The Kindest Cut

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B.

“I’m expecting great things of you, Mr Leyshon! Great things!”Black and white photo of Mr R. I. Denis Jones JP, former headmaster of Graig Comprehensive School, Llanelli

My headmaster in Secondary School, Mr Denis Jones, left me in no doubt of his high expectations. He said so often, in Welsh tones that brooked no argument.

He never said precisely what great things he was expecting, but as a committed Christian and chapel preacher, I think he would have been pleased to learn that I am now spreading the Gospel across the UK and wherever technology will carry it!

God also expects great things of us. In the Parable of the Talents we’re told that we are expected to make a profit for God, not of money but of souls. Today, St John’s letter questions whether our love is real and active, and whether our conscience is clear. But how do we know what great things God is asking of us?

We are to “live in Christ” – he is the vine, and we are the branches. Why does a vinedresser prune a grapevine? Left to itself it will grow lots of small grapes. But the master doesn’t want small grapes, he wants fewer but larger grapes. So he not only removes dead branches, but he also removes some of the perfectly healthy buds which would have formed new leaves, new branches and new fruit. In that way, all the available goodness is channelled into what’s left. So we are to look at what is already bearing fruit in our lives – through the gifts we have been given, and the doors which God has opened around us. Then we must ask how we can ripen this fruit – and what must be pruned to do so?

St Paul experienced a most severe season of pruning. As soon as he had become a disciple of Jesus, he took all that zeal which he had previously invested in persecuting Christians, and preached openly and strongly. This was not at all helpful to the church in Jerusalem! So they sent him home to Tarsus, and there he stayed for more than a decade until Barnabas went to fetch him for what become Paul’s famous missionary journeys, powered by preaching incubated in those years of pruning.

Sometimes we hear lots of place names in our Bible readings, and they mean little to us. It might be helpful to know that the Holy Land is about the size of Wales. So if we superimpose Great Britain on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, we could, loosely, say that Saul of Glasgow was converted on the road into Liverpool, and caused great trouble by preaching in Cardiff, so they took him to Aberystwyth, sent him home to Scotland on a boat, and then the Church in South Wales, North Wales and Mid Wales enjoyed a season of peace. It was only when I visited the Holy Land in 2013 that I realised that the journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem was a local hop, like Newport to Cardiff, but the journey to the capital from Nazareth was like coming down from Wrexham – on a donkey!

It seems strange to think about such travel while living in lockdown, but we now find ourselves in a time of change. For the last year, our lifestyle has been disrupted. Now we look forward to a reversal of past restrictions, an opening of new opportunities. Many things are becoming possible for us. But perhaps God is inviting us to use our freedom wisely. “Do a few things well!” Maybe our families or our circumstances are making it difficult to do something (like Paul being sent home to Tarsus) – if so, am I angry with God for closing that door, or grateful to God for pruning me in order to make my “one thing” clear? But perhaps I’m in full control of my own actions, and in this case the responsibility falls on me and my conscience. Where does God want me to invest my energies in this coming season? Which of my fruits has the best potential to grow, and which must be sacrificed to achieve thus? What choices do I now have to make? Pruning is never comfortable, but there is joy in seeing fruit become ripe for the harvest.

Pope Francis reminds us that we should rise to this challenge because this is what makes us beautiful! If we live in Christ to the best of our ability, we will “appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of [the] goodness and beauty…” If we listen to the message of Jesus, we will have great wisdom on tap. If we follow his way, we will discover a “life to the full”. If we open our hands before God and truly pray for the help, the grace, which only God can give, we will be enriched. Last week we celebrated Jesus as the good shepherd – but a literal translation would be, “the beautiful shepherd”. This week we rejoice in our call to be beautiful sheep – or rich, ripe, juicy fruit.

So stay connected to Jesus! As our rhythm of life changes again, how important will it be to pick up our Bible and read something daily? How important will it be to make time for prayer, at least at the start or end of the day? Two of today’s readings contain wild promises which seem to say that God will answer every prayer we make – hard for us to believe when millions of Christians have been crying out to God for an end to the pandemic – but these promises come with a catch. First we must “abide in Christ”, we must be so connected to Jesus that we can see what the Father is blessing as clearly as he can. The Lord is expecting “Great Things” from us – indeed, he promises that we ourselves have the potential to do greater things than Christ himself – but first we must abide in him, and when the time is ripe – perhaps, like St Paul after many years – we will bear fruit in abundance. Until then, keep on growing!

Shepherd’s Delight

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B.

I’d go hungry; I’d go black and blue

And I’d go crawling down the avenue

No, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do

To make you feel my love.

Bob Dylan wrote these words, and Adele made them famous a few years ago. There are times we need to know that we are loved. And I hope all of us have at least a few people in our lives who want to communicate to us that yes, we are truly loved, even when we’re not in a mood to receive it. But we can so easily fall into a trap, a terrible trap of doubt. We set conditions for how we want others to love us. And if we’re not careful, five terrible words will pass our lips. “If you really loved me…”

  • If you really loved me, you’d be ready on time.
  • If you really loved me, you’d remember my birthday.
  • If you really loved me, you’d call more often.

But let’s face it, none of us like being nagged into doing things by other people. And they clearly don’t understand the pressures I am under. That’s why I wasn’t ready, why I didn’t call, why I forgot your birthday. I do care, honest! Those just aren’t the ways I show my love!

