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

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Lent 3 2016

Image source:

Isaiah 55.1-9
Luke 13.1-9

Isaiah proclaims a great message of hope today, a word of consolation given probably to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon. He promises an everlasting covenant, manifesting God’s steadfast sure love to David and making him a leader and commander for the peoples.

But this is not a promise of going back to where they were before their exile. It does not promise a future separated from the other nations, which is perhaps what some were wanting. So it is a message of hope, but also of disturbance.

Consider this part of the promise that Isaiah makes:

See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
   and nations that do not know you shall run to you.

We might think, if we heard that, great, things are going to be so good that everyone else is going to want a share in the blessings that God will pour on the Jewish people. We who are Christians from the Gentile world will appreciate the inclusivity of God’s promise here.

But suppose were were a people who felt like a struggling minority, as the Jews were in Babylon. Suppose we were trying to keep hold of our distinct way of life when we were surrounded by foreigners, people of different speech and customs and strange languages.

Let’s hear that verse from Isaiah again:

See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
   and nations that do not know you shall run to you.

If we were feeling a bit insecure, that could sound like a threat, or a warning. You’re going to be overrun by all these people who are different from you. You can almost hear it being spoken by the voice of Nigel Farage.

So we can take this two ways – as a hope-filled promise, and as a challenge. Isaiah is saying that everything will change. God’s inclusive generosity will change how everyone belongs.

Consider how Isaiah opens this passage:

You that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.

Buying without money is a contradiction, in the world we know. We can only imagine an economy based on bargaining and exchange. We do work to earn money; we pay that money for the goods we need. And we tend to think in the same way about God: we do good things to earn God’s favour, and God pays us with his blessings.

But, says Isaiah, that’s not how it is. The Kingdom God is inviting us to enter has nothing to do with bargaining, or exchange, or earning anything. It is simply founded on God’s gratuitous generosity, which we call grace. Grace is not earned because of anything we’ve done, but freely given because that is simply how God is.

This is why the inclusion of the unexpected people is so disturbing – it forces us to reassess completely the basis on which we belong with God. Humanity has from the beginning has been accustomed to thinking of the different people as outsiders, because that is how we know we are insiders. But grace doesn’t allow us to do that any more. Grace makes us realise that we are just the same as the strange, unexpected, different people. That is disturbing, but it is tremendous good news, because it means that God welcomes us too, simply because that is what God is like, and not at all on the basis of anything we might do or bargain with.

The Catholic story writer Flannery O’Connor, paraphrasing Jesus, summed this up by saying: “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

This change of mindset, learning that we belong through grace, the same as all the other odd people, is at the heart of our gospel reading today as well. Jesus challenges the assumption that bad things happen to people because they have sinned. People have been massacred by Pilate, and killed by a falling tower. Do you think that they are worse sinners than you? No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.

Repentance is the change of our heart and mind, so that we can enter God’s new reality of grace. And if we don’t enter that new reality, we will be stuck in the old one, which is death-bound, because it is based on the limited things we think we can bargain with, instead of on God’s limitless generosity.

God’s acts of inclusion, whether proclaimed through Isaiah or enacted through Jesus, always change the whole basis on which everybody belongs. And that can be profoundly disturbing for those who think they belong already.

The unexpected and gratuitous welcome of the different people is meant to open our eyes to our unexpected and gratuitous welcome. God’s welcome of us into his kingdom of generosity and grace has nothing to do with anything we think we can bargain with, whether that’s being good, or respectable, or in with the in crowd. Our welcome is, instead, the discovery of God’s limitless, overflowing, generosity and love. And that is tremendous good news for us, and for all the other odd people too.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Lent 2 2016

Jerusalem seen from the Church of Dominus Flevit ("The Lord Wept"). Photo: Fr Matthew

Genesis 15.1-12,17-18
Luke 13.31-35

Abram said to the Lord, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess [this land]?’

