What’s God Worth?

Homily at St Bernadette and St John Bosco Parishes, Erskine, for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

What’s God worth?

I’m a Catholic priest from Wales – so like many of you, I’m a Celt from a part of the UK which isn’t England. Both Wales and Scotland have Parliaments with the power to make their own spending decisions, and I heard on the news just a week ago that the health service here in Scotland made a deal with a medicine company… a deal to make available a treatment for Cystic Fibrosis that would normally cost £100,000. That’s good news for the families waiting and hoping that drug would become available.

These are not easy decisions. When the money is limited, a choice to give expensive treatment is a choice not to pay for something else, like employing a couple of people in good work. I’m glad I’m not one of those politicians who have to make difficult decisions about how to use a limited amount of money – asking how much they will or won’t spend to save a human life.

But each of us faces a similar decision every time we come to worship. We’re not asked what another human being is worth to the State. But every time the collection is taken, we are asked to choose what God is worth to us.

You might have heard the story about the aeroplane where all four engines failed, and it was losing height quickly. A Catholic priest was on board, and the stewardess said, “We’re in big trouble – can you do something religious?” So the priest said: “Of course! Please find some baskets – we’re going to take a collection!”

Giving something in the basket is one of the things we’re used to doing when we come to Mass. But let’s stop for a moment and ask, what are we doing, and why?

What we give is a sign of what we believe God is worth. Indeed, our word ‘worship’ comes from the same root as ‘worthy’, and means declaring God to be ‘of worth’. Everything we do when we gather for Holy Mass speaks of our attitude to God. How do we balance the need to welcome friends and strangers with keeping an atmosphere of prayer? Do we take a few moments to think about the things we need to ask God for, or give thanks? And when it comes to the time for the offering, are we digging in our pockets for small change, or are we weighing up what God is worth and giving appropriately?

Jesus knew that the way we treat money shapes our character. Either we possess material things, or they will possess us. If the very thought of giving away money causes you to panic, remember that your Father in Heaven owns all the money in the world. Following Jesus is not a recipe to get rich quick – but the Bible does include a promise that God will not be outdone in generosity, I have found God’s promise to be true – every time in my life when I’ve felt a nudge to give generously, what I have given away more than comes back within a week or two. And there was once a time when I strongly felt God was asking me to donate £500 from my parish funds to help film a Catholic outreach video. To my surprise, the Parish Council agreed we should do this, even though our funds were very limited – and within a fortnight we’d received a totally unexpected grant for £3,000 we hadn’t even applied for! God is faithful! If we prayerfully choose what to give to God, God will honour our decisions!

I’d like to share with you today the 5p plan. The first is prayer – any choice to honour God is something we must pray about. But there are four more ‘p’s and one of them could be the challenge God is offering you today.

First, plan. If you don’t already plan how you are going to give, then consider making a plan. The needs of the poor, and of the church, are too important to be left to an absent-minded search for loose change in your pocket. This isn’t only what you give to your parish – it’s the other charities, whether Catholic or not, that you feel called to support.

Second, prioritise. If you do plan what to give, but God’s work comes at the bottom of the list after all the other bills, ask yourself whether God deserves more than that. This is the scary bit! There are all kinds of logical reasons why we should pay the mortgage, gas bill and credit card bill before we give a penny to the church. But God is King of the Universe, and his resources are infinite. In the Bible – you can look it up in Malachi chapter 3 – God says ‘Test me out on this!’ Give to God’s work as a priority and you will discover that you will not lose out in your personal finances. Humanly speaking , it shouldn’t work – but it does!

Third, percentage. Maybe you already choose to give to charities and to church because it is important to you, as a follower of Jesus, to do this, but you give a fixed amount. But rather than giving £5 a week or £10 a month to a good cause, you could take on the challenge of working out a percentage of the amount. In the days before Jesus, God’s Jewish people practiced tithing – 10% of what they grew was given to God. As Catholics, we’re not obliged to give 10% but I know some who do. It honours the way God blesses us, if we give a percentage of what we have received. And it gives ourselves permission to lower the amount we give if we have a low-income period.

Finally, progression! If you do already give a percentage, is God inviting you to raise it? As our relationship with God deepens, as we discover how to listen to God’s nudges and experience the blessings which come our way when we give generously, God might invite us to take the next step of faith. Maybe even as high as ten percent!

Giving money is only one aspect of our relationship with God, though a key one for knowing our own heart. I’m preaching this message to you who already know God is worthy of your worship and of your wallet. In November I’ll be back with a larger team from Sion Community to spend a whole week with you – a week for deepening your relationship with God, and for inviting other members of the local community to come and start or grow a relationship with God, too. I hope you’ll decide that that’s worthy of your time, and you’ve marked your calendars to keep free 16-24 November.

On your parish website, you declare that in this church you will receive a relevant message ‘that isn’t about rules but is about you and God’. So what I’ve shared with you today is absolutely about you and God. What’s God worth to you? The way you spend your money, on the work of the Church and on other charities, is a strong sign of who God is in your life. If you want a better relationship with God, take one step of faith this week. Plan to give. Prioritise your giving. Give a percentage. Progress that percentage. One of those steps will be a challenge that you can meet, with God’s help!

 Acknowledgements: the four point plan for growing in giving is from Rebuilt by Corcoran and White.

Humble Yourself in the eyes of the Lord, and He Will Raise You Up

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 4 of 4 in our series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.The word Rejected, as a faded red stamp

Have you ever had the experience of Not Being Picked for something you really wanted to be involved in? I have.

