What’s God Worth?

Homily at St Bernadette and St John Bosco Parishes, Erskine, for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

What’s God worth?

I’m a Catholic priest from Wales – so like many of you, I’m a Celt from a part of the UK which isn’t England. Both Wales and Scotland have Parliaments with the power to make their own spending decisions, and I heard on the news just a week ago that the health service here in Scotland made a deal with a medicine company… a deal to make available a treatment for Cystic Fibrosis that would normally cost £100,000. That’s good news for the families waiting and hoping that drug would become available.

These are not easy decisions. When the money is limited, a choice to give expensive treatment is a choice not to pay for something else, like employing a couple of people in good work. I’m glad I’m not one of those politicians who have to make difficult decisions about how to use a limited amount of money – asking how much they will or won’t spend to save a human life.

But each of us faces a similar decision every time we come to worship. We’re not asked what another human being is worth to the State. But every time the collection is taken, we are asked to choose what God is worth to us.

You might have heard the story about the aeroplane where all four engines failed, and it was losing height quickly. A Catholic priest was on board, and the stewardess said, “We’re in big trouble – can you do something religious?” So the priest said: “Of course! Please find some baskets – we’re going to take a collection!”

Giving something in the basket is one of the things we’re used to doing when we come to Mass. But let’s stop for a moment and ask, what are we doing, and why?

What we give is a sign of what we believe God is worth. Indeed, our word ‘worship’ comes from the same root as ‘worthy’, and means declaring God to be ‘of worth’. Everything we do when we gather for Holy Mass speaks of our attitude to God. How do we balance the need to welcome friends and strangers with keeping an atmosphere of prayer? Do we take a few moments to think about the things we need to ask God for, or give thanks? And when it comes to the time for the offering, are we digging in our pockets for small change, or are we weighing up what God is worth and giving appropriately?

Jesus knew that the way we treat money shapes our character. Either we possess material things, or they will possess us. If the very thought of giving away money causes you to panic, remember that your Father in Heaven owns all the money in the world. Following Jesus is not a recipe to get rich quick – but the Bible does include a promise that God will not be outdone in generosity, I have found God’s promise to be true – every time in my life when I’ve felt a nudge to give generously, what I have given away more than comes back within a week or two. And there was once a time when I strongly felt God was asking me to donate £500 from my parish funds to help film a Catholic outreach video. To my surprise, the Parish Council agreed we should do this, even though our funds were very limited – and within a fortnight we’d received a totally unexpected grant for £3,000 we hadn’t even applied for! God is faithful! If we prayerfully choose what to give to God, God will honour our decisions!

I’d like to share with you today the 5p plan. The first is prayer – any choice to honour God is something we must pray about. But there are four more ‘p’s and one of them could be the challenge God is offering you today.

First, plan. If you don’t already plan how you are going to give, then consider making a plan. The needs of the poor, and of the church, are too important to be left to an absent-minded search for loose change in your pocket. This isn’t only what you give to your parish – it’s the other charities, whether Catholic or not, that you feel called to support.

Second, prioritise. If you do plan what to give, but God’s work comes at the bottom of the list after all the other bills, ask yourself whether God deserves more than that. This is the scary bit! There are all kinds of logical reasons why we should pay the mortgage, gas bill and credit card bill before we give a penny to the church. But God is King of the Universe, and his resources are infinite. In the Bible – you can look it up in Malachi chapter 3 – God says ‘Test me out on this!’ Give to God’s work as a priority and you will discover that you will not lose out in your personal finances. Humanly speaking , it shouldn’t work – but it does!

Third, percentage. Maybe you already choose to give to charities and to church because it is important to you, as a follower of Jesus, to do this, but you give a fixed amount. But rather than giving £5 a week or £10 a month to a good cause, you could take on the challenge of working out a percentage of the amount. In the days before Jesus, God’s Jewish people practiced tithing – 10% of what they grew was given to God. As Catholics, we’re not obliged to give 10% but I know some who do. It honours the way God blesses us, if we give a percentage of what we have received. And it gives ourselves permission to lower the amount we give if we have a low-income period.

