Great and Beautiful Things

Homily at St Philip Evans on the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

“I’m expecting great things of you, Mr Leyshon! Great things!”Black and white photo of Mr R. I. Denis Jones JP, former headmaster of Graig Comprehensive School, Llanelli

My headmaster in Secondary School, Mr Denis Jones, left me in no doubt of his high expectations. He said so often, in Welsh tones that brooked no argument. He never said precisely what great things he was expecting, but as a Welsh-speaking chapel-goer, I think he would be rather pleased to know I had been appointed to serve a Welsh-language congregation.

Last week, Deacon Steve reminded us that faith alone is not enough to see us through the gates of heaven. For us who know that Jesus asks us to do great works of mercy, we will be judged on our generous response. Today’s Gospel continues the same theme – God is not looking for people who says “yes” with their lips, but with their actions. You don’t have to read much of the Gospel to know that God, like my old headmaster, expects “Great Things” from his followers.

So here’s a deep question. Why should we do what God wants?

We could say it’s a point of principle. God is in charge of the Universe and knows exactly what is good and right at all times. So if we do what God wants, it must be the right thing! This is certainly true, but it’s a bit high-faluting…

Or we could say it’s in our own best interests. God is going to judge us and if we haven’t done what God wants, we will find ourselves with the goats on the left, separated from happiness for all eternity. But stressing that God is our judge feels a bit scary; it gets in the way of the even more important message that when we fail, we can say sorry to God and have another chance to get things right.

Pope Francis offers us a different answer. We should do what God wants because this is what makes us beautiful! If we follow the message of Jesus to the best of our ability, we will “appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of [the] goodness and beauty…” If we listen to the message of Jesus, we will have great wisdom on tap. If we follow his way, we will discover a “life to the full”. If we open our hands before God and truly pray for the help, the grace, which only God can give, we will be enriched.

You can’t watch many adverts on TV before you are told you will become beautiful, or attractive, if you use a certain perfume or deoderant. The people who make Lynx even claimed that angels would fall from heaven for a man so fragrant! It’s a seductive idea. But what truly makes you memorable?

We know that when other memories fade, stories of great heroes persist. We know of mighty warriors of old like Alexander the Great, or Boudicea. We remember those blessed with great wisdom, Solomon and Aristotle. We tell stories of saints who went on great missionary journeys like Thomas and Patrick, who defied rulers and public opinion like Agnes and Clare, who laid down their lives for others, like Maximilian Kolbe and Margaret Clitherow. We recognise in the stories of saints, a life which has been touched by the fragrance of heaven.

If we live our life following the teaching of Jesus and the moral guidance of the Catholic church, we will not fail to become beautiful human beings. Pope Francis puts it like this: “Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others. Under no circumstance can this invitation be obscured! All of the virtues are at the service of this response of love.” If we live out these values well, our very lives will radiate forcefully and attractively, causing others to ask us about the light which guides us.

A few become famous globally. Others in our own community. Become great doesn’t mean trending on BBC News. It means being known by those who you can inspire. To achieve Great Things, you needn’t make the Ten O’Clock News. You need only touch ten lives.

I think both St Paul and Mr Jones were well aware of the temptations faced by good persons – the temptation to be mediocre, to lower ourselves to the standards of the world around us. This is why Paul reminds us that whatever others said around us, in our own minds we must always be conscious that virtuous behaviour is always to put the needs of others first. It’s why my headmaster, knowing that well-behaved boys are teased for being goody-goody and bright pupils are mocked for being swots, wanted to affirm that I was on the right path.

People of St Philip Evans, I am expecting great things of you!

I am expecting that you will pray at least a short word of praise to God every morning and evening, even when you don’t feel like praying.

I am expecting that you will put the needs of others first, in your families and in the community, each day, but especially when you sense the last straw is at hand and you deserve some “me” time.

I am expecting that when you feel tempted to skip church on Sunday for some social invitation, you will explain to your friends that because it is the Lord’s Day, God must come first in your life for one hour a week.

