Ad Astra per Nuptia

Wedding homily – for Sebastian Frysol & Jennifer Cavill

Jennifer, Sebastian, you have invited your family and your friends to this place today because you wish to make a public pledge to spend the future together. You could have chosen to simply live together, or to go through a civil ceremony. But we are here in church. Jennifer, I have known you through our connection to the Catholic Church for more than 10 years. Sebastian, it has been my privilege to come to know you, through Jennifer, during the last year. Together, you have chosen certain texts for today; let me reflect back to you what you have chosen.

“Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” These words challenge us to cast our minds to the heavens, and not to be constrained by worldly values. As I look to the stars, it strikes me that by getting married, you are forming your own Federation. A Federation is marked by a set of values its members agree to live by. The values of your Federation are rooted in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

“Honour one another above yourself.” In the best adventure movies, no-one is left behind; or if someone must make the ultimate sacrifice, they do it for the team. In your Federation, the needs of the Many – or at least of the Other – outweigh the needs of the one. There will be days when each of you will need to offer your bodies – your tiredness, or your need to get your own way – for the sake of each other. This is the pledge you make today. When the adventure movie is a science fiction movie, it sometimes turns out that the ultimate sacrifice is not so final after all. I cannot offer you a resurrection machine – but I can offer you a divine promise. When two baptised Christians marry, their marriage bond is a sacrament, a promise of God’s ongoing help. The same divine power which raised Jesus Christ from the dead is on offer to you when you call to God for assistance.

“Help those in need… be kind not because people deserve it” but because God loves them. Your resources are finite, but God does expect that, as individuals and as a couple, when you come across people in need you will offer them something of your own time and resources as an act of love.

“Pray.” In one simple word, St Paul reminds you that you are called to communicate and connect with your Creator. The Bible is an epic about God’s love for us, and our invitation to return love for love. You show love to God by choosing to hold your wedding in church, by worshipping in public and in private, and by praying for one another.

“Live in harmony with one another.” Ever since the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still came out in 1951, it’s been a cliché that an explorer lands upon another planet and says “We come in peace.” Jennifer, Sebastian, although you have known each other for a long time, each of you is still an alien world not fully explored by the other, a living world which will grow and change. So whether the earth stands still, or moves, for you – come in peace, and be prepared to learn about each other anew.

Maybe you well tell each other than you love each other “to the moon and back”… as you pass the moon, you will notice that Apollo 11 bore a plaque saying “We came in peace for all mankind.” Your charge to live in harmony is not only with each other, but with those who are already members of your family, and those who will be part of your family in the years to come – “strange new worlds” for you to explore.

What might be the Prime Directive for your Federation? In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive is not to interfere in another culture, or in simple language, to live and let live. In my years of ministry as a priest, I have seen that some of the greatest unhappiness in families comes from unfulfilled expectations: one family member expected that another would visit a certain event, leave them some money, or take their side in an argument, without first receiving a promise that that person would do so. So I urge that in your Federation, to be part of a family is to honour and respect the choices made by other members, even when you don’t agree.

To Jennifer and Sebastian, I say this: by your vows today, you are making a strong promise to support and understand one another, and to respect the different views and actions of the families you now marry into. The Hebrew Bible contains a divine promise, that if you keep the commandment to honour your parents, you will live long and prosper. To the other guests here present, I say this: Today, some of you will become family to each other for the first time. Some of you are even meeting for the first time. Honour and respect one another, but expect nothing of each other other than what is freely offered as a gift.

Sebastian, Jennifer, you now pledge yourself to an ongoing mission, please God closer to 50 years than to 5, an enterprise which is a voyage of discovery. Together you will travel into that undiscovered country we call the future. Go boldly. And if you are ready to forge this new Federation, come forward now.

This homily was inspired equally by St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12:1-2 & 9-18) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture – described by Jennifer as “A movie all about love, even though it never uses the word.”

For the Children

Homily for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Paul’s.

