Great Expectations: Peacemaking

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 31st Anniversary of the Dedication of the Church and the start of the parish Sion Community Mission – 22 & 23 October 2016. great-expectations-logo

At the start of Mass: Our Church was solemnly dedicated by Archbishop Ward on 25 October 1985. Today, on the nearest weekend, we celebrate another year of the life of our parish community, but we also mark a new beginning, as we enter our Parish Mission. Previously, on this Dedication festival, I have asked you to make a point of exchanging the sign of peace by name. This year, not only for today but throughout our Mission, I am inviting you to take one more step. On the pews in front of you are pens and name badges. I invite you to write your name on a badge and wear it not only today, but whenever you come to a church event throughout the next two weeks of our Parish Mission.

Now please turn to greet, by name, the people in front of, and behind you.

Normally, we would call to mind our sins at this moment. I’m going to hold that back until the middle of Mass today – so let us enter into our celebration with a great song of praise, the Gloria!

Homily: This church is full of sin!

Look! There is the confessional! Every week, sinners come and leave their sins at the feet of a priest.

Look! Here is our altar, dedicated 31 years ago. Whenever we gather around this altar to celebrate Mass, we begin with a moment to “call to mind our sins”. The Lord forgives all our little sins, and we leave them here.

Look! Above us, the great Crucifix, the sign of Christ taking on his shoulders all the sins of the world! When we celebrate Mass, Calvary becomes present on this altar, making present not only our personal sins, but all the sins of the human race!

Look! Gathered here, a throng of people! I don’t know what sins you are conscious of in your heart, but you do – and God does, too.

Yes, my dear brothers and sisters, we must acknowledge a terrible truth: our Church is a magnet for sin.

But I have good news. God can do something about it!

Why do we have a solemn celebration for the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church? It’s a natural, human thing to want to mark another year of our being here with a celebration, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s another reason, too. In the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish people were commanded to keep an annual commemoration of the Dedication of their Temple – the solemn observance of Yom Kippur. Our First Reading today was an extract from the instructions given for that day.

Yom Kippur was the one day in the year when the High Priest was commanded to enter the Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the Temple. First, the High Priest offers a sacrifice for HIS OWN SIN – it’s a bull. (You may be pleased to know that I myself went to confession on Friday; you may also be relieved to learn that no livestock were injured on my behalf!)

Next, the High Priest makes an offering to take away the sin of all the people of Israel – it’s a goat. But what happened to the other goat? If I had included a longer reading from Leviticus, we would have heard how the priest was to speak all the sins of the people over the head of that goat, and it would then be driven out into the wilderness. It was the original scapegoat. That’s where the term comes from!

Today, we mark the Dedication of our own Temple, this Church of St Philip Evans. It’s also the beginning of our first ever Parish Mission. It struck me that today ought to be for us a new beginning. God doesn’t want us to be tied down by sins and problems from the past. We haven’t had a perfect history as a parish. Before I became your parish priest, the life of this parish was marked by some very serious disagreements. As human beings, our natural reaction is to ask “Who started  it?” and seek an apology. But that’s not God’s way. No, the question God asks is “Who is willing to end it?” – in today’s Gospel we heard these words:

“If you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first.”

This matters! In fact, it matters so much that St Paul wrote that “anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be behaving unworthily towards the body and blood of the Lord.” The Communion that we receive at Mass is only a Holy Communion when we have made peace with all the members of our community.

Making the first move for peace might seem unfair. What Our Lord did on the Cross was not fair – it was the greatest act of generosity in the history of the human race. He took on himself all our sins. We are asked to imitate him in a very small way, making peace without the satisfaction of an apology.

Often enough there’s no possibility of an apology. We are human beings from different cultures, different nations, and different ways of thinking. Two people can approach the same situation, or even hear the very same words spoken, and interpret things in very different ways. Each person has their own integrity, and might do what they believe to be right – and still conflict comes, because our perspective is so different. This is why God doesn’t ask “Who started it?” but only “Who will make peace?”

Let me begin with myself. At seminary, we’re taught to become aware of our own character faults and weaknesses. I know that I have strong gifts for organising things, but I’m not always sensitive to other people’s feelings. It’s quite possible that at times I have been insensitive and not even realised the hurt I’ve caused. If I have hurt anyone in the three years I have been here by things I have said, done, or failed to do, I ask your forgiveness.

Then, on behalf of all the clergy. All priests and deacons are human beings, capable of having bad days and being tempted. To anyone who has ever been offended by the words, actions or inactions of any minister, I apologise in the name of the Church.

Finally, on behalf of Mother Church herself. Sometimes we feel let down by what the Church has done as an institution, or its failure to be the kind of Church we hoped it would be. But whenever we are part of something bigger, things won’t always go the way that we wish for, and this calls for great patience on our part. Will you forgive the Catholic Church for not being perfect on earth?

The Book of Leviticus lists many kinds of sacrifice that could be made in the Jewish Temple. Some were for the cleansing of individual people. Some were for the whole community. Some were even for the cleansing of the land. God waits for us to ask, before He uses His divine power to free us from the consequences of sin. So today, let us ask! If we are involved in any conflict, great or small, with people inside or outside this parish, let’s decide, right now, to make the first move for peace.

I’m going to celebrate, now, the same rite of blessing and sprinkling holy water which we keep at the Easter Vigil. One of the questions I will ask is whether you believe in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”. When I come among you sprinkling Holy Water, this will be a prayer for cleansing of the parish, that God will free us from all the spiritual effects of all the sins confessed in this church in the past, and all the spiritual baggage from conflicts which we, as members of the body of Christ, have been part of. If you are ready to make peace, if you are ready to receive this new beginning of spiritual cleansing, I invite you to receive the gift of Holy Water with open palms.

After the sprinkling rite:

There’s one loose end from our First Reading. What about the two rams, one for the priest, one for the people? These were “holocaust offerings”, every part was to be offered in sacrifice to God, holding nothing back. God had great expectations of the people of Israel – they were to be totally dedicated to God, trusting God for everything, giving God the very best of what they owned.

In a moment, we’ll do what we do every week – we will take a collection. Let’s remember that what we give in money is an act of worship, an offering to God. But also, while the collection goes on, I am going to pass around this clipboard. We want to give God an offering of prayer while members of our Mission Team are visiting people at home this week. Could you sign up for half-an-hour of prayer one day this week? If you can, please book your slot – and the clipboard will be brought up with our other gifts as part of our offering to God.