Certain Death

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A.

Three times in my life, I’ve narrowly avoided being caught in a terrorist attack.

When I was an undergraduate, the IRA planted a bomb in the Reject Shop in Oxford. That afternoon, I was in a college building which was back-to-back with that shop.

When the 7/7 bombs went off on public transport in London in 2005, I was visiting a friend in Canterbury. But the previous day, I had been on a tube train, at the same time and place where one of those bombs exploded.

At 2 pm a week last Wednesday, I was just leaving Westminster Abbey. I could so easily have headed for Westminster tube station, but the friend I was with suggested we take a bus to Victoria instead. The first I knew of that afternoon’s terrible events was when I was safely on a train out of Paddington.

Once, I was driving along the M4 just outside Cardiff when a driver pulled out right in front of me, forcing me to swerve into the fast lane. My car fishtailed wildly before settling down – fortunately I didn’t hit the crash barrier or any other traffic, but it was quite a fright.

Each of those moments is one where I can rightly say, “but for the grace of God, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Sometimes, the worst does happen. On Tuesday, the BBC showed a personal reflection by the footballer, Rio Ferdinand. His wife died just 10 weeks after being diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and now Rio has to be “Mum” as well as “Dad” to his children.

Lent forces us to face up to the dark side of life. In recent weeks we’ve been challenged to tackle those faults we are only too aware of, and face up to the hidden faults we don’t want to admit. Now we must confront the ultimate challenge: we’re all going to die. That’s why it’s so significant that Our Lord didn’t stop Lazarus from dying.

Jesus could have healed Lazarus by a word, even at a distance, as soon as the messengers came to him.

Jesus could have set out for Bethany immediately, and might have arrived in time to prevent him dying.

But no, Our Lord tarried for two days in the wilderness stating that this sickness “would not end in death”. St John says that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead as a sign for us. God’s plan is that we pass through death and enter into eternal life. St Paul also acknowledges this, speaking about our mortal bodies.

Knowing that we’re going to die forces us to ask important questions. Knowing that it’s possible for any one of us to be taken by a swift disease or a sudden accident means that we shouldn’t wait until we’re retired to face up to them.

First question – Have you made a funeral plan?

If you live without a partner, it’s a great kindness to your family to leave clear instructions about what you want. Do you have ideas about music or Bible readings? Is it important to you that your funeral is a Requiem Mass? It often happens these days that when grown-up children are not practicing Catholics, they choose not to have a Mass for their parent. It’s not essential to have a Mass at your funeral – Masses can be offered at other times – but if you have Catholic friends who will mourn your passing, why wouldn’t you choose a Mass for them to pray at? And suggesting the music is very helpful when your family are not churchgoers. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help to plan your funeral while you are still healthy – Deacon Steve or myself, or a member of our parish bereavement group, would be happy to advise you.

Second question – Have you made a will?

Wills are important. It’s only be making a will that you can ensure that your property is used in the way you wish after your death. You don’t need to use a lawyer to write your will, but it’s probably a good idea to do so if there is a house or land involved. The cheapest way to access a lawyer is to wait until November and find one who is part of the WillAid initiative – instead of paying a legal fee, you make a donation to one of nine nominated charities. There are two Catholic charities in the mix – the Scottish and Irish countparts of CAFOD.

Third question – if you are living with a partner, Are you married?

Marriage is important. Marriage is the way that two people register their relationship with the Government. Being married protects your rights to your partner’s pension, property and possessions. There is no such thing as a “common-law marriage”. Just because two people of similar age live in the same house, this proves nothing. They could be lodgers, lovers, or limbering up to leave. How does the Government know that the relationship is one where you want your partner to inherit everything you own? Simple – you register it. And registering a family relationship is what we traditionally call marriage. This is one of the reasons why our Church says it is so important to be married before starting a family. Why would you want your partner and children to be left without that legal protection if the worst did happen suddenly?

I don’t have time to speak today about the spiritual side of bereavement. I would simply point you to St Martha, who had every right to be furious with Jesus for allowing her to live through the death of her brother. Yet Martha puts her trust the Lord, knowing he will raise her brother to everlasting life at the end of time. At Easter, we will celebrate the amazing news that eternal life awaits us following bodily death.

