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

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 10 2016

Ecclesiastes 1.2,12-14;2.18-23
Colossians 3.1-11
Luke 12.13-21

Some years ago I had a short holiday in Malta. The local building style is very distinctive, houses solidly built out of a warm honey coloured limestone, often with boxed in balconies and pleasing baroque flourishes.
But every so often I would see, in the middle of a row of pristine and beautiful houses, one that was derelict or even in ruins. I asked a friend who lived there why this was, and he explained that Maltese law on the inheritance of houses is complex. There are often family disputes, and sometimes both sides in the dispute would rather see the house fall down and become worthless than give way and allow the other side to win.
There is nothing new, of course, about inheritance disputes. They are probably as old as the idea of private property. So the situation Jesus finds himself in in today’s Gospel reading was not unusual. Rabbis were often asked to intervene in such disputes.
A man asks, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me”. But Jesus refuses to go along with that. He sees to the heart of the matter. This man is trapped in desire for the family inheritance, not because he needs it, but because his brother has it instead of him. And it is, in the end, not an inheritance which will satisfy him anyway.
There is a huge irony in today’s gospel reading. There is a great deal in the Old Testament law about inheritance, but it is almost all about Israel inheriting collectively what God wants to give to the people – the land and its blessings. Inheritance in the Old Testament is about harmonious communities, not rivalrous individuals. And it acknowledges that all the good things we receive are not ours to possess, but gifts of God to be received. And ultimately, as Psalm 16 says, it is God himself who is the inheritance of his people. Mere earthly inheritances will pass away, they are all in the end vanity, as the reading from Ecclesiastes reminded us this morning. But God will never pass away.
So the irony of this Gospel passage is that a man is asking about inheritance, but he doesn’t realise that his real inheritance is standing in front of him: it is Jesus, the Lord himself come among us in human flesh, who is the inheritance of his people. And there is no need for any dispute about that inheritance, because God gives himself in Jesus without limit and there is enough for everyone.
St Paul makes this explicit in the reading we heard from Colossians. “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” This is an inheritance for all humanity, the Jewish people of course, who received and kept God’s promises down the centuries, but also all the gentile nations. Christ is our life and our inheritance, and in that inheritance all the old divisions are swept away. It is a “new self which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator”, says Paul. A self in which “Christ is all and in all!”.
Christ is the new self and the true life of all humanity. The Eternal Son of the Father has taken our human nature to himself and in doing so has renewed all of humanity. In principle, every human being is embraced in that renewal. The image of Christ exists in potential in everyone. In actuality, grace and faith are needed for that image to come alive in us, so that we can share in the life of Christ and be transformed into his living image.
Christ is how humanity receives and inhabits its true inheritance, which is God. And because God is love and generosity and gives himself without limit, this completely overturns all the rivalries and death-bound desires that have been leading humanity astray from the beginning.
The man who asked Jesus to intervene in his dispute could not have been more wrong. He did not understand that God was his true inheritance standing in front of him in Jesus. And he did not understand that we have to leave behind our rivalrous desires if we are to receive what God wants to give us, which is himself.
Humanity of course still persists in following such rivalries. And the most absurd rivalry of all is rivalry about God. As if there might not be enough to go round. In fact, once we are in rivalry about God, we are not talking about the true God at all, but about some idol of our own imagination. For idols are limited; they are possessions that can be taken away, and so need to be defended.
This week has seen yet another murder perpetrated by people who think they possess God and so need to take him away from their rivals. This time, it was a priest, Father Jaques Hamel, murdered while celebrating Mass – itself the memorial of Christ’s giving of himself even to death, so the world might live. In his death Father Jaques became even more conformed to the image of Christ, which was already imprinted on him through his baptism and his priesthood. His inheritance is sure and eternal.
And in that inheritance all rivalry passes away. Twenty years ago a group of Trappist monks were murdered by Islamist extremists in Algeria. Their prior, Dom Christian Marie de Chergé, had foreseen that they would be targets if they stayed at their monastery, but he chose to remain, along with six others. Monks have no property to leave to anyone, no inheritance to have a dispute over. But Dom Christian before his death wrote a Spiritual last will and Testament in which he spoke of the gratuitous love of God in Christ, and the lack of rivalry that leads to, even with other faiths, even with those set on violence against us. These are his words:
“I have lived long enough to know my complicity with the evil which, unfortunately, seems to prevail in the world, and even with the evil which might suddenly strike me. I would like, when the time comes, to have this moment of lucidity which would enable me to ask for God's pardon and that of my brothers in humanity, and at the same time to pardon with all my heart the one who strikes me down.
“But”, he says, “God willing, I will be able to plunge my vision into the Father's in order to contemplate with Him His Islamic children just as He sees them, all illuminated with Christ's glory, fruits of His Passion, clothed by the gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and re-establish resemblance while enjoying the differences….
He even writes of his murderer: “And also to you, friend of the final hour, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, I also desire this THANK YOU for you, and this A-DIEU (TO-GOD) foreseen for you. May we be allowed to meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God, Father to both of us.”

