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

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, Third Sunday before Lent 2017

Ecclesiasticus 15.15-20
1 Corinthians 3.1-9
Matthew 5.21-37

Last week I attended a seminar on modern Russia. One of the problems that society has to deal with is the fake news carried by official outlets – from stories that make Vladimir Putin out to be a kind of superhero, to conspiracy theories about other nations. The speaker at our seminar had asked somebody sensible in Russian media whether the people really believed these stories.
“What you have to understand”, he was told, “is that we don’t have truth any more, we have narrative”. In other words, decide the story you want to tell, and then selectively choose the “facts” to fit.
Now that happens quite a lot, and not just in Russia. Getting at the truth can be hard work. It can be sacrificial, requiring us to question and abandon our own ideas and principles. It’s much easier just to tell the story we want to tell, that reinforces our own position.
And this can happen too when it comes to reading the Bible. The truth is hard work. Today’s Gospel reading, for instance, is hard work. It makes tough reading. It seems too demanding. Depending on what’s happened to you in your life, it might even seem oppressive, a message of rejection. But if it seems like that, ask yourself, is this really the truth, or have I been told a narrative of rejection that just uses texts like this as proof of a foregone conclusion?
Jesus’ teaching about divorce, for example. Jesus is here addressing a totally patriarchal society. Women were treated as the property of men, to be disposed of as they pleased. Jesus is talking to the men in this passage. He is telling them that this isn’t good enough. You must not treat women as property. You must not abuse or exploit women, even in your minds. The thoughts and intentions of your hearts have to be completely converted, to see women as equals, persons as fully endowed with human dignity as you are yourselves.
This was revolutionary teaching. But how often has it been subverted, how often have these texts against the oppression of women been used as a pretext for oppression? “If a man commits adultery, it’s the woman’s fault for tempting him” – but, hang on, Jesus says the evil intention arises from the man’s heart. “You mustn’t leave your husband, even if you’re in an abusive marriage” – but, hang on, Jesus is telling men that a true understanding of marriage is completely incompatible with abuse.
Likewise the teaching about hell. Hell is mentioned 12 times in the New Testament, three of them in today’s reading. But let go of everything you thought you knew about Hell. “Hell” here translates the place name “Gehenna”, which is not a mythical underworld of eternal punishment, but a real rubbish dump outside Jerusalem, a sort of landfill site, where fires were often burning.
It was an unclean place, associated in ancient times with human sacrifice. It was a place of ritual violence and casting out. The Messiah calls us into the path of truth, which is his way of radical non-violence. But to follow him we need to recognize our deep complicity in violence, scapegoating and casting out, especially of those who are different from us. Hell, Gehenna, is a metaphor for the condition Jesus finds us in, and from which he wishes to save us. But how often, instead, has the idea of hell been used to terrorise and abuse people who are different, exactly the kind of scapegoating that Jesus warns us against?
When the Bible starts being used like that, we don’t have truth any more, but narrative. The story that people want to tell is being told, to reinforce their ideas and prejudices. That is, after all, so much easier than searching for the truth.
Now the truth is indeed radical and demanding, absolutely so. As we saw last week, the Sermon on the Mount presents us with the Law of the Messiah, a law greater, more demanding, more all-encompassing, than the law of Moses. It seems impossible to keep, until we understand that it is Jesus himself who keeps and enacts this law. He is “the Law in person”. The standard of total integrity, faithfulness and truth is his standard. And we are called into union with God in Christ, so that his righteousness may be ours. What we cannot do unaided Christ does for us, so that in him we may be presented as an acceptable offering to the Father.
Sometimes the church does not seem to have moved on much from the situation St Paul is addressing in his letter to the Corinthians today – infants in Christ, not yet “spiritual” people. They have their easy narratives, “I belong to Paul”, “I belong to Apollos”, but have not begun the hard work of attending to the truth that both Paul and Apollos proclaimed.
General Synod meets this week, and we will doubtless hear in the news about the House of Bishops’ report on sexuality and marriage. Now I am a dyed in the wool Catholic, and deeply inclined to regard whatever bishops say with great respect. But it has to be said that this particular report doesn’t seem to have been received well. Many thoughtful people of different theological positions have criticized it, including, this morning, fourteen retired bishops, and there is a move for Synod to decline to accept it.
I think what becomes of it will depend on whether it is perceived as a distorting narrative, or as a quest for the truth.
According to its critics, the report’s narrative seems mainly to be about how difficult it is for the poor bishops to hold everyone together. The quest for truth, the truth of people of different sexualities created in the image of God, is a harder task, and one that the report seems to avoid. So please do pray for our Synod members this week, for discernment and wisdom, of course, but also for boldness and commitment in the quest for truth.

This applies to all of us, of course. The passage from Deuteronomy with which we began today contains the famous words, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.” That is not a referendum question, a tick box exercise. It is not a choice between two different easy narratives. It is an invitation, a summons, into the truth, into the long work of engagement and transformation. Jesus says it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life. But in Christ that summons into the truth is already fulfilled, and in him we too embark on that journey. Choose life. Choose the truth.

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