To Know the Mind of God!

SERMON FOR THE CATHOLIC COMMUNITY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

I’m in Essex this morning because I’m travelling – I’ve had a holiday in France and I’ll be spending the coming week with the Sion Community in Brentwood. That means that I haven’t seen my cat for three weeks. I did try to explain to him that I was going to be away for a month, but I don’t think he understood – the best I could do was a special tickle behind the ears before I left.

We human beings can do something my cat can’t – we can use language to communicate ideas. But sometimes even language fails. St Paul never met Our Lord when he was preaching and teaching on earth – it was only after Christ had ascended into heaven that St Paul was given a deep and mysterious vision. Whatever Paul saw, it turned him from someone who attacked Christians into the Number One defender of Christ!

Today’s Second Reading is from a long letter which Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome – a community he had never visited in person. He’s just finished a long section pondering the ways God has tried to communicate with human beings. God called Abraham to be the father of a chosen people, Moses to liberate the Israelites from slavery, and raised up countless prophets to remind the Kings of Israel that they must keep their Covenant with God in order to benefit from divine protection. Then God changed the deal, sending Jesus; although some of the Jews recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah, many others turned against him. Now Paul has come to understand that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jews, but for all people!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. If we started with a blank piece of paper and tried to work out how God might have communicated with human beings, would we have come up with a story like that, taking us from Abraham to Christ? Probably not! And do we human beings have more hope of understanding God’s plans, than my cat can understand that I am going away for a month but then returning? The good news is that not only do we have the gift of language, God has stooped down to our level to speak to us! In the person of Jesus, God became man to speak to us in human words and human actions! Not only that, but sometimes God speaks to us individually, giving us a moment of clarity or deeper understanding through prayer!

Today’s Gospel gives us an example. “Who do people say I am?” asks Jesus. St Peter nails it – “You are the Christ!” How does Peter know? God-the-Father has planted that knowledge deep in his soul!

Although God reveals some things to us, we don’t have the full understanding of things as God sees them. Here’s an example which might help. My cat is very good at praying. Whenever he sees me, he asks for food! If it’s the right time, I feed him… but since he’s a rather fat cat, sometimes the answer to his prayer has to be “not right now”. I don’t think he understands why he sometimes receives what he asks for, but not always. But I do know he keeps on praying!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. Before I became a priest, I was a professional astronomer – I have a PhD in astrophysics – so I ought to mention the famous quote by Professor Stephen Hawking. In his book, A Brief History of Time, he concludes by saying that if we had a full explanation of “why it is that we and the universe exist”, we would “know the mind of God”. Later, Hawking clarified that he doesn’t believe in God, but if we knew the rules that govern the Universe, and why they work the way they do, we would know everything that could be known.

Actually, Hawking is half right. The universe around us clearly obeys ordered rules which are, at some deep level, TRUE. Since all truths are part of God (Jesus said “I am the Truth”) then to know the laws of the Universe is to know part of the mind of God. But what Hawking would admit himself, if you pushed him, is that even if we knew those laws fully, we could never predict exactly what the universe, the earth, or an individual human life would look like; within those laws there is space for random outcomes, due to quantum mechanics, and for results that can’t be computed accurately enough, due to what mathematicians call chaotic behaviour, so that each human story remains a mystery to be unfolded only in the telling.

“Who can be God’s counsellor?” asks St Paul. Sometimes our prayers do tend towards giving God advice. “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!” Or when we pray for our loved ones, do we explain their situation and problems to God? I’ll let you into a secret – God knows their problems already, even the ones you don’t know about! But God still appreciates the act of love which is you taking time to talk about them.

Last Wednesday the universal church celebrated St Rose of Lima – like St Paul, she sometimes received mystical visions. One led her to a deep understanding of why God permits human beings to suffer and how God would use it for good. A similar understanding came to a local Englishwoman, Mother Julian of Norwich, who confidently assures us that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

It would be nice if there were a God who stopped all pain and suffering in this life. But there’s no earthly religion which offers that – if there were, we would have all joined up long ago! That leaves only two possibilities – either there is no god, or there is a God who exists alongside this world with all its pains and problems. I wasn’t intentionally looking for God when my granny died – I was 11 years old – but when I cried out to any god who might be there to take care of her soul, something deep and mysterious happened which allowed me to make a connection with Jesus, to become a Catholic, and in due course, to become a priest. There’s no time now to tell my story in depth, but I’d be happy to do so informally, after Mass.

