Change My Heart, O God

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The 17th Sunday of Year A.

Is there a God-shaped hole in your heart, which nothing else can fill?

Are you looking for an opportunity to explore the meaning of life?

No. No. And again, most definitely, no!

If you’d asked me those questions at any point in my teenage or adult life, the answer would have always been the same – a clear and definite no. That might surprise you. But here’s the thing – we’re all built differently!

It’s a classic move by a platform preacher to ask about the God-shaped hole in your heart, because most people will answer ‘yes’.

The famous Alpha course sells itself as ‘An opportunity to explore the meaning of life.’

In fact, I’m guessing that many of you joining us for this Mass have taken part in Alpha or responded to a preacher offering you divine help for that hole in your heart. Great! You are merchants of shrewd judgment, and you have been restlessly seeking the pearl of great price until you have found it and ‘sold out for God.’ Well done!

That’s not my story.

I was a boy very happily stumbling through life, exploring what was on offer, when I made an unexpected discovery – my ‘treasure in the field’. I grew up very happily in South Wales without God being part of my life. I was sent to Sunday School and had Religious Education at day school but I never stopped to ask if I believed God was there until my gran died, when I was 11. Then, through an experience of prayer, I discovered God was real – but so what?

In my childhood I was a bookworm, and not very interested in playing with other children (despite my Mum’s best efforts). That might sound boring but I was happy – and the worst fate that could befall me (in the days before the internet) was running out of things to read. When I went to university, I joined the student Catholic Society. They had talks – which were interesting! They had prayer events – which were crucial! But they also had social events. I wasn’t so interested in those, but being on the society committee meant I had to get involved; and that was the best thing that could have happened to me.

Part of God’s plan was that, through becoming a member of His Church, I would be transformed from a bookish individual who didn’t care much for other people, to someone with a wider social circle who could draw the best out of me. Through the student Catholic society, I made friends, received a kiss from a girl for the first time in my life, and – of course! – fell in love. If all of that hadn’t happened, I doubt I would have been accepted for seminary, let alone become a priest! But slowly, painfully, God helped me to discover that relationships with other people are important.

God has a plan, and St Paul sets it out wonderfully in the reading we’ve just heard from his letter to the Romans. In fact, this text includes my favourite verse of scripture, which I used on my ordination card: “God turns all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus.” God’s plan is that we should be CALLED, JUSTIFIED and GLORIFIED!

We are called – called by God to know him, love him and serve him. Some of us know that we’re missing something until we find God. Others don’t, until God finds the right way to call us. That’s why the Kingdom of Heaven is like both the purposeful merchant and the serendipitous stroller in the field. If you know, deep down, that God is calling you to something right now, but you are resisting – yield! Let go, and let God!

We are justified – which means although we are not perfect, we can be perfected by God. St Paul reminded the Romans that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. God wants to forgive us! Jesus died so this could happen! Once we have responded to God’s call, we must keep asking God to rescue us from our brokenness. That means receiving baptism once in a lifetime, receiving forgiveness through the ministry of a priest at healthy intervals, and making a daily examination of conscience where we ask God to make right what we cannot repair by own power. Do you need to be put right with God? If you are resisting the call to be baptised or go to confession – yield! Let go, and let God!

The journey doesn’t stop there! We are called to be glorified. The Eastern Christians have a wonderful word for this – theiosis! It means being radically transformed until we reflect the perfect image of God. And how do we carry the glory of God? It is to God’s glory that we bear much fruit! For many of us, this is through good works of charity, helping our neighbours and bringing love to the places we walk. But we also bear fruit when we are ready to speak of God’s love to a world which needs to find it – a world of people looking for something to fill their hearts or unsuspectingly waiting to stumble over God’s presence.

Since September, I’ve been living with a brilliant group of young people. Sion Community takes on a small group of young adults each year who want to learn to spread the Good News of Jesus in a Catholic context. Our ministry year comes to end this week, and some of these young people are moving on to careers or to seminary. Others are remaining with Sion Community to continue this work into the future. Today is our last broadcast Mass, and it’s been my privilege to share God’s Word with you and with them over these last four months that we’ve been broadcasting. Please keep our ‘class of 2020’ in your prayers as they continue their journey from glory to glory wherever God sends them. With their help, I’d like to share one final message with you:

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a patient who has a pain in her heart and doesn’t know what’s causing the problem… 

How to Pray

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The 16th Sunday of Year A.

There are lots of ways to pray. Some are better than others!

