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

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

"What is Truth?" - Sermon at Parish Mass, Christ the King 2016

Fresco c. 1220 from the Apse of Saint Clement's, painted by the Master of Tahull, currently at the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya.

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

The Oxford English Dictionary has decided that its word of the year for 2016 is “post-truth”. It’s defined thus: “Adjective. Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
In a world of dubious referendum campaigns, climate change denial and President Trump, in a world where bombs are raining down on Aleppo but everyone denies dropping them, it seems that people are turning away from evidence and facts. For 21st century society truth seems both too demanding (you might have to change your mind) and too boring (if it doesn’t give you what you want).
There’s nothing new in this, of course. Today’s gospel reading shows us a “post-truth” situation: an innocent man dying on a cross. The Roman authority, which has put him there, knows he is innocent, but truth has been trumped by political expedience. The crowd want this man dead, and Roman authority is under threat. Better give the crowd what they want, then.
In John’s account of the trial of Jesus it is made clear that it all hinges on this question of truth. Pilate asks Jesus whether he is a king, and Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” To which Pilate cynically replies, “What is truth?”.
Truth is intrinsic to whatever it means to say that Jesus is king. Jesus the King is the one who testifies to the truth. And if we ask with Pilate, “what is truth?”, we have Jesus’ own answer: it is himself. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the truth about God, in person. As St Paul puts it in the reading from Colossians this morning, Jesus “is the image of the invisible God”.
In other words, God in his essence is unknowable; but God’s image of himself, the Second Person of the Trinity, has become flesh and dwelt among us. Therefore, God is knowable, because he makes himself known in his Son. And the way in which he makes himself known is as an innocent man dying on a cross.
This is how Jesus testifies to the truth. Here is love, God come into the world, suffering what the world inflicts when it turns away from the truth and from love.
One person in this scene sees the truth. A criminal, hanging with Jesus. We often think of this person as the “good thief”, but the word Luke uses simply means an evildoer. It’s quite non-specific. He could be anyone. He could be one of us. He has become the victim of the violence by which he has lived. But in Jesus he sees a new reality breaking in, even in the last moments of his life.
“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”, says Jesus. And the “good thief” listens. The truth about God is that the innocent victim will be raised from the dead to the glory of the Father. The truth about humanity is that all the scapegoats and victims we have ever made and cast out are entirely our doing and have nothing to do with God.
To put it in a more traditional way, the truth is that God wants to save us from our sins, and does this by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In him we both see the truth about God and ourselves, and are set free into the truth of God’s kingdom.
This is what is described in our reading from Colossians.  Jesus has truly “made peace” by his death on the cross. He has made possible a new way of living in peace, leaving behind the violence which has controlled human beings from the beginning. In him, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. He has delivered us from darkness and made a place for us in his kingdom.
Jesus has reconciled all things. To be reconciled means to be at one with God and one another. It means to be at one with the truth. All who belong to the truth listen to the voice of Jesus. And his is a voice that echoes in all things, for he has the first place in everything, as St Paul says.
Faith in Jesus, then, entails a radical commitment to the truth. This begins with the truth of God which is made known in Jesus. But is embraces the truth of one another, the truth of the world, the truth of all things. The Word who made all things is true, and the universe reflects his truth.
We who are being saved by Jesus and given a place in his kingdom are therefore called to live according to the truth. This means being personally truthful in word and deed, so that life and word march in step. It also means being attentive and respectful to the truth around us, the truth of other people and the truth of the universe that reflects God’s truth and creativity.
Much will be under threat in a “post-truth” world. The idea of human rights is founded on the truth of every human person being made in the image of God – no matter who she or he is or what they may have done. Christians need to be at the forefront of holding that truth before the eyes of those in power.
The truth of the created world demands that we see and respect its limits, that we safeguard this good earth for all generations to come. But the inconvenient truth about climate change and pollution is increasingly being questioned and ignored. We are being invited to forget about the future. Those who are attentive to the truth must remember it all the more.
Integrity and probity in public life are vital if we are to trust the society in which we all take part. Those too are under threat, both by those who don’t practice them, and by false accusations and cynical suspicion when those in public office say something we don’t like.