If that seems too bold a thing to say, remember who said it, and what the circumstances were. And it is the Gospel: to discover our own need for forgiveness and healing; to find that need met in God’s love and generosity; and to become, therefore, loving and generous ourselves. Loving our neighbours. Loving and forgiving our enemies. This is how Christ our true self is formed in us by the work of the Holy Spirit. This is how we receive our true and lasting inheritance, which is God.

Sermon at Parish Mass, Trinity IX 2016

Genesis 18:20-32
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 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,
If I’d stood up in the pulpit just now and, instead of the gospel, I’d read an extract from Marx’s Das Kapital, or from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, you might be startled, and perhaps making a mental note to look up the Archdeacon’s phone number when you get home.

Both Marx and Mao of course wrote about revolution: communist revolution, the class struggle resolved through the overthrow of the old world order and the establishment of something radically new.

Revolutionary texts are disturbing, and are meant to be. They point out, in the view of the authors, what is deeply wrong with the world and how it needs to change. Everything we are used to is threatened with tumultuous upheaval. All the old certainties will be swept away.

It’s a good job we don’t read that sort of thing in church! Except, of course, we do. Luke’s Gospel is radically revolutionary. It is a masterful exposure of all that is deepy wrong with the world and how it all must change. All the old ways of being human will be swept away, we can cling to nothing from the past, but must open ourselves to the new reality that is coming. The new reality that is called the Kingdom of God.

“Teach us to pray”, ask the disciples in today’s Gospel reading. They perhaps little know what they are asking, or the radical prayer of revolution they will be given. But the Jesus revolution, the coming of the Kingdom of God, is summed up in this prayer. Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer, which is slightly longer, is the one we use in the liturgy. Luke’s version, that we heard today, is short and to the point.

It begins with a very revolutionary word: “Father”. The idea that the disciples of Jesus should call God “Father” is startling. It claims an intimacy with God that no-one could presume, except Jesus himself, the eternal Son. God is the ultimate reality, the ground of being, the creator. Yet Jesus says that we are to call God our Father. He opens to all his disciples the unity and communion that he has with the Father.

This is deeply revolutionary. Of old, Kings and Emperors claimed affinity with the divine, as Caesar did in Rome at the time of Jesus. The great ones of the world claimed to be children of the gods to show how far they were above the common folk, that they were entitled to rule as they pleased and everyone else must submit. And this in turn embodied an idea that gods are more powerful beings than we are, able to threaten and coerce.
But if everyone can call God “Father”, every rag, tag and bobtail of Jesus’ disciples, every slave and prostitute and tax collector, then that overturns both the power claims of the great ones of the world, and the idea of God that they embody. God as Father is not about coercion and control, but about relationship and communion. God as Father establishes a radical equality among all those who, in Christ, discover themselves to be children of God. This is a new way of being human, the gift of God and not our construction. It ends the old order of coercion and control, of rivalry and violence, and opens the new order which is the Kingdom of God.

This is how God establishes his holiness. “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.” Holiness is not about separation and distance, it is about restoring a right relationship between humanity and God. By bringing justice, integrity and wholeness to human society, God’s name is hallowed. This is a God who cares and gets involved, far removed from the power of Caesar decreeing people’s fates from on high.

