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

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 17 2013

Amos 8:4-7
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

I wonder if you’ve ever had one of those email moments, when you or someone you’ve written to has misunderstood something written in an email. The trouble with email is that we tend to write in conversational style, short and to the point, but elements of conversation such as tone of voice and facial expression are missing. Those can be as important as the words themselves for conveying meaning, and in their absence we can miss the humour in the voice or the twinkle in an eye which can tell us that someone is joking or being ironic.
Today’s gospel reading is difficult to understand, as Jesus seems to be commending dishonest behaviour. But read it with an inflection of humour and a different meaning emerges. The manager and the rich man in this parable are a couple of shady characters engaged in dodgy deals and underhand practices, and they both come unstuck. They are perhaps the Del Boy and Rodney of first Century Palestine. 
Jewish law in the first century forbade lending money at interest, because it would have been unjust to do so in a zero inflation economy. A few sharp traders, however, got round the ban by lending goods at interest, corn and oil and so forth. I’ll lend you ten measures of wheat, and you have to pay me back fifteen. No money changed hands, so technically it didn’t break the ban on lending money at interest. But it did break the spirit of the law. It was unjust, a means of enriching yourself by getting other people into debt and impoverishing them.
And this may be the situation envisaged in this parable. One suggestion is that the master and his manager have been conniving together to lend goods at interest, and when the manager discovers he’s going to be sacked he makes friends with his master’s clients by cancelling the interest they owe on their loans. When the master finds out, he can’t criticise the manager, because to do so would be to expose his own dishonesty and corrupt practices. So the dishonest manager has wrong-footed the dishonest master. And by ingratiating himself with the clients he has boosted the master’s reputation - so it’s now much more difficult to sack him!
This story needs to be read alongside the parable of the prodigal son which comes just before (though in the lectionary it was read out of sequence in Lent). In both parables the main character squanders the property that had been entrusted to him, and comes to his senses only when faced with the dire consequences - starvation or losing a job. Both then talk over with themselves what they are going to do. Both discover a need for forgiveness, arising from merely practical motives, which results in them receiving more than they had expected. The prodigal son is welcomed back into the family, the prodigal manager is praised by his master.
Forgiveness, even when sought from compromised motives, enables a new beginning and the healing of broken relationships. Sorrow for sin arising from the love of God is called contrition, and reconciles us with God straight away. But even if we are just sorry for our sins out of fear of the consequences, it can still be a beginning for God’s grace to work on us, turn us around and bring us back into the relationship of love in which we are reconciled.
So far that’s fairly straightforward. But, watch out, there’s a twist in the tale. This is a parable, and parables test our understanding, challenge our consciousness. Just when we think we can read this story as a straightforward analogy Jesus says “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”. What does that mean?
This parable is told to the disciples, to those who already believe, and not to the Pharisees, who we are told in v14 are “lovers of money”. Luke’s gospel consistently says how dangerous it is to be attached to riches and possessions, a point that is reinforced at the end of today’s reading. 
This is of course part of the scriptural tradition which these Pharisees seem to have forgotten. Some words of Psalm 62 are worth reading alongside today’s gospel:
The peoples are but a breath, the whole human race a deceit;
on the scales they are altogether lighter than air.
Put no trust in oppression; in robbery take no empty pride;
though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.
So here I think is a test, to see if we have understood correctly. The disciples of Jesus should be on their way out of the old way of living, the way of possessiveness, rivalry and greed. They should be learning to inhabit the new life of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of unlimited and overflowing generosity, love and forgiveness. 
If you are learning to live according to the Kingdom, then this story about riches and dishonest profits will not be a snare to you. You will see the point of forgiveness, but you won’t feel caught in the attachment of possessions. But if you do feel that attachment - watch out! Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, which we’ll hear next week. That parable reminds us that there are two possibilities for “the eternal homes”, and attachment to riches and neglect of the poor leads to one of them.
