Homily at St Philip Evans on the Third Sunday of Easter, Year B.
The Seven Word Sermon: Take action before it’s too late. You!
(This sermon begins with the preacher and his accomplices lobbing ping pong balls into the congregation, calling ‘catch!’)
Sometimes, it takes a shock to persuade us to change our ways.
For much of his life, my Dad smoked. He tried to quit several times, but it was only when his doctor gave him a stern warning about his blood pressure, that he was motivated enough to kick the habit.
A few years ago, I had severe back pain. My doctor told me to use an exercise bike to strengthen the muscles in my lower back, and I now do so regularly. If it hadn’t been for that wake-up call, I probably still wouldn’t exercise regularly.
And what is true of our health is also true of our faith.
Each of today’s readings is a wake-up call.
The Risen Lord is having difficulty getting through to the Apostles. During his lifetime on earth, he had tried to explain that his mission was to die so that people’s sins could be forgiven. After allowing them to touch the wounds in his hands and feet, and eating a piece of fish to prove he was no mere apparition, he ‘opens their minds’ so they can understand what is going on. Eventually, they wake up and realise that their mission is to tell the world to ‘repent’. The Greek word we translate as repent, metanoia, means much more than ‘saying sorry’. It means a radical change in one’s way of life!
St Peter is having difficulty getting through to his Jewish audience. 50 days earlier, many members of the same crowd had shouted “Crucify him!” – no doubt quite a few had got caught up in the emotion of the moment and only realised the enormity of what they had done when the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth was taken down from the Cross. Yet Peter turns this to his advantage, excusing what they had done and saying that they, too, are invited to become followers of Jesus.
St John is having difficulty getting through to his Christian audience. Some among them claimed to know Jesus, but were not living their lives according to the teaching of Jesus. St John does not mince his words, calling those with the wrong lifestyle, “liars”. But at the same time, he insists that all sins can be forgiven if we turn to Jesus.
Now today, I hope I will have no difficulty getting through to you! If you have caught a ping-pong ball, please hold it in the air so that everyone can see it! Look around you – see how many balls are being held aloft…
These balls represent the responsibilities in our parish which no-one is yet taking hold of.
The white balls represent the ministry of welcome. Since his arrival last September, our seminarian, Jonathan, has been on duty at weekend Masses welcoming people as they arrive. But Jonathan will be leaving us in July, and we need to hand on this task to others. There are many balls, because we wish to have a rota of welcomers so that each person is only on duty once a month. If you come to this church regularly, can smile, and are able to stand up for 20 minutes, you qualify as a welcomer. You don’t even have to be a Catholic! All that we ask is that you come 20 minutes early for the Mass you would be attending anyway, greet visitors and distribute any booklets or leaflets needed for that Mass.
The yellow balls represent our duty to share faith with our children. It is some years since this parish has had a Children’s Liturgy during Mass – that is, an opportunity for under-8s to go out during the first half of Mass to listen and respond to the Bible in a way more appropriate to their age. If we don’t provide a Children’s Liturgy, we are making it difficult for parents with young children to be part of our parish community. But to get a good Children’s Liturgy running, we need four teams, each with three people – 12 people altogether. Four of those need to be team leaders, who – with guidance from myself – will prepare the children’s session. It’s not hard – their are lots of resources available. Eight will be ‘additional adults’ there to help supervise the children. Everyone who takes on this task will need to have a DBS check – what we used to call a Criminal Records Check. We cannot re-launch a Children’s Liturgy unless we have a large team, because it’s not fair to expect a few people to do the work every weekend. But for the leaders, it only means one hour per month preparing material, and for the assistants, it takes no more time than coming to Mass.
Finally, the blue balls represent our responsibility to keep our church and hall in good condition. As a public building, there are many Health & Safety inspections, and maintenance tasks, which need to be carried out each year. Some, such as checking for trip hazards, can be done by a volunteer. Others, such as electrical testing, need us to call in professionals – but we still need a responsible person on site to show the professionals around. I am very grateful to Deacon Steve, who has done the lion’s share of this work in recent years, and to Joe Manson, who has done many practical jobs on our site, but we need a larger team. In December, I called a meeting for those willing to help, but no-one new came. If Deacon Steve or myself have to supervise maintenance, every hour we spend dealing with this is an hour when sick parishioners are not being visited, the bereaved are not being comforted, or prayers are not being offered. Do you want your clergy to spend their time looking after buildings, or people? It may be that your husband or wife does not attend Mass but would be willing to support the parish through taking on one of these practical jobs – could you ask them when you get home?
On Easter Sunday, I had a text message from a friend of mine, a priest in Kent. We were ordained deacon together, but he is a few years older than me. On Easter Sunday night, he suffered a mini-stroke and spent a few days in hospital. His doctor has warned him to avoid stress – not easy when you are a priest celebrating Easter. And for me, this was a wake-up call too, it was a “There but for the grace of God go I” moment. This is OUR parish. It is as strong as we make it together. It cannot depend on the priest or the deacon doing all the work. Nor can it rely on the priest having to approach people individually to persuade them to take on a particular role. So today, I am sharing with all of you the responsibility of recruiting volunteers. And I want to do this in a way that makes it clear what is needed.
Please hold up the ping-pong balls again, if you have one.
Remember, WHITE represents the ministry of Welcome, which needs you to come 20 minutes early, once a month. YELLOW is Children’s Liturgy, which assistants can do when at Mass anyway. BLUE is you, or your partner at home, giving a few hours per month helping with practical site maintenance. Now don’t panic – if you have caught a ball, you don’t have to do the task it represents. All you have to do is find someone in church right now willing to take that responsibility from you. And if there is a task you would like to take on, you can go to someone holding the right colour ball and offer to take it from them. You can do that right now. Go!
(After a few minutes of people exchanging ping-pong balls…)
Thank you for that. We now need to take contact details for those of you taking on these new tasks. When the collection is taking place, Jonathan will come and give you a slip to complete, so please hold up your ping-pong ball then for him to see. But now we continue with the Creed and Prayer of the Faithful.