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

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass, the Third Sunday before Advent (Remembrance Sunday) 2015

 René Girard 1923-2015
Photo by Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News

Jonah 3.1-5,10

Hebrews 9.24-28

Mark 1.14-20

It’s all feeling a bit November-ish, isn’t it? We are nearly at the end of the Church’s year. In three weeks, it will be Advent, and a new year will begin. You can plan to get your new year celebrations in early, and impress your friends with a Christian new year that they probably haven’t heard of.

But what is going on? We have been following Mark’s Gospel through the year, yet today we are back in chapter one, with the call of the first disciples. Why is this?

Well it is because the Church of England has invented something called the Kingdom Season, which runs from All Saints at the beginning of November to the feast of Christ the King at the end. The Kingdom is a vital strand in the teaching of Jesus and it’s good to focus on this as the year draws to a close. There are signs of this in the liturgy, some of the seasonal responses we make remind us of it, and the vestments and hangings in church are royal red rather than the green we have through ordinary time.

And so today we look back to the beginning of the Gospel, where Jesus first announces the Kingdom. “After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”

And this announcement comes into the ordinary life of the people of Galilee and changes everything. Simon and Andrew, James and John, hear the call of Jesus and immediately leave what they are doing and follow him. They are in the middle of their work, but they get up and leave everything, just like that. What must their fellow workers have thought of them? But this immediate response to Jesus is something we see again and again in Mark. Jesus changes things instantly. The normal course of life suddenly is overturned and nothing is ever the same again.

The Kingdom of God comes as the interruption of the normal. What is the normal? Mark tells us. “After John was arrested”, he says, to set the scene of today’s reading. That is, John the Baptist, arrested for denouncing Herod’s immoral behavior and thrown into prison, where we all know he will end up with his head cut off. That is the normal: the violence of the world against its victims. That is the scene into which Jesus steps with his proclamation of good news. And what is the interruption of the normal? Repentance. “The Kingdom of God has come near”, says Jesus, so repent. The urgency is such that, when you see it, you drop everything, because there is no time to waste.

Repentance means turning around, taking a new direction. And that means turning your back on the normal. It means forsaking the violence that is always bubbling just under the surface of the world, and always threatening to burst out and destroy us.

Is that too strong a thing to say? Look at Jonah, in our Old Testament reading. The message he was given to proclaim was simple: ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’. But the message results in repentance, and the disaster does not happen. You have to realise how close disaster is, in order to turn away from it. You have to realise how immediately society is threatened by its own violence, in order to grasp the urgency of renouncing it. That is how the world is. The preaching of repentance shows us how near we are to disaster all the time, and at the same time how near the Kingdom of God has come to us, to save us, if we will but repent.  

Is that too strong a thing to say? We can hardly think that, today of all days. The disasters of war have made the last century an endless catastrophe for much of the human race, and look set to do the same for this century too. And these two centuries are not different from all the others that have gone before. This is the normal way of the world, and if we in Western Europe have been relatively unscathed by it for the last seventy years we need to realise how exceptional that situation is, and that we cannot count on it to continue.

The call of Jesus to repent is as urgent today as it ever was. The disaster that threatens to overwhelm us is lurking at the door, and that disaster is the violence of the human race, our seemingly endless capacity to cast out and destroy our victims.

Last week saw the death of René Girard. You may not have heard of him, but his influence extends far in Biblical studies and many preachers are indebted to him. Girard was one of the most influential and original thinkers of the last century. His work on human origins led him to the theory that violence is the foundation of human society, and exposed its intimate connection to the sacred. Human beings don’t just do violence, we make a religion out of it. Societies under threat recover their unity by uniting against a scapegoat, and this primal mechanism of violence gets mythologized and ritualized into sacrifice, the slaughter of an innocent victim to save the guilty who don’t know that they are guilty.

There’s a lot of that in the Bible, as we can see in today’s reading from Hebrews, which says that sacrificial victims have had to suffer from the foundation of the world, at the hands of the priests of this cult who continually offer blood that is not their own. In other words this sacred violence is foundational, part of the way the world is. It is the normal. But Jesus does things differently. “He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Jesus ends the age of the normal by his giving of himself, his voluntary suffering of the violence that the world has been inflicting from its foundation. Because he is the innocent victim raised to the heavens and seated on the throne of God, he has broken open the normal, the old order of sin and death, and made possible something new, which is the Kingdom of God.

God emptied himself in Jesus, identifying himself with the world as it is to save us from the world as it is. Jesus exposes the foundations of the world in its violence. He points the way out though his teaching. He suffers the violence of the world in total identification with all the human race. And through the resurrection he reveals God’s alternative order to the world, the non-violent superabundance of God’s life, the Kingdom of God. Jesus does not set up a new sacred, a new way of casting out, rather he overturns it and proclaims God’s Kingdom of radical inclusion. And he calls us to turn around and follow him into that Kingdom.

Remembrance Sunday shows us the normal, the foundations of the world, built on sacred violence. Into the horrors of the last century, and those of the century now unfolding, the call of repentance becomes more urgent still. The disaster is always waiting at the door. Repentance consists of turning around and living differently so that it might not be so. Each one of us is called by Jesus to repent, to renounce the violence of the human race, which is deeply embedded in all of us, and follow him into God’s Kingdom of life and truth in which there is no darkness or violence at all. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


Bruce Bridgewood said...

A v. fine homily. Is it yours Father Matthew ?

Matthew Duckett said...

A poor thing, but mine own. Although, as Fr Peter McGeary used to say at All Saints Margaret Street, most preachers have two sermons - this is the latest reworking of one of mine. (The other, I suppose, is variations on "wow, the Eucharist is amazing"...)