The Service You Don’t Need to Go To

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B.

This Wednesday evening, there’s a special service for people who don’t need to go to confession.

Canon Matthew Jones will be going, Canon William Isaac will be there, and I’m going too. We’ll be hearing confessions of people who don’t need to go.

There are times in our lives we really do need to go to confession. We’ve made a terrible choice, perhaps under extreme pressure, and we need the relief of hearing the priest say that our sins are forgiven. Or perhaps we’ve truly committed a mortal sin – for some reason we have knowingly walked away from God, and instantly regretted it. For these times – and for the person who has come to their senses after many years away from God – we run a weekly emergency clinic. I sit in the confessional every Saturday afternoon and Thursday evening. But that’s not why we run an Advent Penitential Service.

At this time of year, we’re challenged to look back and look forward. Television will be full of “reviews of 2017” and then we might make New Year’s Resolutions. Perhaps we’ll spend Christmas together with distant family members, needing us to resolve some longstanding disagreement. In this Advent time of waiting, what’s most important is to stop and take a good look at ourselves.

Don’t panic. Don’t be afraid. Jesus is already looking at you, and he likes what he sees. More than likes, in fact. He loves you. Whatever you’ve done, he loves you. He loved you enough to die for you. To us belongs the same good news Isaiah brought to Jerusalem – your sins have already been paid for!

There is one thing he would like you to do. Prepare a straight way for him to come to you. No speed bumps. No potholes. He would like to step smoothly into your life. That’s why we have an Advent Penitential. It’s a time to stop and look at the small obstacles in our lives that get in His way.

During the past year, we’ve heard a lot about the expectations Our Lord has of those who belong to his church. It’s always tricky when we think about things we ‘should’ have done. It’s much easier to know we’ve sinned when something is forbidden. But there are many things we ‘should’ do jostling for our time, money and attention. How much time should we have given to prayer this week? How great a gift should we have given to charity this year? How much time and money should we have given to our dependent family members? How much care have we taken of ourselves?

We can prepare for a good confession by asking ourselves a few questions.

We are called to worship. Have we put God first in our lives by taking time to pray each day and each week?

We are called to help in our parish and in the wider community. Have we given help graciously even what it was possible but inconvenient? Did we volunteer to give help rather than waiting to be asked?

We make our church community strong when we spend time getting to know each other. We make our faith strong when we take time to explore God’s Word and the Church’s teaching. Have we made good use of this year’s opportunities to connect and explore?

By our baptism, each one of us is an ambassador for Christ. Have we talked openly about our faith, even when we have been unsure how other people would react? Have we tried to invite anyone who’s not already a churchgoing Catholic to share or faith or visit our church?

This weekend, Archbishop George invites us to remember the sick and retired priests of this diocese. These men chose to serve you and your fellow Catholics in years gone by, giving up the possibility of earning a salary or saving for a pension. When we priests make the commitment of celibacy so we can give our utmost to serve you, the Bride of Christ, the Bishop makes a commitment on your behalf to look after the financial needs of priests who become too ill or infirm to continue to serve. But Archbishop George can only fulfill your commitment using your gifts. Perhaps the new calendar year, or the new financial year, would be the right time for you and your family to take a fresh look at your planned giving to the church and other charities. So ask yourself: during the last year, did I invest a fair share of my wealth in God’s work?

There are other questions we might ask ourselves, too, but they always boil down to two roots. Did I love God with all my heart, mind and strength? And did I love my neighbour as myself?

We don’t have to go to confession for the small stuff. We don’t have to make any New Year Resolutions. We don’t have to become the very best versions of ourselves. But why wouldn’t we want to?

There are two more sins it’s really worth looking out for. One is the sin of pride that says: “I don’t have to go to confession, so I won’t.” The other – that’s the one you know better than me. It’s that small sin, more of a peccadillo, that you don’t want to confess because it doesn’t matter that much and besides, it would be embarrassing to admit it. And yet… what would happen if you did? After that moment of embarassment would come an overwhelming tide of relief – and more than that, it would unlock some new grace in your life because Our Lord always pours extra help into our life when we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation – the church guarantees it!

Jesus is asking you to clear out the obstacles. It’s a lot easier to trip over a small stone than a great barrier! And although it’s tempting to limp on with a stone in your shoe, you know you’ll feel better if you stop and shake it out.

