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

Monday, 23 August 2010

Sermon at Parish Mass, 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time 2010

Sermon at Parish Mass, Ordinary 21 2010

St Pancras Old Church

Isaiah 66:18-21

Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13

Luke 13:22-30

I’ve never been to the sale at Harrods, but I have seen the coverage on the news from time to time. Crowds of people camp outside, sometimes for days, wanting to be first in to grab the best bargains. And then the doors open and in they rush. And it seems as though some people simply grab whatever’s nearest, at random, just so they’ve got themselves a bargain and can say they bought something in the sale.

Probably very few of the people who do this really need the thing they wait so long for and then buy. But they do desire it. And they desire it because everyone else desires it, too. Human beings have this natural tendency to imitate one another’s desires. That’s how advertising works – if you can convince people that someone else wants the latest iPhone or aftershave or shower curtain, then you start to want it too, regardless of whether or not you actually need it.

In crowds, like the crowd outside Harrods, the imitated desire spreads, until everyone wants the same thing, but at the same time they’ve forgotten why they want it. The crowd converges on one object. That’s when desire can be dangerous, if it’s not controlled. It can lead to rivalry and violence. Like the crowd on Good Friday who, from one planted suggestion of what they might desire that started to spread, ended up all shouting “crucify him” with one voice.

Jesus knew about this dynamic of desire and the crowd, and it appears in today’s gospel reading. We are told at the beginning that he is on his way to Jerusalem, and that is one of the great themes of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus as the prophet, the new Moses, on his way to his exodus, his death and resurrection, by way of the crowd on Good Friday. And this frames what Jesus says next.

When he says, “Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter, and not succeed”, the Greek conveys the sense of a large crowd, all trying to squeeze through the same door at once, and causing a log jam, so no-one can enter. So it is specifically "the crowd" that can't enter the narrow door.

This is in response to a question someone asks about whether only a few are being saved – and it’s the present tense in Greek. Jesus doesn’t answer that directly, but responds with this story about how desire works, and how being part of the rivalrous crowd, locked in imitated desire, can stop you entering the door of salvation. Just as the crowd on Good Friday driven by their own violence see neither the innocence of their victim nor their own guilt. It’s as though he’s passing the question back to the questioner, and saying, examine your desires. What does it mean to be saved? What is it that you desire? What is driving you?

Jesus then goes further with a parable that questions his audience’s assumptions. The master of the house has locked his doors and denies that he knows the people outside, even though they protest that they had eaten and drunk with him, and that he taught in their streets. Jesus had done these things. But it was not enough to have been to dinner with Jesus, as many Pharisees had. It was not enough to have had him teaching in your streets. Many people at the time were thinking, “a great prophet has appeared among us, God has visited his people”, and therefore we’re alright. This proves that God is on our side. This proves we still belong to the Covenant. So we can relax. Not so, says Jesus. His teaching has to be understood and followed.

Then his teaching gets quite shocking, when he says to his audience, “you will see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, and you yourselves shut outside”. In their place, says Jesus, will be people from east and west and north and south. People from foreign nations, Gentiles, taking their places and feasting in the Kingdom.

It is not enough to assume that you belong to the right crowd. That because you count Abraham and the prophets among your ancestors that you are therefore going to be saved, that you are safely on the inside. If you don’t understand and follow their teaching you may well find yourself on the outside and others you thought were outsiders taking your place.

This is another of Luke’s themes, the “Great Reversal”, the overturning of the criteria for who’s in and who’s out, the vindication of the outcast and the rejected who turn out to be the people whom God was closest to all along.

And this picks up the teaching of the Old Testament prophets, such as that from Isaiah 66 today, which foretells that Gentiles, all the nations thought of as unclean outsiders, will become the people of God. They will even become priests and Levites, says Isaiah.

That is truly radical. This part of Isaiah was written at the time when the Temple worship in Jerusalem was being developed and strictly codified. It was very boundaried worship, very clear about who was in and who was out. Elaborate purification rituals had to be followed by the priests before they could enter the holy place and offer sacrifices for the rest of the people who remained outside. And Isaiah blows open that boundaried sacred space and all the world comes flooding in. And those who enter, those who “get it” will be the people who understand the real meaning of the law and the prophets, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.

Are there only a few who are being saved? It is not enough to rely on being part of a group that you think is “safe” as a kind of insurance policy. Because that is defining ourselves over against other people, we know we are OK because those people over there are not. In the time of Jesus people defined themselves in this way by being descended from Abraham.

For us it may be different. This week I had a card through my letter box informing me that I would be going to hell unless I prayed the simple prayer that followed, which was about letting God into my life. And the message then said, “if you have prayed that prayer with sincerity, congratulations, you are now going to Heaven”. But the subtext of that, I think, was, "you can choose to be an insider or an outsider to our group, but we are quite clear about where the boundary is".

Lest it be thought that I'm having a dig at the Pentecostal community that sent that card, I wonder how much of our Catholic obsession with things like the apostolic succession and valid sacraments is really seeking a security which comes from defining ourselves as not being like other people. To the extent that it is, we are still being driven by the dynamic of the crowd. We are still missing that narrow door into the Kingdom.

Our identity is not something that we need to imitate or borrow from other people. Jesus offers us a way out of rivalrous desire and its relentless descent into violence. He offers us the truth that our identity is God’s free gift in creation. This identity is a mystery we can’t define or pin down because we are made in the image of God who is unknowable. We can therefore let go of our imitated desires and everything by which we try to construct our own identity. We can embrace the risk of that mystery, knowing that there, and only there, are we truly safe. It is in receiving God’s free gift of our true being that we are being saved.

1 comment:

Blogger said...

You might be eligible to get a Apple iPhone 7.