Great Expectations: Peacemaking

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 31st Anniversary of the Dedication of the Church and the start of the parish Sion Community Mission – 22 & 23 October 2016. great-expectations-logo

At the start of Mass: Our Church was solemnly dedicated by Archbishop Ward on 25 October 1985. Today, on the nearest weekend, we celebrate another year of the life of our parish community, but we also mark a new beginning, as we enter our Parish Mission. Previously, on this Dedication festival, I have asked you to make a point of exchanging the sign of peace by name. This year, not only for today but throughout our Mission, I am inviting you to take one more step. On the pews in front of you are pens and name badges. I invite you to write your name on a badge and wear it not only today, but whenever you come to a church event throughout the next two weeks of our Parish Mission.

Now please turn to greet, by name, the people in front of, and behind you.

Normally, we would call to mind our sins at this moment. I’m going to hold that back until the middle of Mass today – so let us enter into our celebration with a great song of praise, the Gloria!

Homily: This church is full of sin!

Look! There is the confessional! Every week, sinners come and leave their sins at the feet of a priest.

Look! Here is our altar, dedicated 31 years ago. Whenever we gather around this altar to celebrate Mass, we begin with a moment to “call to mind our sins”. The Lord forgives all our little sins, and we leave them here.

Look! Above us, the great Crucifix, the sign of Christ taking on his shoulders all the sins of the world! When we celebrate Mass, Calvary becomes present on this altar, making present not only our personal sins, but all the sins of the human race!

Look! Gathered here, a throng of people! I don’t know what sins you are conscious of in your heart, but you do – and God does, too.

Yes, my dear brothers and sisters, we must acknowledge a terrible truth: our Church is a magnet for sin.

But I have good news. God can do something about it!

Why do we have a solemn celebration for the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church? It’s a natural, human thing to want to mark another year of our being here with a celebration, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s another reason, too. In the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish people were commanded to keep an annual commemoration of the Dedication of their Temple – the solemn observance of Yom Kippur. Our First Reading today was an extract from the instructions given for that day.

Yom Kippur was the one day in the year when the High Priest was commanded to enter the Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the Temple. First, the High Priest offers a sacrifice for HIS OWN SIN – it’s a bull. (You may be pleased to know that I myself went to confession on Friday; you may also be relieved to learn that no livestock were injured on my behalf!)

Next, the High Priest makes an offering to take away the sin of all the people of Israel – it’s a goat. But what happened to the other goat? If I had included a longer reading from Leviticus, we would have heard how the priest was to speak all the sins of the people over the head of that goat, and it would then be driven out into the wilderness. It was the original scapegoat. That’s where the term comes from!

Today, we mark the Dedication of our own Temple, this Church of St Philip Evans. It’s also the beginning of our first ever Parish Mission. It struck me that today ought to be for us a new beginning. God doesn’t want us to be tied down by sins and problems from the past. We haven’t had a perfect history as a parish. Before I became your parish priest, the life of this parish was marked by some very serious disagreements. As human beings, our natural reaction is to ask “Who started  it?” and seek an apology. But that’s not God’s way. No, the question God asks is “Who is willing to end it?” – in today’s Gospel we heard these words:

“If you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first.”

This matters! In fact, it matters so much that St Paul wrote that “anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be behaving unworthily towards the body and blood of the Lord.” The Communion that we receive at Mass is only a Holy Communion when we have made peace with all the members of our community.

Making the first move for peace might seem unfair. What Our Lord did on the Cross was not fair – it was the greatest act of generosity in the history of the human race. He took on himself all our sins. We are asked to imitate him in a very small way, making peace without the satisfaction of an apology.

Often enough there’s no possibility of an apology. We are human beings from different cultures, different nations, and different ways of thinking. Two people can approach the same situation, or even hear the very same words spoken, and interpret things in very different ways. Each person has their own integrity, and might do what they believe to be right – and still conflict comes, because our perspective is so different. This is why God doesn’t ask “Who started it?” but only “Who will make peace?”