In fact, while we’re busy telling other people how to love us, what about God?

  • If you really loved me, you wouldn’t have let my granny die yet.
  • If you really loved me, you’d have stopped me getting ill.
  • If you really loved me, you’d have kept my family together.
  • If you really loved me, we wouldn’t be in a global crisis right now.

Whoa! Listen to the words of today’s Gospel. “I am the Good Shepherd, and I lay down my life for my sheep.”

In the Old Testament, the Book of Job tells the story of a man suddenly afflicted by every possible woe short of death. Job refuses to curse God but does put his complaint into a prayer. God’s only answer is to ask Job, “Can you create a universe and keep it running?”- it reminds me of that scene in the film Bruce Almighty where Bruce, who is standing in for God, tries to answer every prayer on earth with a Yes at the same time, and chaos breaks out.

Seems to me we’re not given the option of believing in a God who runs the world the way we would like it to be, Perhaps God can’t fix everything to everyone’s satisfaction. If God could only fix one thing for you, what would it be? Might it be death itself? What if God could fix things so we could live for ever in a place of happiness? What if God could find some way of forgiving our sins and opening the door to heaven?

Oh… hang on, wasn’t it Easter a few of weeks ago? This sounds rather familiar.

Every time we celebrate Mass, at the heart of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest declares: The Mystery of Faith! This is an invitation for us to declare that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. But it also reminds us of another mystery, that those of us gathered at the Lord’s table have been given this gift called faith! We are the adopted children who know we have been brought into God’s family.

Have you ever seen a movie about an adopted child?

Often it will begin with the child resisting their new family and showing hostility. But at some point towards the climax, the child will finally realise that the adoptive parents really, seriously, commit to loving them as a family member – and the child will, for the first time, dare to call their new parents “Mum” and “Dad”.

We too are invited on a journey of discovery, to reach that point where we know with every fibre of our being that God is a Father who loves us, and Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the bridegroom who gave his very life for his bride. I speak to you as one who is still on that journey – knowing, intellectually, that God does love me, but never having experienced that deeply at an emotional level.

Last week I spoke about how Jesus saves us so we can enter eternal life. This week I point us to the why. Jesus is not a hired hand, caring for us only because he has been paid or ordered to do so. Jesus is a true shepherd, one whose very nature is to care for his flock and give his life for them. The Father of Jesus seeks to adopt us also, so we can receive the same blessing as Jesus. Why? Because He loves us. This is what he says to each one of us:

“You are My beloved child, in whom I delight. You are the love of My heart; My favour rests on you. Son, you please Me well. Daughter, you fill Me with joy.” This is good news: God is especially fond of you! He really, really likes you!

The problem is many of us don’t want to accept the thought that we please God. We focus on the sin in our lives and imagine God holding us while wrinkling his nose, like an uncomfortable dad holding his baby with a stinky nappy. But that’s not who God is at all!

God created you from His delight and for His delight. You were made to be His companion, a person like Him but not Him. You are also given the ability to freely and deeply love Him in return. You are capable of thrilling God’s heart with endless delight!

What would you do if you really loved God? Would you call him “Father” – or even “Dad”? If you loved Jesus, would you follow Him as your Shepherd?

Bob Dylan, born Jewish, became a born-again Christian in 1978, and his faith inspired many of his songs. I don’t think he’d mind too much if I gave his lyrics a little tweak to speak about Jesus:

He went hungry; he was whipped for you;

And went carrying his cross, for sure,

No, there’s nothing that he wouldn’t do

To make you know his love.

Homily partly drawn from my previous homily If You Really Loved Me… and also incorporating words from Matt Lozano in the Unbound Ministry Guidebook.

Eternally Grateful

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B.

You have saved our lives! And we are eternally grateful!

If this saying sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen the movie Toy Story 2, where on no less than four occasions, Mr Potato Head rescues some alien toys from less-than-certain doom. It becomes a running gag until Mr Potato-Head finally accepts their undying love.

Every Sunday Mass is actually something very similar! We enter into an act of worship which has Jesus Christ at the centre. The message we want to express in our liturgy is that he has saved us, and we are eternally grateful! But what kind of saviour is Jesus?

At one level Jesus is a model for us of non-violent resistance. When a good man dies for a cause and refuses to repay violence with violence, this sends out a powerful message. Martin Luther King Jr is rightly honoured as someone who resisted violence and forfeited his life for addressing racial injustice in the 20th Century. But Jesus is more than an amazing role model.

We claim that Jesus died to save us – but from what peril? It’s easy to recognise the gift of saving life when St Maximilian Kolbe offered himself in exchange so a Jewish prisoner would be spared in Auschwitz, or when a rabbi and three Christian chaplains gave their lifejackets to four young sailors on a sinking US Naval ship in 1943; we see the direct connection between the lives sacrificed and the lives saved. With a little more imagination we can make the connection between the Few who gave their lives as aviators in the Battle of Britain and the freedom we enjoy in the UK today. But how has the carpenter from Nazareth, nailed to a cross of wood, liberated me from anything?

All of today’s readings point to the reality of sin. We’ve just heard, from St Luke’s Gospel, that Jesus

… opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations.’

