Created in Love

Sermon at the Monday Evening Celebration at the Sion Community Mission in Clayton & Ashley.

Scripture: I John 3:1-2

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

I do! I say these words, or some version of them, every Sunday at Mass!

But what exactly do I mean by calling God the “creator”?

We live in the midst of wonderful, creative, human beings. Each of us creates things every day, from a cup of tea or coffee to the content of a dozen emails. When we see a complicated object, our first instinct is to ask “Who made that? And what’s it for?”

200 years ago, a cleric of Lincoln Cathedral, William Paley, pondered what would happen if he went out for a walk on the common. If he found a stone, he wouldn’t ask who made it and why it was there – stones happen. But suppose he found a watch? Surely something as complicated as a watch means there must be a watchmaker? And 200 years ago, there was only one possible answer: God made it.

But maybe there’s another explanation. What if every living thing contains a template of how to grow, a template that gets tweaked when it passes on to the next generation? That would mean the most successful – the most fitting – templates survive and multiply. This was the idea at the heart of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

And do living things really contain templates? They do. We call them genes. The earliest proof of this was found by a Bavarian Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, who studied what happened when you cross-breed pea plants. But it took a long time for other scientists to give him credit, because he only published in a local journal. Now we know exactly how genes work – they are built using a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, which holds together four chemical building blocks.

The Oxford biologist, Richard Dawkins, has written many books explaining how all this works for an audience who aren’t specialists. One was called The Blind Watchmaker – the random processes of evolution lead to plants and animals so complicated we would assume they had been designed, but evolution can get there without the help of a pre-determined blueprint. Some Christian critics objected that it wasn’t very likely that random chance could take all the steps needed to create all of our complex organs. But it’s not impossible, and Dawkins underlined that by writing another book, Climbing Mount Improbable.

One of the things evolution suggests is that our brains are hard-wired, when we see something complicated, to ask “Who made that? And what’s it for?” If we’re living among human beings who might be our rivals, that’s a good survival strategy… it might stop us falling into a carefully-laid trap. But we might fall into another trap – the trap of looking for an intelligent hand behind something which has a natural explanation.

Evolution happens. We have hospital superbugs because bacteria can evolve very quickly. We have different breeds of cats and dogs, and peas and wheat, because we have selectively bred these animals and plants over human history. And when we dig up fossils, we can compare both the body shape and the DNA of ancient life with life today. All of these are pieces of a jigsaw. There are lots of missing links, but the few pieces we have fit into a clear pattern.

One thing we don’t have a good idea about in biology, is how the very first living cell came into being. Evolution can’t rescue us here – before the first set of DNA came together in a living cell, some very special chemistry must have happened. Was that a miracle guided by God? Well, perhaps – but be careful! Science tells us that lots of things that looked really unlikely in the past turn out to have a good explanation. Maybe if we understood this better it wouldn’t look like such a miracle, too.

What about the Universe as a whole? How did that get going? 100 years ago, most astronomers though the cosmos was basically unchanging. The stars and galaxies had always been in their place and always would be. Then Albert Einstein came up with the General Theory of Relativity, and we realised that gravity would eventually cause all the galaxies in the universe to fall together. But clearly that hasn’t happened, so Einstein put a “fudge factor” into his maths to balance it out.

Enter Mgr Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and mathematical genius. He pointed out to Einstein that if the Universe were expanding, the fudge factor wouldn’t be needed. Almost everyone said that was silly, the Universe wasn’t expanding. But an American named Edwin Hubble went off to measure the speeds of our nearest galaxies and confirmed that all but two were moving away from us. Hubble got his name attached to a space telescope you’ve probably heard of. Lemaître get his name attached to the maths which describe the expansion of the universe, which are a bit less famous. Two years later, he pointed out that if the universe was expanding it must have started from a point, which he called a ‘cosmic egg’. One of his rivals, Fred Hoyle, called that a silly idea – who would believe the universe began with a “big bang”? Lemaître did – and he lived long enough to learn, a few months before he died, that radio engineers had picked up a signal from space which matched the radiation which would be left in the universe from a Big Bang beginning.

Well tonight, our theme is “Created in love”, and so far, I haven’t given much credit to God for creating anything. When we see beautiful things in nature – the swirling gases of a planet like Jupiter, a beautiful nebula in space, or our deepest peek at the distant universe – our human instinct is to go “wow, only God could have made that”. Actually, the more we understand about science, the more we can write down the rules, the easier it is to explain how these beautiful patterns come about without needing God to fine-tune anything.

