all its limitations and mess and muddle. When the church confesses that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, that is a faith anchored in reality. The Word did not appear to us; the Word did not come to us as an idea. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. In this messy world, in a nature like ours. The scandal of the Word made flesh is the necessary preliminary to the scandal of the Cross.
We need to recover this feast of the Holy Family from too soft a focus. Christmas, in secular culture, comes to us with so many images of unreality. Ads present us with perfect families, middle class parents in an effortlessly clean and tidy house with a table groaning beneath Waitrose’s or Sainsbury’s best, darling children, eyes wide with wonder, perfectly behaved as they unwrap their presents, all is goodwill and all is well with the world.
Well, let’s be honest. It’s not always like that, is it? Families are good things, we love each other as best we can, and in them we grow and learn to be human. But it often a case of muddling through and dealing with the mess and imperfection of our own and other people’s lives.
Spouses and partners know very well the hard graft of getting on with each other down the years. The commitment to stay together for life is the necessary precondition for the honest truth telling by which they can get to know themselves as well as each other, and by which love becomes real, incarnated in their lives. And getting to know ourselves is the precondition for repentance. Which is why, for many people, taking a life partner in faith turns out to be the path of conversion to which they are called.
And, whatever aspirations and plans we might form, children, if we are blessed with them, always turn out to be mysterious strangers, emerging as people in their own right, unknown guests welcomed into our lives who will change us, one way or another.
None of this is distant at all from Jesus. He was born a real baby in a real family. So we can forget the soft focus of the Christmas ads. We are allowed to tell the truth about ourselves in faith and hope because it is in messy flawed human lives just like ours that God comes to meet us in Jesus.
Faith and hope tells us that the human family is not the end of the story. God comes to us in Jesus to save us, not to leave us where we were. That is the meaning of his name, given at his circumcision, “the Lord saves”. If the doctor comes to visit us at home when we are sick, we expect her to prescribe the cure, not just to offer empty sympathy and then go away leaving us just as we were.
Jesus comes to us with the great cure, the end of sin and death. He is born in time, in a real human family, to found a new family, one in which all can be members. Jesus was born, says St Paul in Galatians, “so that we might receive adoption as children”. He is born the Son of God so that all might be adopted in him as children of God. No longer slaves, no longer subject to the law and its condemnation of sin, but children.
What does it mean to be children of God, in Christ? It means that he has joined his Divine nature to our human nature, so that our humanity can be joined to his Divinity. In him we become “partakers of the Divine Nature” as the second letter of St Peter puts it.
But because this is anchored in the Word made flesh, becoming partakers of the Divine Nature is also what makes us truly, fully, human at last: redeemed, made new, whole and complete, finding ourselves in one another and in God. The real gritty humanity of our lives, our families and circumstances is not something that God avoids. Rather, it is right where God comes to meet us in Jesus. That is the meaning of Christmas, and the reason why we celebrate this feast every year with great joy. 

