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

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 16 2013

Exodus 32:7-14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

I don’t know about you but I’m not that familiar with sheep. Being a city boy, that is. If on holiday I meet them, while out walking in the countryside, we tend to eye each other rather suspiciously and warily. Our thought bubbles, if you could read them, might both say, “just what exactly is that strange looking creature over there?”
The majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, and this puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to reading the parables of Jesus, because so many of them assume a familiarity with the rural world. Many of the parables are stories about seed sowing, harvest - and sheep.
As we’ve seen before, parables are odd. They look like the world we know on the surface, but look more deeply and everything runs very strangely, not like the world we know at all. And we might not get that if we aren’t familiar with the world in which the parables were told.
So for the purposes of illustration here is a parable for a 21st Century urban audience:
“Which one of you, having a hundred i-Pads, if one of them was stolen, would not leave the ninety-nine unattended on a park bench, while you went off in search of the one that was stolen until you had found it?”
Well, which one of you would do that? I don’t think I would! And if you did, your friends, when called in to celebrate with you, might well ask if you were feeling alright, or whether you had been under too much stress lately.
So we can perhaps see how strange is this story of the lost sheep. What shepherd would really leave ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness, a prey to wolves and bears, and go off in search of one? The risk would seem to outweigh the likely return. But the shepherd in the parable doesn’t think in terms of risk at all, but simply, only, wants to get back the one that was lost. He doesn’t reckon the cost to himself. And the recovery of that one lost sheep is then a cause of great joy.
So this parable challenges and reverses our expectations. If but one sheep strays, all that matters is to get it back. The risk and cost of doing that just aren’t considered at all. The round, complete number of 100 must be restored, all must be gathered in.
And the story of the woman with the coin. Luke notices women, if you read his gospel, their story, their testimony, is important to him. It is typical of Luke that he should balance the story of the male shepherd looking for his lost sheep with a parable of a woman searching for a coin.
Now the coin was a drachma or a denarius. In round numbers one denarius was both the daily wage of a labourer and the daily cost of maintaining a household. So this woman has a reasonable reserve against her daily income. She has lost one coin but she still has nine. We might think, well, there’s no need to worry about it yet, I expect it’ll turn up, I’ll worry about it later on when my other coins are running out. 
But this is a parable, and the world runs differently. She drops everything else to look for it, lighting a lamp and sweeping the house until it is found. And then calls together her friends and neighbours. And that means hospitality, feasting, wine. Which would have cost considerably more than the one coin she has recovered! Again, risk and cost simply don’t matter. All that matters is to recover what was lost. 
These two parables are about sinners who repent. Jesus has told them because the tax collectors and sinners have been coming to him, and the Pharisees and scribes, the people who think they’re righteous, didn’t like that.
But Jesus says they’ve got it all wrong. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who have no need of repentance. 
Picture the scene in today’s gospel. Jesus is the good shepherd, he applies to himself the Old Testament image of God as shepherd of his people, seeking out the lost, bringing them home. And today all the sinners and the n’er do wells and the collaborators with the Romans have all come near to Jesus to listen to him. They’re in the front row - good morning! And they’re there because they realise this is about them. And Jesus is saying to them: You’re here! You’ve come back! Wonderful! How joyful to see you! Welcome home! He is filled with joy at seeing the ones he so much wants to see, right there, drawing near to him.
The only ones who don’t rejoice are those who are secure in their own self righteousness, looking on disapprovingly from a distance, tutting to themselves. Their self-righteousness makes them immune to joy. It even makes them immune to repentance, because they don’t see any need to repent. They see no need to draw near to the shepherd who wants to embrace them, too. 
There is more joy in one sinner who returns to the fold than in the ninety-nine who never wandered. That’s an astounding thing. God transforms our sin into greater joy! Those who have strayed and come back know best of all how boundless, how joyful, the love and mercy of God are. In heaven, says Julian of Norwich, our sins will be glorious.
These parables tells us that the economics of Divine Grace is not about balancing losses against gains. It is not about calculating risk and managing cost. It is simply about the extravagant overflowing generosity and love of God, overturning all our priorities and categories of who is in and who is out. 
The Good Shepherd knows that his sheep are inclined to wander off. Sheep are pretty stupid. The Good Mother of the Household knows that coins are small and inclined to get lost. But both will spare no expense, no effort, to seek out and return what was lost. And both rejoice with great joy when they have done so.
Our Good Shepherd and our Good Mother, Jesus, came all the way from heaven to earth to seek out and save his lost children, not reckoning the risk, not counting the cost. Even to being born in poverty and obscurity. Even to being despised and rejected and crucified. And all for love. All to find us and catch us in his embrace and bring us home to him. And all for such great joy in heaven, most especially over those who have wandered furthest away.
The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus, “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross”. 
Joy is the key to understanding Catholic evangelism. The Catholic tradition does not see the world in black and white terms, everything out there in darkness and only the chosen in here in the light of salvation. It is God’s world and his Spirit is at work in all of it. We don’t look out at the world as if it is all damned. But we might wonder what is the point of evangelism, if it isn’t about plucking brands from the burning?
Well today’s gospel tells us, it is joy. Joy at the lost coming home, joy at everyone being gathered in the embrace of God’s love. On Good Friday last year the Papal preacher, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, said this:

“The love of Christ... tends to expand and reach all creatures, ‘especially those most needy of thy mercy.’ Christian evangelization is not a conquest, not propaganda; it is the gift of God to the world in his Son Jesus. It is to give the Head [Jesus] the joy of feeling life flow from his heart towards his body [the Church], to the point of giving life to its most distant limbs.”
And that I think is a good way of seeing our task as Catholic evangelists, as ambassadors of Jesus Christ - as Bishop Richard wants us all to be. It is to give joy to Jesus, the Head of the Church, through allowing his life to flow through us and into the world to give life to all. And that joy is ours too as God’s children are drawn to him and come home with us into his Kingdom.

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