Let me begin with myself. At seminary, we’re taught to become aware of our own character faults and weaknesses. I know that I have strong gifts for organising things, but I’m not always sensitive to other people’s feelings. It’s quite possible that at times I have been insensitive and not even realised the hurt I’ve caused. If I have hurt anyone in the three years I have been here by things I have said, done, or failed to do, I ask your forgiveness.

Then, on behalf of all the clergy. All priests and deacons are human beings, capable of having bad days and being tempted. To anyone who has ever been offended by the words, actions or inactions of any minister, I apologise in the name of the Church.

Finally, on behalf of Mother Church herself. Sometimes we feel let down by what the Church has done as an institution, or its failure to be the kind of Church we hoped it would be. But whenever we are part of something bigger, things won’t always go the way that we wish for, and this calls for great patience on our part. Will you forgive the Catholic Church for not being perfect on earth?

The Book of Leviticus lists many kinds of sacrifice that could be made in the Jewish Temple. Some were for the cleansing of individual people. Some were for the whole community. Some were even for the cleansing of the land. God waits for us to ask, before He uses His divine power to free us from the consequences of sin. So today, let us ask! If we are involved in any conflict, great or small, with people inside or outside this parish, let’s decide, right now, to make the first move for peace.

I’m going to celebrate, now, the same rite of blessing and sprinkling holy water which we keep at the Easter Vigil. One of the questions I will ask is whether you believe in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”. When I come among you sprinkling Holy Water, this will be a prayer for cleansing of the parish, that God will free us from all the spiritual effects of all the sins confessed in this church in the past, and all the spiritual baggage from conflicts which we, as members of the body of Christ, have been part of. If you are ready to make peace, if you are ready to receive this new beginning of spiritual cleansing, I invite you to receive the gift of Holy Water with open palms.

After the sprinkling rite:

There’s one loose end from our First Reading. What about the two rams, one for the priest, one for the people? These were “holocaust offerings”, every part was to be offered in sacrifice to God, holding nothing back. God had great expectations of the people of Israel – they were to be totally dedicated to God, trusting God for everything, giving God the very best of what they owned.

In a moment, we’ll do what we do every week – we will take a collection. Let’s remember that what we give in money is an act of worship, an offering to God. But also, while the collection goes on, I am going to pass around this clipboard. We want to give God an offering of prayer while members of our Mission Team are visiting people at home this week. Could you sign up for half-an-hour of prayer one day this week? If you can, please book your slot – and the clipboard will be brought up with our other gifts as part of our offering to God.

Guilty!

Homily at St Philip Evans, for Ash Wednesday 2016.

Bang! Bang! Bang!A gavel banging on its stand

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?

This Lent, you are invited to a courtroom – a most unusual courtroom – called the Tribunal of Mercy.

In this courtroom, you are the accused.

In this courtroom, you are also the jury. And you have come to court for one simple reason – you already know you are guilty.

In this courtroom, a judge is waiting to pass sentence. But the sentence has already been served!

 

As Catholics, we are famous for our sense of guilt.

Sometimes we suffer from false guilt, from our failure to achieve the impossible. We may have missed Mass due to a snowstorm, or had a ‘bad thought’ to which we gave no wilful encouragement whatsoever. But if we did not have the power to do otherwise, such guilt is not a sign of culpable sin.

Sometimes we suffer from residual guilt. Perhaps we have formed our own opinion, which is not the Church’s opinion, about abortion, or contraception, or weapons of mass destruction, or involvement in unfair trade. But after we have acted, or voted, in accord with our private views, perhaps our second thoughts chip in, saying, “but what if, when I meet Our Lord, it turns out that the Catholic Church was right after all?” Hold on to that thought!