So, here’s the invitation. At St Brigid’s, at 7 pm this Wednesday, there’s a service for people who don’t need to go to confession. I’m going. Are you?

Catholic or Christian?

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

Are you a Catholic or a Christian?

Don’t take too long to think about it. I’m interested in the first answer that popped into your head. How many wanted to say “Christian”? How many “Catholic?” How many of you wanted to say “Both”?

I do acknowledge, of course, that not everyone here today is Catholic. Some of you are preparing to become Catholics – so you can ponder how you will answer the question when that happy day comes. Others among you are guests in our congregation from the Orthodox Churches of the East, welcome to receive the sacraments here. We share the same creed which declares the church to be universal – “catholic” with a small “c” – but you are not big-C Catholics under the authority of Pope Francis. You are always welcome here, and we pray for the day when our churches are known for being part of some united structure rather than a divided structure.

The big issue I want to tackle today is this: some of us are Catholics, but not Christians.

The word “Christian” means a follower of Christ. To be “a Catholic not a Christian” is to be a tenant in the Vineyard but not to welcome the landowner’s son.

A red bunch of grapes hangs from a grapevine which recedes into the distanceToday’s First Reading and Gospel use the image of a vineyard to describe Israel, God’s Chosen People. God Our Father expected them to bear fruit – to treat the poorest people generously and fairly, to keep worshipping God and not idols. The murdered servants represent the Prophets, like Elijah and Isaiah, sent to Israel through the ages. God is represented by the landowner who has “gone overseas” – we are separated from God in our broken humanity.

In the fullness of time, Jesus came – his mission was to give the Jewish people a perfect understanding of how to live out God’s Law. But the Jewish leaders conspired to have him crucified. So God put the vineyard in the care of new tenants – the Catholic Church! (Many of the first members were Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah.) Then, through our human brokenness, we divided the vineyard among ourselves. The Protestant section has each vine managed by its own leader. The Orthodox section has national groups of vines under one manager. In our Catholic section, Pope Francis is foreman over all our vines.

The trouble us, we still suffer from the same brokenness as the Israelites of old; we can still fall into the same traps. Here in the Catholic section of the Vineyard, we can be tempted to say, “I have my membership card! Look! I’m a member of the Catholic Tenants’ Association!” But will that be enough when we meet Jesus on the last day of our lives? If God the Father was angry with the lack of fruit then, will he be pleased with the fruit we are bearing now?

What does it look like, to bear fruit for God?

The most important fruit is new ChristiansHow many people have become active members of the Catholic Church because of you?

Another fruit is good works – do you volunteer for any church project or other activity in the local community?

Yet another fruit is our generous giving – is your gift to CAFOD this week the change in your pocket, or is it big enough that you will truly go without something you would have enjoyed?

Saint Paul speaks today about filling our minds with whatever is noble and pure. That includes avoiding pornography and gratuitous violence in what we choose to watch, read and listen to. It also includes taking time to fill our minds with God’s teaching, by reading the Bible at home and coming together for opportunities to explore our faith.

Imagine that Jesus stepped into this church right now and pointed his finger at you. “You, now, tell me what fruit you have borne for my vineyard!” What good have you done this year for the parish? What good have you done for the local community? What good have you done for your extended family?

Make no mistake, at the end of your life, Jesus will do this. There will be a reckoning. It’s not only for the good of the parish that I preach about ways to get involved – it’s so that you can give a good account of your fruitfulness when He asks you. I do not want you to be found lacking! If you can give a good account – fantastic! If not, there’s a right way and a wrong way to deal with it. The wrong way is to try to ignore the challenge, or become so angry that we want to keep our distance from Jesus. That’s when we might be tempted to say “I’m a Catholic, not a Christian!”

The right way is to face up to the challenge, and repent. If you know you haven’t been producing the fruit Jesus wants, I would like to invite you to come to confession straight after this Mass. Make a new beginning. Is this really sin? Oh yes! Sin, by definition, is “not doing what Jesus is asking you to do”! Or if you can’t linger after this Mass, come to confession some time in the next week.

Paul reminds us not to worry, but to pray for whatever we need. We can pray for forgiveness – we can pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit which allow us to bear fruit – and we can pray for God’s guidance to help us know how to use our talents. In the very act of seeking divine help, we bear the fruit of offering God worship!

Are you a Catholic or a Christian? If you cannot yet say: “I am a follower of Jesus, looking forward to the day he returns to this vineyard” – today would be a good day to decide to become a Christian!