It was the Risen Jesus himself who made the connection. He stood among his disciples, demonstrating that (as he had promised) death was not the end of our human story. But he didn’t just return to validate his claim that he had “gone to prepare a place for us”. He also explained the meaning of the Scriptures to his followers. We’re told that the second half of the message, after proclaiming Christ risen from the dead, was repentance for sins in the name of Jesus. We’re asked to take it on trust, from the One who knows these things, that the death of Jesus makes the difference for us between eternal damnation and everlasting joy. It was because St John came to understand this that he could write in his letter that Jesus “is the sacrifice that takes our sins away”. And St Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles as well as today’s Gospel, reports St Peter’s speech proclaiming that the very people who had cried out “Crucify him!” could “repent and turn to God”, so that their sins may be wiped out.

Later Christian philosophers tried to understand why the death of Jesus could be so powerful. A thousand years after the crucifixion, the English monk Anselm argued that only God could be pure enough to pay the debt of human sin, but only a human being was entitled to make up for human faults – which is why it was essential for Jesus to be God-become-man, so there could be a man good enough to pay the price of all the sins of human history.

It’s satisfying to know the answer – but it’s not essential. There’s a famous T-shirt slogan which says “I solve problems you don’t know you have, in ways you can’t understand” – usually placed under a job description such as Architect, Accountant or Computer Programmer. We don’t need to be aeronautical engineers to board a plane and complete a flight. A mother doesn’t need to be a gynaecologist to give birth to a baby. We are invited to take it on trust that if Jesus hadn’t died on the Cross, all human souls would be separated from God for eternity; but now, anyone who asks Jesus sincerely for mercy can go to heaven.

Sometimes, we find ourselves deeply conscious of sin in our lives, and have a genuine sense of being unburdened by making an honest confession. If you listened to last Sunday’s edition of The Beloved Podcast, you’ll have heard one of our community members, Violeta, speaking about how God gave her both strength and opportunity to break away from a sinful sexual relationship when she made a good confession to a trusted priest.

In other cases, we may not have that same awareness of sin. When I became a Catholic, 31 years ago, I wasn’t conscious of any sin in my life beyond mild childhood disobedience to my parents. But sometimes we need to trust other people to let us know we have a problem. You might be called in for a routine medical scan, and discover a problem you didn’t know you had, in time for it to be treated effectively.

It turns out I have a sin problem. To know what behaviours are sinful, I trust the teaching of the Catholic Church. To know how the problem can be resolved, I look to Jesus my Saviour. He, above all, solves problems I didn’t know I had in ways I don’t fully understand. But if Jesus explained this to his first followers, who am I to disagree? So as an act of faith, I gladly turn to Jesus and say: “You have saved my life! And I am eternally grateful!”

Consider Thomas!

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on Divine Mercy Sunday.

Consider Thomas, a man of great faith and dedication to the Lord!

In today’s Gospel, we famously meet St Thomas, the apostle who doubted. Thomas only stands out three times in the whole Bible, and we’ve just heard that he was not in the room when the other apostles first met the Risen Jesus. So not unreasonably, Thomas says:

Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.

Yet I have declared Thomas a man of great faith! Why do I dare to say this? The first time we see something of his character, it’s a few weeks earlier. Jesus is lying low on the far side of the River Jordan, because he knows the Pharisees are plotting to have him executed. Then news comes that his close friend, Lazarus, is seriously ill and close to death. The apostles become divided. Some say, “Lord, he’s your friend, you must go to him.” Others say, “No, Lord, it’s too dangerous – you can’t go.” Thomas says: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Thomas alone has the courage to stand up for loyalty and friendship, even to the point of risking death. So you can understand his doubt, his confusion, his despair, when he learns that Jesus appeared to the other apostles at a time when he alone, Thomas, wasn’t there! “Is this the the thanks I get for my loyalty? Our Master, who now seems to have the power to walk through locked doors and appear wherever and whenever he chooses, chooses to meet with all of them and not with me? Is THIS the thanks I get?”

Thomas is a man who wants to know things clearly. At the Last Supper, Jesus speaks about his coming death, and uses words which I’m sure we’ve all heard at many funerals: There are many rooms in His Father’s House, and he’s going to prepare a place for us. Jesus say to the apostles: “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas replies: “How can we know the way?”

Jesus IS the way. Thomas is looking for a plan. What Jesus is offering is a person. He turns to Thomas and says “I am the way.”

Jesus is the way, and Jesus makes a way for us. At communion time, we’re going to hear a modern worship song called Waymaker. Our security is when we follow Jesus. But sometimes the Lord leads us through darkness. The song’s lyrics declare:

Even when I don’t see it, You’re workin’
Even when I don’t feel it, You’re workin’

Thomas wasn’t feeling it. Thomas wasn’t seeing it. His anguish was what any one of us might cry out in a dark time – “Lord, unless I can touch you, I can’t believe you’re really there.”

Thomas got his wish.

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’

John 20:26-27

I wonder how Thomas felt in that moment. He was carrying a mixture of fear and love, doubt and hope. He had doubted whether Jesus remembered and cared for him personally. He had doubted the testimony of his friends, that Christ was risen. But now, undeniably, Jesus had not only remembered him, but had noticed his doubt and his pain. Thomas’ reward for his loyalty was to be written into history as the one man to stand for all of us who know that same painful mixture of doubt and hope. All of us will have moments of crying out, “Lord, are you there?” in the dark times of our lives. It is not the Lord’s will to answer immediately. But neither is it the Lord’s will to fail to answer at all. The Lord shows himself to Thomas on the ‘eighth day’, the time of perfection, a week after hope is given. “I am the way” says Jesus. “I am the one who will show himself to you after a time of testing. Doubt no longer but believe.”