“Give us each day our daily bread.” We need to acknowledge that we depend on God, and not on ourselves. Once again, we are not autonomous little gods. We are children of our Father who loves us. Every day we are to turn to God and find in him the source of all that we need. And we need the sustenace of the spirit even more than that of the body: the Greek here has a sense of “super-substantial” bread, the bread of spiritual life, not just bodily life. Caesar gave “bread and circuses”, appealing to the people’s lower desires so that they would not turn against him; the true God gives the bread that is himself, the bread of communion that raises us to him so that we can become like him.

“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Forgiveness is the heart of the Jesus revolution. If we can call God “Father”, then we have discovered a new way of being human founded not on anything we can do or deserve, but simply on grace, God’s free and generous love. It is a way of being human that rests on being forgiven and forgiving. God has not held our sins against us; and we, too, must forgive everyone who is in debt to us. No earthly empire would last a moment if it tried to run on those lines. But the Kingdom of God does.

“And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 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”. Earthly rulers risk losing their power if they admit to any weakness, and instead impose weakness on others. Jesus subjects himself to the time of trial so that Divine strength can be known in and through our weakness. We can trust in God, and we can confess our weakness and our frailty, because we know ourselves to be God’s children, come what may. The secret of our life does not depend on us, but on God, even in life’s darkest moments, even when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death.

Prayer is aligning our wills with the will of God, in and for the world. This requires persistence. It is like a magnet being passed repeatedly over iron filings until the pattern of the magnetic field appears. And the prayer that Jesus gives us is a prayer that radically realigns the world, and ourselves, until the pattern of God’s Kingdom is imprinted on both.

This is why prayer is an act of revolution. Against the Caesars of our own age, wherever it is that might and power turn to oppression and violence. Against the false image of God that is enthroned in the power structures of the world, and even in our own hearts. Do we really think of God as our Father, who loves us and cares for us and forgives us? Or do we think of God as a remote being arbitrarily decreeing our fate, a Caesar writ large? The revolution of God’s Kingdom begins in our hearts; repentance is part of what it means to discover that God is our Father and we his children.

Jesus teaches us how we are to pray. Pray daily, pray persistently, pray the prayer of the Jesus revolution. Because it is through prayer that we align our own wills with the will of God. It is through prayer that the Kingdom of God will become real in our hearts and lives. It is through prayer that it will become real in the world.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 8 2016

