Homily at St John Lloyd, for Easter, 2013
Do you remember Mhairi Spence? She was one of the Team GB pentathletes at the London 2012 Olympics. Like many of the British competitors, she was tipped for a gold medal – indeed, the last possible gold of the games, because the Pentathlon finished just before the Closing Ceremony. So on August 12 last year, Mhairi Spence stepped out. By lunchtime, following the fencing and swimming rounds, she was in ninth place and feeling confident – next came the show-jumping, which was her strongest event.
Then it all went horribly wrong.
In the Pentathlon, horses are assigned to competitors at random, and the one assigned to Miss Spence was not having a good day. Horse and rider simply didn’t click with each other, and soon Spence held the dismal tally of four downed fences and 104 penalty points. Things went from bad to worse in the final combined running-and-shooting event. Golden hope Spence finished at 21st place, a forgotten footnote of British Olympic history.
Imagine being an Olympic failure in those months when the UK was basking in Olympic Glory. Each television report and newspaper article reminded Spence that she was not one of the Team GB medalists. So she ran away – to Australia, where she could be a nobody. Asked what she did for a living, she said she worked as a hairdresser, or for the post office. And for a while, she was able to leave her broken dreams behind.
Easter Day begins for each one of us in the same low place as Mhairi Spence. Hope shattered in one cruel moment, followed by an aftermath of despair. The Apostles, excepting only the one beloved by Jesus, ran away from the foot of the Cross. On Sunday morning, two disciples from Emmaus would begin a forlorn walk towards their home, with nothing but their reminiscences for company.
But in the coldest of winters, we might yet see signs of spring.
Spence found herself on a sailing trip with other tourists, when one said to her: “Did you hear the rumour? They said there was an Olympic Athelete on the island we’ve just sailed from!” A few weeks later, in a conversation with a temporary room-mate, she was forced to admit her true identity. The room-mate “couldn’t get over it, … sharing a room with someone who had competed in London!” Where we see brokenness, others see something of great value. And this can also be true of the way we view our own church.
At this Easter Mass, we will be invited soon to renew our baptismal promises. As promises go, they don’t really sound like promises. I am going to ask you if you believe in God the Father, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit and in the Catholic Church. Surely “believing” something is something to do with ideas we hold in our heads?
This year, the worldwide church is keeping a Year of Faith. And the word “faith” is the key. We are not just declaring that we believe in certain things as an intellectual exercise. We are declaring that we put our faith in God-the-Father, in Jesus, in the Holy Spirit and in the Catholic Church. And that requires action.
If we put our faith in God, we must keep all Ten Commandments, including the one about keeping each sabbath as a Holy Day. If we put our faith in Jesus, we will obey his command to “do this in memory of me”, by participating in Mass. If we put our faith in the Holy Spirit, we will keep asking the Spirit to live within us, to nudge us to be God’s hands, feet and voice in the world around us.
By declaring we “believe” in the Catholic Church, we are also promising to continue placing our faith in our church. This is a very dangerous thing to do – because our church is composed entirely of fallible human beings! They say you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family – and a parish is the family we share under the One Father, who is God.
Sooner or later in church communities, things go wrong. People have arguments. A word or action causes offence. And sometimes we don’t deal with that in the mature way God asks of us. It’s not uncommon for those who feel offended by something at church to move to another parish, or stop coming altogether. Let’s recognize this danger, and renew our commitment to this parish because it is God’s parish, not because of individual personalities or style.
When we renew our promise, today, to put our faith in the Catholic Church, we are pledging to make our parish the best that it can be. We are pledging that if something upsets us, we won’t walk away, but we will deal with the issue. Within a Christian community, if we disagree with another person – even a member of the clergy or parish group leader – we ought to be able to have a civil conversation. Often enough it will clear up a simple misunderstanding; sometimes we can agree to differ about the way a decision could have gone.
Sometimes a priest, deacon, or lay leader will have been having a bad day and will be only too happy to apologise as soon as attention is drawn to the hurt which has been caused. When her horse had a bad day, Mhairi Spence could only regret its behaviour. But when we have a disagreement, we have the power not only to regret, but also to reconcile. It is part of the commitment we renew today, to believe that within this community, we can reconcile with one another. A parish where people walk away is no advert for the Gospel. A parish where people love each other enough to work through their problems is a sign of hope for the world.
Mhairi Spence did run away, to the ends of the earth – but it was there that she realised that she’d made the wrong decision. Running away would neither make her happy, nor quench the desire for Olympic gold which still blazed in her heart. So she came back. Running away is never the answer – in life, in sport, or in God’s church. But Jesus came to remind us that when we run, the Good Shepherd runs after us, and the Forgiving Father opens wide his arms awaiting our return. Whenever this happens in the life of a church, the dying and rising of Christ is lived out all over again.
Jesus Christ, whose death on Friday brought fear and despair to us all, is risen and lives beyond the reach of death for ever. He invites us to become not a parish of brokenness, but a community of reconciliation.
Just last week, Mhairi Spence was competing in the Pentathlon World Cup in Rio de Janiero. She’s not yet back in the medals, but she is in the competition.
In a few moments, we’ll renew the vows of our baptism, promising to live as members of the Catholic Church – committing ourselves to this parish and to making it work in the best way possible. This is also a competition – it is one we have to re-enter each Easter, and the Lord has rich prizes for all who run the race to its conclusion. Are you in?