The Gift of Life

A wooden crucifx mounted on a red wallHomily at St Philip Evans on the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A – the Day for Life.

Would you like to fall in love?

Be warned, if you do fall in love it will lead to pain and despair, but also to delights you could not otherwise know!

What I’m about to say will sound rather scary, but bear with me – hope is coming!

First, look to the heart of this church. What do you see? A man, nailed to a cross. A man with the power to call down a legion of angels who could liberate him at any moment. A man racked with agony, yet choosing to endure it. For why? Because he understands the treasure which can only be bought by his agony, the treasure of our souls saved from eternal death. For Our Lord, we are the pearl of great price, the hidden treasure. No price is too great, and he pays it willingly for us because he loves us without limit.

St Paul tells us today that “by turning everything to their good, God co-operates with all those who love him, with all those he has called according to his purpose… to become true images of his Son.” We are called to be images of Jesus, to imitate him in his suffering. Whatever pains or trials we endure in this life, we’re assured that God can turn this to our good – either on earth or for our final journey to heaven.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we are to go and seek painful experiences. It doesn’t mean that we can’t use painkillers when we’re ill. But it does bring us to one of the most difficult issues which our politicians are considering right now – should it be legal to help a person in pain, likely to live only a few more months, to end their own life at a time of their own choosing?

We are probably well-aware that our church has an official position on this.

“Human dignity demands palliative care and treatment for as long as it takes!” proclaim our bishops.

“Isn’t choosing our own death also dignified?” ask their opponents.

“Vulnerable adults will choose their own deaths under duress!” warn our bishops.

“But don’t we have a right to choose?” ask the opponents.

In Britain, our laws used to be based solidly on principles set out in God’s Word. But today Parliament does not wish to impose values that come from a particular religion on the whole population, and is more likely to champion the right to choose; one by one, our laws have changed on abortion, divorce and the meaning of marriage.

It’s not hard to see a time coming when we’ll have a legal right to be helped to die. If that happens, our bishops will, of course, ask us not to use that legal right. To many people in the world around us, this will be scandalous! What kind of Christian church asks its members to choose pain and suffering instead of the help on offer?

A church of believers who know they are personally invited to be images of Jesus.

Jesus endured the Cross without using his power to end it. There’s a mystery at the heart of our faith that God’s grace comes through accepting suffering. Yes, we can use doctors’ skills to heal, even though some surgery is risky. Yes, we can use medications which bring pain relief, even if we foresee they hasten death. But we are never choosing death. In this, St John Paul II taught us a powerful lesson by the way he lived his dying months, in obvious pain, losing first the ability to walk and then even to speak.

There is a reason to choose life, even when life is painful.

There is a reason to choose the path of love without limit. That reason is the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field.

We find the treasure when we realise that Jesus really is the Friend who died for us, who loves us without limit, and who knows exactly what is in our best interests at all times. In this way, God gives us spiritual eyes to see that choosing life, not death, will bring us the greatest reward.

We sell everything when we deal with sin and selfishness in our lives, and surrender totally to God’s will.

To gain the treasure, we must also buy the field. Surrounding that which is most beautiful, is a great pile of dirt and muck. The gift of life which God gives us is permeated by the potential for pain. When we fall in love, we open ourselves to new dimensions of pain and sacrifice for the sake of the one who has captured our heart.

Were it not for the hidden treasure, our Catholic faith would be no more attractive than a muddy field.

I can’t stand in this pulpit and convince the world, by reason alone, that the official Catholic line is the right way to approach assisted dying, abortion, or any other moral issue.

I can only encourage you to make the same prayer as Solomon, asking God for the wisdom to know what is truly right in each circumstance of life.

Whenever one of our bishops or preachers stands up and makes a speech about assisted dying, remember that it affects them, too. Those who preach the message must make a personal commitment to endure whatever God sends them, if their final years should be marked by a painful decline. When Pope John Paul II lost the power to speak due to a breathing tube, he made a prayer of abandonment to the Virgin Mary – “I am all yours – but what have you asked of me!” You can write off our church leaders as control freaks and stick-in-the-muds. Or you can see St John Paul as an icon for our age, whose final mission was to show us how to live for Christ in declining health. Yes, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price, is so attractive that when you find what God is offering, it will change your life for good.

Happy hunting!

Bacon and Eggs

Homily at St Philip Evans for the English-speaking community on the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

two fried eggs on a slab of bacon, on a white plate

On a farm one day, the chicken was very excited.

Her friend, the pig, asked her what all the commotion was about.

“The farmer is holding a great breakfast,” she clucked. “Lots of guests are invited!”

“Really?” said the pig. “What are they serving?”

“Bacon and eggs!” said the chicken.

At this, the pig turned a very pale shade of pink.

“What’s the matter?” asked his chicken friend.

“Bacon and eggs!” exclaimed the pig – “For you, that’s a day’s work. For me, that’s a life commitment!”

