Hidden Figures, Hidden Faults

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A.

How can we know right from wrong?adam-eve-serpent-colour

Our Lord was tempted by the Devil, who even tried to trick Him by quoting Bible verses. But Jesus knew what was truly right, and resisted.

We are unlikely to have a face-to-face encounter with Satan. “But the serpent was the most subtle of all the creatures God had made.” What the Devil began, the World continues. Just as the serpent questioned whether God had forbidden eating the fruit, so the world around us today questions whether our Catholic values are the right ones.

How can we know right from wrong? We might say it’s because of our conscience, and that’s partly true, but how does your conscience know the difference between right and wrong? We have a duty to train our consciences to know what God has said through the words of the Bible and the teaching of the Church.

Before Lent began, I preached about the challenge to tackle those temptations we know we have but don’t want to face up to. Today I want to talk about something different – about our hidden faults. There are things that we don’t recognise as sins because we don’t know the Church’s teaching well enough – or because we aren’t willing to recognise the Church’s teaching as correct.

When the world around us agrees with our Catholic values, that’s a mixed blessing. If we agree that a particular action is sinful, that make it shameful. The sense of shame deters some people from committing that sin, but at the same time it means that other people who did commit that sin might feel too ashamed to come to confession and make a fresh start. On the other hand, when society disagrees that something should be shameful, the church finds itself having to encourage us to swim the other way against the tide of people’s opinions.

The thing is, it’s not up to us to make the rules – that’s the point of the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you say the Eden story is about knowledge. After all, if Adam and Eve didn’t know the difference between right and wrong, how could they avoid sinning? But St John Paul II gave us a deeper way of reading the story. He explained it’s not about knowing the difference, but about who gets to decide what’s right or wrong. We human beings sometimes want to say that something is OK when God’s already said that it’s not OK.

For those of us who have responsibility as employers or managers, this Lent might be an opportunity to look at how we treat our staff. Do we treat our employees in the way we would want to be treated in their place? Maybe you’ve never stopped to see it from that point of view before, but that’s what the gospel requires. This is the heart of what is known as Catholic Social Teaching – which brings the call to “love one another” into the workplace and to wider society.

There are many reasons we might feel afraid of immigrants, from questions about whether some might be terrorists, to concerns about whether there would be fewer jobs left for British people. But it’s not OK for us, as followers of Jesus, to withhold good will from strangers, even when it becomes politically acceptable to oppose immigration.

On sexual matters, too, public views have changed. That old serpent whispers into our society that marriage is really about saving up for the big party. That’s not what we believe, as Catholics. What’s really important in Christian marriage is that a man and a woman make a public promise to each other, to God and to us that they will stay together through thick and thin. If you are a real Catholic, you will get married in church before you start a family, even if you can’t afford the wedding of your dreams. By doing that, you prove that God is more important than money, or what your friends think of you. If you think it’s OK to start a family before you’re married, you’ve fallen for the subtle voice of the serpent, which can take something beautiful – love! – and put it in the wrong place. He failed when he tried to tempt Jesus to jump off the Temple. The time for Jesus to ascend from the Earth only came after he vowed himself to his bride, the Church, at the altar of the Cross.

 

There’s a movie out now called Hidden Figures, telling a story that wasn’t widely know. It’s about how black women mathematicians and engineers helped NASA win the space race. That’s an example of positive cultural change – our Catholic values recognise the equal dignity of workers of all races. Sometimes society changes for the better. But society often changes to say that things are OK when they go against God’s law. We can’t always change the world, but we can always encourage one another to resist the world’s temptations. While the world celebrates hidden figures, this Lent is a time for us to find our hidden faults.

How can we know right from wrong? It’s time for us to go deeper, and ask how God’s Law asks us to behave, in areas we haven’t thought of before or where the world has made us blind. Let’s behave as the saints that God is calling us to be. Let’s change- and BE the good news!

The Enemy Within

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.”

Today’s Gospel reminds us of something Jesus said, something which makes our Christian faith stand out from other religions. We’re asked – no, we are commanded – to be passionately committed to doing good for our opponents.

I could probably end this sermon right now, because I’ve said all that needs to be said. Except… what happens when you are your own worst enemy?

Usually when I preach, I try and say something for everyone. But there are times I share a message which won’t apply to everyone, but will be really important for those who need to hear it. Today is one of those times.

Do you find yourself really difficult to live with? Do you find it hard to love yourself? Do you doubt that you are a fundamentally good person, even if you do things you regret sometimes?