Sermon Christmas Midnight Mass 2017

In the Church of the Shepherds' Field, Bethlehem. Photo: Matthew Duckett

Isaiah 9.2-7
Titus 2.11-14
Luke 2.1-14

The shepherds are told that the Messiah has been born, a saviour who will bring peace on earth.
Why peace? The Romans thought that they had brought peace to the world, and we were reminded at the beginning of the reading that the Romans were in charge of everything. A decree went out from Caesar Augustus, uprooting whole populations and causing huge inconvenience for a bureaucratic exercise in determining who belonged where. But it was still a world at peace.
But it was a peace that was the absence of war. It was imposed peace, and anyone who thought about getting uppity, claiming regional independence or anything like that, was quickly supressed. When the Romans conquered and defeated warlike tribes beyond their borders, they said that they had “pacified” them: made them peaceful.
So it’s peace at a price, peace on Rome’s terms, enforced by the army. If the messiah brings peace, into that world, it has to be a different kind of peace.
What, then, is the peace that God sends into the world with the birth of this child?
What would we do if we were God? That’s a question that people often ask, particularly in times of crisis or suffering. Why does God allow this? Or if we hear of some violence or abuse, we might ask why doesn’t God protect the innocent, why doesn’t God intervene to stop people acting wickedly?
But that is to invent a god in our own image, like Caesar Augustus, who claimed to be divine. His peace was imposed by force. But the peace that the God and Father of Jesus Christ sends into the world is quite different.
What do we see? What image is presented to us? A child, and not any child but one born in improvised conditions, in poverty and vulnerability and risk. The place of his birth is seemingly determined by the arbitrary acts of an emperor far away, but in truth was determined by God from all eternity, to take place in just this way.
What do we see, after that? The child grown, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Rejected by the authorities and the powers that be. Followed by a rag-tag of disciples picked up in a provincial backwater, disciples who constantly fail to understand him. A man betrayed and deserted by even these disciples. A man imprisoned, bound, condemned, mocked. A man on a cross.
Those are not images of power, or control. The Son of God does not seek his own way by force or coercion. In the end, no-one is with him, and he completes his mission alone and in darkness.
If anything, these are images of failure. They are certainly total abandonment, letting go of everything. But if the peace of God does not come about by force, then this has to be the way. Letting go, alone, creates the space where God can act. For the peace of God is not the absence of war, but something much more dynamic and creative. It is the creative space, the dynamic emptiness, where God is acting to do a new thing, to bring about his kingdom.
The messiah could only be born in poverty, and on the margins, for he has come to reverse the normal order of things, to bring the marginalised and poor into his kingdom.
The messiah could only be born to be rejected, and to die. For in his total self-emptying even to death, he made absolute space for God to act, bringing life out of death, a new creation out of the ruin of the old, revealing the resurrection, making possible the kingdom of justice and peace for all.
The peace of God begins with faithful letting go. The was why it was first made known to the shepherds who had nothing. God cannot act in us unless we make space for him. He doesn’t need much. In the bleak midwinter, a stable place sufficed. In our hearts and lives, he does not demand great palaces made fit for a king. Just let him in, give him a corner, and he will build the palace himself. For the place where the messiah, the saviour the Lord, chooses for his home, cannot be called anything less.
The peace of God is not imposed peace, but creative freedom. It is not the silence of the grave, but the song of new life. It is not holding on, but complete letting go, so that God can hold us.
This then is the peace that Jesus brings. The coming of this child does not enforce an end to suffering, which still goes on. But this child does bring peace by being the creative place of letting go where God can act. And that peace we can know too, and we can only know, by finding that place of letting go and emptiness in our hearts and lives, and asking him to be born there. He longs to be with us. He will turn away no-one who comes to him.

Peace. Not what we impose or can enforce, but what God will do in us if we make room for him. And, when the peace of God is living in our hearts, then it will flow into our lives and our families and our communities and our world. Not by force or power, but by making room for God to act. By letting go, so that Jesus can be born in us.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 3 2014

