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?

The Great Christmas “Sake Of”

Homily at St Philip Evans for Christmas Day 2016.

2016 has been a year marked by big decisions, ones which will shape our future for years to come. I’m sure that this Christmas, many of you are deeply unsettled by one particular leap into the unknown that we’re about to take.

Am I talking about a new American president? No, that’s an ocean away.

Am I talking about Brexit? No, that’s a couple of years off at least, and I don’t want to talk politics today.

What I’m referring to, of course, is the Great British Bake-Off. After the two Christmas Specials, Bake-Off will leave the BBC for good. When it arrives on Channel 4, it will be the same, only different. Who knows what it will be like then?

There’s something very homely about Bake-Off. It’s about ordinary people gathering in a tent, somewhere out-of-the-way, and doing the everyday activity of working in a kitchen. The series winner gets lots of fame, but only a small prize – it’s as much about the taking part as the winning. And I think that makes Bake-Off very Christmassy indeed!

So come with me for a moment to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, a homely tale of a tent pitched in a place where people gather, a story which begins with a bun in the oven and ends in the House of Bread.

gcso-t

What we’re honouring by coming to Church today is the birth of a child. Greek scholars will tell you that when the Bible says Jesus lived among us, the literal wording says “The Word become flesh and pitched his tent among us.” This tent was not planted in an idyllic country estate, but in the turmoil of the Middle East, under a vast empire controlled from Rome.

What we’re celebrating is not just the birth of a baby. All babies are special. This one was divine. Nine months ago, on the Feast of the Annunciation, the church celebrated the day when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to a young maiden and asked her to become the mother of God. For nine months, the Virgin Mary kept him safe in her womb – there’s an ancient French carol which imagines Mary as a “bakerwoman” who received a grain to bake into golden bread. When we see Christian art, how do we know that a woman is Mary? Often, it’s because she’s holding the Christ-child. You could say that was her “signature bake”.

In ancient Israel, they had a strange custom about bread. Every week, twelve flat loaves were baked and placed on a special table in the Jewish Temple – it was called the “Bread of the Lord’s Presence”. At the end of the week, the priests ate the bread and put fresh loaves on the table. Normally it was kept hidden in the Holy Place where only the priests could see it, but three times a year, on major Jewish holidays, they brought out the bread and showed it to the people. When they did this, the priests cried out: “Behold, God’s love for you!” For the Jewish people, seeing this holy bread was as close as you could come on earth to seeing God’s face.

When did those three festivals take place? They were all festivals of thanksgiving. The Passover marked the first fruits of the harvest and the memory of the Hebrews being rescued from slavery in Egypt; that became our Easter. Seven weeks later, more crops would be harvested; that became our Pentecost. The third took place in late September, and the Jewish people would live in tents or booths for a few days, remembering how they were wanderers in the desert. We don’t have an equivalent Christian festival in September – we are celebrating Christmas now, in December. But we have no reason to believe Jesus was born on December 25th – the Church took over an old Roman festival of daylight triumphing over darkness in winter. Rather, the scholars tell us that the time of year when shepherds would be watching their flocks by night was late September. It was close to when the Jewish people were keeping their festival of booths that we saw the Word become flesh and pitch his tent among us!

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Hebrew name “Bethlehem” means the house of bread. The shepherds came and found baby Jesus lying in a manger. But what’s a manger? The name comes from the French manger, meaning “to eat”. It’s a trough for food. So here’s the story so far: God becomes a small baby, is born in “the house of bread” and is placed in a food trough. This same baby would grow into a man, a religious teacher and healer, who would say “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” All very mysterious! But then, the night before he was taken to be executed, he gave us his showstopper! He blessed bread and wine and told his friends, “This is my Body and Blood. Take it, eat it, drink it. Remember!”

In a few moments, I will use the following words to lead into the consecration of bread and wine on this altar:

For in the mystery of the Word made flesh, a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that as we recognise in him God made visible, we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible.

A “mystery” means something with a deep meaning we can ponder deeply, just as Mary pondered the message that angels had appeared in the sky singing songs of glory before the shepherds came. 3000 years ago, God-the-Father established a rule that there should be “bread of God’s presence” in the Temple. 2000 years ago, God-the-Son was born in the house of bread and asked us to eat and drink his body and blood. This Christmas, I would like to offer you an invitation to enter deeply into this mystery.