At school, I was the tubby kid who was always the last pick for any sports team. I didn’t mind that – I didn’t particularly want to be running around the field anyway. But when the school set up a School Council, and I wasn’t picked for that, it smarted. So I kindly but firmly pointed out that it wasn’t fair for one person to represent the whole Sixth Form – there should be reps for upper and lower sixth. The staff agreed! They opened up an extra position, for which I was eligible. And guess what? I was Not Picked again!

Later, when I was completing my degree at Oxford University, I started applying for PhD places at prestigious universities. I applied to stay at Oxford – Rejected. I tried Cambridge – Rejected. Imperial College London? Rejected. Cardiff? “Nothing available this year, but please try next year.”

For the first time in my life, I was without options. All the doors I had pushed at were closed. I suffered the deepest sense of rejection I had ever experienced in my life. Then, most unexpectedly, an opening came up to work for the Church in Nottingham for a year, and after that gap year, I was able to come to Cardiff for my PhD. Now, with hindsight, I can see God’s hand at work in all of those closed and opened doors, but at the time it was very painful.

When we experience rejection, we leap to the conclusion that God doesn’t care about us. That’s a mistake! God cares a lot, but in this fallen world God allows situations to take place where we experience temporary rejection. Even God’s own son, Jesus Christ, was rejected by his own people before rising into everlasting glory.

What is God saying to us today? We are the “Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven.” God has no grandchildren – we are all equally, by our baptism, sons and daughters of the living God! The Word goes on to say that we have “been placed with spirits of the saints who have been made perfect”. That doesn’t sound like much of a rejection to me!

God does not reject us – but if we have unrealistic expectations, we will certainly experience rejection. This is why Jesus is so keen to immunize us against rejection with the teaching He gives today.

“Always take the lowest place,” he tells us. First, notice that WE ARE INVITED. Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t come to the banquet. We are invited, and we are expected. It is the right place for us!  If we come without expecting or demanding honours or special treatment, we cannot be disappointed. But if our expectations are too high, we will be humbled.

Friends in Christ, I know that you who worship regularly in St John Lloyd are about to enter a challenging period of weeks. For two months, there will be no resident priest here. Then there will be a new priest to get used to. You will be tempted with proud thoughts:

“Why was OUR parish chosen to be without a priest for two months? Why was Pastor Gareth sent here for such a short time if he wasn’t going to be able to stay? We deserve better!” If you allow those thoughts to get the better of you, then you will experience a rejection which is not God’s plan for you. But if you were to say to yourself: “We are a small parish. The Archbishop could have easily merged us or left us without a priest. We know resources are limited, and whatever we are given is a gift,”, then in our hearts we will have taken the lowest place, and will receive a blessing from Christ.

I want to invite you, here and now, this evening, to make a commitment. Because there will be different priests for the next two months, the style of worship will vary from week to week. Then you will need to get used to your new parish priest. You may feel tempted to go to Mass somewhere else. That might be good for you – but it wouldn’t be good for this parish and it wouldn’t be good for your new parish priest. Therefore, I ask you: if you regularly come to this Saturday evening Mass, or if you come one of the Masses at St John Lloyd every weekend, will you make a humble committment tonight to keep coming here for the next four months, however bumpy things feel?

Will you support each other through the time of change? Will you give your new priest a chance?

Finally, a word to those of you whose hearts have been wounded by rejection. The only person who can heal that wound is called Jesus. I must leave you for a new assignment, but Jesus will never leave this parish, and he, the Good Shepherd, will never abandon even one of you, who are his sheep. There are many ways Jesus comes to us. When we receive Holy Communion, he enters us in the form of the Blessed Sacrament. But he can also touch our hearts and minds in prayer.

Therefore I have one final parting gift for you.

I invite you to close your eyes and open your hands in front of you.

In this moment of prayer, I ask Jesus Our Lord to speak to each one of you, in the depths of your heart. You are not a mistake. Your being here is not an accident. You are loved by God and saved by Jesus.

Whatever rejection you may have experienced from other human beings, however it might have seemed like God himself had forgotten you, he was with you. I ask Jesus to come to you  now and touch your hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit!

Actions Have Consequences

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 3 of 4 in our series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.

Actions have consequences.

I think one of the most thankless tasks for civil servants must be running public information campaigns on behalf of the Government.

You know the kind of thing I mean: Know your alcohol limit. Quit smoking. Change4Life – Eat Well, Move More, Live Longer.

We see the posters and the television adverts; they remind us that actions have consequences. Smoking affects first our lungs and then our whole bodies. Too much of the wrong food, or too much alcohol, puts us at higher risk of certain kinds of disease.

We know this already. And yet we don’t want to change our behaviour, because although we know there could be really bad consequences later, we don’t want to give up those simple pleasures right now.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is giving us a similar kind of warning. He is asked whether only a few people will make it to heaven. He replies: “Many will try to enter and not succeed.” Even if we say, “Lord, did we not eat and drink with you?” – and we are here at Mass today in order to eat his body and drink his blood – that on its own does not get us into heaven. So what more is it, that Jesus is asking for?

The Lord calls the entrance into heaven a “narrow gate”. It’s a bit of a squeeze to get through. We won’t make it with any baggage we are carrying.

Is Jesus telling us that God doesn’t love us, that God wants it to be difficult for us to get into heaven? Not at all! But what does it mean to enter heaven? It means to enter the presence of perfect love, the kind of love which keeps hold of nothing for itself but always puts the needs of others first.

The first piece of baggage we need to set down is the rucksack of selfishness. For some of us, our backs are weighed down by all those things we want to keep for ourselves: the money we don’t give to charity; the time we don’t give to our family members; the skills we do not place at the service of the church or the wider community. We must let go of these things, empty out our selfish rucksacks, and live our lives as servants of our neighbours.

