Peace to All People of Good Will

Homily for The Solemnity of the Nativity, 2018 at St Philip Evans 

“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

One hundred years ago, for the first time in five brutal years, Cardiff woke up to a Christmas at peace.

For us today, herald angels singing and refrains of “Gloria in excelsis!” are part of the magic and music that give us that “Christmas feeling”. It’s easy to ignore the little line, “peace to people of goodwill”, as one of the familiar phrases we expect to hear in this season.

But imagine those who gathered to celebrate Christmas in 1918, just weeks after the armistice which ended the First World War. Around every dinner table, families would have remembered absent members, and friends, who had laid down their lives. Their great relief that much of the world was at peace would have been mixed with deep questions – “was it worth the cost?” And around many tables, those who faced mortal peril, both those who fought and those whose homelands were invaded, would have been most profoundly aware that they were no longer at war. Peace had returned. This Christmas in Indonesia, many families will have similar mixed emotions as they think of survivors and victims of last week’s tsunami. And yet the rhythm of the year echoes what happened on that unique day when angels spoke into human history:

“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

But what did the angels mean in their song? That God was pleased with the human race in its entirety, and therefore sent us Jesus? Or did they mean that God was sending a gift of peace to be received by those of us who are people of goodwill, while the rest of the world faces God’s anger?

The Bible contains beautiful words. Jesus himself said that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And that’s the key. When we ask whether God is punishing us or protecting us, we should look not only at this life we live on earth, but eternal life – the life the angels are already living. God sent Baby Jesus so, as a man dying on the Cross, he would open the door to heaven for anyone willing to follow him through it. Jesus didn’t encourage us to think of disasters, natural or man-made, as signs of God’s punishment; rather, he spoke of God’s anger coming on souls in the afterlife who had harmed children, ignored people in need, or refused to forgive their enemies.

So I say again: “Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

In these Christmas words, we hear ourselves being challenged. Are we truly people of good will?

God’s rewards and wrath are reserved for us in heaven; here on Earth, God has left the responsibility for war and peace with us. He sent Christ, the Prince of Peace, to encourage us to live at peace with one another, and to pour his gift of peace into the heart of anyone who asks. And we can ask! We can pray for God to give us the good will to make peace with all people.

Christmas is a time of year which offers us special opportunities. Family members who might not be together for the rest of the year will be gathered together around one table. Perhaps this means that you will be forced to spend time with a relative or friend you don’t get on with – perhaps even someone who has broken a promise to you, publicly embarrassed you, or harmed you in some other way. This may feel like a threat, but it’s actually an opportunity. 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?” The will to make peace is a good will.

“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

Are you looking in the manger for a God who stops earthquakes, tsunamis, and man’s inhumanity to man? You will seek in vain.

But are you looking for a God who is as vulnerable as a baby in a manger, who offers us the strength to be meek? You are looking in the right place.

The Prince of Peace came not to spare us from disasters, but to lead us through them on the royal road of forgiveness and generosity.

If you are looking for peace in your life, come to the silence of this Church; come and kneel before this crib. Ask God to fill your heart with the power to will what is good for others. It is through the goodwill in your heart that Cardiff can wake up to a Christmas at peace.

I have in my prayer-book a little card from the peacemaking organisation called Pax Christi, and I’d like to leave you with the prayer which is written on it – it’s by the late leader of the Taizé community in France, Brother Roger. It says this:

O Risen Christ,Icon of Jacob and Esau embracing and other Bible scenes of peacemaking
You breathe your Holy Spirit on us
and you tell us: ‘Peace be yours’.
Opening ourselves to your peace –
letting it penetrate the harsh and
rocky ground of our hearts –
means preparing ourselves to be
bearers of reconciliation
wherever you may place us.
But you know that at times
we are at a loss.
So come and lead us
to wait in silence,
to let a ray of hope shine forth
in our world.

“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

And may the blessing of the Prince of Peace fill your hearts with joy. A Blessed Christmas to you all.

The phrasing of “on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill” is from Christopher Walker’s New Celtic Liturgy, which is the Mass setting being used at my Christmas Masses.

In the Mud!

Thursday Homily to full-time Members of Sion Community at the December Retreat (St Lucy’s Day)

“The Kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence, and the violent are taking it by storm.”

It’s not obvious what this passage means, so I went to look it up in a Bible commentary. You know you’re in trouble when the only thing the Commentary says is ‘lots of scholars have discussed this verse’!

But I like a challenge, so let’s explore it.