In these few minutes, I don’t have time to address some really deep questions. Who is Jesus? Why did he die? How does God guide us? How can I resist evil? How can I make the most of my life? These questions are worth exploring, and these are some of the topics in our parish Alpha Course which begins on January 10th, and runs on Tuesday evenings until Easter. There’s an invitation to Alpha in your order of service.

Yes, we live in a time of great upheaval. Great things beyond our control will change in the world of politics. The Great British Bake-Off will be reinvented by Channel 4. Some will love it, some will hate it. God will not prevent us from experiencing change and uncertainty. But there is one thing that God does offer us – God wants to be with us. In a moment, we will say the Creed, the summary of what all Christians believe, and because it is Christmas, we will pause and kneel down when we hear that God became a human being. But why? It’s what happens next that’s the key. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate” – for our sake. This is God’s love for you. This is the “Great Christmas Sake-Of” – baby Jesus was born to die for your sake. To find out why, I invite you to try Alpha!

Thanks to Alan de Ste Croix for a copy of Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist which partially inspired this sermon.

 

 

Great Expectations: Worship

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

worship

There’s a person in prison for what he believes. His name is John.

What were the beliefs that landed him in prison?

He believes that God is real. He believes that God expects people to behave in a certain way. He had preached a simple message: God is coming soon. You can be friends with God – but you have to change. You have to live your life God’s way.

For King Herod, living by God’s law would have meant separating from the woman he called his wife. That’s why the king had put John in prison.

John is worried. He’s gambled his whole life on his belief that God is coming soon. Now he’s in prison and may soon be executed. Has his gamble paid off?

In his prison, he’s asking the same questions we’re all likely to ask in times of stress. “What can I do when life gets hard? Where is God in all of this?”

The answer John finds is rather unique. He knows that the prophet Isaiah said that when the blind and the lame were healed, it would be a sign that God himself is coming. Now he’s heard rumours that his own cousin, Jesus, is healing people. And more than that, Jesus sends back a message “I am giving Good News to the poor – don’t lose faith in me!”
But do we have faith in Jesus?

For many of us, something inside us resists seeing who Jesus really is.

If Jesus were really our Teacher and Judge, we would have to put aside our own ideas about right and wrong, and find out what Jesus thinks.

If Jesus really wants us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, then we have to adjust our plans for sports, hobbies and socialising to make room for him.

If Jesus really loved me, I would have to look again at that big negative image of myself I secretly think is the real me. If Jesus sees good in me, I can’t be so bad really!

Jesus had a way of asking difficult questions. “Why were you so interested in John the Baptist?” he said to the crowd around him. If he were here today, he might say, “What are you doing at Mass on a Sunday morning? Are you jumping through hoops so your children can have First Communion? Have you come out of a sense of ‘habit’, because it feels as comfortable as an old sweater, or because your friends are here? Or do you really believe that when you attend Mass, you’re taking part in the one thing which delights the God who created you more than any other human activity?”

 

This morning, I wanted to give you a really good reason why you should worship God. In fact, our word-of-the-week is “Worship”.

I could tell you that when you’re in love, it’s natural to say affectionate things to the person you love. But perhaps you haven’t fallen in love with God yet.

I could tell you that if you could only sense how awesome God is, you would instinctively bow down and adore. But if you can sense that, I won’t need to explain.

I could tell you that my main reason for worshipping God is that Jesus said “Do this in memory of me”, and I made a decision when I was 19 years old that I was going to do what Jesus asked me for the rest of my life. But if you haven’t already decided to follow Jesus, that won’t help you at all.

In fact, I’ve reached a stark conclusion.

There is NOTHING I can say in this sermon which will make you believe in Jesus, if you don’t already have faith.

I can only promise you that if God gives you the gift of faith, he will help you to deal with all the obstacles that seem scary when you don’t have faith.

Only God can give the gift of faith. When I was 11 years old, I prayed – not because I was curious, but because I was hurting and needed to know the answer – “God, if you are real, show me.”

God did.

That’s why I became a Catholic.

That’s when I realised that there was nothing I could do on any weekend which was more important than coming to take part in Mass and receive Holy Communion.

You could ask God too, show you whether he’s really there.

Don’t be afraid.

 

Some of you have been given the gift of faith. Some of you are confident that when you receive Holy Communion, it is Jesus himself who nourishes you in body and soul. I have a challenge for you, too. My challenge is to go deeper. Every weekday in school time, we have a time of adoration. We place the body of Jesus on the altar in the Prayer Room. Members of our Indian community have a rota, so that Jesus is never left alone. Often they come as families and spend hours singing hymns and offering prayers.