But when we live a truly unselfish life, we might feel overwhelmed. Some among us have decided to live an unselfish life, and now feel the whole weight of the world upon their shoulders! What can we do about global warming, about the imbalance of food distribution in the world, about Britain’s stagnant economy, about wars and conflicts in the Middle East and other troubled parts of the world? We fall into the trap of hearing the command to “love” and taking on the whole hurting world – and it is too much of a burden to bear! We cannot enter heaven by trying to be the Saviour of the World – that job is taken already! To those of us trying to be the next Messiah, Jesus says: “Take the weight of the world off your shoulders, hand it to me, and rest a while!”

There is one more obstacle to passing the narrow gate to heaven. Many of us carry the riot shield of reticence, of reluctance to stand up for our faith. Yes, we are Catholics, but we do not speak willingly about our faith or our values. Perhaps we are embarrassed about some of the public failings of our church. Perhaps we struggle to find the right words to speak about our faith in ways others can understand. Or maybe we have been mocked or ridiculed for our faith and made a quiet, inner decision to protect ourselves by not discussing it in public. On the inside of our shield is written, where only we can see it, “I believe in Jesus!” But on the outside is written “Your religious views will not disturb me.” The world reads this, and moves on with its atheism or incomplete religions unchallenged.

Friends, there is a very special responsibility on us, because we are people who attend Mass regularly and hear the Word of God proclaimed in this church every Sunday. Unlike the majority of the world’s population – who are not even Christians – and unlike the majority of Britain today – we are willing to do something for God. We are willing to come to Mass. We are doing one of the things Jesus asked of us – “Do this in memory of me.” So far so good! Yet how is it possible that Jesus can say “I do not know where you come from?” It is not enough for us to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ – we must also devour his Word and allow that to become flesh within us. When we don’t understand a person, we might say, “I don’t know where you’re coming from.” If we do understand the message of Jesus and take to heart, we will come from a place of understanding his teaching: “I will love God with all my heart. I will love my neighbour as myself. I will go and make disciples of all nations.”

Now for the good news. We are not locked out yet! We’re being warned that an hour will come “when the master of the house has got up and locked the door,” but this has not happened yet. Jesus is merely warning us that if we try to enter heaven clinging to our precious possessions, or bearing too much of the weight of the world, or holding before us a shield which hides our own faith, there will be tragic consequences. But it is not too late to change!

Yes, it is difficult following the teaching of Jesus. Today’s second reading acknowledges that the training God offers us is painful. Yes, those who have never heard the Gospel might get into heaven anyway – the first reading paints a picture of people from foreign lands being gathered into God’s Kingdom. But for us who know more, God expects more. God expects that we will choose to love others and overcome our own selfishness. God expects that we will live lives of prayer and do good not on our own , but in partnership with Jesus Christ. God expects that we will hand over to him the riot shield of reticence; but he will turn it around, reshape it. The shield which fits through the gate of heaven is the shield of faith. On the outside, for the world to see, is written  “I believe in Jesus!” On the inside, where only we can see it, is written “Your religious views will not disturb me.”

Will we change? When the Government campaigns, a few people will quit smoking, cut down their drinking, and change their diet. When the word of God is preached, it never returns to God empty-handed. Actions have consequences. The baggage we choose to set down today will free us to enter heaven tomorrow!

Are you a troublemaker? And if not, why not?

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 2 of 4 in our series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.

Are you a troublemaker? And if not, why not?

Well… aren’t we Christians supposed to be nice? We help people. We turn the other cheek when people offend us. If politicians pass laws we don’t like, or a producer puts on a play mocking Our Lord, wouldn’t we be tolerant and say “God forgives, why cause trouble?”

And yet… we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. We call them saints.

Top: St Thomas More, Shahbaz Bhatti; Bottom: Esther; Venerable Margaret Sinclair

To be sure, some were recognised as saints because of the depth of their prayer-life.

Many were martyred for simply admitting they believed in Jesus.

Others founded religious orders to help people who were sick or in need of education.

But then… there are the troublemakers!

In our First Reading, the Prophet Jeremiah had been thrown into a pit for preaching God’s word.

We also find, in the Old Testament, the story of Esther. She was the one who, when the Prime Minister got permission to massacre Jews, spoke up to the King and said: “excuse me, why are you allowing the persecution of my people?”

St John the Baptist preached about many moral issues, but was executed because he said to the King: “It is against God’s law for you to marry your brother’s wife.”

St Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury because he irritated Henry II to the extent that the King muttered “who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”

St Catherine of Siena had the courage to tell the Pope to go back to Rome at the time when the Popes had taken refuge in France, at Avignon.

St Thomas More refused to accept King Henry VIII’s wishes above God’s law, and was beheaded.

Venerable Margaret Sinclair left school, aged 14, to work in a French polisher’s in Edinburgh. When the Duke of York visited, workers were docked a penny to pay for a new pavement. As trade union rep, Margaret led the protest – why does a duke deserve a pavement if the workers don’t? Aged 23, she entered a convent, caught tuberculosis, and died two years later.

Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg died in 1943 while being transported to Dachau after organising protests outside concentration camps and speaking against anti-Semitism.

Blessed Bishop Vilmos Apor of Hungary opened his bishop’s residence as a centre for refugees when Russian soldiers invaded. He was shot on Good Friday 1945 while pleading with drunken Russian soldiers not to take some of the women refugees for their own purposes.

Mr Shahbaz Bhatti was the only Christian member of the cabinet of Pakistan when he was assassinated in March 2011 for criticising his country’s Islamic blasphemy laws. A year later, hundreds of Catholics across Pakistan marked the anniversary by holding rallies and calling for Bhatti to be recognised as a saint.

These witnesses show us what it can mean to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus.

