Stone by stone

Homily at the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Wales Conference (Carmarthen) for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time.

On Friday at the Conference, I offered a comprehensive summary of the content of Evangelii Gaudium.

On Saturday at the Conference, my sermon was a brief description of the five thresholds of Making Intentional Disciples: Trust, Curiosity, Commitment, Catechesis and Discipleship.

Medallions of Popes John 23 thru Francis from the Basilica of St Paul's Outside the WallsWhen Cardinal Newman was declared ‘Blessed‘ a few years ago, Radio 4 broadcast a play about Newman’s life. The playwright imagined that Newman’s guardian angel met him at the moment of his death and declared to him – ‘You are to become a saint!’

‘Oh no!’ said Newman. ‘Not a saint! I shall be sliced up like salami and made into bite-sized lessons for schoolchildren!’

The playwright had a point. In the Church’s official prayerbook, the Divine Office, each saint’s day begins with a short paragraph, only a few lines long, summarising the person whom the Church celebrates. In the case of an obscure martyr or founder of a Celtic church, perhaps there are only a few lines to tell. But in the case of someone like Cardinal Newman, or a Pope, who produced volumes of writings during their lifetime, a short paragraph only begins to scratch the surface. A handful of scholars will be able to tell you in minute detail what that person said and thought. But for most of us in the Church, all we get is a caricature, a few highlights – a life summed up in a tweet!

Today’s Gospel recalls how Our Lord identified Simon Peter as the rock on which he would establish his church. Since that day, many men have filled the shoes of the fisherman as Bishop of Rome, and the Lord continues to build his Church of living stones in each generation.

So far this weekend, we have paid close attention to what Pope Francis has been teaching us through his document, The Joy of the Gospel. This morning I would like us to take a step back and see how the Lord has been building up his church through the Popes that we have been blessed with in recent decades. Inevitably, I will describe each Pope by a caricature, a salami-slice of history. But that’s OK – because even before the age of Twitter, we human beings have had a habit of summing up complex situations by simple headlines. Each Pope is God’s gift to us, and part of that gift is what each Pope represents.

Our Church is called Catholic, because it is a universal Church, a church which all people are invited to belong to. There is room for many shades of opinion and different kinds of religious practice within our church. When the man at the top wants to shift opinion, he will do so by presenting one or two simple ideas. We have a tendency, as human beings, to cluster around one big idea and say “this is it!”, and so the pendulum swings from one pole to another. Then the next Pope comes along and issues a correction so those who have swung too far are encouraged back towards the centre ground. It’s imperfect – it’s messy – and it’s human. Why does God allow that rather than giving us precise instructions on how to run the Church in the Bible? If St Paul dare not speculate about God’s motives and methods to the Romans, I am not going to attempt to do so, either!

Instead, come with me on a historical tour, starting in the 16th Century. Yes, 500 years ago, some of our bishops were already proposing change. Not so many people spoke Latin any more – couldn’t we have Mass in the local languages? For a long time, centuries indeed, to avoid spills, the Precious Blood had not been offered to the people at Mass; but hadn’t Jesus said, ‘Take this all of you, and drink it’?

We very nearly had significant change half a millennium ago – but we didn’t. Why? Because some radicals were pushing too hard. The Protestant Reformers – Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and their followers – were saying that worship was worthless if the people couldn’t understand it, and it wasn’t proper communion if some people didn’t drink from the chalice. Our bishops reacted by saying ‘Just to prove the Mass is valid in God’s eyes the old-fashioned way, will keep in Latin and not give the people the chalice.’ They set down the rules, and those rules stayed with us into the 20th Century.

Then the Lord gave us St John XXIII. After centuries of stability, and a string of Popes named Pius, one dared to break the mould. ‘We need change!’ he cried. ‘Open the windows of the church and let the fresh air in!’ He asked Catholics around the world to pray for the Lord to send the Spirit to renew the Church ‘as by a new Pentecost’. ‘We need a council!’ – and so Vatican II was called into being. Our first salami slice – St John XXIII, the Pope of radical change.