What about our wider community? I’d like to challenge the rest of us to take adoration seriously. I’ve made an agreement with the regular adorers that the first hour of adoration each day will be in silence. So you can come along at half past ten on a weekday, knowing that your own prayers won’t be disturbed by someone else’s for that hour.

Why not come and try it out?

Even if you are not sure if God is real, why not come and give God the benefit of the doubt?

 

There’s a person in prison because of what they don’t believe.

They don’t believe Jesus is real.

Or if they know Jesus is real, they don’t believe he can change their life for the better.

If that person is you, Jesus would like to set you free today.

I’m praying that you find the courage to say “Yes” to Jesus. John did. Mary did. I did. You can, too.

 

 

Great Expectations: Connect

connectHomily at St Philip Evans, for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2016.

Once again, I’d like to invite the children preparing to make their First Holy Communion next summer to come and sit together at the front.

How many of you have brothers or sisters living at home with you?

How many of you never argue with your brothers or sisters?

How many of you argue with your brothers or sisters pretty much every day?

Being part of the Church is like being part of a really big family. There will be some people you’ll get on with really well. There’ll be other people you won’t get on with at all.

Once, at priest training college, there was a student who asked me to help him with a particular project. He wasn’t someone I naturally clicked with as a friend. But he had asked for my help, and I persevered. Slowly a real friendship grew. It is within our power to make any stranger into a friend!

St Paul talked about “tolerating” other people the way Jesus did. Often when I read the stories of Jesus, I imagine him looking at his disciples and having a face-palm moment: “Don’t you lot get the idea yet?” – but He persevered.

Sometimes we are stuck with people we don’t get on with – in school, or in our First Communion class. One of the most important things we have to learn is to be kind and helpful to people we don’t like.It’s easy to be kind to people we do like. Everybody does that! Jesus came to teach us to be kind to the people who get on our 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. When St Therese died, the clicky nun was very surprised to read that in St Therese’s journal – from the way she’d been smiled at, she thought she was one of the saint’s favourite sisters!

Last week, I promised to talk about six words which are our Catholic family values. This week’s word is CONNECT. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the first Christians were faithful to “meeting together”. Why? Our task is to build a community where every person is loved. Sometimes we do that by helping strangers in need. But the best way to love our neighbours is by spending time getting to know them – especially the ones we don’t naturally get on with. So we have to do more than just be kind to people when we are in school in church or in First Communion class. We must choose to spend time with other Catholics because they are Catholics. If you’re in a Catholic School, that’s easy! But the grown-ups aren’t, so I need a word with them for a moment.

Our Parish Mission theme was “Great Expectations”. I believe that God has certain expectations of us as members of His Church. I believe that God expects us to more than just attend Mass together. Imagine a family where all the members went to the cinema together, but never spoke to each other when they got home! That would be a really dysfunctional family. We can do better than that!

I would like each of you to think of one way you could have a conversation with Catholics, because they are Catholics, at least once a month. Here are some ideas:

  • Come to coffee after Mass on the second Sunday of each month.
  • Come to Alpha or Call to Question, or one of the Homegroups I will be putting in place after Christmas.
  • Have a chat with the person who is sitting next to you after Mass.
  • Join an organisation like the Union of Catholic Mothers (for women), or the Catenians or the Knights of Columba (for men).
  • Invite a member of you own family to have a faith-filled conversation. If they go to Mass somewhere else, you could even compare notes on the sermons you heard this weekend!

The prophet Isaiah had a vision of a perfect society of peace – the lion and the lamb lying down together.

St Paul wrote to the Romans with a vision of an imperfect society – one that needed toleration. We people who belong to the Church are not perfect. You might have heard the saying: “The Church is full of sinners – and there’s always room for one more!”

A preacher often has to speak about the way we behave. There are some behaviours which are not welcome in a Church community. But there must be no PEOPLE who are unwelcome in a Church community. Even the Pharisees and Sadducees were welcome in John the Baptist’s community, as long as they were willing to truly change.

My vision of a Christian society is one where we choose to meet with other Catholics on a regular basis. If we don’t do that yet, that might be a change God is asking us to make in 2017. Where, when and how we do this will be different for each one of us. But it is a choice we can all make, and review each year. Only connect!

