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

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Sermon at Parish Mass 7 March 2010, Third Sunday of Lent

Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15

Ps 103: 1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11

(8a) The Lord is kind and merciful.

Bless the LORD, O my soul;

and all my being, bless his holy name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul,

and forget not all his benefits.

The Lord is kind and merciful.

He pardons all your iniquities,

heals all your ills,

He redeems your life from destruction,

crowns you with kindness and compassion.

The Lord is kind and merciful.

The LORD secures justice

and the rights of all the oppressed.

He has made known his ways to Moses,

and his deeds to the children of Israel.

The Lord is kind and merciful.

Merciful and gracious is the LORD,

slow to anger and abounding in kindness.

For as the heavens are high above the earth,

so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.

The Lord is kind and merciful.

Reading II

1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,

that our ancestors were all under the cloud

and all passed through the sea,

and all of them were baptized into Moses

in the cloud and in the sea.

All ate the same spiritual food,

and all drank the same spiritual drink,

for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them,

and the rock was the Christ.

Yet God was not pleased with most of them,

for they were struck down in the desert.

These things happened as examples for us,

so that we might not desire evil things, as they did.

Do not grumble as some of them did,

and suffered death by the destroyer.

These things happened to them as an example,

and they have been written down as a warning to us,

upon whom the end of the ages has come.

Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure

should take care not to fall.


Lk 13:1-9

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans

whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.

Jesus said to them in reply,

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way

they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?

By no means!

But I tell you, if you do not repent,

you will all perish as they did!

Or those eighteen people who were killed

when the tower at Siloam fell on them—

do you think they were more guilty

than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?

By no means!

But I tell you, if you do not repent,

you will all perish as they did!”

And he told them this parable:

“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,

and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,

he said to the gardener,

‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree

but have found none.

So cut it down.

Why should it exhaust the soil?’

He said to him in reply,

‘Sir, leave it for this year also,

and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;

it may bear fruit in the future.

If not you can cut it down.’”

Two cars were driving in opposite directions along a winding country lane. They were fast approaching one another. It was impossible for either driver to see round the corners. The driver of one car was a woman and the other a man.

They came to the final bend between them, and for the first time saw each other’s cars coming head-on. They slammed on their brakes and swerved and just managed to avoid hitting each other. As she went past, the woman driver leaned out of her window and shouted: “Pig!” The man, provoked by this, replied with a similar compliment. And round the next corner he crashed into a pig.

We don’t always respond well to friendly warnings. We can mistake the intention of the person warning us; we can feel a bit threatened because, after all, they are trying to tell us that we are in danger.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is given a friendly warning. He and his disciples are heading towards Jerusalem, and they’re Galileans. And some people warn Jesus about another group of Galileans who have just been massacred by Pontius Pilate while they were offering sacrifices in the Temple. The message is clear: go to Jerusalem, and you will be in danger.

But Jesus replies with a warning of his own – “if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”. And then he adds another story of a tower which collapsed and killed eighteen people, with the same warning attached. These tragedies are typical of terrible things that happen in the world as we know it. People are killed as a result of accidents, disasters and human violence.

At the time of Jesus there was a widespread view that if bad things happened it was because you were a sinner and God was punishing you. As soon as you take that view of course you’re setting up two different groups: those people over there who are bad, and God is punishing them; and us here, we’re alright. We’re different.

But Jesus challenges that view. He says that these tragedies did not happen to their victims because they deserved it. They were not worse sinners than anyone else. But he still says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”. It seems contradictory.

To make sense of this we need to understand what repentance is all about. Part of repentance is owning up to our sinful acts, saying sorry, and asking God for forgiveness and for help to live a new life. But repentance has a much bigger meaning than this. The Greek word for repentance means changing your mind, not in the sense of deciding to have tea instead of coffee, but in the sense of replacing your mind, your former way of thinking, with a new understanding.

Repentance points to a complete re-orientation of the person. It’s turning around, taking a new direction. Because when you turn around, you see things differently, and get a new perspective. We turn away from our personal sins and turn to the new mind that Jesus offers us.

This is what the people talking to Jesus don’t get. Both these tragic events happen in Jerusalem, a city under Roman occupation, and the focus of various violent resistance movements. Of course, the Romans always retaliated to any uprising with more violence, and the slaughter of the Galileans in the temple may be just such an episode.

Then there’s the tower that fell down at Siloam. Siloam was on the edge of Jerusalem and the tower Jesus refers to would have been part of the city walls, its military defences.

So when Jesus says, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”, he’s suggesting something quite specific: Romans massacring Jews, and the walls of Jerusalem tumbling down around its defenders. And this did happen. In AD 70, the Jews rose up in revolt against Roman rule, and the rebellion was brutally crushed. After a long and terrible siege, Jerusalem was completely destroyed and the walls flattened.

Jesus’ call to repentance is therefore a call to his hearers to renounce the cycle of violence and retaliation which they simply assume as part of their world view. Jesus can see all too well where that will end up. But tragically they can only conceive of the world in terms of adversaries and enemies, them against us. The problem was that the Romans saw it in exactly the same way, but the other way round. As Gandhi once said, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. The vicious circle of violence escalates, and it’s always someone else who started it.

So this is not about God making bad things happen to evildoers. Jesus warns his hearers to repent not because he wants to punish them but because he wants to save them and so many innocent bystanders from the consequences of their distorted world-view. They need a change of mind, a new understanding.

We too need to hear this call to repent. And this is bound up with the world in which we live. There is so much violence in the world, the environment is in danger, people are living in abject poverty here in London, in this great capitalist hub of the world. Collectively, we fail to see that all human beings are God’s children, and within God’s creation we all depend on each other. Our personal repentance is where we begin to help the world to repent.

By repentance, by turning to Christ, we are freed from the old world-view, bound up with violence and the fear of death. We can receive the new life Christ offers which liberates us from these things. Of course this is a process. Repentance is life-long struggle. But every time we fail, we make a new beginning, and by God’s grace even if by slow degrees we are being transformed and renewed in Christ.

The Rabbi Eliezer was once asked how late in life a person could repent. He replied that there was no hurry. You didn’t need to repent until the day before you died. Well, none of us knows when that will be. Christ’s hearers in today’s gospel had another 40 years before the destruction of Jerusalem. The fig tree in the parable that Jesus tells has still another season of grace to see if it will bear fruit.

And Christ still calls us to repentance. Every year the Church gives us this holy and joyful season of Lent as a fresh opportunity to turn once again to Christ. This is a season of liberation, of leaving behind the old order of sin and death. It offers hope for ourselves and for the world. Today, once more, in this Eucharist and through the scriptures, we are offered the opportunity to turn to Christ and receive the new life he offers, the only life that is ultimately real.

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