You CAN Choose Your Family!

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Feast Feast of the Holy Family, Year B.Four quadrants: a dining table; a stylized family; a dating couple; a rosary

The Seven Word Sermon: Families eat together. Be together. Pray. Date.

They say you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.

They’re wrong!

Now, it’s true that we can’t choose the ancestors we’re born to. The parents we’ve got are the parents we’ve got.

Until recently, we had no control over the children born to us. Modern medicine tempts us with the possibility of designer babies – but because we recognise that every child is a gift from God, we understand that it would be a sin to reject any child once conceived. (There are other moral problems with IVF, too, which effectively rule out pre-selection of eggs or sperm.)

But in one very important respect, we do choose our family. Every new household is based on the choice which two people make, to come together for life. Usually, in our Western culture, that’s a totally free choice made by two people who have fallen in love, though sometimes it’s for the sake of a child conceived before a couple have made a deeper commitment. Some of us come from other traditions, where marriages are arranged by our extended family.

It doesn’t matter whether that first choice was made by our parents, our passions, or our progeny. The choice that matters is the daily choice to be family.

In today’s Scriptures, Abraham sets out for unknown territory, trusting only in God. Mary and Joseph walk in obedience to God’s law. Every marriage is a journey into the unknown future; God’s law for marriage, given in the opening chapters of the Bible, is that husband and wife must cleave to each other and become one flesh – one mind, one heart, one family. During the next few months, our bishops will invite us to reflect on family life as a call, a journey and a mission, in preparation for the second phase of the Vatican Synod on Family Life.

Too often, when the church talks about family, we focus on those parts of our Catholic faith which are full of don’ts.

We fail to see that behind these don’ts lies a rich and positive vision of marriage. At heart, it is about two very simple choices: the choices to spend time with one another, and with God.

So today I am going to ask four questions about what you do do as a family. Here goes…

Do you have a dining table?

If you don’t have a dining table, it’s not easy to bring a family together around a meal. Without a dining table, it’s easy to slip into habits where each family member eats at different times, in front of a telly or tablet. A living room tends to form a semi-circle around the television. Only in the dining room does a family form a full circle focussed on each other. This is so important that I know of some churches which have helped struggling members to buy a dining table!

Does this matter to God? It’s worth pondering that our Catholic Church began around a dining table!


Do you make time to be family together?

A dining table on its own won’t transform a family. In a world of after-school clubs and sports teams, where each child wants to be part of something, it’s easy to fall into the trap of spending every evening being Mum’s Taxi. If you don’t plan to spend time together as a family each week, it won’t happen. How many Hollywood films fall into the cliché of the Dad who’s working so hard to provide for his family, that he never spends time with them? Don’t be like the proverbial boy who asked what his Dad’s hourly rate was so he could buy some of his time! If spending family time together is important, that means that a little work time, a little income, and a little space for personal pursuits must be sacrificed. When, during the week, will every member of your family be in the same place for a meal or some shared activity? The earlier this is built into the life of a family, the easier it will be to embed it.


Do you pray together as a family?

If your husband or wife is also a Catholic, or another kind of Christian, rejoice! You have a life-partner who can pray for you and pray with you! If you don’t already pray for one another, then I encourage you, for a minute when you get up or go to bed, ask God to bless and protect your spouse in the day to come. If you do already pray, but not together, why not make it your New Year’s resolution to give this a try? Whatever kind of Christian your husband or wife is, you could at least pray the Lord’s Prayer, and yes, it is OK to say the bit about “the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory” if your other half is more comfortable with that. (The reason we usually drop it as Catholics is that Bible scholars say it isn’t original to Jesus, but the way they always ended prayers in those days.) Some couples become very comfortable speaking to God informally in each other’s presence; for others, it might be easier to stick to set prayers. What matters is to find a way to pray together.

If your partner isn’t a believing Christian, I acknowledge that things are harder. If you are in a marriage recognised by the Catholic Church, you will have made a promise to bring up your children as Catholic. When they are young, this is as simple as making the sign of the Cross on their forehead at bedtime, and asking Jesus to protect them. As they grow older you can teach them the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and gather them for one decade of the rosary before bedtime. Their godparents or the Catholic School can teach them some useful things, but only you can show them how to make prayer a normal and natural part of family life.

There’s a lot worth pondering in that old saying, The family that prays together, stays together!


Do you date your husband or wife?

Sometimes, when a married person comes to me for counsel, I ask them, “When was the last time you went on a date with your husband or wife?” If they’ve had children for any length of time, they often struggle to remember. Even if all their children have grown up and flown the nest, they often haven’t got back into the habit of enjoying each other’s company. I’ve got news for you. In marriage, dating is not an optional extra!

