Open Your Eyes, Open Your Heart

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


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!


Discriminating Catholics

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B – Racial Justice Sunday and the closing weekend of the London 2012 Paralympic Games

What will make the news headlines this weekend? With the closing of the Paralympic Games, we can expect stories about Britain giving people with disabilities their rightful place in society, and whether “disability” is the right word in a competition all about demonstrating sporting ability! The GB athletes wear the same strip whether they’re Olympic or Paralympic competitors.

The positive vibe about the Paralympics shows us how Britain’s changed over the last generation, a change reflected by, and partly driven by, our politicians. There’s much that we can cheer about: there’s something profoundly Christian about taking those who are excluded from society and ensuring they become included. Today’s Gospel is the story of a man doubly excluded – not only through deafness, but also by being a Jewish man living in Gentile territory. In this particular story his restoration is through an act of healing, but the story is as important for its message of inclusion as it is for showing the Lord’s miraculous power to heal.

Two years ago, Parliament passed an Equality Act which brought together rules about several different kinds of discrimination. Having a single set of laws makes things easier for employers, but also hides the fact that there are lots of different issues in the mix.

Part of the Equalities Act concerns the assumptions we make about people’s ability to do things. If we notice that someone is of a particular race, or is old, or happens to be a man or a woman, we might leap to the conclusion that they would be better or worse at certain tasks. But when what we see isn’t relevant to the tasks, we become corrupt judges, just like the recipients of St James’s letter. No, we must judge each applicant on merit, not by our prejudices.

Another side of our Equalities legislation recognises that genuine constraints exist. Disabled persons, by definition, are less able to do certain things. We in Britain have decided that, as a society, it’s important to use a share of our resources to make our jobs and public services accessible. Over the last few years here in St Dyfrig’s, we’ve installed an access ramp at the main church door, placed a hearing-aid loop in the Hall, and made large print hymn books available for services. We’ve done this not only because the law requires us to make reasonable adjustments, but because it’s a very natural thing for a Christian community to want to make its activities as accessible as possible.

Genuine constraints, protected by law, also exist around pregnancy and childbirth. It might surprise you to learn that the official position of Blessed John Paul II was that employers must not discriminate against female employees – in fact, he went further and called for employers to respect and accommodate whatever work-life balance each working mother felt was right for her own mix of duties in the workplace and as a mother. This does create practical problems – on the radio this weekend, Lord Tebbit mentioned the difficulty of having to accommodate maternity leave – he employs two carers for his wife’s physical needs and is worried about the extra expense if they should require maternity cover. The tension is genuine. We’re challenged to ask whether we really believe that being a wife and mother is such an important part of a woman’s dignity that society at large, and employers in particular, should be required to invest in it. For Pope John Paul, the answer was clear!

Also in the news this week are test cases about four Christians who believe they are victims of religious discrimination. Two, a nurse and an air stewardess, had been told they couldn’t wear a cross at work. The other two, a relationship counsellor and a registrar for marriages, wished to avoid endorsing homosexual relationships. And here we find the third aspect of our Equalities law: protection for people’s preferences about sexual relationships and about religion. Both headings concern deep-seated feelings or beliefs which affect the way people interact with society. British law no longer considers any kind of sexual relationship among consenting adults to be intrinsically immoral. But it also protects the right of religious believers to “manifest their beliefs”. Many religious believers within and beyond our Church hold that, whatever temptations or psychological pressures may exist, no person should act out a sexual relationship except with their own husband or wife, in the traditional sense.

Sooner or later, my freedom to act as if certain actions are always wrong, is going to clash with your freedom to carry out those actions. Our law-makers will be forced to make a choice in future legislation, to come down on the side of conscience, or on the side of unfettered freedom.

If conscience prevails, it will be legal for state employees to say, “I’m very sorry, but because of my personal deeply-held beliefs I can’t help you with that” – and managers will be required to employ such people alongside non-objecting colleagues: turning them down would constitute religious discrimination. We could choose to make British culture one in which this is politely accepted, because we believe it’s important to accommodate religious beliefs we don’t agree with. Any client denied service would nod sadly, not agreeing but understanding, and move on to the next window for help.

If freedom prevails, our lawmakers will have decided that certain actions are so clearly right that religious believers can’t have full freedom to act as if they’re wrong. Such believers will have to compromise by carrying out actions they believe are immoral, or else by excluding themselves from certain jobs and voluntary positions. This risks creating a Britain where certain ethical positions are held to be more important than traditional religious beliefs. Today, registrars and counsellors are required to act as if homosexual relationships are moral. Tomorrow, might we see Catholic doctors being required to participate in euthanasia or else quit medicine?

Some months ago I wrote to our local MP concerning Government plans for defining homosexual relationships as “marriage”. The reply I received was little short of a rebuke, implying that I was a bigot who wanted to deny couples their happiness on irrational grounds. I don’t expect our MP to agree with the Catholic Church’s position on everything, but I did expect some show of respect for religious beliefs. Instead, it alerted me to the fact that at least one MP believes that unfettered freedom is much more important than having regard for the consciences of Christians.

In this delicate area, we must make sure that we continue to act as Christians. It’s a cliché to say “hate the sin, love the sinner”, but like many clichés, it’s true.  The only kind of action we are permitted to discriminate against, is sin. We condemn the action, while extending love, care and concern to the person carrying it out.

Meanwhile, since you are followers of Jesus, there is one person you are permitted to discriminate against. If a stranger takes your regular pew, you are permitted to say to yourself: “I must act as if I’m less important than this guest in our community. I must be the one who moves to a different place.” You know that you are called to repay evil with good, to love your enemy, and pray for the one who persecutes you. Yes, you have the right to better treatment, but you are not obliged to claim that right. As a follower of Jesus, the one person you may choose to deliberately disadvantage is – YOURSELF!