They say only two things are certain in life: death, and taxes. Most of us will never be anywhere a terrorist attack, so let’s resist the temptation to give worry and energy to something that probably won’t happen to us. Instead, let’s do something positive about something that certainly will happen. By making a funeral plan, we can prepare well for death – and by getting married and making a will, we can even do something about the taxes!


Further reading:

The art of dying well – Catholic pastoral care of the dying.

The Government’s view – speech by Iain Duncan Smith MP.

A Sunday Times article – warning, some crude language!

Great Expectations: Invest

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A.

Consider the humble img_1161bucket.

Have you ever tried to draw water from a well?

Just letting the bucket down on a single rope might not work so well… the bucket floats on the water!

So what can you do?

You can use a heavy weight to sink the bucket. But who wants to be burdened by that weight all the time?

You can TIP the bucket so it falls over and fills from the side.

Or you can use a special bucket designed to let a little water in at the bottom. If you draw it out quickly, you will keep most of the water!


Today, Jesus is thirsty. He meets a woman at a well and asks her for a drink. He has no bucket – but his plan is to offer her the living water that only He can give.

How do we open ourselves to receive that living water?

Like the weighted bucket, we may be sinking into desperation when we turn to Christ. In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programmes, the participants come to a point of despair. They realise that the power to change is not within themselves. They must turn to some “Higher Power”. There are many Christian stories of people who made a new connection with God when they were at their most broken. The Bible tells us: “Seek the Lord and you WILL find Him – if you seek with ALL your heart!”

Like the tipped-over bucket, we can choose to humble ourselves. If we know who Jesus really is, we will bow down our hearts and ask for his help. Scripture says: “Humble yourself in the eyes of the Lord, and he will raise you up.”

Like the bucket with a valve in the bottom, once we receive something of the living water, we will be thirsty for more. The increased weight allows the bucket to sink deeper. Once we’ve had a taste of the Lord’s love, we will be motivated to pray harder and longer, and the Lord can increase our capacity to receive. St Paul must have experienced this; he wrote of how God’s love can be poured into our hearts.

The woman at the well provided the Lord with two things to fill – a bucket for water, and a soul for faith, hope and love. The Lord filled her gradually. She starts the conversation by addressing him as a hated “Jew”. Then a more respectful “Sir”. If we read on, Jesus is acknowledged as a prophet, and eventually Messiah. The more she sinks into the living water, the more able she is to receive who Jesus truly is; eventually the conversation moves from matters of fetching water, to questions of the right way to worship.


A bucket is also a classic sign of holding a collection. As the current tax year draws to a close, it’s appropriate that I say something about money. Indeed, the money we give to the Church is one very practical way in which we worship God – with our wallets! To “worship” is to declare God “worthy”, which means “worth it”. I’ve placed the two banners on the sanctuary reminding us to “invest” and to “worship” because they are so closely connected.

We, the people of this parish, are responsible for keeping our parish running. Each year, it costs us roughly £15k to keep our building warm, safe and in good repair. It costs another £15k to have a priest – that’s not just money in my pocket, that includes my travel and other expenses as well. And it costs a further £12k to adminster the parish – printing, phone, internet and office staff. Let’s not forget that we are also paying off our debt, if we aim to pay off £10k per year, that all adds up to £52k per year or £1000 per week.

Now, a thousand pounds per week might sound like a lot of money, but the good news is that about 300 people worship here each weekend. Some of us are children, but if 250 adults are here each weekend, that’s about £4 per person per week. That’s the bare minimum we can pay into our parish if we want to look after our building and keep a priest.

There are lots of ways we can contribute. We can set up a standing order from our bank, or we can give cash every week. If we pay tax, we can ask the Government to Gift Aid our contribution. We can also choose to sponsor the costs of particular church expenses. At the end of today’s Mass, our finance team will talk about Gift Aid. Next week, we will launch this year’s Sponsorship Appeal.

Remember, the Lord is asking us to meet his needs out of the gifts he has already given us. Today’s psalm is an invitation to give praise to God, who has provided for our basic needs, rather than giving in to the temptation to grumble – that’s what the Israelites did at Massah and Meribah in the desert. If our income has gone down in the past year, it is quite proper for us to give less to the church than we used to. But if we can afford to give a little more, let’s do that. Imagine what our Church could do if we had  the resources to invest in our community as well as keeping our building and our priest in working order?

