For the Children

Homily for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Paul’s.

“I’m very sorry. I shouldn’t be standing up here talking to you. There are other people much more capable. In fact, I’m not sure why they ever picked me for this job…”

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone mad. I’m just trying to give you a flavour of what’s going on in the head of a person suffering from chronic anxiety or what the psychologists call “impostor syndrome”.

Lots of famous people suffer from just these kind of feelings. TV presenter and model Alexa Chung recently told the BBC that she did. Although she’d been commissioned to write for Vogue fashion magazine, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was about to be “found out” as a fraud.

This week, Claire Foy – who played the young Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s The Crown admitted to similar feelings of anxiety.

Have you ever felt underqualified for the tasks you have to take on regularly? It’s a very common reaction. Sometimes we have a false sense of Christian modesty, that we shouldn’t receive compliments at all. But Jesus said the “truth would set us free” and there are times we need to learn to accept the praise given to us.  Not long ago I met a member from a Christian community which had a rule about accepting compliments – when someone praised you, you were only allowed to give one of three answers. “Amen!” – “Praise God” – or “I receive that!”

Picture those 70 elders invited to go up the mountain with Moses. This story from the Hebrew Bible comes after Moses has spent some time alone with God in the mists atop a mountain… in fact someone on Facebook pointed out to me that Moses was the very first person to download information to a tablet from a cloud! But now the invitation comes down to the camp – the same God who has been speaking face-to-face with Moses now wants to speak directly to the elders of the people – they were to meet with God too! I wonder how many of them felt they had been wrongly picked for this privilege? But if God chose to show himself to them… that puts things in a new light. Does God make mistakes about things like that?

At first sight, the 12 apostles had no trouble accepting their exalted position. Last Sunday, we heard them arguing about who was the greatest! This week, they’re trying to stop someone who’s not a member of the inner circle from doing God’s work. But I wonder, deep down, were they motivated by pride in being the “chosen ones” – or were they, too, insecure about being chosen, and trying to keep rivals at arm’s length?

It’s very easy to find reasons to not do things for the parish we belong to.

Perhaps we feel unworthy.

Perhaps we expect a put-down from others in positions of authority.

Perhaps we’re afraid of criticism or that the work will go horribly wrong.

Or perhaps we’re afraid of being sucked in to a place where we can’t say no.

These fears are real. But God is love, and perfect love casts out all fear.

Jesus made it clear time and time again that God has high expectations of us. The steward entrusted with talents is expected to return with a profit. The “sheep” who do good receive a reward in heaven; the goats, who do nothing, are sent to eternal damnation.

He told parables about a master returning to check on the state of his vineyard, or a servant who only received a small punishment because he didn’t understand what his master expected of him. Among all the false fears we face, there is only one real fear we should cling on to – that at the end of our life we will meet God, and have to explain why we didn’t use our gifts to bless God’s people.

And what exactly does God expect us to do? Love our enemy – be willing to forgive. Love our neighbour – help the people whose needs are most obvious to us. Love God with all our heart – giving time to personal prayer and church services. But also – “Go into the world, teach them to obey everything I taught you,” says Jesus. Today he is teaching us that many volunteers are needed, and we should not be put off by the objections of others or a false sense of our own shortcomings.

Successful churches ask people to build on their strengths. Maybe at school you were told to focus on things you did badly, to get better – or at least less bad. But when we are older, we have a good sense of our true strengths and weaknesses. I’ve got news for you – whatever your strengths are, God gave them to you so you could bless the Church and help other people.

So ask yourself: What gifts have I been given? What’s stopping me from using them here?

Today, Christ warns us not to be an obstacle to children who have faith. It’s easy to blame flawed bishops and abusive priests for setting an appalling example, and yes, each church leader will one day answer to Christ for the choices they have made. But who are the greater obstacles to our young people? Prelates in faraway place they will never meet? Or those of us here today who allow doubts and fears to stop us from offering to serve our young people? If we don’t give our children the experience of church which will best help them grow in faith, what thanks can we expect from God?

In every parish, there is a great need for volunteers to work with children – First Communion, Confirmation and Children’s Liturgy of the Word. For all the reasons I’ve talked about this morning, we might be hesitant to volunteer. But if we allow our fears to defeat us before we begin, we will never become the Church God is calling us to be.

Now is the time. God can take your small offering and do great things with it. And remember – professionals built the Titanic, but Noah’s Ark was built by an amateur!

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.”

Into the Unknown

Homily at St Philip Evans for the Solemnity of St John the Baptist, 2016.

There are days in history when the solid ground on which we stand is thrown up in the air. This morning, with the UK having narrowly voted to leave the EU, is such a day.

Whichever way we voted, we now face a period of uncertainty. Negotiations will take time and the timing and outcome of many things cannot yet be known.

Yet… there is nothing new in this for God’s people.

In ancient Israel, at the end of the age of the Judges, the people called for a king. The prophet Samuel warned them that a king would take their sons for his armies, and their daughters for his harems, but the people clamoured, and God allowed Samuel to anoint Saul as king.

To anoint a king means stability. To anoint a king is to found a dynasty, to accept that his son and his children’s children shall reign for generations to come.

But a day came in the history of Israel when the solid ground on which they stood was thrown up in the air. Samuel was divinely instructed to anoint the boy David as the next King of Israel. It was David’s lineage, not Saul’s, which provided the reign of Solomon and ultimately the heritage of Joseph, husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus the Christ.

Or take an elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, well past the age of childbearing, and looking forward to their retirement. Yet one day, an angel appeared to Zechariah, with the news that his wife was to bear a son. Nor would the son take any name traditional in the family, but would have an entirely new identity. The people asked: “What will this child be?”

In the same way, as Britain today gives birth to an unknown child, an ex-EU member state, we can only watch and wonder what will unfold in the negotiations of the months and years ahead. But remember, there is nothing new for God’s people in having our expectations radically challenged.

There are days in history when the solid ground on which we stand is thrown up in the air. Two such days were the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday, marked by inconsolable grief and indescribable joy. The one who was with his disciples then is with us now. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have encouraged s to pray Cardinal Martini’s Prayer for Europe in this time of transition.