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

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, Second Sunday before Lent 2017

Genesis 1:1-2:3
Romans 8:18-25
Matthew 6:25-34

That was a bit of a marathon first reading this morning, but once in a while it is worth hearing in full. The first chapter of Genesis is a masterpiece of writing, meant to be read aloud of course, or even sung. It is a ballad, an epic saga. The poetry of it comes through in the repeating rhythm of God calling things into being in their order, seeing that everything is good, then the evening, then the morning, then the next day.
This is the first of two creation stories in Genesis. The second is the one about Adam and Eve and the garden and the snake, a different story from a different source. But the Holy Spirit who guided the formation of scripture, and who guides the Church in reading it, ensured that we had both stories. This is to make sure we get the point: the creation stories in Genesis are not scientific accounts of how things came to be, but are about why things are, what their meaning is, and what it is to be human in the world.
A key theme that both stories have in common would have been more obvious to their first audience than to us. And that is that there are no gods. There is God of course, the absolute, who exists in himself without cause. And then there are things. Such as the sun and moon, trees, creeping animals and people. God causes the things to come into being. But God and the things remain completely distinct. God is not a thing, and the things are not gods.
In the age in which the Genesis stories were composed, that was radical thinking. To most ancient cultures the sun, moon and stars were gods, and the world itself was full of gods who controlled the waters, the seasons, the fruitfulness of the earth, and so on.
Israel received a different story. God is not a thing, and the things are not gods. In fact there weren’t any gods, because the things that the nations around called “gods” were only things, after all. And God, the God who called to Israel, turned out to be not one of the gods, either, but wholly different from them.
The forces of nature, the celestial bodies, were called into being by God. They had no power or existence of their own, but only what God had given them. They were good and useful things, doubtless, but only things. To worship them, as the nations did, was therefore to make a fundamental mistake. What we worship is what we set our hearts on, and we should set our hearts only on God, the source of all being. The source of our own being, as well as that of the useful and good things that God gives us.
Now that is a roundabout way of getting to today’s Gospel reading. “Do not worry”, says Jesus. “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
After last week’s troubling and difficult extract from the Sermon on the Mount, we seem to have moved on to calmer waters, a more reassuring place. But in fact the background to these sayings of Jesus is still trouble and difficulty, as he reminds us at the end: “tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today”.
Nevertheless the message of Jesus is one of reassurance, if only we will trust God. As with the creation stories in Genesis, the message is clear: God alone is the source of all being, God alone is to be worshipped and trusted. We are not to worry about things, because things are not gods. Things cannot save us, and we should not worship them.
The Gentiles, says Jesus, strive for all these things. That is, the nations that have to yet come to know the one true God, and who still imagine that things are gods. They set their hearts on things, and worship them. Do not be like them. Your heavenly Father knows what you need.
Gods, remember, are what we worship, what we set our hearts on. If we set our hearts on uncertain, transient things, as the nations do, we are always going to be anxious about them, restless until we have made our things secure. Except we can’t make things secure, because they are only things that come and go. It is the one true God who alone is eternal, who alone is the source of all that we need. 
Idols, you see, will never give us security. The teaching of Jesus, like the teaching of Genesis this morning, is that things are not gods. They are useful, but do not worship them, for they cannot save us. And if we are anxious, if we are striving like the Gentiles to secure created things, then perhaps that is because we are worshipping them. Perhaps we have made idols of them.
Jesus calls us to examine our hearts, to see what they are set on. Where do our anxieties come from? What are the secret idolatries that we need to uncover and repent of?
Now of course there is such a thing as duty, and the responsibilities that come to us in life. We do need to make prudent provision for those, indeed prudence is one of the cardinal virtues. That is not idolatry, so long as we do not set our hearts on created things, but only make proper use of them.
What Jesus warns us against is inordinate attachment to created things. That is the root of idolatry. If we make created things the object of our worship then they will be the source of our anxiety. Because we will be seeking salvation in things that cannot save.
I was wondering while preparing this sermon where my own anxieties were. For a parish priest, the growth of the church, attendance at Sunday Mass, balancing the books, are all matters of proper prudent care – but can also be areas of anxiety if we set our hearts on them, instead of on God. Others of us might think about the mortgage or the rent, the welfare or education of our children, our next job, our health, the health of our loved ones. All of these are matters of proper prudent care, but God alone can save us, and it is God alone that we must set our hearts on.
Things are not gods, things cannot save us. God alone can do that. This is our lasting hope and sure confidence. Genesis teaches us the foundational truth that God is the Creator, but he was a Creator veiled in mystery, wholly other than the things of creation. Jesus uncovers the face of the Creator. In Jesus, we see that God is whoever it is that Jesus calls Father, and God is whoever it is who raised Jesus from the dead.
These three truths are the foundation of our hope and our sure salvation: God is the Creator, God is our Father, and God raised Jesus from the dead. If these three things are true – and we believe that they are – then our hope is secure, and ultimately there really is nothing at all to worry about. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, Third Sunday before Lent 2017

