What’s the Use of a Human Being?

Homily to members of the Sion Community 19th February 2019.

200 years ago, scientists were beginning to understand how to manipulate electricity. In the UK, Michael Faraday – the famous inaugurator of the Christmas Lectures – performed laboratory experiments; in America, the future president Benjamin Franklin developed the habit of flying kites in thunderstorms to see what the lightning would do. It is said that both of them were asked, on occasion, “What use is it?’ Faraday is rumoured to have replied “It’s as much use as a newborn baby!” More pragmatically, in the United States, when a politician asked after the use of this new-fangled electricity, Franklin said: “One day, Sir, you may tax it!”

Like so many good stories, this one is not exactly true, but it has grains of truth in it. The famous quote is actually from Faraday speaking about a newly discovered gas, which these days we call chlorine:

As an answer to those who are in the habit of saying to every new fact, “ What is its use ?” Dr. Franklin says to such, “What is the use of an infant?” The answer of the experimentalist would be, “It appeared to have no use, it was in its infantine and useless state; but having grown up to maturity, witness its powers, and see what endeavours to make it useful have done.”

This story helps us to understand the mind of a scientist. For the last 200 years, the Western world has definitely taken a scientific point of view concerning the world around us. Scientists don’t usually ask about the “purpose” of the things that they study. They may very well ask “How can we use it?” – but take humans out of the picture, and purpose is absent. Even those natural artefacts that seem to have a purpose can be explained in other ways. For example, a dry riverbed might seem to have the “purpose” of bringing water to the sea but equally we can say it is the natural consequence of water flow. When it rains, gravity causes water to find the lowest channel and carves out that channel as it goes along.

Even a crocodile bird, which cleans the teeth of crocodiles without getting eaten, might seem to serve a useful purpose but is just an example of how evolution by natural selection works. Natural systems rub against each other until they find ways of meshing together. It’s in the crocodile’s interest not to harm the bird because it benefits the creature’s dental health. Over generations, crocodiles eventually develop the instinct to leave the birds alone because there’s a mutual benefit there. The DNA blueprints for the two creatures have shaped each other.

We human beings, of course, are wired to look for purpose in the world. If you’re walking through the jungle and you see a vine lying on the ground, it’s a good idea for you to suspect that somebody fashioned it into a trap. Archaeologists, of course, looking at artefacts made by human beings, quite rightly ask for what purpose they were made. But that branch of science is the exception; in physics and chemistry and biology, it’s just not part of the way scientist thinks to ask about the purpose of an atom or an element or a living creature. Rather, the scientist ask: What properties does this have? What rules does it obey? And once we have an understanding, then: What can we do with it?

In today’s reading from Genesis, notice something that it’s easy to skip over. God says the world will be flooded because he is angry with human beings, who have not behaved in the upstanding way God demanded; but it seems God is also angry with plants and the animals and the whole of creation. Now these things cannot act morally! What have they done to incur God’s wrath? The underlying idea here is that the whole of the natural world exists for a very definite purpose, and that purpose as human beings. Without human beings loving and serving God, the whole of nature loses its raison d’être.

If Genesis is not a scientific account of how the world came to be, but is part of God’s word telling us something important, what is the message for us to take away? I think were meant to read that God has a purpose for the world – that God has a purpose for human beings. The old catechism put it very simply. Why did God make me? To love him and serve him and be happy with him in this world and the next. When Benedict XVI became Pope he made a clear statement:

We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. that every human being is loved by God and therefore ‘necessary’.

In yesterday’s Office of Readings, we had the famous passage from St Paul who says your body is not your own; your body belongs to the Lord. This was set to rap, to great effect, by the Franciscan friar Stan Fortuna! Check it out! This song is called The Zipper Zone and the message is clear. We are to use our bodies to serve the Lord!

This is a totally different perspective from our scientific world. Our scientific mindset says there is no intrinsic purpose to the human body, and we can treat our bodies in any way we like. The clear message of God’s Word is that our body is a gift given to us by God, and we are expected to use that gift to achieve God’s holy purposes.

The resources of this world, too, are given to us so that we can help one another. The two great commands are to love God and love our neighbour. Jesus above all taught us how to give of ourselves. If we take a utilitarian view of the world around us, we start asking which human beings are worth helping, especially where resources are limited. If we understand our true purpose then we look at things in a very different way!

I’d like to give the last word to St Thérèse of Lisieux. She was thwarted in her ambition to travel to a far country and become a missionary sister, but she realised that you could still support the missions by prayer. “I’ve discovered my purpose,” she exclaimed. “My purpose is to be in love in the heart of my mother, the church!”

Shepherding the Shepherds

Homily for Charismatic Lay Leaders (CCLFC graduates) at SENT, Brentwood (readings of the day)

Never confuse a fruit with a seed!