“I’m very sorry. I shouldn’t be standing up here talking to you. There are other people much more capable. In fact, I’m not sure why they ever picked me for this job…”

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone mad. I’m just trying to give you a flavour of what’s going on in the head of a person suffering from chronic anxiety or what the psychologists call “impostor syndrome”.

Lots of famous people suffer from just these kind of feelings. TV presenter and model Alexa Chung recently told the BBC that she did. Although she’d been commissioned to write for Vogue fashion magazine, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was about to be “found out” as a fraud.

This week, Claire Foy – who played the young Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s The Crown admitted to similar feelings of anxiety.

Have you ever felt underqualified for the tasks you have to take on regularly? It’s a very common reaction. Sometimes we have a false sense of Christian modesty, that we shouldn’t receive compliments at all. But Jesus said the “truth would set us free” and there are times we need to learn to accept the praise given to us.  Not long ago I met a member from a Christian community which had a rule about accepting compliments – when someone praised you, you were only allowed to give one of three answers. “Amen!” – “Praise God” – or “I receive that!”

Picture those 70 elders invited to go up the mountain with Moses. This story from the Hebrew Bible comes after Moses has spent some time alone with God in the mists atop a mountain… in fact someone on Facebook pointed out to me that Moses was the very first person to download information to a tablet from a cloud! But now the invitation comes down to the camp – the same God who has been speaking face-to-face with Moses now wants to speak directly to the elders of the people – they were to meet with God too! I wonder how many of them felt they had been wrongly picked for this privilege? But if God chose to show himself to them… that puts things in a new light. Does God make mistakes about things like that?

At first sight, the 12 apostles had no trouble accepting their exalted position. Last Sunday, we heard them arguing about who was the greatest! This week, they’re trying to stop someone who’s not a member of the inner circle from doing God’s work. But I wonder, deep down, were they motivated by pride in being the “chosen ones” – or were they, too, insecure about being chosen, and trying to keep rivals at arm’s length?

It’s very easy to find reasons to not do things for the parish we belong to.

Perhaps we feel unworthy.

Perhaps we expect a put-down from others in positions of authority.

Perhaps we’re afraid of criticism or that the work will go horribly wrong.

Or perhaps we’re afraid of being sucked in to a place where we can’t say no.

These fears are real. But God is love, and perfect love casts out all fear.

Jesus made it clear time and time again that God has high expectations of us. The steward entrusted with talents is expected to return with a profit. The “sheep” who do good receive a reward in heaven; the goats, who do nothing, are sent to eternal damnation.

He told parables about a master returning to check on the state of his vineyard, or a servant who only received a small punishment because he didn’t understand what his master expected of him. Among all the false fears we face, there is only one real fear we should cling on to – that at the end of our life we will meet God, and have to explain why we didn’t use our gifts to bless God’s people.

And what exactly does God expect us to do? Love our enemy – be willing to forgive. Love our neighbour – help the people whose needs are most obvious to us. Love God with all our heart – giving time to personal prayer and church services. But also – “Go into the world, teach them to obey everything I taught you,” says Jesus. Today he is teaching us that many volunteers are needed, and we should not be put off by the objections of others or a false sense of our own shortcomings.

Successful churches ask people to build on their strengths. Maybe at school you were told to focus on things you did badly, to get better – or at least less bad. But when we are older, we have a good sense of our true strengths and weaknesses. I’ve got news for you – whatever your strengths are, God gave them to you so you could bless the Church and help other people.

So ask yourself: What gifts have I been given? What’s stopping me from using them here?

Today, Christ warns us not to be an obstacle to children who have faith. It’s easy to blame flawed bishops and abusive priests for setting an appalling example, and yes, each church leader will one day answer to Christ for the choices they have made. But who are the greater obstacles to our young people? Prelates in faraway place they will never meet? Or those of us here today who allow doubts and fears to stop us from offering to serve our young people? If we don’t give our children the experience of church which will best help them grow in faith, what thanks can we expect from God?

In every parish, there is a great need for volunteers to work with children – First Communion, Confirmation and Children’s Liturgy of the Word. For all the reasons I’ve talked about this morning, we might be hesitant to volunteer. But if we allow our fears to defeat us before we begin, we will never become the Church God is calling us to be.