Sometimes we suffer from true guilt. We have made a choice which is not a good and godly choice. Perhaps that was a once-in-a-lifetime major event which we’ve been trying to forget about ever since. Perhaps it was the beginning of a chain of addiction, to alcohol, pornography, or some other pleasure. Or perhaps it was some petty act of jealousy or spite towards another person. Whatever it was, it quite rightly causes us to feel guilty.

The great thing about being Catholic is that we have a way of dealing with guilt. Run to the confessional, plead guilty, let the priest pass sentence. The sentence is always the same – your sins, together with all the other sins of the world, deserve death. But by freely offering himself to die on the Cross, Jesus served that sentence for us. What we are called to, instead, is true repentance.

True repentance means running to the God who loves us, no matter what sin we have committed.

True repentance means having the confidence of the prodigal son, to return to the Father’s House – and trusting that a joyful welcome awaits us.

True repentance means trusting that nothing we can do, no sin we might commit, can cause God to love us any less than than God does already – any more than a mother can stop loving her wayward child.

True repentance means rushing to the Tribunal of Mercy and saying, “Father, I messed up again.” In return, God says, “I love you! And I forgive you again!”

We do not – we cannot – earn God’s forgiveness.

God loves us. God will never reject us, whatever our actions might deserve.

This is the God who commanded Peter to forgive seventy times seven times, who sent his only Son to die so our sins could be forgiven.

This is the loving Father who declares: “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning.”

 

In this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invites us to rush the the place of mercy, which is the Confessional, and do the most important thing necessary to receive the Father’s forgiveness – admit our guilt.

Now, it’s true that to make a good confession, we also require a “firm purpose of amendment”. If we have recognised that our actions are sinful, we must do what is within our power to avoid sin in future. If our sin is one of addiction, “what is within our power” may be to begin to get help, by attending a 12-step programme like Alcoholics Anonymous. If our sin is one of being drawn into pornography, “what is within our power” may be to install blocking software on our computer, or confiding in a friend to be an “accountability partner”. God delights in our efforts to overcome sin. God will give us extra help to resist temptation, if we ask for this in prayer. But God’s love for us does not depend on our efforts to resist evil. God’s love  is always there.

 

 

This is the Year of Mercy. The priests of our deanery are working together to make sure that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is widely available, on afternoons and evenings. The door of mercy is open wide at our cathedral.

Are you are suffering from guilt?

Rush to the confessional.

Plead guilty.

Be amazed at Christ’s love in dying to pay the price for your sin.

Rejoice that God’s love for you is solid and unshakeable.

Best. Lent. Ever!

Open Your Eyes, Open Your Heart

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 4th Sunday of Lent, Year A.

Ych-a-fi!

The Light Is On For You

I wonder what went through the blind man’s mind during this encounter with Jesus? First he suffers the indignity of having mud and spit put on his eyes. Then he doesn’t even seem to be healed! Jesus tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. I bet he was sorely tempted to stop at the nearest well, wash the mud and spit off, and be done with it. But he doesn’t do that – he goes to Siloam, and because of his act of obedience, his sight is restored.

Sometimes, we can recoil in horror from an encounter with Jesus, too. The trouble is, Jesus wants to open the eyes of our hearts, to see ourselves and our behaviour as he sees us. And His ways are not our ways! But the horror of what Jesus confronts us with gives way to the joy of new and clearer sight.

Too many of us have fallen into the trap of thinking that a sin is “something I do, which hurts another person.” If that were true, we could edit our parish prayer to say: “Here I am, Lord, I come to do what I like as long as I don’t hurt anyone.” No. A sin is something which we do knowing that God has asked us not to do it – or a deliberate failure to do what God has asked us to do. It’s always a good idea to ask ourselves, “If the same circumstances came up again, would I be able to make a different choice?” – if the answer is no, that we had no freedom to do otherwise, then we are not looking at a sin. A sin is always a free choice to do wrong.

Of course, it goes without saying that it is a sin to choose to do something that deliberately harms other people.

It is a sin to post unthinking comments on Facebook or some other social media site which needlessly criticise or embarrass other people.