One in every ten people here today will suffer from clinical depression at some time of life. Maybe you’ve already experienced this, or are being afflicted by it right now. Loosely speaking, the sign of being clinically depressed is that you feel sad, hopeless and lose interest in things you used to enjoy – and these feelings continue for a period lasting more than a few days.

If you find yourself in this situation, there’s no shame in getting help from your doctor. Often your doctor will recommend some kind of “talking therapy”, but sometimes the treatment will include antidepressant medicine. There’s no reason to feel ashamed of that, either. If you were an insulin-dependent diabetic, you wouldn’t hesitate to take that injection to restore the right chemical balance. If your doctor prescribes antidepressants, that’s doing just the same kind of job, restoring a temporary imbalance in those body chemicals which affect your mood.

Many of us will never be clinically depressed, but will go through low periods in our life where we struggle with a poor self-image. This week, our parish Connect & Explore groups watched a video where a Catholic mother, Giovanna Payne, spoke about a kind of prayer which lifted her spirits during difficult seasons in her life. Some of us, too, might find it a useful exercise to use the kind of prayers which remind us who we are in Christ: we are loved beyond imagining by a God who died to know us. We can also find many affirming passages in the Bible we can repeat to ourselves in daily prayer: I am God’s workmanship (Eph 2:10); I am a new creature in Christ (2 Cor 5:17); I am raised up with Christ and seated in heavenly places (Eph 2:6; Col 2:12). Or we might take comfort in the traditional Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity in many traditional Catholic prayer books, such as this Act of Hope:

O Lord God,
I hope by your grace for the pardon
of all my sins
and after life here to gain eternal happiness
because you have promised it
who are infinitely powerful, faithful, kind,
and merciful.
In this hope I intend to live and die.
Amen.

As I said at the start of this sermon, what I’ve just shared won’t apply to everyone. But if you find that these kind of prayers are useful to give yourself daily reassurance, then use them as often as you need to!pubenemy

Even if our own feelings don’t drag us down, sooner or later, our bad habits will. We’re less then two weeks from the start of Lent, and to begin Lent well, we need to spend a few days focussing on what we might “give up”. So it’s time to acknowledge that bad habit you’ve been trying so hard not to notice these last few months. Maybe it’s something your husband or wife has been gently nagging you about. Maybe it’s something that makes your children uncomfortable. Whatever it is, you know what it is, because you don’t want to tackle it. You’ve been pushing it to the back of your consciousness. It’s not a big thing – but it’s your thing, and you don’t want to let go.

Jesus said: “CHANGE! And believe the good news.”

I’ve got good news for you. This Lent you can choose to tackle that little thing you’ve been trying to avoid. Be bold! Throw off your chains! Don’t give the Devil his satisfaction!

The Bible today invites us to “correct our brother” when he sins against us. But Jesus also told us to take the log out of our own eye before taking the speck out of anyone else’s. Lent gives us permission to correct our own faults.

So I’d like to invite you to spend the days between now and Ash Wednesday examining your own life, and deciding what your Lenten discipline will be. It might be giving up something – or returning to a diet you’ve let slip. It might be giving up smoking or drinking, whether just for Lent or for good. It might be taking on an extra daily round of prayer, or a weekly stint volunteering in a social project. But pay attention to that small thing you really don’t want to tackle. It’s probably the most important one of the lot.

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.” In that one part of your life where you know, deep down, you are your own worst enemy, show a little love. Even if you don’t feel lovable, be kind to yourself. After all, God loves you – loves you enough to die for you – and God doesn’t make mistakes. And keep on loving yourself, until “love your neighbour as yourself” starts looking like the challenge it’s meant to be!

 

 

Help! I’m a Catholic who wants to evangelise!

You are reading this page because you are a Catholic who wants to share the Good News of Jesus with other people, but you don’t know where to start.

First, congratulations! Trust your instincts. Don’t listen to the people who say “that’s a Protestant thing” or “Catholics don’t do that”. On the contrary, heed Pope Francis who reminds us that all Catholics are called to be Missionary Disciples.

There’s a broad sense in which all the good works done by the Church are ‘evangelistic’. But not all of the Church’s good works explicitly speak about Jesus. There’s a blurred line where evangelisation stops and catechesis begins, at the point where a listener knows Jesus is real and wants to learn more about him. Nevertheless, you know you aren’t called to join the SVP or be a leader in your local RCIA group. You want to evangelise – you want to introduce people to Jesus.

But, how do we evangelise as Catholics? The best place to start depends on your context. Who are you working with and for?

I’m a lone Catholic with no-one else who shares my vision.

