The End and the Beginning

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Revd Gareth Leyshon came to St Dyfrig’s Parish, Treforest, as a deacon in October 2006 and was ordained priest in St Dyfrig’s on 5 May 2007. He will move to become Parish Priest of St John Lloyd Parish in Cardiff on Tuesday 25 September 2012.

An end is coming, and a new beginning. A dying, and a rising. A going, and a coming.

Our Lord Jesus prepared his disciples for his death, and for what was to come after.

This weekend, it falls to me to prepare you for my departure, and for the blessings which are to follow.

We have journeyed together over the last six years in the life of this parish, a journey with a clear beginning, a middle, and an end.

In the beginning, in October six years ago, I came to you as a deacon – not yet in charge of the parish, but as a preacher among you. So you won’t be surprised if even on my last weekend, I start by breaking open the Word of God.

Today’s first reading presents a striking figure – a gentle man, who acts rightly, and annoys other people by his words and actions. Someone who chooses not to cut corners, someone particular about following the rules. This man is part of a community who share a religion, who share an understanding about what God expects of human beings. But most of the members of the community struggle each day. Will they do what they are told God expects? Or will they settle for what they can get away with in practice? The community members make excuses: “God couldn’t really expect us to do that – it’s too difficult.” The trouble is, the virtuous man is doing it – proof that it’s possible!

On the day I was ordained Deacon in the seminary, the Bishop placed the Book of Gospels into my hands with the following words: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”

As a preacher of the Gospel, there’s a solemn duty upon me to live out, in my own life, the standards which I proclaim from this pulpit. I hope that, at times, I have annoyed you. If I haven’t annoyed anyone, then I haven’t been doing my job. We are all angels with feet of clay, needing to be reminded each week of the high standard of Christian living to which God calls us. And why? For one simple reason, so that when we meet God on the day our life ends, we can receive the smile of God and rejoice in the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” We don’t do good to earn our place in Heaven. We do good because it’s the right thing to do, because it serves the needs of others, and because it stores up a greater reward for the place in Heaven which is already ours by God’s mercy.

Five Pastoral Purposes from Des Robertson's Build Up Our Parish website

The middle: soon after I was fully responsible for leading this parish, I invited Des Robertson to work with us. Des reminded us that the work of God includes five distinct activities: telling or reminding people of the message of Jesus; preparing them to be full members of our community; planning and celebrating our acts of worship; growing in head-knowledge and heart-knowledge of God; and serving the poor in our local and global communities. We tried to set up five working groups in the parish,one for each purpose, with mixed success. Des encouraged us to adopt a radical prayer to pray as a parish: “Here I am Lord – use me as you will.”

In due course, we chose to adopt a less challenging parish prayer, asking the Lord that we might know Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly, day by day. You might ask yourself today: “How have I come to know, love and serve God better over these last six years?”   My prayer for you is that each one of you will reach a stage in your own relationship with God when you can choose to pray daily, “Lord, use me as you will”.

St James’ letter reminds us that the way we pray is a good reflection of what we really want in life. It also talks about ambition, and how it can lead us away from what God wants for us. That reminds me of the time a friend in seminary asked what my “clerical ambition” was. I think he expected an answer like “becoming a bishop” or “getting a doctorate in theology and becoming rector of a seminary”. But I gave the only honest answer I could give, and the answer is the same now as it was then: “to serve the people entrusted to my care to the best of my ability and in the way most pleasing to God”. That’s what I have tried to do for you in these last six years, and that’s what I shall do for the new parish which Archbishop George is now entrusting to me.

This, then, brings us close to the end. I am very proud of some of the things I leave behind, and not because they’re MY work, but because they’re OUR achievement, priest and people working together. Foodbank. SVP. Small Faith Groups. The Saturday Vigil Mass hymn planning group. Catholics Returning Home. These have only happened because we’ve embraced these projects with our hearts and minds. I believe that when God looks down from heaven at St Dyfrig’s, what he sees is not peeling paintwork, but open and generous hearts.

As a parish, I invite you to continue the journey of faith. From Tuesday you will have a new Parish Priest, and change naturally brings with it uncertainty and fear. The Disciples of Christ were most unwilling to hear that he was going to leave them, but the Lord assured them: “It is better for you that I go away. If I do not go, the helper whom God will send to you, cannot come.”