If we have enough income to spend on luxuries, and we understand how FairTrade works, it would be a sin for us to choose to buy regular goods without caring about whether there is a FairTrade alternative available.

It is a sin to buy or promote anything pornographic, because this creates a demand which requires someone to use their body in a way which is both degrading and immodest.

And yes, these are the kind of sins which we can and should take to confession. Not because they are mortal sins – though they might be, if they were committed in total freedom and clear knowledge of how deeply they would harm others. Rather, we should take these and similar sins to confession because God offers us something more than mere forgiveness; God guarantees grace, some divine help so we can begin to raise our standards!

As we mature in faith we might realise that confession is not only a dumping ground for sins but also a moment to celebrate our decision to live a better life. Yes, confession is always there for those bad habits which trip us up time and time again, for which God will always encourage us to get up again and have another go at overcoming them. But in Lent we should also look at ourselves more deeply. For example, if we come to realise that we can do good and bless others by choosing FairTrade goods when we shop, we could celebrate this conversion of heart by acknowledging this to a priest. We would then receive God-given help to live out our new standards, and that is the grace given in confession.

On the other hand, we also need to know how to tell apart sins from temptations. Feelings are not sins. Unwanted thoughts are not sins. We may have angry or lustful thoughts. They only become sins when we start encouraging them. We may have distractions when we are trying to pray. These also are temptations – we only sin once we realise what we are doing and choose to run with the distracting thought rather than the prayer. Remember, a good test for whether something is a sin is this: “Next time, could I choose to do things differently?”

The letter to the Ephesians invites us to “discover what the Lord wants of you.” To know fully what God wants of us, we must be aware of the teaching of Jesus.

When he was asked difficult questions about marriage, Jesus pointed back to Genesis. “God has a plan,” he said, “that one man and one woman should come together and God will join them in an unbreakable bond.” This is why the Church teaches that when two Christians freely and sincerely make wedding vows to one another, no-one on earth has the power to undo this; and the only proper place for intimate relationships is within the security of such a bond. Almost all the Church’s teaching on sexual morality can be traced back to this one teaching point of Jesus. If we have done anything else, Jesus asks us to repent and confess our sins to a priest.

When he was asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus pointed to the Old Testament law which said we should love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The First Commandment is that we should have no other God. This is why, in last week’s newsletter, I published a short reflection on whether we had turned to any form of fortune-telling, or the kind of new-age medicine which claims to work by channelling spiritual energy. If we have done anything like this, Jesus asks us to repent and confess our sins to a priest.

In recent weeks, I have reminded us of the Lord’s challenging teaching that we must love and forgive our enemies. This is so serious that God will only forgive our sins in the measure that we forgive those who have sinned against us. If we have been lukewarm in blessing our enemies, or failed to do so altogether, Jesus asks us to repent and confess our sins to a priest.

So allow me to recap: The Light Is On For You – there is a priest ready to hear your confession – every Wednesday night 7 pm until 8 pm in most churches across Cardiff and I am also available on Saturdays 5.15-5.45 pm or will be pleased to make an appointment at a time that suits you – I can even do a home visit if health, childcare or transport difficulties make it difficult for someone to come to the Church for confession.

Today’s Bible readings remind us to “have nothing to do with the futile works of darkness… The things which are done in secret are things that ashamed even to speak of” – but we are told that God judges the heart. You cannot hide your failures from God. Yes, it’s embarrassing to name your sins out loud, even to a priest in confession. You look at the dark parts of yourself and say “Ych a fi!” You are tempted not to go to confession – it’s too shameful – but to wash at the nearest well instead by whispering to God in your heart. But go to the pool of Siloam – go to confession to a priest – and Jesus will open your eyes and your heart, and you will be filled with light. Our loving God even makes us uncomfortable enough to turn from darkness and be filled with light. What better reason than that this to praise God today, Laetare Sunday? The light is on for you!