Now is the time. God can take your small offering and do great things with it. And remember – professionals built the Titanic, but Noah’s Ark was built by an amateur!

Unbound

IMG_3919[1]Sermon at St Austin, Wakefield, as part of a Sion Community Parish Mission.

This morning I suffered a wardrobe malfunction. I looked down and saw that my belt had come loose. My first thought was it must have split at one of the holes – but no. When I looked more closely I saw that the cut end had come loose from its fixing.

Sometimes God speaks to us through the ordinary things in life. This felt like one of those moments.

When we’re in a bind, how do we get out? How can we be released?

We could just undo the belt. That would represent letting our standards slip.

We could cut the belt. In the New Testament, a belt represents truth. Breaking the belt would be to tell a deliberate lie. How often have we used a lie to avoid confronting a difficult situation?

But here, something different has happened. I have not let my standards slip. I have not told a lie. And yet, in a most unexpected way, I have been released.

On Monday night I spoke about Clare, who twice knew she was carrying a handicapped child, but refused abortion or even an induced birth. Each time, through God’s providence, she naturally went into labour just before the medics would have imposed a delivery on her.

In one of my parishes, I had a lady who had once faced a terrible dilemma. She had an ectopic pregnancy, with her unborn child growing where it could not survive and would risk her own health too. As a devout Catholic, she did not want a termination. The doctors saw no other alternative. The procedure was scheduled for a Monday… but by God’s grace, on the Sunday, she suffered a miscarriage. God allowed an impossible situation to be resolved with no-one incurring any guilt.

Sometimes the thing that binds us is our unwillingness give or receive forgiveness. The Prodigal Son was bound by his belief that he would not be welcome at his Father’s house… so he stuck it out with the pigs, until life became unbearable. But when he accepted the truth that he had sinned against his Father, he was able to go home and experience his Father’s outrageous generosity.

Last week, an elderly lady I know in Cardiff told me a remarkable story. When she was a little girl, her father sometimes beat her with a wooden ruler. One day the ruler splintered and left her with a scar on her hand, which she’s carried for most of her 80 years. In May, on a pilgrimage, she found the strength, for the first time in her life, to pray a deep prayer of forgiveness for her father. Emotionally, she felt better immediately. But even more – when she woke up the following morning, the scar on her hand was gone!

Jesus taught us the importance of forgiving others. In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, in effect, “Father, only forgive us as far as we forgive others.” God our Father wants to offer us total forgiveness, but to receive that we have to extend the same grace to those who sin against us. Forgiveness doesn’t mean saying wrong things are OK. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting the wound or making ourselves needlessly vulnerable. But forgiveness does mean treating our enemies with courtesy, decency and respect. We don’t need to punish them. God will deal with any punishments when the time comes, for those souls who choose never to repent.

Confession is where we say to God: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your child.”

Confession is where God says to us: “Relax, my child. It was never about what you deserved. It was about the gift you were unwilling to accept, until now.”

How, then, should we prepare to make a good confession this evening? We start with our guilt.

As Catholics, we are famous for our sense of guilt.

Sometimes we suffer from false guilt, from our failure to achieve the impossible. We may have missed Mass due to a bout of ‘flu, or had a ‘bad thought’ to which we gave no wilful encouragement whatsoever. But if we didn’t have the power to do otherwise, such guilt is not a sign of wilful sin. The only thing binding us in such cases is a misplaced sense of duty. Trust your confessor if he says that you have not sinned, in response to what you confess.

Sometimes we suffer from residual guilt. Perhaps we have formed our own opinion, which is not the Church’s opinion, about abortion, or contraception, or weapons of mass destruction, or involvement in unfair trade, or any other case where we might pretend to ourselves that “the ends justify the means”. But after we have acted, or voted, in accord with our private views, perhaps our second thoughts chip in… our conscience says, “What if, when I meet Our Lord, it turns out that the Catholic Church was right after all?” Hold on to that thought!

