For the Poor!

Homily for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans – World Day of the Poor

Listen!

We can listen with our ears. But we can also listen with our hearts, and we can listen with our eyes.

I’d like to invite you to use your eyes to listen to this prayer.

I wonder what thoughts and feelings that stirred up in you?

Perhaps there are people we don’t really want to accept in our lives, and that makes us feel uncomfortable. They are too demanding, too uncomfortable.

Perhaps we are jarred by the line which addresses God as “Mother”. To be sure, Jesus reserved the name “Father” for God and the best way to understand God, is as the best possible Father. But God is beyond gender, and uncomfortable words teach us something. Rembrandt painted the father of the prodigal son with one motherly hand, and even Jesus compared himself to a brooding mother hen!

The world around us seems full of injustice. The news in recent years has been full of stories of migrants from poor countries reaching rich nations, or dying in the attempt. In our own nation, too, there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Just this week, a UN inspector has criticised Britain for not doing enough to address poverty, and the Government’s plans for Universal Credit, which started as a good idea to reward work, have suffered from both cuts in funding and practical difficulties in making the system work well for vulnerable citizens.

In the face of such injustice, our hearts cry out: “Why doesn’t God do something?”

Strangely, today’s readings are partly about God not doing something. If you listen carefully to the Books of Daniel and the Apocalypse, you will hear that God will allow a time of distress to come upon the world before God’s faithful people are rescued. Even so, the saints in heaven, who have faced torture and persecution because of their faithfulness to God, are the ones loudest in singing God’s praises!

Crystal McVea was a woman who had every reason to hate God. She was abused as a child, and although she turned to God for help, and chose to be baptised at the age of nine, her suffering did not end. The emotional wounds of what she had been through continued to scar her teenage years. Later, her six-year-old son suffered severe brain damage because of a traffic accident. Aged 33, Crystal herself was taken into hospital with pancreatitis – and during treatment she was clinically dead for nine minutes.

Now, I’m always cautious about claims of “near death experiences” as proof of anything about God or heaven, but Crystal’s story is truly remarkable. You would have expected her to blame God or ask all the obvious “why” questions. That’s what she expected of herself. But that’s not what happened. As soon as she became aware of the loving presence she identified as “God”, her instinctive reaction was to fall down and worship. The expected questions, “Why didn’t you love me? Why did you let this happen?” melted away, and only one question remained: “Why didn’t I do more for You?” Her life was changed and her love for God was immeasurably deepened!

We are faced with two brutal facts. One is that there is suffering in this world. The other is that we claim “God is love”. So either we are wrong about God, or somehow, that perfect love exists alongside our broken world. Although Jesus worked a few miracles which helped people immediately, his mission was to teach us to give generously. Miracles may happen in answer to prayer, but God is not going to fix all the world’s problems from above. Rather, God has entrusted that work to us.

Listen! Pope Francis has designated today as the World Day of the Poor. His aspiration is that every parish should put on a meal this weekend where we can sit down at table with members of our local community who could never return the favour. We are not yet organised enough as a parish to do this, but today we will acknowledge what we can do. We do collect gifts of food for the foodbank – today you can bring them up personally as part of our collection. We do collect clothes for asylum seekers and refugees living in Cardiff – a bag of such clothes will form part of our collection today. We do have a small “Listening Group”, whose role is to listen to the needs of the local community – first from the volunteers who get involved, but later by going out into the community to meet people. Could you be one of our listeners?

Today’s Letter to the Hebrews starts with an image of the Jewish priests offering daily animal sacrifices, but explains this is no longer needed because Jesus died for all of us. Even so, as Christians, we are called to make a daily sacrifice. Not one of animals, but one of our own time, treasure and talent. The needs of the poor call us to make a daily gift of ourselves to the people we meet. And in our procession of gifts today, our worship of God is entwined with our gifts for the poor. The two cannot be separated. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI once said that “love for the poor is liturgy”.

God will do something about it. He will do something in you and through you. Elaine, who leads our Listening Group, has asked that we should say this prayer together which reminds us of our own responsibility. So let’s pray it, and listen!