I’m not going to tell you we’re sinking and desperate for money – we’re managing. Just.

I’m not going to bow down and beg you for money, but I am simply telling you what we need.

I am, however, showing you what we can do with a little more money. We have living water to share with the community we live in. You see at the outside of the church that we now have signs and banners. The is the first step of asking our local community to come in and drink from the living water. Imagine what more we could do with the funds to go out into the community and connect with people!

Jesus saw a woman with a bucket, and asked her for a drink. She was cautious, but he won her trust, and her life was changed. Today, you see a priest with a bucket, a priest who wants to share living water with the people around us. What will you put in my bucket?

Hidden Figures, Hidden Faults

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A.

How can we know right from wrong?adam-eve-serpent-colour

Our Lord was tempted by the Devil, who even tried to trick Him by quoting Bible verses. But Jesus knew what was truly right, and resisted.

We’re unlikely to have a face-to-face encounter with Satan. “But the serpent was the most subtle of all the creatures God had made.” What the Devil began, the World continues. Just as the serpent questioned whether God had forbidden eating the fruit, so the world around us today questions whether our Catholic values are the right ones.

Before Lent began, I preached about the challenge to tackle those temptations we know we have but don’t want to face up to. Today I want to talk about something different – about our hidden faults. There are things that we don’t recognise as sins because we don’t know the Church’s teaching well enough – or because we aren’t willing to recognise the Church’s teaching as correct.

I went to see a film last week. Hidden Figures is set in the USA at the time when there was still segregation between black and white people. It tells the story of the African-American women mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race. There’s a memorable scene between Dorothy, the black woman who organises her team, and Vivian, the white manager who isn’t helping Dorothy secure a promotion to supervisor. “I have nothing against y’all,” says Vivian. “I know,” says Dorothy, “I know you probably believe that.” It’s a classic example of how a person can be blind to injustice because they have become so used to the culture around them.

When the world around us agrees with our Catholic values, that’s a mixed blessing. If we agree that a particular action is sinful, society quickly declares it shameful. This deters people from committing the sin, but also tempts the rest of us not to show mercy and compassion to those who couldn’t resist. One sad example is in this week’s news reports from the time in Ireland’s history when it was so shameful to be an unmarried mother, that the mothers and their babies were hidden away in special homes.

On the other hand, when society disagrees that something should be shameful, the church finds itself having to encourage us to swim the other way against the tide of people’s opinions.

The thing is, it’s not up to us to make the rules – that’s the point of the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you say the Eden story is about knowledge. After all, if Adam and Eve didn’t know the difference between right and wrong, how could they avoid sinning? But St John Paul II gave us a deeper way of reading the story. He explained it’s not about knowing the difference, but about who gets to decide what’s right or wrong. We human beings sometimes want to say that something is OK when God’s already said that it’s not OK.

For those of us who have responsibility as employers or managers, this Lent might be an opportunity to look at how we treat our staff. Do we treat our employees in the way we would want to be treated in their place? Maybe you’ve never stopped to see it from that point of view before, but that’s what the gospel requires. This is the heart of what is known as Catholic Social Teaching – which brings the call to “love one another” into the workplace and to wider society.

There’s a lot of talk about migrants at the moment. We might worry whether some immigrants might be terrorists, or be concerned whether there are enough jobs for British people. But it’s not OK for us, as followers of Jesus, to withhold good will from strangers, even when many politicians are voicing views about immigration.

On sexual matters, too, public views have changed. That old serpent whispers into our society that marriage is really about saving up for the big party. That’s not what we believe, as Catholics. What’s really important in Christian marriage is that a man and a woman make a public promise to each other, to God and to us that they will stay together through thick and thin. If your values are truly Catholic, you will get married in church before you start a family, even if you can’t afford the wedding of your dreams. By doing that, you prove that God is more important than money, or what your friends think of you. If you think it’s OK to start a family before you’re married, you’ve fallen for the subtle voice of the serpent, which can take something beautiful – love! – and put it in the wrong place. He failed when he tried to tempt Jesus to jump off the Temple’s pinnacle. The time for Jesus to ascend from the Earth only came after he vowed himself to his bride, the Church, at the altar of the Cross.