The ordinary people around us will say this way of living is foolish, but we are no ordinary people.We are the sons and daughters of the living God, children of the King of the Universe. I am expecting Great Things of you, so that each life in this parish shines with the light of God. Don’t let me down. Don’t let God down. Don’t let yourself down. I’m expecting great things of you. Be great!

Bonus material for the web:

Like anyone concerned for justice, God looks at us hoping we will do the right thing, working for each other’s well-being.

Like any proud parent, God longs to be able to say, “Well done my child!” The more we live like Jesus, the more God sees us reflect the image of his well-beloved and only begotten Son.

Like any responsible parent, God wants us to succeed not so much for his pleasure as for our flourishing. He wants us to be truly good and morally beautiful. This was reflected in our official school prayer, which asked God’s help that we “may go forth from this place as brave and merciful persons, to play our part in the larger life of the world.”

Still unsure that you are called to greatness? Don’t just take my word for it! Pope Saint Leo said: “Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom. Through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not drive away so great a guest by evil conduct and become again a slave to the devil, for your liberty was bought by the blood of Christ.”


Embracing the Cross, Another Way

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 2014 – also Racial Justice Sunday.

Woman with head bowed and arms foldedUnusually, I would like today’s sermon to begin with a woman’s voice.

In the beginning, I was young . . . he was handsome. He said I was beautiful, smart, worthy of love . . . made me feel that way. And so we were married, walking joyfully together down a church aisle, our union blessed by God.

Then came the angry words . . . the verbal tearing apart. . . . Now I was made to feel ugly, unintelligent, unworthy of any love, God’s or man’s.

Next came the beatings . . . unrelenting violence . . . unceasing pain. I shouldn’t stay, but this is my husband . . . promised forever. He says I deserve it . . . maybe I do . . . if I could just be good. I feel so alone . . . doesn’t God hear me when I cry out silently as I lie in bed each night?

Finally came the release, the realization. It’s not me . . . it’s him. . . . I am worthy of love, God’s and man’s. One spring morning, my heart was filled with hope and with fear now only of starting over on my own. And so again I walked . . . down the hallway of our apartment building . . . never again to be silent . . . never again to live with that kind of violence, to suffer that kind of pain.

Today, I’d like to mention an uncomfortable subject. What you have just heard a wife describe is domestic abuse.

Sometimes, within our family homes, relationships go badly wrong. One adult starts hurting another one – sometimes with their hands, other times with their words. When this does happen, we can easily fall into the trap of limiting our options because we misunderstand the Church’s teaching.

Part of the trap is the attitude set out in today’s Second Reading: Jesus was humble, and accepted death on a Cross. At the heart of our Catholic religion is the agony of Christ. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he imagines walking away from the abuse which the Romans were about to inflict on him. But he knows he has a God-given mission to suffer, because this was the only way he could open for us the gates of heaven. So he allows himself to be arrested, scourged, mocked, and nailed to a cross of wood.

Jesus freely accepted suffering – and so part of our Catholic way of doing things is that when difficult circumstances come along, we “offer it up”. Love is patient, love is kind, love bears no record of wrongs but endures whatever comes. We are to love our enemies, and do good to those who persecute us, Put all these things together, and we have a recipe which seems to say ‘grin and bear it’. Add to that the fact that Jesus said ‘I do not permit you to divorce’, and you could easily fall into the trap of thinking that abused Catholic wives – or husbands – have no option other than to put up with the treatment they receive at home, on pain of sin.

What I am going to say next may surprise you, but it has the full authority of the church. You can look it up in paragraph 2383 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

If it is not safe for a wife, or a husband, to remain in the family home, they can leave their spouse.

If the relationship has broken down permanently, and a civil divorce would protect the financial affairs of the separated partner, it is even permissible for a Catholic to file for divorce. This does not stop them from being able to receive Holy Communion.

In such a case, the lifelong vows of marriage mean that the separated spouse should continue to be faithful to their partner by praying for their well-being, not seeking a new relationship, and not making things needlessly difficult when the other partner wants to negotiate over financial matters or custody of the children. The Gospel does require us to act with goodwill towards someone who has hurt us, not to punish them for their actions.