But all this is nothing new, as today’s gospel reminds us. Our call is to confess the truth shown to us in Jesus Christ, and to respond in faith. The Kingdom belongs to Christ. We are members of it now by his gift, even in this passing age. The light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. If the world turns darker, then we must hold the flame of truth up higher and more boldly. For that light will in the end illuminate and transfigure the whole creation in the age to come when Christ will fill all things.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, 2nd Sunday before Advent 2016

Malachi 4:1-2;
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13;
Luke 21:5-19

It’s unusual for today’s readings to fall on Remembrance Sunday, but due to Advent being early they do this year. And they seem very appropriate. Both Malachi and Luke speak of times of dread and destruction. We remember today the dead of two terrible world wars. I wondered, preparing this sermon, what my predecessors would have preached about, Father Hancock in 1914 and Father Taylor in 1939, as moral darkness and great dread descended on the world. What words of encouragement and challenge would they have found?
We do not live in such dark times as that, though some people in the world do – think of Aleppo and Mosul. But we are living through times of change and turbulence. The free exercise of democracy, both here and in the USA, has thrown up unexpected results and shattered old certainties. New popular movements have given expression to various hopes for a different future – hopes not always compatible with each other. But these movements also give expression to resentment, fear and anger. Feelings that it seems have been building for years, unnoticed by the comfortable and well off. “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion”, says the Prophet Amos. It has been a kind of unveiling of what has been going on under the surface of society.
The Greek word for “unveiling” is “apocalypse”. In the Bible, it is used for those passages, such as today’s readings, where we see beyond surface appearances to the hidden forces that are really driving events.
In today’s Gospel reading we are approaching the end of Luke’s Gospel. It is Holy Week, in fact, although the disciples do not know it. In a few short days Jesus will be betrayed and killed, and although Jesus has warned the disciples about this they haven’t understood him.
And as the climactic disaster of the Gospel is approaching, Jesus talks about another disaster, further off, but just as certain – the destruction of Jerusalem. That, too, seems incomprehensible to the disciples as they gaze round with admiration at the Temple and its ornaments. But Jerusalem has always been a city of conflict, fought over from its first beginning to the present day. Ironically, as the name “Jerusalem” means “vision of peace”.
At the time of Jesus Jerusalem was under occupation, ruled from Rome through the Governor Pontius Pilate. It was a city of resentment, fear and anger, heavily suppressed by military might. It was a city where diverse hopes and aspirations for a future free from Rome were talked about in secret. It was a city of underground movements, religious fanatics and terrorists willing to die for their cause.
Jesus saw clearly where all this was heading. People who are deeply attentive to God often do have a clearer view than most of what is going on in the world, and the forces driving society beneath the surface appearance of things. Jesus’s prediction that all this will be destroyed is an apocalypse, that is an unveiling of what is going on. He sees that the cycle of resentment and violence is building and in time will burst out of control, with terrible consequences.
The Jewish historian Josephus described the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, around 40 years after Jesus made his prediction. It matches anything in history for the scenes of horror, grief and ruthless violence. And it was all avoidable, as Jesus had said, if only they had listened to the prophets and known the way of peace.
But, with all that, apocalypse is not of God. These things must take place, says Jesus, but the end is not yet. The unveiling is of the heart of human violence; the destruction is self-inflicted. God does not will these things, but permits human freedom.
What, then, are the disciples to do, in such times as this? Stay faithful, says Jesus. If you are hated and persecuted, see it as an opportunity to testify. That is, carry on with the normal business of the Church, which is to bear witness to Jesus.
You may be betrayed and killed, as Jesus himself is about to be. But – paradoxically – not a hair of your head will perish. If you die with Jesus, bearing witness to the truth, you will rise with him. It is the resurrection that bears witness to God, not the apocalypse of violence. God is the creator and redeemer and will not let his creation perish. In the midst of disaster, even self-inflicted disaster, he is present to redeem, to save, and to create anew.
This is what God is like, and always has been. As Malachi said, around five centuries before the time of Jesus, even in the time of apocalypse, “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings”.
In such times as this, then, what are we to do? It is a moment of apocalypse, in a way: resentment, fear and anger are bubbling up, contrary hopes for the future are being contested. It is an unveiling of what has been going on under the surface. We in the West indeed are a long way from the dark days of the two world wars. But Jesus warns us that currents under the surface of things can lead to calamitous events further down the line, if they are not attended to.
So what are we to do? Stay faithful. Carry on with the normal business of the Church, which is to witness to Jesus. Pay attention to the teachings of the prophets, and above all to Jesus. Live out the values of the Gospel in our lives. Seek to be peace-makers and influences for good in the world. If the times seem harsh, if respect and kindness and love are fading away, then that is a reason to practice them all the more. Renounce violence and revenge. Never give up doing what is right.

And above all never give up on God. “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” Our world needs healing. It needs kindness and love. It needs the good news of God who offers mercy and reconciliation in Jesus. This is the path Jesus has shown to the world. It is made real in the world by those who are willing to pay the price, which may be their lives, as it has been for many in past generations and in parts of the world today. But, Jesus promises, by your endurance you will gain your souls.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, 3rd Sunday before Advent 2016

Job 19:23-27a;
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17;
Luke 20:27-38