But that still leaves one question. Where do these rules come from in the first place? Perhaps there is only one possible set of rules that works without causing contradictions. If so, those rules spring from the mind of God, whose nature includes all things that are true. If there’s more than one possible set of rules, did God do some selective choosing?

The Catholic Church leaves us free to believe in the Big Bang and in Evolution. We’re also free to believe that God created the world by a miracle a few thousand years ago. But if God did create it more recently, all the evidence indicates that God made it looking as if it had been around for a lot longer, in a Universe more than 13 billions years old, on a planet 4.6 billion years old, and with fossils going back for millennia.

Perhaps we get misled when we open the Bible and the first thing we see is the Book of Genesis. But how often have you watched a film, or read a novel, where the opening sequence isn’t part of the main story, but is something like a dream or fantasy sequence to set the scene? If you were an ancient Hebrew and you opened a scroll to see the words “In the beginning…” that’s like us seeing *“Once upon a time…” or “In a galaxy far far away…” – it’s a cue that what’s coming next is meant to teach us through poetry and story, not science and history. Jesus told stories – think of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son – about people who never actually lived. In the same way, the earliest part of the Bible also tells stories.

What, then, is the Bible trying to teach us by giving us the story of the Six Days of Creation in Chapter 1, and Adam & Eve in Chapter 2? Every day God creates something in Chapter 1, we are told “it was good”. When God creates human beings, “it was very good”. The story restarts in Chapter 2, which is a different picture of creation. God creates Adam, and then from his rib, Eve. They walked in friendship with God “and they were not ashamed”. God sees that we are good. We have no need to be ashamed. We are invited to be friends with the God of the universe! This is a powerful message! And it is all the more powerful when you realise that most of the other cultures who lived alongside the ancient Hebrews told different stories, much less complimentary about human beings. For them, we were nothing more than bits and pieces who had grown out of the limbs hacked off battling giants and demigods. Would you want to see yourself as the toenail of some minor deity? No thank you!

The whole Old Testament is a story of God trying to tell human beings that they are loved. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Elijah and Ezekiel each receive some kind of visit from God. The message is not only for them, but for their descendants or their communities. When Jeremiah was called to be a prophet, he was told that God knew him from his mother’s womb – that’s where the words of our opening song, “O the Word of My Lord”, come from. God’s words to Jeremiah! Through the prophet Isaiah, God consoled the people who had seen Jerusalem destroyed: “I will not forget you. I have written your name on the palms of my hands.”

The point of Genesis is to reassure us that we are made in the “image and likeness” of God. Because we are intelligent, because we are creative, we are like God. God is love, and we understand about love because we are people who love. Sometimes that breaks our hearts. If we are parents of grown-up children, we know we can’t shadow their every move, protecting them from their own foolishness. But when that phone-call comes at three in the morning – “Daddy, I’ve made a stupid mistake – come and rescue me!” – what Dad wouldn’t attend to his daughter like a shot?

When the Bible speaks of love, it often uses the word agape. This is not the same word used for sexual attraction, nor is it the word for just “liking” something. Agape is the kind of love which chooses the well-being of another person and makes whatever sacrifices are needed for the good of the other. This is the love that God has towards us. This is the “kind of great love” which the Father has lavished on us.

Later this week, we’ll look more closely at what it means for God to save us from our sins and forgive our faults. But for tonight, we are invited to stay with the wonder of what it means to be God’s children. All human beings are made in the “image and likeness” of God. But those of us who have been baptised have an extra privilege! We have been adopted into God’s family, we have been granted the right to call God, “Father!” For many of us, this happened when we were babies; some of us accepted the invitation to God’s family when we were older. Either way, we are member of God’s family – not because we have done anything to earn his love, but because He loves us anyway.

Perhaps you have doubted whether there can be a God because you worried that we would have to reject sensible things we have learned about science. Relax! You don’t! The Second Vatican Council said (Gaudium et Spes #36) that it was the rightful job of science to follow the evidence and come to whatever conclusions were warranted. But way back in the third and fifth centuries, the great scholars Origen (Contra Celsus 6.6) and St Augustine (De Genesi ad literam 1:19–20) already said we didn’t have to take Genesis literally!

Are you a bad Catholic if you don’t believe there was really, historically, a Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan? No, of course not.

Are you a bad Catholic if you don’t believe there was really, historically, a couple called “Adam & Eve”? No, of course not. We are asked to believe that we are all descendants of the first human being who sinned – but that’s no different from saying that we are all descendants of the first of our ancestors who had the extra brain capacity needed to think about right and wrong!

