‘Dialogue is About Life’ – Archbishop’s Sermon at British Irish Association Conference
Reflection at The Annual BIA Conference Downing College Cambridge
Sunday 8th August 2019 The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
Michael Jackson archbishop of Dublin
Readings: Jeremiah 32.6–15; St Luke 13.6–9
We live in a culture that is corrective and contradictory. Time after time, we are straight in with our own answer – to the question we have just asked of the other person. We have effectively shut down the person with whom we are in conversation or in discourse on our own terms. We hear it time and again on the radio – and then we find ourselves doing it too! It can be elegant and effortless, witty and withering. We can sail through seemingly unimpeded and unscathed. We may never need to stop to think about it, precisely because such interchange is energized by the ricochet of our own echo chamber. And our dialogue–partner cannot say anything to herself other than something like this: Yes, this emperor too has no clothes.
It is a year since Pope Francis visited Ireland, a visit both courageous and inconclusive. This is the world in which we now live and we expect far too much of the very people in whom we delight, the people we turn into unsustainable celebrities in the service of our own ego. The abused remain deeply hurt. The churches continue to serve their members with ever–deepening, and now rightly enforced, humility; and this is a fresh and painful experience for all churches. Churches as institutions remain overwhelmingly pre–secular in a post–secular world. This, as much as anything else, lies at the root of decline. This, as much as anything else, explains why we have very little positive public hearing. It may be of interest to us, therefore, just a year on from the papal visit in August 2018, to hear how Francis himself understands dialogue rather differently from my picture above. To him it is inseparable from friendship. To him it is driven by mutuality, the seeking of truth together. He would go further and say that dialogue is its own end and dialogue puts winning on hold. Almost nobody today puts winning on hold! John Paul ii was a philosopher; Benedict xvi is a theologian. Francis is neither, yet he has single–handedly reconnected the human part of creation with the rest of creation in a way that instantly gets across the urgency of responsibility and the closeness of neglect. For him, ecology is about the community of the created order. For him, ecology and theology are increasingly inseparable. Dialogue is not about words. Dialogue is about life. This perspective puts many of our microcosms into perspective and this shrivels our vanity if anything can.
The culture of correction and contradiction that we now have settled for has brought with it a number of things that make dialogue and ecology difficult for many to take seriously. This is because nothing that we can quantify actually happens. The pace of change has eaten up the space for reflection and our organs of communication push us forward rapidly and relentlessly into ever shallower clichés. The lid is off. The gloves are off. We have become hardened to a coarsening of public discourse, hardened to a deficit of leadership that can claim any sophisticated or compassionate grasp of real representation of those who will never vote for us, hardened to the sublimation of the part for the whole (by the way this is the true meaning of sectarianism), hardened to the numbers game of re–election bounding and panting behind us like a dog that cannot be given enough exercise or food ever to satisfy, and, first and last, hardened to the crudity of power itself. And so we settle for what I can only describe as the crumbs of democracy, wondering when all of the aggression will ever be over. panem et circenses, bread and performances in the circus, are a very contemporary reality. They are not confined to the inebriated days of yesterday’s Roman Empire. They are part and parcel of today’s Global Empire.
It is to my mind quite refreshing to hear Holy Scripture talk in our Second Reading about manure. We can hardly say that this Reading is too heavenly–minded. The version of this story in St Matthew and St Mark is sharper and more brutal. There it results in the outright destruction of the fig tree. St Luke takes a broader picture, a fuller picture, a longer picture, a kinder picture. The fig tree, let us always remember, is a peculiarity, a speciality. It stands in a vineyard, not, if I may call it such, a figyard. The master expects fruit from it but it may in fact be a folly, a vanity project even, unsuited to the soil that vines and grapes need. The master himself may need to be humoured. His admiration turns to anger when the tree fails to deliver. He wants it cut down. This is his prerogative as he is the master after all. It is the person from below, the man from nowhere, but at the same time the person on the ground, the person who can handle manure, who reads nature and volunteers himself to take special care of it; he will dig round it and manure it. Like all good parables, we do not know the outcome, yet we are left with what I call ‘hanging hope.’ And if it bears next season, well and good; if not, you shall have it down. (St Luke 13.9) Aspiration confronts realism and decides to give a second chance.
The First Reading from Jeremiah speaks in almost obsessional detail of Jeremiah’s buying a field from his cousin Hanamel in Anathoth. The importance of this is both territorial and symbolic. We quickly lose sight of the number of sealed and unsealed copies of documentation, such is the concern to convey that this is an above–board and thoroughly legal transaction! This again is an enacted parable. It unfolds before our eyes. The prophets in the Old Testament, as today, were very irritating to the establishment, both secular and religious. They spoke out of turn and they spoke in extremes. They spoke in pictures, so they are perfect for a post–secular and post–modern digital age. But they spoke with inspiration and with justice and they often spoke into a vacuum of corruption and cynicism. In his enacted parable, Jeremiah was pointing to a future that looked impossible to others: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought and sold in this land. (Jeremiah 32.15) This parable is a commitment to an unseen future.
A second chance, an unseen future: these are good things to have and to want. I’d be surprized if anyone here does not see the reach of the old stories into our increasingly confused post–modern world and into our increasingly divided islands. It all depends on whether we want to hear the parables for our own time or want to consign them to the scrapheap of the pre–modern world. A parable is not an amusing tale or a clever observation. A parable is like a whirlpool: the further you get into it, the harder it is to escape its impact and its passion and its hold on you. The prophet and the gardener – the deranged and the servant – hold the ring and point the way forward in a world such as ours today that trumpets equality but anoints exclusion – still, here and now, after all that has happened, all that we have done to one another, after all the cards our cultural, political and religious excuses and supine inertias have dealt us. Parables unlock a reality that otherwise is going to remain hidden. This is what they do.
In our crisis–ridden state, what voices do we hear, what voices do we honour? Have we let ourselves become more beguiled and bullied by the rhetoric of irresponsibility, the silence of inertia and the grandstanding of contempt? The voice from the ground, the hand that spreads the manure, the obsessive cousin, the person who does all the conveyancing with meticulous detail: these people who have become of no real consequence to those who travel Club Class and who expect all of this drudgery to be done for them have largely given up on our gnostic circle of mutual self–congratulation. But they raise their hand and their heart in both protection and in rightness. They have a voice that deserves the honour of being heard particularly when it is not being heard.
Jeremiah 32.13b: … deposit them in an earthenware jar so that they may be preserved for a long time to come.