Don’t panic! You can do a great deal on your own, because effective evangelisation generally takes place within existing relationships. There are some things you can do to hone your skills at sharing your faith in a way that doesn’t put other people off.

  • Learn to be sensitive to where other people are in their growth towards faith. Read Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples and watch the Proclaim’15 video on Sharing the Gospel Message.
  • Practice giving your testimony – and watch the video on Testimonies.
  • You can volunteer to your parish priest to “mentor” anyone who needs a confirmation sponsor or has expressed interest in the Church.
  • You could get involved as a volunteer with one of the non-parochial Catholic groups which runs faith-deepening activities – groups such as Youth 2000 or Celebrate.
  • You could also get involved with other local Christians running Alpha.
  • There are lots of other ‘lifestyle’ suggestions from the Home Mission Desk.

There are a few of us in my parish who want to evangelize, but my parish priest isn’t interested.

This isn’t unusual. Hard-pressed parish priests might worry that they don’t have time to manage another parish group, or might be struggling to sustain the parish RCIA arrangements and worry about how they would manage if you were successful in your evangelising. Nevertheless, a parish priest has no authority to stop any group of Catholics from meeting and praying on their own private property (see paragraphs 19 and 25 of Apostolicam Actuositatem).

I’ve been asked by my parish priest to start an evangelisation group.

Great! So first you need to form your group and do some general training. Then you need to identify what particular opportunities there are in your parish and get some training and do some planning around your project.

A good starting point will be to watch the Proclaim’15 videos about Vision and Strategy and Parish Teams, and how to share the Gospel message and give a Testimony.  If you are also responsible for organising intercession in support of evangelisation, use the session on Prayer (but if you’re not responsible for that, make sure someone is!)

If your team doesn’t feel very confident, you could run some more extensive training – in 5 sessions you can do Pass It On, or in 18 short or 9 long sessions you can use the Relit Evangelisation Course (that’s not cheap to buy, though).

After basic training, it’s time to decide what kind of project your group will tackle. Here, the Southwark Handbook can be invaluable. You will probably settle on one of three kinds of projects – to reach non-churchgoing Catholics, to reach people with no particular faith background, or to help those who already worship in your parish to move from being mere churchgoers to missionary disciples.

Focus on non-Churchgoing Catholics

Of all the human beings who don’t attend Mass, non-Churchgoing Catholics are the easiest target. They are members of the families of the people who do go to Mass. They are parents at the local Catholic School. They are easy to identify – but hard to shift. Dr Ann Casson’s 2014 research established that young Catholic parents consider themselves “good Catholics” if they are kind to other people and turn up in church at Christmas and Easter.

The Catholic Church’s focus on non-Churchgoing Catholics in England and Wales is branded as Crossing the Threshold and an e-manual is available, as well as a video from Proclaim’15. There are also extensive resources for use around Christmas and Easter.

You may wish to adopt one of the established packages – Keeping In Touch, Landings or Catholics Returning Home.

Focus on non-Catholics

The most challenging project for most Catholics will be the prospect of sharing the Catholic faith with people who have no prior Catholic connections. Pioneering work in this regard has been done by the Seeker Centre at Pantasaph, who have developed an Evangelisation Manual. There is also a Proclaim’15 video. You could run an Alpha, which contains only basic teaching common to all mainstream Christian traditions. If you have a town centre location, you might consider the Nightfever model, or offer some other kind of Prayer Experience.

Focus on evangelising the churchgoers

Many regular churchgoers will fail to understand the need or importance of evangelisation. You may decide that your starting point is to raise support among the congregation before you start to reach outside. There are three Proclaim’15 videos touching on particular groups you may wish to work with:

You may decide that a formal cell-group structure will work in your parish. If so, there are several models available:

Other tools for deepening the faith of a congregation include Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism resources and the video sets from Cafébut remember that education alone may not be enough – parishioners need to be confronted with the challenge of taking God seriously. Some courses (e.g. The Gift) do include a step of personal commitment but a parish mission can help more people take that step, and help to run a parish mission is available from groups like Café and the Sion Community.

I’m a parish priest, but I’m not sure what to do.

Your calling is to be an enabler of evangelisation. Found a team, and let them take the steps above. Your job is to equip the laity – they will connect with people you would never meet in your daily activities. But also have a strategy for your parish with evangelisation as an integral part. If your resources allow it, have some kind of pre-RCIA activity, such as Alpha, running all year round, and some kind of parish “Connect and Explore” fellowship which can help regular parishioners deepen their faith, and also serve as a post-RCIA opportunity. If your parish is too small to do that, you may need to consciously focus on raising the commitment level of existing worshippers, following the pattern of Divine Renovation.

