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

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 14 2019

Photographs by 

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

When I was an undergraduate student, many years ago, there were glossy posters that you could buy from the Christian Union stall. They featured photographs of lovely scenes, a landscape, a sunset or a field of flowers, with an inspirational scriptural text emblazoned over the top. You might, for instance, have a picture of a mountain, majestic and snow-capped, with the text “The Lord God is an everlasting rock”.
These days, you can see the same sort of thing as memes on social media. A tranquil scene, an inspiring text. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself. The beauty of nature is inspirational. But when we read the scriptures in depth we come across a message that is bigger and more challenging than that.
For starters, posters are still life pictures. But in the Gospels Jesus gives us parables. These are never still images, but always a story of something happening. Jesus says, “the Kingdom of God is like this…” and then tells a story of change and transformation. God’s Kingdom is not still life, it is something happening.
The parables are often challenging, even disturbing. At first glance, you think you are looking at a scene in daily life, but look more closely and there’s always something odd about it, a twist in the tale. A sower who sows seed in obviously unproductive places; a mustard seed that grows bigger than a house; a shepherd who abandons 99 sheep to go off and look for just one.
And then there’s today’s parable. What are we to make of the dishonest manager who plays a trick on his employer, to buy favour with his clients? Parables were stories told to ordinary people. There’s perhaps a hint of stand-up performance about them, a touch of humour. The rich man and his manager could be the Del Boy and Rodney of first century Palestine, dodgy dealers wrong-footed by their own crafty schemes.
But it’s a humorous story with a point, and a sharp one at that. The rich man has lots of debtors, and look at what they owe: olive oil and wheat. They are ordinary people living off the land, just like the people Jesus was addressing.
At the time of Jesus Roman taxation on farmers was heavy, and those with smallholdings often got into debt and had to sell their land. Meaning that a small number of rich people got to own more and more of the land. The former owners stayed on, now as tenants, paying rent from their produce, effectively trapped in bonded labour. Like those denounced by the Prophet Amos in our first reading, the landowners “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land”. Jesus’s story describes a situation of injustice and inequality that would have been very familiar to his hearers.
But, this is a parable. Not a still life image but a story of change and transformation, revealing the possibilities and new beginnings that are signs of God’s Kingdom.  
The change at the heart of this story is that of the manager. He changes sides. He starts the story on the side of the rich landowner, operating his economy of greed and exploitation. But he ends the story on the side of the oppressed debtors, inhabiting a new economy of generosity.
It is, in fact, a story of repentance, which means changing direction. The manager moves from oppression to liberation. Yes, his motives are mixed, his habits of dishonesty and sharp practice are hard to break. But repentance does not mean arriving at the goal all at once. It means changing direction. For the manager, that means beginning from the thoroughly messed-up place he had got himself into. That is where the possibility of a new life has met him, even amid the disaster that has overtaken him. For him also repentance means a change in attitude towards money and material things. Formerly, his life had been driven by them, now he uses them to bring freedom to others.
Like the manager in the parable, our attitude to material things, money and possessions, can reveal uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Whose side are we on? Are we serving our own comfort and wealth and privilege, regardless of the cost to others? Or are we serving others, using what we have with generosity to break the bonds of oppression and bring freedom? But the parable, as well as asking these difficult questions, brings us hope. Like the manager, grace meets us where we are, bringing new beginnings even in the midst of the ways we have gone wrong. Grace brings the possibility of change, not only for us but for those around us.
Climate change has been much in the news this weekend. We know that climate change is impacting the poorest regions of the world with drought, rising sea levels and extreme weather. If nothing is done, most scientists agree, eventually catastrophe looms. The young protestors around the world ask us the same uncomfortable questions as today’s parable: whose side are we on? Our own comfort and convenience, or the side of the poor and of future generations? In the midst of the mess we have got ourselves into, how are we going to change? What we choose to do with the material resources of the earth tells us where we stand in relation to God’s Kingdom values.
We can choose to change, and that choice brings change to others, the possibility of a new beginning. It is possible to inhabit this world in a way that enables all to flourish. But we have first of all to notice how we are complicit in exploitation and oppression. If we use the resources of the earth as though they were ours to possess, and without limit, then we are actually taking away from other people what they need to live.

Repentance opens to us a new beginning, a fresh start. It reveals to us afresh the beauty and fragility of this world that we must receive as God’s gift, and share with all his children. That is not a still-life picture of a beautiful scene, but something living, changing, growing. This world is the place that is given to us in which we can encounter God’s grace even in the midst of the ways we go wrong. It is in this world that we must cherish God’s good creation, and one another. It is in this world, and in the community of all its peoples, that we can make the choice for God’s Kingdom.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 7 2019

David Wilkie, The Reading of the Will, 1820. Wikimedia Commons.