Isaiah 61.1-4,8-11
1 Thessalonians 5.16-24
John 1.6-8,19-28

The gospel reading this morning is edited. It’s two separate bits from the great opening of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word”, lifted out and put together, so that we read the account of John the Baptist as a continuous story. The Baptist’s story is framed by the bigger story, the story of the Word made flesh, the true light that enlightens everyone.
John the Baptist is a sub-plot in the story of who Jesus is. Without Jesus, there would have been no John, and the entire point of John is to point to Jesus. He is not himself the light, but has come to testify to the light.
And it’s important that John knows this. He can’t bear witness to Jesus if he thinks that it’s all about himself instead. This is why he is so insistent in saying who he is not: not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the Prophet.
Instead, he describes himself in Isaiah’s words, ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord”’. Just a voice. A voice speaks, and then is carried away on the wind and is gone. It is transitory. John seeks no permanence for himself. He is not starting a John the Baptist movement. He knows that his task is to speak to his time and place, and then to stand aside for the One who is to come after him.
There are parallels between John’s mission and the mission of the Church. Today’s Collect, the opening prayer, refers to this:
“O Lord Jesus Christ, who at your first coming sent your messenger to prepare your way before you: grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready your way.”
The “ministers and stewards of your mysteries” are in the first place the bishops, priests and deacons of the Church. But, in the broader sense, we are all stewards of the mysteries of Christ. Every member of the Church is an ambassador for Jesus, and each one of us has the task of preparing the way for him in our own life and work, in our families and communities, in whatever way is appropriate to our state of life.
And today the Church prays that we may do this like John the Baptist. “grant that [we] may likewise so prepare and make ready your way”. Sometimes it’s said that we should be careful what we pray for, as we might get it. Well, this is a challenging prayer.
It means, firstly, that our story is set in the bigger story, the story of Jesus. There would be no Church if it were not for Jesus. Our task is to point to him and not to ourselves.
A Church that gets caught up in its own internal agenda is failing to prepare and make ready the way of Jesus. When that happens, the Church becomes the story, instead of Jesus. And the story then is so often one of conflict and other human stuff. Where’s the good news? It’s been lost in the row.
Secondly, the Church, like John, is to seek no permanent structures or institutions. True, the Church does have an eternal permanence, in Christ, but in this passing age its expressions are to be adapted to the needs of the time. Its mission it is to be like a voice crying in the wilderness.
That’s not how it always works out. We can get rather attached to structures and institutions, and not want them to change. Indeed it’s easy to think that the way the church now is the way it always has been, and always must be. Too often “tradition” means wanting to go back to what we were doing about 50 years ago, and that is deadly. But properly understood, “Tradition” means “handing on”, not “looking back”; it is dynamic, active and evolving, open to the future.
There are certain things that are given to the Church, that in themselves do not change: the scriptures, the sacraments, the apostolic teaching and ministry. But how they are used and applied can vary widely in different times and places.
For instance, we have bishops, priests and deacons, the ministry we have received from the Apostles. But we don’t have to organise them in dioceses and parishes, units of administration from the Roman Empire.
The Church of England continues these structures because they still have a use, but also encourages newer “expressions of the church” in parallel with the old, to be flexible and adaptable for the needs of society today. We have a good example here with Grace Church engaging in mission alongside our historic Parish Church.
There’s nothing new about this. The religious orders in the middle ages fulfilled a similar role, groups such as the Franciscans breaking out of the old structures so as to be free to engage in wider mission. The Church’s task always is to remain engaged with a changing world, not to establish any permanent form that gets trapped in one era of history
The third thing that John the Baptist teaches the Church is perhaps the hardest. It is letting go. When we have done the task that God calls us to, are we then prepared to let go and leave the results to God? Results that may perhaps be not at all what we expect.
John himself struggled with this. When Jesus began his public ministry, John’s work was over. But he couldn’t keep quiet, and got into trouble with King Herod. He was thrown into prison. And there he seems to have had a crisis of faith. He sent a message to Jesus asking “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
John, in his preaching, had clearly expected the Messiah to bring wrath. The chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire. And yet that wasn’t happening. Things were not working out the way John had expected.
But he had done his task, and Jesus was fulfilling his mission in his way. It was not for John to decide what that should look like. “Blessed is the one who is not scandalised in me”, Jesus said to him in reply.
Those who have gone before us in this local church have done their task and we inherit the fruits of their labours. What we do may not be what they would have expected. And we too must hand on our mission to future ambassadors for Jesus, the real meaning of tradition. But can we let go? Because letting go, once we’ve done our task, is leaving room for God.

Like John the Baptist, then, the Church faces three challenges. To point to Jesus and not to ourselves. To proclaim the eternal truths afresh in each generation, not seeking to become attached to any particular historical expression. And to let go, to make room for God to act in the way God wants to. Which may be quite different from what we were expecting. But this is what it means to make straight the way of the Lord as John the Baptist did. “Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready your way.” Amen.