Now, back to the children. I have a challenge for you. If you are at St Bernadette’s school, I’d like you to talk to at least one pupil from St Philip Evans school each week. And the same the other way round! By the end of the First Communion course, can you find someone who supports the same sports team, or has the same hobby as you? Be careful – I might check up after Easter!

 

Great Expectations: Explore

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the First Sunday of Advent, 2016.

I’d like to begin today by inviting the children preparing for their First Holy Communion to come forward. Children, on your first communion day, what kind of clothes are you going to wear? [They will answer, clothes like wedding dresses and wedding suits.]

Do you know why we use wedding dress for First Communion? That only makes sense if we know our Catholic history.

100 years ago, 75 years ago, and perhaps 50 years ago (though things were starting to change then), almost everyone in our country agreed that a wedding marked the beginning of a new family. When a young man and a young woman liked each other, they could go dating, eat together, go dancing together – but they didn’t start living in the same house together until their wedding day. So back then, a wedding wasn’t only a special celebration in the life of a family – it marked a new beginning. From the wedding day on, a brand-new family lived together, at first just a couple, and then hopefully children would come along. The world we live in today has lots of other different ideas about marriage, but in the Catholic Church we hold on to this idea that God’s plan is that a man and a woman first make promises to each other in church, ask for God’s blessing, and then move in together and start a family.

Some of you children have been coming to church since you were babies. Some of you have only started coming in the last few weeks because you want to make your First Holy Communion. Either way, I’m really glad that you’re here with us today. Our job, in the next few months, is to prepare you not only for your First Communion Day, but for the next step of your life as members of St Philip Evans Parish. The reason you wear wedding dress on First Communion Day,  is because it’s the first day of your new life as a connected member of our Parish Family.

exploreEach family has its own rules and values. Last summer, I visited an old college friend who’s got children now, and on his fridge door was a big piece of paper, the “D**** family values”. Over the next few weeks I want to share with you our St Philip Evans Family Values, and the first one is on this banner – it says “explore”.

Some of you were at the Mission Mass at St Philip Evans School recently. What did I give some of the pupils and adults to wear? L-plates, because we are Learners, and D-plates because we are Disciples!

The prophet Isaiah imagined a time to come when people would go to the Temple to learn God’s teaching. Jesus walked among us as a Teacher – the only perfect Teacher of God’s message. He commanded his followers to go and make disciples of all nations. The words “learner” and “disciple” are connected, and that’s quite easy to see in Welsh. In fact, all of us who are followers of Jesus are entitled to display a D-plate! If we’re not “dysgwyr” [learners], we’re not Christians!

So our first St Philip Evans Family Value is to “explore” what Jesus taught us. Most of you are blessed to be in Catholic School so you can spend lots of time in the classroom thinking about Jesus and his stories. I know some of you go to Catechism Class on a Saturday afternoon once a month – how many? When you finish your First Communion Class, the rest of you could join them and do Catechism once a month and know Jesus better.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a word with the grown-ups.

These days, anyone working in a serious job is required to take part “continuing professional development” – to prove they have carried on learning and updating their knowledge and can still work effectively. If that’s important for our earthly work, how much more important is it to prepare us for heaven! So how do we do our “Continuing Faith Development”? Do you ever read the Bible or a Christian book on a regular basis? Do you ever go to a church event that includes an interesting talk or exhibition?

One important thing we need to re-learn is the value of Christian marriage. It’s easy for us to get sucked into the values of the world around which says, “Move in together, start a family, save up and have a big wedding party later.” But our vision is different. When we put God first, a wedding is about a church service which asks for God’s blessing on a new family; save the big party to mark your 10th anniversary if you can’t afford one straight away. But we also believe in second chances in the Catholic Church. Sometimes I meet parents who think that because they’ve already had children, they are not allowed to get married in church. But that’s wrong! It’s never too late to put things right in God’s eyes, and I’ve helped plenty of couples who already have children to make their vows in church. It’s also worth remembering that once you are a baptised Catholic, you must get married in a Catholic Church or with the Church’s permission, otherwise it doesn’t count as far as the Church is concerned.

I don’t want to focus only on marriage. It was one of the things important to Jesus, but there are lots of other things Jesus taught, too. After Christmas, there’ll be lots of opportunities here to explore this. If you can come weekly, the Alpha Course will start on Tuesday nights. If you can come monthly, there’s Call to Question. I’m also thinking of starting a fortnightly group after Monday morning Mass for people who find daytime easier than evenings. We can’t live well as Christians unless we know the teaching of Jesus, and a short 7-minute slot at Sunday Mass isn’t long enough to go into things deeply. We no longer live in a world where Christian values are all around us. We need to take time to listen to Jesus and think about how we do what he asks in our daily lives. Remember, that Jesus warns us that he may come back at an hour we do not expect! If he finds that we have been studying the Bible, the lives of the saints, or the teaching of the church, he will not find fault with us – as long as we are putting into practice what we have learned!

