Scandal in the Pulpit

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

Today, I’d like to share a scandal with you. Yes, something quite scandalous!

It’s this: Some Christians have forgiven their enemies EVEN before their enemies have said sorry!

Gordon Wilson did it – he proclaimed he “bore no ill-will or grudge” against the IRA after his daughter, Marie, died holding has hand, fatally injured by a bomb at Enniskillen.

Barry and Margaret Mizen did it – when their son, Jimmy, was killed in London they set out to work with other young people “before they end up in prison”.

Magdeline Makola did it – she was the young woman found locked in the boot of a car in Scotland on Boxing Day 6 years ago. Her kidnapper is now in prison, and she hopes he can be helped there to change his life; she feels no hatred towards him.

Blessed John Paul II did it – he went to prison to embfrace Ali Ağca, the man who tried to assassinate him in 1981.

Yes, it’s true: Some Christians have forgiven their enemies EVEN before their enemies have said sorry.

We are invited to do it too!

Now it’s also true that as Christians, we don’t have a monopoly on forgiveness. The Jewish woman Eva Kor forgave Dr Mengele for experimenting on her in Nazi Germany. The Hindu independence leader Mahatma Ghandi could also be mentioned… these are examples of great human beings who were totally committed to good-will towards their enemies. But for us as Christians, forgiveness is not the peak achieved by a few of our saints – it is the DNA of our everyday Christian living.

This is where the true scandal lies. We live in a compensation culture. All around us we hear the message that if we have been mis-sold insurance or injured by another person, we deserve our compensation – and the lawyers will help us get it! Our politicians and trade union leaders speak about rights, especially the rights of victims. How dare we as Christians, from a church with a tarnished reputation, claim that victims ought to forgive their perpetrators at all, still less if the perpetrators are unrepentant? Absolutely scandalous!

Yes, this is a scandal – and it’s a scandal in the original sense of the word. The root meaning is obstacle or stumbling block: a skandalon was originally part of an animal trap, and later came to mean any obstacle – perhaps even a hurdle which the runner had to jump over to win a race. If we want to be followers of Jesus, this is the hurdle we need to overcome: the willingness to forgive our enemies no matter what.

John the Baptist had proclaimed a baptism of water – people came to him and were bathed as a sign of being sorry for their own sins. But he proclaimed one who would baptise with the Holy Spirit – if we have been plunged into God’s Spirit, we will have no peace until our hearts align with God’s will. God’s will is that we should forgive our enemies before they even ask! Each and every one of us proclaims in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses AS WE FORGIVE THOSE who trespass against us.” Time and time again, Jesus taught us to make peace – to forgive our enemies and pray for them, to reconcile before we take our gift to the altar.

When Christ died on Calvary, he did so with forgiveness on his lips. “Father, forgive, those who are crucifying me do not know what they are doing.” This is precisely how he became “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

Yes, if we have any claim to be Christians, to be followers of the Lamb, it is because forgiveness is part of our DNA, the way we live our everyday lives. And the letters D-N-A can help us understand what Our Lord is asking us to do, or to avoid:

We can pray for the well-being and conversion of the person who hurt us. Divine Nudges Assist.

We can resist the temptation to tell the story of how that person hurt us. Detraction’s Never Appropriate.

We can, indeed we must, resist the temptation to treat badly the one who has wronged us. Do Not Avenge.

The Mizens describe forgiveness as “not wanting revenge and not being angry”. We cannot always control our feelings, but we can resist running with them. Don’t Nourish Anger.

We can choose to do all of these things without needing one word of apology from the person who has hurt us. Don’t Need Apologies.

Forgiveness is first and foremost an attitude of heart. It’s the attitude which stands ready to make peace with the one who has given offence, as soon as that person says sorry, the attitude which refuses to treat the offender with less civility and respect that the average citizen.

Forgiveness is not foolishness. It does not require us to expose ourselves to the same harm again, at least not until that person has apologised and is working with us step-by-step to regain our trust. Magdeline Makola said: “Forgiveness is different from trusting. You don’t have to trust someone just because they are forgiven.” Forgiveness might bring us to totally restored trust, but this has to be earned. Do Not Assume.

If we are to be people of forgiveness, we must recognise that there are things within our power and things which lie outside. We cannot make the other person apologise. But forgiveness is part of our DNA – we do everything in our power to build the bridge, so that the one who has harmed us can cross it as soon as they are willing to do so.

The Prophet Isaiah looked forward to a day when God’s servant would restore peace and so bring light to the whole world. We bring the light of Christ into the world around us whenever we act as people of forgiveness. It’s part of our DNA. Detraction’s Never Appropriate. Divine Nudges Assist. Do Not Avenge. Don’t Nourish Anger. We Don’t Need Apologies, and when they are offered, we Do Not Assume that the one repenting is trustworthy straightaway.

