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

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary 2016

Revelation 11:19-12:6,10
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 1:46-55

We’ve all had the experience. Someone ringing on the doorbell, or assailing us in the street. “What does the Bible really teach?” “What is the meaning of life?” “Come to our church and we’ll tell you what you should believe!” Street evangelists, all trying to convert us to whatever sect they represent.
I don’t know about you, but I find this all rather wearying. My heart sinks when I see them coming. What is it about such encounters that is so draining of energy?
If we analyse what is going on in those encounters, it all seems very human. Boiled down, it goes like this: “I’ve got something that you need. You need to become like me.” The implication of that of course is that I’m superior to you, possessing a higher knowledge, an implication that you will, consciously or unconsciously, resist. So it’s rather like a tug of war, one person against another, trying to score a point. I think that’s why it feels so draining.
Is that what Christian evangelism is meant to be like? After all, we are all ambassadors for Christ, witnesses to the good news of salvation. That calling is imprinted on us by our baptism. So is that how we are meant to go about it?
Fortunately, the Bible, and the living Church of which we are part, gives us a rather different picture. And today we look at the first Evangelist, the greatest ambassador for Jesus Christ: his mother, Mary.  She gives us a very different example.
Her song of praise, that we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading, was sung not in her own house in Nazareth, but in that of her cousin Elizabeth, in the hill country of Judea. That’s a considerable journey. But as soon as Mary had received the Angel’s message that she was to be the mother of the Saviour, as soon as she had said her “Yes” to God’s plan of salvation, Luke tells us, she set out in haste to visit her cousin.
Mary has become the first evangelist. She is pregnant with the Word of God – literally. The Eternal Son of the Father has become flesh and lies hidden in her womb. And she goes in haste out into the world, bearing the Word, full of the good news of salvation.
And the message she proclaims is, first of all, a song of praise. She is not trying to score any points. She is not concerned about proving her own importance, rather, she sings of her lowliness, and the great things that God has done.
This is the first thing that Mary teaches us about being ambassadors for Jesus – that we should not point to ourselves, but to him. And we do this by being God-focussed, not me-focussed. A heart that is enlarged by praise of God is attentive to God and not to itself.
We direct people’s attention to where our gaze is. If we are concerned with ourselves or our self-image or the points we want to score then what we are promoting is not God but ourselves. That’s not the good news we’ve been given to share!
Instead we are to share what God has done for us, and for all humanity, in Jesus. “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Mercy has been given to the world in Jesus. How essential that is! How liberating is that news!
A world of suffering and violence, alienation and injustice, sin and despair, has been shown mercy. The heart of our God is merciful towards us, and the name of that mercy is Jesus. The mercy of God is the one and only thing that can set humanity free, and it has been given, freely given, in Jesus. Mercy is not about deserving anything, but about finding ourselves, unexpectedly, in the embrace of a God who loves us. So Mary sings that her spirit rejoices in God her Saviour.
And that should be our song, too. The church is not the community of good people, or respectable people. The Church is the community of forgiven people. People who know how great is their need of God, and how great is the mercy that has found them and saved them.
And this gives us the keynote of our evangelism, which is joy. Joy is shot through Mary’s song. Unexpected joy, unlooked for joy, the joy of a glorious sunrise in a night that the world had thought would never end.
Mary, the bearer of the Word in her womb, is the type and pattern of the Church that continues to bear the Word as it witnesses in the world. She shows us how we are to be witnesses to the good news of God’s mercy, how we are to be ambassadors for Jesus Christ.
First, by being God-focussed, with hearts opened in praise, pointing to God and not to ourselves.
Second, by proclaiming the mercy and love of God that has come into the world in Jesus. Mercy and love that are for all people, and we know this because it has found and saved even us.
Third, our praise of God and our proclamation of mercy are to be fizzing up and overflowing with joy, like bubbles in champagne.  That joy is a gift of the Spirit, and it is the stamp and mark of authenticity on our witness for Jesus. Nobody listens to sour-faced saints. But people who are joyful have a message that is infectious.
Think of people like Pope Francis, or Mother Teresa, or Desmond Tutu. People who have seen huge suffering, violence and oppression, and yet are constantly bubbling up with joy. Why? Because they know, like Mary, that God’s love and mercy are the final reality and will have the final word. Joy is not pretending to be happy when we are not. It is confidence in the goodness of God even in the midst of suffering.
And the world changes, when these things happen. God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, sends the rich away hungry. But to those who turn to him in their lowliness he shows his mercy, salvation and love, raising them up in overflowing joy.
So Mary is our model as we set out to be witnesses for Jesus Christ. We are not to be like those the street evangelists who want to prove their own point and turn us into copies of themselves. Instead we are to be bearers of the Word, forgetful of ourselves, hearts open to God in praise, full of joy because God in his mercy has found us and saved us.
And as Mary shows us that model, so too she supports and encourages us with her prayers. She has been taken into heaven. God has fulfilled in her, the type of the Church, the destiny and fullness of the whole Church at the end of time. She is the sign that points us on our way and the guide who shows us how to travel.

