Monday, February 7, 2011

Epiphany 5 - Fr. Peter Anthony

image from google

Homily given by Fr Peter Anthony, the Junior Dean of the House on Epiphany 5, 6th February 2011. (Readings: Isa 58.1-9; 1 Cor 2.1-12; Mt 5.13-20)


I thought the wikileaks scandal was over, but no this week there has been a further release of American diplomatic telegrams, which I have to confess I have found compulsive reading. There was, for example, one from the American ambassador in Bangkok about the habits of the Crown Prince of Thailand. Principal amongst them is an extraordinary fondness for his pet poodle called Foo Foo. So great is the Prince’s affection for Foo Foo that he has decreed the dog be officially accorded the rank of Air Chief Marshal. And indeed the ambassador reported seeing Foo Foo, dressed in a full poodle sized uniform of an Air Chief Marshal. This all took place at a party which the Prince threw for the dog’s birthday. Foo Foo was allowed to jump on to the dining table and to lap from the water glass of several of the guests, who were unable to do anything about it, as there was nobody present with sufficient military rank to be able to order the dog off the table.

What a crazy parallel universe some people live in. Completely disconnected from reality...entirely out of touch with ordinary people. And yet: isn’t that precisely the same accusation that many make against the Church? The Church is plugged into a way of seeing the world that nobody believes in any longer. The Church is out of touch with most people’s aspirations. And sometimes, when one sees its disputes and schisms reported on the TV, it does seem the Church is not all that far being like Foo Foo the poodle. In the Church, we give each other grandiose titles, do we not, that go with splendid outfits, just like Foo Foo. We, too, have curious ritualized meals together. We too are a hierarchy where bishops, just like Foo Foo the poodle, sometimes can’t be contradicted.

But if that ever were the case, the words Jesus addresses to us in today’s gospel go right to the heart of what we need to do about that. “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” What does Jesus mean by describing us as salt? Whatever analogy he is drawing – he is surely saying that the presence of his disciples in the world, like salt, is crucial. The world cannot survive without salt. Salt is what gives taste and savour. It’s what gives food its bite, its reality. We need salt in our bodies for a whole range of chemical processes. Life without salt is impossible.

And so should Jesus’ disciples be to the world. They will be a sign of a crucial essence without which the world would not be the world – the love of God. The Church will be the sacrament of salvation making Christ present, and drawing others to him.

But Jesus makes it plain that it will be possible for us to prevent his presence being seen in the Church. Through our failings, our neglect, or lack of zeal, we can make the Church seem as useless or as ridiculous as Foo Foo the poodle. And the heart of what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel is that when that happens, we can so compromise the Church’s mission in the sight of the world that we become as worthless as salt which has lost its saltiness: “No longer good for anything...thrown out...trampled under foot.”

What can we do about that? I think the Lord is calling us to remember one very simple thing this morning. It is this: for the Christian community genuinely to be the Church we must somehow make a difference. The Christian vocation is not a heroic Palagian struggle to be perfect or respectable; it’s about others seeing Christ alive in us. Wherever we are, whatever the Christian community is that we’re a part of, those around us must see that Christ present in us makes a difference to the world. Be that through running a soup kitchen and thrift shop for the homeless...or hearing the confessions of grand ladies in pearls and fur. It doesn’t matter what it is. To be authentically the Church, we have somehow to make God’s love present in the context where he has placed us. Christian communities that go wrong, shrink, or become dysfunctional, have nine times out of ten, lost sight of that calling: they become self-serving, introspective and ultimately die – but usually not before they have given Christian faith a bad name.

Why should the Church make a difference in the world? Simply because God wants to make a difference in the world. That’s why he sent his Son to die and rise for us. And until he comes again, we are the ones who are privileged enough, through his Spirit, to be his Body in the world; to be nothing less than the face of Jesus to those around us.