We do, however, believe that God has a plan to deal with pain and suffering. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he left us with a promise that one day he will return to remake the world, reversing death and banishing tears – a belief so fundamental that we affirm it every time we say the Creed. I don’t know whether Christ will come again before the happy day next month when my cat discovers that I have come home! But we are invited, as friends of Christ, to spend this life plumbing the depths of God, so that we can experience greater joy when we meet God in the world to come. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus, come!

The Absence of God

Rublev's icon of three angels around a table, representing the TrinityHomily at St Philip Evans for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

Today, I’d like to talk about God.

This is not as easy as it seems!

There are two problems with talking about God. The first one is being clear about who we are talking about.

Our Lord, Jesus, called his heavenly Father, “God”. Usually, when we read the Gospels, the name “God” points to “God-the-Father”. But we believe in one God who exists as three persons: the Father, who loves us; Jesus the Son, who died for us; and God the Holy Spirit, who lives within us. So when we hear the name, “God”, we must always pause and ask ourselves what is meant: the Person whom Jesus called Father, or the common nature shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

The second problem is what we are talking about. Sometimes, when we hear the name, “God”, our mind is filled with all kinds of ideas which don’t really match what Jesus came to teach us. Is God a faceless cosmic force like the one in Star Wars? No. Is God an old man with a beard looking down on us from a cloud? No. Is God just a label for the ideas contained in the Bible? No. God exists as three persons who love us very much, three persons who invite us into friendship. The Russian artist, Rublev, depicted God as three angels around a table, and a place open at the fourth side for us for us to join them. Now that’s a good image for God!

Next I’d like to talk about the absence of God. Sometimes, it seems that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not there when we need Them. Today’s Gospel ends by Jesus showing his divine power – not only does He calm the storm and walk on water, but He announces Himself to the disciples in the words “It is I” – a powerful expression, equivalent to God telling Moses his name was “I Am Who Am”. But if this is a story about Jesus showing us that He is God in human form, let’s backtrack and read the story again. I’m going to add a twist – wherever Jesus does something, I will put in the name, “God”.

The story begins with God sending the disciples away. They are doing what God wants, but they are alone at sea when a terrible storm starts battering the boat. They cry out to God – but God is back on shore, praying. God is also very close to them, loving them, but they do not notice that in their fear.

Eventually God does come to them, but they are scared to see Him coming. Peter cries out, “God, let me do what you do!” – and for a few moments he succeeds. But he soon finds that it’s not easy playing God, and so the true God has to rescue him.

The Prophet Elijah had a similar experience. God said: “Go outside and wait for me.” Elijah endured an earthquake, a mighty wind, and fire, before God turned up in a moment of calm.

As for Peter and Elijah, so there are times in our lives when God seems far away. Perhaps we’re enduring a long illness, or some ongoing conflict at work. In particular, when someone we love dies, we look for someone to blame, and God seems an easy target. God could have healed that person, and didn’t. So it must be God’s fault that they are dead. And as soon as that thought enters our head, it becomes much more difficult to love God, because who could love a person who has robbed you of a loved one? But God is not present to us in the earthquake which has rocked our lives, or the storm of confusion which follows, or the fire of anger which is a natural part of loss. We only re-connect with God when we find our balance again.

Even being a churchgoer, or a friend of God, doesn’t protect us from being tested. Such trials come even though we’ve followed the direction God has set for us. We can take comfort in knowing that the Bible also promises us that we will not be tested more than we can bear. Even so, God will test us. God challenges us saying, “Ye of little faith, why did ye doubt?” If we have faith, we will endure until the peace of God returns. And through all of this, we are very much loved by God, as a parent loves their growing and wandering child.