Pope Francis, preaching in May this year, noted that everyone who follows Jesus will enjoy many good things but will also face persecution. Like Jesus, our only road to holiness leads to the Cross. The Pope warned that “when a Christian has no difficulties in life – when everything is fine, everything is beautiful – something is wrong.” If we have truly encountered Jesus, something “goes deep within and changes us. And the spirit of the world does not tolerate it, will not tolerate it, and therefore, there is persecution.”

“Think of Mother Teresa”, said Pope Francis. “What does the spirit of the world say of Mother Teresa? ‘Ah, Blessed Teresa is a beautiful woman, she did a lot of good things for others …’. The spirit of the world never says that the Blessed Teresa spent, every day, many hours, in adoration … Never! It reduces Christian activity to doing social good.”

In this way, our Pope reminds us that what the world admires about saints is not what we should admire most about saints. The world notices their good works. We are called to recognise their dedication to God and their willingness to carry the Cross.

If we wish to become saints, our first calling is not to imitate their works, but to ask God to inspire us with the same Holy Spirit which inspired them. The gifts promised to us when we were confirmed – among them wisdom, understanding, courage, and respect for God – are offered to us precisely so that we can become God’s troublemakers in this world. Because we are baptised, we share in the work of Christ the Prophet, the one who speaks out about what is wrong in the world around us, even when that offends our family members or friends.

Our Lord himself warns us that his message will result in division, turning family members against each other. Does Jesus want to destroy families? Absolutely not! Yet, it can happen that one member of a family “catches fire” with faith, while another does not. In my own family, I chose to become a Catholic, and then a priest, even though my parents had grave reservations. Fortunately, they have now come to terms with my decision – but I would have become a priest whatever the consequences, because I had already made a decision, in my heart, to do whatever God asked of me, whatever the price might be.

Since I announced the news that I was to move parish, a few of you have commented that my preaching duing my time with you has been “challenging”. Yes, I will plead guilty to that. I always try to follow one simple rule. I aim for the sermons that pass my lips to never be more challenging than the teaching of Jesus himself. It is in this spirit in which I ask you to reflect on today’s Gospel and ask yourself: “Am I a troublemaker?” If you’re not, don’t worry, it’s never too late to begin!

Pictured, clockwise from top left: St Thomas More (statue at Chelsea Embankment, London – author’s own photo); Shahbaz Bhatti (from Wikipedia, under Fair Use provisions); Venerable Margaret Sinclair (Catholic Online); Queen Esther (Sweet Media, licensed CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Call Your Mother

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 2013.

Do you remember those BT telephone adverts where Maureen Lipman played a Jewish mother? In the most famous one, she was delighted her grandson had got an “ology” – that made him a scientist! In another advert, she was griping to the world in general that her son never got round to picking up the phone and calling her… until he did; and then she griped that he never visited!

When we hear reports of the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing in various places around the world, we might be tempted to think that she is also the kind of Jewish mother who will never be satisfied. At Lourdes, it’s “Please come here on pilgrimage.” At Fatima, it’s “Please pray the rosary every day!” If there’s truth in some of the reports of places where the Church has not yet authenticated her coming, her message is “Please pray a great deal each day, and fast twice a week.” Why does our Blessed Mother need all this attention?

Today’s celebration is given so that we may understand who Mary really is. At the end of her earthly life, Mary’s body was taken up into heaven. Her body was the Ark of the New Covenant, the vessel in which God’s presence, in the Person of Jesus, had entered our world. It was right and fitting that this holy Ark be taken up into God’s heavenly Temple.

This means that Mary is now, what each one of us shall be in the future – if only we stay faithful to God and become part of the new heaven and new earth which God has prepared for the end of time. (The Bible speaks of this as “perishable nature… putting on imperishability”.) Blessed Mary has no insecurities, no “need to be needed”. She already enjoys the nearness of God, who is love, and she can no longer be tempted to sin or self-doubt. Nothing that we do on earth can harm or injure her… except for those times when we injure ourselves through sin.

Because our Blessed Mother’s Heart is pure and immaculate, she loves the human race with a perfect love; so whenever human beings reject Blessed Mary, or Her Divine Son, we wound her heart with our hatred or indifference.

It was for this reason that Our Lady came in 1917 in Fatima, Portugal, to invite us to pray the Rosary every day. When we pray the rosary, we offer dozens of Hail Marys, in which we invite Mary to pray for “us sinners” – that is, for ourselves, and all the sinners in the human race – and declare her “blessed among women”, fulfilling her great prophecy in the Magnificat that “all generations will call me blessed”!

But at Fatima, Mary asked for something more – that we dedicate each decade of our rosaries as a prayer for the conversion and salvation of the human race. She invited us to pray, after each deacade, the words: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need of your mercy.”

If Mary invites us to pray the rosary daily, it is not because she needs the affirmation, nor because the gates of heaven would be closed to us, who love Jesus, if we did not do so; rather, it is because she is inviting us to become part of her network of prayer, holding before God all the children which Our Lord placed under her care with his dying breath upon the Cross. This is our privilege; and when we do reach the gates of heaven, we will experience great joy for each and every rosary and invocation of Our Lady which we uttered during this earthly life.

I doubt that they make adverts in heaven, but I can just imagine Our Blessed Mother standing in the courtroom of heaven, speaking with Our Lord and the angels about her children on Earth. Of this I am sure; that she will not be complaining about the children who aren’t calling her, but will be pointing out all those who have faithfully prayed their rosaries and invoked her prayers. “For their sake, My Son, send your angels to protect the Earth, so that hearts may be converted and peace may be restored.”

