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

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Sermon at Parish Mass, Ordinary 17 2010

Gn 18:20-32

Col 2:12-14

Lk 11:1-13

A Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him,

and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table.

Now there was a sinful woman in the city

who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee.

Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment,

she stood behind him at his feet weeping

and began to bathe his feet with her tears.

Then she wiped them with her hair,

kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself,

“If this man were a prophet,

he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him,

that she is a sinner.”

Jesus said to him in reply,

“Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Tell me, teacher, ” he said.

“Two people were in debt to a certain creditor;

one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty.

Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both.

Which of them will love him more?”

Simon said in reply,

“The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.”

He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon,

“Do you see this woman?

When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet,

but she has bathed them with her tears

and wiped them with her hair.

You did not give me a kiss,

but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered.

You did not anoint my head with oil,

but she anointed my feet with ointment.

So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven

because she has shown great love.

But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The others at table said to themselves,

“Who is this who even forgives sins?”

But he said to the woman,

“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”WWJD. You may have seen those letters, perhaps on a bumper sticker or a badge or an arm band. WWJD.

What Would Jesus Do. It’s a popular phrase which started I think among evangelical Christians in the USA and has caught on elsewhere, and the idea of course is that Jesus sets us an example to imitate. In any tricky situation or if we aren’t sure about the course of action we should choose, we can ask, “what would Jesus do?”

That’s a fine principle, but it can be tricky to put it into practice. According to the gospels Jesus was constantly doing things that people didn’t expect him to do: healing on the Sabbath; touching people who were ritually unclean; allowing women to be his disciples. Jesus was unpredictable. So “what would Jesus do?” isn’t always an easy question to answer.

The Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore once said that there’s a much more interesting and useful question we can ask. Not “what would Jesus do?” but “what is Jesus doing?” Christ is risen and with us for all time. So we can ask, here and now, in the present moment, in our present need, “what is Jesus doing?”

The difference between these two questions comes out in our gospel reading today. The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. They think, “we need to pray” and are asking, in effect, “what would Jesus do?” And probably they’re expecting to be taught a method of prayer, prayer the way Jesus does it. Just as we suppose John the Baptist had taught his disciples, and indeed as you might expect a spiritual director today to recommend a method of prayer. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not how Jesus chooses to answer.

He answers with the words of a prayer which is uniquely great, and all encompassing, and simple: the Lord’s prayer. In Luke it’s a slightly different version to that given by Matthew, which is the one we use in the liturgy.

But look at he words carefully, and think of them in the context of Luke’s gospel, and the story that Luke tells of the ministry of Jesus. The words of the Lord’s prayer describe, in a nutshell, what Jesus is doing. They describe his mission and ministry as Luke has been telling it.

“Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.” Jesus has come to proclaim God’s kingdom and to make holy God’s name. Not through religious rituals, which Jesus was never interested in, but through restoring a right relationship between humanity and God. By restoring justice, integrity and wholeness to society, God’s name is hallowed.

“Give us each day our daily bread.” Jesus has already given the great sign of the feeding of the five thousand, and will soon give the greater sign of the Eucharist in which he gives us his very self under the form of bread.

“Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.” Again and again in the gospels Jesus says to someone in need, “your sins are forgiven”. The key to restoring health and wholeness, a society at rights with God and with itself, is the forgiveness of sins. Know yourselves to be forgiven, because you are loved. And because of that, forgive others yourself.

“Do not subject us to the final test.” This is the prayer which Jesus will pray in Gethsemane the night before his death. And yet he will add, “not my will be done, but yours”. Jesus subjects himself to the final test so that we can be freed from the fear of death. In life’s darkest moments, and when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death, we will not be alone, for Jesus has passed that way before and is with us to guide us on our way.

Of course Jesus often angered people when he did these things, and when he said things like, “your sins are forgiven”, because only God could forgive sins. But that’s the point. Jesus is doing what God is doing.

Jesus gives his disciples a prayer which describes what he is doing, and that is the same as what God is doing. This teaches them and us that prayer is about uniting our will with the will of God. Will what God wills. Desire what God desires. Do what God does.

The essence of prayer consists of locating ourselves in what God is doing. So prayer is not so much telling God what to do or trying to change his mind, still less is it informing God of the needs of a world he would otherwise be neglecting. No, prayer first of all means centering ourselves in God to seek his will and be attentive to what he is doing.

By doing that, we enter into what God’s action. Prayer is a huge privilege and a gift; through it we participate in what God is doing, and become co-operators in the building of his kingdom. Through intercessory prayer, prayer for others and the world and its needs, we bring those people and those needs with us into the still centre where God is doing everything.

Now this needs, of course, attention, and discipline, and persistence. Keep on praying. Jesus didn’t tell us to pray “give us today the bread we need for next year”. Just “give us today what we need for today”. There’s a sense in the Greek that Luke uses of continuous activity, keep on giving us what we need, moment by moment.

We do need a regular discipline of prayer to sustain and support our lives, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all prayer life. We need to ask what is appropriate for us with whatever the demands are on our time, and whatever our duties and responsibilities are. But a regular time of silence and stillness, of attention to God and prayerful reading of sacred scripture, are vital. That way, in times of stress or distraction, when we fire off our arrow prayers for help, those little prayers will be rooted in a deep practice of the presence of God.

Only the present moment is the gateway into eternity, into God’s presence, into what God is doing. Not tomorrow or the next day or the next year, because that’s not where we are. There is only the here and now. Prayer seeks to enter into the deep truth of the present moment, the still centre of God’s presence and God’s will, which is where God is doing everything.

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