Sometimes we suffer from true guilt. We have made a choice which is not a good and godly choice. Perhaps that was a once-in-a-lifetime major event which we’ve been trying to forget about ever since. Perhaps it was the beginning of a chain of addiction, to alcohol, pornography, or some other pleasure. Or perhaps it was some petty act of jealousy or spite towards another person. Whatever it was, it quite rightly causes us to feel guilty.

The great thing about being Catholic is that we have a way of dealing with guilt. Run to the confessional, plead guilty, let the priest pass sentence. The sentence is always the same – your sins, together with all the other sins of the world, deserve death. But by freely offering himself to die on the Cross, Jesus served that sentence for us. What we are called to, instead, is true repentance.

Now, it’s true that to make a good confession, we also require a “firm purpose of amendment”. If we have recognised that our actions are sinful, we must do what is within our power to avoid sin in future. If our sin is one of addiction, “what is within our power” may be to start getting help, by attending a 12-step programme like Alcoholics Anonymous. If our sin is one of being drawn into pornography, “what is within our power” may be to install blocking software on our computer, or confiding in a friend to be an “accountability partner”. God delights in our efforts to overcome sin. God will give us extra help to resist temptation, if we ask for this in prayer. But God’s love for us does not depend on our efforts to resist evil. God’s love is always there.

“Behold!” says Jesus. “I stand at the door and knock!”

Whose knock do you hear?

Is it an Inspector, coming to catch you out for letting your standards slip?

Is it a Judge, banging his gavel to pass sentence?

Or is it your Eldest Brother – not the Elder Brother who has sour grapes because your Father is merciful, but your Eldest Brother, Jesus himself, who says: “I’ve already paid your fine. Come with me – you’re free to go!”

True repentance means running to the God who loves us, no matter what sin we have committed.

True repentance means having the confidence of the prodigal son, to return to the Father’s House – and trusting that a joyful welcome awaits us.

True repentance means trusting that nothing we can do, no sin we might commit, can cause God to love us any less than than God does already – any more than a mother can stop loving her wayward child.

True repentance means rushing to the Sacrament of Mercy and saying, “Father, I messed up again.” In return, God says, “I love you! And I forgive you again!”

True repentence is taking to confession even that one small sin that you would really rather not disclose. It’s quite trivial really, but you know it’s there, and you know tonight is the night God wants to deal with it. You have the choice to deny it’s there (that’s cutting the belt) or quietly choosing to live with it (that’s undoing the belt). Will you answer Jesus’ knock, when he is asking to unbind you in an unexpected way?

We do not – we cannot – earn God’s forgiveness.

God loves us. God will never reject us, whatever our actions might deserve.

This is the God who commanded Peter to forgive seventy times seven times, who sent his only Son to die so our sins could be forgiven.

This is the loving Father who declares: “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning.”

Are you are suffering from guilt?

Rush to the confessional.  Plead guilty.

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your child.”

But go with Christ when he knocks, and if you stay close to Him, you will hear these words:

“You are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased.”

It’s time to open the door. Come.

Faith is when you trust your Father

Sermon at St Austin, Wakefield, as part of a Sion Community Parish Mission.

“Our God is a great big God and He holds us in His hands!”

If you came to our family service yesterday, you’ll remember the closing song. The same idea was in our opening hymn tonight:

Fatherlike he tends and spares us;
well our feeble frame he knows.
In his hand he gently bears us,
rescues us from all our foes.

I wonder what the word “God” means to you? For some people, “God” refers to a lofty philosophical idea – the ground of all being, the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. There’s truth in all these ideas, but such a God can seem remote, abstract, distant.

For others, the very idea of God is mysterious. One day a Mum asked her daughter what she was drawing.

“It’s a picture of God, Mummy!”

“But, darling, no one knows what God looks like!”

“They will when I’ve finished!”

For Jesus, it was very simple. God was his Father. Abba. Daddy. When Jesus prayed, it was to his “Abba” – a word Arab children use addressing their fathers even today. When the disciples asked to be taught how to pray, Jesus taught them to say “Our Father”. Anyone who follows me, said Jesus, would be His brother or sister – we share one Father in heaven.