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

As I may have mentioned before, I’m a fan of detective stories. A quiet evening at the Vicarage often concludes with an old episode of Poirot, or Inspector Montalbano. In these fictional stories inheritance is frequently the motive for murder, and the key to unlocking the mystery. Who is the unknown heir to the estate? Or who will lose out if the cantankerous old uncle changes his will? Jealously, desire and violence lurk beneath the surface, waiting to be uncovered.
Today in the Gospel a man asks, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me”. But Jesus refuses to have anything to do with it. He sees to the heart of the matter. Jealously, desire, and the potential for violence are all there. No wonder Jesus warns him, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed!”.
Questions about inheritance were not new, even in the time of Jesus. There is a great deal in the Old Testament about inheritance, but it is mostly about Israel inheriting collectively what God wants to give to his people – the land and its blessings. Inheritance in the Old Testament is about the community living in harmony, not about rivalrous individuals. It is about the common good, all the people benefiting together.
This acknowledges that all the good things we receive are not ours to possess, but gifts of God to be received. And ultimately it is God who is the inheritance of his people, “The Lord himself is my inheritance”, says Psalm 16. Earthly inheritances will pass away, they are in the end vanity, as the reading from Ecclesiastes reminded us this morning. But God will never pass away.
The irony of today’s 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, God 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. God in Jesus is creating a holy people, a new community, to inherit the fullness of life he has promised.
But that inheritance requires that we leave behind all our rivalries and divisions. God in Christ is creating a whole new humanity in which all divisions are reconciled and all are made one. This is more than the common good that human beings seek. It is the common good raised and transformed by grace into a common sharing in the life of God.
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. In our better nature we strive for the common good, and yet on every side we hear versions of the brother’s demand, “tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me”. Division, rivalry, desire for possessions that are not God and can never ultimately satisfy.
Jesus’s teaching today challenges us not to cling on to possessions, to be unselfish as individuals in our personal lives and relationships, to put others first and become more aware of our motives, the hidden rivalries and desires that drive our actions.
And in our communities, we live in a plural society of many different races and faiths, and that is a great strength. But it only works where there is common recognition of the common good. We all need each other. Building a good community is something we can only do together, by including everyone. Followers of Jesus have an insight and a role in helping to do that.
In our national life, too, we are going through troubled times. Whatever your view on current political issues, when one faction or another demands the sole ownership of the nation’s identity, the sole right to determine its future direction, then we have division and rivalry, rather than the seeking of the common good. “Give ME the inheritance.” Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed!
At a recent PCC meeting we discussed our response to the Diocese of London’s consultation, asking what we thought the Church in London should prioritise over the next ten years. It was a really insightful discussion and we were able to feed back to the Diocese a number of points. We recognized that, yes, the Church is small, but not without influence, a community of faith and worship that is able to effect change in society, change for the common good.
We spoke, for instance, of the work of the Barnet Multi-Faith Forum in promoting community cohesion, in our local community. We spoke of the urgent need to care for the environment and the lead the Church can take.
We raised concerns about knife crime and gangs, and the dehumanisation of estates. About new developments driving out existing populations, and increasing isolation. We noted intergenerational problems, and the way the Church can help to build connections.
The Church is a forum for people to encounter and talk to each other across social divisions, an agent to enable and inform things we can’t do ourselves. We can help people in need by giving and by offering our estate for the use of the community. The Church has a role in speaking up to policy makers about cutbacks in social services, children’s services, housing, and mental health provision.

In all these different ways, this is about seeking and serving the common good, and seeking to bring reconciliation where there are divisions and rivalries that hinder the common good. As Christians we believe that the Church is the custodian and messenger of an inheritance in Jesus Christ that is not ours exclusively, but in fact belongs to the whole of humanity. And recognizing that is at the heart of what it means to be a community with a mission.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

A Day of Wrath

A Day of Wrath.

Wrath is an important concept in the scriptures, ὀργὴ, appearing ten times in Romans and six in Revelation, the same root as “orgy”, and “engorge”, the image being that of a desert cucumber that, apparently, will absorb all the water you pour on it until it bursts. Wrath is disordered desire, desire that can never be satisfied, desire that spirals out of control until it destroys you. 

Wrath, it must be insisted, is not an attribute of God, it is something we do to ourselves, but in the scriptures it can be used by God nonetheless to save us from our death-bound desires, for when we realise that what we desire can never satisfy us, that is judgement, a moment of truth that can at last turn us back to the deepest and life-giving desire for which we were made.

So today is a day of wrath, nothing unique about that, indeed it has been a time of wrath, but a moment of truth when we are confronted by our desires that can never satisfy. The membership of a particular political party, like one bewitched, has elected as its leader a man of whose gross unfitness for public office they can hardly have been unaware, and whom Her Majesty the Queen must now, perforce, invite to form a government. This is a deeply shaming day for this nation.

This is not however a time to jump on the moral indignation bandwagon but, rather, to reflect on how it has come to this, and what part we have all had to play. This incipient premiership is a judgement on our society, a mirror held up to the nation’s soul, reflecting back to us what we have become: our insatiable desires, our escalating cycle of consumption and waste, our wanting everything except responsibility for our actions, our contempt for the poor and marginalised, the easy group security that comes from scapegoating the outsider, our disregard for truth.

And what is Brexit, this escalating hostility between Leave and Remain, which has led us to this point (and it isn’t finished yet), but wrath? A paroxysm of desire, that can never be satisfied, for the nation-as-idol (or, for that matter, a union-of-nations-as-idol), and that will end up destroying us if we are not saved from it. 

As in the scriptures, often the only way that we can be saved from our idols is to be thrown back on them, until we discover that they cannot save us. When we have done the worst to ourselves, God remains, and the living water is there for us still. But we humans are in such a pitiable state that we have to drink the bitter cup of wrath to the dregs before we realise that there is nothing in it for us.

Sisters and brothers, pray that this time of wrath may be shortened, for it will likely get worse before it gets better. But do not despair. “Yes, but God”, as my spiritual director often reminds me.

St Augustine knew all about wrath. But he also knew, much more importantly, about being saved. He is the only person I am naming in this post, because he, at least, has something of value to say to us. So here is his word of hope on a day of wrath, his hymn to the God who is still there when we finally come to our senses, utterly wearied by our death-bound desires:

“Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!

“Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.

“You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;

you touched me, and I burned for your peace.”