In your preaching, be conscious of the need to draw your congregation on a journey from membership to discipleship. You don’t have time to read a book, so try this short summary of Forming Intentional DisciplesWhen you feel the time is right to issue a more direct challenge, run a Parish Mission.

I’ve been made responsible for promoting evangelisation across a diocese, deanery or cluster.

Great! The most important thing is to resist the temptation to put on some “big event” aimed at unchurched people or non-churchgoing Catholics. Big events only ever work when you have an enthusiastic network of churchgoers ready and willing to invite their non-churchgoing friends to come with them.

There is value in having networking events for active evangelisers to support each other. The wider the area, the lower the frequency. A city might have a monthly gathering for evangelisers – a diocese might have a convention once every year or two.

You can organise regional events to pray for intercession – you can use the Proclaim’15 Prayer Resources, the Mass for the New Evangelisation, or the Masses on pages 810-823 and 1342-1345 of the British & Australian Roman Missal.

Above all, promote evangelisation at the grassroots level – most effective evangelisation is carried out by individuals and fostered by parishes. Promote all the small-scale solutions above and encourage your evangelisers to persevere. May the Lord who has begun the good work in you, bring it to completion!

Who do you think you are?

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.A tree with six logos as fruit - think-bubble, hand, heart, pound sign, envelope, cross

Who do you think you are?

There’s a television programme by that name, which helps celebrities trace their family trees. This can be a risky business! Olympic rower Matthew Pinsent discovered that he was a descendent of King Edward the First! But consumer rights campaigner Esther Rantzen discovered that her great grandfather became a fugitive, accused of serious fraud!

The good news is that our family tree doesn’t define who we are. In the words of Jesus we hear today, we are told that we are “salt for the earth and light for the world”. If we read further in the New Testament, we find other passages which speak about who we are in Christ.

This is Good News! Jesus wants to give us our identity, our security, and our authority.

Did you stop for a moment as you entered this church to bless yourself with Holy Water? If you did, you reminded yourself that you were baptised “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. By baptism, you were made a member of the Body of Christ and adopted as a son in God’s family – yes ladies, that includes you too! You are the body of Christ and individually members of it (I Cor 12:27): your baptism gives you your identity in Christ.

As members of Christ’s body, we are invited to receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. Just before we come forward for communion, we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We ask for our “daily bread”. But what are we asking for? One meaning is “give us what we need for life today”. Jesus told us not to be anxious about the basics of life because our Heavenly Father knows all our needs (Mt 6:24-34). But the word we translate as “daily” has two meanings in Greek, and St Jerome – who made the first great translation of the Bible into Latin – couldn’t decide which one was meant. In his version of St Matthew’s Gospel he chose the other possible translation – give us today our supernatural bread, the bread which has come down from heaven. We believe that every time we receive Holy Communion, our venial sins are forgiven and we are re-connected to Heaven, receiving the Bread of Life which we must eat to inherit eternal life (Jn 6:36-69). Receiving Holy Communion gives you your security in Christ.

To be a full member of the Catholic Church, you must receive three sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation. Here in the West, we usually wait until the age of about 13 for confirmation. But in Kerala, where it is called the “sacrament of anointing”, it is given to babies when they are baptised. In both East and West, the minister declares that this is a “seal” of the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the ancient word a seal was used in the way we use an identity card or passport today. But it’s not our own identity card – it’s God’s! And when we are sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, God promises us power to be his representative in the church and in the world. It was that power St Paul was writing about in his letter today. Being anointed with Chrism gives you your authority in Christ.

So who do you think you are?

Jesus thinks you are the salt of the earth. You have the power to make the world around you a better place, just as salt can cure meat and grit treacherous paths.

Jesus thinks you are the light of the world. That’s high praise, coming from Him! In St John’s Gospel (8:12) He called Himself the Light of the World, and said that if we followed him, we would make it to Heaven. Wow! That’s a challenge! Jesus says you must be the kind of person that if other people imitate your behaviour, they will go to heaven!

What kind of actions is God looking for? The First Reading instructs us to support the hungry and the poor; we do this through our taxes and through giving to charity, in the form of money or the foodbank and clothesbank we have here. We’ll have an opportunity to help some very special people at the end of today’s Mass, when we take a collection to help handicapped children visit Lourdes this Easter.The Bible suggests that for people who don’t know about Jesus, such good works will be enough to get them to heaven (Rom 2:12-16).