Ecclesiasticus 15.15-20
1 Corinthians 3.1-9
Matthew 5.21-37

Last week I attended a seminar on modern Russia. One of the problems that society has to deal with is the fake news carried by official outlets – from stories that make Vladimir Putin out to be a kind of superhero, to conspiracy theories about other nations. The speaker at our seminar had asked somebody sensible in Russian media whether the people really believed these stories.
“What you have to understand”, he was told, “is that we don’t have truth any more, we have narrative”. In other words, decide the story you want to tell, and then selectively choose the “facts” to fit.
Now that happens quite a lot, and not just in Russia. Getting at the truth can be hard work. It can be sacrificial, requiring us to question and abandon our own ideas and principles. It’s much easier just to tell the story we want to tell, that reinforces our own position.
And this can happen too when it comes to reading the Bible. The truth is hard work. Today’s Gospel reading, for instance, is hard work. It makes tough reading. It seems too demanding. Depending on what’s happened to you in your life, it might even seem oppressive, a message of rejection. But if it seems like that, ask yourself, is this really the truth, or have I been told a narrative of rejection that just uses texts like this as proof of a foregone conclusion?
Jesus’ teaching about divorce, for example. Jesus is here addressing a totally patriarchal society. Women were treated as the property of men, to be disposed of as they pleased. Jesus is talking to the men in this passage. He is telling them that this isn’t good enough. You must not treat women as property. You must not abuse or exploit women, even in your minds. The thoughts and intentions of your hearts have to be completely converted, to see women as equals, persons as fully endowed with human dignity as you are yourselves.
This was revolutionary teaching. But how often has it been subverted, how often have these texts against the oppression of women been used as a pretext for oppression? “If a man commits adultery, it’s the woman’s fault for tempting him” – but, hang on, Jesus says the evil intention arises from the man’s heart. “You mustn’t leave your husband, even if you’re in an abusive marriage” – but, hang on, Jesus is telling men that a true understanding of marriage is completely incompatible with abuse.
Likewise the teaching about hell. Hell is mentioned 12 times in the New Testament, three of them in today’s reading. But let go of everything you thought you knew about Hell. “Hell” here translates the place name “Gehenna”, which is not a mythical underworld of eternal punishment, but a real rubbish dump outside Jerusalem, a sort of landfill site, where fires were often burning.
It was an unclean place, associated in ancient times with human sacrifice. It was a place of ritual violence and casting out. The Messiah calls us into the path of truth, which is his way of radical non-violence. But to follow him we need to recognize our deep complicity in violence, scapegoating and casting out, especially of those who are different from us. Hell, Gehenna, is a metaphor for the condition Jesus finds us in, and from which he wishes to save us. But how often, instead, has the idea of hell been used to terrorise and abuse people who are different, exactly the kind of scapegoating that Jesus warns us against?
When the Bible starts being used like that, we don’t have truth any more, but narrative. The story that people want to tell is being told, to reinforce their ideas and prejudices. That is, after all, so much easier than searching for the truth.
Now the truth is indeed radical and demanding, absolutely so. As we saw last week, the Sermon on the Mount presents us with the Law of the Messiah, a law greater, more demanding, more all-encompassing, than the law of Moses. It seems impossible to keep, until we understand that it is Jesus himself who keeps and enacts this law. He is “the Law in person”. The standard of total integrity, faithfulness and truth is his standard. And we are called into union with God in Christ, so that his righteousness may be ours. What we cannot do unaided Christ does for us, so that in him we may be presented as an acceptable offering to the Father.
Sometimes the church does not seem to have moved on much from the situation St Paul is addressing in his letter to the Corinthians today – infants in Christ, not yet “spiritual” people. They have their easy narratives, “I belong to Paul”, “I belong to Apollos”, but have not begun the hard work of attending to the truth that both Paul and Apollos proclaimed.
General Synod meets this week, and we will doubtless hear in the news about the House of Bishops’ report on sexuality and marriage. Now I am a dyed in the wool Catholic, and deeply inclined to regard whatever bishops say with great respect. But it has to be said that this particular report doesn’t seem to have been received well. Many thoughtful people of different theological positions have criticized it, including, this morning, fourteen retired bishops, and there is a move for Synod to decline to accept it.
I think what becomes of it will depend on whether it is perceived as a distorting narrative, or as a quest for the truth.
According to its critics, the report’s narrative seems mainly to be about how difficult it is for the poor bishops to hold everyone together. The quest for truth, the truth of people of different sexualities created in the image of God, is a harder task, and one that the report seems to avoid. So please do pray for our Synod members this week, for discernment and wisdom, of course, but also for boldness and commitment in the quest for truth.

