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

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 6 2017

Isaiah 44.6-8
Romans 8.12-25
Matthew 13.24-30,36-43

Following on from last week’s parable about the sower, we have another parable about sowing seed, and gathering a harvest. But, as with last week’s parable, we have to be on the alert. Parables are strange, Jesus describes what are at first glance typical scenes from everyday life, but look closely, and there’s always something odd. We are not looking into the world we are used to. Parables jolt us out of the ordinary into a new world where things happen differently.
Once again, as with last week, we have to ask ourselves, “what is wrong with this picture?”
We are to remember that, when Jesus was asked why he taught in parables, he quoted the Prophet Isaiah:
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
Parables are not about explaining simple moral lessons. They are about uncovering for us the ways in which we listen, but do not understand, and look, but do not perceive.
Looking at today’s parable, sowing wheat and dealing with weeds are everyday activities in agricultural communities, very familiar to Jesus’ audience. What is strange, in this parable, is the instruction of the landowner, to let the weeds carry on growing. Any gardeners will know that if you have weeds coming up, you remove them as soon as possible. Weeds spread, and can choke the good plants that we do want to grow. In fact, last week’s parable told us just that! Which just goes to show that parables keep us on our toes.
As with last week, Jesus goes on to explain the parable to the disciples, but, as with last week, doesn’t explain the bit that is really strange, which in this case is why a farmer would allow weeds to grow up with his wheat.
So let’s look back towards the beginning of the parable. “while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.”
What is the end result of the enemy sowing weeds? To be sure, the weeds grow, but that is not the end result. It is not the most disruptive thing the enemy has done. Because what then happens is that the weeds grow, and this causes the harvest workers to ask the landowner if they should remove them.
It appears that what the enemy has really sown is the desire to separate the wheat and the weeds. The harvest workers turn out to have a binary mentality – wheat is good, weeds are bad, cast them out! And is this not exactly the mentality that Jesus comes up against again and again? Us and them. We are good, they are bad. Cast the bad people out!
And to this, the landowner says no. If you did that, you would uproot the wheat as well. In other words, you think you can tell the difference between the wheat and the weeds, but I know you can’t. Your binary worldview, us against them, is an illusion.
It is in the end a deadly illusion. The Pharisees and the religious authorities were convinced that they had “us” and “them” right. They were sure they were on the inside, the pure and righteous, and others on the outside, unclean and polluting weeds to be uprooted from God’s field. And the weed they will focus on in the end, the one they will tear out of the field and cast aside, will be Jesus himself.
And this gives the parable a new perspective. Casting people out, identifying victims to destroy, is the seed sown by the evil one. But it is all too easy to think it is the work of God.
Now, to be sure, Jesus does say that “the good seed are the children of the kingdom [and] the weeds are the children of the evil one”, and he speaks indeed of a final separation. But he also says that it will be his business to sort that out, not ours. Just as it is his business to bring the righteous into the kingdom of their Father where they will shine like the sun. And as we can’t for now tell the difference between the wheat and the weeds, well, there may be many surprises in store for us when that happens.
Saint Paul, in the Letter to the Romans this morning, speaks of the “glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”.
If something is going to be revealed, then it is not apparent yet. Until it does appear, we can’t distinguish between the wheat and the weeds. But Paul goes on to speak of a great cosmic resolution of everything: “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God”.
We have to wait, with the whole creation, for the gathering in of the harvest in which, somehow, some way, the whole creation, groaning now in its labour pains, will be set free.
In the meantime, our task is to tend the harvest, not to uproot it, and not to suppose that we know the difference between good and bad.
Of course, we can be confident about those who are children of God. The grace of baptism assures us of our adoption in Christ as children of the Father. And even if we fall into grave sin, repentance will restore us to that relationship, for God is always calling us back to himself. The wheat and weeds in the fields of our hearts will in the end be sorted out by God, if we go on co-operating with his grace.
What we can’t say is who is not a child of God. The Holy Spirit is not contained within the walls of the church, and is at work in the world, giving a myriad secret graces to countless people in ways that are completely hidden from us.
And even in the hearts of those who appear to be furthest from God, whose evil and wickedness seem obvious, who can tell what half-strangled ear of wheat might still be surviving among all the weeds?  There, perhaps, in the end to be snatched out of the burning in to the harvest of the kingdom.
This is not to say that we are to ignore the evil. In the Church, as in society, we are to guard against those who would do harm with proper safeguarding and protection. But we should never despair of God’s grace being at work in anyone, however bleak their situation may appear to us.

