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

Monday, 23 August 2010

Sermon at Parish Mass, 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time 2010

Sermon at Parish Mass, Ordinary 21 2010

St Pancras Old Church

Isaiah 66:18-21

Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13

Luke 13:22-30

I’ve never been to the sale at Harrods, but I have seen the coverage on the news from time to time. Crowds of people camp outside, sometimes for days, wanting to be first in to grab the best bargains. And then the doors open and in they rush. And it seems as though some people simply grab whatever’s nearest, at random, just so they’ve got themselves a bargain and can say they bought something in the sale.

Probably very few of the people who do this really need the thing they wait so long for and then buy. But they do desire it. And they desire it because everyone else desires it, too. Human beings have this natural tendency to imitate one another’s desires. That’s how advertising works – if you can convince people that someone else wants the latest iPhone or aftershave or shower curtain, then you start to want it too, regardless of whether or not you actually need it.

In crowds, like the crowd outside Harrods, the imitated desire spreads, until everyone wants the same thing, but at the same time they’ve forgotten why they want it. The crowd converges on one object. That’s when desire can be dangerous, if it’s not controlled. It can lead to rivalry and violence. Like the crowd on Good Friday who, from one planted suggestion of what they might desire that started to spread, ended up all shouting “crucify him” with one voice.

Jesus knew about this dynamic of desire and the crowd, and it appears in today’s gospel reading. We are told at the beginning that he is on his way to Jerusalem, and that is one of the great themes of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus as the prophet, the new Moses, on his way to his exodus, his death and resurrection, by way of the crowd on Good Friday. And this frames what Jesus says next.

When he says, “Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter, and not succeed”, the Greek conveys the sense of a large crowd, all trying to squeeze through the same door at once, and causing a log jam, so no-one can enter. So it is specifically "the crowd" that can't enter the narrow door.

This is in response to a question someone asks about whether only a few are being saved – and it’s the present tense in Greek. Jesus doesn’t answer that directly, but responds with this story about how desire works, and how being part of the rivalrous crowd, locked in imitated desire, can stop you entering the door of salvation. Just as the crowd on Good Friday driven by their own violence see neither the innocence of their victim nor their own guilt. It’s as though he’s passing the question back to the questioner, and saying, examine your desires. What does it mean to be saved? What is it that you desire? What is driving you?

Jesus then goes further with a parable that questions his audience’s assumptions. The master of the house has locked his doors and denies that he knows the people outside, even though they protest that they had eaten and drunk with him, and that he taught in their streets. Jesus had done these things. But it was not enough to have been to dinner with Jesus, as many Pharisees had. It was not enough to have had him teaching in your streets. Many people at the time were thinking, “a great prophet has appeared among us, God has visited his people”, and therefore we’re alright. This proves that God is on our side. This proves we still belong to the Covenant. So we can relax. Not so, says Jesus. His teaching has to be understood and followed.

Then his teaching gets quite shocking, when he says to his audience, “you will see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, and you yourselves shut outside”. In their place, says Jesus, will be people from east and west and north and south. People from foreign nations, Gentiles, taking their places and feasting in the Kingdom.

It is not enough to assume that you belong to the right crowd. That because you count Abraham and the prophets among your ancestors that you are therefore going to be saved, that you are safely on the inside. If you don’t understand and follow their teaching you may well find yourself on the outside and others you thought were outsiders taking your place.

This is another of Luke’s themes, the “Great Reversal”, the overturning of the criteria for who’s in and who’s out, the vindication of the outcast and the rejected who turn out to be the people whom God was closest to all along.

And this picks up the teaching of the Old Testament prophets, such as that from Isaiah 66 today, which foretells that Gentiles, all the nations thought of as unclean outsiders, will become the people of God. They will even become priests and Levites, says Isaiah.

That is truly radical. This part of Isaiah was written at the time when the Temple worship in Jerusalem was being developed and strictly codified. It was very boundaried worship, very clear about who was in and who was out. Elaborate purification rituals had to be followed by the priests before they could enter the holy place and offer sacrifices for the rest of the people who remained outside. And Isaiah blows open that boundaried sacred space and all the world comes flooding in. And those who enter, those who “get it” will be the people who understand the real meaning of the law and the prophets, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.

