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

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 18 2016

Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-end

On Monday I went to the “Sunken Cities” exhibition at the British Museum. Underwater archaeology has brought to light two ancient Egyptian cities which sank beneath the waves more than a thousand years ago. The finds are fascinating and remarkably well preserved.
These were important religious centres, particularly for the cult of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead. Elaborate annual rituals marked the passage of this god into the underworld, where he was believed to preside over the dead.
Belief in the underworld, the world of the dead, was common across the pre-Christian world. The dead, it was supposed, descended to dark caverns beneath the earth where they lived out a ghostly existence. The best you could hope for was an imitation of this life, with possessions and food and slaves and so on, but only if you were someone really important like the Pharaoh. The world of the dead was not really something to look forward to.
Now, why is this relevant to today’s gospel reading? Well, look at where the rich man ends up after he dies: he is in Hades. That is, the world of the dead, the underworld. We might read this through the lens of mediaeval theology and subconsciously think, aha, he’s gone to Hell. But that’s not what the text says: he is in the world of the dead.
Like the ancient Egyptians, the imagination of this rich man was bounded by death. During his lifetime, he lived as though death were the final reality. So he does nothing except eat enormous banquets of rich food, lounging around in pantomime robes and stuffing himself with delicacies every day.
But he ignored the poor. After all, if death ends everything, if we all go down to the gloomy underworld and life is just a zero sum game, what is the point of helping anyone? What good will it do, in the end? “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”
So, now the rich man is dead, he is simply inhabiting the reality that has defined his entire life. He finds himself in the world of the dead, because he has never imagined anything else.
But Lazarus, on the other hand, has entered a reality that the rich man had never even suspected. He is being comforted with the angels and with Abraham – a figure from the distant past who ought to be completely dead, but is mysteriously very much alive.
Lazarus has entered the world of the Resurrection, which is what this parable is all about. The clue comes at the end, when Abraham says, “if they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.”
Lazarus, in this story, is a figure for Jesus himself – the rejected outcast who died, forgotten by the world, but was raised in glory by his Father.
The resurrection of Jesus is more than just an event in history, though of course it is that. The Bible speaks of the resurrection as a moment of revelation. Through the resurrection of Jesus the ultimate truth behind the universe is made known to us: and it is not death, but life.  God is the creator of all things, and in him is no death at all.
As the second letter to Timothy puts it, “God called us… not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
The resurrection, simply, is entering into the life that God lives, which Jesus Christ has revealed. The second Eucharistic prayer, which we use on Sundays and is about 1800 years old, expresses the same belief: “he put an end to death by dying for us; and revealed the resurrection by rising to new life”[1].
This is sheer gift. “God called us not according to our works but according to his grace.” Overflowing generosity, love, and life, go together. We face a choice: we can stay in the world of the dead, without hope, in which we can close our hearts and ignore the poor. Or we can enter the resurrection, revealed by Jesus Christ, who has risen from the dead to call us to repentance.
Repentance means taking a new direction, crossing over from one side to another. In this parable, the rich man wants to do that, but can’t. But this story closes a series of parables in which change can and does happen: the prodigal son, the dishonest manager whom we encountered last week. 
It’s as though this parable wants to end by underlining that it is all about choice: you can choose to stay in the old imagination bounded by death if you really want to; but Jesus Christ has revealed the new reality, the life of God in the resurrection, which we are called to enter.
This is something that the parables repeat again and again. Those who seek to hang on to what they’ve got, as though this was the secret of their life, miss out on true life, which is God’s gift. Riches and possessions close our hearts to mercy, to the possibility of change and redemption. On the other hand, if we own our poverty, our nakedness and our need, then God will give us his kingdom.
Repentance then is all about living in the new reality in which death is not. The ultimate reality behind the universe is life and love, the God who gives himself without limit and without being diminished. This is sheer gift and grace, we don’t earn it. But if we enter that reality then we are going to start living like that. We will care for the poor, the marginalized and the outcast. We will live out God’s love in our lives.
We are called to respond to Jesus Christ, in whatever guise he may meet us as we journey through life – he may very well be the Lazarus lying at the gates of our modern city. If we allow room in our hearts for him, if we allow room for the Father’s life and love and compassion, then we will start to live according to the resurrection.
And when at length death finally rends the veil, and we step through into God’s eternity, then we will not be strangers to the dazzling light that will be revealed to us, but will be welcomed into the kingdom of the resurrection that has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world.

[1] That prayer, the so-called Canon of Hippolytus, is now thought to be Egyptian in origin. Compare it with the cult of Osiris for an insight into the conversion of culture by the Gospel.

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