This applies to all of us, of course. The passage from Deuteronomy with which we began today contains the famous words, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.” That is not a referendum question, a tick box exercise. It is not a choice between two different easy narratives. It is an invitation, a summons, into the truth, into the long work of engagement and transformation. Jesus says it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life. But in Christ that summons into the truth is already fulfilled, and in him we too embark on that journey. Choose life. Choose the truth.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, Fourth Sunday before Lent 2017

Isaiah 58.1-9a;
1 Corinthians 2.1-12;
Matthew 5.13-20

As I’ve mentioned in a previous sermon, back in December I was an invited guest at the Civic Service in Muswell Hill Synagogue. It was the Sabbath service, and the culmination of it is the reading from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, the books attributed to Moses.
The Torah is read with much the same kind of ceremony as we read the Gospel at Mass. The beautifully decorated scroll is collected from its special place of storage, carried in procession and proclaimed from an elevated pulpit. The Torah is read through systematically week by week, but the prophets – what for us are the other books of the Old Testament – are only read in short extracts, as commentary on the Torah. Much as we read short extracts from the prophets and the epistles as commentary on the Gospels.
In Judaism, the Torah is the most important part of the Bible as it is the record of the definitive encounter between God and humanity. Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai, and spoke to God “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend”, as Exodus puts it. The other prophets may have had visions, dreams, voices in the night, but they did not speak to God like that. The rest of the Bible is read in reference to that definitive encounter, and as pointing back to it.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus goes up a mountain to teach. This is part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s extensive teaching about the Kingdom of God. Matthew’s Gospel places this on a mountain. In actual fact the probable site beside Lake Galilee is not much more than a small hill, but it becomes a mountain because of the significance of the message proclaimed on it.
Matthew is drawing a parallel between Jesus and Moses. Moses encountered God on a mountain and brought down the Law. Jesus, too, delivers his law on a mountain. But unlike Moses, who received the Law on tablets of stone, the law that Jesus delivers is himself. The Sermon on the Mount, above all, describes who Jesus is.
Jesus is the law in person. Here is a second definitive encounter between God and humanity. But while Moses spoke to God face to face, Jesus is God and man in one person, the most definitive and complete encounter that there can be.
A Jewish Scholar, Rabbi Jacob Neusner, studied the Sermon on the Mount and wrote an imagined dialogue between himself and Jesus. He recognizes the greatness of what Jesus teaches, and its rootedness in Jewish tradition. Then he imagines himself on his way back from the mountain, trying to explain what he had heard to the Jewish leaders of a nearby town.
He quotes to them from the Talmud, ‘Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses… David came and reduced them to eleven, Isaiah came and reduced them to six, then to two. Habakkuk further came and based them on one, “The righteous shall live by his faith”
‘So, he is asked, “is this what the sage, Jesus, had to say?”
‘Not exactly, but close.’
‘What did he leave out?’
‘Then what did he add?’
