Only by Grace

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

I’d like to begin with a story. It’s about Paddy – a man who was very active in his church community, and died in his 70s.A cartoon showing a queue of people at the Pearly Gates

When Paddy reached the Pearly Gates, he expected them to swing open in front of him. Instead, he was rather bemused to find St Peter standing in front of him with a clipboard.

“OK,” said St Peter, “here’s how it works. In order to get into heaven, you need 100 points. You tell me all the reasons we should let you into heaven, and I will add up the points.”

“Right,” said Paddy. “For starters, I have never missed Mass on a Sunday. Every weekend of my life, I’ve been at church.”

“Excellent,” said St Peter. “One point.”

Paddy’s face fell. “Only one?” he thought – but he didn’t say it out loud.

“I’ve always supported church,” said Paddy, “and ever since I started earning a decent wage I’ve given 5% of my income to church. And I used Gift Aid!”

“Great,” said St Peter. “That’s another point.”

Paddy was beginning to feel rather desperate now. What would earn him another 98 points? He had one more thing…

“I’ve always been a peacemaker,” he said, “stepping in to stop fights. And if I’ve been arguing with someone, I’ve always been the first to step forward to make up.”

“Wonderful,” said St Peter, “the boss is really keen on that sort of thing. That gets you another three points – you’ve scored five so far.”

“FIVE POINTS?” scowled Paddy. “For all that, just five? If I’m ever going to get through those gates, it will only be by the grace of God !”

At that moment, a fanfare played and the gates opened. “That’s the correct answer,” said St Peter, “only God’s grace is worth 100 points. Come on in!”

If we wish to become saints – and if our goal is to enter heaven, then we must all plan to become saints – our first step is to recognise that we need God’s help. “Grace” is just a fancy name for God’s help. When God gives help to people who don’t deserve it, that’s called “mercy”.

It’s easy to get the wrong idea about “mercy”. There’s a playground game where children wrestle until one shouts “mercy” because it hurts; or in a movie, the bad guy might have some terrible torture to inflict on the victim, who calls out for mercy. Do we really believe God is like a Hollywood villain, out to punish us?

It’s true, there’s a prayer which we might have learned to use in confession, where we acknowledge that because of our sins, we deserve God’s “dreadful punishments”. This might fool us into thinking that God is some kind of sadist who delights in handing out justice. But we know that Jesus came to show us that God is the most loving of Fathers, who always wishes to forgive rather than punish. And how do we obtain that forgiveness? We do what the tax-collector did in today’s Gospel! We cry out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Why, then, did the Church ever come up with a prayer which talks about “dreadful punishments”? It’s because we know that, like Paddy, we could never deserve to go to heaven because of our good deeds. Only someone who had never committed a sin in their life could deserve to go to heaven. No sinner could be worthy to spend forever in God’s company. But if we missed out on being with God – if we know there is a God who loves us, and yet we are separated from Him for eternity – that would be truly dreadful! So that prayer is a reminder that none of us deserve to go to heaven. Heaven is a gift – a grace – a free gift offered to us by the Heavenly Father who loves us.

Of course, we should try to do the right thing. Today, at our Harvest celebration, we will shortly present our gifts of food to give to the local FoodBank. It’s important that those of us who can afford to give something away, give food for people in our local community who have fallen through the gaps in the help the State can provide. It’s one of the many good deeds we do as church members, working together for the good of our community. But a couple of weeks ago, St Luke reminded us that we shouldn’t boast about doing things like that – because we are only useless servants who have done the duty expected of us!

Our Lord was not impressed with the Pharisee who listed all his good works. Like Paddy, however many good deeds we can list, we can’t boast of being good enough to deserve heaven. What we can boast of, is this: Jesus loved us so much that he opened the gates of heaven by taking on himself the dreadful punishments that our sins deserve. And we do boast about this – we boast by singing hymns. It’s the amazing thing about graceWhen I Survey the Wondrous Cross spells it out clearly in the words: “Forbid it, Lord,that I should boast, save in the death of Christ my God!”

We need to boast even louder! The Catholic Church is famous for demanding high moral standards – and notorious for cases where its leaders and members have failed to keep them. We must become even more famous for proclaiming that we believe in a God who doesn’t want to hand down dreadful punishments but gives a second chance to everyone who asks for mercy. So let’s rejoice in God’s mercy. Let’s humble ourselves by recognising that we are sinners. Let’s give thanks to God by offering our gifts to the FoodBank and by wholeheartedly celebrating this Mass. And let’s go home knowing that if we have done all this, we will certainly be at rights with God!