In last week’s Gospel reading, Our Lord spoke of the need to correct someone who sins against you. When a husband or wife resorts to physical violence or emotional manipulation to get their own way, this is a sin. If it is safe to challenge your spouse’s behaviour, you have a Christian duty to do so! If this is too difficult to do alone, there is help available for married couples in the form of couple-counselling or various kinds of retreats for couples in which they can re-examine their relationship.

The message I hope you will take home today is that in a difficult relationship, you are free to make hard choices. It’s a cliché, but often enough a partner will choose to stay in a strained relationship “for the sake of the children”. A person deeply in love with an abusive partner can fall into a false optimism – “I excuse what they did today, they won’t do it again.” But they will. There’s a saying that insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different outcome. Chances are, in such a strained relationship one partner will continue to abuse the other, and the other will continue to hope for the best.

Now it’s true, that part of what we believe as Christians is that love does invite us to “put up and shut up”. Today’s Second Reading does invite us to be humble and gracious without limit. Today’s Feast, the Triumph of the Cross, does remind us that there are times we will choose to embrace suffering, trusting that God will bring great good out of it. But any Christian who chooses to stay in an abusive relationship should do so from a position of mental strength, recognising that their partner is not going to change, and freely deciding, for Christ’s sake, to endure what is bound to come. As soon as the relationship is stretched beyond the point where God gives the strength to endure, or as soon as children are at risk from violent behaviour, it’s time to exercise one of the other choices I have just described.

Today is also the day in the year when our Church leaders ask us to consider issues of racial justice. In recent weeks, our news headlines have been full of what happened in Rotherham, where teenage girls, mostly white, were systematically groomed by men who were mostly from Pakistan. This has caused a lot of discussion on news programmes about different attitudes to marriage and other relationships in different national cultures.

Any marriage, any extended family, any household is sacred ground where an outsider, even a priest, cannot dictate how things should be. But this I will say: in any Catholic family, of whatever nationality, it is a sin for one spouse to physically harm the other. It is a sin for one spouse to belittle the other with insulting words. But it is never a sin for a spouse to leave the home when they fear for their own safety, or for their children’s.

Because this is a message which could be so easily misunderstood, I am going to ask a few questions to ensure I have made myself clear:

Does leaving the family home for your own safety, or your children’s, bar you from Holy Communion? NO.

Does filing for divorce in these circumstances, bar you from Holy Communion? NO.

Is using physical violence towards your partner the kind of serious sin that requires confession and repentance before coming to Holy Communion? YES.

Is deliberate and pre-planned emotional manipulation of a partner also the kind sin that bars a person from Holy Communion? YES.

Finally, I’d like to speak a word to children present this morning. Please don’t feel worried by the difficult things I have just talked about. Yes, it’s true there are some families where grown-ups hurt each other. But if you haven’t seen this happening in your own family, relax! Your parents are not suddenly going to start hurting each other because of a sermon in church! So don’t be afraid.

Sadly, some children already know that grown-ups can hurt each other because they see it happening at home, or because you might have friends who tell you about sad things that happen in their family. If that’s you, I want you to know that it’s always OK to talk to a grown-up you trust about these things. Your class teacher in school is probably the best person, or another teacher in school you really trust, or you can even talk to Deacon Steve or myself. And if someone at home has told you that you must never talk to anyone about something they’ve done, they are wrong!

Listen carefully: It is ALWAYS OK to talk to a grown-up you trust about something that’s worrying you. No-one is allowed to tell you that something horrible must be your secret forever and always. Today we are celebrating that Jesus died on the Cross for us so that we could be happy. If there’s something making you unhappy, it’s good to talk about it – to Jesus in your prayers, and to one of his friends who can help you.

Useful web links:

CEDAR – Catholics Experiencing Domestic Abuse Resources (England & Wales)

Podcasts on Domestic Abuse from the Catholic Church in England & Wales

When I Call For Help – US Bishops’ Message on Domestic Abuse