For four years, until the end of 1965, the world’s bishops met in Rome to refresh the Church’s teaching. Good Pope John only saw the first session; the Lord had another in mind to complete the process. Pope Paul VI presided over most of the Council, and the task of implementing it in the years which followed. Paul VI is perhaps most famous for insisting that using artificial contraception is sinful – a position he only settled on after long and fervent prayer – and for issuing the new Missal which was then translated into English, but he was also a Pope who called the Church to evangelise. He made several predictions of how society would change if we stopped treating human life as a God-given gift; sadly, these have indeed come to pass. It was during his reign that God blessed the Church with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal – and he welcomed it as a ‘chance for the church’. So our next salami slice is Paul VI, the Pope of limited change – the one to stop the pendulum swinging too far. Some will invoke ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ to defend any radical change of a teaching which seems restrictive; but rather, the true spirit of Vatican II is to aim for the new balance point set out by the bishops, in the documents issued by the Council.

Pope John Paul I, the pope who reigned for mere weeks, followed. This was no accident. His vocation was to be an enabler of change – because even cardinals are human. Only through the Lord saying ‘think again’ in such a dramatic fashion could the cardinals overcome their doubts about the direction God was nudging them in – a young, Polish Bishop called Karol Wojtyla. The Polish newcomer agreed with John Paul I that the style of Papacy needed was a balancing of the radical thrust of John XXIII and the rootedness of Paul VI.

St John Paul II, John Paul the Great! The Pope of hope and truth, of love and life. By training he was a philosopher. This meant he tried to explain the church’s stance on issues by using pure reasoning rather than the Bible. On matters of love and life, he asked the question: what if human relationships were driven by pure unselfishness? Then no-one would use sex for their own pleasure, only to make their partner happy; and the ultimate unselfishness is openness to new life. We would care for the unborn child and the aged parent because to do so is perfect love. He was willing to rethink the role of the Pope if it could improve relations with the Eastern Churches; he pointed us to HOPE, to a knowledge that there was a heavenly life beyond this one, and recognised that saints from many nations were already enjoying heavenly bliss. At the end of his life, he practised what he preached, showing the dignity of human love through the way he endured his illness and kept up his duties as best he could. St John Paul II, who called the world away from communism and from capitalism, to radical unselfishness.

Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus. A scripture scholar, the Pope of beauty and of faith. He used his expertise to write three volumes on Jesus of Nazareth, assuring us that despite the doubts expressed by other scholars, we could be confident in holding the traditional understanding that Christ was born of a Virgin, performed miracles, was crucified under Pontius Pilate and rose from death on the third day. He recognised that some Catholics had their faith nourished by the traditional Latin Mass, and that there was room for Anglicans to bring their own way of praying under the umbrella of Rome. He declared a Year of Faith, invited us to be attentive to our roots, and explore the treasures of the Church’s liturgy through performing us well as it was set down in the books. St John Paul II gave us the example of duty performed to one’s last breath; Benedict XVI set the equally important precedent of knowing when it was time to quit. Both examples are Godly; each one of us will face trials in life where we must seek God’s direction on whether to persevere or step aside. Under Benedict, the pendulum swung closer to tradition and not losing touch with our heritage.

And so to Francis! The ‘salami-slice’ Francis is the Pope of goodness, love and charity. He is swinging the pendulum away from precision towards messiness, from moral discipline, to understanding of human weakness… or so the media would have us believe.

The Church will always need to return to love when she has spent time with her attention elsewhere. As the pendulum swings, the people who heed the Pope’s teaching most diligently are often the ones who least need to; those who are straying do not always compensate, while those who are faithful may overcompensate. But this is the human condition!