Are there only a few who are being saved? It is not enough to rely on being part of a group that you think is “safe” as a kind of insurance policy. Because that is defining ourselves over against other people, we know we are OK because those people over there are not. In the time of Jesus people defined themselves in this way by being descended from Abraham.

For us it may be different. This week I had a card through my letter box informing me that I would be going to hell unless I prayed the simple prayer that followed, which was about letting God into my life. And the message then said, “if you have prayed that prayer with sincerity, congratulations, you are now going to Heaven”. But the subtext of that, I think, was, "you can choose to be an insider or an outsider to our group, but we are quite clear about where the boundary is".

Lest it be thought that I'm having a dig at the Pentecostal community that sent that card, I wonder how much of our Catholic obsession with things like the apostolic succession and valid sacraments is really seeking a security which comes from defining ourselves as not being like other people. To the extent that it is, we are still being driven by the dynamic of the crowd. We are still missing that narrow door into the Kingdom.

Our identity is not something that we need to imitate or borrow from other people. Jesus offers us a way out of rivalrous desire and its relentless descent into violence. He offers us the truth that our identity is God’s free gift in creation. This identity is a mystery we can’t define or pin down because we are made in the image of God who is unknowable. We can therefore let go of our imitated desires and everything by which we try to construct our own identity. We can embrace the risk of that mystery, knowing that there, and only there, are we truly safe. It is in receiving God’s free gift of our true being that we are being saved.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Assumption of Our Lady 2010

Sermon at Parish Mass, Assumption of Our Lady 2010

Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab

1 Corinthians 15:20-27

Luke 1:39-56

The children’s television programme Blue Peter has been on our screens for over 50 years, and so could well be part of the childhood memories of many of us here. If it is, you’ll remember the phrase, “here’s one I made earlier”. In each programme the presenter would make some useful object or improving toy out of bits of old rubbish, cardboard, offcuts of cloth, string, and of course sticky back plastic and rubber solution glue.

I don’t know about you, but somehow my efforts at reproducing these wonderful things always fell woefully short of the ideal that the presented showed us. But nonetheless there was always that type, that model – “here’s one I made earlier” – held up as the perfect example towards which I could struggle with my sticky fingers and glitter all over the living room carpet.

Today on this wonderful feast day of the Assumption of Our Lady, the Church’s attention turns towards Mary, and it’s as though God is saying to the Church, “here’s one I made earlier”. Here is the type, the example, of a life lived in perfect conformity to the will of God, a life transfigured and taken up into the glory of heaven because that is God’s will for each and every one of us.

The church lavishes so much attention on Mary, on this humble woman from the hill country of Galilee. Today, shrines all over the world will be decked with flowers and splendour in her honour. In more southern and fervent climates statues of Mary will be carried through the streets in baroque magnificence and greeted with rapturous enthusiasm.

She will be hailed by every title that the Church and popular devotion has bestowed upon her: Mother of God above all because she is the Mother of Jesus and we cannot separate Jesus from God; Our Lady of Guadalupe, of Lourdes, of Fatima, of Walsingham; Queen of Heaven, of Saints, of Martyrs, of Peace; Refuge of Sinners and Ark of the Covenant. Preachers far more erudite than this one will be reminding the faithful of the many doctrines the Church teaches concerning Mary: her immaculate conception, her perpetual virginity, her bodily assumption into heaven.

It’s all very splendid and unrestrained. But perhaps at the back of the reserved English mind there’s a little bit of doubt about all this. The protestant distrust of outward things has seeped into our culture. Is it not perhaps all a little excessive? Might it not tend just a little bit towards superstition and idolatry?

But to think that is to mistake what Mary is about, and indeed to mistake what God was about when he chose Mary to be the mother of his Son.