Rabbi Neusner recognizes the claim that is being made, that Jesus is the Law in Person, that he is in himself the new definitive encounter between God and humanity. And this is where Rabbi Neusner, with the greatest respect, says that he has to remain, as he puts it, “with the eternal Israel” and not follow the teaching of Jesus.
Christians must not have any less respect for Judaism than Rabbi Neusner has for Christianity, as it is indeed the rootstock from which have sprung and the stem into which we are grafted. We read the Bible in the same way that the Jewish faith does, as referring to and depending on a definitive encounter with God. But for us that encounter is no longer Moses on the Mountain, but Jesus.
It is Jesus that the Bible speaks of and points to, it is Jesus that the Bible is leading us to. He is the definitive encounter between God and humanity, and we are called into that encounter ourselves.
If that were not true, the Sermon on the Mount would be an idealistic dream, impossible to attain to. “You are the light of the world”, says Jesus to his disciples today. But is not Jesus himself the light of the world? Indeed he is, as he says in John’s gospel. And the Church, alas, through human sin so often obscures that light. But nevertheless, in Christ the Church is the light of the world, because he is the light, and if we are in him then we will be light too. Likewise it is only in Christ that our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, because if we are in Christ then his righteousness is ours.
As we saw last week at the presentation of Jesus in the temple, Jesus is the new Adam, the representative human, who presents the whole of humanity in himself as an acceptable offering to the Father.
So the Sermon on the Mount is a call to righteous living, but it is first of all a call to abide in Christ, the righteous one. By faith and baptism we are adopted in him and accepted by the Father as his beloved children. Our identity in Christ is nourished and strengthened through prayer and the Eucharist. Repentance turns us back to Christ when we have turned away and tried to live apart from him.
True Christian life is life in Christ, neither more nor less. It is sharing in the definitive encounter between God and humanity that Jesus is in person. The Bible leads us and points us to that encounter, but it is Jesus himself, the living Lord, who makes it real. “You are the light of the world”, says Jesus to us. And that is true, insofar as we are living in Christ through faith. The world needs that light, today more than ever. So the world needs us to live and grow and be rooted in Christ.
How are we to do that? It’s the same prescription as always, but it’s never out of date. By faith and baptism we are adopted in Christ; by prayer, Eucharist and repentance we are nourished and grow into him.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, says St John. The light of Christ is transformative. We are drawn to that light ourselves, and so become light, agents of transformation in the world. This is not about ritual observance, but about actually banishing the forces of darkness in the world, injustice, oppression and exclusion.
As Isaiah puts it in our first reading, “your light will break forth like the dawn”, and this happens when you “loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house, cover the naked.”
The light shines in the darkness, and we are that light, in Christ. So we are not to be afraid or discouraged even if the darkness seems to be intensifying. The beauty and radiance of the light shines out all the more clearly, and reaches further, as the darkness deepens.

The newly baptized are given a candle symbolizing the light of Christ, and the words spoken at that moment remain valid for us throughout our lives: “You have received the light of Christ; walk in this light all the days of your life. Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.”