Sometimes I meet people who are worried that either they ‘don’t know how to pray’ or they are ‘doing it wrong’. I wonder if that’s because they are carrying around a hopelessly ideal picture of what ‘good’ prayer would be like?

If you have the gift of starting a time of prayer, and then remaining totally focussed on a Bible text, or a meditation idea, or the presence of God, until you finish – thank God! You have a rare gift! For most people who pray, for most of the time, it’s not like that.

Often, when we go to pray, our minds will be flooded with distractions – they are the weeds which spring up in the garden of our soul. But take heart! You can actually turn those distractions into prayer! Keep a notepad to hand! So if your first thought is ‘I must buy eggs when I go shopping!’ write it down on your list – but then thank God for the gift of food or pray for people who are afflicted by famine. If your mind wanders to a friend who is sick, pray for that friend. If something matters to you, it will matter to the heavenly Father who loves you – so you can turn your distraction into a narrative. “Heavenly Father, I’m worried about person X, I’m grateful for thing Y that happened, and I’m very sorry I did Z.” Or you might be more comfortable speaking to Jesus as your brother, rather than a Father-figure. That’s OK too.

If you’ve been taught to approach God with deep respect, this kind of prayer might seem dangerously informal! After all, isn’t Jesus our Great High Priest? Yes, but he is also as human as we are. Prayer is a conversation, and speaking with Jesus is rather like being one of the pilots in the same squadron as Prince William, grandson of Queen Elizabeth II. Behind closed doors, you can treat a Royal Heir to the Throne as one of your mates, and share a laugh and a joke with him. On the parade ground, it is right and proper to bow and show the utmost respect in the presence of His Royal Highness. If you are part of the squadron, William is at one and the same time your friend and your prince. It is just the same with the relationship we are invited to have with Our Lord.

We don’t go to prayer planning to get distracted. We might go to prayer simply to have a conversation with God, who loves to hear about our day and what’s on our mind. It might be a rather one-sided conversation, but God is listening. And it’s important to take time to listen to God. We know his voice speaks in the words of the Bible, but we might hear him speak to us in a personal way too. So let’s not fall into the trap of saying: “Listen, Lord, your servant is speaking!” – we must listen to the Bible, and wait to see if the gentle voice of God does wish to stir in our hearts.

Today’s lesson from St Paul speaks about another kind of prayer, one which is not led by ourselves but by God’s Spirit living in us. St Peter and the first Apostles experienced the Spirit powerfully on the Day of Pentecost. Many Catholics today – including many members of Sion Community – have experienced similar things, with the Holy Spirit inspiring clear thoughts, or visual images, or praying through us in sounds of pure joy. Some in first century Rome, as some in the 21st century church, will have asked the question: “What’s the point in praying in sounds which have no apparent meaning?” St Paul’s answer is as valid today as it was then: “This form of prayer is pleasing to God because it is inspired by God.”

Prayer might not lead to wonderful feelings – indeed, at times, our prayer can feel very dry and tedious – but be sure of this: if you do pray, God will be with you. Know also that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. So make a plan. Decide when and where you are going to pray in the days and weeks to come – especially if your rhythm of life is going to change during the school holidays. Treat God with the respect which God always deserves. But pray with faith. If you’re going to ask God for barbecue weather, buy the sun-tan lotion first!

Some inspiration – and much further good advice on prayer – from Elizabeth Wang.

Scattered and Connected

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The 15th Sunday of Year A.

Today, Jesus gives us a lesson in broadcasting. Yes, really! A sower went out to sow. The technical name for what the sower did is ‘broadcasting’ – scattering seed over a wide area. The alternative is deliberately drilling the into a row of closely-spaced spots. But this sower is broadcasting – sending a message of hope to a wide area. Not all of the seeds will take root. There will be some false starts. But in some random spots where the soil is good, we will see fruit. It’s like that in the Church – and it’s like that for us in Sion Community.

We’re a scattered community who share common values and a particular style of worshipping. Since March we’ve been broadcasting from here in the Ark, because 10 of us are living together in this place, sharing our community life full-time. There are a few other full-time members of our community who live elsewhere, but we haven’t been able to gather together since March. We also have around 40 other part-time, or Associate, members, who live all over England, many of whom have children at home, and even in normal times practical realities mean we can’t all gather together more than 2 or 3 times a year. And what’s true for Sion Community is true for the Church at large – for as long as I’ve been a Catholic, it’s struck me that almost any group of Catholics who share a common interest and want to do something together probably live too far apart from one another to meet regularly! This is part of God’s plan – for the sower chooses to scatter the seed widely, and not all the soil is good. But all is not lost…

Did you notice something in the Gospel today? Our Lord practices social distancing, so people can hear him better! If he’d stayed in the middle of a crowd, he’d have been smothered. But he gets into a boat and puts a little distance between himself and the people he wants to connect with – and that actually helps him connect!