All the devotion, adornment and doctrine that Church lavishes on Mary do not turn her into a goddess. Rather, they bring out most truly what she is, a human being.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, of course, is both God and Man. Divine by nature, the second person of the Trinity, the Word of God from all eternity who was made flesh in time and space as Jesus of Nazareth. Not so Mary, or any of us. We are simply human, created out of nothing, receiving our being as God’s free gift.

And yet we are created out of nothing with a glorious destiny. The incarnation of God in Jesus was for us, and bestowed on human nature a Divine dignity which reveals our deepest calling. Human beings, as St Gregory of Nazianzen put it, are animals who have received the call to become God, not by nature, but by grace, by God’s free gift. We are dust and clay, bundles of animated earthiness, called to discover that our true life, our deepest being, is God.

God reveals himself in Jesus as creator and redeemer, the generous giver of our being and the one who calls us into union with him. He is therefore not a rival for the space we occupy, and we do not need to fear that honouring Mary or any saint detracts from God. The life into which God calls us in fact is a life beyond rivalry, beyond competing for space and drawing boundaries around what’s mine and what’s yours. The exaltation of the human does not displace God.

But God will not draw us into that life against our will. God has given us free will and we do need to co-operate with God at least to the extent of allowing him to align our wills with his. One of the mysteries of salvation is that we cannot save ourselves, but God will not save us without us being involved. God does everything for us, but by his generous gift the work of our salvation becomes ours also.

So it was with Mary. Her co-operation with God’s will for her salvation and ours was complete and instantaneous. “Be it unto me according to your word”, she said, a single act of her will made with her whole being and which she never took back. God had chosen her and foreseen from all eternity that she would be the one human creature in our history able to respond to his will in that way. And yet God prepared her for this role by his free grace, without which she would not have been able to respond. But God still waited for her response.

The doctrines of Mary’s immaculate conception and perpetual virginity are not meant to tie our minds up in speculation about biology. Rather, they embody the truth that Mary was completely open to God, and completely free from guilt and fear. She was a stranger to the hesitation and ifs and buts and clinging on to what’s mine that come bundled up with our sinfulness and our being closed in on ourselves. And her assumption into heaven points to the universal significance of this one human life.

In today’s Gospel reading Mary sings the Magnificat, the hymn of salvation for all God’s people in general which flows from what God has done for her in particular. We are saved because God’s handmaid said “Yes”, and not otherwise. And in that amazing vision from the book of Revelation the veils are stripped away and we see the great sign in heaven of a woman, a human being, an animal called to become God, who is clothed with the cosmos and appears as a universal sign of salvation because she has become the mother of the Redeemer.

As we gaze on that vision we see our own destiny. Our response to God’s grace indeed is hesitant, faltering. We know we are sinners. Perhaps we feel that we have even fallen back, rather than advancing towards that vision. No matter. God’s grace is there for us, and we begin again. We do not labour alone. We have before us the great sign in heaven of the woman whom God has already perfected and raised to Glory, she who points always to Christ, her redeemer and ours, she who never ceases to aid us with her prayers.

Because there is no space between her will and the will of God, because there is nothing essentially different in what God has done for her and what God wills to do for us, we can with confidence honour Mary and call upon her prayers. In the words of today’s preface to the Eucharistic prayer, we can receive her as “the beginning and pattern of the Church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for God’s people on their pilgrim way”. Mary accompanies us on our way, and with her we rejoice and sing because it is the way to glory.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Homily for the Feast of St Laurence, 2010

Weekday Mass, Feast of St Laurence

Matthew 6:19-24

The Church today doesn’t give us one of the usual Gospel readings for martyrs. So we don’t have encouragement about enduring under persecution, or taking up your cross and following Jesus. Instead we have a reading which reflects the incident of the “treasures of the Church” in the story of Saint Laurence.

But, in a way, this story about your true treasure is about martyrdom. Martyr in Greek means “witness”. It’s a word that the Church uses of those who have been killed in hatred of the faith because the greatest witness that someone can give is their life. But being killed doesn’t make you a martyr, it’s what you bear witness to that matters.

