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

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 12 2014

Ezekiel 33.7-11
Romans 13.8-14
Matthew 18.15-20

Today Jesus teaches us about forgiveness. This is at the heart of the gospel and the good news that he tells us to share. As we remember when we say the Lord’s Prayer, God forgives, and so we are to forgive, too.
Forgiveness is more than just blotting out individual sins. It is about remaking human society, beginning humanity over again. 
From the beginning human society has tended to escalate blame, revenge and casting out. Human beings imitate one another’s desires. This begins the problem in the first place – If I desire the same thing that Sally desires, and we can’t both have it, we will end up in rivalry and conflict. The division that our desire creates can spread through society sweeping up everyone in its path.
The desire for blame and revenge then takes over and spreads, leading to the desire for a victim, a scapegoat on whom all this destructive energy can be dumped. And so it goes on. This is an aspect of what the Church calls “original sin” the flaw that runs through humanity and draws us away from union with God and one another.
The way the Church deals with sin is the reverse of this. Jesus’ instructions on what to do if a member of the Church sins against you are not about excluding that person, but about taking every possible means to keep them included.
From the first step the way of Jesus overcomes revenge. After all, if someone sins against you, what is your immediate reaction? So often is it not to hit back? And one of the ways in which we might want to get our own back is by telling as many people as we can what a dreadful person so-and-so is. Not so in the Church.
So Jesus tells us to start small, just between you and the other person. That’s hard! How much easier it is to go to a third party and say, “you’ll never guess what so-and-so has done!” – but how much more damaging. By going first to the person who has offended you, and saying nothing to anyone else, you will limit the harm and the possibility that your division and disunity might spread. If that doesn’t work, says Jesus, you can involve two or three others, no more. Only if that doesn’t work can you tell it to the church. The aim is always to re-include the offender, not to cast them out, and to do it in the way that has the least risk of spreading the scandal and doing more harm.
At the greatest extreme, says Jesus, treat the offender as a gentile and tax collector. But gentiles and tax collectors are precisely the ones Jesus reaches out to! So even if people obstinately place themselves outside the community the door is always open and the Church is always seeking for ways to bring them back.
And also, in the Church, we must be ready for other people to tell us where we are going wrong. The Church is the community where we accept our own fallibility and need for forgiveness, just as we accept our need to forgive others.
Notice that the community that Jesus describes is small enough to know everyone, and therefore to have to take the risk of trusting them. There will be sin, but the Church is the community that receives and practices forgiveness. Its basic rule is that no-one should be cast out, there must be no scapegoats. Of course there has to be safeguarding to protect the vulnerable, but again that is about making sure that no-one is cast out or alienated. The Church is a community that is generous, and gives without counting the cost, because the Church is learning to imitate God who is generous.
In this way we overcome the human way of desiring, which leads to rivalry and conflict, and learn to imitate God’s generous and non-rivalrous desire.
St Paul in today’s extract from Romans says “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”. The flesh, in scripture, does not mean the body, and its desires do not mean bodily things like sex and cream buns. Our bodies are good in themselves, as are all created things. Rather the flesh, in scripture, means our broken and disordered human nature, the destructive tendencies in ourselves. The desires of the flesh are death-bound and rivalrous, leading to quarrelling, division and violence. These are the desires that have been tearing humanity apart from the beginning, and which God is overcoming in Jesus.
Now sex and cream buns, though good in themselves, can serve the desires of the flesh, for we are fallen creatures. But so too can political ideology or the gods we worship, and those are much more dangerous. The horrible wave of destruction and violence in the Middle East at the moment shows exactly what happens when the desires of the flesh are gratified.
But the Church is the community which is learning to forget those death-bound desires and learning instead to imitate God’s generous desire. The Church is the new way of being human, where we are leaving our sins behind. One of the stories of the desert fathers, the first Christian monks who went to live in prayer and poverty in the deserts of Egypt, illustrates the fruit of this new way of living:
There were two ancient hermits who dwelt together and never quarrelled. At last one said to the other, with much simplicity, “Let us have a quarrel, as other men have.” And the other answering that he did not know how to quarrel, the first replied, “Look here, I will place this stone in the middle between you and me. I will say it is mine, and do you say that it is not true, for that it is yours; in this manner we will make a quarrel.” And placing the stone in the midst, he said, “This stone is mine.” And the other said, “No, it is mine.” And the first said, “If it be yours, then take it.” [and] they could not carry the conversation further, and the whole quarrel collapsed.
The Church is the community that includes and gathers together, that seeks out and brings in the lost. It is the community that is leaving behind its rivalrous desires, the desires of the flesh, and learning to imitate the generosity of God. And it keeps on learning to do so however often it fails, until in the end rivalry and division will become impossible.
Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. In a small church we might focus on the “two or three” and take comfort from that. That’s part of what Jesus is saying, but we need also to notice that the “two or three are gathered”. In human society two or three is enough to sow the seeds of rivalry and division, which then escalate to everyone. In the Church two or three is enough to begin the gathering together of all in Christ. Like those hermits in the desert two or three is enough to begin the new way of being human.

And two or three means that every person matters, that every person needs to respond to the call of Jesus. Gathered in the community that Jesus makes, our call is to leave behind our rivalrous desires, which divide and exclude, and to learn instead to imitate the generous desire of God who includes and unites.

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