Sometimes society changes for the better. Hidden Figures showed a time when racial segregation was slowly being overcome, and we can celebrate that. But society often changes to say that things are OK when they go against God’s law. We can’t always change the world, but we can always encourage one another to resist the world’s temptations. While the world celebrates hidden figures, this Lent is a time for us to find our hidden faults.

How can we know right from wrong? It’s time for us to go deeper, and ask how God’s Law asks us to behave, in areas we haven’t thought of before or where the world has made us blind. Let’s behave as the saints that God is calling us to be. Let’s change – and let’s BE the good news!

The Enemy Within

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.”

Today’s Gospel reminds us of something Jesus said, something which makes our Christian faith stand out from other religions. We’re asked – no, we are commanded – to be passionately committed to doing good for our opponents.

I could probably end this sermon right now, because I’ve said all that needs to be said. Except… what happens when you are your own worst enemy?

Usually when I preach, I try and say something for everyone. But there are times I share a message which won’t apply to everyone, but will be really important for those who need to hear it. Today is one of those times.

Do you find yourself really difficult to live with? Do you find it hard to love yourself? Do you doubt that you are a fundamentally good person, even if you do things you regret sometimes?

One in every ten people here today will suffer from clinical depression at some time of life. Maybe you’ve already experienced this, or are being afflicted by it right now. Loosely speaking, the sign of being clinically depressed is that you feel sad, hopeless and lose interest in things you used to enjoy – and these feelings continue for a period lasting more than a few days.

If you find yourself in this situation, there’s no shame in getting help from your doctor. Often your doctor will recommend some kind of “talking therapy”, but sometimes the treatment will include antidepressant medicine. There’s no reason to feel ashamed of that, either. If you were an insulin-dependent diabetic, you wouldn’t hesitate to take that injection to restore the right chemical balance. If your doctor prescribes antidepressants, that’s doing just the same kind of job, restoring a temporary imbalance in those body chemicals which affect your mood.

Many of us will never be clinically depressed, but will go through low periods in our life where we struggle with a poor self-image. This week, our parish Connect & Explore groups watched a video where a Catholic mother, Giovanna Payne, spoke about a kind of prayer which lifted her spirits during difficult seasons in her life. Some of us, too, might find it a useful exercise to use the kind of prayers which remind us who we are in Christ: we are loved beyond imagining by a God who died to know us. We can also find many affirming passages in the Bible we can repeat to ourselves in daily prayer: I am God’s workmanship (Eph 2:10); I am a new creature in Christ (2 Cor 5:17); I am raised up with Christ and seated in heavenly places (Eph 2:6; Col 2:12). Or we might take comfort in the traditional Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity in many traditional Catholic prayer books, such as this Act of Hope:

O Lord God,
I hope by your grace for the pardon
of all my sins
and after life here to gain eternal happiness
because you have promised it
who are infinitely powerful, faithful, kind,
and merciful.
In this hope I intend to live and die.
Amen.

As I said at the start of this sermon, what I’ve just shared won’t apply to everyone. But if you find that these kind of prayers are useful to give yourself daily reassurance, then use them as often as you need to!pubenemy

Even if our own feelings don’t drag us down, sooner or later, our bad habits will. We’re less then two weeks from the start of Lent, and to begin Lent well, we need to spend a few days focussing on what we might “give up”. So it’s time to acknowledge that bad habit you’ve been trying so hard not to notice these last few months. Maybe it’s something your husband or wife has been gently nagging you about. Maybe it’s something that makes your children uncomfortable. Whatever it is, you know what it is, because you don’t want to tackle it. You’ve been pushing it to the back of your consciousness. It’s not a big thing – but it’s your thing, and you don’t want to let go.

Jesus said: “CHANGE! And believe the good news.”

I’ve got good news for you. This Lent you can choose to tackle that little thing you’ve been trying to avoid. Be bold! Throw off your chains! Don’t give the Devil his satisfaction!

The Bible today invites us to “correct our brother” when he sins against us. But Jesus also told us to take the log out of our own eye before taking the speck out of anyone else’s. Lent gives us permission to correct our own faults.