Genesis 18.1-10a
Colossians 1.15-28
Luke 10.38-42

I’m sure we all have times when we sympathise with Martha more than Mary, times when we are distracted by many tasks.
Today’s gospel reading is a scene of hospitality. Jesus and his disciples have arrived at Martha’s house and are offered hospitality, as the custom was. And Martha is running round doing all the work. Mary, instead, sits at the Lord’s feet and listens to his words. Which of them is offering the better hospitality?
And of course, we know, because Jesus tells us that she has chosen the better part, it’s Mary. The one who sits as Jesus’ feet and listens. She recognises that Jesus is no ordinary guest, but is a teacher, a Rabbi, a prophet, who has come to speak the word of God to his people. And the best way to welcome a Prophet is to listen to him. To pay attention. There is nothing more important than what God wants to say to his people. So Mary is offering Jesus the hospitality of her attention, of receiving what he has come to give, his words, his teaching.
Whereas Martha in all her frantic busyness has missed the main point, the one big thing that was more important than any amount of cooking and serving. “you are worried and distracted by many things” says Jesus. In the Greek it means more like “you are putting yourself in an uproar”.
The problem is not that Martha is busy, but that she is distracted. She is so occupied with the tasks of pots and pans and dishes that she is failing to offer the most necessary hospitality, that of her attention.
And, therefore, she is missing out. To meet the Lord, and to be attentive to his word, opens new possibilities, things that perhaps we had never even dreamed of. That too is going on in this gospel reading.
Mary, we are told, “sat at [the] feet” of Jesus. This means something specific: Mary has taken the role of a disciple. To “sit at the feet” of a Rabbi is to be his disciple, a student enrolled in his school to learn his teaching. St Paul, for example, “sat at the feet” of the Rabbi Gamaliel. But for a woman to do this is unprecedented. A woman disciple – who would have thought of such a thing! But Jesus has thought of it, and Mary, being attentive to him, is able to receive the new thing that he wants to give.
More than that, a disciple is one who learns the teaching of the Rabbi in order to pass it on. You might even become a Rabbi yourself one day, with your own school of disciples, but in any event you learned his teachings, his interpretations, in order to pass them on. Mary is being trained to teach others in the school of Jesus.
It’s quite possible that one reason why Martha is so distracted is that she sees her sister doing this unheard of and outlandish thing. She is in an uproar because her sister has crossed the invisible boundary into the space reserved to men, and claimed her place there.
And perhaps she is even jealous of her. Why should Mary have the special place, when Martha doesn’t? But Jesus tells her that there is no need for rivalry, she too can take her place as a disciple: “one thing only is necessary”, all you have to do is choose it.
Being disciples of course is what we are all about. We are ambassadors for Christ, we are to bring his word, his teaching, to others. But we can’t do that unless we are attentive to him ourselves. We can be busy, that’s alright – and in a parish church there are few times when we are not! But we must not become so distracted by the tasks of discipleship that we fail to be disciples. The pots and pans and dishes are necessary, but they must not distract us from the most necessary hospitality of giving Jesus our attention.
On Thursday Bishop Rob presented the results of the nine month listening programme in our episcopal area, and outlined the way forward for the future. It is exciting and there will be a lot to do. For the next year, the area is going to focus on discipleship and being ambassadors. After that there will be a year encouraging vocations, and then from 2018 to 2019 the focus will be on reaching into new places. Undergirding all of this will be a new engagement with children and young people.
And in all of it we will be encouraged to explore new partnerships and collaborations with other Christians, remembering that there is no place for rivalry and Jesus calls all sorts of unexpected people to sit at his feet as his disciples.
In all of these ways we will be looking outwards to the world with the good news of Jesus Christ. But we are not to be so distracted by the tasks of discipleship that we fail to notice that Jesus is already there, in the world with which we seek to engage. Jesus was already present in Martha’s house, but she was so distracted that she hadn’t really noticed him, whereas Mary had.
As Paul proclaims in that wonderful reading from Colossians this morning, Christ is ultimate reality filling the universe, all things were created through him and for him, in him all things hold together. “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
At the risk of sounding a bit like Theresa May, “all things” means “all things”. It doesn't mean "some things". Sometimes Christians seem to have too small a vision of Christ. London is a global city, every nation, every culture and every religion is here. Living in this city at this time presents us with fantastic opportunities and great challenges. For this global city no narrow vision will do. Our attention must be on the Christ who fills all things and reconciles all things.
If we are to be disciples of Jesus Christ in this city, then we need to be attentive to what he is doing and where he is leading us. With our brother and sister disciples of other Christian traditions, of course. But also with our neighbours of other faiths, and with all people of good will.
It is an article of the Catholic Faith, rooted in Scripture, that God gives to all people the grace necessary for salvation. Each individual needs to co-operate with that grace, faith is needed for it to bear fruit, but it is given universally. At the same time, we recognize that most people in the world are not Christians, and are not likely to become Christians.
Sometimes Christians can seem a little slow to work through the implications of these two truths. But perhaps in our global and diverse city we can begin to see new depths in the vision of Colossians, the universal Christ who reconciles the whole world, which exists in him and for him. Our task in that vision is not to turn everyone into copies of ourselves, but to point away from ourselves to Christ and his presence in the world, and the salvation he offers to all.

London is a great city of global culture. It needs to be also a city of hospitality. And for Christians that means that in this city we need to give to Christ the hospitality of our attention. In him all things hold together and come to their fulfillment. In him the unexpected new things will come to be, surprising us, catching us up in his vision which is broader than anything we could have imagined. This is the mystery hidden throughout the ages but now made known: “Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim.”