To be a client of Mary, to be someone who invokes her prayers, is a great privilege which God offers to members of His family. That Mary keeps inviting us to join in this task means that its fruits, when done well, will be tremendous. So not for guilt, not for obligation, but as an act of pure love: Call your mother! She’s waiting to hear from you!

In pink lettering, on black, the words CALL YOUR MOTHER, a telephone and a rosary.

Faith in the Future

A gateway looking through the wall of Scarborough Castle onto the seaHomily at St John Lloyd, for The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 1 of 4 in our new series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

When I was a pupil at comprehensive school in Llanelli, our Deputy Head often read those words, at Christmastime or at the end of the school year. And in a primary school where I used to work, the last day of term was often marked by a rousing song with the refrain “I can do anything I choose!” These are stirring words, and the poem and the song both bring us a feel-good factor for an uncertain time in our life. It’s good to have hope.

Our Christian hope is based on more than mere sentiment or optimism. We do not read cheerful words to create hope where none is warranted. Rather, in our worship we remind ourselves that our God is a faithful God, a God who has kept His promises, and will keep His promises. Our rather mysterious first reading was referring to the way God kept his promise to make Israel a great nation by liberating the Hebrew people from Egypt on the night when the first born males of the Egyptians died, though the houses which had sacrificed a lamb were spared. Over the last couple of weeks, the readings at weekday Mass have recalled the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert, as they doubted whether God was ever going to bring them to the Promised Land. Indeed, the Bible is full of many journeys into the unknown, from the calling of Abraham to St Paul’s journey, as a prisoner, to Rome. These stories are to strengthen each one of us as God leads us on our personal journey from the unchangeable past into the unknown future.

It is not easy, being a friend of Jesus. He allows his friends to be tested, and tested sorely. The apostles had to pass through the pain of Good Friday and the agonising loneliness of Holy Saturday before they could experience the unending joy of the Resurrection. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we recall both the triumph and the tragedy of the Easter story.

There was a time, in the history of this parish, when St John Lloyd was without a Parish Priest for several months. It must have been a difficult time, because the anguish is clear in the voices of those among you who have told me about it. I wonder what would happen if this parish again found itself without a resident parish priest? The temptation would be to throw a pity-party, to despair, to doubt that God or the Church cares about this part of Cardiff. But that would be a tragic mistake! To be sure, when there is no Parish Priest, something significant is missing. But why focus on the one gift which is absent, rather than the many gifts which are present?

Imagine there were no parish priest here. But God has not changed! He is, and always will be, the God who allows his friends to be tested and brings them out of darkness and into light. If you have faith in God – the God who has always rescued his people from dark times – then you will not be alone. Did you know that in the year 1587, priests were expelled from Japan, but lay leaders kept the Catholic Church alive, underground, for nearly 250 years? Without priests, they could have baptisms and marriages, but no other sacraments. In 1865, a French priest was permitted to build a church near Nagasaki; suddenly, a group of visitors approached and asked if it was true that he was single, sent from a place called Rome, and that the church contained a statue of the Virgin Mary. In this way, the hidden Catholics were reunited with the wider Church; Pope Pius IX called this a miracle! For those hidden Christians, who had been keeping watch for several generations, the Master had returned!

Imagine there were no parish priest here. But the official presence of the Church would still be close at hand, in the form of our local deacon, and of the priests in nearby parishes, who would still lend assistance. And indeed the Church is present wherever Christians meet together to pray and to do God’s work. When two members of the SVP visit a person at home, the Church is present. When members of the congregation pray Morning Prayer together, even if neither Deacon Rigo not myself are here, the Church is present. When our First Communion Catechists gather with our children, the Church is present. If you have faith in one another, you will keep the community together and continue to make the Church present.

Imagine that, for a time, there were no parish priest here. When one was appointed, what would he find? A community dejected and mournful, or a confident community ready to present the works they have been preparing for him? I have known of priests who have been disappointed to arrive in their new parish to discover no food in the cupboard, no furniture in the bedroom, no set of keys for their duties and no Christian work taking place in the community. But I tell you this, if a priest were to arrive and to be presented with a warm welcome, a group of candidates well-prepared for the sacraments, and all of the material needs on hand, then surely he would put on his apron, wait upon your needs, and become your friend for life. On the day I moved in, the parish turned out in force to help move my boxes, and for that welcome, St John Lloyd is second to none!

Today’s Gospel is first and foremost about the coming of Christ – the Second Coming at the end of time, or the personal Coming when our earthly lives reach their end. It asks us whether the Lord will find us living out our Christian values of faith, hope and love throughout our lives, even when we are tired. Let’s recognise that it’s not easy, being a follower of Jesus. It’s not meant to be. Jesus embraced his Cross and warned us that we would each have to carry our own Cross. Over the next three Sundays, Jesus will be teaching us something about the price we will pay for choosing to follow him.

We will choose the path of humility, or else we will be humbled.

We will set down our baggage, or else find that we cannot carry it with us through the narrow gate of heaven.

We will choose to follow Jesus when this does not make us popular with friends and colleagues who do not share our faith, or else we will please our friends at the expense of God.

Today’s Gospel can also apply to any wilderness experience when being a faithful Catholic seems hard, and the presence of God, in the form of Christian friends or of the institutional church, seems far away. So if in your life now, or in the future, the presence of God feels far away, remember these words:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

Legacy Issues – What You Leave Behind

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

Episode 4 of 4 in our current series, The Teachings of Jesus.

“Legacy! Legacy!” says the politician. It’s all about legacy!

Here we are, a year on from the 2012 Olympic Games, and everyone in the media seems to be talking about the Olympic Legacy. The games were meant to achieve so much – to give a boost to our economy and tourist trade, to get more people involved in sport, to make world-class buildings available to a deprived area of London… what we built were not bigger barns but better stadiums, and now the wrangling continues about who gets the benefit, and how much the taxpayer has had to subsidise commercial interests.