I wonder if the Wizard of Oz will be screened some time over the Christmas holidays this year; it usually seems to be.
The 1939 version of the film, starring Judy Garland, is the one most people will know. I think I must have first seen it in the cinema, rather than on the television at home. My reason for thinking this is that when I was little we only had a small black and white telly, and one of the great features of the Wizard of Oz is the use of technicolor.
The opening sequences in Kansas are in black and white until the storm comes and Dorothy gets carried off by the twister. Then she opens the door of her house and steps out into a wonderful colour landscape. She has arrived in Oz! That’s still a stirring effect when we see it now, but in 1939 it may have been the first colour film that many people had seen. Imagine the impact then. “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more.”
This dramatic shift tells us that Dorothy has arrived in a wonderful world that she could not have imagined before. Her imagination, constrained by the limited experience of Kansas, had not prepared her for a world with a whole new dimension of colour.
The poverty of our imagination limits our vision, as we see in a different way in today’s gospel reading. The Sadducees come to Jesus with the story of one bride and seven brothers – which sounds almost like another cinema musical. Their aim is to undermine all this fanciful talk of resurrection – in which they do not believe.
But they are wrong. Their mistake is to imagine that the resurrection is just like this life, carried on indefinitely. They can’t imagine what the resurrection is like, because they can’t imagine what God is like. Their imagination is limited, hemmed in, by death – and there is no death in God. So they can’t imagine the resurrection, the age to come, in which God is all in all.
This is the proper Biblical language of life after death. The idea of “going to heaven when you die” doesn’t really convey the fullness of what the Bible teaches. The souls of the departed are indeed alive to God in the present moment, as Jesus says of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So we rightly pray for the dead and ask the prayers of the saints. But we look forward to a future resurrection and a glorified bodily existence when the whole creation is made new. The reality that Jesus has entered through his resurrection and ascension is the ultimate destination for the whole of the Church, which is his body.
This is what it means to imagine the age to come and the resurrection. It is not this present life just carried on; rather, it is this present life transformed and fulfilled in God, in whom there is no death.
This is how to understand Jesus’ answer about the seven brothers and the one bride. When he says that those in the age to come and the resurrection do not marry, he is not putting down marriage. In fact, the opposite. The Sadducees, in common with most people of their time, regarded marriage as a property transaction – women being considered the property of men. Jesus gives marriage a wholly different meaning. It becomes a sign of communion pointing to a greater reality, the age of the resurrection in which the sign will be fulfilled, and so will no longer be needed.
I think this is one of the reasons why the Church regards marriage as a sacrament. It isn’t obviously one compared to baptism and the Eucharist, ritual acts instituted by Jesus which convey grace through the outward signs of water, bread and wine.
Marriage isn’t quite like that. It has always existed – Jesus didn’t invent it – and for many people it doesn’t necessarily have a religious or spiritual dimension. But Jesus did give it a new meaning. The image of bride and groom is used throughout scripture as a metaphor for the union of God and his people. Jesus took that image further, to make marriage a sign of communion that points to the resurrection and the age to come, when God and his people will be united in the life that knows no death.
This in fact is what all the sacraments do. They are signs of communion that anticipate the resurrection. Marriage, like ordination, is the vocation for some, not for all, and so is a sign of self-giving love and communion lived out for others as well as for the couple themselves.
But Baptism and the Eucharist are the sacraments of communion in which all are called to share. In them the reality of God in whom there is no death breaks through into this present age, giving us a pledge and a foretaste of the age to come.
And this changes how we live in this present age. We don’t have a rule requiring widows to marry their brothers-in-law in order to provide children for them, and I’m sure we’re grateful for that. But the principle behind that rule was that death claims everything in the end, so you have to leave a posterity after you. It’s a rule that is bounded by the imagination of death.
Jesus frees us from all such imaginings. All forms of possessiveness, rivalry and violence are rooted in the imagination of death. Hold on to what you’ve got, while you can, because death will claim it all in the end. But if God is the ultimate reality, and there is no death in God, then we are free from all that. The blessings of this present life, instead of being dead weights that we have to cling on to, become signs pointing to the fulfilment of human life in the life of God.
In the Church we are constantly called to be living in that new way, open to God, and not clinging on to anything else, so that we can be a living sign of the age to come. That can be very unsettling. It means we have to give up possession and control, and place all our trust in God.
In our month of prayer with our brothers and sisters in Grace Church we are reflecting on this call. Any kind of deep intentional prayer tends to be unsettling, because prayer opens us up to the Spirit of the Living God, strips away our illusions and idols, and reminds us that God alone is in charge. But prayer also opens up the fountain of living water in our souls. The Spirit who challenges and unsettles us is the same Spirit who is the source of our true and eternal life, the giver of all consolation.

The Sacraments too open human life to the dimension of God in whom there is no death. They are the age to come breaking through into this present age. Sacraments both demand and make possible the new life that Jesus reveals, in which we leave behind all forms of rivalry, possessiveness and violence, everything that is defined by the imagination of death, everything that the Bible calls sin. Unsettling? Yes. But one we’ve glimpsed technicolor, who would want to hang on to black and white? Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.