On this Sunday we also remember that Jesus appeared to St Faustina Kowalska in the 20th century, to show his Divine Mercy. “Paint an image of my with two rays streaming from my breast: the water of baptism and the blood of communion. On the Sunday after Easter, honour this image, saying, ‘Jesus, I trust in you.’”

You won’t find promises of a trouble-free life in the Bible. You will find promises that God will walk with us through the darkness. When we say, “Jesus, I trust in you,” what we mean is: “Jesus, I will follow your commands even when times are hard; I know you walk with me through the darkness.” Thomas and the other apostles knew the darkness of facing the Death of Jesus, yet they were sent as messengers of hope to the whole world!

This is the victory over the world – our faith! Do you want to win a victory over the world? Put your trust in Jesus. Keep praying to him. Keep confessing your sins and receiving Holy Communion, or at least making an Act of Spiritual Communion. Look for the signs that he loves you. They won’t always be the signs that you wish for, but they are there.

Thomas finally recognised who Jesus was. “My Lord and My God!” When we recognise this, we can dare to declare:

You are here, working in this place
I worship You.

You are here, turning lives around
I worship You.

You are here, healing every heart
I worship You.

Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you!

Easter Unveiled

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on Easter Sunday.

Today is the present when the future begins. Look at the signs of hope!

We have an empty tomb and a folded linen cloth – but wait! In today’s Gospel, of Jesus himself there is no sign.

Next Sunday, we’ll read how Jesus appeared to the group of apostles and showed himself to doubting Thomas. But for Easter Sunday, we’re left in doubt and confusion – just like the disciples on the first Easter morning. And perhaps that’s more appropriate for us. Unlike the apostles, we haven’t seen the risen Jesus. Like them, we experience a mixture of faith and doubt.

We doubt because we have intellectual questions about God – if he loves us, why is the world in such a mess?

We doubt because we have mixed feelings about God – does he really love me personally when my life is such a mess?

We doubt because we’ve heard the rumours, but we can’t see the Lord of life with our own eyes.

Yet we’re here on Easter Sunday morning because deep down, we believe. And we see the signs today of the hope we hold for tomorrow.

Scripture says there was another cloth, the one which had covered the face of Christ, rolled up and put to one side. How much we look forward to the day when we can take the cloths covering our faces, roll them up, and put them away for good! That detail might also remind us that Moses had to cover his face to hide the reflected glory of God – but now Jesus has shown us God’s glory, not only by rising from the dead but by the way he died, embracing all of faults and sins. It’s only when we understand the spiritual consequences of this that we see the cross truly is the place where a hero gave his life to save the human race. In another letter, St Paul wrote that we too would have unveiled faces to reflect the glory of Christ – in today’s letter, we are reminded that in the future we will share in Christ’s resurrection. For this we wait in expectant hope!

Faith and doubt go together. It’s because we’re surrounded by doubt, that each Easter, we’re invited to renew our baptismal promises. This isn’t meant to be a mere ritual we perform because it’s Easter Sunday. In this computer age it’s all too easy to click “Yes” to the terms and conditions, without thinking through what we’re doing. But what we do today needs thought. It’s meant to be a personal and deliberate choice to live our lives God’s way – your promise to me, to one another, and to God.

Promises matter. American Football Coach Bill McCartney, founder of a Christian men’s network called the Promise Keepers, once told a story about how he prepared his team for a crucial match. Each player was asked to reflect on what they were going to do. Then each player had to come, personally, and tell the coach what he intended to do on game day. At the big match, the team played better than anyone expected.* Each player kept his promise.

In a few moments, you’ll be asked to make three promises.

“I renounce Satan.” This is more than repenting of sin. To “renounce” is to say: I want nothing to do with this! I am not only sorry that I gave in to sin when I was tempted; I don’t want that sin to have any lasting hold on me. I will do everything in my power never to fall into sin again!

Don’t believe the lie that you are unforgiveable or that God doesn’t care about you. Our Father in heaven simply wants us to be set free. Will I be a victim or walk in freedom? Will I let the Enemy bully me into not being the best version of myself? Just declaring that we renounce Satan helps us overcome that fear.

Coach McCartney would ask what you’re going to do this year, to break any ongoing temptation and kick Satan out of your life!

“I believe in God.” To believe is more than a mental exercise of holding an idea in your head. To “believe” is literally “to put your faith in”. Like the Apostles, because we receive Holy Communion, we can declare: “We have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection from the dead.” With the Apostles, we share in the Great Commission: he ordered us to proclaim that God has appointed Jesus to judge everyone, alive or dead. All who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven.

How often will we put our trust in Christ’s command to eat his flesh as the Bread of Life, or make an act of Spiritual Communion on days then this is not physically possible?

How often will we tell other people that Jesus will forgive anyone who turns to him, but will also pass sentence on anyone who dies without asking forgiveness?

Coach McCartney would ask what you’re going to do this year, because you put your trust in Jesus, the Saviour of the world!

“I believe in the Catholic Church.” To put your faith in the Church needs a personal commitment to making the community where you worship the very best that it can be, taking part and using your gifts fully.