What follows could well be a candidate for one of the weirdest bits of the Bible. (Though there would be other contenders…) Abram takes a selection of animals, cuts them in half, lays the bits out on the ground, drives off the birds of prey, and then in a deep and terrifying darkness a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the pieces.

And that, apparently, is how Abram is to know that he will possess the land.

When we read passages like this we can be hit quite forcefully by the cultural and conceptual distance between ourselves and the ancient societies in which the Bible was formed. We may well wonder what on earth this passage is about.

But look again at the sequence of events. The word of the Lord comes to Abram in a vision. We begin with God’s promise, expressed in words, that Abram’s descendants will be as many as the stars of heaven, and that he will possess the land. Now God, being God, his promise is rock solid reliable. Abram does not doubt. No, he believes, and this is reckoned to him as righteousness.

But still, after that, he asks, “How am I to know that I shall possess the land?”

Abram does not doubt God’s promise. But promises are words, ideas. They only become real when they take concrete form in the world we live in. Just as marriage vows, for example, are expressed in words on a couple’s wedding day but then have to become real in the concrete living out of their life together, year after year.

Words and ideas need to find an anchor to connect and hold them in the world we inhabit. So we have this strange business with the dead animals.

One theory is that this was an ancient way of ratifying a covenant, when one person solemnly undertook to do something for another. The person making the covenant would walk between the divided halves of animals, the implication being, “may what has happened to these animals happen to me, if I fail to carry out what I have promised”.

Words and ideas are not enough. They need to become concrete in the real world, through concrete acts. Abraham believed God, but to be held by God’s promise he needed to experience something like this that actually connected with him where he was. The promise needed to be anchored in the material world that we, material beings, inhabit.

In the Old Testament God’s interventions with his people were often mysterious and strange. This scene with Abraham, for example. Or the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses, the pillar of fire and cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt, the sound of silence that spoke to Elijah, the psychedelic visions of Ezekiel.

But in the New Testament God’s complete revelation of himself has come among us, not in anything strange or uncanny, but in a human life. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, says St John. And the Letter to the Hebrews says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son”.

Jesus the Son of God is God’s full and entire communication of himself. “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”, says Hebrews. Now, in his fullness, God comes to us where we are. The Word is not an idea or a book, but a person. A human being, a body walking this material world. God anchors himself in the world, confines himself to space and time, so that all space and time can know that God’s promise of salvation is sure.

The Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you”. Get away from here. There is nothing that anchors us more to this earth than death. All of us will die, not in the abstract or as an idea, but in a place. And Jesus is in the place where death awaits him.

And yet, says Jesus, that place matters. He must finish his work, and “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem”. The Son of God will ratify the new covenant, not under some mysterious sign or figure, but by actually dying, and in order that we may know this is for real he names the place where it will happen.

The death of Jesus, the new covenant sealed with his blood, holds us and assures us of God’s promise of salvation. It is ratified by the real death of a real man in a real place.

We cannot get away from the earthiness of the Christian faith. The Incarnation joins God and the material world in one person. Henceforth, the material world is God-bearing, mediating his grace. The Sacraments extend the incarnation into the life of the Church. Water, bread and wine are filled with Divine life, and through them God’s Spirit effects our salvation. This is how God has willed it to be.

Catholic devotion has always understood this. Yet in our world this is questioned. The heritage of the Protestant Reformation includes a distrust of material things, a fear that they might get in the way of each person’s individual relationship with God. Our Western heritage of enlightenment rationalism has further entrenched us within our minds, as if words and ideas were all that could be trusted.

But we are bodies. Words and ideas need to connect, to be anchored in this material world. The Christian faith, in its catholic fullness, shows us how.

At St Peter’s we are heirs of the Anglo-Catholic revival of the nineteenth century, the great rediscovery of our heritage and continuity with the Church of all ages. With that revival came a renewed confidence in the material things that go with our faith, the outward signs of devotion. That is what we shall be exploring today in our “Coffee and Chat” after Mass. So do please stay behind, it should be fun.