Martyrs are people who have discovered that the deepest truth of their life is founded and rooted in God and not in themselves. They have grasped this with such solidity and integrity that the whole of their life flows from this discovery and reflects this truth, even in the face of violent opposition. They have discovered the falsity of the idea that you can create your own life and fabricate your own personality.

I bought a shirt recently, which is quite a nice shirt, but unfortunately has a vacuous slogan stitched into the label, presumably as a fashion statement. It says, “remember life is all about creating yourself to be the best you can be”. Martyrs are people who have seen through nonsense like that. They bear witness to the truth that the ground of our being is in God who creates us and is not something we construct for ourselves.

This is at the heart of what Jesus is teaching us in today’s Gospel reading. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” “You cannot serve both God and wealth”. Treasures and wealth can be taken literally, of course. “It could be you”, runs the lottery strap line. Notice how ambiguous that is. It could simply mean, “you could win the lottery”. More insidiously, it could be suggesting that “you”, the unique unrepeatable person that is “you”, is something that might start to happen once you get your hands on all that money.

This applies to anything we cling on to by which we try to define ourselves, through which we try to construct our own life. Success, a good reputation, a high powered job, being the perfect partner or parent.

We may indeed have those things, or we may not. Either way, they do not determine who we are. We do not receive our being from them, so we don’t need to cling on to them as though we did. We don’t need to make them our treasures. Psalm 62 says “if riches increase, set not your heart on them”. Jesus says that if we seek after wealth, if we set our heart on it, far from it liberating us, it will become our master and we its slaves. The ways in which we try to possess and control end up possessing and controlling us.

So there are two approaches to life: one is a delusion which says we can create ourselves but actually takes us further and further away from the source of our being; and the other discovers the truth of our being in God, and receives that being as a gift. We simply exist because the creator calls us into being. We can therefore trust that our being, the truth of who we are, is safe, no matter what.

Once we grasp that, risk and contingency can be reimagined as part of the adventure of being created, and not something we need to guard against. We can renounce possession and control. We do not need to protect ourselves by building up treasures on earth. We do not even have to protect ourselves by clinging to life. Embracing death with integrity becomes a witness to the truth if we know that the source of our life is in God who is beyond death, and that the gift of our being is never going to be taken back or annulled. The martyrs knew this. The challenge of Jesus in today’s Gospel is for us to grasp that, too.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Sermon at Parish Mass, St Mary's Somers Town, Ordinary 19 2010

Wis 18:6-9

Heb 11:1-2, 8-19

Lk 12:32-48

“Jesus is coming. Look busy!” You can buy T shirts and bumper stickers with that slogan, if you want to. Hopefully they’re meant in a light-hearted way, rather than as a doctrinal statement.

Jesus teaches us to be alert and ready for what he calls “the coming of the Son of Man”. That’s not the same as being busy. If you’re too busy you can be rather inattentive, and may miss things that are important. Jesus says, be alert, be ready.

Ready for what? Is this a teaching about the end of the world and the final judgement? Certainly, a part of the teaching of Jesus and his Church is about the End, the last things when God will complete his saving work, when his judgement on all human life will be made known and the redeemed will be gathered into his Kingdom. We’ll say as much in the Creed in a few minutes.

It’s easy, though, to fall into the trap of thinking that all this talk of the End, of the coming of the Son of Man, is about something very remote from us. Something that may happen in an indefinitely postponed future, but doesn’t really have an immediate concern for us in the here and now. But to think that way is to miss completely the force of Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus is talking about something for which we need to be alert and ready now. The first clue to this is in the instruction to be “dressed for action”. What doesn’t come out very well in our translation is that this is a direct quotation from Exodus 12:11, and it’s the instruction for the Passover, and that first reading from Wisdom was a rather obscure reference to this.

The Passover, you’ll remember, was a meal to be eaten in haste, because it was that very night that the Israelites were to leave the land of Egypt. So the bread was unleavened, because it’s quicker to cook, and the dress code was: have your girdle round your waist, your sandals on your feet and a staff in your hand. The girdle round your waist was to hook up your long robes so you could actually run.