If you don’t want to take my word, here are a couple of popes:

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. – John Paul II, 1996 (original French)

We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. – Benedict XVI, 2005

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

I do! I say these words, or some version of them, every Sunday at Mass!

But what exactly do I mean by calling God the “creator”? I mean that the universe unfolds via the Big Bang and Evolution, following rules which come from God. This may be a rather hands-off kind of creation, but that doesn’t bother me in the least. God’s word tells me clearly that God loves me and wants me to be part of his family on earth and happy with him for ever in heaven. One day God will change the rules of the universe so that all of us who have ever lived will be raised forever in indestructible bodies. I don’t know how that’s going to work, but I believe it because Jesus rose from the dead. That’s why, with a physics degree from Oxford and a PhD in astrophysics from Cardiff, I am content to stand before you and profess that not only do I believe in God who created me, but: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen!”

A cloud of gas in space, resembling a human eye

The Helix Nebula, sometimes nicknamed the “Eye of God”

Forgiven Through Love

Sermon at the Penitential Service at the Sion Community Mission in Clayton & Ashley.

Scripture: Ezekiel 36:24-29a

When I was a child, I wasn’t naughty that often – but often enough that I remember what would happen next. First Mum or Dad would give me a telling-off, and send my to my bedroom. Then, maybe half-an-hour later, Mum would come to my bedroom, and with one single word she would ask a question. With one single word, I would answer it.

“Friends?”

“Friends!”

When I look back at this through adult eyes, I see that Mum needed me to learn that whatever I did wrong, I would always be forgiven. That’s what a mother’s love does.

The message of the Bible is clear. God is a Father who, because of his great love for us, longs to forgive us. In fact, there are only two things that can prevent God forgiving us. The first is our refusal to admit we’ve done wrong. The second is our unwillingness to offer that same forgiveness to other people.

Perhaps some of you here tonight have not experienced that same loving forgiveness from your parents that I did from mine. Perhaps the idea of God as a forgiving Father feels uncomfortable because your earthly father didn’t forgive easily. All I can say is, will you give God a chance? If you blame God for not allowing you to experience the tender love of human parents, will you forgive Him for not living up to your hopes and expectations?

Your Father in heaven loves you! On Monday evening, many of you will have picked up a copy of the “Father’s love letter” from the Lady Chapel. The whole Bible is full of expressions of his love. The passage we’ve just heard from Ezekiel declares that God longs to pour healing water over us, and cleanse us. The other great prophets of the Old Testament also speak of God’s hunger to forgive us. Many of the Psalms, inspired by the Holy Spirit, call upon our heavenly Father to cleanse and restore us. And if that were not enough, God sent his only Son, Jesus, to say to many souls, “Your sins are forgiven!” and to call upon His Father to forgive even those who nailed him to the Cross.

Tonight we are invited to receive God’s forgiveness through one of the Church’s Sacraments, Penance. Why do we have this Sacrament? Jesus gave to his Apostles, authority to forgive sins. The Apostle James wrote “confess your sins to one another”, and the authority given by the first Apostles to the bishops and priests who came after them means that when we hear the words of absolution, we need have no doubt whatsoever that our sins are truly forgiven.

We sometimes call this Sacrament, Confession. In order to receive forgiveness, the first step is to acknowledge that we have sinned, by naming our sins aloud to a priest. We don’t need to be too worried about forgetting something trivial. The Church assures us that “When Christ’s faithful strive to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of them before the divine mercy for pardon.” But if we are conscious of mortal sin – if we are responsible for some grave action or omission, in which we knew how serious it was and were free to make a different choice – these sins must be mentioned. If you’re not sure whether a sin was mortal or not, confess it anyway – then you can be sure it has been forgiven!

There is one other sin which you might want to make a point of confessing this evening. It’s that little one you’d rather not mention because it’s a very small matter, but quite embarrassing. It’s not mortal, so you don’t have to confess it – but it’s your secret pleasure. It’s the one you don’t want to mention because of what you fear the priest will think of you. Well, I can tell you what this priest will think of you. I will think you are very brave, and serious about living your Christian life in a way most pleasing to God! So better out than in! Tonight’s the night! Confess everything and be cleansed!

We commonly call Confession the Sacrament of “Reconciliation” – a word which has a deep and hidden meaning. RE – to do something again. CON – a joining term, meaning two things are coming together. TION – a word ending indicating an action is taking place. And the least obvious portion, CILIA – which comes from a Latin word meaning “little hairs”, in this case your eyelashes. RE-CON-CILIA-TION literally means, “Let’s look one another in the eyes again.” Just as my mother would come to me in my bedroom, so God comes through the person of his priest and asks for a simple answer:

“Friends?”

