Shepherding the Shepherds

Homily for Charismatic Lay Leaders (CCLFC graduates) at SENT, Brentwood (readings of the day)

Never confuse a fruit with a seed!

A seed is something which will grow into a beautiful new plant… but the fruit is the attractive surrounding that makes the seed palatable. You probably wouldn’t want to eat a seed on its own… and it would be very bad for the seed if you could digest it before it could find a place in the soil. So the seed is wrapped it in a beautiful sugary sweet colourful attractive wrapper… who could resist such a gift?

Our Lord said that “by their fruits we shall know them” so let’s look at the fruits we see in the Catholic Church around us today in England. Alas, the fruits are not that good! What does a normal parish look like?

It’s normal that around 5 out of 6 of the people who say they’re Catholics don’t go to Mass – and that includes the teachers in our Catholic schools.

It’s normal that almost everyone who presents a baby for baptism stands up in church and makes a promise that they will “raise the child Catholic” but have no intention of keeping the child connected with the parish community.

It’s normal that a parish priest has a vision for maintenance, keeping the familiar parish structures going as best they can with dwindling resources.

Our parishes are good at losing old people slowly and young people quickly. That’s a quick picture of a normal parish… so is it any surprise if we look around us at the state of the Church and feel a little depressed? Perhaps it even feels like we are sheep without a shepherd! You are here today because you have been formed for leadership in the church and in charismatic renewal. Now I know a few of you have some great stories of co-operation but often enough it seems that priests just don’t want to know about the Gifts of the Spirit or what you would like to offer to your parish. And if you weren’t already feeling powerless enough, then there is this reading from Hebrews 13:17 – “obey your leaders”! Oh no! Do we have to?

Sometimes it’s good to look at what underlies the Bible passage. I had a dim recollection that in Latin obaudio means “to listen” as much as it means “to do what you’re told”. But the Bible was written in Greek… so what is this word that has been translated for us as “obey”? In the Greek it’s “peithesthe” so I looked that up in a Bible reference book. It turns out the same word has a number of meanings… persuade… make friends with… seek to influence… very different from “obey” or “do what you’re told”. Now certainly another Greek word later in the sentence does means “submit to what your leaders asked of you” but these are two hugely different sentences: “obey and submit” or “persuade and submit”! “Persuade and submit” suggests you could be in a dialogue with the leader of your parish trying to convince him that there is a better way but being willing to accept his leadership while the conversation is ongoing.

Brothers and sisters: you may have read from the Scriptures that “without a vision the people perish”. But it’s worse than that… without a vision the people form… a parish! Now, in my years working as a priest among priests, I’ve realised that what priests do is this: they imitate what they’ve seen generations of priests do before them. It’s part of our human condition that few of us pick up a textbook and apply it; most of us look for heroes and role models. Even when a priest has spent five or six years in seminary, probably at the back of their minds is a model of their own parish priest, or some priest they’ve admired as they’ve grown up or who has drawn them into the priesthood. Sometimes that’s a priest with the heart of a pastor caring for people’s wounds but not wanting to challenge them; sometimes it’s a priest with a hunger to work for social justice projects; or perhaps, especially with some of our younger priests, they reflect on a priest who gave them a strong sense of identity, because he was willing to goes against the tide of public opinion, or insisted on using a bit of Latin – even a lot of Latin!  – when he celebrated Mass in public.

Sometimes it feels like our parish priests are shepherds without a shepherd. Where has the wider leadership of the Church offered them any concrete vision beyond: “Don’t lose too many people, keep sending a third of your collection for the running costs of the diocese, and don’t rock the boat?”

I wonder how many priests have a vision what their parish could be if they were open to all the gifts God was offering? At the start of the sermon I talked about what is “normal” in our parishes, in the sense of our common experience. I’d now like to talk about what could be normal – using the word normal in another sense, that of setting a norm or standard that we should aspire to.