Yet the Popes are not so different from one another. Everything that Pope Francis is saying about religious freedom, dialogue with other religions, and engaging with all people who seek truth – that is the teaching of Vatican II and has been echoed by each of the Popes named above. A compassionate understanding of how slowly people take the Church’s moral teaching on board was official Vatican policy years before Francis. Yes, in Francis we find a stronger call that every Christian must be a missionary disciple, must work personally for the good of the poor, and must lobby for structural change in society. But none of his predecessors would object to that!

We are called to love God and love our neighbour; a balanced faith requires us to look in both directions. When we turn too far towards human comfort, we are in danger of losing sight of God’s principles. We end up being uncritical of the world’s demands. When we look towards faithfulness to God’s revelation, we end up arguing among ourselves – does the Bible mean this or that? How much weight should we give to this prophecy or that vision? Here it is the role of the successor of Peter to bring balance. In the world, ‘I was just following orders’ is no defence. But before God’s judgment seat, ‘I was just following the Pope’s teaching’ is always a good defence, because we have the words of the Lord himself: You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.

Stone by stone, slice by slice, the Lord is building His church. We are built on John and Paul, Benedict and Francis. Right now, it is Francis who sets our direction, mindful of the Lord’s command to his namesake: rebuild my church. If you have time to read the Popes in depth, do so – their writings are rich. But if not, a salami slice will keep you going. As part of the Body of Christ, you are bread for the world. With a slice of Francis, you will surely be Good News for the Poor!

A Heart of Flesh, a Wedding Garment

Homily at St Philip Evans for Thursday 21st August 2014 – Memorial of St Pius X

Just over 100 years ago, Pope Pius X had an unlikely visitor: a domestic servant from France. Estelle Faguette had received a series of 15 visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1876, in the course of which she was healed from a terminal illness.

Today’s first reading brings a message that God will bring restoration where his Temple has been profaned. Anti-Catholicism in France was certainly such a case, for in the last decade of the eighteenth century, the French Revolution had caused many great churches to be desecrated; and the middle of the nineteenth century saw a fresh wave of opposition to the Catholic faith throughout France. Yet Heaven responded with an offensive of grace, the Blessed Virgin appearing in Chapel of the Miraculous Medal, Paris in 1830, La Salette in 1846, Lourdes in 1858 and Pontmain Sanctuary in 1871.

Then, in 1876, to a simple domestic servant, the Mother of God revealed a new devotion: she wore, on her breast, a white scapular bearing the image of the sacred Heart of Jesus. The Virgin asked that those who loved her Son should wear this livery.

In today’s Gospel, we are warned that if we want to enter Heaven, we will need our wedding garment! Of course, merely placing a piece of cloth on a cord around our necks does not make us a Christian. The garment God seeks is the garment of obedience to his commands. But to place an image of the Heart of Jesus upon our own breast is to make a commitment to love as Jesus loves: see the flames, his burning love for the whole world! See how the heart bears a cross, and carries it gladly! See the crown of thorns and the drops of blood which fall as the love of Jesus is mocked and rejected by the world.

It is said that in the days of the New Testament, if you were invited to a wedding, a suitable garment would be provided for guests at the door. There was no excuse for failing to wear it; to do so would be to show disrespect to the host who was providing the good things on offer. In the same way, God is offering to renew our lives with by placing a Godly heart within us, that we may wear the deeds which spring from it.

There are many holy medals and scapulars associated with different private revelations in the life of the Church. If we wore them all, we would clank as we walk and end up in a knot! Each of us will be called to live out a life of holiness in our own way. If we choose to wear a Scapular of the Sacred Heart, we do so as an outward sign of our inner choice to live in obedience to the King of Heaven, and to love as His Son, Jesus, loves. What matters is that we come to the Feast and put on our own wedding garment. Which one is yours to be?


