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

Monday, 18 December 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 3 2014

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

The gospel reading this morning is edited. It’s two separate bits from the great opening of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word”, lifted out and put together, so that we read the account of John the Baptist as a continuous story. The Baptist’s story is framed by the bigger story, the story of the Word made flesh, the true light that enlightens everyone.
John the Baptist is a sub-plot in the story of who Jesus is. Without Jesus, there would have been no John, and the entire point of John is to point to Jesus. He is not himself the light, but has come to testify to the light.
And it’s important that John knows this. He can’t bear witness to Jesus if he thinks that it’s all about himself instead. This is why he is so insistent in saying who he is not: not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the Prophet.
Instead, he describes himself in Isaiah’s words, ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord”’. Just a voice. A voice speaks, and then is carried away on the wind and is gone. It is transitory. John seeks no permanence for himself. He is not starting a John the Baptist movement. He knows that his task is to speak to his time and place, and then to stand aside for the One who is to come after him.
There are parallels between John’s mission and the mission of the Church. Today’s Collect, the opening prayer, refers to this:
“O Lord Jesus Christ, who at your first coming sent your messenger to prepare your way before you: grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready your way.”
The “ministers and stewards of your mysteries” are in the first place the bishops, priests and deacons of the Church. But, in the broader sense, we are all stewards of the mysteries of Christ. Every member of the Church is an ambassador for Jesus, and each one of us has the task of preparing the way for him in our own life and work, in our families and communities, in whatever way is appropriate to our state of life.
And today the Church prays that we may do this like John the Baptist. “grant that [we] may likewise so prepare and make ready your way”. Sometimes it’s said that we should be careful what we pray for, as we might get it. Well, this is a challenging prayer.
It means, firstly, that our story is set in the bigger story, the story of Jesus. There would be no Church if it were not for Jesus. Our task is to point to him and not to ourselves.
A Church that gets caught up in its own internal agenda is failing to prepare and make ready the way of Jesus. When that happens, the Church becomes the story, instead of Jesus. And the story then is so often one of conflict and other human stuff. Where’s the good news? It’s been lost in the row.
Secondly, the Church, like John, is to seek no permanent structures or institutions. True, the Church does have an eternal permanence, in Christ, but in this passing age its expressions are to be adapted to the needs of the time. Its mission it is to be like a voice crying in the wilderness.
That’s not how it always works out. We can get rather attached to structures and institutions, and not want them to change. Indeed it’s easy to think that the way the church now is the way it always has been, and always must be. Too often “tradition” means wanting to go back to what we were doing about 50 years ago, and that is deadly. But properly understood, “Tradition” means “handing on”, not “looking back”; it is dynamic, active and evolving, open to the future.
There are certain things that are given to the Church, that in themselves do not change: the scriptures, the sacraments, the apostolic teaching and ministry. But how they are used and applied can vary widely in different times and places.
For instance, we have bishops, priests and deacons, the ministry we have received from the Apostles. But we don’t have to organise them in dioceses and parishes, units of administration from the Roman Empire.
The Church of England continues these structures because they still have a use, but also encourages newer “expressions of the church” in parallel with the old, to be flexible and adaptable for the needs of society today. We have a good example here with Grace Church engaging in mission alongside our historic Parish Church.
There’s nothing new about this. The religious orders in the middle ages fulfilled a similar role, groups such as the Franciscans breaking out of the old structures so as to be free to engage in wider mission. The Church’s task always is to remain engaged with a changing world, not to establish any permanent form that gets trapped in one era of history
The third thing that John the Baptist teaches the Church is perhaps the hardest. It is letting go. When we have done the task that God calls us to, are we then prepared to let go and leave the results to God? Results that may perhaps be not at all what we expect.
John himself struggled with this. When Jesus began his public ministry, John’s work was over. But he couldn’t keep quiet, and got into trouble with King Herod. He was thrown into prison. And there he seems to have had a crisis of faith. He sent a message to Jesus asking “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
John, in his preaching, had clearly expected the Messiah to bring wrath. The chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire. And yet that wasn’t happening. Things were not working out the way John had expected.
But he had done his task, and Jesus was fulfilling his mission in his way. It was not for John to decide what that should look like. “Blessed is the one who is not scandalised in me”, Jesus said to him in reply.
Those who have gone before us in this local church have done their task and we inherit the fruits of their labours. What we do may not be what they would have expected. And we too must hand on our mission to future ambassadors for Jesus, the real meaning of tradition. But can we let go? Because letting go, once we’ve done our task, is leaving room for God.

