Small Victories

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Celebrate Small Victories. Jesus surpasses Moses quietly!

And God said: I will send you a prophet like Moses! And lo! Jesus appeared among us.

Moses called down ten plagues on Egypt! Jesus stopped James and John from calling down fire on Samaria.

Moses parted the sea – thousands of Israelites were saved, and thousands of Egyptians were drowned. Jesus calmed a storm for the sake of a dozen troubled disciples.

Moses presented the whole Israelite nation with manna from heaven six days a week for forty years. Jesus fed two crowds of 5000 and 4000 with bread and fish.

Moses went up a mountain and received ten Commandments. Jesus sat on a mountain and proclaimed eight Beatitudes.

Under Moses, Israel was led for 40 years by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Over Jesus, the voice of the Father was heard twice, at his Baptism and again on the Mountain of Transfiguration.

Compared to Moses, I can’t help feeling that Jesus performed God’s work on a rather smaller stage. Indeed, we know that Jesus was tempted to perform public spectacles. Turn stones into bread? Have angels catch him as he stage-dived from the parapet of the Temple? He could have done both, but it wasn’t what he was about.

Jesus shows us what it is to be truly human. Few of us will be called to the dizzy heights of leading a nation in exile. All of us will feel angry, fearful or hungry at times. So although what Jesus does is less impressive on the world stage, it’s much more important for our daily lives. We are assured of God’s forgiveness, God’s comfort and God’s guidance in the trials which we all face.

We find less assurance in St Paul’s words today, which might give the impression that God isn’t in favour of regular family life. Paul seems to be saying: “You can get married and focus on the things of this world, or you can stay single and do what God really wants.” But if you read one of the verses just before today’s passage, Paul does say he is only giving his own personal advice, not God’s commands; and bear in mind that St Paul is an unmarried man who has had a radical conversion experience and become a travelling missionary relentlessly wearing down his shoe leather across the eastern Mediterranean! Nevertheless, there is some wisdom in what he says.

In a marriage where both partners are not equally committed Christians, there will be tensions which force the more committed spouse to choose between God and their husband or wife. How much time should be given to prayer, at church or in the home? How much money should be offered to the Church each week?  What ethical values should be taught to the children? St Paul is an idealist, and abhors the idea of a Christian spouse compromising on what they might give to God for the sake of peace at home.

Some followers of Jesus will choose not to marry, precisely so that they can devote all their life’s energy to continuous prayer or service of the poor. The lives of those called to be celibate, because this is a counter-cultural choice, will be powerful signs that God’s Kingdom is present on earth.

On the other hand, I think if St Paul were alive today, he would also say there’s a powerful Christian example we can give by being faithful to marriage. When bride and groom choose to live apart until their wedding day, this speaks volumes. When one of us is drawn into a conversation about modern life, we can gently but firmly express our belief that married people must choose to make many sacrifices for the sake of staying together, short of exposing themselves to actual harm, because that is what the wedding vows require.

Marriage always requires daily compromises. Sometimes this means that a partner has to make a permanent sacrifice – setting aside their own pet way of doing something, their daydream of how it SHOULD be…and never drawing attention to the matter again. In marriage, and in daily life, it is the small victories which matter.

St Mark gives us today’s story of Jesus casting out a demon because he wants us to know that Jesus has power to overcome evil and darkness. We, too , face a struggle with temptation – not in the form of a screaming demon, but of that small selfish voice inside of us which suggests we should put our own needs first.

We can win many small victories every day. We can choose to smile when an ageing parent rings us for the fourteenth time this week. We can get on with the laundry and the cleaning as a labour of love. We can pick up the phone and call a friend who is in need. We can do the tasks that need doing with good grace; and when something good happens beyond our control, we can rejA posse of angels on one shoulder prepare to overpower the demon on the otheroice and give thanks to God.

It is Jesus, not Moses, who shows us the path. Curb your anger, however frustrated you get. Be a peacemaker in troubled times. Give freely of what you have to those in need. Live out the eight Beatitudes. Live as a true child of God-the-Father. Live a life marked not by mighty spectacles, but by small victories. Listen to your better nature, not the inner voice of selfishness, and you will be victorious – with victories so small that only God and yourself are aware of the inner battle which have taken place. Then you too will be greater than Moses!

The Call

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

The Seven Word Sermon: Invite someone to find Jesus… maybe yourself!

I wonder if today’s readings have left you feeling a little bit pressurised?

Jonah turns up in Nineveh and everyone in the city cleans up their act! But we are still struggling to keep our New Year’s Resolutions…Thermometer

St Paul writes to the Corinthians, worried that the world is about to end, and suggests no one should bother about worldly things like getting a job or being married. But here we are, two thousand years later.