Christ has no body but mine,
No hands, no feet on earth but mine.
Mine are the eyes with which he looks,
Compassion on this world.
Mine are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Mine are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Mine are the hands, mine are the feet.
Mine are the eyes, mine is his body,
Christ has no body now but mine,
No hands, no feet on earth but mine,
Mine are the eyes with which he looks
With compassion on this world.

Christ has no body on earth but mine.


The words of the prayer above are derived from a text often attributed to St Teresa of Avila but in fact more likely to be the work of Mark Pearse and Sarah Elizabeth Rowntree. They must be understood poetically; Christ is of course present in the Blessed Sacrament on earth, but in this form he does not physically go out to minister to the poor.

Acknowledgement: I first read the story of Crystal McVea in Imagine Heaven.

For the Love of God!

Homily for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans 

Have you ever fallen in love?

When I was an undergraduate, there was a student who stole my heart. One day (these were the days before mobile phones), I went to her room, and there was a note on the door – “I am in the Library – come and rescue me!” So I hastened to the Library and declared “Rescue is at hand!” – only to be glared at and shushed by the dozen readers close enough to hear my enthusiastic whisper!

When you’re in love, you’ll do all sorts of things for your beloved. Needless to say, I didn’t marry the young lady in question – she married someone else, but we still keep in touch to this day.

Some of you not only fell in love, but did get married. That means you have done a very strange thing. You have stood up in public, and a minister has asked you whether you have ‘resolved to love’ your spouse. A few minutes later you addressed your spouse and said ‘I take you to love and to cherish’.

What kind of ‘love’ is being promised here? Clearly it’s not the kind that propels you to do great deeds whatever the consequences. We know from experience that a few years into a relationship, those strong feelings of passion die down to something less ardent. But while we can’t conjure up strong feelings, we CAN make a decision of the will to communicate to the most significant person in our life that we still care about them. When the Bible uses the word we read as ‘love’ it is using the Hebrew word ‘hesed’ or the Greek ‘agapé’, words that are hard to translate with their full meaning. Imagine a person going to the same lengths to help a stranger as if that person were their own son or daughter – that’s hesed! Imagine the committment made by a volunteer who goes halfway round the world to treat the wounded in a war-zone – that’s agapé!

Now, please take a moment to think of the kindest things you have ever done to help people in need… OK? Now what if you didn’t believe in God? Would you still have done those kind things? Yes? Would a good person do things like that even if they didn’t know there was a God who loved them? Yes? The kind of things you are thinking of are examples of the Second Great Commandment: love your neighbour as yourself.

That’s great… but that means we’ve only covered the second most important thing Jesus asked us to do. And if you only ever remember one thing I preach from the five years I’ve been with you, remember what I ask next: Which things do you do in your life because you believe in God, things that wouldn’t make sense if God didn’t exist? It’s the answers to that question which show how you are fulfilling the First Great Commandment, to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

Some of us will understand what the Jesuit Gerard Hughes meant when he described a child visiting ‘Good Old Uncle George’. This Uncle lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. Uncle George says ‘I want to see you here every week, and if you don’t come, let me just show you what will happen to you!’ He takes you to the basement, opens a door, and down below you see demons torturing souls in Hell! He then takes you upstairs so Mum and Dad can take you home. Mum leans over us and says, ‘Don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’ And you tell the biggest life of your life, ‘Yes, I do,’ because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace. Who could love a God like Uncle George?

Doing religious things out of fear for God is not wrong, but it’s not love. The catch is, you can’t obey the command to love God until you’ve first fallen in love with God. The command is like the promise a husband or wife makes to keep on expressing love even when the passion has died down – we can only joyfully accept the command to love God when it’s an echo of passion we’ve already felt for Him! Once you have fallen in love with God, you will want to come to Mass, pray at home, keep Sundays special and give generously to the work of the church.

Jesus was asked to give us a rule for life. The Hebrew Bible contained 613 commandments; Moses famously gave 10 commandments. Jesus knew we couldn’t all take on board long lists of rules, so he made it as simple as possible – but even he couldn’t boil it down to just one. Like the Cross itself, our rule of Christian living has two dimensions – the horizontal, love of neighbour, reaching out into the world around us; and the vertical, stretching from earth to heaven, reaching out to the Father who dwells in heaven above. Jesus can only command us to love His Father if we have already seen the love, beauty and goodness of the Father reflected in Christ. The command is not to kiss a loathesome Uncle George, but to rekindle the passion of the first moment when we knew the depths of the Father’s love for us.