It’s not uncommon that I read a book that makes me laugh out loud, especially if it’s by Terry Pratchett… but it’s rare that I read a book that makes me whoop for joy. About six years ago I read Sherry Weddell‘s book Forming Intentional Disciples. That book is a masterclass of how we encourage people to become followers of Christ and active members of the church… but that’s not what I’m going to focus on today. I want to share another thing that Sherry wrote, which made my heart sing for joy. In her youth she spent time with a group of other young enthusiastic Catholics and together they agreed on this description of what a normal parish looks. When I read this, for the first time since I became a Catholic in 1990, I rejoiced. At last, here was someone else who “got it”! I wasn’t the only person in the world who believed a parish should be like this! Sherry and her group agreed on seven “norms” for a Catholic parish. I’m going to put them up on the screen, and some of you can read them out…

1. It is normal for lay Catholics to have a living, growing love relationship with God.

2. It is normal for lay Catholics to be excited Christian activists.

3. It is normal for lay Catholics to be knowledgeable about their faith, the Scriptures, the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church, and the history of the Church.

4. It is normal for lay Catholics to know what their charisms of service are and to be using them effectively in fulfilment of their vocation or call in life.

5. It is normal for lay Catholics to know that they have a vocation/mission in life (primarily in the secular world) given to them by God. It is normal for lay Catholics to be actively engaged in discerning and living this vocation.

6. It is normal for lay Catholics to have the fellowship of other committed lay Catholics available to them, to encourage, nurture, and discern as they attempt to follow Jesus.

7. It is normal for the local parish to function consciously as a house of formation for lay Catholics, which enables and empowers lay Catholics to do #1-6 above.

Now, my dear leaders of the church, how do you feel about a church like this? Is this a church you’d want to join? Is this a parish you’d like to be part of? I think it is… but how do we bridge the gap between the reality of the parish where you live and worship at the moment, and what church could be?

You are leaders. Some people lead with authority – but others lead with influence. You have a prophetic role to speak hope and vision into the lives of your parish priests. You can plant seeds of hope in the heart of your parish priest. But for him to accept the seed, it must be presented in a fruit he will find attractive. So, my dear brothers and sisters take compassion on our priests, and set yourself to teach them at length. But here’s the thing: don’t confuse the fruit with the seed.

If you want to plant a seed in the heart of your parish priest, this will take time. You must prepare the ground and then offer him a fruit that he will find attractive. We know lots of priests get suspicious about the trappings of charismatic renewal: for some, it is too loud or in-your-face, or unlike anything they’ve experienced in their own personal reality. Others don’t know how to handle prophetic and healing gifts as parish leaders. Some might dismiss it as too Protestant, despite the writings of all the popes since St Paul VI welcoming it as “a chance for the church”. Now, we can try and persuade our priests of the merits of charismatic renewal … or we can do something smarter. We can offer fruit that will interest them!

What sort of fruit will attract a priest? Well, someone who offers help with a project that the parish needs will gain a priest’s respect and trust. This will take time – so like Jesus, we have to set out to teach “at length”. I know at least two different parishes where people who are very involved in renewal won the trust of the priest by volunteering to clean the toilets or hoover the church. If you’re serious about your commitment to the parish, you will come with the heart of a servant. Today’s lesson from Hebrews does talk about good works. Now good works aren’t the heart of what we do but they are the fruit of a person committed to Christ, and they are a vital tool in gaining the trust of your parish priest.

Now comes the hard part. Once your priest trusts you, you must stir up curiosity in his heart, but without leaving him feeling judged or inadequate. A good way to do this is to share stories of parishes that are thriving… but letting him set the pace. Where do you find such stories? Let’s see what happens when you Google “successful Catholic parishes”…

Oh, look! 28,200,000 results – in less than half a second!

Now the trick is to drop what you learn into conversation and let the priest set the pace. “Have you heard about the Catholic Church which more than doubled its congregation in three years? What about the one which raised its level of engagement from 7% to 40%? Did you hear about many other churches that deliberately look for the gifts that are present in their members and then deploy them in the most appropriate ministries? These churches are going from strength to strength… so we don’t have to settle for being a declining church! We are called to be a church that bears fruit, in season and out of season… but when the shepherds have lost hope, you need to be the shepherds to the shepherds, and teach them at length until their passion is renewed and restored.

So remember: never confuse the fruit with the seed. Offer your parish priest the fruits that will make him trust you and listen to what you have to say. He will receive the seed of a “normal” church when he finds it surrounded with the fruit that he will find attractive. I know it can be tough being the only charismatic in your parish or just seeing the church declining around us; but dare to dream that it can be different, and dare to dream that you can do something about it. I can’t say it better than the Letter to the Hebrews (13:16):

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have;
God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind.

So share what you have received. But share it smart! Share it slowly! And you will renew the face of the Church.

Go and Jump off a Cliff!