According to Ecclesiastes, the Old Testament preacher, it’s a terrible thing to work hard and have someone else enjoy the benefits. That’s called vanity.

According to our modern politicians, it’s a wonderful thing to work hard and have someone else enjoy the benefits. That’s called legacy.

But behind the rosy glow of “legacy” we might yet see the darker side of the human heart at work.

What motivates the politician who wants to leave a legacy?

Could it be a desire for prestige, for having achieved a landmark project?

Could it be sheer pragmatism – “We can’t afford all this healthcare, so we need to encourage our population to get fit?”

Could it be a genuine care and concern to make the community a better place? Yes, it could – for we must resist cynicism and find goodness even in the hearts of our politicians; but we recognise that few hearts act from pure motives and in every heart, we will find caring and kudos in competition.

Not all of us are Politicians with a capital P, but each one of us lives among other human beings, with a natural concern about what others might think of us. The way we use our wealth communicates something to those around us. The man in today’s parable did not need to build bigger barns to secure himself and his family; rather, it was an act of pride, “Look at how successful I am!”

He was trying to impress his neighbours; he failed to impress God.

If we wish to impress God, St Paul offers us a hard recipe: kill everything within ourselves that falls short of God’s standards. We are to put an end to lying – which is the desire for a reputation we have not earned; we are to put an end to greed – which tempts us to consume more than is good for our bodies and souls; and we are to put an end to indulging any desires for sexual relationships other than with the husband or wife to whom God has called us in holy matrimony.

The testimony of an ordinary saint – an everyday saint like you or me – therefore, runs something like this:

I spoke the truth, even when it did not paint me in the best light.

I chose to live simply and consume no more than is good for me. (I have to admit – I’m still working hard on this one. So no chocolate for Christmas this year, please!)

I asked God to show me the husband or wife I should wed, I waited until God blessed our relationship, and I have been faithful ever since.

A further hallmark of an everyday saint is that they see the good things of the world as a gift, not as a right. Jesus is most unimpressed at the heart of the man who considers himself entitled to a share of his brother’s inheritance. So many families in our society are torn apart by dashed expectations of inheritance! Only a humble attitude can preserve the peace!

If that man had said: “My brother’s inheritance is an undeserved gift, and I have no right to any of it,” peace would have been prevailed. And if this was important in the Lord’s day, it is even more important in today’s economy when senior citizens spend their golden years SKI-ing – that is, “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance” – or are forced to convert the value of their home into the cost of care.

Those who have little, impress God by treating what they do receive as a generous and undeserved gift. Grown-up children who expect nothing from their parents can never be disappointed, only delighted.

Those who have much, impress God by giving generously of what they have received. Parents with the ability to do so should give fairly to their children, but remember also the needs of the poor.

Over the last four weeks, we have examined some of the most challenging teachings given to us by Our Lord. The Gospels we hear at Mass, and the sermons proclaimed, are only of value to us if we take these teachings on board and change our lives accordingly.

We have been challenged to love our enemies. Have we prayed for them and reconciled with them?

We have been challenged to spend time listening to Jesus. Have we set aside a daily or weekly slot to open the Bible or practice silent meditation?

We have been challenged to be persistent in prayer. Do we have a strong sense of what we need from the Lord, and a determination to pray until we receive it?

And today, we have been challenged to use our wealth in a way which impresses heaven above us rather than the world around us. What changes do we need to make in our lives accordingly?

“Legacy! Legacy! It’s all about legacy!”

The legacy I would like to leave is this: “He reminded his people of the difficult teachings which Jesus gave us, so we could all become saints. Slowly the people of the parish took these difficult teachings on board. When they saw a part of their life in which change was needed, they went to confession, and so obtained God’s special help to live their life in a new and better way. And by taking small steps towards becoming saints, the people of St John Lloyd shone with the image of Jesus living within them, transformed the world around them, and made themselves rich in the sight of God.”

We can do this! So let the favour of the Lord be upon us: give success to the work of our hands!

No Quick Fixes

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C – the DAY FOR LIFE in England & Wales.

Episode 3 of 4 in our new series, The Teachings of Jesus.

Prayer takes time. Care takes time. Human life takes a lifetime.

Today, the Catholic Church in England and Wales marks its annual Day for Life, when we celebrate the value of human life from conception to natural death. Today is meant to remind us that human life lasts a lifetime, and even in today’s fast-paced world, a lifetime is a long time.

Hollywood and soap operas present us with the edited highlights of a life, squeezed into a 30-minute or 2-hour package. Even the Bible offers us the edited highlights of the story of Jesus: the most remarkable miracles, the prayers which were answered immediately. But don’t be fooled. It takes months to make a movie, and it takes persistence to gain the answer to a prayer.

We don’t see many examples in the Bible of Jesus having to persist in prayer. Usually he gets instant results, though he did once have to pray for the same blind person twice, and at the Last Supper he prayed that all his followers be united – a prayer far from answered when we look at how Christianity is split into denominations and factions across the world. But today Jesus tells us quite clearly that if we need a good thing, and we believe God has the power to give it to us, then we should keep on knocking on the door of faith until we receive our answer.

Prayer takes time. If we feel let down by God, who has not answered our prayers on our terms, have we prayed with the kind of persistence which Jesus taught us to embrace?

Meanwhile, as we reflect on the value of human life, we remember that many of us are called to be carers for a significant part of our lives. As parents, we bring up children. As the children of agèd parents, we care for those who brought us into the world. When illness afflicts our families in other ways, we find ourselves giving more attention to the relatives in need. And some of us earn our living in the caring profession, where we must resist the temptation to treat it as “just a job” – because whatever pressures we are under from targets and managers, every human being we work with has an innate dignity which must not be ignored.