The Passover was urgent and hasty because God was coming to deliver his people right there and then, no time to waste. And Jesus is saying exactly the same thing to his audience in this passage. He is saying, here and now, God is delivering his people. Can you see what’s happening? Are you ready?

He then tells two parables to illustrate this point, and like all parables they’re stories in which strange and unexpected things happen, and our perception of the way things ought to be is challenged.

The master returns from a wedding very late, and expects to find his servants still up and waiting for him. So far that’s what we might expect, too. But then the master swaps roles with his servants, and serves them, waiting on them at table. That is not expected at all. Clearly the Kingdom that God is giving to his little flock is very different from human expectations. This Kingdom belongs to a new order in which the most important thing is service, not power. And Jesus will make exactly this point again at the last supper when he says “I am among you as one who serves”. We have to unlearn everything we know about how human society works if we are to enter the Kingdom.

Then Jesus shifts the imagery from that happy but unexpected scene to one which is quite unhappy and disturbing. Suddenly, there’s a burglar coming, but because this is a parable even the burglar behaves strangely. Instead of breaking through the door or a window or the roof – probably the weakest part of a first century Palestinian house – this burglar literally digs through the wall of the house. This is the Incredible Hulk of burglars!

This is where parables present us with a challenge, an obstacle to our understanding. Jesus tells these two stories, one which is strange but has a happy outcome, and the other which is strange but disturbing and upsetting. But both stories are about the coming of the Kingdom. Both stories are about being alert and ready, because God is rescuing his people, and doing it here and now.

In this Gospel passage we are at the scene of a break-in. God in Jesus is visiting his people, but unexpectedly, and in a way which shatters our pre-conceptions about how human society works. Just as the burglar demolishes the walls of the house, so Jesus breaks down the whole framework of how we thought we were meant to live. Masters become servants. Roles are exchanged, boundaries crossed. The Son of Man comes like a thief, like an outsider, to break down the walls which we thought we needed to keep the insiders in and the outsiders out.

We discover that our true life does not come from defining ourselves over against other people. The city “founded and built by God”, as Hebrews puts it, is very different from the city we human beings construct for ourselves if left to our own devices.

So, the story of the master who serves his servants, and the story of the burglar who comes crashing through the wall of the house, are about the same thing. They are both about leaving off the way we used to live, and beginning to live in the new and different life which Jesus reveals.

That can be a painful experience, of course, because it means letting go of what we are used to. But Jesus is not out to get us! It has pleased our Father to give us the Kingdom, and we are loved and welcomed. But the Kingdom is different from what we have known, and we need to be alert, to be ready, for how it is different.

St Peter, at the end of this passage, is starting to get it. He gets the point that the Kingdom is a new way of living. But he still wants to know who’s in charge, and specifically whether he and the other Apostles are the ones who are going to have authority. So Jesus has to repeat the lesson about service being the standard of authority in the Kingdom, and makes the point quite forcefully. Peter is beginning to be alert and ready, but not quite, at this point, alert enough.

We, too, have to be alert and ready. The Kingdom is upon us, here and now. We’re at the scene of a break-in. At this Mass, Jesus breaks in to the ordinary stuff of our daily lives, into a meal, into bread and wine. He gives us his body and blood so that we can live the life that he lives, the new life of the Kingdom.

The Eucharist is the sacrament of transformation, and the new life we receive here breaks in to the rest of our lives, too.

Bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. A motley collection of sinners is transformed into the Church, which is the new way of being human. Fear is transformed into love, authority into service. A life of rivalry and defining ourselves over against other people is transformed into a life which we don’t need to define because it is rooted in Christ, it is his gift.

The old life boundaried by sin and death becomes the new life of Jesus the Risen One. Life without limit, the life of joy in the Kingdom. Here and now. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the Kingdom.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Day of Parables (Matthew 13): 3

Weekday Mass, Wednesday week 17

Matthew 13:44-46

Matthew chapter 13 is sometimes called the “day of parables” because Jesus teaches a whole series of parables to the crowd in one go. In the Mass lectionary, however, we’ve been listening to them in bite size chunks over the past week.