So I’d like to invite you to spend the days between now and Ash Wednesday examining your own life, and deciding what your Lenten discipline will be. It might be giving up something – or returning to a diet you’ve let slip. It might be giving up smoking or drinking, whether just for Lent or for good. It might be taking on an extra daily round of prayer, or a weekly stint volunteering in a social project. But pay attention to that small thing you really don’t want to tackle. It’s probably the most important one of the lot.

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.” In that one part of your life where you know, deep down, you are your own worst enemy, show a little love. Even if you don’t feel lovable, be kind to yourself. After all, God loves you – loves you enough to die for you – and God doesn’t make mistakes. And keep on loving yourself, until “love your neighbour as yourself” starts looking like the challenge it’s meant to be!

 

 

Who do you think you are?

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.A tree with six logos as fruit - think-bubble, hand, heart, pound sign, envelope, cross

Who do you think you are?

There’s a television programme by that name, which helps celebrities trace their family trees. This can be a risky business! Olympic rower Matthew Pinsent discovered that he was a descendent of King Edward the First! But consumer rights campaigner Esther Rantzen discovered that her great grandfather became a fugitive, accused of serious fraud!

The good news is that our family tree doesn’t define who we are. In the words of Jesus we hear today, we are told that we are “salt for the earth and light for the world”. If we read further in the New Testament, we find other passages which speak about who we are in Christ.

This is Good News! Jesus wants to give us our identity, our security, and our authority.

Did you stop for a moment as you entered this church to bless yourself with Holy Water? If you did, you reminded yourself that you were baptised “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. By baptism, you were made a member of the Body of Christ and adopted as a son in God’s family – yes ladies, that includes you too! You are the body of Christ and individually members of it (I Cor 12:27): your baptism gives you your identity in Christ.

As members of Christ’s body, we are invited to receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. Just before we come forward for communion, we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We ask for our “daily bread”. But what are we asking for? One meaning is “give us what we need for life today”. Jesus told us not to be anxious about the basics of life because our Heavenly Father knows all our needs (Mt 6:24-34). But the word we translate as “daily” has two meanings in Greek, and St Jerome – who made the first great translation of the Bible into Latin – couldn’t decide which one was meant. In his version of St Matthew’s Gospel he chose the other possible translation – give us today our supernatural bread, the bread which has come down from heaven. We believe that every time we receive Holy Communion, our venial sins are forgiven and we are re-connected to Heaven, receiving the Bread of Life which we must eat to inherit eternal life (Jn 6:36-69). Receiving Holy Communion gives you your security in Christ.

To be a full member of the Catholic Church, you must receive three sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation. Here in the West, we usually wait until the age of about 13 for confirmation. But in Kerala, where it is called the “sacrament of anointing”, it is given to babies when they are baptised. In both East and West, the minister declares that this is a “seal” of the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the ancient word a seal was used in the way we use an identity card or passport today. But it’s not our own identity card – it’s God’s! And when we are sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, God promises us power to be his representative in the church and in the world. It was that power St Paul was writing about in his letter today. Being anointed with Chrism gives you your authority in Christ.

So who do you think you are?

Jesus thinks you are the salt of the earth. You have the power to make the world around you a better place, just as salt can cure meat and grit treacherous paths.

Jesus thinks you are the light of the world. That’s high praise, coming from Him! In St John’s Gospel (8:12) He called Himself the Light of the World, and said that if we followed him, we would make it to Heaven. Wow! That’s a challenge! Jesus says you must be the kind of person that if other people imitate your behaviour, they will go to heaven!

What kind of actions is God looking for? The First Reading instructs us to support the hungry and the poor; we do this through our taxes and through giving to charity, in the form of money or the foodbank and clothesbank we have here. We’ll have an opportunity to help some very special people at the end of today’s Mass, when we take a collection to help handicapped children visit Lourdes this Easter.The Bible suggests that for people who don’t know about Jesus, such good works will be enough to get them to heaven (Rom 2:12-16).

Now, it’s also true that Jesus warned us not to show off our good deeds in front of other people – in fact that’s in the very next chapter of the same Gospel (Mt 6:1). He’s concerned that we don’t get proud about our good deeds. But as long as our motivation isn’t to show off, we’re not to hide our Christian actions either – because otherwise we can’t inspire other people to follow us to heaven.