For Christians, our attitudes to forgiveness and reconciliation, and to wealth and debt, are closely bound together. Both need to be governed and transformed by God’s overflowing generosity. Forgiveness cannot be simply a “spiritual” attitude with no connection to the realities of people’s lives. Reconciliation is vital for fractured relationships and communities to be rebuilt. And financial debt is growing all the time and is a destructive and oppressive force in many people’s lives. The stand that Archbishop Justin has taken about pay day lenders, wanting to put them out of business, and encouraging churches to support credit unions, is one example of how God’s economy of generosity and forgiveness bears upon the realities of daily life.
There are few people who are called to radical renunciation of property, though there are some who do give up all their possessions, monks and nuns, the sannyasi of the Hindu tradition. But most of us need to follow a different path, though arguably just as challenging, to use money and possessions prudently and for good purposes, without becoming attached to them. 
This applies to us as individuals and as a church community. We do need to make financial provision according to our responsibilities. For ourselves, for our families if we have them, for the mission and ministry of our church. And, Luke reminds us, for the poor and those in need. But all this must flow from God’s generosity transforming our lives, from the knowledge that everything we have is God’s gift. And all this knowing that money and possessions, though we may do good with them here and now, are passing away and will be gone in the blink of an eye. 
Some Christians today, like the Pharisees in Luke’s Gospel, seem to ignore this. There are preachers of a “prosperity gospel” who claim that if you are a good believer God will reward you with wealth and possessions. If you are rich it is because God has blessed you, so enjoy it. But this is completely contrary to the teaching of the Gospels. It is always the poor and the marginalised whom God favours, and the rich who come under God’s judgement. 
We do need to handle money prudently, to be good stewards of our possessions and resources. But we do so honestly, without attachment, and for a purpose, which is the good news for the poor. Part of the good news for us is that everything we have is God’s gift to us. And that comes with the call and the challenge to imitate God’s generosity in expending ourselves, our substance, our lives, for the Kingdom. The people of God should be characterised by a generosity that speaks of God. As Pope Francis has reminded us, it is a poor church for the poor that is the best manifestation of that generosity in the world.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 16 2013

Exodus 32:7-14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

I don’t know about you but I’m not that familiar with sheep. Being a city boy, that is. If on holiday I meet them, while out walking in the countryside, we tend to eye each other rather suspiciously and warily. Our thought bubbles, if you could read them, might both say, “just what exactly is that strange looking creature over there?”
The majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, and this puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to reading the parables of Jesus, because so many of them assume a familiarity with the rural world. Many of the parables are stories about seed sowing, harvest - and sheep.
As we’ve seen before, parables are odd. They look like the world we know on the surface, but look more deeply and everything runs very strangely, not like the world we know at all. And we might not get that if we aren’t familiar with the world in which the parables were told.
So for the purposes of illustration here is a parable for a 21st Century urban audience:
“Which one of you, having a hundred i-Pads, if one of them was stolen, would not leave the ninety-nine unattended on a park bench, while you went off in search of the one that was stolen until you had found it?”
Well, which one of you would do that? I don’t think I would! And if you did, your friends, when called in to celebrate with you, might well ask if you were feeling alright, or whether you had been under too much stress lately.
So we can perhaps see how strange is this story of the lost sheep. What shepherd would really leave ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness, a prey to wolves and bears, and go off in search of one? The risk would seem to outweigh the likely return. But the shepherd in the parable doesn’t think in terms of risk at all, but simply, only, wants to get back the one that was lost. He doesn’t reckon the cost to himself. And the recovery of that one lost sheep is then a cause of great joy.
So this parable challenges and reverses our expectations. If but one sheep strays, all that matters is to get it back. The risk and cost of doing that just aren’t considered at all. The round, complete number of 100 must be restored, all must be gathered in.
And the story of the woman with the coin. Luke notices women, if you read his gospel, their story, their testimony, is important to him. It is typical of Luke that he should balance the story of the male shepherd looking for his lost sheep with a parable of a woman searching for a coin.
