This week's sermon award goes to one I didn't even hear - my friend Jan came in and asked if I wanted a copy. On hearing who had preached it, my response was "Absolutely!" I'd heard about it briefly during coffee last week and had been intrigued, but didn't want to bother said Father by asking for a copy, though I was hoping against hope that I'd get to see it at some point - or work up the courage after term to ask for a copy...and Wednesday, it falls into my lap. There IS a God.
From my clerical friends, I know that the reading that strikes fear into the heart of the most seasoned preacher is the one where Jesus speaks on divorce...what do you say that won't re-open painful wounds for your divorced/divorcing/separated parishioners, especially when the teaching of the Church is so rigid? It often inspires courage, as it did with one of the MiB up the road 9 years ago, when he preached about the "Church needing to learn"; too often, though - and understandably so, I guess - it becomes an excuse to trot out a defence of the Church's teaching on divorce. It was on this reading that Fr "Current prior, pro librarian" preached his sermon a couple of Sundays ago.
Fr. Prior is, bar none, my favourite preacher...and that says a great deal, not only b/c he is part of an Order known for its preaching and his house presents a great deal of stiff competition, but also b/c I'm a tough Catholic customer. I dislike lazy sermons, sloppy arguments, browbeating, thoughtlessness, any of that. Start off poorly and you'll either lose me or put me in a pugilistic mood - I can't tell you how many sermons I've mentally taken apart by about 6 minutes in. Never, in the years I have heard him preach, have I gone either way during one of Fr Prior's sermons. It's not because I tend to agree with him, though that probably plays a part in my feeling safe enough to open up and listen; my ideologically diametrically opposed friend and I both have hung on his every word. Nor is it because he has a rich, deep voice that is a pleasure to listen to - rivalled only by the ex-Master of the Order and one of his younger brethren now preaching and teaching elsewhere.
No. It's because his sermons remind us that things aren't always what they seem - from nightmares to language, anything and everything is an instrument in getting you to look at things from a different angle, more deeply, with a greater awareness of the nuances and complexity of our faith. Every time I hear him preach, at some point I think, "I didn't know that! How qool!" or "OOOOO, looking at it that way means NOT A and B, but Q, X and Z. Which then leads to..." His arguments are always tight and elegant, and he challenges us and shakes us from our comfort zone - but always with warmth and humour. He reminds us that we can never stay still, that we ARE a pilgrim Church, we are called to grow and move forward to God, we need to be pushed - that faith is ALIVE; it grows and changes. And that is as it should be.
So, how did he approach the ever-so-scary readings? Oh, I wish I could just type all three pages here, but I can't. So I'll try to summarise, using his words where possible. He began true to form:
"What Jesus has to say about divorce in today's gospel will strike many as a hard saying: one that might seem to justify an inflexible stance by the church in the face of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage. But we may be mistaken if we suppose that the meaning of these words is immediately obvious: that Jesus is laying down a simple and categorical law. After all, not much of what Jesus said was immediately obvious. Indeed, earlier in his gospel, Mark tells us that Jesus spoke to the people in provoking riddles, and did not speak to them except in riddles."
He goes on to say that "whatever their theories about marriage may have been, both Jews and Gentiles saw marriage as a human convention designed to achieve certain advantages..."
and moves to take that view apart by taking us back to the Garden of Eden - "God's purpose, Jesus says, is to be found in our first reading, about the making of the earth creature - adam. [in my head, I gave it the Hebrew pronunciation]
"When we turn to that narrative, the first thing we learn about this earth creature is that he is defective. That is very surprising - certainly a clue that all will not be what it seems in this story."
Now we move on to God's realisation that the earth-creature's being alone is a mistake, and he desperately makes creature after creature to ease Adam's loneliness ("We have a picture now of God rather like an anxious parent...") - sans success until he takes one of Adam's ribs and creates for him "a companion and partner who was his equal."
Wow. I mean, purely and simply, WOW. I, personally, have never heard Genesis interpreted in this way - and I've had the benefit of hearing at least a couple of interpretations from clergy of each of the Abrahamic religions. This blew me away - it made sense, at last. It was like a kaleidoscope turning and a pattern falling into place. But it got even better...
"Where our version has Woman and Man, the Hebrew has the same word in feminine and masculine form - isha and ish. And to emphasise the complete equality of the two, the chapter ends, "and the man and the woman were both naked, and were not ashamed." He then spoke of veiling - crossing Jewish, Christian and Islamic cultures, and quoting St Paul's (heinous) verse on woman being the reflection of man, he said, "The veiling of women, in other words, is a symbol of their subjection and inferiority to men. But in our passage from Genesis, the woman is naked, and not ashamed. She is no sense inferior or subordinate to the man, both are equal." It probably IS a good thing I wasn't there on the day - at this point, I might have gone up to the lectern and HUGGED him for that.
Now, we part ways briefly - but only b/c of my personal view. His argument remains solid as he says that Chava's eating the apple ruptured that equality, making her subordinate to man as per God's words. I still tend to think of the story of the Fall in archetypal terms, and original sin is still a big issue for me - but it's MY faith that's at issue at this point - his worldview and argument remain completely coherent.
And the end...well, again, I'll let him speak for himself:
"But in today's Gospel we find Jesus telling us that we must not be content with this consequence of sin, telling us that we should not just reject divorce, but the human convention that marriage became as a result of sin, and pointing us back to that first moment of equality, to the union of equal partners described in the book of Genesis. It is only a union of that kind that can be described as having been joined by God, and therefore indissoluble by man: a union in which each spouse recognises the other as an equal human being and strives for the full flourishing of that partner and companion. Such a union, and only such a union, is fit to be called a sacrament of the new creation, a participation in the work of Christ, who restores, renews and remakes out humanity so that it comes to be as God intended it to be in the beginning."
Amen. I told you it got better - if only you could read it all, b/c the story-telling in the middle is as lovely as everything I've quoted here. And if you're reading it, Father, drop me an email and I'll correct anything I've misrepresented. Just noting the craftsmanship involved in its structure is a pleasure. And if you thought this was good, you should have heard him during Holy Week. Chills up spine kind of preaching.
And to boot, I can think of few other people I'd rather have at my back if I were in real trouble. He's one of the rare people that I've trusted immediately and completely. Doesn't suffer fools gladly, but endless patience if you have a real problem. The kind of person you'd leave your 3-year-old with for an afternoon without a second thought - but you might get a gourmet cooking lesson when you take her home. Always teaching, preaching, fixing, listening...all the things good priests do.
My only reservation is that he's an Aussie that doesn't follow the cricket (hard to believe, I know), so I won't get to test out the theory that Aussies ignore a sporting contest when they're losing. So if, in the middle of the Ashes, he comes up to me and wants to talk about the frog jumping contest in Alice Springs, it won't be because we're winning; it'll be because he's actually interested in which frog won. The rugby, I suspect, might be a different matter...(*she ducks and runs*)
But seriously, Father, this one's for you - thanks for everything you do for all of us, all the time.