Jesus marches up to Andrew, Peter, James and John, and immediately they down tools and follow him! But in less than an hour, we are going to leave this Mass and go right back to where we came from.

Now it’s true, that there is a sense of urgency in today’s readings. We are meant to feel the pressure, so I’ve brought my pressure gauge with me. But being a physicist, I know that when things are placed under pressure, they get hot – so mine’s a thermometer.

We could easily get distracted and think that today’s message is about how much TIME we can give to God’s work. For most of us, that would leave us near the bottom. Not many of us are going to become priests, nuns or lay missionaries who take on the work of the church as our full-time pursuit. Some of us are retired, and can turn out regularly to help with the church decoration, flower arranging, and tea-making. A few of us give an hour or two a week to work with our young people preparing for First Communion or Confirmation. But I know that for many of us, it’s a struggle just to get the family ready to turn up at Mass on time, let alone do anything more for church activities during the week.

So relax! This isn’t a TimeOmeter, and the Lord is not asking many of us to devote more time to church. Perhaps one or two of you are feeling the nudge to do rather more, and that’s a sign it would be good to talk to me, Deacon Steve or Jonathan about the kind of short term or long term calling God might be pointing you towards. It would be fantastic if some of tomorrow’s priests and religious sisters were sitting in this congregation today. But for most of us the challenge is rather different.

“I will make you fishers of men,” says Jesus. That is the call which Jesus gives to all of us – and it is much more important for you who go out into the world than for the likes of clergy who spend all their time dealing with Catholics. We are all called to catch fish, that is, to invite people to become members of our church community. But perhaps the image of being a caught fish, tangled up in a net, doesn’t seem that appealing. I prefer another image, the one Jesus used when he said he had come to set the world on fire, and wished it was ablaze already! We are called to set the world on fire! A soul on fire cries out to God in prayer and reaches out to their neighbour in love. But we aren’t going to do that unless we are red-hot, and that brings us back to my thermometer.

I am going to suggest four steps you might take to help you share the Catholic faith with others. Each step is more challenging than the last. You might have taken one or two already – this will indicate what you might do next. A kettle doesn’t boil in an instant, but if we are going to set the world on fire, we need to start warming up now!

STEP ONE: Place a holy picture in your home where visitors can see it. Know the story behind it if they ask you about it.

STEP TWO: Say grace at mealtimes. It may feel a bit strange it first, if it isn’t your family custom, but it really is as simple as making the sign of the Cross and saying thank you for the food. And if there is a guest in your home, don’t skip grace. Simply say it is part of your faith and if your guest doesn’t want to join in, they can wait politely.

STEP THREE: Think of a person you know, someone who trusts you, but someone who is not an active Christian. What difficulties are they facing in life right now? Could you say to them, next time you meet them, “I am praying for you” – because of their cancer, their family breakdown, or whatever worries they have confided in you? This achieves two things at once – it says that you care, and that you believe God can help. (Don’t forget to actually pray for them!)

STEP FOUR: Ask a friend if they would like to come with you to church. A survey which came out in 2007 showed that there were 3 million people living in the UK who don’t attend church – that means that if you know 20 people who don’t go to church, one of them will say YES when you invite them. Remember, there was a time, way back in the past, when your family did not attend church. Someone invited your ancestors and they came. It might have been back when St Thomas came to India, or St Patrick to Ireland. You are here because of them. It’s time to return the favour!


One final thought. Many people who do join a religion do so because of the kindness of members of that community. I trust that we will be a kind and welcoming community to all those who meet us, here, at St Philip Evans, or out in the wider world. But kindness is not enough. Peter and Andrew, James and John left their boats because they saw something in Jesus worth following.

The call to be fishers of men, to set the world on fire, comes to us directly from Jesus. He is the only good reason to take any of these steps I’ve suggested. If the thought of even taking the first step makes you uncomfortable, then ask yourself: Do I trust Jesus? Am I willing to follow Him, even though He may make some high pressure demands on me?

If the answer is yes, then you are certainly called to be a fisher of men. But if the answer is no, pray this prayer: “Lord Jesus, take away my fears and set my heart on fire.” Until he answers that prayer, you are off the hook!


Further thoughts for the online edition:

How do we catch fish? How do we set people on fire for Jesus? In ages past, we might have reminded people that when we die, each one of us will have to give an account to God of the good and bad choices we have made during our life on Earth. But in this skeptical age, few people in Wales will worry about being judged – indeed, a survey released this week showed that many people who believe in God don’t think there’s an afterlife, and many others believe in some kind of afterlife but not in God!


The Voice

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Follow Jesus only. Reject New Age counterfeits!man-in-chair

Are you ready for, The Voice?