Some Christians have forgiven their enemies EVEN before their enemies have said sorry! If you are not yet one of them, there’s still time. Forgive the people who have apologised to you. Forgive the people who ought to apologise to you. Forgive the people you would rather didn’t apologise to you.  But build the bridge. And remember – if you do not build the bridge of forgiveness to others, the Lord cannot extend the bridge of forgiveness to you.

Foolish Objections

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Epiphany of the Lord, 2014.

A jester, holding a STOP signWhen the wise men set out on their journey, there were many foolish voices trying to persuade them against it.

Some of the fools pointed out that there were other gifts more useful to a new-born baby.

The wise knew that the gifts they were taking would come in useful at the right time.

Some of the fools pointed out that the journey would be long, hard and dangerous.

The wise knew that for this particular child, it was well-worth making the effort.

Some of the fools pointed out that the the destination of the journey was rather unclear, for it led to unknown territories.

The wise knew that God would guide them, one step at a time, along the way.

Some of the fools suggested that the journey wasn’t worth taking at all.

The wise knew that this King deserved their personal attention.

We also are called to bring our gifts to Jesus. Between us, we have many gifts. Each one of us has something worth offering. And yet, so many of us have a foolish voice whispering within us, trying to convince us that it ain’t so!

This foolish voice tells us that there’s someone “better than us” to do the job. This foolish voice tells us that if we hold back long enough, someone else will do it. This foolish voice tells us that we would be showing spiritual pride by putting ourselves forward. This foolish voice pretends that the priest and deacon can do everything between them that will make the parish thrive and grow.

You are wiser than that! Deep down, you know that you have gifts worth offering. Many of you have children, and are used to reading them bedtime stories, or singing them nursery rhymes. If you can sing or read, you have the gifts needed to help run Children’s Liturgy of the Word. Many of you have the gift of being able to smile and shake hands. If you can do this, you have those gifts which qualify you to form a team of welcomers. Many of you believe that Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament and approach Holy Communion with reverence. If that sounds like you, you have the gifts needed to become a minister assisting with Holy Communion.

In today’s Second Reading, St Paul recalls how he was entrusted with God’s message, to be shared. With his track record as a persecutor of Christians, his foolish voice would have said “send someone else, Lord!” – but he was wise enough to accept the gift God had entrusted to him, and pass it on to others.

What happens when we truly recognise that we have been given gifts which we can use to bless our parish community? That foolish voice starts up again, and this time it gives it reasons why the journey is not worth making. It takes too much time and effort! We have to fill out application forms! We might get stuck in the role because no-one else will share it with us! But the truly wise person understands that unless these difficulties are faced, their gifts will never reach their intended recipients.

In ancient days, one of the wise men must have been the first to propose making the journey. Perhaps he couldn’t have done it on his own. But he was brave enough to say YES, and enough others joined him to make the adventure possible – we still tell the story 2000 years later.

If we look at the possible difficulties, we will stumble. That’s why the prophet Isaiah encouraged God’s people not to look at the difficulty and darkness which surrounded them, but to look up, and see the light of God leading them on. Are you wise enough to look for Christ leading you? When you see him, you too will grow radiant, your heart “throbbing and full”!

One more obstacle remains. Yes, we have gifts to offer to Christ and His Church. Yes, we are willing to tackle the difficulties which strew our path. But, says that foolish voice within us, “Do you know the way? Do you know the destination? Why start this journey when you do not know where it will end?”

The wise men were confident that God would guide them. The star led them westwards. Their learning told them what the first step must be: to find the King of the Jews, they must seek Jerusalem. There, they could seek further guidance, as they did by approaching Herod. They understood what Blessed John Henry Newman put into words in his poem, Lead Kindly Light: “I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.”

During this new year, we are going to travel on a spiritual journey together. Part of that journey is about asking how we can better use our gifts to build up our parish community. If we all make a contribution, our parish will thrive. If we leave it to a few, we will continue to limp along.

The Catholic Church has been compared to a football match – 22 people running around doing all the hard work while another 10,000 look on and cheer. It’s not supposed to be like that. Wise Catholics know that if they have been confirmed, they have signed up for the team. Their place is on the pitch, not in the stands. Some will be centre-forwards, others in goal, some even on the subs’ bench, limbering up for their turn. But you are still part of the squad.

Today, I am not asking for volunteers. I am simply asking you to be aware of the foolish voice within which so often stops us from volunteering. Wise Catholics look not at the darkness around them, but at their guiding star – and that star is Christ himself. When the light of Christ shines in your mind, it gives courage to overcome such foolish whispers. Today is all about gifts; perhaps it is a good day to ask Christ to renew the gifts of your confirmation, which include the courage and fortitude for this journey.

When the wise men set out on their journey, there were many foolish voices trying to persuade them against it.

Some of the foolish voices suggested that the journey wasn’t worth taking at all.

The wise men knew that this King deserved their personal attention. Will you be wise enough to give him yours?