But for now, we continue with this celebration of the Eucharist, the gathering of these particular bodies in this particular place, to make present the Body of Christ who feeds us and equips us to continue his mission on this earth, in this time, with all its real material people and needs.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Sermon Lent 1 2016

Deuteronomy 26:4-10
Luke 4:1-13

“If you are the Son of God” – that’s something the Devil twice says to Jesus in this scene of his temptation in the wilderness. Temptation here means testing in the sense of probing something to find out what it is. “Who are you?” The testing of Jesus hinges on his identity. What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Son of God?

The Devil proposes to Jesus that if he is the Son of God, he could do anything he likes. He’s the boss! But Jesus always replies by quoting scripture. The question of who he is has to be referred back to Israel’s story, and their call to dependence on God alone, their need to trust in God alone as saviour. Jesus being the Son of God is the culmination of that story, the fulfilment of God’s plan of salvation for his people. So it is only intelligible to say that Jesus is the Son of God in the context of the story of salvation of God’s people. Jesus cannot invent his own understanding of being the Son of God, which is what the Devil wants him to do.

The testing of Jesus is more than just his temptation as an individual. He is here as the new Adam, the representative human, the one who is to re-found the human race. The first Adam failed when he was tested by the serpent in Paradise, and he was driven out into the wilderness. Jesus now goes voluntarily into the wilderness to be temped in his turn, but he will not fail, and by his victory over the Devil he will open Paradise to humanity again.

Like Jesus, we need to remember the story of our salvation. The question of our identity, who we most deeply are, is intelligible only as part of the bigger story of God with us, God working through history to save us. God is our creator and we depend on him for our very existence. If we forget that, we are in danger of losing our identity as well.

The reading from Deuteronomy this morning reminds us of that. It begins “‘When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it”. That’s the point of danger. Because when you possess everything, you can forget who gave it to you. You can forget who saved you. The temptation, then, is to say, all this is mine, I can do what I like! Just the same temptation, in another guise, that the Devil presents to Jesus.

And the way to resist that temptation is to remember your story. The people of Israel were instructed to recite it as they presented the first fruits of the land to the Lord their God, “‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation”. And the recitation goes on, detailing the story of God’s intervening to save his people. It is a thanksgiving, a liturgy, a Eucharistic prayer. This is who you are. Remember. Because you cannot know who you are apart from the story of how God is saving you.

This remains true. The story of salvation that began with Israel continues with the Church throughout the world. And for us, as for the Children of Israel, we need to remember our story, remember that it is God who has saved and redeemed us, remember that we depend on God for everything.

The temptation that came to Jesus will come to us too in many guises. The temptation to say, “all this is mine, I can do what I want!” The temptation to invent ourselves, as if we could, to determine our own identity without God.

It is essential, then, that the Church remembers its own story. It is essential that we remember who we are, which is something we can only do if we remember ourselves with God. The Church must remember its own story. It cannot invest itself, or start doing its own thing apart from God, because if we do that we will simply cease to be the Church.

This is what we do every week in the Eucharist, this memorial that Jesus has given us, through which we are embedded in the story of our salvation. It is here above all that we discover who we are, the Body of Christ.

But we do it also in more particular ways, through inhabiting our identity with the whole Church and its story. Here at St Peter le Poer, we are a parish of the Church of England, a part of the one universal church of Jesus Christ, brought to these shores not by a wandering Aramean but by a wandering Italian, Augustine, the missionary from Rome who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. To understand truly who we are we need to understand what it means to be part of that particular church, living that particular story. That is something we shall go into more deeply after Mass today.

So, when we finish Mass grab a cup of coffee and bring it back into church, and we’ll start coffee and chat promptly at 12.15, and aim to finish at 12.45.  I’m going to attempt a whirlwind history of the Church of England, you can have your stopwatches at the ready, and we’ll then have some time to reflect on the connections that makes for us here.

“A wandering Italian was my ancestor; he went down into England and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation.”