Now the coin was a drachma or a denarius. In round numbers one denarius was both the daily wage of a labourer and the daily cost of maintaining a household. So this woman has a reasonable reserve against her daily income. She has lost one coin but she still has nine. We might think, well, there’s no need to worry about it yet, I expect it’ll turn up, I’ll worry about it later on when my other coins are running out. 
But this is a parable, and the world runs differently. She drops everything else to look for it, lighting a lamp and sweeping the house until it is found. And then calls together her friends and neighbours. And that means hospitality, feasting, wine. Which would have cost considerably more than the one coin she has recovered! Again, risk and cost simply don’t matter. All that matters is to recover what was lost. 
These two parables are about sinners who repent. Jesus has told them because the tax collectors and sinners have been coming to him, and the Pharisees and scribes, the people who think they’re righteous, didn’t like that.
But Jesus says they’ve got it all wrong. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who have no need of repentance. 
Picture the scene in today’s gospel. Jesus is the good shepherd, he applies to himself the Old Testament image of God as shepherd of his people, seeking out the lost, bringing them home. And today all the sinners and the n’er do wells and the collaborators with the Romans have all come near to Jesus to listen to him. They’re in the front row - good morning! And they’re there because they realise this is about them. And Jesus is saying to them: You’re here! You’ve come back! Wonderful! How joyful to see you! Welcome home! He is filled with joy at seeing the ones he so much wants to see, right there, drawing near to him.
The only ones who don’t rejoice are those who are secure in their own self righteousness, looking on disapprovingly from a distance, tutting to themselves. Their self-righteousness makes them immune to joy. It even makes them immune to repentance, because they don’t see any need to repent. They see no need to draw near to the shepherd who wants to embrace them, too. 
There is more joy in one sinner who returns to the fold than in the ninety-nine who never wandered. That’s an astounding thing. God transforms our sin into greater joy! Those who have strayed and come back know best of all how boundless, how joyful, the love and mercy of God are. In heaven, says Julian of Norwich, our sins will be glorious.
These parables tells us that the economics of Divine Grace is not about balancing losses against gains. It is not about calculating risk and managing cost. It is simply about the extravagant overflowing generosity and love of God, overturning all our priorities and categories of who is in and who is out. 
The Good Shepherd knows that his sheep are inclined to wander off. Sheep are pretty stupid. The Good Mother of the Household knows that coins are small and inclined to get lost. But both will spare no expense, no effort, to seek out and return what was lost. And both rejoice with great joy when they have done so.
Our Good Shepherd and our Good Mother, Jesus, came all the way from heaven to earth to seek out and save his lost children, not reckoning the risk, not counting the cost. Even to being born in poverty and obscurity. Even to being despised and rejected and crucified. And all for love. All to find us and catch us in his embrace and bring us home to him. And all for such great joy in heaven, most especially over those who have wandered furthest away.
The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus, “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross”. 
Joy is the key to understanding Catholic evangelism. The Catholic tradition does not see the world in black and white terms, everything out there in darkness and only the chosen in here in the light of salvation. It is God’s world and his Spirit is at work in all of it. We don’t look out at the world as if it is all damned. But we might wonder what is the point of evangelism, if it isn’t about plucking brands from the burning?
Well today’s gospel tells us, it is joy. Joy at the lost coming home, joy at everyone being gathered in the embrace of God’s love. On Good Friday last year the Papal preacher, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, said this:

“The love of Christ... tends to expand and reach all creatures, ‘especially those most needy of thy mercy.’ Christian evangelization is not a conquest, not propaganda; it is the gift of God to the world in his Son Jesus. It is to give the Head [Jesus] the joy of feeling life flow from his heart towards his body [the Church], to the point of giving life to its most distant limbs.”