Homily at the Sion Community Family Day, for the Fourth Sunday of Year C

“Go and jump off a cliff!”

You’d have to be very angry to tell anyone to do that! But there are times we can and do get angry with God.

Our Sion gathering today is themed around the Archangel Raphael, whose very name means “God heals” – but healing stirs up powerful emotions.

In today’s Gospel, as Jesus gives his speech, his listeners go from “speaking well of him” when he says “freedom is coming” to total rage when he reminds them of two miracles that God worked to protect pagans while the Jewish people were suffering.

In the Book of Tobit, which is probably a Jewish parable rather than history, we read of the good and generous man called Tobit who suffers years of blindness and a pious Jewish woman called Sarah who, through no fault of her own, is cursed with a demon who kills all her potential husbands. Through the intervention of St Raphael, healing comes to Tobit, and freedom and a happy marriage to Sarah, but not before years of suffering. The Book of Job, too, tells of a good and pious man who was deeply afflicted before receiving healing. Somewhere in the Gospels we read how Jesus cured, as a sign, a man who had been paralysed for 38 years – I’m sure he was grateful for his healing but also, in his prayers, asked God whether 38 days might not have been sufficient?

Last week’s Second Reading told us that some people are given gifts of healing, and some are given gifts of prophecy. This suggests that others among us are not given those gifts. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for healing anyway – but it does mean only certain people in the community will have a high “success rate”. And even for them, success may not come straight away.

After a long period of Bible study, a pastor called John Wimber reached the conclusion, that faithfulness to God required us to pray for people to be healed. He didn’t belong to a church with a tradition of praying for healing, but felt he had to do so anyway. He spent 6 months praying for healing at the end of all his Sunday church services, with no success. Then he got one. Then the floodgates opened! His faithfulness led to the founding of the Vineyard churches in 1982.

In my own ministry, I’ve prayer for a lot of people to be healed, but only seen a few tangible results. One day, I went to visit a friend who lived outside the parish: she asked if I would bring the holy oil to anoint her friend who was suffering from back pain. When I did so, two remarkable things happened: the woman in pain received a momentary experience of God’s loving presence, and the pain went away. Now in my twelve years of priesthood, that was only the second time that a remarkable physical recovery quickly followed an anointing, and the first time, as far as I know, that someone had a personal experience of God’s presence. That was six years ago, and I haven’t had a similar powerful experience since.

I once preached a sermon in one of my parishes telling that story to explore the mystery of the God who “heals sometimes”. I wondered out loud whether we limit the power of the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick by our low expectations; the Sacraments become more fruitful when celebrated in a community with strong faith. On that day there had been a small community of faith – the friend who believed enough to ask me to bring the oil, the sick girl, who was also a fervent Christian, and myself, a priest longing for God to do something.

What I was trying to achieve was to encourage the people in my parish to call for the priest and gather round and pray as soon as any family member fell seriously ill. What actually happened was one angry family spoke to me later: “A few months ago our granny died. We had gathered around her bedside and said lots of prayers. So now you’re saying its our fault for not having enough faith!” – and that family left my parish to go and worship elsewhere.

A few years later, I told that story at a Celebrate weekend. One of the leadership team came up to me afterwards, very worried: if I emphasised the importance of a priest giving the Sacrament of Anointing, it might discourage lay people from laying on hands and praying for healing! Now that wasn’t the message I was trying to give at all – only to say that there’s a time and a place for calling the priest, and it should become a more normal part of our Catholic life! Too many Catholics think the Sacrament of the Sick is only meant as a “last rite” to send our souls to heaven! But in fact it’s for any “serious” illness, one which creates danger of death or limits the quality of life.

There is also a very important role for lay people to pray for healing. There are two ways we can pray for a healing – one is to lay on hands and simply ask God to do something; the other is to ask for a prophecy to guide us. But if we have the gift of prophecy, we can only minister powerfully to the people and diseases which God speaks about – not to the other problems which are present.

Prophecy can also stir up hope and anger. I’ve been to many prayer meetings where people have received words for me; and many where they have received words for other people, but not for me. Plus, as today’s Scripture says, in our limited humanity, we can only “prophecy in part” – many people who pray for us will filter a genuine word from God through their own expectations of what they think God wants to say to us, or in the absence of a clear word, share their own wishful thinking. Moving in prophecy calls for a tricky balance of expectancy – we are called to be hungry for this spiritual gift – and humility: it’s a gift, and God doesn’t always give it!