As your new pastor comes to the parish, I can do no better than repeat the words of Our Lord: “Do not be afraid!” Change won’t be easy, but it will be good, for the heart of the Gospel is this: you are one of God’s growing children. Accept change as a gift, and believe God’s Good News!

Suicide has no place in a town called Mercy

Spoiler warning: Contains reference to the Doctor Who episode first broadcast 15 September 2012, “A Town Called Mercy.”

I love Doctor Who. When I was young I started watching at the end of the Tom Baker era, and since the 2005 revival I have been an avid watcher. As with all science fiction, Doctor Who explores human dramas and moral situations; as drama for family entertainment, I watch with the expectation that while I might not agree with all the moral decisions portrayed, the drama will be “wholesome”.

Last Saturday, for the first time that I can remember, I was left feeling disturbed by the plot, and seriously doubting its suitability for a prime slot for family viewing.

In a nutshell, the plot is this:

  • Fugitive, guilty of war crimes, takes refuge on Earth, and atones for his wrongdoing by becoming physician to a wild West town.
  • Avenger arrives seeking Fugitive, threatens to kill townsfolk who get in the way.
  • Fugitive commits suicide.
  • With no-one left to wreak revenge upon, the Avenger’s life risks losing purpose, but is redeemed by becoming the town’s protector.

Was there a strong narrative strand emphasising the value of the fugitive’s life? The town’s Marshall was fatally wounded by jumping in front of the Fugitive when the Avenger took a shot, and one of the Doctor’s companions (Amy) spoke against handing over the Fugitive. But after the Fugitive’s suicide no significant regret for his passing was shown on screen.

As presented, the episode appeared to portray suicide as an acceptable solution for a person wracked by guilt and aware that his past crimes have created problems for others.

Similar themes have appear in other science fiction dramas, but for family viewing, one would always expect some kind of redemptive element – for instance:

Fugitive sets off to lead the Avenger away from the innocents, and is killed or wounded in the process.

or: Fugitive attempts to commit suicide or surrender to execution, but the innocents intervene to broker a fair solution for all parties.

or: Avenger attacks innocents, who sustain casualties but deal with Avenger in a satisfactory way. This may lead to the Fugitive committing suicide wracked with guilt over the death of innocents, but their sacrifice sends the message that some valued the Fugitive’s life.

Now it’s true that the last of those was included in last Saturday’s Doctor Who episode insofar as one man took a fatal shot intended for the Fugitive. But the story’s momentum did not dwell on the Marshall’s sacrifice and was counterweighted by the way the town came to accept the Avenger as their protector.

A second theme running through the episode was the philosophy “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

The townsfolk of the “town called Mercy” generally hold this and point to the name of their town, but with their own lives at stake were willing to become a lynch mob to deliver up the Fugitive.

The Doctor himself is shown agonising over the fact that his previous acts of mercy have left villainous aliens free to harm others.

Remarkably, in this episode, the Doctor picks up a gun and threatens to shoot the fugitive. Last time we saw the Doctor so tempted was when his own daughter had been (apparently) fatally injured and the presentation drew attention to the fact the Doctor was “the man who never would“.

But this week’s episode weakly had his companion comment “This is what happens when you travel alone too long” – highlighting the Doctor’s dark side but hardly providing the moral weight required.

Now, perhaps the latest episode is part of a story arc which will find moral resolution later, but as a stand-alone episode it offers the bleak presentation of suicide as the resolution of a moral standoff. Any professional who works with children in modern Britain will be aware of the Paramountcy Principle which places a child’s well-being above all other legal considerations. The BBC Editorial Guidelines acknowledge that young people might imitate suicides shown on television. In this case the method will not be imitated (spaceships with a self-destruct mechanism not being common on this planet) but the behaviour might… a young person wracked with guilt and feeling responsible for causing harm to others might turn to suicide as a solution.

Those who do not agree with the Catholic Church’s stance against suicide might well recognise the claim of the Paramountcy Principle to limit artistic freedom, at least for programmes aimed at an audience including children. This episode required, at the very least, a narrative emphasis on the value of the Fugitive’s life and at best a more intelligent solution to the stand-off. Otherwise, as a morality tale highlighting the dismal outcomes of life’s grey areas, its chosen solution demanded a slot, unworthy of Doctor Who, beyond the watershed. But the episode has been broadcast, and as the Doctor would say, “You can’t change the timeline once you are inside it.” Not even a time machine can redeem the situation now.