One more question, though not one the liturgy asks us today. “Do you believe in yourself?” The crowd is watching you. Your coach believes in you, and wants to give you confidence you can play to win. Our Christian life is a team effort. If you are on the Lord’s team, you are already on the winning side. Alone you can do nothing, but together we are unstoppable.

Perhaps you already know what you will do to live out your baptismal promises in the next 12 months. If so, I encourage you to write something in the chat!  … Today is the present where the future begins. We are not alone – Christ is risen from the dead, Alleluia!

Our Thorny Crown

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on Palm Sunday of Lent, Year B.

“In truth this man was a son of God.”

Do we see before us an outlaw or a king?

Some would say there is no difference, for when an outlaw becomes a king he remakes the law in his own favour.

But Christ is the king of a higher law, the law of God’s kingdom – and the symbol of this kingdom is a crown of thorns.

From the very beginning, thorns have been a symbol of godlessness.

When Adam tasted the forbidden fruit, the ground was cursed such that he would toil to raise edible food among the new-grown thorns.

When the prophets looked for an image for the pagan nations, tempting Israel away from God’s law, Moses, Samuel and Jeremiah all likened them to thorns – and Joshua to thorns in our eyes.

When Jesus spoke of the sower with the good seed of the kingdom, some seed was choked among thorns, representing the cares and attractions of this world.

Now, the pagans, the Romans, have dressed Jesus as a phoney king and placed a crown of thorns upon his brow – perhaps scratching at his very eyes.

These thorns are my sins and transgressions. Each time I choose to turn from God’s Law, I add another barb to his crimson crown.

This king loves you enough to wear the crown. And he promises you a crown in return – a crown of beauty for the ashes of your repentance. Since Ash Wednesday, you have been seeking more intentionally to amend your life – but at some level you will have failed. Fear not! He offers you not a crown in reward for your success, but a crown earned by his victory, his choice to take every last sin of the human race and bear it to Golgotha.

You have been offered transfiguration but been subject to temptation. Jesus has been exalted that you may be purified. To bear the fruit God seeks, you must die to old ways – you must allow Christ to crucify everything within you which is not worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven. To reign with him, you must share his crown of thorns.

Each Sunday of the year is a celebration of resurrection. This Sunday, uniquely, is a celebration of crucifixion. It is meant to leave us desolate, abandoned with the scattered friends of Jesus. Some preachers might choose to let silence speak at this moment in the Mass. But this year, we need some light in our darkness, some hope in our hardship. It is coming! The veil of the temple, the division between heaven and earth, has been parted. There is a way for our future glory to enter our present reality – can you hear it, the sound of heaven touching earth? – but this is the story for the week ahead.

Today is the Sunday of great contrasts. A crown, not of gold but of thorns. Hosanna! Crucify him! The king of the Jews, executed as a common criminal. The King is dead. Long live the King!

Germination

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Last month, tens of thousands of people from all over the world tuned in to a webcam at the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. A rare ‘moonflower’ was expected to bloom at any moment – and watchers were caught off guard when this happened not during the night, but in broad daylight.

In ancient Jerusalem, people from afar were also looking for a rare attraction – some Greeks arrived, pagans with an interest in Judaism, and declared “We want to see Jesus.” Maybe they were content to have him pointed out to them. Maybe they wanted an interview with him. Perhaps St John was even using “seeing” to mean “believing and understanding”. Whatever it was they wanted, their arrival was a sign: news of Jesus had passed beyond the Jewish nation and was beginning to attract the wider world. When pressed to perform his first miracle at Cana, Our Lord protested that his hour had not yet come; but now, with the nations watching, the hour was indeed at hand.

When a moonflower blossoms, it is a bittersweet occasion. The beautiful and fragrant bloom soon closes again and exudes a putrid odour. Yet this is necessary for the flower to achieve its purpose and give rise to new life. Jesus too needed to alert his supporters that the path ahead would lead through devastating loss before the new life he had promised could be attained, and he too chose an image from the natural world, an image which warned that what was to come was quite different from what had gone before – as different as an ear of wheat is from a tiny grain.

How do you enable a grain of wheat to burst into new life?

Well, first you have to wait for the right time. Winter wheat and spring wheat each have a right time for planting. Jesus waited until he was 30 to begin his public ministry.

Next, the seed needs to be watered. Jesus began his public ministry with baptism.

A seed cannot grow without oxygen. The Holy Spirit, whose name means ‘breath’, descended upon the newly-baptised Christ.

Some seeds need to pass through a trial before they germinate – a forest fire, a cloud of smoke, or rough treatment in the gizzard of some animal. In all cases the seed must break its outer casing and send a root earthwards and a shoot heavenwards. Jesus was roughly crucified, his body laid in the earth and his divine spirit released to enter heaven, after a visit to the holy souls waiting outside the gates.

A seed does not literally die when it is planted – a truly dead seed will not germinate at all – but it suffers the ‘death’ of losing its old identity. We could choose many other examples of creatures which have shed their old identity – caterpillars becoming butterflies, nymphs becoming dragonflies, tadpoles becoming frogs and toads; all point us to the need to grow and change. Yet each of these creatures changes according to the law written in its very being, the DNA which programmes every cell in its body.

“If anyone serves me, that person must follow me.”