Now, it’s also true that Jesus warned us not to show off our good deeds in front of other people – in fact that’s in the very next chapter of the same Gospel (Mt 6:1). He’s concerned that we don’t get proud about our good deeds. But as long as our motivation isn’t to show off, we’re not to hide our Christian actions either – because otherwise we can’t inspire other people to follow us to heaven.

Is it enough to only do good works to help the poor? NO! You are forgetting your identity in Christ.

We are God’s family. We know the family secret, that to have life to the full, we must receive the Bread of Heaven. The example that God wants us to set for others is the example of being people who come every week to receive our supernatural bread! By doing this, we can help people who follow our example find their security in Christ. Remember, Jesus Himself said that if we do not eat of his flesh we will not have life within us! (Jn 6:53)

So who do you think you are?

If you think you’re a good person who doesn’t know Jesus, being kind to needy people will probably get you into heaven.

But if you’re a Catholic and know you’re a member of God’s family, God expects more of you! You are the salt of the earth! You have your identity, your security and your authority from being a brother or sister of Christ our King! But if you lose your saltiness, look out – even God’s identity card won’t get you through the gates of heaven if you claim to be like Jesus but turn out to be a fraud!

 

The Shadow of Death

A gravestone inscribed "In memory of all innocent victims of abortion"Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A – today the parish hosts the SPUC White Flower Appeal.

Who are the people who dwell in the land of deep shadow?

This reading applies to us. Sadly, for the last 50 years, Great Britain has been a land of great shadow – the shadow of death.

In 1945, our nation celebrated its hard-won freedom from the threat of invasion, but in 1967, Parliament decided to make it legal to destroy a child in the womb up to the 28th week of pregnancy. In 1990 the time-limit was changed to 24 weeks – but no time limit would apply to a child which was seriously handicapped in mind or body.

We’re going to hear a lot about this in 2017, because October marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act. (Embryo research has also been in the news this week.) I’m sure we’re all aware of the official Catholic position that abortion is wrong under all circumstances. We know what we’re supposed to believe. But perhaps no-one has ever talked about why the Church reached that conclusion, or why this is so important that we might seek to impose our point of view on people who don’t share our faith.

When it comes to questions of human life, we can look in three directions. We can look to science, we can look to philosophy, and we can look to God.

Science is good at answering practical questions. We can ask at what age a growing baby can feel pain, or survive outside its mother’s womb. We can ask at what age it becomes impossible for an embryo to split into identical twins, or fuse into a chimera. But what science can’t do is tell us what moral value we should put on these findings.

Philosophy is the art of “thinking about thinking”. We live in a society of thinking human beings who have lots of different opinions, people who follow different religions. A century ago, most of our laws in Britain could be traced back to the Bible. Now, lots of people reject the Bible and our lawmakers instead ask how we make laws that leaves everybody free to do whatever they like, as long as no-one hurts anybody else.

That’s usually a good starting point – as long as we agree what we mean by “anybody else”. American politics has been in the news a lot this week, including reminders of the time in the nineteenth century when to be a “person” meant to be a “white person, not a black slave”. In Nazi Germany, Jews, Gypsies and Slavs were famously labelled as Untermensch, or “subhumans”. I’m not talking about race, today, though – our question is when a baby in the womb starts counting as a “person”.

Science can tell us some interesting facts. At about 14 days, the embryo can no longer split into twins. At 17 days, the first nerves are beginning to grow. We know how to keep a baby alive in an incubator when it’s just over 23 weeks old. But science can’t tell me when I became a person. Am I a person because I can think? Am I a person because I can feel pain? If I’m not an identical twin, did I mysteriously become a person at that moment when I was 14 days old and nothing significant happened?

Does the Bible say anything helpful? There’s a law in the Old Testament that makes it clear that harming someone else’s unborn child is a crime, and Scripture includes many beautiful words about how God “knit us together in our mother’s womb”. Throughout the Bible, we keep hearing that human beings are “made in the image of God”, and Genesis tells us that because we are human, we are “very good”. But there is no explicit teaching in the Bible about when we should start having the rights which belong to a human person, or about when a child in the womb is granted its soul.

We do, of course, recognise that Jesus was God-made-man from the first moment when He was present in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and this was noted by Pope St Gregory the Great (Moralia in Job, Book XVIII, Paragraph 85). And in Matthew chapter 18, verse 5, Jesus calls forward a little child and says “when you welcome a child in my name, you welcome me”. We know, therefore, that there is something “holy” about every human person, however young, and in the absence of a clear reason not to do so, our Popes have consistently taught that every child must be “treated as” a precious human person from the moment of conception.