So yes, healing and prophecy are difficult subjects. It’s hard to preach about these without stirring up strong emotions. How many of us here today know someone who has a testimony of receiving healing? How many of us have at least one person in our lives, now or in the past, for whom we have prayed long and hard, but healing didn’t come? The promise of healing stirs up hope and anger in equal measure. And how many of us have gone to a prayer meeting, hoping that God will have a prophetic word for us today, and come home disappointed?

We should be ambitious for the higher gifts – that God would work miracles of healing and give prophetic words through us. But this is dangerous territory! If we’re going to go there, we need a big dose of love. I’m speaking of the kind of love which is not selfish, jealous or resentful. I’m speaking of the kind of love that rejoices whenever a healing or prophecy comes, but takes no offence when it does not – or comes to someone else, or through someone else’s prayers. The prophet Jeremiah was told to “brace himself like a fighter”. If we want to see prophecy and healing as a normal part of our church, we need to be prepared for disappointment – and expectant of miracles. We need to be ready for other people to tell us to go jump off a cliff. But what we are really called to do is walk on water – and then means we have to fix our eyes on Jesus, wait for the sound of his voice and – when he calles – get out of the boat!

 

The End of the World (Christ the King Parish)

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C at Christ the King.

“When will all these things come to pass?”

That was the natural question on the lips of Jesus’ followers when they heard these terrible predictions, and it’s a natural question for us to ask, too.

We can predict, reasonably well, when some disastrous things will take place. In fact, the word “dis-aster” literally means “bad star” and we know that one day, our nearest star, the Sun, will go bad. In about five thousand million years, it will run out of nuclear fuel and swell up, scorching planet Earth to a cinder, or perhaps even engulfing it entirely!

Five billion years is a long way away. But don’t relax yet! Some of the latest results from mapping the 300,000 stars nearest our Sun tell us that in just one and one-third million years, a passing star will cause thousands of comets to rain down upon planet Earth and perhaps cause other disruption in our solar system.

Cosmic disasters might be too far away to trouble our children’s children, but by the year 2080, it’s forecast that more than a million homes in the UK might be at risk of flooding, and our coastal roads and railway lines could be badly affected too. I talked about the environment a few weeks ago so I won’t go into detail again, but we can all do our bit by reducing the amount of energy we consume.

There’s another disastrous date to put on your calendar. 2059. That’s a mathematical prediction of when the number of people worshipping in this church will fall to zero, based on changing congregation numbers since 2009. Oh dear… we’ve only just celebrated being open for 40 years, and in another 40 years there will be no-one left!

Actually, my prediction may be a bit off. Christ the King Parish did rather well in holding the number of worshippers steady for most of the last decade, until the numbers took a dip when we lost one of the three Masses. So it’s not really fair to fit a straight line to data with a big kink at the end. But what we do know is that in most Catholic parishes, the number of people going to Mass is gradually going down. And Jesus didn’t call the church to shrink. He called us to go out and make disciples!

This congregation has a reputation for being very active in working for justice. It’s great to be involved with Foodbank and other projects. But what about the specific task Jesus left his followers – making disciples of all nations? Who in this congregation is actively asking, “What can we do to make our congregation grow? How do we help people who might leave, to stay? How can we ask new people to join?”

I’ve got good news for you. Some Catholic Churches are growing! The Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, grew its Mass attendance from 1500 to 4000 in a few years! The Church of St Benedict in Nova Scotia raised its level of parishioner engagement from 7% to 40% in a few years! And there’s more good news! If you have succeeded in really engaging parishioners you don’t have to appeal for money or volunteers – engaged Catholics want to give, and give generously!

Avoiding disaster may need us to make some painful decisions. If the way we currently run our church is causing us to shrink or at least stay static, carrying on doing what we’re doing isn’t likely to make us grow. Maybe to be more effective we should be pooling our resources with other parishes. For the time being, Christ the King is an independent parish with its own building, which happens to share a parish priest. If the congregation does shrink – and when you look at the age profile, that does look likely – the day will come when you can’t afford your own building. They say turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but it’s chickens who don’t make painful changes to secure the best possible future. The day might come when difficult questions have to be asked about Mass times or even merging with other parishes. The Archbishop has already asked the parishes from Whitchurch thru Llanedeyrn to co-operate in what we call the Northern Arc… this is an informal partnership at the moment but things could change.