Jesus invites us to follow him through death and resurrection. Everyone who becomes a follower of Jesus faces the trial of openness to change:  if we are truly to be servants of Jesus, he tests us to see if we are willing to live by his standards even when this is far from convenient for us. This might be a challenge to turn away from some obvious sin – but it might be the challenge to stand up for Jesus and for his church in the face of public criticism.

This week, the Vatican issued a statement explaining why the Catholic Church is unable to offer blessings to same-sex couples. We may find ourselves suddenly challenged to justify why the Church is ‘homophobic’. We live in an age which is not interested in what ‘the Church teaches’ so we need to shift the conversation to ‘what Jesus said’. In fact, Our Lord said nothing directly about same-sex relationships, but did say it was God’s plan, made clear in Genesis, that a husband and wife should form a committed bond with one another. So perhaps the best response to a critic is that the Catholic Church exists to bless what Jesus blessed, and we are only trying to be faithful to Jesus; the same statement said that the Church will gladly bless individuals who seek to be faithful to God’s plan. What the church says to all human beings who experience same-sex attraction – as it does to all other people – is that “You are valued. You are loved by God. You are worthy of God’s blessing.” This response will not satisfy all our critics, but it may encourage them to take a fresh look at who Jesus was and what he taught. Our role is only to hold Jesus up in front of the world – he is the one who will ‘draw all people to himself’.

Recently a Zulu king died and was buried – but in the Zulu culture, they use a word to indicated that he was ‘planted’ in the ground and gathered unto his ancestors.

It is not enough that Jesus died and entered eternal life – I too must be planted. The divine law written in my heart must be allowed to shape my growth. It is not about who I am now, but who I am called to be. What part of my shell must be broken? My pride? My selfishness? My desire to conform to the world around me? My fear of change? After the water of baptism, after the infilling of the Holy Spirit, I must face up to the challenge to change.

Do you want to see Jesus? Do you want to follow him, whatever the cost? He is the one affirmed by the voice of the Father. And Christ himself cries out: “Come to me on the cross! Embrace the tree of life! Drink from the source of eternal salvation! But do this and your life will never be the same again.”

The day and the hour of our own blooming into eternal life is as mysterious as that of the moonflower. But the webcam team were ready. Don’t be caught out. Don’t delay. The day to give God permission to break your shell and begin your transformation is today. Our crosses are veiled because today is not the day to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection. Today, we celebrate yours – but only if you are willing to change!

A Whole Glass of Love

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Some say the glass is half empty.

Some say the glass is half full.

Me? I say the glass is twice as big as it needs to be!

We’ve just passed the half-way mark of Lent. It’s a good time to review our hopes for this Lent, the personal challenges we set out for ourselves. Were they bigger than they needed to be? If you’ve achieved something positive, but not as much as you hoped – I say well done, for taking a step in the right direction. And even if you feel like a failure, remember that it’s better to fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed, than to succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.

Our first reading points us to a time of failure; the people of Israel, up to and including the Temple Priests, had failed to follow God’s Holy law – and not in a minor way. They’d embraced pagan religions, allowed the poorest members of society to be mistreated, and ignored the prophets sent to correct them. When the Israelites were deported to Babylon – present day Iraq – the Bible sees this as a punishment from God. Yet God is merciful, and merely 70 years later their descendants were allowed to return to the Promised Land.

The current lockdown has dragged on for months since Christmas, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel – and no, it’s not a train coming the other way. We may be unhappy with the state of the world; we might even wonder if what’s happening now is some kind of divine punishment. But we don’t need new prophets to tell us that God’s laws still stand: God expects us to care for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, at home and abroad. If we see the state of the world as a punishment from God, it might be that we’re expecting a bigger glass than the one God has provided. Jesus did not come to promise us that we would be safe in this life. He only promises us that we are loved.

God’s love sometimes comes in unexpected forms. In the days of Moses, the people grumbled that their journey to the Promised Land was taking too long. The Bible tells us that God permitted fiery serpents to come among the people and smite them with poisonous venom, as a punishment. But God also instructed Moses to create a bronze serpent held high on a pole, so that those who looked upon it would be healed. I wonder which surprises us more – that God would allow a punishment to be inflicted in this way, or that God would use an image of something apparently evil as a tool of healing?

For St John the Beloved Disciple, that ancient bronze serpent was a prophecy of Christ. Another symbol of evil – the crucifix – would become a sign of healing. We lift up the Cross – we place it on our walls – we exalt the Crucified one – as an act of love.

We should remember that in the ancient Roman Empire, a crucifix had the same significance as a noose, a guillotine, an electric chair or a gurney prepared for lethal injection. It was a sign that a person of the deepest wickedness was being punished for their crimes.

An ancient Roman transported to the 21st Century would gaze at any cross around your neck with the same incredulity we would give to someone sporting a miniature gallows as fashion jewellery. Yet that same cross is a place of incredible love. Jesus embraced the Cross because of love. Mary stood steadfast at the foot of the Cross, because of love. St John the Beloved kept vigil with Mother and Son because of love. Yet of these, the greatest love is that shown by Jesus – causing so much pain to his Beloved Mother and Beloved Disciples by offering his life as a ransom for all the wretches in the history of humankind.