Care takes time. Jesus lives within each human person, and whenever you have cared for a child, a parent, a friend or a patient, you have been tending to Jesus himself.

On this DAY FOR LIFE, let us take stock of our situation. How do we treat Jesus, hidden in those who have most need of our care? The laws of England and Wales have already permitted abortion for many years, and renewed efforts are being made in Parliament to legalise euthanasia. We can and should pray for our politicians to recognise the value of human life, and especially to protect the medical profession so that all doctors and nurses remain committed to care, not killing. I commend to you the ongoing efforts to maintain a prayerful presence against abortion in Cardiff, which continued with a special prayer vigil in the Cathedral on Friday last. Local leaders are currently discerning whether there would be enough support in Cardiff to run another 40 days for life vigil in the autumn – they would love to hear from you if you would be willing to take part.

Not all of us are called to pray on the streets of Cardiff, but all of us are invited to pray for the conversion of human hearts. Yes, this is the hardest of all things to pray for, because God will never take away a person’s free will; yet we do believe that God will invite souls to soften their hearts, and that we should persist in prayer for this to happen: nothing is impossible for God.

When Our Lady appeared in Fatima in 1917, she asked for prayers for the conversion of those who would otherwise enter Hell. When Our Lord appeared to St Faustina Kowalska shortly afterwards, he asked her to make a novena during Easter week, during which she would bring before God those souls most in need of God’s Mercy. Let us not doubt God’s power to answer such prayers – but let us also recognise that receiving the answer takes time, and that God has sent these messages from heaven to remind us that if we want to see human lives change around us, we must be persistent in prayer, not for a week, not for a year, but for a lifetime.

Human life takes a lifetime. Let us defend human life with a lifetime of prayer.

If you are a carer, and especially if you are caring for someone who lacks the ability to speak for themself: THANK YOU.

If you are a pray-er, and especially if you have been praying for the pro-life cause, for vocations to the priesthood, or the needs of this parish, on a long term basis: THANK YOU.

If we were once in the habit of praying a daily rosary or other prayers for souls in need, I invite you today to rediscover that habit.

If you have never formed such a habit, then this DAY FOR LIFE is the perfect day to begin. Pick a cause for prayer. Indeed, ask God to give you an inner sense of what kind of prayer He wants to answer through you, or simply choose one of the causes I have just mentioned.

Prayer takes time. Care takes time. Human life takes a lifetime. And today is the first day of the rest of your life.

The Better Part

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 2 of 4 in our new series, The Teachings of Jesus.

Mary has chosen the better part. But Martha has her defenders!

A few weeks ago, we pondered today’s gospel passage at the Churches Together Bible Study here at St John Lloyd. Many of those who came rushed to Martha’s aid. Surely she was doing something good, and right, and proper, by tending to the needs of Our Lord and the other guests who came with him?

No-one is saying Martha was doing something bad. She was doing what was expected of her in that culture, where taking care of guests was extremely important. Apart from her uncharitable comment about her sister, we can commend her for doing her duty. Jesus didn’t say she was doing anything wrong. But he did say: “Mary has chosen the better part.”

Perhaps that doesn’t sit so well with us. We might question whether Jesus really said it. But the Gospels are our best link to the words and action of Jesus, and our Church is confident that they teach the honest truth about what he said and did. So yes, I think we have to accept that Jesus did say: “Mary has chosen the better part.”

If he said it, do we have to agree with it? That depends whether Jesus is a member of your panel of religious advisors, or your Lord. If you are developing your own religion based on those sayings of Jesus which you agree with, then it’s up to you. But as Catholics, we profess every Sunday that we believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ… true God from true God”. This is why St Paul could say to the Christians in Colossae: “God made me responsible for delivering God’s message to you, the message…now… revealed to his saints. It was God’s purpose to reveal… the Christ we proclaim.”

If Jesus is God, he isn’t going to make a mistake. If we call him Lord, we are implying that we will follow his teachings. And what Jesus wants to teach us on this occasion is that what Mary chose to do is better than what Martha chose to do.

As for why it’s better… ah! Now we can begin to have an open-ended conversation!

Let’s look again, and what do we see? Mary, sitting, listening, at the feet of Jesus.

Martha, “distracted” by the serving, asking Jesus to intervene in her relationship with her sister, and being politely but firmly told, no, because Martha was fretting about “many things” when Mary had chosen “the better part”.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was that she jumped to her own conclusion about what was needed, while her sister was willing to listen. Love is patient!

Perhaps Martha’s fault was too much attention to detail – were the “many things” the preparation of an elaborate meal when a simple snack would have been enough? Love is not expressed in the detail so much as in the simple act of caring.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was wanting her sister to hold exactly the same values as herself. Her exasperated request for Jesus to put Mary to work reveals something about very ordinary family tensions, revealed here because Jesus was already a friend of the family. Love allows other people to be different from yourself while still respecting and cherishing them.

Painting by Otto van Veen - Martha protests with Jesus while Mary sits at his feet.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was in wanting to bring her sister down from her boldness in daring to sit at the feet of Jesus, the rabbi – a place where only men would normally sit in that culture. But Jesus seems unconcerned. He often questions the Jewish traditions of his day, so perhaps he’s saying that it’s better for the ladies to learn from their rabbi, on this one-day-only opportunity, than to take on the normal duties of hospitality. Love does not seek to embarrass others for their boldness.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was in not recognising that the Lord of the work is more important that the work of the Lord. The Church needs Marthas – it needs activists who get things done. But even the most active Catholic needs to take time to stop and listen to God, and here Martha is hosting God in person, yet missing out on his words of life.