Finally, progression! If you do already give a percentage, is God inviting you to raise it? As our relationship with God deepens, as we discover how to listen to God’s nudges and experience the blessings which come our way when we give generously, God might invite us to take the next step of faith. Maybe even as high as ten percent!

Giving money is only one aspect of our relationship with God, though a key one for knowing our own heart. I’m preaching this message to you who already know God is worthy of your worship and of your wallet. In November I’ll be back with a larger team from Sion Community to spend a whole week with you – a week for deepening your relationship with God, and for inviting other members of the local community to come and start or grow a relationship with God, too. I hope you’ll decide that that’s worthy of your time, and you’ve marked your calendars to keep free 16-24 November.

On your parish website, you declare that in this church you will receive a relevant message ‘that isn’t about rules but is about you and God’. So what I’ve shared with you today is absolutely about you and God. What’s God worth to you? The way you spend your money, on the work of the Church and on other charities, is a strong sign of who God is in your life. If you want a better relationship with God, take one step of faith this week. Plan to give. Prioritise your giving. Give a percentage. Progress that percentage. One of those steps will be a challenge that you can meet, with God’s help!

 Acknowledgements: the four point plan for growing in giving is from Rebuilt by Corcoran and White.

1,000 Sheep

Homily at Corpus Christi Coventry for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C – Home Mission Sunday

Someone’s missing. Have a look around you and see if you can work out who.

OK. At the risk of stating the obvious, your Parish Priest is missing. But please God, he’ll be recovered from surgery soon enough. We’re not listing him among the lost yet.

Try the benches close to you. Is there anyone who usually sits there who’s not there today? And if someone is missing, do you know their name? Do you know how to contact them?

Your parish priest is the shepherd of the Corpus Christi flock, but the responsibility for the sheep is not only his. He might not know that a sheep is missing unless you tell him.

Now have a think about your own family. How many of them are Catholics who are missing from Mass? This is where it gets tricky. You see, not all lost sheep WANT to be found. What happens when the shepherd makes a special effort to bring the 100th sheep home, only for it to bolt through the gate again at the first opportunity? So if you know a sheep who doesn’t want to be part of this parish, what can you do?

If some sheep genuinely don’t like what the Catholic Church stands for, you won’t have much success dragging them back. So the best thing you can do for that lost sheep in your family is to gently share your own experiences of how your Catholic faith changes your life for the better. Where does your faith give you hope? Where does it cause you to rejoice? And here I’ll offer you a hint: as long as you follow Jesus, avoid sin, go to confession when you fail, and, take communion regularly, you are guaranteed a place in heaven. Turn away from Our Lord, and you lose that guarantee.

There again, maybe someone in your family feels they;re no longer welcome in Church. There are all sorts of reasons for that. Perhaps someone’s marriage has broken down and they’ve pursued a new relationship but feel like an outlaw. Perhaps a priest, or a member of some congregation, has spoken harshly to them and made them fearful of trying again. Or maybe they’re just plain ashamed of something in their life and feel their face doesn’t fit in church any more.

So consider St Paul. Paul who approved of murder. Paul the persecutor of Christians. Paul who had to eat humble pie when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Paul who knew Jesus was offering mercy and a seat in the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul as a Christian on his own in Damascus could manage. Paul returning to Jerusalem trying to persuade the apostles he was now one of them? That must have felt very difficult.

Let’s make it as easy as possible for the lost sheep to return. Let’s remind the lost members of our families that Pope Francis has asked priests to ‘accompany’ those who feel lost from the Church community – and that there is a place for everyone in these pews.

Have another look around you. Who else is missing? What about people you know who aren’t Catholics? God wants them to be part of his church, too! Why are they missing? Jesus came to rescue the human race, to invite EVERYONE to be part of his church family. Who does Jesus want to see as part of the Catholic Church? EVERYONE! Let’s hear it again – EVERYONE!