 

 

 

Great Expectations: Invite

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

“Great things! I’m expecting great things of you, Mr Leyshon!”

When I was at school, my headmaster left me in no doubt of his high expectations of me. He said so often, in Welsh tones that brooked no argument. He could see that I had the potential to do well, and didn’t want me to fall short.

Jesus looks at us with the same skilled eye of a teacher who wants his class to do well, and his message is the same. “Great things! I’m expecting great things of you, people of St Philip Evans!”

If you read any of the Gospels, it’s clear that Jesus sets a challenge for the people willing to follow him. In the parable of the Talents, he challenges us to make a profit. He commended a poor widow who gave her last two coins for God’s service. In his picture of the last judgment, the “sheep” who helped poor people are admitted to a heavenly reward. And now, last week and again this week, Jesus has told us stories about wheat growing in the fields. Last week he said a person who understands God’s word can produce a harvest of thirty, sixty or a hundredfold. This week he says that we are to be harvested like wheat, even though there are weeds – or darnel – growing among us.

Why does anyone grow wheat? There are only two things you can do with it: you can plant the grain to grow more wheat, or you can grind the grains to make flour. The fruit, the harvest, that Jesus is looking for is disciples  people willing to listen to his teaching and follow it. First we must make ourselves into disciples; then we must encourage other people to hear and follow Jesus also. This makes us wheat which bears fruit.

But wheat is also ground and made into flour. There’s a hymn by Bernadette Farrell which says “may we who eat be bread for others…” – if we live as followers of Jesus, there will be times we are wearied by doing things to help people who will not, or cannot, give us anything in return. We become, like him, bread broken for others. So the harvest Christ is looking for is twofold – our good works, and our encouraging other people to become followers of Jesus.

We ourselves can be easily discouraged. It’s not easy to be wheat, ground, and bread, broken, for others. And it’s not always easy to live out our Catholic faith to the full. There are weeds around us. There are people who take from our parish but give little back. They want weddings and funerals, Baptisms and First Communions but don’t become part of the larger life of our community. Perhaps some of you come here regularly for Mass, but don’t volunteer for any activities in the parish, even during the Mass you attend. When that happens, we become a weak parish. But when we all contribute something, we become strong.

People of St Philip Evans, I am expecting great things of you. A harvest is coming! At the end of your life, to each one of you, Jesus will ask: what fruit have you to show? Who else has become an active member of the church because of you? How well have you done in passing on faith to your children? If that doesn’t seem to be working, what did you do to learn better ways to pass on your faith?

Is it possible for us to bear fruit 100-fold? Yes! Less than 1% of the population of Wales goes to Mass. So it is possible for us to bear fruit 100-fold, if we get all our friends and neighbours involved! But let’s remember that coming to church is not an end in itself – it is a one of the things we do because Jesus asks us to take his Body and Blood and support one another as members of His Body. Our job is to make disciples, to help people want to be followers of Jesus. And we need to start with ourselves, so that we can lead by example.invite

What do followers of Jesus do? They do exactly the kind of things the six banners around our church suggest. Followers of Jesus worship him, by attending Mass and making time for prayer. They volunteer to help the poor and needy, and to make the church community work. They explore what Jesus has taught them and connect with one another to keep the community strong. They invest their own wealth in the community, and invite other people to come and join in.

At this time of year, we may be looking forward to our summer holidays, but we are also beginning to think of the new cycle of life which will begin in September. Here is my challenge to you. All of you have in front of you a leaflet, which suggests different ways you can worship, volunteer, connect, explore, invest and invite. What have you already done this year? Can you take one more step, under at least one of those headings, next year? If you are visiting us from another parish, you can apply this same challenge to the way you support your own church.

I’m inviting you to write your name on the piece of paper, to own it… and to choose at least one thing you are not already doing, to pledge that from September, you will do it. I’m not asking you to hand in the paper – this is between you and God. Don’t let the weeds take away your energy or deter you from growing to be as fruitful as God wants you to be. God holds you responsible for bearing fruit even among the weeds. Jesus, who died for you, is always willing to walk with you, to strengthen you on this journey. Maybe family circumstances mean you even have to drop a big thing next year, but you can still choose something small yet significant. So make your choice – but remember, the Lord and I are expecting great things of you, people of God! Choose wisely!