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

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Harvest Thanksgiving 2016

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Philippians 4:4-9
John 6:25-35

Today we are celebrating our harvest thanksgiving. The Bible is full of references to harvest, so there’s no shortage of readings to reflect on.
We began with that passage from Deuteronomy which tells us how in ancient times Jewish people held their harvest thanksgiving service.
Christianity shares with Judaism, its parent faith, a firm belief in the goodness of the world. The material creation is good, a gift of our heavenly father. We rejoice in and celebrate the blessings that come from the good earth that God has made. We acknowledge that all we receive is God’s gift.
At the same time, we are mindful of the call to reflect God’s generosity and goodness. We are to share the blessings we receive, so that no-one is in need. This requires, of course, that we have to be attentive and notice those who are in need. So this too is part of our harvest thanksgiving.
But harvest is also used as a metaphor in the Bible. It speaks of the harvest we reap from “doing what is right”[1] and a “harvest of righteousness”[2]. Not crops, these, but the good things that grow in our lives by the grace of God. But these good works are connected with the harvest of the earth, because they are about enabling ourselves and others to grow and flourish as God intends.
There is also the harvest at the end of time, of which Jesus speaks, the gathering of all the redeemed into God’s Kingdom. The produce of the good earth nourishes us for this earthy life. But the bread of God which comes down from heaven nourishes us for eternal life. That bread is Jesus himself, his flesh given for the life of the world.
Today’s gospel reading is set just after the feeding of the five thousand with the bread and fishes, earthly food, and the crowd have followed Jesus because they want more of the same. But Jesus instead begins his teaching about the Eucharist, making the promise of the great gift that he would leave to his church at the Last Supper.
This is the food that endures to eternal life. In the Eucharist earthly bread and wine become the sign and vehicle of that heavenly food. By the power of the Holy Spirit the earthly harvest of wheat and grapes becomes our spiritual food and drink, the body and blood of Christ nourishing us for the eternal harvest of heaven.
So all of these aspects of harvest are there in the Bible: the produce of the good earth, which is God’s gift, and which we are to share; the harvest of good works and righteousness in our lives; and the harvest of eternal life when all the redeemed will be gathered into God’s kingdom.
But what I’d like to focus on today is what comes before a harvest. All the things that need to take place before a harvest can happen.
First, the ground needs to be prepared, the earth ploughed and fertilized, stones and weeds dug up. Hard work! Only then do you get to sow the seed. And then you have to nurture and water the crops as they grow, and protect them from pests, diseases and bad weather. Finally in the course of the seasons, with the right amount of rain and sun, the crops ripen and are gathered in.
It’s a slow business, and it takes as long as it takes. You might harvest a crop of wheat in a few months. But if you’re growing a crop of walnuts, you would wait decades before your first harvest. But you can’t rush it. There is no such thing as an instant harvest. Growing and nurturing something to maturity takes care, hard work, and lots of patience and time.
And just as that is true for the harvest of the good earth, so it is also true for the other harvests that the Bible speaks of. The harvest of good works takes a lifetime of discipleship and persistence. And likewise the harvest of the Kingdom is not instant. “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few”, says Jesus, “therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”
The labour of the eternal harvest is not the work of a year or even a lifetime, but is the work of the whole church throughout time. We, with all our brothers and sisters in every time and place, have a part to play in that long labour.
As with the earthly harvest, the harvest of the Kingdom has its times and seasons. There are times of preparation and waiting, which can be hard work, especially when little growth seems evident. But think of the seed lying dormant in the soil, awaiting its time to germinate and grow. There are times of particular care and nurture – and some crops require more TLC than others. But all these lead in their own time to ripening, maturity, and gathering in abundance.
As a parish church, over the last three years, we have been working through our mission action plan. That is, the ways in which we have committed ourselves to working for the harvest of God’s Kingdom. In common with the rest of the Diocese we have been doing this under three headings: growing in confidence as disciples of Jesus Christ; being compassionate amid the needs of our society; and being creative in new ways of reaching out to people.
If you were with us three years ago you’ll remember that we didn’t just sit down and write a mission action plan. First, we spent a month in prayer, reflecting on some passages of scripture and how they spoke to us of God’s call to be his church in this time and place. Then we embarked on a process of conversation and listening, which led to a mission action plan that everyone could feel they owned and had a stake in.
At the same time, our brothers and sisters in Grace Church, who share the use of this building, have been responding to the same themes – confident, compassionate, creative – in their own work for God’s Kingdom.
Our Bishop Rob, the Bishop of Edmonton, has now asked both churches to embark on a conversation together about our mission. Part of that will be responding to the Bishop's call to the whole area to find new ways of being intentionally missional in the communities we serve.
But first, we are to have another month of prayer, in November this year. It is absolutely vital that we begin with prayer. “Ask the Lord of the harvest”, says Jesus – that has to come first. Listening and waiting on God must come before we can follow his call to us.
We don’t know what conversation might come out of that month of prayer, or where it might lead. That’s how it should be, of course, if we are serious about listening to God and following his call. But we can be sure that there is no need for anxiety or apprehension. In the will of God is our peace, both in our personal lives and in our life as a church.
Our task is to labour in the harvest, but the harvest is not our own. It belongs to the Lord of the Harvest, who has called us and sends us. The fruit of the harvest is ours to nurture and gather, but his to give. And we work gladly to bring others into God’s Kingdom, because God in Jesus has found and saved us. God promises us a place in his harvest, our call now is to be faithful in laboring to bring that harvest about.