A seed is something which will grow into a beautiful new plant… but the fruit is the attractive surrounding that makes the seed palatable. You probably wouldn’t want to eat a seed on its own… and it would be very bad for the seed if you could digest it before it could find a place in the soil. So the seed is wrapped it in a beautiful sugary sweet colourful attractive wrapper… who could resist such a gift?

Our Lord said that “by their fruits we shall know them” so let’s look at the fruits we see in the Catholic Church around us today in England. Alas, the fruits are not that good! What does a normal parish look like?

It’s normal that around 5 out of 6 of the people who say they’re Catholics don’t go to Mass – and that includes the teachers in our Catholic schools.

It’s normal that almost everyone who presents a baby for baptism stands up in church and makes a promise that they will “raise the child Catholic” but have no intention of keeping the child connected with the parish community.

It’s normal that a parish priest has a vision for maintenance, keeping the familiar parish structures going as best they can with dwindling resources.

Our parishes are good at losing old people slowly and young people quickly. That’s a quick picture of a normal parish… so is it any surprise if we look around us at the state of the Church and feel a little depressed? Perhaps it even feels like we are sheep without a shepherd! You are here today because you have been formed for leadership in the church and in charismatic renewal. Now I know a few of you have some great stories of co-operation but often enough it seems that priests just don’t want to know about the Gifts of the Spirit or what you would like to offer to your parish. And if you weren’t already feeling powerless enough, then there is this reading from Hebrews 13:17 – “obey your leaders”! Oh no! Do we have to?

Sometimes it’s good to look at what underlies the Bible passage. I had a dim recollection that in Latin obaudio means “to listen” as much as it means “to do what you’re told”. But the Bible was written in Greek… so what is this word that has been translated for us as “obey”? In the Greek it’s “peithesthe” so I looked that up in a Bible reference book. It turns out the same word has a number of meanings… persuade… make friends with… seek to influence… very different from “obey” or “do what you’re told”. Now certainly another Greek word later in the sentence does means “submit to what your leaders asked of you” but these are two hugely different sentences: “obey and submit” or “persuade and submit”! “Persuade and submit” suggests you could be in a dialogue with the leader of your parish trying to convince him that there is a better way but being willing to accept his leadership while the conversation is ongoing.

Brothers and sisters: you may have read from the Scriptures that “without a vision the people perish”. But it’s worse than that… without a vision the people form… a parish! Now, in my years working as a priest among priests, I’ve realised that what priests do is this: they imitate what they’ve seen generations of priests do before them. It’s part of our human condition that few of us pick up a textbook and apply it; most of us look for heroes and role models. Even when a priest has spent five or six years in seminary, probably at the back of their minds is a model of their own parish priest, or some priest they’ve admired as they’ve grown up or who has drawn them into the priesthood. Sometimes that’s a priest with the heart of a pastor caring for people’s wounds but not wanting to challenge them; sometimes it’s a priest with a hunger to work for social justice projects; or perhaps, especially with some of our younger priests, they reflect on a priest who gave them a strong sense of identity, because he was willing to goes against the tide of public opinion, or insisted on using a bit of Latin – even a lot of Latin!  – when he celebrated Mass in public.

Sometimes it feels like our parish priests are shepherds without a shepherd. Where has the wider leadership of the Church offered them any concrete vision beyond: “Don’t lose too many people, keep sending a third of your collection for the running costs of the diocese, and don’t rock the boat?”

I wonder how many priests have a vision what their parish could be if they were open to all the gifts God was offering? At the start of the sermon I talked about what is “normal” in our parishes, in the sense of our common experience. I’d now like to talk about what could be normal – using the word normal in another sense, that of setting a norm or standard that we should aspire to.

It’s not uncommon that I read a book that makes me laugh out loud, especially if it’s by Terry Pratchett… but it’s rare that I read a book that makes me whoop for joy. About six years ago I read Sherry Weddell‘s book Forming Intentional Disciples. That book is a masterclass of how we encourage people to become followers of Christ and active members of the church… but that’s not what I’m going to focus on today. I want to share another thing that Sherry wrote, which made my heart sing for joy. In her youth she spent time with a group of other young enthusiastic Catholics and together they agreed on this description of what a normal parish looks. When I read this, for the first time since I became a Catholic in 1990, I rejoiced. At last, here was someone else who “got it”! I wasn’t the only person in the world who believed a parish should be like this! Sherry and her group agreed on seven “norms” for a Catholic parish. I’m going to put them up on the screen, and some of you can read them out…

1. It is normal for lay Catholics to have a living, growing love relationship with God.

2. It is normal for lay Catholics to be excited Christian activists.

3. It is normal for lay Catholics to be knowledgeable about their faith, the Scriptures, the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church, and the history of the Church.

