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

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, Trinity IX 2016

Genesis 18:20-32
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-13

A Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him,
and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table.
Now there was a sinful woman in the city
who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee.
Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment,
she stood behind him at his feet weeping
and began to bathe his feet with her tears.
Then she wiped them with her hair,
kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself,
“If this man were a prophet,
he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him,
that she is a sinner.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Tell me, teacher, ” he said.
“Two people were in debt to a certain creditor;
one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty.
Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both.
Which of them will love him more?”
Simon said in reply,
“The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.”
He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon,
“Do you see this woman?
When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet,
but she has bathed them with her tears
and wiped them with her hair.
You did not give me a kiss,
but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered.
You did not anoint my head with oil,
but she anointed my feet with ointment.
So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven
because she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The others at table said to themselves,
“Who is this who even forgives sins?”
But he said to the woman,
If I’d stood up in the pulpit just now and, instead of the gospel, I’d read an extract from Marx’s Das Kapital, or from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, you might be startled, and perhaps making a mental note to look up the Archdeacon’s phone number when you get home.

Both Marx and Mao of course wrote about revolution: communist revolution, the class struggle resolved through the overthrow of the old world order and the establishment of something radically new.

Revolutionary texts are disturbing, and are meant to be. They point out, in the view of the authors, what is deeply wrong with the world and how it needs to change. Everything we are used to is threatened with tumultuous upheaval. All the old certainties will be swept away.

It’s a good job we don’t read that sort of thing in church! Except, of course, we do. Luke’s Gospel is radically revolutionary. It is a masterful exposure of all that is deepy wrong with the world and how it all must change. All the old ways of being human will be swept away, we can cling to nothing from the past, but must open ourselves to the new reality that is coming. The new reality that is called the Kingdom of God.

“Teach us to pray”, ask the disciples in today’s Gospel reading. They perhaps little know what they are asking, or the radical prayer of revolution they will be given. But the Jesus revolution, the coming of the Kingdom of God, is summed up in this prayer. Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer, which is slightly longer, is the one we use in the liturgy. Luke’s version, that we heard today, is short and to the point.

It begins with a very revolutionary word: “Father”. The idea that the disciples of Jesus should call God “Father” is startling. It claims an intimacy with God that no-one could presume, except Jesus himself, the eternal Son. God is the ultimate reality, the ground of being, the creator. Yet Jesus says that we are to call God our Father. He opens to all his disciples the unity and communion that he has with the Father.

This is deeply revolutionary. Of old, Kings and Emperors claimed affinity with the divine, as Caesar did in Rome at the time of Jesus. The great ones of the world claimed to be children of the gods to show how far they were above the common folk, that they were entitled to rule as they pleased and everyone else must submit. And this in turn embodied an idea that gods are more powerful beings than we are, able to threaten and coerce.
But if everyone can call God “Father”, every rag, tag and bobtail of Jesus’ disciples, every slave and prostitute and tax collector, then that overturns both the power claims of the great ones of the world, and the idea of God that they embody. God as Father is not about coercion and control, but about relationship and communion. God as Father establishes a radical equality among all those who, in Christ, discover themselves to be children of God. This is a new way of being human, the gift of God and not our construction. It ends the old order of coercion and control, of rivalry and violence, and opens the new order which is the Kingdom of God.

This is how God establishes his holiness. “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.” Holiness is not about separation and distance, it is about restoring a right relationship between humanity and God. By bringing justice, integrity and wholeness to human society, God’s name is hallowed. This is a God who cares and gets involved, far removed from the power of Caesar decreeing people’s fates from on high.

“Give us each day our daily bread.” We need to acknowledge that we depend on God, and not on ourselves. Once again, we are not autonomous little gods. We are children of our Father who loves us. Every day we are to turn to God and find in him the source of all that we need. And we need the sustenace of the spirit even more than that of the body: the Greek here has a sense of “super-substantial” bread, the bread of spiritual life, not just bodily life. Caesar gave “bread and circuses”, appealing to the people’s lower desires so that they would not turn against him; the true God gives the bread that is himself, the bread of communion that raises us to him so that we can become like him.

“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Forgiveness is the heart of the Jesus revolution. If we can call God “Father”, then we have discovered a new way of being human founded not on anything we can do or deserve, but simply on grace, God’s free and generous love. It is a way of being human that rests on being forgiven and forgiving. God has not held our sins against us; and we, too, must forgive everyone who is in debt to us. No earthly empire would last a moment if it tried to run on those lines. But the Kingdom of God does.

“And do not bring us to the time of trial.” This is the prayer which Jesus will pray in Gethsemane the night before his death. And yet he will add, “not my will be done, but yours”. Earthly rulers risk losing their power if they admit to any weakness, and instead impose weakness on others. Jesus subjects himself to the time of trial so that Divine strength can be known in and through our weakness. We can trust in God, and we can confess our weakness and our frailty, because we know ourselves to be God’s children, come what may. The secret of our life does not depend on us, but on God, even in life’s darkest moments, even when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death.

Prayer is aligning our wills with the will of God, in and for the world. This requires persistence. It is like a magnet being passed repeatedly over iron filings until the pattern of the magnetic field appears. And the prayer that Jesus gives us is a prayer that radically realigns the world, and ourselves, until the pattern of God’s Kingdom is imprinted on both.

This is why prayer is an act of revolution. Against the Caesars of our own age, wherever it is that might and power turn to oppression and violence. Against the false image of God that is enthroned in the power structures of the world, and even in our own hearts. Do we really think of God as our Father, who loves us and cares for us and forgives us? Or do we think of God as a remote being arbitrarily decreeing our fate, a Caesar writ large? The revolution of God’s Kingdom begins in our hearts; repentance is part of what it means to discover that God is our Father and we his children.

Jesus teaches us how we are to pray. Pray daily, pray persistently, pray the prayer of the Jesus revolution. Because it is through prayer that we align our own wills with the will of God. It is through prayer that the Kingdom of God will become real in our hearts and lives. It is through prayer that it will become real in the world.

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