[1] Galatians 6.9
[2] James 3.18; Hebrews 12.11

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 18 2016

Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-end

On Monday I went to the “Sunken Cities” exhibition at the British Museum. Underwater archaeology has brought to light two ancient Egyptian cities which sank beneath the waves more than a thousand years ago. The finds are fascinating and remarkably well preserved.
These were important religious centres, particularly for the cult of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead. Elaborate annual rituals marked the passage of this god into the underworld, where he was believed to preside over the dead.
Belief in the underworld, the world of the dead, was common across the pre-Christian world. The dead, it was supposed, descended to dark caverns beneath the earth where they lived out a ghostly existence. The best you could hope for was an imitation of this life, with possessions and food and slaves and so on, but only if you were someone really important like the Pharaoh. The world of the dead was not really something to look forward to.
Now, why is this relevant to today’s gospel reading? Well, look at where the rich man ends up after he dies: he is in Hades. That is, the world of the dead, the underworld. We might read this through the lens of mediaeval theology and subconsciously think, aha, he’s gone to Hell. But that’s not what the text says: he is in the world of the dead.
Like the ancient Egyptians, the imagination of this rich man was bounded by death. During his lifetime, he lived as though death were the final reality. So he does nothing except eat enormous banquets of rich food, lounging around in pantomime robes and stuffing himself with delicacies every day.
But he ignored the poor. After all, if death ends everything, if we all go down to the gloomy underworld and life is just a zero sum game, what is the point of helping anyone? What good will it do, in the end? “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”
So, now the rich man is dead, he is simply inhabiting the reality that has defined his entire life. He finds himself in the world of the dead, because he has never imagined anything else.
But Lazarus, on the other hand, has entered a reality that the rich man had never even suspected. He is being comforted with the angels and with Abraham – a figure from the distant past who ought to be completely dead, but is mysteriously very much alive.
Lazarus has entered the world of the Resurrection, which is what this parable is all about. The clue comes at the end, when Abraham says, “if they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.”
Lazarus, in this story, is a figure for Jesus himself – the rejected outcast who died, forgotten by the world, but was raised in glory by his Father.
The resurrection of Jesus is more than just an event in history, though of course it is that. The Bible speaks of the resurrection as a moment of revelation. Through the resurrection of Jesus the ultimate truth behind the universe is made known to us: and it is not death, but life.  God is the creator of all things, and in him is no death at all.
As the second letter to Timothy puts it, “God called us… not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
The resurrection, simply, is entering into the life that God lives, which Jesus Christ has revealed. The second Eucharistic prayer, which we use on Sundays and is about 1800 years old, expresses the same belief: “he put an end to death by dying for us; and revealed the resurrection by rising to new life”[1].
This is sheer gift. “God called us not according to our works but according to his grace.” Overflowing generosity, love, and life, go together. We face a choice: we can stay in the world of the dead, without hope, in which we can close our hearts and ignore the poor. Or we can enter the resurrection, revealed by Jesus Christ, who has risen from the dead to call us to repentance.
Repentance means taking a new direction, crossing over from one side to another. In this parable, the rich man wants to do that, but can’t. But this story closes a series of parables in which change can and does happen: the prodigal son, the dishonest manager whom we encountered last week. 
It’s as though this parable wants to end by underlining that it is all about choice: you can choose to stay in the old imagination bounded by death if you really want to; but Jesus Christ has revealed the new reality, the life of God in the resurrection, which we are called to enter.
This is something that the parables repeat again and again. Those who seek to hang on to what they’ve got, as though this was the secret of their life, miss out on true life, which is God’s gift. Riches and possessions close our hearts to mercy, to the possibility of change and redemption. On the other hand, if we own our poverty, our nakedness and our need, then God will give us his kingdom.
Repentance then is all about living in the new reality in which death is not. The ultimate reality behind the universe is life and love, the God who gives himself without limit and without being diminished. This is sheer gift and grace, we don’t earn it. But if we enter that reality then we are going to start living like that. We will care for the poor, the marginalized and the outcast. We will live out God’s love in our lives.
We are called to respond to Jesus Christ, in whatever guise he may meet us as we journey through life – he may very well be the Lazarus lying at the gates of our modern city. If we allow room in our hearts for him, if we allow room for the Father’s life and love and compassion, then we will start to live according to the resurrection.
And when at length death finally rends the veil, and we step through into God’s eternity, then we will not be strangers to the dazzling light that will be revealed to us, but will be welcomed into the kingdom of the resurrection that has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world.