“Friends!”

But God’s promise, given out of love, is for more than forgiveness.

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; I will make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

Because Reconciliation is a Sacrament, it includes an absolute promise from God of help in our earthly lives. It’s not only a promise that God will hit the reset button on our relationship. It’s also a promise that He will give us some help to fight against the temptations we have confessed. But God can’t do that without our co-operation. St Thomas Aquinas wrote that “grace perfects nature”. God builds on what we offer Him.

It’s not enough to simply name our sins to the priest. God also asks us: “What are you going to do, to avoid falling into that sin again?” If we’re struggling with anger, we might need to learn something about anger management. If we’ve fallen into using pornography, we might need to restrict our own access to the Internet – there’s a website called ClickToKick that can help you with that. If we’re worried that we don’t pray enough, we need to make a plan for where and when prayer should fit into the rhythm of our day and our week. So whatever YOUR sin is, what will you choose to do about it?

You will see that at the front of the aisle, there is a bowl of holy water. When you have been to confession, and received absolution from a priest, I invite you to go to the holy water and bless yourself. Remember God’s promise, to wash away your uncleanness and plant a new heart within you. Tell God what new choice you will make in time of temptation. Ask God to give you strength to avoid sin and live this better life.

See, among us now are many priests who have come to lend their voices to God and their ears to you. God is longing for you to confess your sins, so he can restore you to friendship. These priests will hear your confession, absolve your sins, and propose a penance – perhaps they will even ask you to go to the holy water as your penance. To prepare ourselves to receive this gift of forgiveness, and the grace of turning away from sin, let’s stand now and pray in words given to us by God Himself:

A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me.

 

Expectant Joy

A bronze angel appears to a silver image of Mary, kneeling, on a purple backgroundHomily at Christ the King on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B.

Congratulations! You’re pregnant!

I can think of very few words with greater power to turn a life upside down.

A pregnancy is a promise of great changes to come, and a journey from here to there. Usually it begins by noticing that something subtle has changed. Then come the pains of morning sickness. As the child’s body takes form, the mother becomes aware that something is alive – and kicking – within her, but even with ultrasound technology, there will still be a revelation to come when the child is born. Even that’s not the end of the story, for it will take many years for the child to grow to maturity, the parents gradually discovering the person the child will become.

Tomorrow, the whole world will celebrate the birth of a child, and families will be reunited around a meal. Today, it’s only right that we acknowledge that for some of us, this will not be filled with all the joy we would hope for. Some parents – like Elizabeth – will know barrenness, and will have no children to share the celebration. Although childlessness was a stigma in Jewish society of those days, it was not and is not a sign of God’s displeasure. Other parents will celebrate this Christmas conscious that one of their children is missing – lost through miscarriage, or some tragedy later in life – or a child presumed alive but no longer in touch. Most of us will spend Christmas conscious of generations who are no longer with us, but the absence of a child brings a special pain.

If you’re a mum, or a dad, in one of these situations, I want to say something to you – and I’m happy to donate these words to anyone else who’s not sure what the ‘right thing to say’ is.

I’ve never been pregnant, and I’ve never fathered a child. I don’t know how you’re feeling right now. But I do care.

As a priest, I only get to know people’s personal stories when I’m called to the home or the hospital, so my “caring” has to be quite general. But I hope that if any of you here present today know someone personally who needs to hear those words, you have a chance to use them at the right time in the next few days.

When a pregnancy does go to plan, it still involves great uncertainty. When will the mother go into labour? What will the child be like? In a way, the whole Old Testament is a story of expectant waiting for the Christ-child: the prophet Nathan tells Royal David that he is destined to be the father of a line of kings, but will not be the one who gives birth to a Temple for God.

In my first parish, I was once called upon to help a pregnant mother, who had given birth to twins two days before Christmas. Her due date was in January, and although she already had children, she’d planned to buy a second set of the things you need for twins in the post-Christmas sales. But now she had gone into early labour, and the hospital planned to discharge her on Christmas Day. She lived in a rural village with no chance of buying baby equipment in the days after Christmas. So I put out an urgent appeal to my Christmas Eve congregation and they responded gloriously – after my last Mass on Christmas Day I met them in the hospital car park and handed over a carrycot and other useful kit before driving home to my parents. What could be more Christmassy then helping a baby in need?