4. It is normal for lay Catholics to know what their charisms of service are and to be using them effectively in fulfilment of their vocation or call in life.

5. It is normal for lay Catholics to know that they have a vocation/mission in life (primarily in the secular world) given to them by God. It is normal for lay Catholics to be actively engaged in discerning and living this vocation.

6. It is normal for lay Catholics to have the fellowship of other committed lay Catholics available to them, to encourage, nurture, and discern as they attempt to follow Jesus.

7. It is normal for the local parish to function consciously as a house of formation for lay Catholics, which enables and empowers lay Catholics to do #1-6 above.

Now, my dear leaders of the church, how do you feel about a church like this? Is this a church you’d want to join? Is this a parish you’d like to be part of? I think it is… but how do we bridge the gap between the reality of the parish where you live and worship at the moment, and what church could be?

You are leaders. Some people lead with authority – but others lead with influence. You have a prophetic role to speak hope and vision into the lives of your parish priests. You can plant seeds of hope in the heart of your parish priest. But for him to accept the seed, it must be presented in a fruit he will find attractive. So, my dear brothers and sisters take compassion on our priests, and set yourself to teach them at length. But here’s the thing: don’t confuse the fruit with the seed.

If you want to plant a seed in the heart of your parish priest, this will take time. You must prepare the ground and then offer him a fruit that he will find attractive. We know lots of priests get suspicious about the trappings of charismatic renewal: for some, it is too loud or in-your-face, or unlike anything they’ve experienced in their own personal reality. Others don’t know how to handle prophetic and healing gifts as parish leaders. Some might dismiss it as too Protestant, despite the writings of all the popes since St Paul VI welcoming it as “a chance for the church”. Now, we can try and persuade our priests of the merits of charismatic renewal … or we can do something smarter. We can offer fruit that will interest them!

What sort of fruit will attract a priest? Well, someone who offers help with a project that the parish needs will gain a priest’s respect and trust. This will take time – so like Jesus, we have to set out to teach “at length”. I know at least two different parishes where people who are very involved in renewal won the trust of the priest by volunteering to clean the toilets or hoover the church. If you’re serious about your commitment to the parish, you will come with the heart of a servant. Today’s lesson from Hebrews does talk about good works. Now good works aren’t the heart of what we do but they are the fruit of a person committed to Christ, and they are a vital tool in gaining the trust of your parish priest.

Now comes the hard part. Once your priest trusts you, you must stir up curiosity in his heart, but without leaving him feeling judged or inadequate. A good way to do this is to share stories of parishes that are thriving… but letting him set the pace. Where do you find such stories? Let’s see what happens when you Google “successful Catholic parishes”…

Oh, look! 28,200,000 results – in less than half a second!

Now the trick is to drop what you learn into conversation and let the priest set the pace. “Have you heard about the Catholic Church which more than doubled its congregation in three years? What about the one which raised its level of engagement from 7% to 40%? Did you hear about many other churches that deliberately look for the gifts that are present in their members and then deploy them in the most appropriate ministries? These churches are going from strength to strength… so we don’t have to settle for being a declining church! We are called to be a church that bears fruit, in season and out of season… but when the shepherds have lost hope, you need to be the shepherds to the shepherds, and teach them at length until their passion is renewed and restored.

So remember: never confuse the fruit with the seed. Offer your parish priest the fruits that will make him trust you and listen to what you have to say. He will receive the seed of a “normal” church when he finds it surrounded with the fruit that he will find attractive. I know it can be tough being the only charismatic in your parish or just seeing the church declining around us; but dare to dream that it can be different, and dare to dream that you can do something about it. I can’t say it better than the Letter to the Hebrews (13:16):

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have;
God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind.

So share what you have received. But share it smart! Share it slowly! And you will renew the face of the Church.

Go and Jump off a Cliff!

Homily at the Sion Community Family Day, for the Fourth Sunday of Year C

“Go and jump off a cliff!”

You’d have to be very angry to tell anyone to do that! But there are times we can and do get angry with God.

Our Sion gathering today is themed around the Archangel Raphael, whose very name means “God heals” – but healing stirs up powerful emotions.

In today’s Gospel, as Jesus gives his speech, his listeners go from “speaking well of him” when he says “freedom is coming” to total rage when he reminds them of two miracles that God worked to protect pagans while the Jewish people were suffering.

In the Book of Tobit, which is probably a Jewish parable rather than history, we read of the good and generous man called Tobit who suffers years of blindness and a pious Jewish woman called Sarah who, through no fault of her own, is cursed with a demon who kills all her potential husbands. Through the intervention of St Raphael, healing comes to Tobit, and freedom and a happy marriage to Sarah, but not before years of suffering. The Book of Job, too, tells of a good and pious man who was deeply afflicted before receiving healing. Somewhere in the Gospels we read how Jesus cured, as a sign, a man who had been paralysed for 38 years – I’m sure he was grateful for his healing but also, in his prayers, asked God whether 38 days might not have been sufficient?