Is it enough to only do good works to help the poor? NO! You are forgetting your identity in Christ.

We are God’s family. We know the family secret, that to have life to the full, we must receive the Bread of Heaven. The example that God wants us to set for others is the example of being people who come every week to receive our supernatural bread! By doing this, we can help people who follow our example find their security in Christ. Remember, Jesus Himself said that if we do not eat of his flesh we will not have life within us! (Jn 6:53)

So who do you think you are?

If you think you’re a good person who doesn’t know Jesus, being kind to needy people will probably get you into heaven.

But if you’re a Catholic and know you’re a member of God’s family, God expects more of you! You are the salt of the earth! You have your identity, your security and your authority from being a brother or sister of Christ our King! But if you lose your saltiness, look out – even God’s identity card won’t get you through the gates of heaven if you claim to be like Jesus but turn out to be a fraud!

 

The Shadow of Death

A gravestone inscribed "In memory of all innocent victims of abortion"Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A – today the parish hosts the SPUC White Flower Appeal.

Who are the people who dwell in the land of deep shadow?

This reading applies to us. Sadly, for the last 50 years, Great Britain has been a land of great shadow – the shadow of death.

In 1945, our nation celebrated its hard-won freedom from the threat of invasion, but in 1967, Parliament decided to make it legal to destroy a child in the womb up to the 28th week of pregnancy. In 1990 the time-limit was changed to 24 weeks – but no time limit would apply to a child which was seriously handicapped in mind or body.

We’re going to hear a lot about this in 2017, because October marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act. (Embryo research has also been in the news this week.) I’m sure we’re all aware of the official Catholic position that abortion is wrong under all circumstances. We know what we’re supposed to believe. But perhaps no-one has ever talked about why the Church reached that conclusion, or why this is so important that we might seek to impose our point of view on people who don’t share our faith.

When it comes to questions of human life, we can look in three directions. We can look to science, we can look to philosophy, and we can look to God.

Science is good at answering practical questions. We can ask at what age a growing baby can feel pain, or survive outside its mother’s womb. We can ask at what age it becomes impossible for an embryo to split into identical twins, or fuse into a chimera. But what science can’t do is tell us what moral value we should put on these findings.

Philosophy is the art of “thinking about thinking”. We live in a society of thinking human beings who have lots of different opinions, people who follow different religions. A century ago, most of our laws in Britain could be traced back to the Bible. Now, lots of people reject the Bible and our lawmakers instead ask how we make laws that leaves everybody free to do whatever they like, as long as no-one hurts anybody else.

That’s usually a good starting point – as long as we agree what we mean by “anybody else”. American politics has been in the news a lot this week, including reminders of the time in the nineteenth century when to be a “person” meant to be a “white person, not a black slave”. In Nazi Germany, Jews, Gypsies and Slavs were famously labelled as Untermensch, or “subhumans”. I’m not talking about race, today, though – our question is when a baby in the womb starts counting as a “person”.

Science can tell us some interesting facts. At about 14 days, the embryo can no longer split into twins. At 17 days, the first nerves are beginning to grow. We know how to keep a baby alive in an incubator when it’s just over 23 weeks old. But science can’t tell me when I became a person. Am I a person because I can think? Am I a person because I can feel pain? If I’m not an identical twin, did I mysteriously become a person at that moment when I was 14 days old and nothing significant happened?

Does the Bible say anything helpful? There’s a law in the Old Testament that makes it clear that harming someone else’s unborn child is a crime, and Scripture includes many beautiful words about how God “knit us together in our mother’s womb”. Throughout the Bible, we keep hearing that human beings are “made in the image of God”, and Genesis tells us that because we are human, we are “very good”. But there is no explicit teaching in the Bible about when we should start having the rights which belong to a human person, or about when a child in the womb is granted its soul.

We do, of course, recognise that Jesus was God-made-man from the first moment when He was present in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and this was noted by Pope St Gregory the Great (Moralia in Job, Book XVIII, Paragraph 85). And in Matthew chapter 18, verse 5, Jesus calls forward a little child and says “when you welcome a child in my name, you welcome me”. We know, therefore, that there is something “holy” about every human person, however young, and in the absence of a clear reason not to do so, our Popes have consistently taught that every child must be “treated as” a precious human person from the moment of conception.