Remember, you can choose your family. You can choose your husband or wife! You can choose them each day of your life! You can choose to say, “I love you” in whichever way works best for you! And as often as you can carve out the time, you can choose to go on a date! If something is important, we choose to make time for it – and at the heart of every marriage is your declaration that nothing is more important than your significant other.

Before I finish, a word to you who do not have a life-partner. What I have just said may seem less relevant – but if you have living family members, you can also choose to strengthen your relationship with them. You can apply the questions I have just asked to the way you engage with your parish, since the church community is meant to work as an extended family – if we choose to make it work. I would also ask you to support the married couples among your extended family and friends – perhaps even by offering to babysit so they can go on a date night!

So this weekend, I invite each one of us to be mindful of the Catholic Church’s positive vision of family. Building a true family is not easy.

  • It needs a dining table.
  • It needs time spent being family together.
  • It needs you to pray together as a family.
  • It needs married couples to take time for romance.

God says you can choose your friends, but you MUST choose your family. God’s right!

The Unexpected Reign of the Prince of Peace

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B.Nick Vujicic, a man with no limbs but two working digits on his left leg stump.

The Seven Word Sermon: You’ll always misinterpret God’s promises. Trust anyway!

God’s promises never work out the way you expect.

We have a deep tradition, though it’s not spelled out in the Bible, that the Blessed Virgin Mary knew she was called to dedicate herself to God’s service from the earliest days of her life. God’s handmaid was probably not expecting an angel to declare that she was to be shamed by being thought an unmarried mother, but her divine calling led her to childbirth at the manger, flight into Egypt, and pain at the foot of the Cross.

Moses was astonished to hear God’s voice from a burning bush declaring that despite his stutter, he would confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites to the promised land. But after the initial wonder of calling ten plagues on Egypt and parting the great sea, he discovered that his calling would include 40 years trudging through the wilderness only to die within sight of the Promised Land.

Today’s readings begin with King David, a mighty warrior. The Old Testament stirs up many difficult questions – did God really ask his Jewish followers to steal territory and commit ethnic cleansing? That’s a question to explore another day. For now, let us focus on King David, who is hatching a plan to build a great Temple in Jerusalem, where there is still no building for worship, only a tent.

Today’s reading skips a few lines. We only hear the part where the prophet, Nathan, says that God will establish David’s throne and make him a House – that is, a strong line of royal descendants. But elsewhere, the Bible tells us that God forbade David to build the Temple, because he had shed too much blood; instead, this work would fall to his son, a man of peace.

David’s son, Solomon, did indeed become King and built the first Jewish Temple. But then things went horribly wrong. There was a rebellion, and the northern part of Israel broke away, setting up its own dynasty of kings. Within 300 years the Northern Kingdom had been destroyed by the powerful empire of Assyria.

King Solomon’s descendents kept control of the Southern Kingdom, called Judah, and lasted 150 years longer before being overpowered by Babylon. Half a century later, in the Game of Thrones which marked the politics of the Middle East, the Persians were in control and allowed the Jewish people back to Jerusalem – but not with their own king. Israel was then conquered by the Greeks, who were in turn subdued by the Roman Empire.

By the time of the birth of Jesus, Jerusalem was part of a Roman province ruled by King Herod the Great – and Christ was crucified under his grandson, Herod Agrippa. But the Herods were not descendants of King David – they came from a family which had only become Jewish a hundred years earlier. On the other hand, today’s Gospel makes a point of telling us that St Joseph, the legal guardian of Jesus, was “of the House of David”. Of course, by that time, King David would have many thousands of descendents in the population of Israel!

What went wrong? Didn’t God promise David that his “House and sovereignty will always stand secure” and that his “throne [would] be established for ever”? Even if we recognise that Our Lord is the promised King, there is a gap of 600 years from the fall of Judah until the life of Christ!

God’s promises never work out the way you expect.

“Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The listeners thought Jesus was talking about a Temple built of stone, but in fact he was speaking of his own body. At the heart of our Christian faith is an apparent disaster, the death of Jesus, which God used to grant life to the whole human race.

Slowly, painfully, we begin to realise that God’s idea of an established House, a secure Throne, is not what we would like it to be. In God’s plan, nothing is more secure than a death, trusting in God, followed by a resurrection.

So often, the events of our lives don’t work out the way we want them to. Sometimes, that’s as trivial as not quite getting all the cards written in time for the last posting date. Other times, that’s as tragic as the Christmas season being permanently tainted by the loss of a loved one. Either way, we must make a choice: is God the one we will blame for our troubles, or the one we will trust to carry us through?