One parish priest can’t do that on his own. There are people each of you will come into contact with this week, whom your parish priest will never meet unless you bring them to church. Someone is missing from this church today because you haven’t invited them to come yet.

On average, each Catholic Church or Mass Centre in England serves a community of 20,000 people – of whom 500 to 1500 are Catholics. We don’t need to target members of other Christian Churches (though it’s great when they want to become Catholics too) – but that still leaves well over 10,000 people living in this corner of Coventry who don’t attend any kind of religious worship on Sunday. A few years ago, a survey showed there were 3 million people in the UK who never attend church but would if a friend invited them to come. That means, that within the parish boundaries of Corpus Christi, in this suburb of Coventry, there are one thousand people who never go to Church – but would, if you invited them. What kind of Catholic, then, knows that there are 1,000 lost sheep in their own community but never invites them to come to Church? What kind of Catholic knows that their church offers a secure path to heaven but doesn’t offer that to their friends?

I know it’s not easy talking about our faith to people who don’t share it. So I want to give a special shout-out to those among you who are willing to talk about faith. Some of you have been catechists to children preparing for Confirmation or First Communion – thank you! Some of you have brought adults to church and walked with them as they have prepared to become Catholic – thank you! Many of you have tried to share faith with your own children and grandchildren and known the heartache of the message not being received – thank you for doing your best!

Not every sheep is ready to be brought home to the Catholic Church. So let’s do our best to find the ones that are. Today’s shepherd left the 99 to find the one. But you, my friends, leave your worries about the ones determined to stray and search for the 1,000 who are willing to come home. Look around you. Who’s missing? One thousand potential members of this church who are among your neighbours, just waiting to be asked!

Showing my workings:

The total population of England & Wales in 2011 was 56.101 million; there were 2882 churches or Mass centres in England & Wales. Assuming an even spread among the general population, each Mass centre serves 19,466 citizens – roughly 20,000.

A 2007 Tearfund survey of Churchgoing in the UK found that 3 million people would go to church ‘if someone invited them’. The original report is no longer available but the Church Times summary suggests this is a result for the whole UK. 

The UK population in 2005 was 60,413,000 – the difference to 2007 will be small so 3 million ‘open’ citizens equates to 5% of the general population.

Now to come up with a ballpark figure. We acknowledge that the years don’t sync, so there will be some error. Secularisation may have hardened attitudes between 2007 and 2019, but some Catholic Mass Centres will have closed. So we can still say that roughly 5% of the general population, or 1,000 citizens, will be open to being invited to each Catholic Church in England & Wales.

Orkney Science Festival Sermon 2019: Words and Pictures

Sermon given at St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, on the occasion of the 2019 Orkney International Science Festival. Readings: Romans 11:33-12:8 and an extract from Richard Feynman’s memoirsIt’s as Simple as 1, 2, 3…

“Nobody knows the thoughts of the Lord God!” says St Paul, and yet he also exhorts us to “serve God with your whole life”. Tricky! Before we tackle that conundrum, let’s begin with a less lofty ambition – to know the mind of another human being.

Earlier in this morning’s service, you were invited to count to 10 in your head. Now you’ve heard a reading from Richard Feynman’s memoirs, you’ll have realised why. How many of you “spoke” to yourself and said “1, 2, 3…” in your imagination? And how many of you used your visual imagination and “watched” the numbers going by? Here’s the amazing thing – we think differently!

In his memoirs, Richard Feynman want on to wonder whether mathematics students had the same experience he did – seeing equations “come to life” with the symbols in different colours – it seems like he experienced a kind of synaesthesia. When I was completing my degree in Physics at Oxford, I never met anybody who reported that, but I did realise that many of my colleagues were intuitive mathematicians. When they looked at an equation, they saw a graph in their heads. When I looked at the same equation, all I saw was a bunch of xs and ys and other symbols. I could still solve the equation, but I did it step-by-step; many of my peers knew roughly what the answer would be because they could ‘see’ it even before they’d applied the rules. By the time I’d finished my PhD I’d realised I’d always be playing “catch-up” with the intuitive mathematicians, and that helped me decide to move out of professional science and into full-time ministry with the church.