Today we live in an incredible age of connection. Thanks to the Internet, people with a common interest can connect in ways they never did before. Now this is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because people with ill-formed views can connect in places where they reinforce each other’s prejudices – some call this the ‘echo chamber’ effect. It’s a curse because from the distance of a screen, people are less polite to one another than they would be in person, and online interactions can become quite rude. But it’s a blessing because the seeds which have sprung up in diverse locations can now connect with each other in unprecedented ways. It’s been a blessing that we’ve been able to have our two Sunday Zoom rooms each week to support each other. Many of us, bishops included, have learned how to use Zoom, Facebook, YouTube and other media platforms in ways we would never have tried in other circumstances. And now the question is, how should we use these tools when we are no longer compelled to use them?

We human beings are contributing to rapid change in the natural world by burning fossil fuels and travelling huge distances on a regular basis, whether that’s the daily commute to the office or the occasional business trip to another continent. Yes, the climate experts disagree about quite how much impact our actions are having on the planet, but it would be irresponsible and unloving not to err on the side of caution. Last month, the Vatican released a reflection 5 years on from Pope Francis’ document on the environment, Laudato Si… the Vatican is too small for commuting to be an issue, but they are boasting about the solar panels on top of the Papal audience hall! To be sure, computers and network equipment use energy too, but not at the same rate as cars, buses, planes and trains. So we should be asking serious questions about how much we should keep using communication technology in future to reduce our use of fossil fuel, for work, for leisure, and above all for our Christian activities. And that brings us back to broadcasting.

At the end of July, some of the young people who have been helping broadcast these Masses will be leaving our community house. I’d like to say a special thank-you today to Luke, who is entering seminary in the autumn; Angela, who is returning to her work as an RE teacher in September; Oscar, who has just completed his teacher training course and will return to Spain in August; and Monika, who leaves next month to take up work in a school in Slovakia. Each of these missionaries is an example of what the seed of the word can do when it finds good soil and bears fruit in abundance. I’d like to thank them now on your behalf.

Six of us will be remaining in community, but we’ll also be taking some holiday time, so we won’t be broadcasting Sunday Mass from the Ark in August. We are, however, thinking of other ways of making some of our community prayer and activities available on-line, either on this YouTube Channel or through something that allows more two-way interaction. Perhaps you’re not a member of SIon Community but you’ve been enjoying our way of worshipping. You might want to come to some of our events when we are able to gather again next year. You might want to know about future on-line activities, too, as we explore ways of using new media to keep us connected! If you’d like us to email you about future activities, and you haven’t already been in touch with us by email, I’d really like to encourage you to drop us a line on so we can you connected.

I’d also like you to do something for the four missionaries who are leaving us at the end of July: I’d like you to pray for them. There are many ways of praying! You can dedicate a decade of the rosary for each of them, or simply say ‘God bless Oscar and Angela, Monika and Luke’. But I’d like to invite you to be bold! Do you believe that God can speak to you to inspire a word to encourage another person? The Holy Spirit loves to use our voices to encourage and build up one another. Indeed, today’s First Reading declares that God’s Word doesn’t come forth without accomplishing what it sets out to do. So I’d like to encourage you, wherever you are, to simply open your mind to God right now, and ask God if there’s anything He wants to say to any or all of these missionaries. If something comes to your mind quickly, especially if it’s an unexpected thought that makes you think ‘this doesn’t feel like it comes from me’, I encourage you to send it in to us, and if it seems appropriate, we will share it with them privately.

Today, Jesus has taught us that broadcasting is part of God’s plan. We can choose whether to remain scattered, or to become connected. Jesus connected from a fishing boat. We’re connecting from an Ark. You can connect from home, but only if you want to bear fruit in abundance. The next step is up to you!

A Donkey for a King

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The 14th Sunday of Year A.


A camel, a donkey and a centaur were making their way along the road to the Holy City.

Maybe you haven’t met a centaur before – they were common in Narnia and the legends of Greece, but you don’t see so many these days. Imagine the body of a horse with the chest, arms and head of a human… that’s a centaur. They have a habit of being too clever for their own good!