In today’s second reading, St Paul acknowledges that philosophy on its own can’t lead us to what God wants us to know – we have to heed what God has revealed. The golden rule that Jesus taught us was to treat others the way we wish to be treated ourselves. We can all* trace our identity back to a single-celled embryo which was necessary and sufficient to develop into a mature human being. How would you have wished to be treated when you were a single cell?

We do indeed live in a democratic society where we respect the freedom of other people to make their own decisions. But in a democracy, who speaks for the voiceless? Who decides whether a child in the womb is “another person”?

Yes, of course if we insist that human dignity begins at the moment of conception, this takes away options that some unwilling parents may wish to keep open. But in a democracy, we are all responsible for making decisions on behalf of the voiceless, and we remember that Jesus called on us to welcome children in his name. St John Paul II warned us of the dangers of creating a “Culture of Death” which believes that human life can be treated as disposable. He asked us to create a “Culture of Life” which recognises that every human life is made in God’s image, and by sharing the gift of humanity, every human is “very good”.

So, my dear friends in Christ, we have a choice. We can live in a nation which says that you are valuable because you have a certain ability to think your own thoughts, or carry out useful actions, or survive without support. Or, when we are asked to make decisions on behalf of the voiceless, we can suggest that every human being is precious because of their own humanity. Wouldn’t you like to help create a world where every human being is treated with respect because she, or he, is made in the image of God?

Jesus began his teaching by saying “Repent! God’s Kingdom is at hand!” In the same way we must be a voice which declares: “Change your thinking! Treat every human being as beautiful, precious, and very good!” Choose life! And God’s light will once again shine upon our land.

Bonus material for internet readers:

Why does today’s first reading mention the “Day of Midian”? This was also a day when light triumphed over darkness, Gideon’s army winning an unlikely victory by revealing the light they carried hidden in their jars.

Why did I not mention Matthew’s Last Judgement – where Jesus says “whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me”? At first sight, this seems like an obvious passage. Many scholars, however, argue that because Jesus speaks about “the least of my brothers” he is referring to the way we welcome those who share our Christian faith, not vulnerable humans in general. If becoming a “brother” depends on faith, it can only apply to children able to speak. If a baptised infant can be a “brother”, even then, a child must be born before it can be baptised. But the value which Jesus places on a child in Matthew 18:5 clearly does not depend on the child’s personal faith or religious identity.

Nor do I mention the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. In the Old Testament, there are many situations where the death penalty is prescribed for some crime, or when the people of Israel are led into battle against neighbouring tribes. This makes it clear the Old Testament commandment is understood in a qualified, nuanced way. Even interpreting it as “do not kill the innocent” is difficult when cities are put “under the ban” or in the context of the death of the firstborn children in Egypt before the Exodus. But Jesus started from “thou shalt not kill” and extended it to even expressing rage against one’s brother as a terrible sin to be avoided.

* Above, I state for brevity that our unique identity is settled at our conception. This is not strictly true in the extremely rare and exceptional case of true human chimeras where the final identity is not settled until two embryos fuse. But prior to that fusion, it would have been presumed the separate embryos would develop into two mature human persons, and they should have been treated as such. In the case of identical twins, everything to give identity was indeed present at the single-cell stage, except for the characteristic of being a twin, which was settled at the moment of division.

 

Great Expectations: Volunteer (Leadership)

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Epiphany of the Lord, 2017.

volunteerWould you rather be a King or a Wise Man?

Today’s Gospel reading is not easy to translate into English. The New American Bible says the Christ-child was visited by “magi”, which is just an attempt to pronounce the Greek word in English. Our Jerusalem Bible calls them “wise men”. If you’ve been to any nativity plays in our schools, you’ve probably seen three kings with crowns – but nothing in the Gospel says they were kings, nor says how many visitors came; only that they brought three gifts. All that we know, then, is that a group of star-studying scholars from East of the Holy Land came bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Today, we have gathered to honour Christ in this church, carrying our own gifts – and the gifts I am referring to are the talents and abilities God has given us. Around the church, we have six banners representing our six values as a church, and one of them is to “Volunteer” – to use the gifts God has given us for the benefit of others.