Like John the Baptist, then, the Church faces three challenges. To point to Jesus and not to ourselves. To proclaim the eternal truths afresh in each generation, not seeking to become attached to any particular historical expression. And to let go, to make room for God to act in the way God wants to. Which may be quite different from what we were expecting. But this is what it means to make straight the way of the Lord as John the Baptist did. “Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready your way.” Amen.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 2 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

What’s it like, walking down the street at the moment? Well we see a lot of claims being made. We see glittering shop windows: life could be glamorous and exciting like this; feelings of guilt are subtly evoked if we don’t buy this or that expensive thing for our loved one.  But what will you do about the debts that you’ll still be paying off next Christmas?
Advertisements on the underground: Be careful when you’ve had a drink. Download our laundry app to give yourself more time to party. For a heartburn free Christmas, take these pills. Or (the next poster down) these rival pills. (None seems to suggest the obvious solution, which is not to eat so much.) Happiness, it seems, means consumption and excess, escaping into a fantasy land of midwinter cheer. But what if you don’t feel cheerful?
There are bigger statements, too. The number of homeless people in our city is increasing all the time, and food banks can’t keep up with the need. But that’s largely invisible. The skyline of London is great towers of gleaming glass and steel and shining lights. These are making a huge public claim about wealth and power and the priorities of our society. We’re the world’s sixth largest economy, apparently. But who benefits?
When we walk down the street, it seems we are continually presented with interpretations of the world, claims about what really matters and is of value.
At the time of Jesus, too, there were plenty of public claims and interpretations of the world. The Romans were fond of inscriptions reminding you of the importance and benevolence of the Emperor, and all the great things that he had done for you. But they were also reminders of who was in charge, who ordered and directed your life. And the Roman army was everywhere if you needed reminding of what that actually meant.
Such claims were often phrased as announcements of “good news”. Here’s an example of one: “The birthday of the god Augustus [Caesar] was the beginning of the good news for the world that came by reason of him.”[1] That’s certainly making a claim.
Now, look again at the first verse of Mark’s Gospel. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark opens his gospel in the style of a Roman inscription proclaiming “good news”. He takes the claims of the Roman Empire, with all its might and power, and says, No. Not true. The good news for the world is not Caesar, but Jesus.
The good news of Jesus is very different to that of Caesar. It is not based on power and violence, but on love. It is not proclaimed on great public buildings and monuments, not in the centres of power and wealth. It is good news for the poor, for those on the margins, for those who have been left behind by the power structures of the world.
John the Baptist appeared to prepare his way. Not in a city, but in the wilderness, not in robes but dressed like a tramp, scavenging to survive. But the people came to him, from the whole Judean countryside and from Jerusalem. And they confessed their sins.
There was something authentic and compelling about John. People knew that what they needed was here. A baptism of repentance, for forgiveness. True good news, that Caesar had never offered. In the presence of John’s authentic proclamation, people felt and knew the deep dislocation in their lives, their estrangement from God and from one another, something that Rome could never fix. But repentance could.
Repentance means turning around, taking a new direction. Humanity has been heading in the wrong direction, going its own way, the way of violence and envy, the way of exalting myself over against other people. The whole way the world was, which Rome called “good news” but the Bible called “sin”. But God calls us to his way, the way of the Lord that his messenger prepares, which is the way of love and justice and peace.
This is the way of freedom. But it is also the way of the wilderness. God’s people had been freed from slavery before, in Egypt, in Babylon, but freedom always meant departing into the wilderness, leaving behind the certainty and security that was actually part of what enslaved them.
The way of the Lord leads us away from the centres of human power to the edge, to the margins, where power and privilege and wealth are stripped away and there is nothing to sustain us but the Lord himself. And the Lord himself is what we truly need, he alone is our freedom.
This is the heart of the good news of Jesus. But that means challenging and turning away from the false claims that are so constantly made on us. The Gospel exposes the false claims about what matters – wealth and power, success, ambition, envy. In their place, the way of the Lord, the way of true freedom, is that of love, service, humility. Raising up the poor and the downcast, bringing the margins into the centre, healing the sick, embracing the unloved.
The Gospel also means challenging the claims that are so persistent in our hearts. What really matters? Repentance means examining ourselves, exposing our envy, our disordered desires, our inner violence against others and ourselves, our attachment to the certainty and security that enslave us. As with those who first heard John the Baptist, our response to the good news must first begin with the confession of our sins. We do so, not to wallow in guilt, but to discover the freedom of forgiveness.
And that can mean discovering, too, all the ways in which we are wrong about God. The disordered desires and claims of our hearts can project a lot of dark stuff onto the word “God”. A word which for so many people evokes a distant, demanding, disapproving figure. We think that our security is found in casting out and condemning others, so we suppose that is what God is like. I have heard so many people, including Christians, say things like “I’m not good enough”, “I let God down”, “I don’t think God likes me”. How is that good news?
We need to have Christmas every year, to remind ourselves of the real good news about God, which is Jesus. No distant or disapproving figure, but one who actually wants to be with us, in all that life is really like. The name “Jesus” does not mean “he who condemns”. It means “the Lord saves”.
The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. What does that mean? It means that God sees all the lost and lonely people, the sad, the disconnected, the hurting and vulnerable, those who are weeping in sorrow and pain, those who are beating themselves up because they think they’re not good enough.  And that is where God wants to be. Down here with us. For us, on our side. Our friend. Because he loves us. Of which his coming among us in Jesus is proof. And that’s real good news.