So we are not to be lured into the mentality of us and them, insiders and outsiders. We are not to think that it is our task to purify the church. We are to trust in the work of grace, for others no less than ourselves, and leave the final judgement to Jesus. For he is the one who in the end will free creation from its bondage to decay and bring all things into his glorious kingdom. He knows what he is doing, and we can trust him to do it.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 5 2017

Bible illustrations contributed by Sweet Publishing to Wikimedia Commons

Isaiah 55:10-13
Romans 8
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

We are reading through Matthew’s Gospel in the course of this year at Sunday Mass, and today we have reached the point where Jesus begins teaching in parables.
It’s said that a bible student once defined a parable as “a heavenly story with no earthy meaning”. Well, that’s not quite right, but they aren’t “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning”, either. The more you look at them, the more it becomes apparent that parables aren’t simply metaphorical tales that we can just decode.
Parables are strange. Jesus describes seemingly ordinary everyday scenes, but look closely, and there’s always something odd about them, details that don’t fit, things that just aren’t that way, in the world we know: mustard seeds that grow bigger than trees; a prize treasure hidden in a field; a shepherd who abandons ninety-nine sheep to look for one. It’s as though the parable is saying, “what is wrong with this picture?”
The parables are a bit like a Zen koan, those paradoxical riddles that have no answer, such as, “what is the sound of a handclap made with only one hand?”. There is something elusive in the parables which is trying to jolt us into a new way of seeing, a different consciousness.
When Jesus was asked why he taught in parables, he quoted the Prophet Isaiah:
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
The point of a parable, it seems, is not to enable us to understand a simple lesson. It is to bring us up against the fact that we don’t understand. Our not perceiving, not understanding, are part of what a parable is exposing.
It’s as though the parables of Jesus hold up a mirror, and we think we see a distorted image, but actually we are seeing the distortion of our own perception. Jesus is describing how things really are; if it seems weird to us maybe it’s because we have got reality wrong.
Except that with this parable of the Sower, Jesus seems to spoil it all by explaining it. The seed stands for various types of people, and how they respond to the word of the Kingdom. Well, yes. But that doesn’t explain it all. Perhaps Jesus is probing our perception, to see if we will be content with the everyday explanation, content to stay where we are, to look and not perceive, to listen and not understand.
Because one very important thing is not explained in this parable: the Sower. And a very strange Sower he is, too.
This year’s crop of tomatoes is just starting to ripen at home. The ripe fruit is of course the end of a long process. If you grow your own tomatoes you too will have started with a pack of seed, probably quite expensive and with not many seeds in it (holiday buying tip: Italian seed packets are cheaper and have much more seed in them). Now, what did you do with that packet of seed? Did you wander down your garden path, randomly flinging the seed in all directions, onto the stones and into the weeds (though I’m sure none of you has weeds)?
Well of course you didn’t. That would be a waste. Seed has to be looked after, you prepare the seed compost, nurture the little seedlings, protect them from the slugs, plant them up, feed and water them, and so on. So we begin to see what is odd with the parable of the Sower.
This Sower doesn’t seem to know about waste or limited resources, or the risk of throwing away the seed you’ve got in strange places. Now, wheat isn’t quite the same as tomatoes, but it is still odd behaviour as farmers depend for their livelihood on their crops. The seed you sow is what you have to spare from the grain you need to eat and sell. Sow too much, and you’ll go hungry. Sow too little, and you won’t have enough to harvest for next year.
The life we are familiar with is made up of limitations: careful calculation, planning for the future, and very often possessiveness, rivalry, anxiety, fear. Ultimately, it’s about survival, and over it all is cast the shadow of the fact that in the end, after all this striving, we won’t survive. The future we plan so carefully is bounded by death, and we measure out our lives a little at a time from our finite resources, staving off year by year that final limit that we can do nothing about.
But the Sower in the parable doesn’t seem to know anything about this. He wanders along the path, recklessly flinging seed in all directions, without counting it out, without caring where it lands: on the path, on the rocks, among thorns, in the good ground. He inhabits a strange new life which knows nothing of finite resources, of holding on to what’s mine, of rivalry, of death. He has done with these things. In other words, the Sower is one who has been raised from the dead.
The Sower walks on a path that begins in an empty tomb, and leads into the new world of the resurrection, the life that is without limit because it is the life that God lives.
Old calculations no longer apply. “The one who hears the word and understands it bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” It doesn’t matter how much. And in fact even thirtyfold would have been much more yield than any ordinary farmer would have seen in the time of Jesus.
Those who follow Jesus along the path of new life will bear fruit abundantly, and that fruit itself becomes seed that is sown, that bears more fruit in its turn. Jesus the Sower is our model.
Does it matter where we sow our seed? The Lord of the harvest doesn’t seem to think so. If we follow Jesus on the path of new life we become his ambassadors whenever, wherever, we are. We can share our faith whenever God gives us the opportunity.  We are to scatter the gospel seed, but leave the growing of it to God. We can be sure that some will take root and grow. We may not see the fruit, but it’s not our harvest.