St Paul was fond of using the image of a pregnant mother. In the letter to the Romans, he used the image of the whole world being ‘in labour’ as we live in an imperfect world awaiting the perfection of heaven, and in today’s extract he gives praise to God because he was alive at the long-prophesied time when God-made-man walked upon the earth.

As followers of Christ, knowing every human being bears his image, we have a solemn duty to welcome every child as we would welcome Christ himself. But that welcome doesn’t just extend to our pro-life stance. It extends to the way we treat every human being, especially the most annoying ones who cross our path!

During the next 24 hours, you’re probably going to attend a Christmas Mass. There will be lots of people there who only come to church once or twice a year. They will do some very annoying things. They will park where you like to park. They will sit in your favourite seat. They might have forgotten what they learned about good manners in church and chew gum or get distracted by their phones. When they do, our job is to make them welcome, for Christ is in them.

Congratulations! You’re pregnant!

You are about to give birth to Christ present in a guest in this or another church! Maybe that guest isn’t yet ready to re-connect with church regularly, and whether Christ brings renewed faith to birth in them depends on how well they experience love from you. So there are still some important gifts you can give this Christmas. You can give your regular seat and parking place to someone who needs to be welcomed. You can give a smile to the person who looks awkward at Christmas worship. You can give guidance with the order of service to the person sitting next to you. And most of all, do it with joy, giving glory to God, it is all part of the way the eternal God wants things to be! 

So remember, if you know someone for whom this Christmas is tinged with sorrow, let them know you’re thinking of them and are willing to listen if they want to talk. And when you meet someone who needs your welcome in the next 24 hours, welcome them as Mary welcomed the Christ Child. I don’t know exactly what or when God will ask you to do, but this I do know: you are pregnant, and your due date is at hand!


Some links useful if you are supporting someone who has experienced a miscarriage:

  • What should you say? Miscarriage Association New Zealand advice
  • Personal account from a woman who’s been there in The Guardian
  • The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity SANDS
  • What if you lose one twin and not the other? The Rainbow Baby signal may help.

Cruse offers advice on how bereavement can impact Christmas.

Children in Spiritual Need

Assembly at Corpus Christi High School, 20 November 2017

I wonder how many of you spent Friday night watching the BBC’s Children in Need appeal? If you did, you’ll have seen lots of short films about children in different kinds of need and how money raised has been able to help them. This morning, I’d like to show you two more children in need…

We live in a world where things go wrong. Children are born sick, or get sick, or have accidents and become badly injured. Parents, too, can be struck down by some illness or injury.

It was exactly the same when Jesus was alive! He lived in a world where we didn’t have the medical knowledge we have today. The Bible tells us that twice he raised children back to life when they had died. He healed people who were deaf, blind, or couldn’t walk – in one case, a man who had been disabled for 38 years!

Some scholars look at the world we live in and decide to blame God. They say that if God can’t do anything to fix it, he’s not very powerful and isn’t much of a god. But if God could fix it and chooses not to, he’s a mean god and not worthy of our attention. Me? I don’t think either of those answers are right.

When I was 11 years old, my grandma died. I was hurting, and I had a choice. I could choose to blame God, as the person who took my granny away – or I could turn to God for help, believing he could do something about it. I chose to ask God for help, and that was when I discovered that God was really there and wanted to help me and guide me.

The families in the video we have just seen also chose to turn to God for help. When these children were ill, they found strength from God through the sacrament of anointing the sick.

Jesus came into a world of sick people and said: “God is with you and wants to help you.” How does God want to help us? Sometimes by a miraculous cure – indeed, behind every saint canonized, there’s a story of God allowing someone to become seriously ill, and then receiving a miracle through asking the prayers of that saint. But often God wants to help us by walking with us through the times of darkness. We’re going to learn a song now which helps us understand what God wants to say to us in difficult times.


This assembly uses Children in Need as a cultural starting point and is not meant to endorse Children in Need. There are legitimate concerns about the morality of some of the projects it funds, as articulated by John Smeaton. On the other hand, Catholics are allowed freedom of conscience to choose something largely good which has some negative aspects – you can read my essay on how far we can compromise.

Men of God

Homily for the Couples for Christ (South Region) men’s retreat at Hebron Hall, 11 November 2017

Gentlemen, today I would like to introduce you to a beautiful woman! She is called: WISDOM!

St Paul speaks about a gift of knowledge and a gift of wisdom. Knowledge is having an understanding of true things. Wisdom is about knowing the best way to do things. If you let this lady into your life, she will make a true man of you!