Have you ever fallen in love? If it’s with the person you’re married to, rejoice – and remember to tell them how much you love them tonight. If it’s with God, rejoice – it will be easy for you to fulfil Christ’s command! But if you haven’t yet fallen in love with God, let me offer you a simple prayer to say tonight: “Jesus, show me the Father.” And if you want to see the Father, find him reflected in the face of Jesus. I pray you will fall in love very soon.

You can also read Revd Lucy Winkett’s reflections on Uncle George.

Time to Serve

Homily for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans.

Have you ever known you’ve needed to be challenged beyond your comfort zone?

Great athletes know they need coaches. Without a coach to hold them to their disciplines, they might not get up so early or so often to train in the early morning, nor keep going until they’ve exceeded their personal best.

The young man in today’s Gospel knew he needed spiritual coaching. He was already a spiritual athlete, in the premier league of those who kept God’s Law. But he sensed he was called to more. Jesus threw down a challenge, to step out of his comfort zone and place his total trust in God. On this day, he wasn’t ready… and the Bible doesn’t show us what he did later, so we can only imagine whether his was a story of eternal regret or eventual surrender.

We, too, are running the race to which Christ calls us. We don’t need too much prompting to help our friends and love our families. We only need a little push, as with last weekend’s CAFOD appeal, to help people who are innocent victims of global circumstances – such as those made homeless and hungry by the Indonesian earthquake. But the challenge of following Christ does not stop there. “Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you.” Today, Christians across the UK mark Prisoners’ Sunday. 

Not all of those in British jails are guilty of any crime. Someone suspected can be jailed on remand, pending trial. More than a quarter of all prisoners do not serve time – because they are released without charge, found “Not Guilty”, or given a non-custodial sentence. We also imprison those sectioned under the Mental Health Act and foreigners whose only crime is to breach our rules about who can enter or stay in Britain.

There are, then, some innocent victims of justice. But nearly three quarters of our prison population are there because they have been found guilty of some serious criminal act. Today, Christ offers us a challenge as taxing as the one given to the young man: will you love me, hidden in those now in prison? When he painted his picture of the Last Judgment, he said, “I was a prisoner and you did – or did not – visit me. What you did to them, you did to me.”

If you’ve ever driven into Cardiff from Atlantic Wharf, you’ll have seen Cardiff Gaol right in front of you. Right now, there are about 800 prisoners in HMP Cardiff. We might be tempted to think “good riddance” – but every prisoner is a human being made in the image of God and loved by Jesus Christ. It’s only right to ask if there’s something we can do to support them.

Maybe one or two of us will be called to become prison visitors, either as part of the official monitoring process which ensures high standards, or through the Chaplaincy which supports Catholic prisoners.

If you’re the kind of person who eats out regularly in Cardiff, you could book a meal at The Clink, the prison restaraunt which trains inmates with skills which will help them get a job on release.

This year Archbishop George has asked us to support the care of prisoners financially if possible. I am conscious that with CAFOD last week and World Mission Sunday next week, this could become an expensive month, so I will not ask for a collection today, but on 3/4 November – this will support the work of the Prison Advice & Care Trust.

Finally, there is one thing we can all do: pray. I’m going to pass round a prayer leaflet with a short prayer for each day of the coming week. If you come to weekday Mass in St Philip Evans, we’ll pray it together at the end of Mass. But you can also use it at home.

I know many of us won’t be enthusiastic about praying for prisoners. Something inside us will cry out – “they brought it on themselves”. So if anyone here today has never committed a sin, feel free to sit this one out. But for those of us who can say “Christ died for me even though I was a sinner” then I, as your spiritual coach, offer you this challenge: give one minute each day this coming week to pray for prisoners, especially those in HMP Cardiff – and if, like today’s Young Man, you feel called to do more – speak to me afterwards.

For The Planet

Homily for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans.

Oh no! Pope Francis just made a statement about caring for the environment!

That was the reaction of someone I’m connected to on Facebook. Surely saving the planet won’t get us to heaven? Why is the Pope bothering with stuff like that?