In today’s second reading, St Paul acknowledges that philosophy on its own can’t lead us to what God wants us to know – we have to heed what God has revealed. The golden rule that Jesus taught us was to treat others the way we wish to be treated ourselves. We can all* trace our identity back to a single-celled embryo which was necessary and sufficient to develop into a mature human being. How would you have wished to be treated when you were a single cell?

We do indeed live in a democratic society where we respect the freedom of other people to make their own decisions. But in a democracy, who speaks for the voiceless? Who decides whether a child in the womb is “another person”?

Yes, of course if we insist that human dignity begins at the moment of conception, this takes away options that some unwilling parents may wish to keep open. But in a democracy, we are all responsible for making decisions on behalf of the voiceless, and we remember that Jesus called on us to welcome children in his name. St John Paul II warned us of the dangers of creating a “Culture of Death” which believes that human life can be treated as disposable. He asked us to create a “Culture of Life” which recognises that every human life is made in God’s image, and by sharing the gift of humanity, every human is “very good”.

So, my dear friends in Christ, we have a choice. We can live in a nation which says that you are valuable because you have a certain ability to think your own thoughts, or carry out useful actions, or survive without support. Or, when we are asked to make decisions on behalf of the voiceless, we can suggest that every human being is precious because of their own humanity. Wouldn’t you like to help create a world where every human being is treated with respect because she, or he, is made in the image of God?

Jesus began his teaching by saying “Repent! God’s Kingdom is at hand!” In the same way we must be a voice which declares: “Change your thinking! Treat every human being as beautiful, precious, and very good!” Choose life! And God’s light will once again shine upon our land.

Bonus material for internet readers:

Why does today’s first reading mention the “Day of Midian”? This was also a day when light triumphed over darkness, Gideon’s army winning an unlikely victory by revealing the light they carried hidden in their jars.

Why did I not mention Matthew’s Last Judgement – where Jesus says “whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me”? At first sight, this seems like an obvious passage. Many scholars, however, argue that because Jesus speaks about “the least of my brothers” he is referring to the way we welcome those who share our Christian faith, not vulnerable humans in general. If becoming a “brother” depends on faith, it can only apply to children able to speak. If a baptised infant can be a “brother”, even then, a child must be born before it can be baptised. But the value which Jesus places on a child in Matthew 18:5 clearly does not depend on the child’s personal faith or religious identity.

Nor do I mention the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. In the Old Testament, there are many situations where the death penalty is prescribed for some crime, or when the people of Israel are led into battle against neighbouring tribes. This makes it clear the Old Testament commandment is understood in a qualified, nuanced way. Even interpreting it as “do not kill the innocent” is difficult when cities are put “under the ban” or in the context of the death of the firstborn children in Egypt before the Exodus. But Jesus started from “thou shalt not kill” and extended it to even expressing rage against one’s brother as a terrible sin to be avoided.

* Above, I state for brevity that our unique identity is settled at our conception. This is not strictly true in the extremely rare and exceptional case of true human chimeras where the final identity is not settled until two embryos fuse. But prior to that fusion, it would have been presumed the separate embryos would develop into two mature human persons, and they should have been treated as such. In the case of identical twins, everything to give identity was indeed present at the single-cell stage, except for the characteristic of being a twin, which was settled at the moment of division.

 

Great Expectations: Volunteer (Leadership)

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Epiphany of the Lord, 2017.

volunteerWould you rather be a King or a Wise Man?

Today’s Gospel reading is not easy to translate into English. The New American Bible says the Christ-child was visited by “magi”, which is just an attempt to pronounce the Greek word in English. Our Jerusalem Bible calls them “wise men”. If you’ve been to any nativity plays in our schools, you’ve probably seen three kings with crowns – but nothing in the Gospel says they were kings, nor says how many visitors came; only that they brought three gifts. All that we know, then, is that a group of star-studying scholars from East of the Holy Land came bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Today, we have gathered to honour Christ in this church, carrying our own gifts – and the gifts I am referring to are the talents and abilities God has given us. Around the church, we have six banners representing our six values as a church, and one of them is to “Volunteer” – to use the gifts God has given us for the benefit of others.

It’s important that some of us volunteer outside the Church community, so that we can do good and show God’s love to the wider world. This makes it particularly appropriate that our “Volunteer” banner is near the exit – but I’ll talk about that another day.

It’s even more important that many of us volunteer for Church activities, because there’s no-one except us who are available to do the work of this church. Now, as we settle into 2017, I will invite all of you who volunteer for any parish role to renew your commitment to serve – as readers, extraordinary ministers of communion, and in the many other parish roles we have – we’ll do that at the end of our bidding prayers.