The wise bridesmaids Jesus spoke about are a sign of us as Christians, brides of Jesus. And gentlemen, although this may feel a bit awkward, each one of us is a bride of Christ. These ladies are our role models, always on the lookout for signs of Jesus. As Christians, you must be men of prayer, always ask Christ to guide and lead you in the decisions you make. Study his Holy Word – for there is no point praying for an answer, and ignoring the answers Jesus already gives in the Bible!

But because the Bible uses the image of Christ as a bridegroom, Jesus also teaches you, gentlemen, what it is to be a perfect husband. Jesus lays down his life for the bride he loves. You who are married, each one of you is called to lay down your life for your wife. This may mean a few big sacrifices – but it usually means lots of little ones.

What happens when you come home from work, and your wife wants to talk? Do you half-listen while reading your smartphone and mutter “yes dear” without really hearing the words? A man like Jesus, a truly wise man, will choose to put down his smartphone and give his wife half an hour of undivided attention when you are both home after a busy day. Each one of you, gentleman, has been blessed with a superpower by God. It is the power to choose to stop what you are doing and show your wife, by words and actions, “Your needs are more important than mine right now.”

If you find yourself in an argument, always ask yourself whether you are being driven by the need to win, or the real issue you are arguing about. If your wife’s solution is reasonable, don’t be afraid to say “OK”. Remember a wise saying: “The noble art of losing face will one day save the human race.”

One subject it is easy to get caught in arguments about, is money. You come from one family. Your wife comes from another family. Now you have started your own family, but the other two families need your support, remittances of money sent home. How much is a fair share for your wife’s family? How much is a fair share for your parents and their extended family? The Bible does ask you to honour your parents, but it also says that when a couple marry, they start their own household. Your first obligation is the needs of your wife and children. Beware of getting into debt because you are giving too much away. Don’t borrow unless you can see how you can repay it. But if anyone is in debt, struggling to repay, and you don’t know where to turn, I recommend this UK charity which will advise you: Turn2Us.

Once your own family needs are secure, whatever you then send to relatives and cousins is a gift. Does a “fair share” look like an equal slice for each living grandparent? For each living cousin – if one side has more cousins than the other? Is it fairer to give more to a relative who is sick? Beware – there can be more than one “fair” way to do things! Even Jesus refused to take part in an argument about dividing up two brothers’ inheritance! Why not first agree how much of your monthly income you can “give away” in total – to family, to your parish, to ANCOP and any other charities you want to support. Make a list of all the people and causes you want to help. Then let you and your wife each take a copy of the list and separately divide up your give-away pot in the way you think is fair. When you show each other the list, take the two decisions and take their average. There’s no easy way to make a better agreement – because we value different causes differently. Remember, the only fair amount to give away is zero. Anything beyond zero is not fair; it is generous, because it is an undeserved gift.

Gentlemen, in today’s world of technology, we face another grave danger. It is called pornography. It is a lie. It is a dangerous lie, because it makes us wish our women could reach impossible heights. It is a serious sin, because every time we demand it on our phones or shops, we are making a request for someone else to sin so we can have pleasure. There is no place for porn in the life of a Man of God, except the place of the confessional where you can seek spiritual healing. If this is something you struggle with, I recommend to you a website called ClicktoKick.

The Bible warns us of temptations from the world, the flesh and the devil, temptations which come in the form of money, sex and power. Jesus battled Satan in the wilderness; and you, gentlemen, are called to battle Satan in your daily lives. Your aim is to be a real man, as Jesus was a real man, wielding weapons of humility, graciousness and wisdom.

Today I have tried to offer you the company of Lady Wisdom, who guides you in doing what is right in everyday life. The Second Reading speaks of a day of judgment, when you will meet Christ. He will judge you on how well you have imitated him and embraced this gift of wisdom. Each day you must refill your lamp, asking God for strength to do the right thing, to die to yourself and serve your bride. Only in this way can each one of you become a true man of God, head of a Couple for Christ. Blessings upon you.

 

 

To Know the Mind of God!

SERMON FOR THE CATHOLIC COMMUNITY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

I’m in Essex this morning because I’m travelling – I’ve had a holiday in France and I’ll be spending the coming week with the Sion Community in Brentwood. That means that I haven’t seen my cat for three weeks. I did try to explain to him that I was going to be away for a month, but I don’t think he understood – the best I could do was a special tickle behind the ears before I left.

We human beings can do something my cat can’t – we can use language to communicate ideas. But sometimes even language fails. St Paul never met Our Lord when he was preaching and teaching on earth – it was only after Christ had ascended into heaven that St Paul was given a deep and mysterious vision. Whatever Paul saw, it turned him from someone who attacked Christians into the Number One defender of Christ!