God’s offer is simple. Put your faith in the man upon the Cross. Do this, and you shall live for ever. Perhaps that sounds too simplistic, in the same class as believing that looking at a bronze pole could cure your snakebite. But God’s ways are not our ways. In fact, they are so different from our own ways that God needs to grab our attention. Look at the man upon the cross! Look at the humility of God! Look at what he was willing to do, knowing that it opens the door for you to be forgiven all your sins, cleansed of all your curses, and admitted to unending happiness in heaven. Jesus did this, and he did it for you!

Some decades ago, a Christian poet, one John Williams, was travelling on a train when he noticed one passenger suffering a fit – and another one tending to him. The patient was a wounded soldier from the British Army. The carer was also a soldier, an American who had dedicated his life to caring for the wounded Englishman who had saved his life; indeed, the fitting was due to the wound received in that moment. The American explained to poet Williams how he had abandoned his plans for marriage and life in the United States to remain in Britain for his comrade in arms: “He did that for me! There’s nothing I can’t do for him.”

Today being Mother’s Day, I would be at fault if I didn’t invite you to pause and ponder the honour due to your mother. She endured the pains of labour for you, and most likely changed your soiled underwear, kissed your wounded knee, and soothed your aching spirit on many occasions. If she has passed into God’s hands, offer a prayer for her. If she’s still with us, what can you do today to show your love and your gratitude?

But once your mother has been honoured, remember also the one who loved you so much he gave up his life for you. He doesn’t ask the impossible from you. Nor does he worry about receiving a half-empty glass. He only asks for your all – 100% of what you can give him, and not one drop more. We don’t earn our way into heaven by our good works, but we do demonstrate our love for Christ by loving others in our turn. And it’s fitting on this Mother’s Day that I give the last word to my own Mum, whose words of wisdom to me on many occasions were these: “Gareth, always do your best, for you can’t do better than that.”

Thanks Mum. I’ll drink to that – a whole glass!


Acknowledgments – quotes in today’s homily were drawn from three episodes of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, by Ann Atkins (22 Sep 2020) , Giles Fraser (30 Sep 2020) and Bill Arlow (10 Nov 2020).

A Greater Time

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Time is greater than space.

That’s one of Pope Francis’ favourite expressions, and it’s worth thinking about.

We’ve just heard how Jesus cleared out the traders from the Temple. What was happening there was wrong on so many levels. At the simplest, the Temple was meant to be a holy space – trading wasn’t appropriate there. But at a deeper level, the whole moneychanging business was corrupt. Middlemen profited from poor people who wanted to buy clean animals for their sacrifices. The very poorest couldn’t afford to do so at all!

If you know a holy place which has become cluttered with things that shouldn’t be there, maybe this is the week to do something about it. But… time is greater than space. So on this day of Lent, we can also ask, is my time filled with things that shouldn’t be there?

“On the seventh day, God rested.” Among the Ten Commandments, we find one which is about stopping to rest. Observant Jews keep a sabbath day from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. By God’s law, they avoid labour. By ancient custom, they make it a family day, beginning on Friday evening with the sabbath meal marked by special blessings.

You won’t find a law in the New Testament about Sunday being a day of rest. Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday morning. The first Christians met to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the evening each Sunday, which was a working day in the Roman Empire. Later, when Christianity was no longer an underground religion, Sunday became a public day of rest.

So what’s at the heart of the idea of a sabbath? Is it a day for rest, a day for worship or a day for families to be together? The Christian Sunday is for all of these things.

St John Paul II wrote a whole reflective letter on what Sunday means. He challenged all followers of the Lord to make this a day for spending time together in a leisurely way. Now this can take a bit of planning, but families who keep Sunday well develop traditions: maybe the whole family bakes together. Maybe Sunday’s food is prepared on Saturday. Or if you’re living alone, it might be a day when you plan to make a longer phone call to someone.

It’s a day when you could plan to do more – and to do less.

Do more – that is, do something to mark it out as a special day. You could wear different clothes – I don’t mean “going to church” clothes but “this is a special day” clothes. You could put a different cloth on the dinner table, or decorate it with flowers.

Do less – if there’s a way to avoid chores on a Sunday, avoid them. Or if there’s cooking, cleaning or gardening which has to be done, can you make a fun family activity out of it? And maybe turn off your mobile devices for a few hours, so they don’t get in the way of family time!

But do something. The Lord’s Day exists in time, rather than space. It’s what you do, more than where you do it, which makes this day different. Time is greater than space!

Making Sunday special is possible.

I have a friend in Bristol who makes it clear to her employers that she won’t work on Sundays. She’s willing to be flexible with shifts on other days, but she won’t take overtime on a Sunday. It’s her day for rest and for God.

I have a friend in Newport who runs an award-winning restaurant – which doesn’t open on Sundays. It shares its front access with a busy supermarket which does open on Sunday; but if you want a meal at the famous Gemelli’s on Sunday, I’m sorry, that’s not going to happen. To the world, this is foolishness; in God’s eyes, this is a very wise position.

I know a couple in Wales who mastered the art of using Zoom to connect with distant family members long before lockdown made us all experts in videoconferencing. By putting a table against a big screen and a video camera, they can share a Sunday meal with their grandchildren in Australia!

St John Paul also asks us what time we give to prayer and to studying our faith on a typical Sunday – either alone, or again, with family. Is it a day to read from a book of saints or a Bible story to young family members? Is it a day to connect with godchildren?

It doesn’t take long to form a habit. For the last two month, schools have been closed and we’ve got into the habit of looking after children at home. Now schools are about to re-open, and the rhythm of the week will change again – even if you don’t have kids at home, you may notice a change in the traffic and the way the world moves around you.