Today, I’d like to focus on a special kind of gift – the gift of being a leader. How many of you are directly responsible for managing other staff members or volunteers in the place where you work? How many of you are responsible for training colleagues when they start working alongside you? Quite a few – so many of us are comfortable at being leaders in the workplace.

But how many of us are comfortable with leading within the Church community? How many of you lead teams and train people for our parish?

One weakness of the Catholic Church is that we’ve become comfortable with leaving all the power in the hands of the parish priest. But one priest can’t directly manage lots of volunteers. We have many volunteers in this parish. On our parish database we have more than 120 people who have some kind of volunteer role – that’s fantastic, because it’s nearly half of the 300 people who come to Mass here on a typical weekend. But volunteers need leaders. When we have members of the parish who are comfortable leading projects, we become a strong and active parish – when everything gets left to the priest, we are throttled by a bottleneck.

Would you rather be a wise man or a king? Wisdom is a gift that God gives to us for particular circumstances, but all of us who are baptised share in the dignity of Christ the King – and whenever we take on a position of authority, in the Church, in the workplace or in our families, we live out our responsibility to be a king with Christ. It’s not without meaning that today’s psalm shows many kings coming to pay homage to one King, and a King paired with the son of a king.

We are called to be a community of leaders, carrying out the work of Christ our King – and the Gospels leave us in no doubt that God will expect us to make good use of the gifts we’ve been given, including gifts for leadership. In today’s reading from Ephesians, the writer of that letter knows that the gift of God’s grace he received was so he could bless other people. When Isaiah writes of “gifts being brought to Jerusalem”, that too has the poetic meaning of putting our gifts at the service of the Church.

Why is it, then, that so many of us, who have the right gifts to lead in the workplace, are reluctant to take responsibility for leading projects in our church community?

Is it that we’re worried about things going wrong?

Sometimes, bad consequences are unavoidable. Despite all their wisdom, the travellers from the East assumed that King Herod would be an ally to the new-born king. Instead, their visit to Herod caused many innocent children to be massacred. God knew this was unavoidable when He sent the star as a sign, yet He allowed it to happen. We mustn’t let unintended consequences stop us from doing good.

Is it that we feel we don’t know our faith well enough?

If we have professional jobs, it’s likely we’ve done full-time study into our early 20s before being given that level of responsibility, and we also take part in continuing professional training. It’s a fair comment, that we need to know our faith better. But that’s precisely why we’re offering opportunities to explore our faith this year – Alpha starting weekly on Tuesday, and our monthly Connect & Explore groups beginning the following week. I’m very excited about the kind of parish we can become when more of us get ready to be used as leaders!

Is there something in us resisting the invitation?

When I was a student worshipping at a university chaplaincy, it was sometimes my responsibility to organise the procession with bread and wine. I found that when I approached students I didn’t know personally, they were quite likely to politely refuse. But if I asked one of the young women to ask them, they would be much more likely to say yes. I can’t imagine why!

It’s easy to make excuses. In our human brokenness, we want to be asked personally, and we like a bit of positive feedback and encouragement from our leader. But that’s precisely why one priest can’t manage everything that goes on in a parish with 120 volunteers. I can give that support and feedback to a small group of leaders – and those leaders in turn can affirm those on their teams. Please don’t wait to be approached personally – recognise that the parish needs you and accept my invitation now. Prepare to be a parish leader!

Would you rather be a wise man or a king? Because of your baptism, you are already a king under Christ and with Christ. As for wisdom, training for volunteers is on offer. You are invited, and the Lord is expecting you. Is this the right time for you to say yes?

The Great Christmas “Sake Of”

Homily at St Philip Evans for Christmas Day 2016.

2016 has been a year marked by big decisions, ones which will shape our future for years to come. I’m sure that this Christmas, many of you are deeply unsettled by one particular leap into the unknown that we’re about to take.

Am I talking about a new American president? No, that’s an ocean away.

Am I talking about Brexit? No, that’s a couple of years off at least, and I don’t want to talk politics today.

What I’m referring to, of course, is the Great British Bake-Off. After the two Christmas Specials, Bake-Off will leave the BBC for good. When it arrives on Channel 4, it will be the same, only different. Who knows what it will be like then?

There’s something very homely about Bake-Off. It’s about ordinary people gathering in a tent, somewhere out-of-the-way, and doing the everyday activity of working in a kitchen. The series winner gets lots of fame, but only a small prize – it’s as much about the taking part as the winning. And I think that makes Bake-Off very Christmassy indeed!