In the parables that Jesus has already taught we have been presented with the scandal of choice: are we going to accept the word that Jesus is teaching, the word of the Kingdom of Heaven, or not? That choice is presented to us in many ways in the different parables, but always the effect of the parable is to bring us up against the choice. The teaching of Jesus is either a scandal and an obstacle, or it is the key to the Kingdom of Heaven, but we can’t reserve our judgement or have it both ways.

Today’s parables are very short, and simply present us with the act of choosing something. In both cases the Kingdom of Heaven is described as something happening, an action taking place. It is like someone finding a hidden treasure in a field and buying the field. It is like someone searching for fine pearls who finds one pearl of great value and sells everything else to but that one.

So the Kingdom of Heaven is like someone searching and finding something of great value, and giving up everything else to choose that one thing. It’s not the treasure or the pearl themselves which are like the Kingdom of Heaven, but the act of choosing them.

After all the parables which confront us with the choice of accepting or rejecting Jesus and his teaching, Jesus shows us what the choice for the Kingdom is actually like. It is something supremely joyful, rewarding beyond anything else. Something so wonderful and precious that we will joyfully give up everything else that we might lay claim to, in order to choose that one thing.

Of course the parables don’t tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven actually is. That is beyond factual description. The parables don’t give us knowledge in the sense of facts at all. Rather, they open our perception and understanding. They give us a new way of seeing, in which we see the Divine ground of everything that exists, including ourselves. That can’t be described. But it is like someone discovering and choosing, wholeheartedly, one wonderful thing.

And the people in today’s parables make that choice because they suddenly “get it”. One is searching for fine pearls, the other happens on a buried treasure by accident. Sometimes, after long periods of searching, God surprises us with unexpected moments of illumination. There’s a story of a hermit on Mount Athos, the monastic centre in Greece, who spent years in his hermitage on a mountain fasting and praying and practicing austerities in his search for union with God. And then one day after a shower of rain he looked out of his cell and saw God in a puddle of water.

Sometimes God catches up with us without us even looking. As that great spiritual master Winnie the Pooh teaches us, “Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”

God gives different vocations and gifts. What finding the Kingdom of God is like for each one of us is going to be different. For some who are called to the religious life it is literally giving up everything to embrace a life of voluntary poverty. For Father Edward Penfold it was serving God and his people here as the first parish priest. For us it may be something we don’t yet know and just catch in glimpses and hints now and again. But if we choose to follow Jesus and his teaching, if we wait on God faithfully, we will find his Kingdom. God will surprise us with joy in those moments of seeing the Divine ground of everything that exists, of suddenly knowing everything there is to be known.

The Day of Parables (Matthew 13): 2

Weekday Mass, Tuesday week 17

Matthew 13:36-43

The lectionary at weekday Mass has been taking us through Matthew’s Gospel in quite small chunks. What we’ve just heard is part of chapter 13 which we have been reading for a week now, and we’re still haven’t got to the end of it.

Chapter 13 of Matthew is a chapter of parables, and parables are puzzling things. Jesus teaches the crowds in short stories which almost always have something odd about them. They are apparently everyday scenes in which strange things happen. They have unexpected twists and turns which challenge our understanding. This is especially the case when different parables follow each other as they do in chapter 13. You think you’ve grasped the meaning of one parable and then go on the next and find you’ve lost it again. We rather miss this effect with the way the lectionary breaks up chapter 13 into individual parables.

So, today Jesus gives us the explanation of the parable of the wheat and the darnel: a farmer has sown wheat in his field and his enemy has come along and sown darnel, which is a weed, mixed in with the wheat. You might think from this that the previous passage would be the parable of the wheat and darnel itself, but it isn’t. There’s another section in between, in which there’s a different parable, the parable of the mustard seed.