One phrase I really hated in my mathematical career was: “It can be shown!” A formula would be handed to the student as a mathematical tool, with the promise that it worked, but the reasons why were too complicated to explain. I never felt really comfortable taking a formula on trust without understanding where it came from. I think Cardinal Newman would have agreed with me. Newman – the 19th Century church scholar who is to be declared a Catholic saint next month – wrote a famous essay called The Grammar of Assent, where he makes a distinction between notional assent and real assent. Notional assent is when I say yes but without a thorough understanding of why I should; real assent is where my ‘yes’ is made in full knowledge of all relevant factors. I daren’t speculate from this pulpit whether that would be useful in politics today!

This is a special year for Cardinal Newman – but also for Albert Einstein. It was exactly 100 ago that an experiment first confirmed Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Einstein had a great visual imagination. His seminal ideas came to him when he imagined what would happen if you were able to race a beam of light or build a whole physics laboratory in a falling elevator. His Special Theory of Relativity explored the question, “What if the Universe had a maximum speed limit – the speed of light?” His General Theory asked “What if gravity was exactly the same as being accelerated through space on a rocket?” Einstein also asked “What if light waves behave like particles when they hit something?” and from that, his contemporaries developed Quantum Mechanics. In the weird mathematics of quantum physics, a particle can tunnel through a barrier which seems too high for it to cross, and a cat linked to a quantum system can be both alive and dead at the same time – as long as you don’t look at the cat to find out! Once you’ve studied physics to degree level, you realise that to understand the Universe, there are times when you have to set aside the common-sense notions which serve us so well in everyday life; things just work differently in the realms of the very small, very fast and very massive.

Our minds are treacherous things. They aren’t wired to understand the Universe as a whole – only those aspects of the universe a human being might meet in daily life. We aren’t all wired the same way, either – we can reach the same results by different methods. And while I was at seminary, I learned another lesson about how what goes on in two people’s heads can be very different.

A Catholic seminary is not just a theological college – it’s also a place of character development, where your whole personality is subject to individual counselling and group therapy. If I hadn’t allowed myself to experience such deep personal scrutiny, I probably wouldn’t have uncovered another way in which I “think differently” from many other human beings. But by the time I was half-way through seminary I’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – I was very slightly on the autistic spectrum. Autism affects different people in different ways, so I can only speak from personal experience about how it affects me, but what I realised was this. There’s something absent in my head which is present in most of yours… a little voice which is constantly saying “What would other people think of me if I did this or if I didn’t do that?”

Science Fiction author Isaac Asimov invented the Three Laws of Robotics. His stories imagine a future world where humanoid robots are commonplace, but for our protection, all robot brains are hard-wired with these Three Laws: First, a robot must neither harm humans nor through inaction, allow humans to be harmed; Second, a robot must obey orders given to it, except when they conflict with the First Law; and Third, a robot should protect its own existence, except to comply with the higher laws. A licensed follow-up novel by Roger Macbride Allen, Caliban, imagined the creation of a robot which wasn’t hard wired with these laws. Would the robot run amok and destroy the human race? No! In Allen’s story, the robot Caliban develops its own code of ethics and comes to love and protect humanity! Perhaps Asimov’s concept of a robot brain constantly hard-wired to check for threats to human beings and its own existence can help a Caliban-like autistic person understand what’s going on in the mind of a typical human being.

Richard Feynman found it incredible that someone could speak while counting, because he couldn’t imagine “thinking in pictures”. His colleague John Tukey found it equally incredible that someone counting would “think in words”. Just imagine if you didn’t have that “What if?” voice constantly interrupting your thoughts… would you find it credible that most of the human race suffers from such a thing if you didn’t know it from personal experience? It would sound totally crazy. But for me, realising that the vast majority of human beings suffer from this was a revelation. Finally I understood why, as a child, my Mum was constantly saying things like “you can’t dress like that, what would other people think of you”? Now I know the right question to ask, I can use my brain to deliberately ask the “What if” question, but I don’t have to if I don’t want to!