Well, my contact was right. Saving our planet won’t automatically save your soul. But we’ve only got one planet, and our well-being is interconnected. St James spells out clearly this week that if we truly have faith in God, that faith must pour forth in actions which show that we care for our neighbours. Pope Francis says, rightly (see #217), that caring for our planet is not an optional extra or a second-rate duty for us. It’s a measure of our love.

Oh no! Pope Francis just made a statement about caring for the environment!

OK, so perhaps the environment is something that popes should be talking about. But why is he talking about this now, when the Church is facing so many other problems? It’s not surprising really. For many years, the Eastern Orthodox churches have focussed on these issues around September 1st, and three years ago Pope Francis pledged the Catholic Church to mark the same date. So we should always expect the Pope to say something about green issues at this time of year.

Oh no! Pope Francis has just made a statement about the way we should care for the environment!

Oh yes! This means it’s time to take a fresh look at the way we care for our common home, Planet Earth.

I know it’s easy to become cyncial about the things we might do, and ask whether they really make a difference. Here in Cardiff, we have to put out our waste in green bags and food caddies. But we often hear rumours that our carefully separated waste ends up in landfill anyway. Is this true? The Council says that the contents of the green recycling bags are “separated and sent on to different recycling factories for paper, plastics, glass etc”. This is true, but according to the Western Mail, some of the “sending on” takes the waste to countries as far away as China and Indonesia – 11 thousand tonnes of paper waste went to China – and there some of it may not be recycled but could be dumped with other waste.

So there’s room for improvement, but our food waste is being compsted and much metal, plastic and paper waste is being recycled. Of course, the system won’t work at all unless we sort our waste properly at home. Cardiff’s current recycling and composting rate is 60 per cent – which means we’re doing better than all nine comparable cities in England and Scotland! But we can’t rest there. The council needs to recycle another 20,000 tonnes of the city’s waste by 2025 to meet an all-Wales 70% target. One big problem is that broken glass damages the machines used to separate metal, plastic and card, so we will soon get blue wheelie bins for glass. Rather than groaning at “another thing to do”, let’s embrace this as a positive act of love for humanity and the planet. And if any of us aren’t sorting our waste properly, the Council and the Pope would both like you to start doing so now!

What else can we do? On Friday I rang a few people to ask if there was just one thing they’d recommend you do to make a difference, what would it be?

Friends of the Earth replied: “That’s a wonderful question, and I’m glad you asked it today, because it’s plastic-free Friday!” Could you go one day a week without using disposable plastic – no straws, cups, cling-film or bottled water?

The Cardiff office of Christian Aid also suggested reducing plastic – or else switching to a green energy provider. Our parish is already part of a national consortium of Catholic organisations buying electricity and gas from renewable suppliers. We all have power bills to pay, and by choosing suppliers who are building turbines and solar panels, we can drive investment in the right kind of energy. Yes, I recognise that might make our bills a little more expensive – but we can also do things to save energy, and therefore save money. You can get advice on free energy-saving measures from an all-Wales organisation called Nest.

Evangelical charity Tear Fund suggested we could eat less meat. (They have other suggestions online, too.)

But the most challenging suggestion came from the local office of CAFOD. “Buy less, and use less! Don’t consume more than your fair share! Aspire not to have more, but to be more!”

Now, it’s not always easy to work out what our fair share us. But perhaps we can start by asking “how much is more than we need?” Do we need to put so much water in the kettle before we boil it? Do we buy more food that we can use before its expiry date? Can we freeze half a loaf, rather than wait for the last slices to go mouldy? And when we do need to spend money, every puchase is a vote for the kind of world we want. If we can afford the premium, can we pay extra for goods which are fairly traded or kinder on the environment?

Sometimes the right answer is not to buy something at all. If we want something with a designer label or simply for the sake of having it, have we made a good choice? Do we need the latest technology, or can we use an older model for a couple more years? Even if we’re not ready to totally give up eating meat or flying on holidays, every time we choose an alternative is a step in the right direction.

None of us can save the planet on our own – but together we can take small steps. Jesus challenges us to carry our cross every day, even though we are far from the end of our journey. We might feel daunted and ask, “Can I really make a difference?” Yes! Every positive decision matters to God and will be noticed in heaven. So make one positive decision today, and carry your green cross home.