That parable tells of a land owner who sowed a mustard seed in his field, which grew and became a great tree, the tree of the kingdom of heaven. But the twist is that mustard is a weed as well. The mustard that grows in Palestine is not the one we’re familiar with. It’s a sort of straggly shrub which grows quickly and spreads everywhere, and is completely useless. So what this person does is incomprehensible. He sows a weed in his own field which is going to take over and prevent him growing anything useful, and yet that weed becomes the tree of the kingdom of heaven.

So today’s story, in which weeds are the subjects of the evil one, and things that “provoke offence”, follows on from another parable in which weeds represents the Kingdom of Heaven. How come?

The word “offence” is perhaps a key to this. In Greek this is skandala, scandal, and that word occurs in three of the parables in Matthew 13. It signifies a stumbling block, an obstacle, a trap, something which prevents you getting any further.

It’s a key idea that runs through the New Testament. The great scandal of the gospels is the man on the cross. Someone who ended up crucified, rejected and alone, is claimed to be the Messiah, the anointed of God, the Lord and Saviour of the world. To any way of thinking judged normal by the world that is a huge offence.

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Christ is the corner stone for those who believe, as well as being a stumbling block for those who don’t. The parables draw us into these two ways of approaching Christ. Are we going to find in him an obstacle, or the way, the truth and the life? Do we see in him just a useless weed, something rejected? Or is he the wheat of the God and the bread of life?

In our walk with Jesus, which is renewed and refreshed once again in this Eucharist, we grow in grace and understanding. If we seek to draw closer to him our minds will be daily enlightened and we will be built more and more firmly on the foundation, the corner stone, which is Christ, the power and wisdom of God.

The Day of Parables (Matthew 13): 1

Weekday Mass, Wednesday week 16

Matthew 13:1-9

Jesus often taught the crowds in parables, and immediately after today’s gospel passage he is asked why he does this. And he replies very mysteriously, ‘The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”’

It seems that not perceiving, not understanding, are part of what a parable is about. 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 great treasure hidden in a field; a shepherd who abandons ninety-nine sheep to look for one. There is something riddle-like about the parables, something elusive which is trying to jolt us into a new way of seeing, a different consciousness.

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.

The parable of the sower, on the surface, seems to be a simple allegorical tale about preaching the word of God, and the effects of the word being received in different circumstances. Jesus in fact gives that explanation to the disciples later on.

But there’s still something very strange about this parable, and that is the behaviour of the sower.

If you do any gardening you’ll know that seed is a precious resource. You prepare the ground carefully, sow the seed sparingly, look after the seedlings as they come up. Even more so if you’re a farmer and the seed you sow is also the product of your labour that’s all you have to live on.

The cycles of the seasons, seed time and harvest, are the markers of a life of limited resources and careful calculation. You need to make sure you have enough to get by, there’s no room for waste, and not much room for generosity. And the ultimate limited resource we have is life itself. So many years, count them out, you don’t get them back again. I saw a Latin motto on an antique clock the other day, “diem perdidi”, “another day wasted”.

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 death. He has done with these things.

The Sower in this parable reveals to us, not the life we live, but the life of the resurrection. This is life not boundaried by death, not lived from limited resources. This is the life that God lives. And because Jesus has been raised from death into the life that God lives, we too can share in this life.

In the Eucharist Jesus comes to us once more, the one who is risen from the dead. By feeding on him we share his life. Life without limit, eternal life, the life that God lives. It is a life which is almost impossible to speak about except in the Zen-like riddles of parable. It can be known only by experience; but that experience is offered to each one of us, today and every day. “Take and eat; whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life.”

Sermon at Parish Mass, Ordinary 17 2010

Gn 18:20-32

Col 2:12-14

Lk 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,

“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”WWJD. You may have seen those letters, perhaps on a bumper sticker or a badge or an arm band. WWJD.

What Would Jesus Do. It’s a popular phrase which started I think among evangelical Christians in the USA and has caught on elsewhere, and the idea of course is that Jesus sets us an example to imitate. In any tricky situation or if we aren’t sure about the course of action we should choose, we can ask, “what would Jesus do?”