St Paul’s letter goes on to remind the Romans that within the community there would be people with different gifts. It’s easy to see that there are different gifts of abilities to teach, counsel or lead. But what’s less obvious is that we’re gifted with the ability to think in different ways. This is both a blessing and a challenge. It’s a blessing because diverse ways of thinking lead to all sorts of creativity, from Einstein’s intuitive leap that gravity was the same as acceleration, to the American academic Temple Grandin whose ability to “think in pictures” has led her to design more humane kinds of livestock handling equipment. But it’s also a challenge to understand each other, when we actually think in fundamentally different ways. Professor Grandin describes “pictures” as her first language. We’re both on the autistic spectrum, but I can’t think in pictures at all!

If your thoughts and instincts are not like mine, that causes complications. One of our basic Christian principles is to ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’. But when you’re not like me, what I would want done to me – for instance, a friend giving brutally honest feedback rather than trying to avoid hurting my feelings – might be very far from what you would want done to you! Life is a lot more complicated once you realise that most of the human beings around you are guided, in no small part, by their fears about what other people might think of them. Richard Feynman was never formally diagnosed as autistic, but I think it’s significant that he entitled his second volume of autobiography What do you care what other people think?

While the human condition is to worry about the reactions of other people, one question our minds don’t automatically ask is about what God would think of us if we did or didn’t undertake certain actions. This is why Scripture admonishes us in I Cor 2:16 to ‘have the mind of Christ’ and today in Romans 12, to ‘let God completely change the way that you think, so that you live differently’. The Eastern Orthodox approach to Christianity has long emphasised our calling to be ‘divinised’, to be transformed ever more closely into living images of God.

Living like God is not easy. Indeed, it seems impossible in the light of today’s passage; who can know the thoughts of God? Yet, in our limited humanity we do try, not least because God has chosen to communicate his Word to us, and above all through the person of Jesus. It is precisely because we are struggling to know the thoughts of God that there is tension among Christians around questions of war and peace, sexuality and gender identity. We know that the mind of God, in general, is to be loving, inclusive and forgiving – but we also see signs that God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thinking does not always match the spirit of the age in which we live. I don’t intend to take a position in this pulpit, beyond asserting that I am a Roman Catholic and I stand where the Catholic Church stands on issues of diversity; my point today is that followers of Jesus struggling to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ will acknowledge that it’s not easy to know God’s will in this area, and we must have the utmost respect for those whose search to know God’s will leads them to different conclusions. All that is required is that they ‘show their workings’ rather than using the superior mathematician’s declaration of ‘it can be shown’ – otherwise we can never give real assent to what is proposed.

We must all stand on Scripture, as we have received it through the Church, otherwise we fall into the trap exemplified last week by a well-meaning landlady in the American Bible Belt. She tried to dissuade a mixed-race couple from hiring her premises for a wedding, because she had once heard a sermon telling her that interracial marriages were wrong. She issued a hasty retraction after asking her pastor where that was forbidden in the Bible, only to be told that it wasn’t!

The late Stephen Hawking famously said that if we knew what ‘breathes fire into the equations’ of physics, if we could therefore understand why there is something rather than nothing, then we would truly ‘know the mind of God’. I cannot offer you the meaning of the Universe today, but I do offer you my perspective as a follower of Christ with Asperger’s Syndrome. Where the world sees a certain naïvety in a person who is willing to offer unconditional forgiveness and do good to those who won’t repay the favour, God sees a childlike simplicity in such a soul – a simplicity lived out in lives such as St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose mortal remains are travelling through Scotland this very month. Perhaps if we were less burdened by the fear of what other people would think of us, we too would be willing to put God’s Word into practice. It’s not so complicated – in fact, it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3!