If you search the Internet for the term, ‘Ugliest Woman in the World‘, you will find the story of Lizzie Velasquez, a Catholic from Austin, Texas. Due to a medical condition which makes her body unable to store any fat, when you look at Lizzie, what you see is skin and bones. But does Lizzie blame God? No! She has said: “God … blessed me with the greatest blessing of my life, which is my syndrome.” By the age of 25, Lizzie had graduated from college, published two books, and had gained a reputation as a motivational speaker.

Or you could ponder the story of Nick Vujicic, also a Christian, who was born with no arms or legs. That hasn’t stopped him travelling to 44 countries and speaking to more than two thousand audiences about what it means to live a life without limits!

God’s promises never work out the way you expect.

In God’s plan, nothing is more secure than a death, trusting in God, followed by a resurrection.

God is the one who establishes a secure throne, which is only temporarily ruined for 600 years.

God is the one who comes as a King laid in a manger.

God is the one who brings hope to the hopeless, who causes love and peace to flourish where all hope seems lost.

In December 1914, German and British soldiers played football in no-man’s-land. Perhaps not as extensively as the rumours would have you believe, but the historians have checked it out, and in one or two places, it did happen.

In December 2014, America woke up one Thursday morning to discover that – with a little help from Pope Francis – Cuba and the United States were going to repair their tattered and shattered relationship.

In places where peace seems most unlikely, the Prince of Peace has triumphed. God will always do this, if we have patience and trust.

God’s promises never work out the way you expect.

In God’s plan, nothing is more secure than a death, trusting in God, followed by a resurrection.

The Christ-child was born of Mary to show us how God keeps his promises not by shielding us from tragedy but by walking with us through the heart of the pain and raising us up on the other side. This is an uncomfortable God, a God of surprises, but the only God worth celebrating this Christmas. Nick and Lizzie, King David and Blessed Mary, all chose to praise God in the midst of the difficulties they faced. Will you join them?

Filled With Good Things

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Support Living Wage Employers. Shop at Aldi!

It’s ‘Rejoicing Sunday’ – and it struck me this week that one of the best things about being a parish priest is that, every so often, I get to speak wonderful, life-changing words which fill other people with joy.

For instance, ‘I absolve you of your sins!’ – if you want to hear those words, bring your sins and your repentance along on Wednesday evening at 7.00 pm.

Or, ‘This is my Body’ – and suddenly Jesus is present among us.

But I was thinking particularly of other words, words I get to say less often, perhaps only once a year; words that I have been able to speak in this and other parishes which employ staff. The wonderful words are these: ‘I’d like to give you a raise!’

Catholic leaders have long been concerned with making sure workers get fair pay for their work. In the 1890s, Cardinal Manning of Westminster supported London’s dock workers in their protests for fair pay, and Pope Leo XIII also wrote about the importance of a just wage. More recently, the Labour Government of 1997 brought in a National Minimum Wage for the UK, but that hasn’t solved the problem – the cost of living in the UK is so high that even a full week of work at the National Minimum Wage will not fund a single adult to an adequate standard of living.

In our Scripture readings today we heard our Blessed Mother, overwhelmed with joy at God’s presence, declaring that ‘God fills the starving with good things, but sends the rich away empty.’ But do we see the starving being filled, or going hungry? Last weekend, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared himself more shocked at children going hungry in Britain than in Africa. Earlier this week, the Church of England and the UK Parliament issued a report about food poverty. Why are we declaring that God is filling the starving, when so many people around us are going hungry?

In past months, Deacon Steve and myself have preached about the importance of donating to our local Foodbank and buying fairly-traded goods. Whenever we make choices to use our own resources for the good of others, God blesses the poor through us. We might remember of St Teresa of Avila once said that Christ has no hands and feet to do his work, but ours. But relax – this is Rejoicing Sunday and we are all stressed out by Christmas. Today is not a day when I am going to appeal to you to spend more, or to give more. I know many of us are doing a great deal already – though if your conscience is reminding you to do sonething about a decision you’ve already made, I offer this as a nudge to put it into practice.

If we, the consumers, don’t have money to spare, and even our Government is running a huge budget deficit, who can afford to fill the hungry with good things? Follow the money! Businesses can – at least, those businesses which are turning a large profit can. If they give less money to shareholders and more to their employees, that is good for their employees, and good for the places where their employees shop!

