Many Folds, One Flock

Homily at Nazareth House on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: The one flock exists in many folds.Nine variant images of a sheepfold

Are we united or are we scattered? In today’s Gospel, Jesus says two things which pull in different directions. One points to unity: “There will be only one flock and one shepherd.” But the other speaks of diversity: “I must lead other sheep which are not of this fold.”

For the first disciples of Jesus, they might have understood this as meaning Jesus came not only for Jews, but also for Gentiles.

Today we might hear a message about how Jesus relates to the different kinds of Christian churches.

But I think there is also a difference between the FLOCK and the FOLD. Jesus wants to gather all the sheep into one flock, but perhaps not all to live in the same fold.

What makes them one united flock? It is the name of Jesus. To be part of this flock, each member must accept that the Lord is indeed their shepherd.

What makes them different folds? Often it is geography – each parish gathers the sheep in a different location. But the City of Cardiff now has a rich mix of Catholic folds – an Eastern Rite congregation in St Cuthbert’s, Polish priests at St Patrick’s, services in the Indian language, Malayalam, at St Joseph’s – and ourselves worshipping in Welsh here at Nazareth House.

Because our fold is part of a greater flock, we have a responsibility to help provide shepherds for that flock. This weekend, Archbishop George asks all our churches to contribute to the cost of training our future priests and remembering them in our prayers. Jonathan, our own priest-in-training, will have more to say about this at the end of Mass. So I will stop here to allow more time for him – but please keep him and our other diocesan seminarians in your prayers.

For more reflections from Pastor Gareth and Jonathan on Good Shepherd Sunday, tune in to BBC Radio Wales Celebration

Shock Tactics

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.IMG_0076[1]

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.

We Believe in Grace, Not Karma

Grace-Not-KarmaHomily at St Philip Evans on Easter Sunday 2015

The Seven Word Sermon: What goes around can stop at Jesus.

Christ has died!

Christ is Risen!

Christ will come again!

Today is a great day. Today we celebrate our security. The world around us is full of dangers. Planes crash. Terrorists cause havoc. No-one can predict the shape of next month’s Government. But today we have good news that no traitor, politician or terrorist can take away from us. Jesus is not dead! He now enjoys a life that will never end, in heaven, and we have a place there!

But isn’t this too good to be true? Isn’t it the case that what goes around, comes around?

We human beings have a strong sense of “just deserts”. When someone hurts us, our natural instinct is “Someone must pay for this!” When we ourselves are the culprits, we have a guilty sense that we need to do something to make amends. On the other hand, when someone does a good deed for us, we might just be inspired to pay it forward – at some coffee shops there is now a tradition of buying a “suspended coffee” to be claimed by the next customer, who in turn will pay for another.

Today, we celebrate something altogether greater, an act of generosity which we can never repay.

Our Lord Jesus died, suspended upon a Cross. He resisted the temptation to come down in an act of Divine Power, choosing instead to endure the death penalty. Then, things got interesting. An empty tomb. A mysterious stranger with a familiar bearing. An abrupt appearance through a locked door. Doubt no longer, but believe!

As Christians, we believe in grace, not karma. Yes, our instincts are right when they tell us we deserve some kind of payback for what we have done wrong. But Jesus has paid for it. This is what we are celebrating today! Jesus, with his own body, has paid the ultimate price.

If our innermost being is crying out “Someone must pay for this,” Jesus looks into the depths of our pain and says, “I have. Be at peace.” His sacrifice has paid not only for the sins of our enemies, but our own sins too. It is a free gift, offered out of love, and unlike the suspended coffee, one that we can never repay.

During the past six weeks of Lent, we have struggled to do that which is within our power, to live better lives, to overcome our worst habits, to do good to others. In short, we did what we could to become better people. But today, we celebrate that Jesus did what we cannot. We cannot earn heaven.

We have a special name for the kind of free gift which God offers to us. We call it grace.

God thinks we are worth dying for. That’s grace!

In a few moments, when we renew our baptismal commitment, I will ask: “Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins?”

If you do, then you believe in grace, not karma. You believe that what goes round doesn’t need to come round. You believe that Jesus has willingly accepted the consequence of every wrongful deed you have ever done.

The best gifts are the ones given to us unexpectedly – a loving hand on our shoulder, a handmade gift, a surprise party. Most unexpectedly, Jesus gave his life for us. We can never repay this gift, but we can respond to it – by celebrating Easter with all our heart, mind and strength.

We believe in grace, not karma.

Let us make this a day of rejoicing!

Christ has died!

Christ is Risen!

Christ will come again!

Photo credits – the thinking person design was from Pixabay, the Risen Christ from Flickr user WaitingForTheWord.

Food For The Journey

Homily at St Philip Evans on Maundy Thursday 2015

The Seven Word Sermon: Christ exhorts and sustains us through life.