And that I think is a good way of seeing our task as Catholic evangelists, as ambassadors of Jesus Christ - as Bishop Richard wants us all to be. It is to give joy to Jesus, the Head of the Church, through allowing his life to flow through us and into the world to give life to all. And that joy is ours too as God’s children are drawn to him and come home with us into his Kingdom.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 15 2013

Deuteronomy 30:15-end
Philemon vv 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Over the past few weeks in our readings from Luke’s Gospel Jesus has been proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and this has not been what his hearers expect. The humble are lifted high; the marginalised and excluded are brought into the centre; religious rules and restrictions are broken open. This has provoked contradiction and opposition, because it is not the way the world runs, and not the way the religious authorities operate. Plots to kill Jesus are already being hatched, and will reach their fruition when his journey ends in Jerusalem on Good Friday.
The Kingdom of God is a contradiction, an offence, and a scandal. And if we don’t see that we haven’t really got what it is about. But Jesus does not pull his punches, as we have heard in today’s reading. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Well that’s a text to put ‘Christian family values’ in perspective. 
And then, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”. In the first century Roman empire that was no metaphor, but an explicit reference to a particularly nasty way to be killed if you got on the wrong side of the Roman authorities. 
We’ve seen that there is something Zen-like in the parables of Jesus, and there is in this saying, too. The Zen Master Linji said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. And Jesus too wants to shock his disciples out of their complacency. They must be confronted with the radical difference between the Kingdom of God and all they have known before. 
So what is this hating and carrying crosses about? It seems not only that the Kingdom of God presents us with a radical choice, a decision to be made. It also seems to be a choice which contradicts all normal values and common sense.
Now we should note that the use of the word “hate” in this reading is an example of eastern hyperbole - literally talking “over the top”, exaggerating to make a point. So “hate” doesn’t actually mean here that we should wish people harm. But equally it isn’t as inoffensive as saying, for example, that we hate Marmite. We can’t avoid the force of what Jesus is saying. If we are to enter the Kingdom, our old ways of relating and belonging have to be left behind. 
I had an insight into something of what this might mean on Friday when I went to the production of “West Side Story” at Sadler’s Wells. It’s a modern re-telling of the tale of Romeo and Juliet set in the gang culture of 1950s New York, where two street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, fight each other for control of the streets.
Tony is a Jet, but we see him on his own, singing of a miracle on the way, something new, just out of reach, coming his way. And indeed there is, because he meets and falls in love with Maria. But Maria is the sister of the leader of the Sharks, the rival gang. Tony and Maria in their new found love have to face the hard choice to abandon the gang identity which has defined and shaped them up to now, turning away from the insistent voices which say “stay with your own kind”. But they also have to take the consequences, for the gangs remain as rivalrous and violent as ever. 
That gang mentality is central to what Jesus is telling us about today. We are told that large crowds are following Jesus. Crowds are always ominous in the Gospels. The mind of the crowd, like the gang, generates its own sense of belonging and identity, and at its heart is the violent expulsion of others. In “West Side Story” Tony and Maria fall victim to this. On Good Friday it will be the crowd in Jerusalem that excludes and kills their scapegoat.
But what drives this? Where does this violent energy come from? At the end of today’s reading Jesus, after a parable about warring kings, Jesus says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”. Or, possibly, it could be translated “all your possessing”. The crowd, for fear that there is nothing else, grasps on to what it can hold, possessed with rivalry and envy, issuing in violence.
The teaching of Jesus in his words and deeds, the teaching that is enacted in his death on the cross, is that this is what has been driving humanity from the beginning. And this is what God in Jesus is saving us from. The toxic seam of original sin that runs through the crowd, and through every human relationship, even father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters. All are in need of redemption. 
And, we might add, nations, states, political alliances. When the world seems once again to be dangerously close to military escalation in the Middle East we need to heed the words of the gospel, reiterated by Pope Francis, Archbishop Justin and so many other Christian leaders, that violence only begets more violence and never solves it.