The TV version of ‘The Voice’ has a few celebrities listening to an unseen singer. When one likes what they hear, that one will turn around and choose a candidate to put their faith in.

Among celebrities, there are goodies and baddies. If your name is Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay, expect lots of stories about what a so-and-so you are. But some celebrities on The Voice are portrayed as ‘goodies’, so you’ll only hear about how they have helped coach their chosen candidate for stardom.

The media also portrays our Church as having goodies and baddies. Pope Francis is definitely a goody. So when he says, ‘Who am I to judge?’ you hear all about it. On the other hand, you won’t hear much reported about the Pope speaking about abortion, though he has said clearly that it is wrong in all circumstances.

These days, Jesus is a goody, too. Most people know that Jesus healed sick people, talked about love, and hung out with those polite society rejected. It’s all true! But that’s only half the story. Today, God’s voice boomed over the water: ‘This is my Son! My favour rests on Him!’

This means we must pay attention to the words Jesus said as well as the things he did. And Jesus said lots of deep things about Himself. ‘I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through me!’

These words are very specific, and specific words are more important than general ones. If you were a guest in someone’s home, and your host said said, ‘Make yourself at home here, but please don’t go into my study,’ you couldn’t use the excuse that you had been told you were welcome, in order to go into the study. It’s the same with Jesus. There’s a lot of love, a lot of forgiveness, but some very clear DON’Ts as well.

Jesus is God’s Son. He is God’s clearest Word to us. And He is the only one we can follow to reach Heaven. The early Christians knew this when they composed the prayer which has come down to us as the Gloria. Most Sundays we proclaim:

  • You alone are the Holy One!
  • You alone are the Lord!
  • You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, in the glory of God the Father!

These aren’t just words. They have practical consequences.

Suppose you are invited to friend’s religious wedding ceremony, or to prayers that they say at home, but their religion is not Christian. Can you take part in their prayers? No. We can certainly attend, and be a silent and respectful presence, but that’s as far as we can go.

At a Muslim ceremony, the prayers always affirm that Mohammad is a true prophet of God. But we can’t say Amen to that, because Mohammad taught that Jesus wasn’t God. WE believe He is God just as much as His Father is God.

In a Hindu home, a family might conduct a Puja ceremony to one of the Hindu gods. If we took part in that, we would be saying that one of their gods was a true god. But we believe that Jesus alone is Lord. So WE couldn’t do that without denying Jesus.

The good news is that we don’t have to worry about eating foods connected with other religions. St Paul taught us clearly that food itself cannot harm us as long as we say grace over it. It doesn’t matter if meat is kosher or halal, or food has been used in Hindu or Sikh ceremonies, as long as we pray thanks to Jesus before we eat.

In ancient Rome, before Christianity became legal, if you were suspected of being a Christian, the authorities might arrest you and ask you to offer incense to honour the Emperor as a god. If you gave in and did it, you would be excommunicated from the Church. In those days, it was regarded as one of the three big sins, along with murder and adultery, which only the bishop could forgive!

We worship Jesus alone. This isn’t just arguing about words. It has consequences. Jesus gives us these rules for our own spiritual protection. If we pray to a god who is not Jesus, His Father, or the Holy Spirit, we are seeking to make a connection with something spiritual other than God – and the other spirits which exist don’t care about our well-being. The pulpit is not a place to share bad news stories, but I know of plenty of cases where people have found their peace disturbed because they opened their lives to negative spirits.

Some of you may have tried out different kinds of alternative medicine. Not all of these things are problematic, but we do need to be careful. There are treatments with names like reiki or bioenergy which quite explicitly claim to be rebalancing your spiritual energies. Others are more subtle, but if you ask the practitioners why they do certain things in reflexology, say,  or acupuncture, they may give a similar explanation. Sometimes the therapist will even say that what they are doing is using ‘Christ energy’.

Beware! Not everything done using the name of Christ is Christian! If someone talks about ‘Christ energy’ or ‘Christ consciousness’, ask them what they mean. If they tell you that ‘Christ’ is the force of love who worked through Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad, run a mile! St John knew better. If we have Christian faith, we recognise that Jesus, the baby born at Bethlehem, the man baptised in the Jordan by John, the Saviour of the World slain at Calvary, he and he alone is Christ. It’s God’s Holy Spirit working in our heart that makes us confident about who Jesus is. This is why St John says that faith ‘overcomes the world’.

Some voices in the world say it doesn’t matter whether we follow Jesus. Other voices in the world say that ‘Christ energy’ is in all sorts of places. There are many voices on offer. Which voice will you spin your chair for? I’m only going to spin MY chair round when I hear that loving yet demanding voice which says, ‘I am the way. No one comes to heaven but through me.’

If you are concerned about the issues concerned in this sermon, please consult the New Age section of my website.