God Struggled

Homily at St Philip Evans on the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

Map showing the modern State of Israel and Palestinian Territories

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

All today’s readings speak about Israel in one way or another. With so much in the news about Gaza, and so many points of view about the Jewish State and the Palestinian Territories, it is worth pausing to look at what the Bible and the Church say about Israel. We may find that our religious heritage colours our thoughts in ways we don’t expect.

In the book of Genesis, God promised Abraham that he would become  the father of many nations, and his descendants would inhabit the territory we today call the Middle East. The next four books of the Old Testament tell how Moses led the descendants of Abraham out of Egypt and to the borders of the Promised Land. This part of the Bible makes for uncomfortable reading. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses gave instructions, in God’s name, that in six named cities, the Israelites were to destroy every living man, woman, child and animal. Is this really what God wanted? If you read every word of the Bible literally, you can only conclude that this is what God asked for. But our Catholic way of reading the Bible is to say that in the days of the Old Testament, people heard God imperfectly, and it is only through the teaching of Jesus that we can truly know God’s heart.

After settling in the Promised Land, the people of Israel become a strong nation, eventually acclaiming David as king. But when David’s grandson became king, the northern half of the kingdom rebelled, and from then on there were two Jewish nations: Judah in the south and Israel in the north. By the time of the New Testament, the southern kingdom was called Judea and the north, Samaria – this is why the Samaritans were so hated, they were seen as rebels whose ancestors rejected the heirs of David in Jerusalem.

Today’s first reading is typical of the prophets who preached in Israel and Judah in the days of the divided kingdom. The prophets kept returning to two common themes: were the Jewish people staying faithful to God and not turning to religious beliefs from surrounding tribes? Were they treating kindly and fairly the poorest members of their community? Two well-known quotes (from Exodus and Micah) sum these up: “I am the Lord your God – you shall have no other God before me”, and “This is what the Lord asks of you: act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God.”  Today’s reading also tells us quite specifically that foreigners in Israel who choose to worship the true God are to be welcomed, not hated.

When we read the New Testament, we see quite clearly that Jesus came to preach to the Jewish people, whom he describes as God’s lost sheep. Today he is asked for help by a Canaanite woman – the equivalent today would be a Palestinian seeking a blessing from an Israeli rabbi. She wins her blessing because she addresses the cultural awkwardness by an act of deep humility. Why does Our Lord treat speak to her so harshly? The scholars have various ideas but my suspicion is that he saw in that woman a spirit so feisty, that he could push her into an act of amazing humility which would be told for all time in memory of her. There’s a lesson here which is much needed amidst today’s conflict!

The 12 apostles and almost all the first Christians were Jews. But tensions grew up between the followers of Jesus and the rest of the Jewish community, and often when the New Testament speaks of ‘the Jews’ it means ‘the ones who didn’t follow Jesus’. We must be very careful that this does not push us into being anti-Jewish; the history of the Middle Ages includes many sad examples of our own Catholic Church supporting anti-Semitism. We fell into the trap of remembering that in the accounts of Our Lord’s crucifixion, the Jewish crowd cried, ‘his blood be on us and on our descendants’ and forgetting that Jesus said, ‘forgive them, they don’t realise what they are doing’. The lowest point came in the year 1215, when the Catholic Bishops gathered in a great council passed a requirement that Jews and Muslims should wear a distinctive sign. Somewhat belatedly, St John Paul II apologised for the Church’s acts of anti-Semitism in the jubilee year, 2000, after the Vatican acknowledged that the history of Christianity in Europe had left ‘anti-Jewish prejudices embedded in some Christian minds and hearts’.

Today and in recent weeks our Second Reading has been from St Paul, about the Jews who did not become Christians. The gist of today’s reading is that because some of the Jewish people failed to welcome Christ, they crucified him – opening for us the gates of heaven – prompting Paul to take the message of Jesus out to the Roman Empire instead. St Paul notes that God never takes back a promise; because of this our church recognises that the Jewish people will always continue to be God’s Chosen People through the Old Covenant, even though a fuller relationship with God is on offer to those who become baptised members of the Church.