Jesus calls his disciples to step out from the crowd, and renounce its violent and rivalrous identity, its false sense of belonging. If you do that, the crowd might kill you, but you will also find the secret of true identity and life that can never be taken away in God’s Kingdom.
We are left with no room for doubt today - the preaching of the Kingdom is not comfortable. But it is, nonetheless, Good News. It announces the redemption of the human race. But to do that, it needs to tell it how it is. Our illusion of the self-constructed identity of the crowd must be shattered.
The Kingdom of God is, truly, justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. But if we will not give up our possessing it will seem to us like a threatening king coming against us with a vast army. 
We cannot receive our true life from God with closed, grasping hands. Our hands have to be open, and empty, if we are to be filled with the fulness of the Kingdom. 
Our earthly relationships, families and other groups, are not bad or wrong. This is not what Jesus is saying. But they are only what they are, and they exist in the need of grace. And of course that grace is made known in the love and compassion we share in our human relationships. Those relationships do then become a sign pointing to the Kingdom of God. But we must be careful not to mistake the sign for the thing signified. We must seek first the Kingdom of God, for these other things to be given us as well. And that entails detachment from everything that might hold us back. “Who are my mother and brothers?”, asks Jesus. “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!”
The steps to cultivating this detachment are no secret: repentance, humility, the prayer of the heart which turns our attention away from transient things towards God. And its fruit is the discovery of the Kingdom, present in every moment, growing in secret in the depths of the heart. And we find there the love which makes the false belonging of the crowd worthless, the pearl of great price for which we will cheerfully abandon everything else.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 14 2013

Ecclesiasticus 10:12-18
Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16
Luke 14:1,7-14

“The Bucket residence, the Lady of the house speaking!” So says Hyacinth Bucket when she answers the telephone in “Keeping Up Appearances”. It’s a comedy of manners which shows up her relentless snobbery and social climbing - things that she is herself completely unaware of. Particularly to be feared are her famous candlelight suppers where who knows what excruciating embarrassment might ensue. And all of it is about her trying to put on a front, to construct the social identity to which she aspires. She imagines that’s how posh people live and she wants so desperately to be posh. And the comedy is about how she keeps coming unstuck.
Well, two thousand years before, Jesus was often an awkward dinner guest, particularly if you were a pharisee. There are a lot of scenes set at dinner parties in the gospels, most of all in Luke, and Jesus often says and does things at them that embarrass the host or the other guests. 
So, today. Jesus is being watched by the pharisees to try and work out what to make of him, and indeed to trap him in something he might say or do. Last week he healed in a synagogue on a sabbath day, arousing the anger of the religious authorities. And this week follows on, developing the same theme. In fact in the full version of today’s gospel there’s another sabbath healing story, very similar to last week, which for the sake of brevity has been left out. What we focus on this week is a story that Jesus tells when he notices the behaviour of some of the guests. Quite like Hyacinth Bucket, they seek out the higher places for themselves, jostling for position in the social pecking order.
But the story Jesus tells is not simply about dinner party etiquette. Luke tells us it’s a parable, which means we need to watch out. Things in parables are never quite as they seem on the surface. They tell of scenes which at first look familiar, but are set in a world which runs radically differently from the one we know. They challenge our consciousness and open our minds to a new understanding - if we are willing to receive it. 
The Zen-like stories which Jesus tells open a window so we can see, if we will, the Kingdom of God breaking into this world and turning everything upside down. The hungry are filled with good things, the lowly lifted up; but the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the rich sent empty away, as Mary sings in her Magnificat at the start of Luke’s gospel.
So, this story about guests at dinner parties is a parable. It is meant to tell us something about the Kingdom of God. And indeed a banquet, in this story a wedding feast, is one of the images the Bible uses for that Kingdom. 
At the heart of this parable is a simple observation about honour. The foolish guests choose the places of honour for themselves, but then are embarrassed as they are moved to the lowest place. Humble guests, however, choose the lowest place and then are honoured in the sight of all when the host says “Friend, move up higher”.