One way of interpreting this ‘violence’ is that the followers of John the Baptist and Jesus were facing physical opposition from the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or the Romans. In the previous verses in Matthew, Jesus sent the Twelve Apostles on a mission to proclaim the Kingdom, warning that they will be put on trial and forced to make a public declaration of whether they believe in this controversial Christ. Certainly there’s a chance of violence against disciples; we celebrate today one Christian woman whose name was handed down to us for her steadfastness when persecuted because of her commitment to follow Christ as a believer and as a virgin. But we believe that the saints ultimately triumph precisely by their martyrdom. So does it make sense to say that those expressing violence against God’s witnesses can take the Kingdom of the sovereign God by storm? No so much.

The Greek words of this passage could also be translated: “The Kingdom of heaven is being invaded; energetic souls are forcing their way in!”

Jesus is speaking about the time from the start of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness – a season when first John, and then Jesus with his disciples, have been proclaiming ‘Turn away from sin! God’s Kingdom is close to you!”

In Luke’s Gospel, we find an almost identical passage about John the Baptist. There’s only one difference: where Matthew puts this odd verse about violence, Luke comments that sinners and tax collectors were converting, but the Pharisees were not.

The next thing today’s text from Matthew tells us, is that Jesus rebukes the listeners who haven’t responded to his call or John’s, likening them to children who won’t sing when musicians play a lament or a song of celebration. So could it be that Jesus means to contrast this lazy, unresponsive, crowd with the energetic souls who not only made the trip to John in the wilderness but committed themselves to change their way of life? Those souls did violence to their old way of life and thereby forced themselves into the Kingdom of Heaven – perhaps as one squeezes through a narrow gate or the eye of a needle? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to be part of the Kingdom of God? … Are you willing to lose your dignity and get down there in the mud?

I hope we can number ourselves among the ‘invaders’ who know we have already set foot in the Kingdom. But we are also evangelists – can can we encourage more souls to become invaders? Or just as an army carries its cooks, medics and porters into newly taken territory, are there souls we can carry with us into Kingdom of God?

Last night, one of our members shared her sense that we are being called to play a new game, prompted by the way the running track behind our building had been replaced by a playing field. I quipped that I hoped our game would be rugby, not football, because a successful team scores ‘conversions’. That wasn’t an idle quip – God can speak to us through the language of puns and I believe there’s something to learn here.

Yesterday I too went for a walk on that field, and I looked down and saw the prints of many rugby boots. I knew God was showing me something important, but I didn’t know what it was until that thought was shared yesterday.

Some of us might not know the rules of rugby, but I do, and for three reasons.

First, I’m Welsh.

Second, I grew up a mile from Stradey Park and from home I could hear the roar of the crowd whenever Llanelli Scarlets scored.

Third, I was a large child, so at school I was put in the scrum. That’s where eight bulky players from each side lock shoulders and shove hard to get the ball! That, of course, was enough to put me off rugby for life!

But what are the spiritual lessons of rugby for us?

A rugby squad has to work as a team to get the ball across the line. Different players have different roles. There are warriors – we call them the pack – who fight for the ball in the scrum or by tackling opposition players – physically trying to take the ball from them. It’s a violent game!

There’s a small player whose job is to bend down and place the ball when play restarts – that’s called the ‘scrum half’ – and who might be well-placed to pass the ball out again.

There are the runners whose job is to get the ball across the line – that’s called a try.

And there are kicking specialists, who score extra points by booting the ball between the goalposts – that’s called a conversion. Really!

Our goal is conversion – conversion to Christ.

Suppose the ball represents a soul who we want to evangelise.

Some of us are called to spiritual warfare or the work of apologetics, to protect such souls from an Enemy who wants them to travel in the wrong direction.

Some of us are good at making connections with people, having those conversations which build up faith and allow us to share faith.

Some of us are good at discipling people, which is journeying with someone ‘across the line’ where they make a commitment.

Ultimately the sign of a good conversion is we can let someone loose and they travel in the right direction on their own. Goal!

As individuals we may feel that we’re too small to achieve anything. But Isaiah says God is calling to his ’tiny worm’ and ‘puny mite’. A rugby squad needs its hooker. That puny player may not look impressive alongside the tall runners and squat pack members, but that tiny teammate is an essential part of a winning squad.

“The Kingdom of heaven is being invaded; energetic souls are forcing their way in!”

There’s one more thing about rugby – to be a top flight player you have to throw away your dignity. The hooker has to get down on the ground to snatch the ball and ends up where? In the mud! The pack members pull the opposition players down to the ground to steal the ball and end up where? In the mud! To score points, the runners have to get the ball on to the ground beyond the try-line, while still touching it. If they are being chased, they may have to lunge forward and throw themselves over the line. They end up where? In the mud!

So whether you’re a commando in the Lord’s army or a player in his rugby squad, you have a choice: victory or dignity. You can’t have both.

Both my home town and my home nation wear red when they enter battle with other rugby teams. There’s some scientific evidence that teams who wear red are more likely to win than those sporting any other colour – though it seems to work better in football. Red is the colour of victory over combat. Red is the colour which honours martyrs. Most of our martyrs suffered indignities before they died; they knew the colour of mud before the colour of blood. St Lucy and St John the Baptist – pray for us!