Faith, Without Works, Is Dead

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Today’s sermon was a prelude to the lay appeal for financial and personal support for the local branch of the SVP September is SVP Awareness Month.

Two friends – let’s call them Faith and Charity, though those were not their names – fell into conversation one day. Both acknowledged that they had not led perfect lives, though neither of them were criminals or bad people.

Faith said to Charity: “On the high mountain there is a monastery, where for one month each year the Abbot pronounces a pardon of all sins. We should climb the mountain, receive the Abbot’s blessing, and renew our relationship with God.”

Charity agreed to travel with Faith on this journey, and so they began to climb the mountain. As they reached higher levels, the weather became colder and colder, until their fingers were numb and their teeth were chattering.

At length, they came to a place where a human body lay on the path, stiff and unmoving, but with a flicker of life still in his eyes.

Charity said: “We must take this stranger with us to the monastery.”

But Faith replied: “This pilgrim is as good as dead already. If we attempt to carry him, he will slow us down and none of us will reach the monastery alive. The month of pardon will end soon, and if we do not reach the monastery in time, the Abbot will go into his hermitage for the winter retreat: we will not receive our pardon.”

With that, Faith hurried on up the mountain path, confident of arriving and receiving the promised blessing. But Charity took pity on the dying man and lifted him on to her back. Wrapping his legs around her shoulders, binding him tight with cords, she slowly continued her burdened journey up the mountain path.

As Charity climbed higher, the air grew more and more bitter, and she lost feeling in all her extremities. Yet the heart of the burden on her back still beat, and a wonderful thing began to happen: as the heat of Charity’s body warmed his, his breathing became stronger and stronger, his body heat warmer, until each kept the other from perishing in the cold.

At length, they came across a figure, stiff and frozen at the side of the path. Faith, without the heat of a burden to protect her, had perished in the cold. Charity examined her, but there was no hope to be had, and Charity climbed sadly on.

Only an hour later, Charity and her patient arrived at the mountaintop monastery, as the final service of pardon for the year was about to end. The monks tended to the rescued man, and Charity was taken to the Abbot to receive the very last pardon of the season.

As was customary, after pronouncing the pardon, the Abbot spoke a word of wisdom to the pilgrim. This is what he said.

“Charity, when you return home your life will pass through different seasons. There will be occasions when you have little time to do good works. Your priority will be to help those whose work and family life lies alongside yours. At those times you must ‘help as you go’, as you did for the man you rescued. But there will also be seasons in your life when you have more liberty, and those times you must ‘go and help’, seeking out those in need to offer them the love of Christ, for this is what He has commanded us to do.”

“Because of your good work, you were able to arrive here safely at the place of pardon. As you return to daily life, you will pass the body of your friend at the side of the mountain path. Let that image remain with you always – for it will remind you powerfully that Faith, without good works, is dead indeed.”

Adapted from a story by William Rix in Complete Quotes and Anecdotes (ed. Tony Castle), p. 145.

Discriminating Catholics

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B – Racial Justice Sunday and the closing weekend of the London 2012 Paralympic Games

What will make the news headlines this weekend? With the closing of the Paralympic Games, we can expect stories about Britain giving people with disabilities their rightful place in society, and whether “disability” is the right word in a competition all about demonstrating sporting ability! The GB athletes wear the same strip whether they’re Olympic or Paralympic competitors.

The positive vibe about the Paralympics shows us how Britain’s changed over the last generation, a change reflected by, and partly driven by, our politicians. There’s much that we can cheer about: there’s something profoundly Christian about taking those who are excluded from society and ensuring they become included. Today’s Gospel is the story of a man doubly excluded – not only through deafness, but also by being a Jewish man living in Gentile territory. In this particular story his restoration is through an act of healing, but the story is as important for its message of inclusion as it is for showing the Lord’s miraculous power to heal.

Two years ago, Parliament passed an Equality Act which brought together rules about several different kinds of discrimination. Having a single set of laws makes things easier for employers, but also hides the fact that there are lots of different issues in the mix.

Part of the Equalities Act concerns the assumptions we make about people’s ability to do things. If we notice that someone is of a particular race, or is old, or happens to be a man or a woman, we might leap to the conclusion that they would be better or worse at certain tasks. But when what we see isn’t relevant to the tasks, we become corrupt judges, just like the recipients of St James’s letter. No, we must judge each applicant on merit, not by our prejudices.