In the year 70 AD, the Roman authorities destroyed the Jewish Temple and excluded Jews from Jerusalem. This led to a failed Jewish revolt seventy years later; most of the Jews not killed by the Romans were then expelled from the Holy Land. It was only in the 2oth century that Jews started returning there in large numbers. This is the root of today’s tension between the State of Israel refounded in 1948, in the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust, and the Palestinian people – mostly Muslim, but some Christian – whose families had occupied that land for generations. For the Jews, they are merely reclaiming their God-given land after an eighteen-hundred-year hiatus; for the Palestinians, they are resisting an occupation of their ancestral home.

Some Christians tend to side with the State of Israel automatically, because they focus on Old Testament texts which declare Israel to be the Promised Land, or because they read some New Testament texts as saying God’s plan for the world will only be fulfilled when the Jews return to Israel. Other Christians tend to side with the Palestinians because the New Testament calls on us to protect the weak against the strong, and at present the State of Israel is the dominant political and military power over the Palestinians.

All of this might seem irrelevant to us here in Cardiff, living thousands of miles from the rockets and shells flying in both directions across a disputed border. It matters, because right now, in Gaza, more than a quarter of a million human beings are sheltering in buildings away from their homes. Hundreds of people need urgent medical attention. Clean water and electricity are in short supply and sewage is not being treated properly. Whatever the rights and wrongs of how it happened, Jesus is suffering in every displaced resident of Gaza – as he is in every Israeli bereaved or injured by Palestinian militants.

Catholic Bishops in the Holy Land and in our own land have called on Israelis and Palestinians to replace hatred and revenge with a recognition of every neighbour as a fellow human being with equal rights and responsibilities. The Bishops in the Holy Land have asked for our prayers, but know that prayers alone are not enough. CAFOD has asked us to write to our Foreign Secretary for Britain to express greater concern that the violence by both sides must stop, and stop quickly. Where we have no power to act, let us ask those who can, to work for peace. But let us never cease to heed the words of the Psalms: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! On Israel, peace!

Additional material for the web edition:

In a 7-minute homily it is impossible to give this subject a detailed treatment. Otherwise our starting point would be Abraham, who is named in the Missal as ‘our father in in faith’. The book of Genesis tells us that God spoke to Abraham, who was childless in his old age and made him. Abraham fathered a child, Ishmael, through his slave, before God made his 80-year-old wife, Sarah, become pregnant with Isaac. Muslim Arabs look to Ishmael as their ancestor, the Jewish people are the children of Isaac.

Isaac fathered twin sons, Jacob and Esau, who became great rivals. When they were each grown men and leaders of their own communities, Jacob travelled to make peace with Esau; during this journey he met a mysterious stranger who spent a night wrestling with him, with neither gaining the upper hand. Eventually Jacob recognised that his opponent was a messenger sent by God, and said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’, and was blessed with a new name – the name Israel, which means ‘God wrestled’. Jacob’s twelve sons and their families – the ‘twelve tribes of Israel’ – lived peacefully in the land we now call ‘Israel’ until famine forced them to move to Egypt. For 400 years these families lived and grew in Egypt, until Moses led them out into the desert, and his successor Joshua brought them across the River Jordan into the Promised Land.

After the age of the kings, the Jewish people were deported to Babylon for 70 years, then returned to the Promised Land with limited autonomy under the Persian, Greek and Roman Empires.

As my example of Catholic anti-Semitism, I chose the rule passed by the Fourth Lateran Council because of the grave nature of such a decision being taken by so many bishops gathered in council. But an equally worthy candidate for ‘all-time low point’ would be the expulsion of Jews from the Papal States.

Champions of Team Heaven

Homily at St Philip Evans for the Solemnity of the Assumption, 2014

To win the Tour de FranceYellow Jersey with Blue Bar you need three things: the right kind of body, arduous training and a good team behind you.