Each year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation calculates the minimum income which could give a full-time employee an adequate quality of living; last month they announced the current such living wage, outside London, is £7.85 an hour. Here in Cardiff, our local Citizens group has been campaigning for some of our key employers to pay all their workers the Living Wage. Cardiff University and NHS Wales have already pledged to pay all their staff at least the Living Wage – Citizens are now calling on the Welsh Rugby Union and Millennium Stadium to go Living Wage in time for the Rugby World Cup in 2015. With Ashes Cricket due to pay a rare visit to Cardiff, Sophia Gardens could be the next target!

Not all of us are able to sign up to be campaigners for Citizens. A few of us may employ people directly, or be on governing bodies which set pay; with the Living Wage in mind, can we utter those wonderful words, ‘I’d like to give you a raise’?

What about the rest of us? We may not be employers, but we are consumers, and we have the power to choose where we spend our money. At the start of this week I wrote to the managers of ten large supermarkets close to our church, including all the big names and the discount retailers. I am now pleased to be able to announce that the following stores have told me that they pay all their employees the living wage, including external contractors…

Aldi (Dartington Drive, Pentwyn) were the first (and so far, only) to respond, with the excellent news that all their staff receive £7.90 per hour or above!

God will fill the starving with good things. It will take time, but God will do it, and God will do it through you. All you need to do is to spend your money wisely. If your usual store doesn’t pay the Living Wage, next time you shop, ask the Manager why they don’t. After all, why would you spend your money in a store which uses the profits to buy corporate jets, when you could spend it in a place which gives your next-door neighbour a living wage instead? Shop at a living wage employer, and when you hand over your cash at the till, imagine yourself saying to the shopworker, ‘I’ve just given you a raise!’ – because you have! Rejoice!

The following stores were also sent letters on Tuesday 9th December 2014 and were invited to respond by 4 pm on Saturday 13th December to indicate that they paid directly-employed and contracted staff the Living Wage:

  • ASDA, Dering Road, Cardiff Gate
  • M&S Simply Food, Newport Road
  • Iceland, Albany Road
  • Tesco, Pengam Green
  • Morrisons, Newport Road
  • Sainsbury’s, Colchester Avenue
  • Waitrose, Pontprennau
  • Lidl, Colchester Avenue
  • Farmfoods, Pentwyn

A Royal Baby is coming – deja vu?

St Edward's Crown surrounded by a green recycling logoSermon at the Advent Praise Service for the Cardiff East Ecumenical Mission Partnership, hosted here at St Philip Evans Church on  Thursday 4 December

The Seven Word Sermon: Read the Bible again! Do it slowly.

Read all about it! Read all about it! News! Good news! A Royal Baby is coming!

When I preached my Christmas sermon two years ago, the newspapers were filled with baby-talk. Medical experts discussed different kinds of morning sickness. Fashion editors mulled over maternity-wear. Royal correspondents speculated on the kind of reign this future King, or Queen, might expect. Much of British society was excited watching and waiting, and supportive citizens sent cards and romper-suits to Buckingham Palace! A few months later, the world met Prince George for the first time.

Well, now we are two years on, and guess what! A Royal Baby is coming! But I am not sensing the same level of excitement. We already have an heir; now comes the spare! But I am sure the Duchess of Cambridge doesn’t see it that way. She is having a baby, every bit as precious and wanted as the last one.

Advent can fill us with the same kind of deja vu – here comes another Christmas, and my life this year feels busier than ever before. Meals to prepare, cards to write, presents to wrap… oh yes, and maybe I should spare a thought for Baby Jesus.

Hold on to that thought. It’s precisely because Advent comes around every year that we are invited to a spiritual re-boot, an opportunity to re-focus on the message which God has tried so hard to get through to us. If we want to hear God, we need to take time to listen. We are not only celebrating the first coming of Jesus – we are reminding ourselves that because of what happened at the first Christmas, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is close to us at every moment. Perhaps we know the Bible stories quite well already – but there is often a deeper message for us if we spend time with familiar texts again.

The first coming of a Royal Baby always generates excitement. But after that, we have to choose to take an interest. Advent allows us a month before the New Year in order to put in place some good New Year’s resolutions. So let’s get real. We all have a few busy weeks ahead; December is not a good time to start something. But it’s not too early to start thinking about 2015. If you never read the Bible at home, why not pick it up for 10 minutes every Sunday and read a little? If you currently manage once or twice a week, what about 5 minutes a day? Throughout 2015, many churches will be reading their way through Mark’s Gospel; that might be a good place to begin. Or you might want to follow a daily reading guide, like the one now being passed around as a gift.

The Christmas spirit will pass.The next Royal Baby will arrive and create a few headlines. But if you want to know the deepest message which the Christ-child has to offer you, you will find it it in the Book of God’s Good News. Read all about it! Read all about it! – but the extra only comes when you spend more time with God.