Another side of our Equalities legislation recognises that genuine constraints exist. Disabled persons, by definition, are less able to do certain things. We in Britain have decided that, as a society, it’s important to use a share of our resources to make our jobs and public services accessible. Over the last few years here in St Dyfrig’s, we’ve installed an access ramp at the main church door, placed a hearing-aid loop in the Hall, and made large print hymn books available for services. We’ve done this not only because the law requires us to make reasonable adjustments, but because it’s a very natural thing for a Christian community to want to make its activities as accessible as possible.

Genuine constraints, protected by law, also exist around pregnancy and childbirth. It might surprise you to learn that the official position of Blessed John Paul II was that employers must not discriminate against female employees – in fact, he went further and called for employers to respect and accommodate whatever work-life balance each working mother felt was right for her own mix of duties in the workplace and as a mother. This does create practical problems – on the radio this weekend, Lord Tebbit mentioned the difficulty of having to accommodate maternity leave – he employs two carers for his wife’s physical needs and is worried about the extra expense if they should require maternity cover. The tension is genuine. We’re challenged to ask whether we really believe that being a wife and mother is such an important part of a woman’s dignity that society at large, and employers in particular, should be required to invest in it. For Pope John Paul, the answer was clear!

Also in the news this week are test cases about four Christians who believe they are victims of religious discrimination. Two, a nurse and an air stewardess, had been told they couldn’t wear a cross at work. The other two, a relationship counsellor and a registrar for marriages, wished to avoid endorsing homosexual relationships. And here we find the third aspect of our Equalities law: protection for people’s preferences about sexual relationships and about religion. Both headings concern deep-seated feelings or beliefs which affect the way people interact with society. British law no longer considers any kind of sexual relationship among consenting adults to be intrinsically immoral. But it also protects the right of religious believers to “manifest their beliefs”. Many religious believers within and beyond our Church hold that, whatever temptations or psychological pressures may exist, no person should act out a sexual relationship except with their own husband or wife, in the traditional sense.

Sooner or later, my freedom to act as if certain actions are always wrong, is going to clash with your freedom to carry out those actions. Our law-makers will be forced to make a choice in future legislation, to come down on the side of conscience, or on the side of unfettered freedom.

If conscience prevails, it will be legal for state employees to say, “I’m very sorry, but because of my personal deeply-held beliefs I can’t help you with that” – and managers will be required to employ such people alongside non-objecting colleagues: turning them down would constitute religious discrimination. We could choose to make British culture one in which this is politely accepted, because we believe it’s important to accommodate religious beliefs we don’t agree with. Any client denied service would nod sadly, not agreeing but understanding, and move on to the next window for help.

If freedom prevails, our lawmakers will have decided that certain actions are so clearly right that religious believers can’t have full freedom to act as if they’re wrong. Such believers will have to compromise by carrying out actions they believe are immoral, or else by excluding themselves from certain jobs and voluntary positions. This risks creating a Britain where certain ethical positions are held to be more important than traditional religious beliefs. Today, registrars and counsellors are required to act as if homosexual relationships are moral. Tomorrow, might we see Catholic doctors being required to participate in euthanasia or else quit medicine?

Some months ago I wrote to our local MP concerning Government plans for defining homosexual relationships as “marriage”. The reply I received was little short of a rebuke, implying that I was a bigot who wanted to deny couples their happiness on irrational grounds. I don’t expect our MP to agree with the Catholic Church’s position on everything, but I did expect some show of respect for religious beliefs. Instead, it alerted me to the fact that at least one MP believes that unfettered freedom is much more important than having regard for the consciences of Christians.

In this delicate area, we must make sure that we continue to act as Christians. It’s a cliché to say “hate the sin, love the sinner”, but like many clichés, it’s true.  The only kind of action we are permitted to discriminate against, is sin. We condemn the action, while extending love, care and concern to the person carrying it out.

Meanwhile, since you are followers of Jesus, there is one person you are permitted to discriminate against. If a stranger takes your regular pew, you are permitted to say to yourself: “I must act as if I’m less important than this guest in our community. I must be the one who moves to a different place.” You know that you are called to repay evil with good, to love your enemy, and pray for the one who persecutes you. Yes, you have the right to better treatment, but you are not obliged to claim that right. As a follower of Jesus, the one person you may choose to deliberately disadvantage is – YOURSELF!