Even so, Christ the King has done well in recent years. Perhaps you’re not at the point where you need to think about a merger. Perhaps there are enough resources in this community to be able to invest in things that will make this congregation grow. So which of you are actively asking “What makes successful parishes grow? When can we learn from thriving Catholic parishes?”

Next summer, all the priests and deacons in Cardiff will attend a three-day conference with an American lay woman, Sherry Weddell, who had a brilliant idea. She studied the stories of dozens of converts who started out as non-Catholics and ended up as very active Catholics. What do they all have in common? Sherry found out, and if we understand how non-Catholics become active Catholics, we can become very effective at inviting more non-Catholics to do the same!

All across the diocese, parishes are now being asked to run 6-week-long reading groups to study Sherry’s book, which is called Forming Intentional Disciplesto try out some of the ideas, and send delegates on June 15th to a day when they can share their experiences and receive coaching from Sherry herself. That could happen here, if a few of you choose to start a study group and work on encouraging parish growth.

“When will these things come to pass?” the disciples asked the Lord. “No-one knows the day or hour except the Father”, Jesus replied, speaking of the end of the world. But as for when studying and investing in the future of this parish will take place – that’s up to you!

 

Raised up by Obedience and Sacrifice

Homily at the daily English language Mass at Fatima

Wives, obey your husbands!

It would be hard to find a more controversial passage in the Bible than the one we’ve just heard. And yet it comes from one of the Letters in the New Testament which we believe are inspired by the Holy Spirit… we acclaimed it as ‘The Word of the Lord’ and said ‘thanks be to God!’

What is God really saying to us today? Let’s put aside any strong feelings stirred up by this challenge, and look deeply into the Scriptures.

‘Wives should obey their husbands as much as the Church obeys Christ.’

Ah… maybe that’s less of challenge that it first seems. How does the Church obey Christ? Badly!

The Church on earth is made entirely of sinners! We are the dough, into which a woman has thrown yeast, to raise us up to holiness! That wise woman represents Mother Church, who ‘raises’ us with her sacraments. Baptism takes the fallen children of Adam and makes of us adopted sons and daughters of God! The Sacrament of Reconciliation raises us up when we fall into sin – if you haven’t yet been to confession during your time in Fatima, I urge you to go! The Eucharist is the life for our souls, and Holy Communion itself has the power to forgive our smaller sins.

That woman also represents the Blessed Mother, who comes to raise us up with her gifts. She offers us the daily rosary, in which we store up prayers for our own hour of death. She offers us the ‘O My Jesus’ prayer, by which we can plead for the salvation of sinners. She offers us her sorrowful and immaculate heart, which we can console by meditating on the mysteries of the rosary, especially on the First Saturday of each month. These are requests, not divine commands which we would sin to disobey – but because we’re here in Fatima, our hearts already sense that this is what our Blessed Mother is asking of us.

But back to St Paul’s letter! Wives are only to imitate the Church, though ideally this means they should ‘submit to their husbands in everything’. Does this mean their husbands can lord it over them? No, husbands are challenged to ‘be the Lord’ for them – imitating the Lord Jesus who sacrificed himself and gave up his very life for the sake of the one he loved!

By entering holy matrimony, a Christian husband and a Christian wife freely choose not only to found a family, but to play out a sacred drama, a life-long sacrament, where the husband must be an image of Christ who died for our sins, and the wife an image of the Church who nurtures all the faithful. There will times a wife must obey her husband, for the common good; there will be times the husband must sacrifice his desire to get his own way for the sake of his wife. No human being can play these roles to perfection; but Jesus does not ask us to achieve perfection. No, he asks for our good will to do what we can, with his help, and the humility to repent and try again when we fail.

By baptism, we all, men and women, married and single, become members of the Body of Christ. We all share in the work of Christ the High Priest. Indeed, there is no action more priestly, for a lay person, than to pray the ‘O My Jesus’ prayer, and to offer the prayer taught by the Angel of Fatima, asking pardon for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not trust and do not love our God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We may feel that our efforts are puny, that our failures are greater than our faithfulness. But every moment we live the values to which Christ has called us, is a mustard seed moment. If you do what you can, Christ will do what Christ can, and though what you can do may be as small as a mustard seed or a grain of yeast, it is enough. Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen.

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.