Last week’s Second Reading told us that some people are given gifts of healing, and some are given gifts of prophecy. This suggests that others among us are not given those gifts. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for healing anyway – but it does mean only certain people in the community will have a high “success rate”. And even for them, success may not come straight away.

After a long period of Bible study, a pastor called John Wimber reached the conclusion, that faithfulness to God required us to pray for people to be healed. He didn’t belong to a church with a tradition of praying for healing, but felt he had to do so anyway. He spent 6 months praying for healing at the end of all his Sunday church services, with no success. Then he got one. Then the floodgates opened! His faithfulness led to the founding of the Vineyard churches in 1982.

In my own ministry, I’ve prayer for a lot of people to be healed, but only seen a few tangible results. One day, I went to visit a friend who lived outside the parish: she asked if I would bring the holy oil to anoint her friend who was suffering from back pain. When I did so, two remarkable things happened: the woman in pain received a momentary experience of God’s loving presence, and the pain went away. Now in my twelve years of priesthood, that was only the second time that a remarkable physical recovery quickly followed an anointing, and the first time, as far as I know, that someone had a personal experience of God’s presence. That was six years ago, and I haven’t had a similar powerful experience since.

I once preached a sermon in one of my parishes telling that story to explore the mystery of the God who “heals sometimes”. I wondered out loud whether we limit the power of the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick by our low expectations; the Sacraments become more fruitful when celebrated in a community with strong faith. On that day there had been a small community of faith – the friend who believed enough to ask me to bring the oil, the sick girl, who was also a fervent Christian, and myself, a priest longing for God to do something.

What I was trying to achieve was to encourage the people in my parish to call for the priest and gather round and pray as soon as any family member fell seriously ill. What actually happened was one angry family spoke to me later: “A few months ago our granny died. We had gathered around her bedside and said lots of prayers. So now you’re saying its our fault for not having enough faith!” – and that family left my parish to go and worship elsewhere.

A few years later, I told that story at a Celebrate weekend. One of the leadership team came up to me afterwards, very worried: if I emphasised the importance of a priest giving the Sacrament of Anointing, it might discourage lay people from laying on hands and praying for healing! Now that wasn’t the message I was trying to give at all – only to say that there’s a time and a place for calling the priest, and it should become a more normal part of our Catholic life! Too many Catholics think the Sacrament of the Sick is only meant as a “last rite” to send our souls to heaven! But in fact it’s for any “serious” illness, one which creates danger of death or limits the quality of life.

There is also a very important role for lay people to pray for healing. There are two ways we can pray for a healing – one is to lay on hands and simply ask God to do something; the other is to ask for a prophecy to guide us. But if we have the gift of prophecy, we can only minister powerfully to the people and diseases which God speaks about – not to the other problems which are present.

Prophecy can also stir up hope and anger. I’ve been to many prayer meetings where people have received words for me; and many where they have received words for other people, but not for me. Plus, as today’s Scripture says, in our limited humanity, we can only “prophecy in part” – many people who pray for us will filter a genuine word from God through their own expectations of what they think God wants to say to us, or in the absence of a clear word, share their own wishful thinking. Moving in prophecy calls for a tricky balance of expectancy – we are called to be hungry for this spiritual gift – and humility: it’s a gift, and God doesn’t always give it!

So yes, healing and prophecy are difficult subjects. It’s hard to preach about these without stirring up strong emotions. How many of us here today know someone who has a testimony of receiving healing? How many of us have at least one person in our lives, now or in the past, for whom we have prayed long and hard, but healing didn’t come? The promise of healing stirs up hope and anger in equal measure. And how many of us have gone to a prayer meeting, hoping that God will have a prophetic word for us today, and come home disappointed?

We should be ambitious for the higher gifts – that God would work miracles of healing and give prophetic words through us. But this is dangerous territory! If we’re going to go there, we need a big dose of love. I’m speaking of the kind of love which is not selfish, jealous or resentful. I’m speaking of the kind of love that rejoices whenever a healing or prophecy comes, but takes no offence when it does not – or comes to someone else, or through someone else’s prayers. The prophet Jeremiah was told to “brace himself like a fighter”. If we want to see prophecy and healing as a normal part of our church, we need to be prepared for disappointment – and expectant of miracles. We need to be ready for other people to tell us to go jump off a cliff. But what we are really called to do is walk on water – and then means we have to fix our eyes on Jesus, wait for the sound of his voice and – when he calles – get out of the boat!