Does it matter, whether we bear a hundredfold, or sixty, or thirty? The Lord of the harvest doesn’t seem to think so. All is overflowing abundance. Old calculations, limitations and rivalries have no place in the life of the resurrection. Some churches are bigger than others. Some Christians are more gifted in sharing their faith in words, others in works of charity.  But there is no need to compare ourselves favourably or unfavourably with anyone. If we follow Jesus, we will bear, and sow, the fruit that he wants us to, the fruit of the abundant and limitless life of the resurrection, in our own lives, and in the world around us. And that is more than enough.

Sermon at Parish Mass, Trinity 4 2017

Zechariah 9:9-12                    
Romans 7:15-25a                   
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“To what will I compare this generation?”, asks Jesus. The reason why he asks this is that he has just been speaking about John the Baptist, who was sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah, but people refused to accept him. So Jesus cites a children’s game. “We played the flute and you didn’t dance, we wailed and you didn’t mourn.”
At that time John was in prison, at the mercy of the fickle and arbitrary Herod. And in fact John’s fate will be sealed by a child, Salome, dancing, as the flutes play; and when he is dead his disciples will mourn for him. So this children’s game in the market place has dark overtones that are about to unfold.
Play is a very important aspect of learning. Both the joyful things of life, and its darker side, can be acted out in play, in a way that is safe. Children learn about everything from weddings to conflict and death by acting them out in pretence. No-one gets harmed, so long as the game doesn’t get out of control. But the goal is good learning: how to live well, with regard for others, how to be safe, how to practice self-restraint, how to handle conflict non-destructively.
But games can go toxic, if we forget that they are games. “We played the flute and you didn’t dance, we wailed and you didn’t mourn.” In the society Jesus is criticising it has become a deadly serious game about identifying two groups, insiders and outsiders, those who keep the rules and those who don’t.
People have responded to John the Baptist and then to Jesus by opposition and rejection, because both John and Jesus haven’t followed the rules that society wanted them to follow. They proclaimed an alternative to the world as it was, but this can only be accessed by repentance. The hearers of the message need to change heart and direction. Human society has to give up the blame game, has to give up that destructive dynamic of us against them. But when that doesn’t fit with the game that people want to play, the prophets end up getting killed.
We have other games in our world. Politicians play games called “Twitter” and “Austerity”– and there seems to be an awful lot of the blame game in both of those. Within the church, there is a temptation to play a game called “Purity” – our flutes play the only tune that is allowed, you must dance to it or leave. It’s a game equally suited to certain conservatives who don’t want to recognise gay and transgender Christians, or to those liberals who see no room in the church for people who don’t accept the ordained ministry of women.
But there is hope. Jesus compares his generation to children, but then says that it is the Father’s gracious will to reveal himself to mere infants. Jesus is not dismissing his generation as hopeless, but rather saying that there is hope, so long as they understand that they are children.
To be children is to know that we need to learn. It is not so for the wise and intelligent. Those who think they have power and control have forgotten that they are, in fact, children. They think they know how the world is, and therefore they are not able to learn that the way the world is is wrong. Their games are acted out in deadly earnest. And when games go toxic the prophets, who inconveniently point out that the wise and intelligent are actually children who need to learn, get killed.
But we are not to learn from them. “Learn from me”, says Jesus. And we can learn from Jesus, because he is the One who reveals the Father. We cannot know God, except as God is revealed in Jesus. And we can know God in Jesus because he is the Word of God, the expression of the Father, the Second Person of the Trinity.
And here we have in Matthew a teaching of Jesus that sounds like it belongs in John, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him”. But, as we saw a few weeks ago on Trinity Sunday, in fact the Trinity is there on every page of scripture, if we know how to look, that is, if we learn from Jesus.
We learn from Jesus because he is the One who reveals the Father. And what is the Father like? He is the One who hides himself from the wise and intelligent and reveals himself to infants, that is, in the society of Jesus’ time, to people of no account at all.
He is the One who draws to himself all those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and gives them rest. He is the One who is gentle and humble in heart. No wonder we have to be infants to learn that! The wise and intelligent cannot learn it, because they are too attached to the game that ends up killing the prophets.
But if we learn that we are children, then we can begin again.
Jesus reveals God to us, and enables us to share in God’s life. This alone can move us on beyond the deadly trap of blame and opposition. And this applies both with others and with ourselves. As St Paul says in today’s extract from Romans, “I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate”. “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members… the law of sin.” It’s almost as though Paul is saying, I played the flute and I wouldn’t dance.
But children can learn, children can be saved if we turn to the Lord and begin again to learn from him. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”, says St Paul. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”.

Learning from Jesus is very simple, an easy yoke, a light burden, a child could do it. In fact, we have to be children in order to do it. If we think we know how the world is, if we think we are wise and intelligent, we will not find our way in. But if we will become like little children then we can begin to know the Father. Our games will not go toxic, and so will help us to learn from Jesus. This is what it means to repent. And if we do so we will find rest for our souls.