[1] The “Priene Calendar Inscription” – see

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 1 2017

Isaiah 63:16-17, 64:1. 3-8
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:33-37

It is a new year, and so we start reading through a new Gospel; this year we are reading Mark.
But we don’t begin at the beginning. As happens on every Advent Sunday, we take a big breath and jump right in at the deep end, plunging into apocalypse, startled by great portents and cosmic signs. Apocalypse, as we’ve been reflecting over the past weeks, is about unveiling, seeing what is going on behind the scenes of world events.
As with the other gospels, this teaching is set in the last week of Jesus’ life. He has entered Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday, but the authorities are bent on his destruction. It is in this context of threat and impending crisis that Jesus speaks of the revealing, the unveiling, of the Son of Man.
We can read this on different levels. Yes, Christ will come again at the end of time, his glory manifest to the whole creation. But Jesus speaks of his coming here as something more immediate that that. Those present as he speaks will see it, though they may not recognise it. The Son of Man is coming, but in a way that they do not expect.
For centuries, the people of Israel had held on to the hope of the Prophets, that God would come to save his people. The great longing expressed in our reading from Isaiah this morning forms part of the background to the gospels, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”.
But how was God going to do this? In what way would he show himself? Most people seem to have been expecting something quite violent, the Messiah, God’s anointed leader, appearing in power to drive out the Romans and restore Israel once again to being a pure and righteous kingdom on earth.
But Jesus tells a parable of a man who goes on a journey, whose slaves do not know when he will return: in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn. But those are exactly the hours when no-one would have expected anyone to arrive. In a world with no street lighting and few safe roads, people travelled only by day. The master is coming, but in an unexpected way.
Mark is the most immediate and urgent of the gospels. If you’ve been reading it for Bible Book Club you’ll be familiar with the almost breathless pace, and how often he uses the word “immediately”; events follow on without a pause; everything is happening right there and then.
So it is too with Mark’s apocalypse. God was acting in Jesus in a way that no-one was expecting or looking for. And he was doing it right there and then. In the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, at dawn. Those times mark the hours of the passion of Jesus. The last supper and his betrayal; the midnight prayer in Gethsemane when the disciples could not keep awake; cockcrow when Peter denied knowing him; dawn, when he was led out to die. The sun was darkened at noon as he hung on the cross.
At his trial Jesus will repeat to the authorities what he has said to the disciples, that they “will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven”. That is a quotation from the Book of Daniel, referring to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus is saying that it is precisely through his death and resurrection that the Son of Man will come with power, it is in this way that God is tearing open the heavens and coming down to save his people.
And at the death of Jesus, Mark tells us, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. In Hebrew, the name of this curtain was “the heaven”. Just as the starry vault of heaven concealed the presence of God the creator, so too the symbolic curtain in the temple concealed his symbolic presence in the Holy of Holies. The death of Jesus was the tearing open of heaven, the unveiling of God.
This is the key to understanding apocalypse in the Bible. In the first place, it is an unveiling of the spiritual stuff going on behind the scenes of the world. It shows us the violent spiritual imagination of the world, a world that orders itself by violence and death and expects even God to act violently. Victims are cast out, and the violent imagination of the world thinks only that they had it coming to them. If victims die, it must be because God wants them to; therefore, they are guilty.
But then apocalypse is even more the unveiling of God. Everyone thought that Jesus was a blasphemer and troublemaker who deserved to die. They couldn’t imagine anything else. But suddenly, in his death, heaven is torn open. Suddenly it is seen that God is not the force of condemnation aligned against the victim. Suddenly it is seen that God is the victim, and the victim is innocent. The violent imagination that the world has projected onto heaven is false. God meets us in the one we have cast out and killed, to forgive us and reconcile us to himself. The true imagination of God, in whom there is no violence or death at all, breaks through the veil, and changes everything.
Sometimes I think we can have too small an idea of sin, and of redemption. Sin is more than just individual acts of wrongdoing. It is the whole disordered state of the world, the violent spiritual imagination that casts out and destroys its victims. And redemption is more than just plucking individuals out of the ruin of the world to transfer them to a better place somewhere else. Redemption is nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth, everything made new. A new heaven as well, a new spiritual imagination of the God who reveals himself in the innocent victim, and raises that victim from the dead to give new life to all.
Mark’s Gospel, as we shall see over the coming year, is a challenge to the whole way the world is. There is nothing individualistic about its call to repentance and salvation.
And it is as immediate as ever. We might not these days attribute the suffering of victims to the idea that God is against them. But we have different myths instead. The violent spiritual imagination of the world has been reinterpreted for the 21st century. If most of the world is poor, while a few are very rich, that’s market forces, it’s just how the world is. The irresistible forces are aligned against the poor. If we sell arms to murderous torturing regimes around the world, well, that’s trade with our key allies, it’s just how the world is, and how the world is means that people must suffer violence. The supposed force of inevitability cloaks our failure to see that God is on the side of the victims, instead of against them.

It’s just how the world is? No. Right from the start, Mark’s Gospel insists that there is an alternative to the way the world is, made known in Jesus. Through his death and resurrection heaven is torn open, the powers of this world are shaken and cast down, the outcast are gathered in, the victims raised up, and all things made new. This is what God is doing in Jesus, and we must stay alert and attentive to him as we follow in his way. “What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”