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

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Lent 3 2016

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Isaiah 55.1-9
Luke 13.1-9

Isaiah proclaims a great message of hope today, a word of consolation given probably to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon. He promises an everlasting covenant, manifesting God’s steadfast sure love to David and making him a leader and commander for the peoples.

But this is not a promise of going back to where they were before their exile. It does not promise a future separated from the other nations, which is perhaps what some were wanting. So it is a message of hope, but also of disturbance.

Consider this part of the promise that Isaiah makes:

See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
   and nations that do not know you shall run to you.

We might think, if we heard that, great, things are going to be so good that everyone else is going to want a share in the blessings that God will pour on the Jewish people. We who are Christians from the Gentile world will appreciate the inclusivity of God’s promise here.

But suppose were were a people who felt like a struggling minority, as the Jews were in Babylon. Suppose we were trying to keep hold of our distinct way of life when we were surrounded by foreigners, people of different speech and customs and strange languages.

Let’s hear that verse from Isaiah again:

See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
   and nations that do not know you shall run to you.

If we were feeling a bit insecure, that could sound like a threat, or a warning. You’re going to be overrun by all these people who are different from you. You can almost hear it being spoken by the voice of Nigel Farage.

So we can take this two ways – as a hope-filled promise, and as a challenge. Isaiah is saying that everything will change. God’s inclusive generosity will change how everyone belongs.

Consider how Isaiah opens this passage:

You that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.

Buying without money is a contradiction, in the world we know. We can only imagine an economy based on bargaining and exchange. We do work to earn money; we pay that money for the goods we need. And we tend to think in the same way about God: we do good things to earn God’s favour, and God pays us with his blessings.

But, says Isaiah, that’s not how it is. The Kingdom God is inviting us to enter has nothing to do with bargaining, or exchange, or earning anything. It is simply founded on God’s gratuitous generosity, which we call grace. Grace is not earned because of anything we’ve done, but freely given because that is simply how God is.

This is why the inclusion of the unexpected people is so disturbing – it forces us to reassess completely the basis on which we belong with God. Humanity has from the beginning has been accustomed to thinking of the different people as outsiders, because that is how we know we are insiders. But grace doesn’t allow us to do that any more. Grace makes us realise that we are just the same as the strange, unexpected, different people. That is disturbing, but it is tremendous good news, because it means that God welcomes us too, simply because that is what God is like, and not at all on the basis of anything we might do or bargain with.

The Catholic story writer Flannery O’Connor, paraphrasing Jesus, summed this up by saying: “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

This change of mindset, learning that we belong through grace, the same as all the other odd people, is at the heart of our gospel reading today as well. Jesus challenges the assumption that bad things happen to people because they have sinned. People have been massacred by Pilate, and killed by a falling tower. Do you think that they are worse sinners than you? No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.

Repentance is the change of our heart and mind, so that we can enter God’s new reality of grace. And if we don’t enter that new reality, we will be stuck in the old one, which is death-bound, because it is based on the limited things we think we can bargain with, instead of on God’s limitless generosity.

God’s acts of inclusion, whether proclaimed through Isaiah or enacted through Jesus, always change the whole basis on which everybody belongs. And that can be profoundly disturbing for those who think they belong already.

The unexpected and gratuitous welcome of the different people is meant to open our eyes to our unexpected and gratuitous welcome. God’s welcome of us into his kingdom of generosity and grace has nothing to do with anything we think we can bargain with, whether that’s being good, or respectable, or in with the in crowd. Our welcome is, instead, the discovery of God’s limitless, overflowing, generosity and love. And that is tremendous good news for us, and for all the other odd people too.

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