Today’s story is not original! You can find versions online by Carey, Mascarenhas and that most prolific of authors, Anon.

The Attitude of Gratitude

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

The Lord be with you. – And with your spirit.

Lift up your hearts. – We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. – It is right and just.

Did you notice what you just said? I proposed that we should all, together, give thanks to God. And in reply, you told me that this was the proper thing to do – and more than that, God deserves it!

Saying “Thank You” is something we teach children until it becomes automatic. But the words “Thank You” become a polite phrase rather than a heartfelt expression of gratitude. If we really want to show thanks, we do something special – sending flowers, or a card.

Today’s readings are all about the attitude of gratitude. Na’aman the Syrian and the Samaritan leper were both clearly grateful for the cures they received from God. Na’aman takes two buckets of earth home with him – he thinks he can only pray his thanks to the God of Israel by standing on Israeli soil!

Jewish law was full of rules about thanksgiving. The main Jewish feasts, at Passover and Pentecost, and the autumn Festival of Booths, were the times when different crops were harvested. The first fruits of each farm could be offered to God at the Temple. When an animal gave birth to a firstborn male, that too had to be sacrificed.

For centuries, when most Christians lived off the land, Harvest was a major celebration in each village church. Now, though, we’re in danger of taking things for granted. There’s food in the shops, and power at the flick of a switch. We know that biology and chemistry can explain how and why plants grow in the way they do.

Unlike our ancestors, we don’t rush to say that life’s a miracle which only God can explain. Slowly but surely, Christian harvest festivals became less and less about giving thanks, and more and more about giving food to those in need. We might still sing the words, “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above…” – but they might not ring true in our hearts the way they did for our grandparents.

It’s certainly good to give food to those who are without. At the end of this month, we’ll celebrate Harvest here at St Philip Evans. In support of our local Foodbank, I’ll ask you to bring in long-life foodstuffs – there’s a list in the newsletter of what’s most useful. Foodbanks provide emergency food when a caring professional recognises that a family in need will have to wait a while before the welfare state catches up with them. You can read more in the newsletter or online, and I’ll say more about Foodbanks at the end of the month.

But let’s not fall into the trap of thinking Harvest is all about giving food to the needy. When we pray the Creed, we call God the Creator – and even though we understand a great deal of the science of HOW plants and animals work, our Christian faith tells us it’s still God who holds the Universe in being. Even Jesus gave thanks to his Father whenever he shared food with others, recognising that all good things are God’s gift to us.

So today’s a good day to remind ourselves that it is always appropriate to say grace before a meal. If there are guests who are not believers at our table, we can ask them to wait respectfully while we give thanks to God. This is a simple yet powerful way of showing that God is important in our daily life. Some families even dare to hold hands when saying grace! This creates a moment when it’s OK to use touch to keep in touch with one another.

We have other reasons to thank God, too. The Second Reading today reminds us that Christ is Risen. We gather for Mass on Sundays precisely because Sunday is the day when Jesus rose from the dead. So today we celebrate that Jesus is Alive! We remember also that because Jesus rose, we know that our loved ones and we ourselves can look forward to happiness with God, in heaven. When the first Christians gathered for their Sunday prayers, they called the service Eucharist – that is the Greek word for thanksgiving! They know, as we know, that there is no better way to give thanks to God the Father than to obey the command of Jesus: Do this in memory of me.

The Church has no doubt that it is truly right and just to give thanks and praise to God – you will hear me say so in the prayers every time we celebrate Mass. So in the silent reflection after this sermon, take a moment to ask: “What do I want to give thanks to God for this Sunday?”

We know how to give thanks – by celebrating Eucharist. We know why we give thanks – because all our good things are granted to us by God. And we know what to give thanks for, if only we take time to listen to our hearts. So let us give thanks to the Lord our God – it is right and just!

Yellow Banner - "Jesus is not dead"

Useless Servants

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

On this very weekend, nine years ago, I was in trouble.

At the time, I was a student at seminary. We were allowed to go out after Sunday lunch – but we had to be back for evening prayer at half past six.