It’s important that some of us volunteer outside the Church community, so that we can do good and show God’s love to the wider world. This makes it particularly appropriate that our “Volunteer” banner is near the exit – but I’ll talk about that another day.

It’s even more important that many of us volunteer for Church activities, because there’s no-one except us who are available to do the work of this church. Now, as we settle into 2017, I will invite all of you who volunteer for any parish role to renew your commitment to serve – as readers, extraordinary ministers of communion, and in the many other parish roles we have – we’ll do that at the end of our bidding prayers.

Today, I’d like to focus on a special kind of gift – the gift of being a leader. How many of you are directly responsible for managing other staff members or volunteers in the place where you work? How many of you are responsible for training colleagues when they start working alongside you? Quite a few – so many of us are comfortable at being leaders in the workplace.

But how many of us are comfortable with leading within the Church community? How many of you lead teams and train people for our parish?

One weakness of the Catholic Church is that we’ve become comfortable with leaving all the power in the hands of the parish priest. But one priest can’t directly manage lots of volunteers. We have many volunteers in this parish. On our parish database we have more than 120 people who have some kind of volunteer role – that’s fantastic, because it’s nearly half of the 300 people who come to Mass here on a typical weekend. But volunteers need leaders. When we have members of the parish who are comfortable leading projects, we become a strong and active parish – when everything gets left to the priest, we are throttled by a bottleneck.

Would you rather be a wise man or a king? Wisdom is a gift that God gives to us for particular circumstances, but all of us who are baptised share in the dignity of Christ the King – and whenever we take on a position of authority, in the Church, in the workplace or in our families, we live out our responsibility to be a king with Christ. It’s not without meaning that today’s psalm shows many kings coming to pay homage to one King, and a King paired with the son of a king.

We are called to be a community of leaders, carrying out the work of Christ our King – and the Gospels leave us in no doubt that God will expect us to make good use of the gifts we’ve been given, including gifts for leadership. In today’s reading from Ephesians, the writer of that letter knows that the gift of God’s grace he received was so he could bless other people. When Isaiah writes of “gifts being brought to Jerusalem”, that too has the poetic meaning of putting our gifts at the service of the Church.

Why is it, then, that so many of us, who have the right gifts to lead in the workplace, are reluctant to take responsibility for leading projects in our church community?

Is it that we’re worried about things going wrong?

Sometimes, bad consequences are unavoidable. Despite all their wisdom, the travellers from the East assumed that King Herod would be an ally to the new-born king. Instead, their visit to Herod caused many innocent children to be massacred. God knew this was unavoidable when He sent the star as a sign, yet He allowed it to happen. We mustn’t let unintended consequences stop us from doing good.

Is it that we feel we don’t know our faith well enough?

If we have professional jobs, it’s likely we’ve done full-time study into our early 20s before being given that level of responsibility, and we also take part in continuing professional training. It’s a fair comment, that we need to know our faith better. But that’s precisely why we’re offering opportunities to explore our faith this year – Alpha starting weekly on Tuesday, and our monthly Connect & Explore groups beginning the following week. I’m very excited about the kind of parish we can become when more of us get ready to be used as leaders!

Is there something in us resisting the invitation?

When I was a student worshipping at a university chaplaincy, it was sometimes my responsibility to organise the procession with bread and wine. I found that when I approached students I didn’t know personally, they were quite likely to politely refuse. But if I asked one of the young women to ask them, they would be much more likely to say yes. I can’t imagine why!

It’s easy to make excuses. In our human brokenness, we want to be asked personally, and we like a bit of positive feedback and encouragement from our leader. But that’s precisely why one priest can’t manage everything that goes on in a parish with 120 volunteers. I can give that support and feedback to a small group of leaders – and those leaders in turn can affirm those on their teams. Please don’t wait to be approached personally – recognise that the parish needs you and accept my invitation now. Prepare to be a parish leader!

Would you rather be a wise man or a king? Because of your baptism, you are already a king under Christ and with Christ. As for wisdom, training for volunteers is on offer. You are invited, and the Lord is expecting you. Is this the right time for you to say yes?