Lent is a time for new beginnings. Is it time to make a good habit for Sundays? It’s better to do something small but meaningful, than to shoot for the moon. Maybe start with half a Sunday – if you’re morning people, no chores after 11 am – or if you work best in the evening, none before 4 pm. If you live with others, have a household discussion… and even if not all of the people at home are people who pray, you don’t have to be religious to do family time well. Just make sure there’s enough time for the people who do want to pray, to pray.

Jesus knows the heart of every person. He knows that part of your heart which yearns for sabbath rest, and that part which is caught up in wanting to get stuff done. This is the season of purification: don’t struggle on your own, but ask him to cleanse the temple which is your very self. This may take time, but relax: time is greater than space, and the Lord of all ages will revive your soul and gladden your heart. And in the words of Pope Francis: “Have a good Sunday and a good lunch!”

Acknowledgements to Sarah Damm’s website for inspiration.

Crystal Clear

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B.

God loves us.

God tests us.

These two truths are uncomfortable to hold together.

Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer. The Jerusalem Bible, which we currently use for Mass in England, translates one phrase as “Do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one.” It reminds me that Pope Francis recently commented that God cannot tempt us to sin, but he does allow us to be tested. So we pray not to be tested, but we know that sometimes God will politely decline our request. We have only a promise in Scripture that we will not be tested “more than we can bear”.

On the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus is affirmed as God’s beloved Son – but even that doesn’t spare him from testing. We know that Lent is leading us towards Maundy Thursday, when Our Lord will face the temptation to run away from his crucifxion before it begins, and the agony of the Cross, when he will be dared to come down before it is finished.

Jesus, the beloved Son, had a choice. He chose to co-operate with his Father’s plan. Yes, today’s Second Reading says that the Father sent Jesus, his beloved son, to lay down his life for us. But in John’s Gospel we also see Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his own life – indeed, the literal translation would be, “I am the beautiful shepherd.” As we see Jesus today bathed in light on top of the holy mountain, consider his beauty! Could anyone be more loving than Jesus?

It’s a bit harder to see something beautiful in today’s first reading. We have another father and son on a mountain, and this son almost lays down his life, too – but perhaps not so willingly. Abraham believes that God has asked him to slaughter his beloved son, the very boy God gave Sarah as a miracle baby. He must be hoping that this is a test, and at some point God is going to offer him a get-out, but when they reach the top of the mountain, there’s no alternative yet. It’s at this point that the horrible truth becomes clear to Isaac – because now Abraham binds his son and pulls out his knife…

I’d like to be able to give you a neat explanation which tidies up this story.

Maybe I could tell you that in the ancient cultures around Abraham, it was a normal thing for a father to sacrifice a son to establish a dynasty, and Abraham thought that this would please the Lord too. But that makes no sense of the Bible declaring that God asked for the sacrfiice, or was pleased with Abraham’s obedience.

Maybe I could tell you that Isaac was a willing victim, happy to obey this terrible command from God; but that doesn’t make sense of the full story – we’ve only been given edited highlights today, but read the whole of Genesis 22 and you will discover that Isaac asks Abraham where they will find the lamb to be sacrificed. And if Isaac was a willing victim, he wouldn’t need to be bound.

Yes, I’d like to be able to give you a neat explanation which explains this Bible passage comfortably. But in the end, I can’t. I can only give you these truths which fit so uncomfortably together.

God loves us.

God tests us.

When we’re faced with something like this, we have a word for it: “Mystery”. Not a puzzle to be solved, but a provoking story inviting us to seek God’s message. And the mystery of the binding of Isaac is mirrored in the mystery of our daily lives. For although we believe that God loves us, we may experience more often the truth that God tests us. And I recently came across a true story which mirrors this mystery.

Crystal McVea had every reason to be angry with God. I won’t share the details of the things that happened to her in her childhood, but they were horrible. She cried out to God, but no help seemed to come. She often boasted that should she ever meet God, she would ask him all the why why why questions. And she got her opportunity. She died.

Or rather, she didn’t die. But she was clinically dead for nine minutes and returned with a remarkable story of meeting God. Now no-one can prove that these ‘near death experiences’ are genuine spiritual experiences, but I think this one’s worthy of a hearing, because of its because powerful impact on her life.

Crystal was confronted with the beauty of God, and suddenly understood so many things about his plan for her life. In that light, all questions fell away from her lips except one. Why… oh why… didn’t I do more for you during my lifetime? In that moment of encounter, God showed Crystal a small girl radiant with light, literally playing in the rivers of light in heaven; and Crystal filled with love for this person before realising who it was – it was herself, as seen through God’s eyes. I won’t read out her words here and now; it’s easy to find her speaking for herself, online. But it was through seeing the glory of God, and her own radiance as a child of God, that she found peace with God despite the many, many tests she had endured in her life. Crystal returned from that experience knowing that her horrible past made sense as part of the loving plan of God; she also found strength to embrace a better present, forgiving her enemies and putting her trust in God. That’s the power of God’s beauty.

I can’t explain the mystery of how the Binding of Isaac was a necessary part of God’s plan. But I trust that it was, and one day we will understand, just as we will appreciate all the trials of our life in these times. Though God covers you with shadow, remember the light!

God loves us.

God tests us.

Jesus, I trust in you.