So come with me for a moment to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, a homely tale of a tent pitched in a place where people gather, a story which begins with a bun in the oven and ends in the House of Bread.

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What we’re honouring by coming to Church today is the birth of a child. Greek scholars will tell you that when the Bible says Jesus lived among us, the literal wording says “The Word become flesh and pitched his tent among us.” This tent was not planted in an idyllic country estate, but in the turmoil of the Middle East, under a vast empire controlled from Rome.

What we’re celebrating is not just the birth of a baby. All babies are special. This one was divine. Nine months ago, on the Feast of the Annunciation, the church celebrated the day when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to a young maiden and asked her to become the mother of God. For nine months, the Virgin Mary kept him safe in her womb – there’s an ancient French carol which imagines Mary as a “bakerwoman” who received a grain to bake into golden bread. When we see Christian art, how do we know that a woman is Mary? Often, it’s because she’s holding the Christ-child. You could say that was her “signature bake”.

In ancient Israel, they had a strange custom about bread. Every week, twelve flat loaves were baked and placed on a special table in the Jewish Temple – it was called the “Bread of the Lord’s Presence”. At the end of the week, the priests ate the bread and put fresh loaves on the table. Normally it was kept hidden in the Holy Place where only the priests could see it, but three times a year, on major Jewish holidays, they brought out the bread and showed it to the people. When they did this, the priests cried out: “Behold, God’s love for you!” For the Jewish people, seeing this holy bread was as close as you could come on earth to seeing God’s face.

When did those three festivals take place? They were all festivals of thanksgiving. The Passover marked the first fruits of the harvest and the memory of the Hebrews being rescued from slavery in Egypt; that became our Easter. Seven weeks later, more crops would be harvested; that became our Pentecost. The third took place in late September, and the Jewish people would live in tents or booths for a few days, remembering how they were wanderers in the desert. We don’t have an equivalent Christian festival in September – we are celebrating Christmas now, in December. But we have no reason to believe Jesus was born on December 25th – the Church took over an old Roman festival of daylight triumphing over darkness in winter. Rather, the scholars tell us that the time of year when shepherds would be watching their flocks by night was late September. It was close to when the Jewish people were keeping their festival of booths that we saw the Word become flesh and pitch his tent among us!

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Hebrew name “Bethlehem” means the house of bread. The shepherds came and found baby Jesus lying in a manger. But what’s a manger? The name comes from the French manger, meaning “to eat”. It’s a trough for food. So here’s the story so far: God becomes a small baby, is born in “the house of bread” and is placed in a food trough. This same baby would grow into a man, a religious teacher and healer, who would say “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” All very mysterious! But then, the night before he was taken to be executed, he gave us his showstopper! He blessed bread and wine and told his friends, “This is my Body and Blood. Take it, eat it, drink it. Remember!”

In a few moments, I will use the following words to lead into the consecration of bread and wine on this altar:

For in the mystery of the Word made flesh, a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that as we recognise in him God made visible, we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible.

A “mystery” means something with a deep meaning we can ponder deeply, just as Mary pondered the message that angels had appeared in the sky singing songs of glory before the shepherds came. 3000 years ago, God-the-Father established a rule that there should be “bread of God’s presence” in the Temple. 2000 years ago, God-the-Son was born in the house of bread and asked us to eat and drink his body and blood. This Christmas, I would like to offer you an invitation to enter deeply into this mystery.

In these few minutes, I don’t have time to address some really deep questions. Who is Jesus? Why did he die? How does God guide us? How can I resist evil? How can I make the most of my life? These questions are worth exploring, and these are some of the topics in our parish Alpha Course which begins on January 10th, and runs on Tuesday evenings until Easter. There’s an invitation to Alpha in your order of service.

Yes, we live in a time of great upheaval. Great things beyond our control will change in the world of politics. The Great British Bake-Off will be reinvented by Channel 4. Some will love it, some will hate it. God will not prevent us from experiencing change and uncertainty. But there is one thing that God does offer us – God wants to be with us. In a moment, we will say the Creed, the summary of what all Christians believe, and because it is Christmas, we will pause and kneel down when we hear that God became a human being. But why? It’s what happens next that’s the key. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate” – for our sake. This is God’s love for you. This is the “Great Christmas Sake-Of” – baby Jesus was born to die for your sake. To find out why, I invite you to try Alpha!

Thanks to Alan de Ste Croix for a copy of Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist which partially inspired this sermon.