But don’t despair. The Martha we are speaking of is Saint Martha – a friend of God recognised for her true holiness. It was Martha, not Mary, who recognised that Jesus was the true Christ before he raised Lazarus from the dead. Martha is part of the company of heaven, and if we follow her example we will do much good.

Yet… “Mary has chosen the better part.” For this reason our Church prizes women and men who respond to the call to be hermits, monks and nuns. In the eyes of the world, their existence seems futile. But to our eyes of faith, those called to a lifestyle of daily prayer and contemplation are the ones who have responded to the deepest invitation to “choose the better part”.

Is today’s Gospel about the excellence of spending time with Jesus, in holy listening? Is it about the importance of living simply even when a guest is at hand? Is it about avoiding jealousy in sibling relationships? It could be any or all of these things. You are free to pick your own interpretation, so long as you agree up with one basic conclusion:Mary has chosen the better part. So go, and do likewise.

I have no enemies, but…

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 1 of 4 in our new series, The Teachings of Jesus.

Jesus stands in the background as a man of peace calms an angry man with a gun.Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. Rather, love your enemies and do good to them!” (See Luke 6:27-36.)

Love your enemies.

Jesus taught us this by his words, and by his actions.

In his life, he sought out those his own society had rejected: tax-collectors, lepers, those living on the margins because they were deaf, blind or lame.

At his death, he healed the ear of one of his assailants, pardoned the Good Thief crucified next to him, and cried out, “Father, forgive, they do not know what they are doing!”

When he rose, he breathed peace upon his disciples who were all-too-ashamed of having abandoned him in his hour of need, and restored Peter to leadership of his followers.

He left us no room to doubt, no room to argue: by telling us the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and by giving the challenge I’ve just quoted from an earlier passage in St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching us one of the key values which sets us apart as his followers. We are to love our enemies.

The word “love” which the Bible uses here is agape. In the language of the New Testament, this word means: “Choose the well-being of another.” Jesus is not commanding us to feel good about our enemies; no-one can conjure up good feeling just like that. But it is always within our power to treat other people well, and this is the root meaning of agape love.

Love your enemies.

“But,” I hear you protest, “I have no enemies!”

Let’s just check that out a moment.

What happened the last time a driver cut you up on the motorway, or a shopper arrived at the checkout just ahead of you? How did you feel? And how did those feelings cause you to act?

When Jesus said “pray for those who mistreat you”, I don’t think he was suggesting a self-righteous prayer. “Lord, make that person a more considerate driver!” I think he was challenging us to a whole new level of generosity. “Lord, that woman who stole my place in the queue – bless her, give her a wonderful day, help her deal with any stresses in her family situation. That man on the motorway – help him at work today, make all his business ventures successful, bless his family.”

There’s the person whose bad habit just gets on your nerves. St Therese of Lisieux was so irritated by the way one nun clicked her rosary beads, she made a firm resolution to be extra-kind to that sister so that no bitter feelings could poison that relationship.

Then there are the relationships with our own grown-up brothers and sisters. Whatever rivalries we had in the family home when we were growing up, will leave traces in our adult behaviour. Is there room for us to behave more warmly to one of our brothers or sisters?

If we are employed, or undertake voluntary work, we have rivals for promotion and recognition. Those we regard as friends suddenly become enemies when there is only one promotion available, or the department is downsizing and all employees suddenly have to re-apply for jobs! In such circumstances, it is all the more important to pray for the well-being of our rivals. This, of course, requires that we trust in God’s love for us as well as for them; there is no need to fear that God is going to answer our prayer by blessing the other person and hanging us out to dry – for nothing will seduce God more than the generous heart of a person who prays for others. This was the heart Jesus placed in the Good Samaritan, who wanted no expense spared at the inn!

Finally, consider that most anonymous of enemies – “The System”. At work, in church and in other voluntary groups you can and will run across well-meaning individuals who ask you to comply with Health & Safety Policies or fill out an 8-page application booklet so you can work with children or vulnerable adults. You will be tempted to say “Blow this! Just getting involved is too much like hard work.” That’s a temptation! Don’t let the system become your enemy. Love is patient! Love is kind! Love endures all things! Love even complies with Health & Safety and fills out Safeguarding paperwork with a smile. We can all do this – but we have to choose to do this.

Our democratic nation’s highest value today is toleration. Our politicians create space where we are each free to do our own thing, as long as it doesn’t affect others too much. When is a noisy neighbour too noisy? When is one homeowner’s cherished extension a neighbour’s blot on the landscape? When does free speech become the incitement of hatred? Politicians pass laws in an attempt to balance each person’s liberty.

Jesus did not say “Tolerate your enemies, and reach an uneasy truce with them.”

Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Today’s Gospel is an invitation to love our neighbour, so why have I been talking about loving our enemies? Some of our neighbours are friends. You don’t need to be commanded to love your friends! But among your neighbours are those with poor driving skills, bad manners at the supermarket, rivals for promotion at work, gossips, and well-meaning volunteers bearing tedious paperwork.

Love your enemies.

Have you worked out who they are yet? Your enemy is the person you are tempted to treat as a second-class citizen.

Our Christian faith requires a radical commitment to the wellbeing of those who oppose us. So I invite you, here and now, to pick an enemy. When we have a silent pause in our bidding prayers in a few moments, use that pause to pray blessings on the person you have chosen. And before the next week is out, put that love into practice through a word, a gesture, or a kind deed.

Do this, and eternal life will be yours!

Bonus items for on-line readers:

Twenty-six steps to loving your enemies from the writings of St John Chrysostom – follow these steps and you will be a saint in no time!