Today’s Second Reading is from a long letter which Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome – a community he had never visited in person. He’s just finished a long section pondering the ways God has tried to communicate with human beings. God called Abraham to be the father of a chosen people, Moses to liberate the Israelites from slavery, and raised up countless prophets to remind the Kings of Israel that they must keep their Covenant with God in order to benefit from divine protection. Then God changed the deal, sending Jesus; although some of the Jews recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah, many others turned against him. Now Paul has come to understand that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jews, but for all people!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. If we started with a blank piece of paper and tried to work out how God might have communicated with human beings, would we have come up with a story like that, taking us from Abraham to Christ? Probably not! And do we human beings have more hope of understanding God’s plans, than my cat can understand that I am going away for a month but then returning? The good news is that not only do we have the gift of language, God has stooped down to our level to speak to us! In the person of Jesus, God became man to speak to us in human words and human actions! Not only that, but sometimes God speaks to us individually, giving us a moment of clarity or deeper understanding through prayer!

Today’s Gospel gives us an example. “Who do people say I am?” asks Jesus. St Peter nails it – “You are the Christ!” How does Peter know? God-the-Father has planted that knowledge deep in his soul!

Although God reveals some things to us, we don’t have the full understanding of things as God sees them. Here’s an example which might help. My cat is very good at praying. Whenever he sees me, he asks for food! If it’s the right time, I feed him… but since he’s a rather fat cat, sometimes the answer to his prayer has to be “not right now”. I don’t think he understands why he sometimes receives what he asks for, but not always. But I do know he keeps on praying!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. Before I became a priest, I was a professional astronomer – I have a PhD in astrophysics – so I ought to mention the famous quote by Professor Stephen Hawking. In his book, A Brief History of Time, he concludes by saying that if we had a full explanation of “why it is that we and the universe exist”, we would “know the mind of God”. Later, Hawking clarified that he doesn’t believe in God, but if we knew the rules that govern the Universe, and why they work the way they do, we would know everything that could be known.

Actually, Hawking is half right. The universe around us clearly obeys ordered rules which are, at some deep level, TRUE. Since all truths are part of God (Jesus said “I am the Truth”) then to know the laws of the Universe is to know part of the mind of God. But what Hawking would admit himself, if you pushed him, is that even if we knew those laws fully, we could never predict exactly what the universe, the earth, or an individual human life would look like; within those laws there is space for random outcomes, due to quantum mechanics, and for results that can’t be computed accurately enough, due to what mathematicians call chaotic behaviour, so that each human story remains a mystery to be unfolded only in the telling.

“Who can be God’s counsellor?” asks St Paul. Sometimes our prayers do tend towards giving God advice. “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!” Or when we pray for our loved ones, do we explain their situation and problems to God? I’ll let you into a secret – God knows their problems already, even the ones you don’t know about! But God still appreciates the act of love which is you taking time to talk about them.

Last Wednesday the universal church celebrated St Rose of Lima – like St Paul, she sometimes received mystical visions. One led her to a deep understanding of why God permits human beings to suffer and how God would use it for good. A similar understanding came to a local Englishwoman, Mother Julian of Norwich, who confidently assures us that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

It would be nice if there were a God who stopped all pain and suffering in this life. But there’s no earthly religion which offers that – if there were, we would have all joined up long ago! That leaves only two possibilities – either there is no god, or there is a God who exists alongside this world with all its pains and problems. I wasn’t intentionally looking for God when my granny died – I was 11 years old – but when I cried out to any god who might be there to take care of her soul, something deep and mysterious happened which allowed me to make a connection with Jesus, to become a Catholic, and in due course, to become a priest. There’s no time now to tell my story in depth, but I’d be happy to do so informally, after Mass.

We do, however, believe that God has a plan to deal with pain and suffering. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he left us with a promise that one day he will return to remake the world, reversing death and banishing tears – a belief so fundamental that we affirm it every time we say the Creed. I don’t know whether Christ will come again before the happy day next month when my cat discovers that I have come home! But we are invited, as friends of Christ, to spend this life plumbing the depths of God, so that we can experience greater joy when we meet God in the world to come. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus, come!

Keep On Praying!

SERMON FOR THE PATRONAL FEAST OF ST MONICA – Wivenhoe, EssexProper Readings, plus Romans 11:33-36

I’m in Essex this morning because I’m travelling – I’ve had a holiday in France and I’ll be spending the coming week with the Sion Community in Brentwood. That means that I haven’t seen my cat for three weeks. I did try to explain to him that I was going to be away for a month, but I don’t think he understood – the best I could do was a special tickle behind the ears before I left.

