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

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 3 2014

Isaiah 61.1-4,8-11
1 Thessalonians 5.16-24
John 1.6-8,19-28

Our gospel reading this morning is edited highlights. If you look at the verse numbering you’ll see that two separate bits of John Chapter 1 have been lifted out and put together. This is so that we have John the Evangelist’s account of John the Baptist as a continuous story. But in fact the way the Evangelist tells it, the Baptist’s story is framed by a bigger story, the story of the Word made flesh, the true light that enlightens everyone. John the Baptist is as it were a sub-plot in the big story of who Jesus is. When you get home, look up John chapter 1 in your own Bibles and you can see how it all fits together.
But today we are looking at John the Baptist, and who he is. Or, more to the point, who he is not. “He himself was not the light”, says the Evangelist, “but he came to testify to the light.” The Baptist himself adds to this, by telling the people who question him that he is not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the Prophet.
Knowing who you are not is a great gift, and it is something that the priests and Levites who question John don’t understand. Human beings are mimics. We imitate what we see, driven by a subconscious desire to be the models that are presented to us. Who we are is a question that haunts us. How can I know who or what I am? How can I be sure that there is really anything here at all? The ready made model seems an easy solution, here, this is what you are, be like this. But can it really answer the question of our existence and identity? Does it tell us the truth?
Think of the kind of models that are available for us. We’re bombarded with them: celebrities, footballer, film stars, high flying career people, people with power and influence, the rich and famous. The subtle message all the time is, “Be like this! If you don’t who are you? Can you be sure you even really exist?”
Now this is powerful and pervasive, and it is very human. But it is also an illusion. Our identity is a mystery and a gift that we receive from God. We can’t construct it ourselves or copy it from a model. And John the Baptist has seen through this illusion.
The models that the priests and Levites hold out to him are compelling ones indeed. Are you the Messiah? The Messiah, God’s chosen anointed one who will lead his people and drive away oppression. Are you Elijah? The fire-brand prophet who brought down kings and rulers and was carried up to heaven in a whirlwind. Are you the Prophet? Not just any prophet but a specific figure, a prophet “like Moses”, greater than all others, who it was believed would appear in the last days.
John the Baptist knows that he is not these people, he is not the models held out for him to imitate. Instead, he says, he is but a “voice crying out in the wilderness”. Just a voice – something that passes away and is gone. And in the wilderness – outside the structures of society, far from the centre.  John can say this because his faith is in the one who is to come, the one whose story frames his own.
For John, the question of his identity can only be answered in the context of that bigger story: the story of the Word, who is God, through whom all things exist, who is coming in to the world. John knows that his own existence and identity is not something he can construct. Instead, it is a gift to be received, and a mystery to be held, in the greater gift and mystery of the Word who calls all things into being.
So for John there is no terrible existential angst. He is not troubled by the question, “who are you”. He is there to point to Jesus, the Word made flesh, who creates us and holds us in being through his own sheer generosity and love. Who am I? Why are you concerning yourself with me? It’s Jesus who matters.
This is I think a very important lesson, not only for us as individuals but also for the Church of today. It seems to me that the Church in the West has developed a huge existential anxiety as society has become more secular, more open and fluid and questioning, and its own place has shifted away from the centre.
What is the church for? Who are we? The Church can seem to be obsessed with these questions. The answer used to seem clear, in the days when the Church could assume privilege and influence. But those days are gone. And if we act as though they are not, we just come across as pompous and out of touch.
When, for example, the Church of England insists on being exempt from equality laws, so that women and gay people can still be discriminated against, then we should not be surprised if the world around us finds that incomprehensible and stops listening. And that is a real tragedy, because from time to time the Church says something that really matters, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments last week on his shock at the scale of hunger in the UK.
But instead the Church just seems to get more concerned about its market profile and brand image, the models around us that cry out to be imitated. “Fresh expressions” spring up in place of traditional churches and liturgies, as though we have lost faith in the one thing that Jesus told us to do, which is to celebrate Mass. Last week saw a proposal that high flyers in the Church should be “groomed” for a “talent pool” and sent on intensive training so they can be the future bishops and archdeacons and so on, as though the Church were a multinational corporation.
Now the Church does need competent management in the right places. But we also need the prophets and the sages, those who stir up the complacent and scandalise the respectable and overturn the tables of the moneychangers. In a “business model church”, where will be those whose deep wisdom has been forged in the desert, far from the centre, who don’t fit in with the prevailing models, and whom we desperately need to hear because we do fit in and we shouldn’t?
As with individual disciples, so with the Church.  If we try to construct our identity by imitating the models around us we will fail. Our task is not to be concerned about who we are. Our task is to remember the bigger story, the story of the Word made flesh, in which story alone the Church exists and makes sense.
The existential crisis in the Church will only be solved when we stop worrying about ourselves and start pointing to Jesus once again. Because it is fundamentally a crisis of faith. How are we going to convey the good news that we created and loved by God, if we act as though we don’t believe that ourselves?
So, who are we, then? How does John the Baptist answer that? He is a voice crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.
The South American liberation theologian Juan Luis Segundo once said that the normal condition of the church is that of a creative minority within society, the little bit of yeast that leavens the whole dough. That seems the right approach in our generation. The disciples of Jesus, then and now, are called to be a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. The Church needs to be small and humble before the world, but faithful, a poor Church for the poor, if it is to fulfil this role. Jesus began with twelve people – and they weren’t high flyers selected from a talent pool.

If the Church will not hear the call of the wilderness, then it will find itself in the wilderness anyway, but a wilderness of judgement and purification. As God’s people have often found in the past. God judges his Church because he loves his Church. And sometimes only the wilderness experience can strip us of our illusions and self-reliance and bring us back to faith in the one who alone loves us and creates us, on whom we must learn to depend entirely, once again.  

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