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

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 15 2013

Deuteronomy 30:15-end
Philemon vv 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Over the past few weeks in our readings from Luke’s Gospel Jesus has been proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and this has not been what his hearers expect. The humble are lifted high; the marginalised and excluded are brought into the centre; religious rules and restrictions are broken open. This has provoked contradiction and opposition, because it is not the way the world runs, and not the way the religious authorities operate. Plots to kill Jesus are already being hatched, and will reach their fruition when his journey ends in Jerusalem on Good Friday.
The Kingdom of God is a contradiction, an offence, and a scandal. And if we don’t see that we haven’t really got what it is about. But Jesus does not pull his punches, as we have heard in today’s reading. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Well that’s a text to put ‘Christian family values’ in perspective. 
And then, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”. In the first century Roman empire that was no metaphor, but an explicit reference to a particularly nasty way to be killed if you got on the wrong side of the Roman authorities. 
We’ve seen that there is something Zen-like in the parables of Jesus, and there is in this saying, too. The Zen Master Linji said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. And Jesus too wants to shock his disciples out of their complacency. They must be confronted with the radical difference between the Kingdom of God and all they have known before. 
So what is this hating and carrying crosses about? It seems not only that the Kingdom of God presents us with a radical choice, a decision to be made. It also seems to be a choice which contradicts all normal values and common sense.
Now we should note that the use of the word “hate” in this reading is an example of eastern hyperbole - literally talking “over the top”, exaggerating to make a point. So “hate” doesn’t actually mean here that we should wish people harm. But equally it isn’t as inoffensive as saying, for example, that we hate Marmite. We can’t avoid the force of what Jesus is saying. If we are to enter the Kingdom, our old ways of relating and belonging have to be left behind. 
I had an insight into something of what this might mean on Friday when I went to the production of “West Side Story” at Sadler’s Wells. It’s a modern re-telling of the tale of Romeo and Juliet set in the gang culture of 1950s New York, where two street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, fight each other for control of the streets.
Tony is a Jet, but we see him on his own, singing of a miracle on the way, something new, just out of reach, coming his way. And indeed there is, because he meets and falls in love with Maria. But Maria is the sister of the leader of the Sharks, the rival gang. Tony and Maria in their new found love have to face the hard choice to abandon the gang identity which has defined and shaped them up to now, turning away from the insistent voices which say “stay with your own kind”. But they also have to take the consequences, for the gangs remain as rivalrous and violent as ever. 
That gang mentality is central to what Jesus is telling us about today. We are told that large crowds are following Jesus. Crowds are always ominous in the Gospels. The mind of the crowd, like the gang, generates its own sense of belonging and identity, and at its heart is the violent expulsion of others. In “West Side Story” Tony and Maria fall victim to this. On Good Friday it will be the crowd in Jerusalem that excludes and kills their scapegoat.
But what drives this? Where does this violent energy come from? At the end of today’s reading Jesus, after a parable about warring kings, Jesus says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”. Or, possibly, it could be translated “all your possessing”. The crowd, for fear that there is nothing else, grasps on to what it can hold, possessed with rivalry and envy, issuing in violence.
The teaching of Jesus in his words and deeds, the teaching that is enacted in his death on the cross, is that this is what has been driving humanity from the beginning. And this is what God in Jesus is saving us from. The toxic seam of original sin that runs through the crowd, and through every human relationship, even father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters. All are in need of redemption. 
And, we might add, nations, states, political alliances. When the world seems once again to be dangerously close to military escalation in the Middle East we need to heed the words of the gospel, reiterated by Pope Francis, Archbishop Justin and so many other Christian leaders, that violence only begets more violence and never solves it.
Jesus calls his disciples to step out from the crowd, and renounce its violent and rivalrous identity, its false sense of belonging. If you do that, the crowd might kill you, but you will also find the secret of true identity and life that can never be taken away in God’s Kingdom.
We are left with no room for doubt today - the preaching of the Kingdom is not comfortable. But it is, nonetheless, Good News. It announces the redemption of the human race. But to do that, it needs to tell it how it is. Our illusion of the self-constructed identity of the crowd must be shattered.
The Kingdom of God is, truly, justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. But if we will not give up our possessing it will seem to us like a threatening king coming against us with a vast army. 
We cannot receive our true life from God with closed, grasping hands. Our hands have to be open, and empty, if we are to be filled with the fulness of the Kingdom. 
Our earthly relationships, families and other groups, are not bad or wrong. This is not what Jesus is saying. But they are only what they are, and they exist in the need of grace. And of course that grace is made known in the love and compassion we share in our human relationships. Those relationships do then become a sign pointing to the Kingdom of God. But we must be careful not to mistake the sign for the thing signified. We must seek first the Kingdom of God, for these other things to be given us as well. And that entails detachment from everything that might hold us back. “Who are my mother and brothers?”, asks Jesus. “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!”
The steps to cultivating this detachment are no secret: repentance, humility, the prayer of the heart which turns our attention away from transient things towards God. And its fruit is the discovery of the Kingdom, present in every moment, growing in secret in the depths of the heart. And we find there the love which makes the false belonging of the crowd worthless, the pearl of great price for which we will cheerfully abandon everything else.

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