Only one person can win the race and take the coveted yellow jersey.

If you had the misfortune to be born with the wrong kind of body, you might yet become a reasonable cyclist, but you won’t become the champion.

If you do have the right kind of body, but you don’t train hard, you still won’t become the champion.

Even talent and training together are not enough; winning also requires teamwork. Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome last year each became Tour de France champions because they were part of Team Sky – they were backed by other riders whose actions gave them the opportunity to break away for the lead at crucial stages of the race. These other team members, like Welsh rider Geraint Thomas, know that they’ll never have the glory of the yellow jersey – yet victory for their team-mate is victory for the whole team.

Today’s celebration is like the final stage of the Tour de France. Most of the competition is already settled; the winner, clad in a golden robe, cycles up to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to the adulation of the cheering crowd. The Bible also speaks of the task of getting to heaven as a race, and today we celebrate the greatest champion ever to have been born of a human father, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Just as a champion racer is born with innate talent and body-structure, so Blessed Mary from her mother’s womb was preserved free from sin and its effects by the miracle we call the Immaculate Conception.

Just as a champion racer trains hard each day, so Blessed Mary had to decide each day to do God’s will. At certain seasons of her life, this wasn’t so easy: consider the months when people thought she was an adulterous woman; the years she spent in exile in Egypt; the weeks when she fretted over the strange reports of the things her Son was saying and doing; and the final hours spent at the foot of the Cross. Through all of this, Mary proclaimed, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done according to God’s will.”

Just as a champion racer relies on the support of their team, so Mary didn’t succeed alone. When Jesus was an infant, she was supported by Joseph; during the Lord’s adult ministry she was accompanied by other women who accepted his message; before He died on the cross, he entrusted her to the care of St John.

Today, we celebrate the triumphal entry of our Blessed Mother into the halls of heaven. It is a lap of honour; the woman clothed with the sun takes her place amid the cheering of throngs of saints. It’s a moment of pure glory, and worth our turning out today for a celebration. But in celebrating Mary, we’re celebrating all the members of Team Heaven – it is not for nothing that the final mystery of the rosary is the Coronation of Mary, Queen of Heaven AND the glory of all the saints.

We will not finish the race in first place. Not one of us will displace Blessed Mary from her unique achievement. But this is about glory for the team. With Mary, we can triumph! She is on our team, praying for us, inspiring us to endure difficulties and aspire to greater things.

A champion is made from the gifts they have been given. Not one of us is conceived without sin, but all of us who have been baptised and confirmed have been filled by the Holy Spirit; each one of us have gifts which God has given us to use in the service of the parish and the wider community. Inspired by Mary, let us ask: how are we using our gifts?

A champion is made by a daily routine of training. In the Christian life, we call these, virtues, the good habits and attitudes which we get better at, the more we practice them. Inspired by Mary, let us ask: what kind of person do I want to be in God’s sight?

A champion is made in a disciplined team. As members of a parish, we are called to give moral support and practical help to encourage one another in the race to heaven. Everyone who crosses the line is a winner, but the greatest prizes are reserved for those who help others along the way. Inspired by Mary, let us ask: how am I blessing the other members of this parish?

This is our feast! This is our victory celebration for all members of Team Heaven. Let us rejoice in Mary’s glory, for where she leads, we shall also follow. All we have to do is choose, each day, to keep riding with the team!

O Mary, Champion of Team Heaven – pray for us!

The Absence of God

Rublev's icon of three angels around a table, representing the TrinityHomily at St Philip Evans for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

Today, I’d like to talk about God.

This is not as easy as it seems!

There are two problems with talking about God. The first one is being clear about who we are talking about.