You can make a personal green pledge at LiveLaudatoSi.org!

The Bishops of England and Wales invite you to consider Our Common Home.

Ephphatha! Be open! (Sunday edition)

Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans (Sunday morning Signed Mass, and anticipating Home Mission Sunday 2018).

“Ephphatha!”

That’s not a word you hear every day.

The Gospels are written in Greek, but Our Lord Jesus spoke Aramaic, and sometimes one of the words he spoke was so powerful, that the Gospel writers wrote down exactly what he said. The disciples who were with him on that day must have sensed God’s power flowing through him strongly at that moment – and a man who had a lifelong impediment of hearing and speech suddenly spoke and heard clearly!

And now he has a voice, what’s the first thing Jesus asks him to do?

“Don’t tell anyone about me!”

Can you imagine having experienced such a mighty miracle, knowing that everyone will want to know the story of how you found your voice, and then not being allowed to talk about it? Ouch!

But we’re told that people ignored Jesus’ request and talked about him anyway.

Any story of healing is a challenge when we experience of lack of wholeness. This week, thousands of Deaf Catholics from around the world are gathering in Lourdes for an international pilgrimage. There are well over 100 recognised miracles of healing from Lourdes – but countless thousands of pilgrims who return without the physical healing they have hoped and prayed for. If God has the power to heal, why do we experience it so rarely? Perhaps God grants miracles especially where they will help people see that a bigger issue is at stake – so this man who cannot hear or speak is a sign to us that there are people who cannot hear who Jesus us or speak of him to others.

During his life on earth, Jesus was keen not to become too famous too quickly. Otherwise he might have been arrested before he had finished his work of preaching and healing. But once he rose from the dead – and try keeping that a secret! – things changed. Before he ascended into heaven, he told his friends and followers to go into the world and spread the good news.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is completing a journey through pagan lands. The people there don’t know about the God of the Bible. Some don’t believe in any god – others believe in various Greek or Roman gods. It’s rather like Britain today, where not so many people are Christian any more. We are called to talk about Jesus in a land which knows little about him!

If you need somewhere to start, I’m going to give you two easy lines. Perhaps you can repeat them after me:

Jesus was executed but rose from the dead. (Controversial, but why did were so many of his friends willing to die for insisting this was true?)

Following Jesus will lead you to Heaven.

There’s much more that can be said – the whole Bible is a love story about God reaching out to the human race. And by healing this man who cannot hear or speak, Jesus isn’t just curing one person, he is sending us a message. “O people of the world, can you hear what God wants to say to you? Are you able to pass on his good news to others?”

“Ephphatha! Be opened!”

Open your eyes! See that Jesus is present in our world. He is there whenever Christians gather in his name, but especially when the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are present. This weekend, thousands our of brothers and sisters are gathered in Liverpool, for a great celebration of our faith in Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament. To mark this “Adoremus” festival, you are all invited to gather with Jesus on Thursday evening to pray for this parish – before Mass next Saturday, to pray for priests – and on the last Wednesday of this month, to pray for protection of human life in the womb. We also have many opportunities during the week for private prayer in our chapel. So I’d like to invite everyone who doesn’t normally visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to come for one hour some time this month – and parents and godparents, please bring your children.

Open your lips! We’re too good at keeping Our Lord’s instruction today – “Don’t tell anyone about me!” We no longer live at a time when Jesus is in mortal danger; now we live under his command to tell the world. That’s why, next month, we’re starting our Discovering Christ course. Only by coming together in church groups where we can talk about Jesus and learn more about him, can we become comfortable sharing this message which people who aren’t church people. There’ll be more about Discovering Christ at the end of today’s Mass.

Open your hearts! Do you love Jesus? Have you experienced his love for you? Have you heard his gentle voice saying that you are his beloved brother or sister, and he wants to walk with you in good times and in bad? Only those who are open to his love can share it with others, but sometimes, through fear or doubt, our hearts are closed.

“Ephphatha! Be opened!” A long time ago, God’s power flowed through Jesus and loosened the tongue of a man who could not speak. Today, God’s power will pour out upon this altar to nourish us anew with the Body of Christ. One day soon, each of us will open our ears to what Jesus is asking us to do and our lips to flow with his praise. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Open your lips! Open your hearts! Ephphatha! In Jesus name, be open!