What does the word Disciple mean? LEARNER!

What do you have to be to be a good learner? A LISTENER!

What will you do after Christmas to listen to the teaching of Jesus? That’s up to you, but do something. EXPLORE!

Keep Calm, and Follow Jesus

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

kc1We live in uncertain times. By a small majority, the UK voted to leave the European Union, but no-one quite knows how that’s going to work out.

America has just elected Donald Trump as its president and that too will lead to a time of change.

On this weekend of Remembrance, we recall that 100 years ago, Britain was at war with Germany and her allies. That war was won, but more conflict followed. Sixty years ago, during the Second World War, British civil servants had to prepare for the worst. What if Britain suffered a heavy Nazi bombardment? A series of advisory posters was prepared, but never used. Now, with the safety of half a century between us and the danger, those posters have seen the light of day, and been reproduced on everything from T-shirts to mugs. The words of wisdom? “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

We human beings are good at worrying. Have you noticed how most of the things we give energy to worrying about, never actually happen?

Each of today’s readings is an invitation, in its own way, to keep calm and follow Jesus.

The prophet Malachi speaks of a Day of Judgment coming as a burning fire – but for those who love God, it will be a healing light.

St Paul warned the busybodies in Thessalonica not to get over-excited about what other Christian believers were doing but, well, to keep calm and carry on!

In Jesus’ own time, in the face of a changing world, the Lord said: “Do not be frightened. Your endurance will win you your lives.”

It’s not only the Bible which urges us to avoid worry and fear. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy offered similar advice in an even more pithy form: the words “Don’t Panic!” – written in big friendly letters on the front cover.

How, then, can we keep calm and follow Jesus? Another word for a follower is a “disciple”, which comes from the Latin word for “learner”. How do we “sit at the feet of Jesus” to understand his teachings better?

During our Parish Mission, we had daily opportunities to explore our faith. Each morning, a different member of the Mission Team shared the story of how they came to faith. On the evenings of the Celebration Week, through the spoken word and through movement, we were given a deeper teaching than we have time for in the homily at Sunday Mass.

It’s unusual to have a whole week of such events in our parish, and that won’t happen again for a generation. But it’s normal for a community of Christians to take time once a week, once a fortnight, or at least once a month, to explore more deeply what the Bible says or what our Church teaches. The Mission was called “Great Expectations”. God expects, and your Parish Priest expects, that each one of us will take time at least once a month to explore our faith and to connect with other members of our community beyond the limited social contact we have by attending Mass.

One way of exploring faith is through an Alpha Course. We’re going to run an Alpha weekly on Tuesday evenings from early January. If you’d like to find out more about that, and especially if you are willing to help with the practical side, there’s a meeting in the Small Hall this Tuesday evening.

Not everyone is able to make the time for a weekly commitment, so as well as Alpha, we will soon begin running “Connect & Explore” groups. When will these run? Mornings, afternoons or evenings? Weekly, monthly, fortnightly? That depends on you. I have some survey forms for everyone willing to get involved. Some of you already filled them in earlier this week, but the altar servers will bring them now to anyone who needs one.

There’s a story about a saint, perhaps it was Saint Francis, who was busy sweeping the floor of his churchyard, when a rumour spread around the town that Jesus was going to come back in one hour. Some of the villagers rushed to confession. Others went to make peace with their enemies. Still others sank to their knees to spend the last hour of their lives in deep prayer. But Saint Francis? He just carried on sweeping the floor, comfortable in the knowledge that he was already living his life in the way the Lord expected.

This weekend we remember those who gave their tomorrow for our today, and we offer prayers for their souls.

But let’s also remember the One who laid down his life for us and invited us to follow him. In an uncertain world, the very best thing we can do is stay close to Jesus. We do that through prayer, through serving Him in the poor – and by gathering to explore his teachings. As long as our life is in balance on that score, we have nothing to fear. In short, let’s remember that our Heavenly Father has sent his Beloved Son and asked us to listen to him. Let’s “Keep Calm, and Follow Jesus.”