Our Lord, Jesus, called his heavenly Father, “God”. Usually, when we read the Gospels, the name “God” points to “God-the-Father”. But we believe in one God who exists as three persons: the Father, who loves us; Jesus the Son, who died for us; and God the Holy Spirit, who lives within us. So when we hear the name, “God”, we must always pause and ask ourselves what is meant: the Person whom Jesus called Father, or the common nature shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

The second problem is what we are talking about. Sometimes, when we hear the name, “God”, our mind is filled with all kinds of ideas which don’t really match what Jesus came to teach us. Is God a faceless cosmic force like the one in Star Wars? No. Is God an old man with a beard looking down on us from a cloud? No. Is God just a label for the ideas contained in the Bible? No. God exists as three persons who love us very much, three persons who invite us into friendship. The Russian artist, Rublev, depicted God as three angels around a table, and a place open at the fourth side for us for us to join them. Now that’s a good image for God!

Next I’d like to talk about the absence of God. Sometimes, it seems that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not there when we need Them. Today’s Gospel ends by Jesus showing his divine power – not only does He calm the storm and walk on water, but He announces Himself to the disciples in the words “It is I” – a powerful expression, equivalent to God telling Moses his name was “I Am Who Am”. But if this is a story about Jesus showing us that He is God in human form, let’s backtrack and read the story again. I’m going to add a twist – wherever Jesus does something, I will put in the name, “God”.

The story begins with God sending the disciples away. They are doing what God wants, but they are alone at sea when a terrible storm starts battering the boat. They cry out to God – but God is back on shore, praying. God is also very close to them, loving them, but they do not notice that in their fear.

Eventually God does come to them, but they are scared to see Him coming. Peter cries out, “God, let me do what you do!” – and for a few moments he succeeds. But he soon finds that it’s not easy playing God, and so the true God has to rescue him.

The Prophet Elijah had a similar experience. God said: “Go outside and wait for me.” Elijah endured an earthquake, a mighty wind, and fire, before God turned up in a moment of calm.

As for Peter and Elijah, so there are times in our lives when God seems far away. Perhaps we’re enduring a long illness, or some ongoing conflict at work. In particular, when someone we love dies, we look for someone to blame, and God seems an easy target. God could have healed that person, and didn’t. So it must be God’s fault that they are dead. And as soon as that thought enters our head, it becomes much more difficult to love God, because who could love a person who has robbed you of a loved one? But God is not present to us in the earthquake which has rocked our lives, or the storm of confusion which follows, or the fire of anger which is a natural part of loss. We only re-connect with God when we find our balance again.

Even being a churchgoer, or a friend of God, doesn’t protect us from being tested. Such trials come even though we’ve followed the direction God has set for us. We can take comfort in knowing that the Bible also promises us that we will not be tested more than we can bear. Even so, God will test us. God challenges us saying, “Ye of little faith, why did ye doubt?” If we have faith, we will endure until the peace of God returns. And through all of this, we are very much loved by God, as a parent loves their growing and wandering child.

Those of you who are parents know that at a certain age, your children will go out into the world and you will no longer be able to protect them from all their mistakes. In the same way, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit allow us to live in this world with all its trials, knowing that we will be tempted to blame Them. So today, may I invite you to forgive God for not living up to your hopes and expectations? If the fire of anger still burns in your heart towards the Father Almighty, it is only when you forgive Him that you can experience the calm place of meeting. If the mighty winds of the storms of life surround you, call out to Jesus; he will come and calm the storm, in His own time. If the earthquake is just beginning, call upon the Holy Spirit to abide in your heart with His gifts of patience, self-control and the ability to endure. God will be there for you when the storm has passed. Have faith! Let God be God! And when the storm passes, Jesus will also be holding you above the waves.

So I invite you to forgive God for allowing you to be tested. Your God is too small! The Great God hidden in Jesus Christ will invite you to go on adventures where you may not always experience God’s presence, but remember Rublev’s icon: you will always be invited to return to the place set for you at God’s table. Come now, let us dine at the Lord’s Supper.