Mary, bearer of the Incarnate Word, first evangelist of Jesus Christ, pray for the Church that follows in your steps.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, Trinity 11 2016

(Bible Illustrations by Sweet Media, from Wikimedia Commons)

Genesis 15.1-6Heb 11:1-3, 8-16Luke 12:32-40

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,
for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.
Sell your belongings and give alms.
Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out,
an inexhaustible treasure in heaven
that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
“Gird your loins and light your lamps
and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding,
ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.
Blessed are those servants
whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. 
Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself,
have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.
And should he come in the second or third watch
and find them prepared in this way,
blessed are those servants.
Be sure of this:
if the master of the house had known the hour
when the thief was coming,
he would not have let his house be broken into.
You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.”
Then Peter said,
“Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?”
And the Lord replied,
“Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward
whom the master will put in charge of his servants
to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?
Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so.
Truly, I say to you, the master will put the servant
in charge of all his property.
But if that servant says to himself,
‘My master is delayed in coming,’
and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants,
to eat and drink and get drunk,
then that servant’s master will come
on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour
and will punish the servant severely
and assign him a place with the unfaithful.
That servant who knew his master’s will
but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will
shall be beaten severely;
and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will
but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating
shall be beaten only lightly.
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,

There are four platforms at Manor Park station. Normally the 08.26 London train leaves from Platform 1, but this morning, as there was engineering work, it went from Platform 3. But you would only have known this if you’d paid attention to the departure screen. Which the people running to get from platform 1 to platform 3 as the train came in probably hadn’t done.

That reminded me of this morning’s gospel reading, the master of the house and the thief arriving at unexpected times – you have to be alert, or you’ll miss them. These are parables of God’s kingdom arriving in unexpected and disoreintating ways: a master who serves his slaves, the shock and upset of a burglary.
There is a great theme that runs through our readings this morning: God’s generosity, the generosity of God who unexpectedly stoops to meet us in our littleness.
The generosity of God is something we see in his promise to Abram – later called Abraham – that his descendents would be as many as the stars of heaven. It’s a huge promise, and Abraham doesn’t see how it can happen. He and his wife can’t have children.
Elsewhere in Abraham’s story we we him trying to take control himself, as human beings often do. He thinks, God has promised all these offspring, but my wife and I can’t have children, what shall I do? I know, I’ll have some children with a slave girl. Which he proceeds to do. Remember this is a story from the bronze age, standards of behaviour were different then.
But God says, no, this is my promise, I’m in charge. I’ll do it. So then Abraham believes him, and Abraham and his wife Sarah do then have a son, Isaac, the ancestor of the twelve tribes of Israel.
That promise to Abraham was not, however, for himself, but for the future. It was part of God’s long plan to work out our salvation through the grand sweep of human history. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it this morning, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them”.
And this in spite of all the ways in which Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, kept getting it wrong. God had promised and God would deliver. Their own littleness and inadequacy was no obstacle to God. As Hebrews says, “God is not ashamed to be called their God”. What a wonderful thing that tells us about God. God is not ashamed to be the God of the weak and the stumbling and the inadequate. God stoops to us in our littleness. His promise is what we need.
Faith in God enables us to receive what God promises. Faith is the key. And it is the one we have faith in who matters, not our strength or the strength of our faith.
In a couple of weeks, should the Lord tarry, I’ll be off walking in the hills of northern Italy once more. If I’m walking on a bridge over a river or a deep valley, I have to have faith in the bridge to set foot on it. But it is the strength of the bridge, not the strength of my faith, that matters. Even if my footsteps are faltering and uncertain, if the bridge is sound, I’ll get across.
So it is with God. Our littleness is no obstacle to him. In fact our littleness is necessary if God is to be able to act. If we want to be big and fill up the space and do everything ourselves, that leaves no room for God. Jesus says to his disciples today, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
This is very important. The Church is called to be a little flock. Not necessarily small in numbers, though we should not be anxious if we are. But humble and small before God. Not clinging on to possessions or anything else that might tempt us to be big, and to think that we can build God’s Kingdom for him.
That temptation has occurred often in the history of the Church. In the years of Christendom and colonial empires Christian faith was sometimes imposed by force, or at least by persuasion heavily backed by political and economic clout.
A bit like Abraham having children with a slave girl, because he thought that God needed a hand to keep his promise, the church has sometimes made the mistake of trying to build God’s Kingdom for him. But if we do that we are not being a little flock. We are not being humble and small before God, so as to allow him room to fulfil his promises in his way.
The temptations in our own day are more subtle. Christendom is in the past. We live in a society of many faiths and many secular attitudes as well. A society that assumes equality and opportunity. But sometimes the church seems to act as though it wants the days of Christendom back. We want to be big, to swagger, to make an impact, for people to pay attention to us. But if we do that, we are not being the little flock we are called to be.
Our task is not to build God’s Kingdom. We have our Father’s promise that it is his good pleasure to give the kingdom to us. The Kingdom is his business, not ours. Our task is to be faithful witnesses. To be ambassadors for Jesus Christ. To be attentive to what God is doing, because the generosity and love of God so often come to us in unexpected ways, through unexpected paths.
In the world we live in we must be a little flock, if we are to do that. The church must be humble and small before God, and before what God is doing in this plural and diverse world. All truth comes from God, but can come through many paths. The truth of revelation in Jesus Christ, attested by the Scriptures, of course, and that is central for Christians.
But also the truths of science, of art and culture. The truths that we can see afresh, or even for the first time, through the other communities of faith that share our society. We must be dressed for action and have our lamps lit, says Jesus, because God comes to us at unexpected times and in unexpected ways, and we must be ready to receive him.

The Kingdom is God’s gift, not our construction. But God has promised it and God will deliver – if we are small and humble enough to receive it. “‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

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.