Are we nearly there yet?

For six weeks we have been journeying through Lent. If we have taken our Lent seriously, we have done whatever is within our power to overcome our bad habits and to increase our doing of good deeds. God willing, our new and better habits will stick – but we may not sustain our short-term burst of good deeds in the long haul.

400 years ago, a French priest, St Vincent de Paul, felt inspired to gather a band of men who would travel to the ends of the earth to do the work of God; he called them simply The Congregation of the Mission, and reflected on their work in these words:

What have our Missioners in the Far East undertaken?  … A single man takes on the care of a ship crewed by two hundred convicts: religious instruction and confessions to the healthy and to the sick, day and night, for two weeks; and at the end of that time, he gives them a party, going himself to buy a side of beef and have it cooked; it’s their delight; one man alone does all that! Sometimes he goes off to the farms where slaves are placed; he takes them on their free time and helps them to know God; he gets them ready to receive the sacraments, and at the end he gives them a treat and has a little party for them. In Madagascar the Missioners preach, hear confessions, and teach catechism constantly from four in the morning until ten, and from two in the afternoon until nightfall; the rest of the time is spent praying the Office and visiting the sick. Those men are workers, they’re true Missioners!

Are we nearly there yet? Not yet, but we are well on the way. The journey takes a lifetime; but God has provided us with food for the journey.

Faith and feasting have always gone hand in hand. God commanded the Israelites to sacrifice and eat the Passover Lamb each year. Our Lord Jesus celebrated a similar meal at the Last Supper, when he commanded us to feast on his body and blood. The Missioners mentioned by St Vincent completed each of their missions by a celebration meal. Our journey through life is punctuated by feasting and fasting. In giving us the Gift which is the Eucharist, Our Lord has entrusted us with food for the journey. In doing this, he at one and the same time instructed us about what was within our power, and what was his alone. It is within our power to give of ourselves to those in need. It is within God’s power to sustain us on the journey with the Bread from Heaven.A South American native holds aloft a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament

Many of you may have watched the film, The Mission, on television last Sunday. There is one scene in which a missionary priest, trying to protect the natives of a South American tribe, leads them in a procession, carrying the Blessed Sacrament. When he is attacked and falls, a native picks up the monstrance and continues the procession. That priest, though merely the creation of a scriptwriter, represents the many missionaries who have succeeded in giving both material help and a renewed sense of dignity to the poorest people of the world. Among them, we might name the soon-to-be-Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down at Mass for speaking up for the poor, and many of St Vincent de Paul’s missionary martyrs.

When the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul sold their property to build the Deaf Service Hall here at St Philip Evans, we inherited the contents of their chapel. Among them are relics of St Vincent de Paul himself, and two of his priests who were martyred as missionaries in China, St John Gabriel Perboyre and St Francis Regis Clet. Nor was St Vincent only an inspiration to men, for he founded the Daughters of Charity with St Louise de Marillac; perhaps the most famous later member was St Catherine Labouré, to whom the Blessed Mother showed herself to reveal the Miraculous Medal. I have placed all these relics on the table where we will also receive the holy oils, because the oils are for our journey to become saints: in Baptism, we are joined to the body of Christ; in Confirmation, we are promised strength to help us act as saints; in the Sacrament of the Sick, we are anointed to prepare our souls to return the mission on Earth or enter the company of the saints in Heaven.

Lent is but a moment in the cycle of our Christian life, to remind us of the mission we have been given all-year-round, to love one another as Christ has loved us. Tonight we remember how Christ taught us the work of humble service by washing the feet of his disciples, disciples who were commissioned to go out into the world and do likewise. This is our mission as Christians, as Catholics. We who choose to gather on this Thursday night, we are the heart of this parish, and so it falls especially on us to continue this mission.

Loving other people is hard work. It takes a lot of time. The people we try to love never behave the way wish they would. And whatever good we do, it never seems enough, for there’s always more that we could do if only life and its limitations did not get in the way. But God knows this. God himself experienced the limits of human flesh in Jesus Christ. And Jesus constantly called upon us not to be afraid. If we are truly people who love without fear, then the way we vote in next month’s General Election will be shaped by a generous concern for the poorest members of society, not a frightened snatching at our own self-interest.

Are we nearly there yet? None of us knows the day or hour when God will call us to complete our journey. Tragically, we live in an age where religious extremists are making martyrs of Christians in many parts of the world. We are called to the bloodless martyrdom of living our daily lives for Christ. In this, we are not alone. God has provided for us, food for the journey. Let us not be daunted by our calling, for St Vincent spoke as follows: We’ll always have greater strength than is needed, especially when the occasion arises. No one can be excused on the grounds of powerlessness: we have in us the seeds of the omnipotence of Jesus Christ.