The End of the World (St Philip Evans Parish)

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C at St Philip Evans 

“When will these things come to pass?”

That was the natural question on the lips of Jesus’ followers when they heard these terrible predictions, and it’s a natural question for us to ask, too.

We can predict, reasonably well, when some disasterous things will take place. In fact, the word “dis-aster” literally means “bad star” and we know that one day, our nearest star, the Sun, will go bad. In about five thousand million years, it will run out of nuclear fuel and swell up, scorching planet Earth to a cinder, or perhaps even engulfing it entirely!

Five billion years is a long way away. But don’t relax yet! Some of the latest results from mapping the 300,000 stars nearest our Sun tell us that in just one and one-third million years, a passing star will cause thousands of comets to rain down upon planet Earth and perhaps cause other disruption in our solar system.

Cosmic disasters might be too far in the future to trouble our children’s children, but by the year 2080, it’s forecast that more than a million homes in the UK might be at risk of flooding, and our coastal roads and railway lines could be badly affected too. I talked about the environment a few weeks ago so I won’t go into detail again, but we can all do our bit by reducing the amount of energy we consume.

There’s another disasterous date to put on your calendar. 2036. That’s a mathematical prediction of when the number of people worshipping in this church will fall to zero, based on changing congregation numbers since 2009. The number of First Communions would fall to zero in 2030. Zero baptisms by 2024!

Now, these numbers are crude. It’s not always the right things to fit a straight light to a graph to make predictions. But what is clear is that the numbers for our parish are falling – of baptisms, of communions, and of people attending Mass. And that’s typical of most parishes. But Jesus didn’t call the church to shrink. He called us to go out and make disciples!

We live in an uncertain time. I was hoping that Archbishop George would have named my successor by now. We are all wondering whether there will be another priest ready to lead this parish in January. But whether you have another priest straight away or not, we all have a task, the work Jesus left to all his followers – making disciples of all nations. A priest can’t do it all on his own, anyway. So who in this congregation is actively asking, “What can we do to make our congregation grow? How do we help people who might leave, to stay? How can we ask new people to join?”

I’ve got good news for you. Some Catholic Churches are growing! The Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, grew its Mass attendance from 1500 to 4000 in a few years! The Church of St Benedict in Nova Scotia raised its level of parishioner engagement from 7% to 40% in a few years! And there’s more good news! If you have succeeded in really engaging parishioners you don’t have to appeal for money or volunteers – engaged Catholics want to give, and give generously!

Avoiding disaster may need us to make some painful decisions. If the way we currently run our church is causing us to shrink or at least stay static, carrying on doing what we’re doing isn’t likely to make us grow. Maybe to be more effective we should be pooling our resources with other parishes. For now, this parish is able to pay its own way: we have cleared our debt. But we have barely enough people to fill the volunteer roles we need to keep everything running.

The Archbishop has already asked the parishes from Whitchurch thru Llanedeyrn to co-operate in what we call the Northern Arc… one natural next step is to ask whether St Philip Evans is big enough to survive and grow as an independent parish. And if the answer is “yes” right now, would it still be “yes” if most of our Indian parishioners were offered a Syro-Malabar service every weekend? Can we still run all the things an independent parish needs to run? They say turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but it’s chickens who don’t make painful changes to secure the best possible future. The day might come when difficult questions have to be asked about Mass times or even merging with other parishes.

Even so, I’m not expecting change in the next year or two. The Archbishop says it is important that this parish has a priest to welcome new residents moving into all the new housing in this area. Perhaps we’re not at the point where we need to think about a merger. Perhaps there are enough resources in this community to be able to invest in things that will make this congregation grow. So which of you are actively asking “What makes successful parishes grow? When can we learn from thriving Catholic parishes?”

Next summer, all the priests and deacons in Cardiff will attend a three-day conference with an American lay woman, Sherry Weddell, who had a brilliant idea. She studied the stories of dozens of converts who started out as non-Catholics and ended up as very active Catholics. What do they all have in common? Sherry found out, and if we understand how non-Catholics become active Catholics, we can become very effective at inviting more non-Catholics to do the same!

All across the diocese, parishes are now being asked to run 6-week-long reading groups to study Sherry’s book, which is called Forming Intentional Disciplesto try out some of the ideas, and send delegates on June 15th to a day when they can share their experiences and receive coaching from Sherry herself. That could happen here, if a few of you choose to start a study group and work on encouraging parish growth. You don’t need to wait for a new priest to organise that!

“When will these things come to pass?” the disciples asked the Lord. “No-one knows the day or hour except the Father”, Jesus replied, speaking of the end of the world. But as for when studying and investing in the future of this parish will take place – that’s up to you!