I’m not sure how long these three had been on the road – neither were they, for it had been so long they’d forgotten how they had even come to take this road together. The camel carried a heavy pack upon its back, filled with food and drink and luxuries. The donkey and the centaur were yoked together to pull a cart, into which passers-by threw all kinds of trash.

Onwards they went, inspired by a voice within them which kept murmuring ‘all will be well when you reach the holy city’. Eventually they came to a long stretch of desert road, where the going was hard and the grazing was scarce. But one day the camel smelled rich pastures in the distance and turned off the narrow road. “Shall we follow?” asked the centaur – but the donkey simply brayed and continued pressing forward, following that gentle voice within.

A day came when they met some philosophers upon the road, who spoke of secret knowledge. “There are books God doesn’t want you to read!” they said. “There are cosmic energies apart from God which can bring you healing and power over nature!” The centaur was fascinated, and kept daydreaming about what they seemed to promise! This was hard for the donkey – without her companion paying attention to that voice urging ‘onwards to the holy city’, she had to work much harder keeping the centaur on track, and their pace slowerd considerably.

At length, the camel caught up with them, looking thin and worse for wear. The food in the green pastures had soon run out, and bandits had taken all the luxurious good in his pack. Alone and tired, the camel was glad to find his friends, and for some days they walked on together as companions, heeding that voice which called ‘onwards to the Holy City’. But then came a day when the faint aroma of a she-camel on heat wafted through the desert air. Our camel had already sired many calves, but this temptation was too much to resist… and the camel left his companions, never to return.

The two remaining travellers pressed on, coming ever closer to the Holy City but not yet seeing it upon the horizon. One night the centaur looked up at the night stars. Hadn’t a star once led the camel and its wise owner to meet the infant King of the Jews? There were no miracles in the sky tonight, but perhaps there was a way to discern a meaningful pattern in the stars…

“I think we should go that way!” said the centaur, as they settled down for the night.

The donkey shook her head, but the centaur, full of his own wisdom, slept restlessly and dreamed of finding a short cut.

In the morning, the donkey awoke alone. Still yoked to the cart of rubbish, but now with no companion to help her pull, the poor donkey staggered to her feet, unaided and unbalanced. Just then a healthy young man walked up, with muscles weathered by hard labour. “Let me give you a hand, O donkey,” said the man, and lifted the other side of the yoke on to his own shoulders. Strangely the yoke felt much lighter in the hands of this man than it did on the back of the centaur – and the man seemed to know exactly where he was going. Now, instead of whispering “Come”, that inner voice exulted with delight, “Yes! You are on the road to the Holy City!”

Each time they stopped for a break, the man would gently release the donkey from her yoke and rub down her aching muscles. He would also remove some of the trash which people had piled in her cart, disposing of it safely – though the donkey could not see quite how the man got rid of it. Each time they were ready to go again, the man would tenderly strap the donkey back into the yoke and then lift his own side of the beam. “My yoke is light” he whispered to her, “but you cannot be rid of your burden until we reach the Holy City”.

Some days later, a shining city on a hill appeared in the distance, and as they drew close, the man guided the donkey aside to a yard, the trading place of another carpenter. The man greeted his colleague, and a conversation followed. The man then whispered to the donkey: “I must leave you here for a while. You will find food and water while you wait; have patience, and you will see me again.”

The donkey was puzzled. Until now, the man had seemed so sure of the way to the Holy City. Now, at its very threshold, he was saying that it was not time to enter. The centaur would have had an argument and stormed off. The camel would have been so pleased with the food and drink on offer that he probably wouldn’t have minded staying outside the city forever. The donkey hesitated, but decided to trust the man. She didn’t need to understand the reasons; he had proved that he was kind and gentle and she was willing to trust him like a child.

A few days later, some Roman soldiers came and seized the cart she had been pulling, breaking it up to make timber for the crosses at the place of execution.

Not long after that, a stranger appeared and spoke to the owner. She could hear nothing except the words “the master needs it”, as the stranger came close and led her out of the yard. Somehow the stranger carried a trace of a familiar scent which soon became stronger, as a smiling face appeared at the city gates. “May I ride on you, my friend?” asked the kind man – and together, they entered the Holy City.

The rest, as they say, is history. For the donkey, it’s her story. The question is, will it be your story? When God asks you to turn aside from the luxuries of this world, will you get the hump? Will you be the self-taught centaur of your own attention? Or are you willing to be a donkey for the King of Kings? The path is yours to choose.