St Paul understood this as well. We hear this in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus. He’s praying that they’ll come to understand what it means to have God as Our Father. Something of his letter gets lost in translation – the Greek word Paul uses for ‘family’ or ‘clan’ here is patria. Since the word for Father is pater, to be part of God’s family is to be part of his patriarchy, belonging to his patrimony, under his paternity.

What Paul wants for the Ephesians, he wants for us too. Do we know that God is our loving Father? Do we feel secure as members of God’s family? We can be slow to appreciate the gift that we’re offered. The Old Testament prophet, Hosea, expressed God’s frustration with his beloved people: “I took them in my arms; yet they have not understood that I was the one looking after them. I led them with reins of kindness, with leading-strings of love.”

Some of us have had a really good experience of a Dad on earth who loved and cherished us like that. It’s not hard to imagine a heavenly Father who is the same, only better.

Others of us haven’t had such a good experience. Perhaps our Dad wasn’t there when we needed him – or he drank too much – or was violent towards us our our mother. But even then, we might have a positive sense of God as our Heavenly Father.

There again, some of us really struggle with the idea that God loves us, cares for us, or is looking out for us. If that’s you, I have a story to share with you. It’s not my story – it’s belongs to two remarkable young people called Henry and Clare.

This young couple met on a pilgrimage in 2002; each immediately intuited that the other was ‘the One’. Five months later, they shared their first kiss. Four years later they quarrelled badly and realised they could not live together peacefully; so Claire went away for a few day’s retreat.

On her return home, a message from Henry demanded the return of the exercise weights he had left in her house; what he didn’t expect was that she’d return them in person. They talked; and slowly, they began to rebuild their relationship. The following spring they broke up again, and turned to their spiritual director, an Italian priest.

Together, they began to understand that choosing marriage means taking responsibility for one’s own weaknesses and shortcomings. A relationship which is not lived with this depth is not the vocation of marriage – but merely accompanying another person until death. The vocation of marriage must realise that only God, not your beloved spouse, will be the ultimate source of your happiness and fulfilment. Quickly, Henry and Claire understood what they needed to do, became engaged, and were married the same autumn.

The path God had chosen for them was indeed a hard one. In 2009 – indeed, nine years ago this month – Claire gave birth to their first child, a child with a terrible deformity of the skull. They had known this day was coming, and a scan had warned them that the child would not live long after birth; their devout faith meant there was no question of choosing abortion. Yet at the funeral of Mary Grace Joy (Maria Grazia Lutetia), her parents were found not in the front pew for family mourners, but seated among the choir, leading songs of praise that their firstborn had already joined the saints in heaven.

Further joys and sorrows followed. Clare quickly conceived again… but the following June, they celebrated the funeral of their second child, David John (Davide Giovanni), born with a totally unrelated birth defect. This time, the funeral found Claire leading bidding prayers for all mothers and future mothers.

Six years ago this week, Claire herself lay on her deathbed. She had been diagnosed with cancer at the same time as becoming pregnant with a healthy child. She postponed treatment for cancer so her third child, Francesco, could be born safely; but the cancer was not treatable, and Clare passed into God’s hands on June 13th, after 28 years of life and four of marriage.

Clare and Henry’s story sounds like a tragedy, but everyone who knew Clare spoke of her great joy. There was no question of doubting God’s love and goodness. When her children died soon after birth, they were assuredly becoming saints in heaven. When God allowed her to be diagnosed with an agressive cancer, they filled an aeroplane with family and friends to make one last pilgrimage to be with them in a holy place.

Last year, five years after Clare’s death, Henry was interviewed and shared these words:

Faith, like life, is a journey, and if you want to die happy like Clare, you need to walk that path. During this voyage, God sends you things you must embrace, because He knows He can ask them of you; He wants what is good for you, and doesn’t give you a cross to crush you, but rather, to make you open to something else, to something you have not even imagined. We had no doubt that was the case here. We were in a relationship with God, and therefore we knew that what He was asking of us was good for us, because it had been that way so many other times. All our difficulties helped us have a new encounter with Him.

