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

Monday, 15 October 2012

Sermon at Parish Mass, St Margaret’s Leytonstone, Trinity 19 2012

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Hebrews 4:12-end
Mark 10:17-31

What do you give a man who has everything? Well, the shops are already filling with their stock for Christmas and the advertisers will soon be urging us to part with more of our cash for this or that present that we must give, or perhaps this or that thing that we want ourselves, and have to get someone else to give to us. And sadly some families will get seriously into debt to buy things they don’t need.
What do you give a man who has everything? The man who kneels before Jesus in today’s gospel seems to be a man who has everything. He is rich, he has many possessions. Besides that, he has kept the whole law from his youth onwards. He has everything he needs, he has ticked every box. He is the perfect “self-made man”.
And yet for some reason he feels impelled to run up to Jesus and kneel before him. And he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”. Eternal life is the life that God lives, the life of the Holy Trinity which is complete openness to the other, overflowing in love and generosity, giving, not grasping, entirely free from acquisitiveness, rivalry and envy. Perhaps this man, in the presence of Jesus, has suddenly caught a glimpse of what the life of God is like, and has seen the contrast with his own life of self-made self-sufficiency. Despite his seeming to possess everything and to have achieved everything, he senses that somewhere there is a huge gap, a deep longing and a desperate need. And it is to Jesus that he feels he must turn.
And Jesus, we are told, looked at him and loved him, though there is a sharp irony in his response. “There is one thing you lack”, he says - to the man who has everything. And the one thing he lacks is - that he has everything! “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me.”
The one thing he lacked was to stop grasping onto what he imagined was his own, his self-constructed image built up through endless acquisition of possessions and spiritual achievement. The one thing he lacked was the ability to receive as a gift the life that God wanted to share with him. What do you give the man who has everything? It’s a trick question. You can’t give him anything, because he’s stopped being able to receive.
This encounter comes just after the scene in last week’s gospel where Jesus welcomed the little children and said “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will not enter it”. And now, in contrast, we have today’s scene with the rich man who is unable to receive the kingdom, because he has too many possessions. 
The contrast is between being able to receive to the Kingdom of God as a gift, and hanging on to all the acquisitiveness and cravings and illusions that we accumulate and label as “mine”. We can only receive the Kingdom as children because little children simply receive. They have nothing to bargain with, and know perfectly well that life comes to them entirely gratuitously and not by their own making.
To put it more simply, it is a contrast of desires. On the one hand our own disordered desires, cravings, compulsions and the addictions which are always outpacing our ability to satisfy them, desires which close us in on ourselves. And on the other the desire of God, which is the giving of himself in complete openness, generosity and freedom. 
God’s desire is life which rises continually from the very source of life, pouring itself out without ever being exhausted. God’s desire is realised in Jesus, who is God’s own gift of himself, God’s own image of himself, God’s own life so completely and perfectly poured out, without diminishing its source, that he is God himself, the Son eternally born of the eternal Father. Jesus is God’s desire entirely realised in a human life, and a human life entirely realised in God. 
If we learn to desire as God desires, then we will leave behind the disordered, death-bound desires that close us in on ourselves. By no longer grasping onto the false life that we think we can create for ourselves, we will come in free and generous openness to the life of God, receiving that life as a gift and not grasping it as “mine”.  
So the call that Jesus gives to the rich man, in one way or another, is the call to us too: to give up everything, so that we might have treasure in heaven. It is the call to repentance, which is not so much saying we are sorry as the complete turning around of our lives, re-ordering our lives according to God. It is the call to the conversion of desire. To leave behind our old disordered desires which close us in on ourselves, and to be open instead to the entirely gratuitous life of God which is given to us in Jesus. 
The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke about this last week when he addressed the Synod of Bishops in Rome for the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. He reminded the bishops of the remarkable revival in those 50 years, and the urgent need, of contemplative prayer for all Christians. 
Contemplative prayer is nothing complicated. It is the prayer of the heart in stillness and silence. It is prayer which is simply focussed on loving attention to God who alone can draw us out from our closed-in selves. It is God alone who can expose and convert our corrupted desires. It is God alone who can draw us into his own desiring, the perfect outpouring of the self to the other that is shown to us in Jesus. It is God alone who will remake us in the image of Christ, which is God’s own image of himself.
When we are open to receiving God’s life as a gift freely poured out for us, then we will find that we are open to receiving everything else as a gift as well. Contemplative attention to God bears fruit in a contemplative habit of life. In being freed from our self-centred desires we are able to see, and rejoice in, the gratuitous generosity of the whole of creation. Even, as Jesus today tells us, in this life, in this age. 
The Trappist monk Basil Pennington had lived for many years with his order in voluntary poverty, hard work and contemplative prayer. Then in 1973 he had the opportunity to spend some time on Mount Athos, the Greek Orthodox monastic centre. 
In his notes Fr Basil speaks of how, for him, his life of renunciation opened him up to receiving everything as a gift. Everything he experienced, the natural beauty, the hospitality of the monks, came to him with a fresh intensity and richness because they were a free gift from the abundance of God, and not anything that he had to grasp or possess. He felt he was receiving the “hundredfold” reward that Jesus promises in today’s gospel.
We cannot free ourselves from our disordered desires by simply trying to drive them away. Because that is still to focus the attention on ourselves, on something we are trying to achieve. We can only be free from our desires by not looking at ourselves any more but at God, and allowing him to covert us, to remake us in his image.
That is true all the time, and not only as we approach the Christmas shopping season. But it is a timely reminder. Before you make your Christmas lists, may I suggest you make time for contemplative prayer, silent meditation, if it is not already part of your pattern of life. Ten or twenty minutes every day is not much, compared to the time we spend on the internet or watching television. There are meditation groups which people can join, but really there is nothing to it.
Sit still, be relaxed but attentive, let go of any noise and bustle that may be going on, and repeat a simple prayer such as the Jesus prayer to still the mind and descend into the heart. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And in the silence of the heart, be attentive to God revealing himself, forming in you his own image, who is Jesus, in whom alone we find our true life. 
What do you give the man who has everything? Nothing, because he is no longer able to receive. What do you give a child, who is simply open to receive what is given? The Kingdom of God.

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