We human beings can do something my cat can’t – we can use language to communicate ideas. But sometimes even language fails. St Paul never met Our Lord when he was preaching and teaching on earth – it was only after Christ had ascended into heaven that St Paul was given a deep and mysterious vision. Whatever Paul saw, it turned him from someone who attacked Christians into the Number One defender of Christ!

Today’s Second Reading is from a long letter which Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome – a community he had never visited in person. He’s just finished a long section pondering the ways God has tried to communicate with human beings. God first called the Jewish people to a special relationship with him, a covenant relationship, through Abraham, Moses, and countless prophets after the reign of King David. Then God sent Jesus; although some of the Jews recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah, many others turned against him. Now Paul has come to understand that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jews, but for all people!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. If we started with a blank piece of paper and tried to work out how God might have communicated with human beings, would we have come up with a story like that, taking us from Abraham to Christ? Probably not! And do we human beings have more hope of understanding God’s plans, than my cat can understand that I am going away for a month but then returning? The good news is that not only do we have the gift of language, God has stooped down to our level to speak to us! In the person of Jesus, God became man to speak to us in human words and human actions! Not only that, but sometimes God speaks to us individually, giving us a moment of clarity or deeper understanding through prayer!

Today we are celebrating a woman of prayer, St Monica, from whom this church community takes its name. She is most famous for the years she spent praying that her wayward son, Augustine, would become a faithful Christian. After many years she was rewarded – Augustine had a moment of clarity when God spoke to him, “Take and Read!” He picked up the scroll closest to hand, which was none other than St Paul’s Letter to the Romans! He was so convicted of the message that God was real, God loved him, and could forgive his wicked ways, that he was soon baptised as a Christian and went on to become perhaps the greatest scholar of the first Christian Millennium.

Today, though, we should focus not on the son but on the mother. St Monica was a great woman of faith, supporting a husband and two sons who didn’t always share her beliefs. She persevered, acting in faith when she could, and praying for the people she loved to come to know Jesus Christ, too.

“Who can be God’s counsellor?” asks St Paul. Sometimes our prayers do tend towards giving God advice. “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!” Or when we pray for our loved ones, do we explain their situation and problems to God? I’ll let you into a secret – God knows their problems already, even the ones you don’t know about! But God still appreciates the act of love which is you taking time to talk about them.

Jesus taught us to persevere in praying for things, and St Monica is a perfect example of praying faithfully that other members of our family should come to know Christ. If we have grown tired of praying for our own family members and friends, today is an invitation to begin again. And if we have experienced disappointment in our prayers not being answered, we need to be humble enough to trust God’s timing.

Here’s an example which might help. My cat is very good at praying. Whenever he sees me, he asks for food! If it’s the right time, I feed him… but since he’s a rather fat cat, sometimes the answer to his prayer has to be “not right now”. I don’t think he understands why he sometimes receives what he asks for, but not always. But I do know he keeps on praying!

Our first reading today was a Jewish reflection on what makes an “ideal wife”. Sometimes the Bible teaches us values which must be held by all Christians in all cultures and circumstances – but in other places it reflects the values of the people at the time of writing. I’m not going to suggest that our first reading is a template for all the married ladies here this morning! But every Bible passage can be read in a spiritual wife, and a “wife” in the Bible can represent a church community, since the church is the Bride of Christ.

A patron saint’s day is a perfect opportunity for this church community to ask: “What kind of wife am I to Christ?” Are we a “chaste” community? That means, are we faithful to Jesus or do we let other values – money, sex or power – lead us astray? Are we, like St Monica, praying for our “prodigal sons” to return – and not only those in your blood family, but also those in your church family? And being a “silent” wife doesn’t mean that we keep schtum when we see problems in the community around us – but it does mean that it’s not our place to contradict our husband. If Christ, or the church leaders he has given us, ask us to do difficult things, our role is to do our best to fulfil them.

I’m very conscious today of being a visitor on a day which is central to the identity of this community. I don’t know the joys and sorrows which are the story of St Monica’s. So I can’t comment on any specific issues. I’ll be moving on – and that means there will be a happy day next month when my cat discovers that I have come home and probably gets an extra portion of food to celebrate! I will leave you with this question to ponder: If the Second Coming happened today, what would Our Lord find to correct, or to congratulate, in St Monica’s?