That’s a fine principle, but it can be tricky to put it into practice. According to the gospels Jesus was constantly doing things that people didn’t expect him to do: healing on the Sabbath; touching people who were ritually unclean; allowing women to be his disciples. Jesus was unpredictable. So “what would Jesus do?” isn’t always an easy question to answer.

The Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore once said that there’s a much more interesting and useful question we can ask. Not “what would Jesus do?” but “what is Jesus doing?” Christ is risen and with us for all time. So we can ask, here and now, in the present moment, in our present need, “what is Jesus doing?”

The difference between these two questions comes out in our gospel reading today. The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. They think, “we need to pray” and are asking, in effect, “what would Jesus do?” And probably they’re expecting to be taught a method of prayer, prayer the way Jesus does it. Just as we suppose John the Baptist had taught his disciples, and indeed as you might expect a spiritual director today to recommend a method of prayer. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not how Jesus chooses to answer.

He answers with the words of a prayer which is uniquely great, and all encompassing, and simple: the Lord’s prayer. In Luke it’s a slightly different version to that given by Matthew, which is the one we use in the liturgy.

But look at he words carefully, and think of them in the context of Luke’s gospel, and the story that Luke tells of the ministry of Jesus. The words of the Lord’s prayer describe, in a nutshell, what Jesus is doing. They describe his mission and ministry as Luke has been telling it.

“Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.” Jesus has come to proclaim God’s kingdom and to make holy God’s name. Not through religious rituals, which Jesus was never interested in, but through restoring a right relationship between humanity and God. By restoring justice, integrity and wholeness to society, God’s name is hallowed.

“Give us each day our daily bread.” Jesus has already given the great sign of the feeding of the five thousand, and will soon give the greater sign of the Eucharist in which he gives us his very self under the form of bread.

“Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.” Again and again in the gospels Jesus says to someone in need, “your sins are forgiven”. The key to restoring health and wholeness, a society at rights with God and with itself, is the forgiveness of sins. Know yourselves to be forgiven, because you are loved. And because of that, forgive others yourself.

“Do not subject us to the final test.” 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”. Jesus subjects himself to the final test so that we can be freed from the fear of death. In life’s darkest moments, and when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death, we will not be alone, for Jesus has passed that way before and is with us to guide us on our way.

Of course Jesus often angered people when he did these things, and when he said things like, “your sins are forgiven”, because only God could forgive sins. But that’s the point. Jesus is doing what God is doing.

Jesus gives his disciples a prayer which describes what he is doing, and that is the same as what God is doing. This teaches them and us that prayer is about uniting our will with the will of God. Will what God wills. Desire what God desires. Do what God does.

The essence of prayer consists of locating ourselves in what God is doing. So prayer is not so much telling God what to do or trying to change his mind, still less is it informing God of the needs of a world he would otherwise be neglecting. No, prayer first of all means centering ourselves in God to seek his will and be attentive to what he is doing.

By doing that, we enter into what God’s action. Prayer is a huge privilege and a gift; through it we participate in what God is doing, and become co-operators in the building of his kingdom. Through intercessory prayer, prayer for others and the world and its needs, we bring those people and those needs with us into the still centre where God is doing everything.

Now this needs, of course, attention, and discipline, and persistence. Keep on praying. Jesus didn’t tell us to pray “give us today the bread we need for next year”. Just “give us today what we need for today”. There’s a sense in the Greek that Luke uses of continuous activity, keep on giving us what we need, moment by moment.

We do need a regular discipline of prayer to sustain and support our lives, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all prayer life. We need to ask what is appropriate for us with whatever the demands are on our time, and whatever our duties and responsibilities are. But a regular time of silence and stillness, of attention to God and prayerful reading of sacred scripture, are vital. That way, in times of stress or distraction, when we fire off our arrow prayers for help, those little prayers will be rooted in a deep practice of the presence of God.

Only the present moment is the gateway into eternity, into God’s presence, into what God is doing. Not tomorrow or the next day or the next year, because that’s not where we are. There is only the here and now. Prayer seeks to enter into the deep truth of the present moment, the still centre of God’s presence and God’s will, which is where God is doing everything.