Ephphatha! Be open!

Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans (Saturday evening Mass, with baptisms, and anticipating Home Mission Sunday 2018).

“Ephphatha!”

That’s not a word you hear every day.

The Gospels are written in Greek, but Our Lord Jesus spoke Aramaic, and sometimes one of the words he spoke was so powerful, that the Gospel writers wrote down exactly what he said. The disciples who were with him on that day must have sensed God’s power flowing through him strongly at that moment – and a man who had a lifelong impediment of hearing and speech suddenly spoke and heard clearly!

And now he has a voice, what’s the first thing Jesus asks him to do?

“Don’t tell anyone about me!”

Can you imagine having experienced such a mighty miracle, knowing that everyone will want to know the story of how you found your voice, and then not being allowed to talk about it? Ouch!

But we’re told that people ignored Jesus’ request and talked about him anyway.

During his life on earth, Jesus was keen not to become too famous too quickly. Otherwise he might have been arrested before he had finished his work of preaching and healing. But once he rose from the dead – and try keeping that a secret! – things changed. Before he ascended into heaven, he told his friends and followers to go into the world and spread the good news.

Every Christian is called to be a bearer of the good news. That’s why, as soon as these two children are baptised this evening, I will carry out the “Rite of Ephphatha”. Just as Jesus did in the Gospels, I will touch their ears and their lips, and commission them to hear God’s commands and tell the world about Jesus.

Godparents, that’s where you come in.

How many of you here this evening are godparents to at least one person?

Your highest responsibility is, by your words and example, to teach your godchildren to talk about Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is completing a journey through pagan lands. The people there don’t know about the God of the Bible. Some don’t believe in any god – others believe in various Greek or Roman gods. It’s rather like Britain today, where not so many people are Christian any more. Your godchildren are called to talk about Jesus in a land which knows little about him!

If you need somewhere to start, I’m going to give you two easy lines. Perhaps you can repeat them after me:

Jesus died to save you from Hell.

Following Jesus will lead you to Heaven.

There’s much more that can be said – the whole Bible is a love story about God reaching out to the human race. And by healing this man who cannot hear or speak, Jesus isn’t just curing one person, he is sending us a message. “O people of the world, can you hear what God wants to say to you? Are you able to pass on his good news to others?”

“Ephphatha! Be opened!”

Open your eyes! See that Jesus is present in our world. He is there whenever Christians gather in his name, but especially when the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are present. This weekend, thousands our of brothers and sisters are gathered in Liverpool, for a great celebration of our faith in Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament. To mark this “Adoremus” festival, you are all invited to gather with Jesus on Thursday evening to pray for this parish – before Mass next Saturday, to pray for priests – and on the last Wednesday of this month, to pray for protection of human life in the womb. We also have many opportunities during the week for private prayer in our chapel. So I’d like to to invite everyone who doesn’t normally visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to come for one hour some time this month – and parents and godparents, please bring your children.

Open your lips! We’re too good at keeping Our Lord’s instruction today – “Don’t tell anyone about me!” We no longer live in a time when Jesus is in mortal danger; now we live under his command to tell the world. That’s why, next month, we’re starting our Discovering Christ course. Only by coming together in church groups where we can talk about Jesus and learn more about him, can we become comfortable sharing this message which people who aren’t church people. There’ll be more about Discovering Christ at the end of today’s Mass.

Open your hearts! Do you love Jesus? Have you experienced his love for you? Have you heard his gentle voice saying that you are his beloved brother or sister, and he wants to walk with you in good times and in bad? Only those who are open to his love can share it with others, but sometimes, through fear or doubt, our hearts are closed.

“Ephphatha! Be opened!” A long time ago, God’s power flowed through Jesus and loosened the tongue of a man who could not speak. Today, God’s power will open the fountain of baptism and join two children to the Body of Christ. One day soon, each of us will open our ears to what Jesus is asking us to do and our lips to flow with his praise. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Open your lips! Open your hearts! Ephphatha! In Jesus name, be open!

Impure, Spoilt Religion

Homily for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans.

