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

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass, 2nd Sunday before Advent

Malachi 4:1-2; 
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; 
Luke 21:5-19 

“Keep calm and carry on”. We’ve all seen it, on mugs, t-shirts and towels, and countless other bits of merchandise. This, and variations on the theme: “keep calm and carry on.” This dates from the second world war, but was only rediscovered in recent times, on a batch of posters printed but never used. The posters were intended for the event of a successful German invasion. If there should have been a Nazi occupation of this country, the posters would have gone up over the land: keep calm and carry on. Don’t panic, carry on life as normally as possible, the daily round and common task still need to be done.
In the event those posters were not needed. But Jesus gives similar advice in today’s Gospel which was needed. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified, for these things must take place.” Do not be terrified, or even, perhaps a closer translation of the Greek, “don’t panic”. 
Jesus could see the simmering tensions beneath the surface of Judean society, under Roman occupation. He could see the rivalry, envy and violence only just being contained. His prediction that the Jerusalem temple would be destroyed, and (just after today’s extract) that Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies, was fulfilled in AD 70. There was a rebellion by Jewish Zealots, religious fundamentalists who wanted to purify the land by driving out foreigners. They proved no match for the might of Rome and ended up besieged in Jerusalem. The resulting destruction and massacre of the inhabitants were terrible: the equal of anything seen in Syria in our own days. Jerusalem was completely destroyed and left an uninhabited ruin. 
And although Jesus foresaw this before it happened, Luke’s Gospel was written just after, with the memory of those horrifying events fresh in the mind. So the words of Jesus are related in Luke’s account with particular vividness and force. 
But amid all this Jesus says to stay calm and carry on. Don’t panic. Even when you are arrested and persecuted, you should see it as an “opportunity to testify”. That is, an opportunity to carry on doing the normal business of the Church, which is to make known the good news of God in Jesus. 
So even in the midst of disasters going on in the world, the Church is called to keep calm and carry on. The Church must not panic. Must not throw up its hands in horror and give in. Must not cease to engage with the world, for that is what it is called to do. Whatever is happening, the Church must not retreat to a hill top and wait for the heavenly spaceship to beam us away from the wicked world, as various doomsday cults have done down the years. 
The kind of writing that we have heard in today’s Gospel is called “apocalypse”. In modern use “apocalypse” refers to some huge destructive event. But in the Bible it is more than that. Its root meaning is about unveiling. As though you were in a theatre and the back screen was drawn away, revealing the hidden mechanisms that produce all the special effects. 
So apocalypse is not necessarily about destruction. It is about seeing what it going on behind the scenes, the hidden forces driving the world. Now that can mean that destructive forces come out into the open. Sin, rivalry, envy, violent desires simmering away under the surface of things, emerge in wars and insurrections. But the Kingdom of God is also being revealed through the Church. God’s justice, love and peace, the ultimate lordship of Christ over all things, are appearing through the proclamation of the Kingdom. And this is also “apocalypse”, “unveiling”. 
The Church on earth now is in the in-between time, between the ascension of Christ and his coming in Glory. The time between the departure of his visible presence form the world and the fulfilment of God’s kingdom when Christ will be all in all. This is the time of apocalypse, of unveiling, until everything is brought into plain view in the light of God’s judgement and redemption. 
And in this time the Church is to keep calm and carry on. Which means carrying on with the practicalities of being a church of real people with a mission in the real world. It means dealing seriously with the ordinary everyday matters that are needed to keep the mission going.
We see this also in the reading from 2 Thessalonians this morning. The letters to the Thessalonians - that is, to the Christians in Thessalonika, are probably the earliest parts of the New Testament to be written. They contain St Paul’s early theology, in which he seems to expect an imminent return of Christ in the lifetime of those he is addressing. This contrasts with St Paul’s later letters such as Ephesians where he seems to see Christ already filling all things, as though his own process of unveiling had happened and the vision had become for him both more immediate and more universal. 
So 2 Thessalonians is quite an “apocalyptic” letter overall, Christ is coming soon and we are in the last days. But here is Paul, at the conclusion of this letter, not talking about cosmic events but giving directions about very ordinary things: work and eating and payment for food. Just because the Kingdom is on the way doesn’t mean we can give up the necessities of life here and now. In fact, we must carry on doing these ordinary everyday things, precisely because the Kingdom is on the way, and we need to see to the practicalities of life so that we can bear witness to the Kingdom. 
This is just as true for us, and for any church. We need to keep the practicalities of life going, and take those responsibilities seriously. So today we are asking all the members of our electoral roll, and anyone else who feels they are part of St Peter’s community, to consider their part in keeping the mission of this church going. This is our stewardship: what we can give out of our time, talents and money. And I’ll talk more about that at the end of Mass.
We as a church are here to bear witness to the Kingdom of God, to play our part in the mission of God as he is calling us, at this time and in this place. This is something we have been praying about during our month of prayer, which concludes next Sunday. 
Engaging with our mission, carrying out the work that God has for us, means that we have to take care of the practical necessities of being a parish church. We have a beautiful building that needs to be maintained - and historic buildings like this aren’t low maintenance or low cost. We have to keep the door open, the roof on, and the people warm (ish). We have to pay our insurance, and the salaries of clergy, the bishop and the Diocesan staff who support all the parish churches. 
We depend also on all the time and talents that people offer. Without the work of many willing volunteers, who do so much, this church simply couldn’t carry on its mission. 
And all of it is so that we can do our work of bearing witness to the Kingdom of God, in this in-between time, the time of apocalypse. For the Kingdom is being unveiled even as the mechanisms of violence, sin, exclusion and destruction are also coming into the open. 
We are unlikely to face anything like the destruction of Jerusalem. But we do see things like the London riots of two years ago, or the burning of the Bravanese community centre just this year, in our parish. 
And when things like that happen it is vitally important that the church is here, in this place, a visible presence in the community, bearing witness to the better way of being and living which is God’s Kingdom of justice, love and peace.
So we are here, in this in-between time, this time of apocalypse, when the veils are being parted until that time when Christ will be all in all. This in-between time is when we say, as we will in the Eucharistic prayer, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”.
And if we want a watchword for the Church in this time, we could do worse than the one on so many mugs and tea towels and posters: keep calm, and carry on.

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