Beautiful, Yet Blemished

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

When I decided to become a Catholic, I didn’t know a single Roman Catholic, except the Irish builder who’d done my family’s loft conversion – and he’d never talked about church.

Yet before I knew a single Catholic personally, I chose to belong to this Church. I chose to belong to this Church because of what I read in books and encyclopaedias.

I read in the Bible that Jesus said, “This is my Body. Do this in memory of me.” I read in the encyclopaedia that while Protestant chapels said the bread didn’t actually become His Body, and Anglicans were divided on the matter, the Catholic Church had always insisted that Jesus meant exactly what he said.

I learned how Catholics not only prayed to Jesus, but also asked the prayers of the saints, and of Mary Mother of Jesus. I read of how Mary had appeared at shrines such as Lourdes and at Fatima, inviting us to pray the rosary. So I made a rosary out of knotted string, so I could do what Mary had asked for.

I read in the Bible that Jesus called on his followers always to look out for one another’s needs, always to forgive each other when things went wrong, and to build a strong community where no-one could get overlooked or ignored.

The Church I read about was beautiful.

When I became a Catholic, I started meeting real live Catholics for the first time. Then I went to University and met more, many more.

Lots of Catholics seemed unsure about whether Jesus was really present in the Blessed Sacrament and in the Tabernacle.

Lots of Catholics hardly ever prayed the rosary, if at all.

There were many occasions in my twenties when I felt quite overlooked and ignored in the places I worshipped. Where were all these Christians who had been taught to reach out to strangers and make them welcome? If they were reaching out, they weren’t reaching as far as me!

There was a gap – a gap between the textbook version of the Catholic Church, and the one I met in reality. But were the books wrong, or was the old saying true? “Do not adjust your set – there’s a fault with reality!”

The Church I discovered in practice was blemished, the beauty lying hidden underneath.

There is no one way of being a Catholic, but there are better ways and poorer ways.

For each one of us, the way we practice our Catholic faith is a mixture of ideas we have received in words, and of imitating other Catholics’ actions.

Some of us gathered at this Mass learned how to be Catholic from our families.

Some of us gathered at this Mass learned how to be Catholic from attending RCIA.

Some of us gathered at this Mass learned how to be Catholic through private instruction from a priest, and through the example of those who gather in this Church each weekend to worship. We may not realise it, but each one of us here, through our behaviour in Church, is a tutor to new and aspiring Catholics.

We must be careful in choosing our role-models! What Catholics do do isn’t always what Catholics, or indeed any followers of Jesus Christ, should do. In the saints, the Church places before us examples of Christians who found different ways of living out the message of Jesus in daily life. But in the community around us, we see ordinary human beings, struggling with temptation, striving to live the message of Jesus – and not always managing it.

The Pharisees had got their priorities wrong by falling into a similar trap – they were emphasising human customs and not attending to the commandments of God. They were imitating what other Jews before them had done – but those customs were not rooted in God’s Law.

Our first reading comes from Deuteronomy, the book in which Moses reminds the chosen people of God’s Law. The passage we heard today is followed by a warning to “teach this to your children and your children’s children”. Moses knew that the memory of God’s presence would fade, and unless the community made a conscious decision to remember God’s words and teach them to each new generation, God’s beautiful message would gradually become hidden under the blemishes of people choosing to do their own thing.

This week, those who wish to become Catholic or be confirmed as adults will begin a new journey in faith, taking time on a Tuesday evening to consider in depth what God is asking of them.

This week, you will be invited to consider how our society should use money, in matters of fair wages and just taxation, in a talk on Wednesday evening.

Next weekend, those who wish to deepen their faith by being part of a small group, meeting to look more deeply at God’s Word, will be invited to gather at a barbecue.

These three events offer us an opportunity to explore the roots of our faith in company with others. Or we can choose, in our own time, to pick up the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the letters of the Popes, and read for ourselves the teaching which they give.

“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves,” says St James. There will be times when what we read in God’s Word doesn’t match the behaviour we see in other members of our community. We’ll be tempted to go along with what the people around us are doing. But that doesn’t always match what the Word of God is asking of us.

I wonder what God’s Word will say to you? And where you will go to hear it? When we seek out God’s Word and choose to live it out in person, we restore beauty to God’s church. When we mistake our own ideas for God’s Law, our church becomes more blemished. The beauty of our community, of God’s Church, depends on you!