With another student, I had driven to a meeting to plan a youth retreat. One of the young women involved had asked for a lift home. I worked out that we had time – but only just – to drop her off and get back for evening prayer. After all, she needed our help, and it was the right thing to do.

We got lost!

Eventually, we found the right road. But we arrived back at the seminary five minutes after the start of vespers. The other student and I had to make a decision – should we go into the chapel late, and hope no one noticed? Or should we say our own evening prayer separately?

We chickened out and decided not to go into chapel. So we took out our prayer books and said vespers together.

Near the end of Sunday Vespers, there is a line which is taken from the Gospel of the day.* It was just as well we hadn’t gone in to chapel because we collapsed in fits of laughter when we read out loud the words: “We are useless servants – we have only done our duty!”

Laughter aside, there is a serious matter at hand here. Jesus wants us to know that God expects us to do our duty.

What is our duty?

Today, let us focus on our duty to do something about injustice. The prophet in today’s First Reading is concerned about injustice. In today’s Psalm, God warns us not to harden our hearts.

If we are to be kind-hearted and generous saints, what can we do about injustice?

When we have a position of responsibility in a workplace or voluntary group, we may have the power to change things for the better.

When we have the right to vote, we should use that right well after thinking and praying about the issues concerned.

But there are lots of problems in the world which seem so big and complicated , that we doubt that we could do anything about them.

Indeed, alone, we can’t.

But if we work together, we can.

There are one thousand two hundred million Catholics in the world. That’s more than a billion people! Together, we can make a big difference. And we have people working for us around the world to do just that.

Across the globe, there are 165 Catholic Relief Organisations, often using the brand name Caritas, working across more than 200 countries and territories.

You might not have heard of Caritas, but you will have heard of the branch which serves Wales and England – it’s CAFOD.

In the UK, CAFOD is working together with more than 200 other charities, ranging from the Welsh Urdd to the National Board of Catholic Women, to push the UK Government to ask why food is not distributed fairly across the world.

  • There would be enough food for everyone IF we give enough aid to stop children dying from hunger and help the poorest families feed themselves.
  • There would be enough food for everyone IF governments stop big companies dodging tax in poor countries.
  • There would be enough food for everyone IF we stop poor farmers being forced off their land and grow crops to feed people, not fuel cars.
  • There would be enough food for everyone IF governments and big companies are honest and open about their actions that stop people getting enough food.

One way we can tackle injustice is by allowing the people we employ to choose particular causes and run campaigns just like this. Remember, these people work for us! When we give money to CAFOD, part of it goes to employ the people who do this work in Britain.

But until the politicians and corporations make things change for the better, we are stuck with injustice. 80% of the people in the world live on less than six pounds per day. We are aware that our own spending money is squeezed as the cost of living in Britain increases. But to most of the world, we in Wales are unimaginably wealthy!

God hates injustice, and expects us to do something about it. This year, CAFOD invites us to think about not one, but two things that we can do: a one-off gift in today’s envelope, and a regular gift by Direct Debit.

It’s not the amount that matters – it could be just £1 a week, the cost of a single meal. What matters here is that we do our bit to put right this injustice, by giving what we can for those who have least.

Let’s remember that our Friday fast, prayer and donation isn’t just about giving someone food today. Through the Caritas network and other partner charities in developing countries, CAFOD will use our money to help men, women and children around the world. They will learn skills and knowledge that will help them enjoy a future free from poverty.

We, who have more, have a duty to help those who have less. We should take no pride in this. We should be quite ready to help others for no reward, to give our gift saying “we are only useless servants, we have only done our duty.”

Does that mean that God is unimpressed by our giving? Jesus gives us today’s Gospel so that we don’t get big headed about our giving. We shouldn’t do it for thanks. But I’ll let you into a secret – if you check out Matthew’s Gospel, you’ll find out what Jesus really thinks: “What you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did to me.” Perhaps doing our duty will not be so useless after all!

A nurse tutor in a CAFOD-funded project to teach skills to nurses in Jos, Nigeria

* Note to readers: Strictly speaking, Saturday Vespers takes a line from the Gospel of Year A, Sunday Lauds from Year B, and Sunday Vespers from Year C. But it happened to be Year C, as it is this year, so forgive me for over-simplifying for an easy read!