[1] That prayer, the so-called Canon of Hippolytus, is now thought to be Egyptian in origin. Compare it with the cult of Osiris for an insight into the conversion of culture by the Gospel.

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 17 2016

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

“Money, money, money/Must be funny/In the rich man's world.” So sang Abba, back in the day.
And money is rather funny, if you think about it. Coins whose scrap metal value is far less than the amount stamped on them. Paper money, which is technically just promises to pay; credit and debit cards which work in a similar way. And all connecting to invisible electronic numbers stored and transferred between computers.
And yet these ephemeral things, of little value in themselves, can be swapped for goods and services, the things we need to live, and for luxuries, little and large. And the more you have of it the more choices and power you seem to have.
Given our innate human tendency to desire what other people have got, the corrupting power of money is obvious. And the Bible has been clear about that from the beginning. We heard part of the Prophet Amos this morning raging against the greed and injustice that so easily arise from the misuse of money.
Today’s Gospel reading too turns on the corrupting power of wealth. But it is a difficult and obscure parable. Is Jesus really commending a dishonest manager for defrauding his employer? When I preached on this reading three years ago I suggested that there may be an element of humour in it: perhaps the rich man and his manager are the Del Boy and Rodney of their day, dodgy dealers involved in crafty schemes.
That’s something to bear in mind, but there is more to the story than that. The situation that Jesus describes would have been a familiar one. A rich man has lots of debtors, and they are farmers – look at what they owe, olive oil and wheat.
At the time of Jesus Roman taxation in Palestine was heavy, and farmers with smallholdings often got into debt and had to sell their land. This led to a small number of rich people owning more and more of the land. Their tenants, effectively bonded labourers, had to pay them a proportion of their produce, so the land owners got richer while the tenant farmers were trapped in subsistence living.
So people would have recognized the situation that Jesus describes, a situation of injustice and inequality.
But this is a parable, and the parables of Jesus always have something odd about them. Parables tell us what the Kingdom of God is like, that is, what God’s rule, perfectly enacted, would be. God’s kingdom is odd – compared to the world as we know it. Of course really it’s the world that’s odd, and God’s Kingdom is where everything is how it should be. The parables are about changing our perception so that we can start living according to God’s kingdom ourselves.
Another thing about the parables is that the Kingdom of God is always described as something happening. Jesus never gives us a still life image of the Kingdom. It is always a story of change and transformation. And that is what we would expect, because God is living, active, dynamic and creative.
So we need to read this strange story with that in mind. This is a story of change, which reveals to us something of what God’s Kingdom is like, and something of how the world is getting it wrong.
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 debt and oppression. But he ends the story on the side of the oppressed poor, inhabiting a new economy of generosity. That change makes life better for him and for his fellow debtors. It is a story of repentance, turning around and making a new start.
The old economy of debt and oppression is how the world works. But God’s Kingdom is completely different, founded on generosity, forgiveness freely given. And in Luke’s Gospel, as in other parts of the Bible like Amos, forgiveness of sins and forgiveness of material and financial debt are bound together, you can’t separate them.
Generosity is the key to living in the world without living according to its values. Radical generosity, generosity like that of God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It is generosity that enables us to use the things of the world, wealth, possessions, power, without becoming trapped by them.
Jesus warns us that we cannot serve both God and wealth. “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.” If we are generous with the things of this world, if we do not cling on to them, then they will not cling on to us. But if we are not generous then they become a snare in our path.
Generosity with material things is bound up with generosity of spirit, forgiveness of sins, praying for our enemies, the life of grace. This is what Jesus calls the “true riches” that we will be entrusted with, if we pass the test of the “dishonest wealth” that passes away. 
And, like the manager and the debtors, a spirit of generosity changes things both for ourselves and for those around us. We live in a nation, and a world, in which there is huge inequality. We need to be aware of issues of justice, of inclusion and exclusion, and we need to play our part in changing them. This is true Christian political involvement, which is not tied to any particular party, but is about getting alongside the poor and reminding those in power of where their priorities should be.
And also in our own lives we are called to be generous. God’s generosity to us is not trivial. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Forgiveness of sins, eternal life, indeed our very existence, are the gift of God in Jesus.
If we are going to live according to God’s kingdom, then our own generosity too must not be trivial – with our time, our talents and our money. In our families and homes, in our society, in our church.
The Church of England recommends that all church members should give away 10% of their disposable income, 5% to their church and 5% to other charities. What this means in practice will vary greatly, but the key thing is that it is not trivial generosity. It is sacrificial giving, for the sake of others. And the same principle can be applied to our time and talents.

Radical generosity like this makes a difference – to us, by reducing the choices and options that we have; and to others, by enlarging theirs. It is an act of repentance, crossing over from one side to the other, taking the preferential option for the poor, and so discovering God’s economy of generosity and freedom. By imitating God’s generosity we can be trustworthy with dishonest wealth, and so find ourselves entrusted with the true riches, the free gift, of eternal life.