Today, we recognise that some of the paths we take in life have far-reaching consequences. At the end of today’s Mass we’ll have an appeal for our Sea Sunday collection – remembering that many people who work at sea have to spend weeks or even months apart from their families and the safety of dry land. They have chosen a career which is vital for us who depend on North Sea oil, offshore wind farms, and foreign consumer goods, in our island nation. Let’s remember with gratitude those men and women who embrace these more challenging patterns of working, from which we all benefit.

Just as some career choices are more ‘bacon’ than ‘eggs’, so there are two ways in which we can approach our Catholic faith.

The first way is to read the Bible with interest. When we spot something we agree with, we can nod approvingly – “I am glad your teaching is something that I can agree with, O Lord.” Jesus used parables because they would be memorable stories, and as with all stories, we can pick out those meanings and morals which strike us as important.

But the Disciples of Jesus were offered something more. They were the ones who had chosen ‘bacon’ rather than ‘eggs’, to set out in the Lord’s boat rather than turn up daily on the dockside. Jesus offers them his direct teaching, not wrapped up in a story but explained clearly. This is both a blessing and a challenge, because it leaves no hiding place.

When new apprentices question the teaching offered by the Master, they will surely be rebuked, told to trust the Teacher, and follow the instructions. Only when an apprentice has learned the Master’s arts will that person be truly skilled enough to understand why the Master works a certain way. Only then can the disciple begin to critique the teaching.

Some of us present this evening have already reached the point in our faith when we have recognised that if Jesus is truly our Master, his teaching will challenge us to make some significant changes in our life. I learned that lesson in August 1993. I had already become a Catholic three years previously, but now I was a year away from completing my undergraduate degree. I was reluctant to pray a prayer asking Jesus what he wanted me to do. What if he asked me to do something I didn’t want to do? But during that summer youth retreat, I realised the Lord was asking me for bacon, not eggs. He was inviting me to trust him. If he was truly the loving Friend we meet in the Gospels, then Jesus wasn’t going to ask me to do anything which would damage me. He would only choose what is best. So that summer, I surrendered. That was the first time I could truly both pray, and mean, “Here I am Lord. Use me as you will.”

God’s word does not return to him fruitless. One of you here this evening will go home tonight, and for the first time in your life, will pray a prayer acknowledging Jesus as the Master of your life, even though you know He is asking you to make some significant change in your life. Perhaps He is inviting you to take on a charitable project, or to deal with some personal fault you have been avoiding. Jesus is asking this of you, because he loves you. If you trust him, he will give you the strength to bring it to completion.

Jesus himself never told a parable about bacon and eggs – it wouldn’t have been appropriate for a Jewish audience. But he did say this: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

We are not randomly scattered seeds. We can resist the temptation of the Enemy who whispers to us that Jesus is not worth following. We can resist the distractions of the world around us. We can even choose to die to our own selves, resisting those inner doubts which worry that following Jesus might not always have the best outcome. If we choose to listen to what Christ and His Church DO say, even though the message is uncomfortable to us, we will indeed bear fruit. Some thirtyfold, some 60, some 100.

Listen, anyone who has ears!

Faithful and Fruitful

Homily at St Philip Evans for the Welsh-speaking community on the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

30? 60? Or 100?

When the seed in good soil had been growing for some time, the sower’s helper noted that some of the plants were not like the others. These plants were carefully dug up from where they had blossomed, and placed in a greenhouse. The helper realised that they needed to be cared for differently, and he spoke to them – in their own language! There were not many of them, but they were healthy, prizewinning specimens.

The sower was pleased to have this small collection of healthy, hardy plants. They would be admired by people for miles around. But he was also concerned. In the greenhouse, there would not be room for the plants to spread 100-fold. He longed to see his plants spread their seeds through the whole countryside. Only then would the nation be as beautiful as in his dreams.

Across Wales, there are many chapels where very small congregations meet faithfully to pray. Their faithful members wonder why their families and friends do not worship with them. Today’s parable provides part of the answer: the effort needed is too great for some. Others are distracted by work, family duties, or other priorities. Some never heard God’s voice calling them to worship in the first place. When Our Lord spoke his words to the crowd, he challenged them to overcome these temptations.

We, like members of all small congregations across Wales, are the plants which thrive in rich soil. Although we are few in number, we persevere. So first, be encouraged! God’s word has accomplished its purpose. This word has stirred up faith in you! This word has called you to faithfulness, even when that means a long drive at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning!

But why has God given you the gift of faithfulness?

It is for your fruitfulness!

Every plant lives to bear fruit, and the fruit contains new seed.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

These fruits are seen in our everyday way of living, but especially when we step out to show love for our neighbour.

When the time is right, we are called to scatter our own seed, by speaking gently about our own experience of Christ. Only a friend of Jesus can introduce another person to him. This is what the sower longs for, above all!

We are fortunate that we are not fixed in a greenhouse, but free to travel. The sower has planted his word in each one of us so that we too can scatter his seed.

The word that goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty; it shall accomplish my purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

So how many seeds are you called to sow? 30? 60? Or 100?

Listen, anyone who has ears!