Today I’d like to start with a story. In a school run by nuns, the children were queuing up for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. One of the nuns had left a note next to the pile: “Take only ONE. God is watching.”

At the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. There was also a note here, written by one of the children. “Take all you want. God is watching the apples.”

When you heard today’s Gospel, you realised that Jesus was keeping an eye on the Pharisees – but he’s big enough to keep an eye on you, too! He caught the Pharisees in impure religion – emphasising minor things but missing the point of what God wants them to do. Jesus taught his apostles how to keep the key things at the centre, so it’s not surprising our letter today has St James writing to us about “pure, unspoiled religion.”

That got me thinking. What kind of things can spoil our “religion” today?

One trap we can fall into, is paying minute attention to ritual and traditions. After the Second Vatican Council, 50 years ago, the way we celebrate Mass was reformed. The most obvious change was allowing Mass to be said in modern languages – but even if the “new Mass” is celebrated in Latin, it’s very streamlined compared to what we had before. This was a big change – Mass as celebrated in Latin in 1950 was not very different from what would have been celebrated in 1650, and would have even looked similar to what was being celebrated in Rome a thousand years earlier. We know that the way of celebrating Mass evolved greatly in the first four centuries of Christianity, but for some Catholics, adjusting something that has been fixed by Popes for hundreds of years challenged their sense of identity. This was a big reason – though not the only reason – that groups like the Society of St Pius X broke away from the leadership of the Pope.

There’s nothing new about rules about rituals. Some rabbis estimate that the Law of Moses contained 613 laws about things Jews must or must not do – and many of these concerned rituals. Most of those laws no longer apply to us as Christians. And our bishops have not added many “religious” rules that we have to follow as Catholics. We are asked to fast for an hour before communion, to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, to abstain from meat on every Friday, to attend Mass on Sundays and on six extra Holy Days each year, to go to confession and receive communion at least once a year, and to receive the Church’s blessing when we get married. That’s closer to six laws than to six hundred!

Of course, some of us really don’t like having to accept any rules made by other human beings, even if they are church leaders, so let’s remember that all of these little rules are there to help us get better at loving Jesus. We choose to fast or abstain from meat on certain days when we say, “Lord, I thank you for dying for me.” We fast before communion in order to say, “Jesus, I am going to wait for you before I taste common food, because you are my priority”. We come to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days – unless we are sick or the conditions are unsafe – to reaffirm that Jesus is the most important priority in our lives.

But is he?

This brings us to the other trap – the trap of agreeing with Jesus rather than following him.

You often hear the passage from James summed up as “True religion is helping widows and orphans!”

This is true, but – like the message that God’s got his eye on the apples – it’s not the whole truth! Most of us have good hearts and naturally care about other people. You don’t have to have a religion to be a humanitarian – lots of people care about people! Millions of people who call themselves Christians have a religion that works like this: “I care about people. Jesus cared about people too! I agree with Jesus – so I must be a Christian. Perhaps some of us here today, who have grown up in Catholic families, are very comfortable with the caring side of the Church’s work.”

Caring about people is important. Next week we’ll hear St James say that you don’t really have a Christian faith if you aren’t motivated to help people in need. But it doesn’t work the other way round – you can be highly motivated to help people, but not be a follower of Jesus.

“True religion is helping widows and orphans!” – but keep going! James hasn’t finished yet! Pure unspoilt religion is also “keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world”. A few verses earlier, he wrote “Do what God’s Word tells you, don’t just listen to it.” So true religion is also focused on keeping the teachings of Jesus and not allowing ourselves to be influenced by the values of the world around us. Any good person will agree with Jesus when he tells us to love our neighbour. But it takes a follower of Jesus to disagree with the rest of the world!

So as we begin our new cycle of activities, here are some questions:

  • How are you doing at loving your enemies?
  • How are you doing at forgiving the person who offends you most?
  • How are you doing at praying to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit every day?
  • How are you doing at keeping the fasts and feasts of the church?

Our religion is about two things: loving God and loving our neighbour. Either on its own is not enough. Our Lord had to give us two commandments, not one, to sum up everything… and the child with the cookies would have needed a larger piece of paper:

God is watching both the apples and the cookies. Please help yourself, leave enough for other people, and share what you have with those in need. Don’t forget to thank him for the food!