Honour, in Greek, is doxa. It’s a rich word and has overtones of glory and reputation. And what Jesus draws our attention to is that we always receive our glory, reputation or honour from someone else. If we try to grab our honour in the way of the world, through envy, rivalry, jostling for position, desiring what others have, we are likely to come unstuck. Honour has to be received from someone else, not taken. We cannot construct it ourselves. Attempts to do so can be comical when it is just jostling for social precedence like Hyacinth Bucket. Though that can also be rather sad if that’s all that someone’s life really consists of.
But consider that to desire someone else’s place is ultimately to want to be someone else. It is to desire their being, their self, which I perceive to be somehow more vital, more full of essential stuff, than I am. Then the dynamic of grabbing a place by taking it away from another can become horrific and tragic, as events in Syria and elsewhere show all too well.
The alternative, as Jesus tells us, is to follow the way of the Kingdom, which is to recognise that everything we have, everything we are, is from God. We receive our being and our honour from God. God who is the host of the banquet of the Kingdom. God who wants to honour us and raise us higher. God who wants to give us in fact the honour, the glory, the reputation, of his beloved children. But to receive that we have to let go of our efforts to create our own honour and glory. Humility is the path into the Kingdom.
A Jewish audience should have known this - Proverbs chapter 25 has this to say, part of the tradition that it seems some people had forgotten:
Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
   or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’,
   than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. 
Jesus elaborates this further in the second part of his parable, which really turns everything upside down. “Do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid”. God wants to honour us, to own us as his children, to give us our being, entirely out of his own generosity and overflowing love. Being repaid isn’t part of that. There isn’t a bargain, there’s just a gift. The Kingdom of God is not about earning God’s favour or deserving anything or being worthy. It is about receiving honour, and everything, our very being, in utter simplicity as children of God just because he loves us and for no other reason.
And this includes everyone. Jesus says, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”. These are people who, according to some religious authorities of the time, were specifically excluded from the banquet of the Kingdom. Suddenly everyone from the edge is at the centre, the outsiders and those who have nothing to offer are at the heart of God’s kingdom of generosity and love.
We need to beware of thinking that we can earn God’s favour by being good. It is a very prevalent idea but it is not what the Gospel says. We are “Justified by grace through faith”, meaning that God loves and honours us as his children not through any merits of our own but entirely through God’s free gift. We have simply to turn to him to receive that love, the honour of being his sons and daughters, with the simplicity of children receiving all the good and needful things of life from loving parents.
Once we realise that this is true of us we can begin to re-imagine the world. Because it is true of everyone else, too. Even those who most resist God’s call to live according to his kingdom. All the sinners and ne’er do wells and the feckless and the lazy. All the the loan sharks and human traffickers and drug dealers and traders in human misery. And the tyrants and the murderers and the war lords. “Everyone” and “inclusive” are not necessarily comfortable words.
God’s will is that all should turn to him and be saved. And the path into the Kingdom, for all, is repentance, to let go and turn away from our attempts to construct ourselves at the expense of others, to turn away from rivalry, violence and contempt. Repentance is always possible! God never gives up waiting for us to turn to him! And repentance is in the end the only lasting solution to all our human rivalry and violence, wherever it may be.
And repentance leads us to a new beginning, in humility. When we realise we have nothing to bring we can receive forgiveness and a new beginning from God. Simply because he loves us beyond our imagining. Simply because that is what he is like. 
And humility leads to love, because when we turn to God in humility and repentance we discover that we are loved and cherished and honoured more than we can know. We find ourselves in the place of God’s love which cannot but overflow in our lives. God’s hospitality to us becomes our hospitality to all - most especially those on the edge, those marginalised and excluded. For of such is the Kingdom of God. This looks like turning the world upside-down. But, actually, it is turning it the right way up, at last.