Faith and courage are not the same. The opposite of fear isn’t bravery, but faith. When you have faith, your strength comes from Someone else; when you are brave, you are the one who makes the effort alone. She had Someone else’s strength.

God’s leading strings of love often lead us where we do not want to go. King David wrote in his psalm of having to walk in the “valley of the shadow of death”. The Risen Jesus forgave St Peter for his denials, but said he would one day be led captive. The history of the Catholic Church is filled with people who have experienced miraculous cures and divine protection, but also those, like the English Martyrs, who paid with their lives for their faithfulness to God and His Church.

Every one of us here tonight will have experienced joys and sorrows in our life. Most of us will have buried our parents, or know that sooner or later that duty will come to us. Some of us will have known disability or long-term illness. But we will also have known the joy of a first kiss, a lasting relationship, a solid friendship, a breathtaking view, or a transcedent piece of music capable of transporting us to another place.

Have we thanked God for the joys which have come our way?

Have we rushed to blame God for the sorrows which we could not avoid?

When we were young,  it seemed that our parents could wish away the ills of the world by kissing our grazed knees and holding us close. As adults we know that life holds its challenges. As members of God’s family we are invited to be Christians, literally other-Christs. St Paul calls us co-heirs with Christ, sharing his suffering so as to share in his glory. 

It would be nice to believe in a world where God could prevent all wars, all diseases and all tragedies. Indeed God has designed such a world – it is called the world to come, and it is waiting for us. But here and now, God has no greater dignity for us than to be like His Firstborn Son. In his letter to the Romans, Paul declares with great confidence that “God turns all things to good for those who love Christ Jesus”. When the Cross comes our way, we have the choice of embracing it or rejecting it. But if we reject the Cross, we reject the Ressurrection.

In order to know God’s love, some of us might first need to forgive God. Of course, God cannot do anything evil – but God can fail to meet our expectations. ‘Forgiveness’ simply means making a decision not to penalise someone who hasn’t met our expectations. God might have not fixed your problems the way you hoped he would.

In the 11 years I’ve been a priest, I’ve read much of the Bible time and time again. But I am yet to find a passage where God promises to protect his friends from the sorrows of life on earth. Rather, Jesus prayed that his followers would be “in the world and not of the world”. If we know our identity with God as our Father, we know that we belong to an eternal family and the best is yet to come.

Clare and Henry – or to give them their proper Italian names, Enrico Petrillo and Chiara Corbella – knew the agony and ecstasy of having God as a Father who was preparing them for heaven. Chiara had the joy of knowing her children were safely in Heaven and we have little reason to doubt that she too, as one who laid down her life for the sake of her child, will be there, and may soon be recognised by the Church as a saint. Only God can grant us the gift of the joy which makes us radiant in the face of such trials. This is a Divine Gift. But we know that God loves to bestow gifts on his children, and tonight we can ask him to touch our hearts with a deeper knowledge of his love and of his Fatherhood. Let’s do that now.

Fruitful Missionary Discipleship

Teaching given at the Sion Community, 26 & 27 May 2018

Parish Structures

To inspire a priest or member of a parish leadership team who is open to Alpha and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, offer a Summary of Divine Renovation.

To inspire a priest or member of a parish leadership team who is skeptical about Alpha or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, offer a Summary of Rebuilt.

Read more relevant links about parishes at The Five Pillars of Thriving Parishes and Building Missionary Parishes.

Evangelising Individuals

To inspire a layperson who’s not on a parish leadership team, or a priest who is particularly concerned with their one-to-one work evangelising parishioners, offer a Summary of Forming Intentional Disciples.

Read more, with useful links, at Help! I’m a Catholic who wants to evangelise! and Making Disciples.

Other Resources

The slides used at Sion are available as the original PowerPoint and as a PDF.

Some additional books you might read!

Video clips used are embedded below, apart from the “Blessed” First Communion resource. The “Evidence” clip is one of many brilliant films from Outside da Box; I also strongly recommend “Initiation“.

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.