Those of you who are parents know that at a certain age, your children will go out into the world and you will no longer be able to protect them from all their mistakes. In the same way, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit allow us to live in this world with all its trials, knowing that we will be tempted to blame Them. So today, may I invite you to forgive God for not living up to your hopes and expectations? If the fire of anger still burns in your heart towards the Father Almighty, it is only when you forgive Him that you can experience the calm place of meeting. If the mighty winds of the storms of life surround you, call out to Jesus; he will come and calm the storm, in His own time. If the earthquake is just beginning, call upon the Holy Spirit to abide in your heart with His gifts of patience, self-control and the ability to endure. God will be there for you when the storm has passed. Have faith! Let God be God! And when the storm passes, Jesus will also be holding you above the waves.

So I invite you to forgive God for allowing you to be tested. Your God is too small! The Great God hidden in Jesus Christ will invite you to go on adventures where you may not always experience God’s presence, but remember Rublev’s icon: you will always be invited to return to the place set for you at God’s table. Come now, let us dine at the Lord’s Supper.

Enforcer or Encourager?

Homily at St John Lloyd, for the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Year C

Is God your enforcer, or your encourager?

If you had to draw a picture of God, what image would be the first to come to mind? A policeman? A personal trainer? A prison guard? It’s all too easy to focus on the part of the Gospel which points us to high moral standards and leap to the conclusion that God is out to get us if we don’t live up to them.

In the First Reading, God’s people arrive at the Promised Land, and we’re reminded that even during their time wandering in the desert, God provided manna for them – God was looking after them even while they served their 40-year punishment for not trusting God’s commands in the first place.

Today’s other readings don’t focus on the God who disciplines us, but on the God who wants us to live in that Promised Land, that place of peace and harmony. God is the proud parent, wanting the very best for each one of His children, encouraging them to do the right thing but holding His breath while they mess up.

I’m not a parent myself, so I’m going to borrow my Mum’s eyes for a moment. I left home for the first time when I was not quite 18. Mum had very mixed feelings. Yes, I’d won a place at Oxford University and was off to fulfil my dreams – but Mum knew that I was still very young in the ways of the world and was desperately worried about what was going to happen to little Gareth, out there, on his own. Well, as you can see, I survived – but yes, my first three years away from home were also part of the school of hard knocks.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, let’s acknowledge the very difficult emotional challenge of being a mother. If your child does something idiotic, your maternal instinct is to protect and soothe – while your parental responsibility is to speak a word of correction. Indeed, every parent will feel this tension between caring and coaching, though different families manage this in different ways. Yet every parent knows the day will come when their child has to be given enough space to make their own life-decisions, with all the risks that go along with that!

We are God’s children, and God speaks to us – through the Church and through our own conscience – about the standards that we should keep. If God has spoken to us about Right and Wrong, it’s because God wants the very best for His children, not because He is out to get us! And the Christian life is one where God is ALWAYS calling us to raise our game, to live a higher standard. The great saints weren’t people likely to commit the big sins against the Ten Commandments, but God still challenged them to improve with the small stuff. For St Therese of Lisieux the challenge went like this: “You see that nun who gets on your nerves? Make a special point of being charming to her!” St David must have had something similar in mind, in his dying words to “be faithful in the little things”. For us, it might be that in the stress of ordinary family life, we don’t treat our spouse or our children with the tenderness or understanding which they deserve. In our modern society, each one of us has to deal with ethical questions about recycling, care for the environment, and making economic decisions which are fair to the poorest members of our society. So whether we’re tempted most by pleasure, money, sex or power, each one of us will have some area of our life where we are struggling with temptation, struggling to put the “right thing” ahead of self interest.

RELAX! The normal way of being a Catholic is to spend our life struggling against temptation. Even Jesus was tempted. But look out – there are two wrong ways of handling it.

The first trap is to beat ourselves up. “I’m never going to be perfect! What hope is there for me in this church?”

What is the church meant to be?

A community of shared values.

We all aspire to those values.

We all fail, at times.

We encourage each other to keep going.

The second trap is to reject the values. “These standards are inhuman! They are unattainable!”

No! Jesus shows us the standard. Jesus shows us the perfect example of a human being pouring out love without limit. This is our goal – and without a goal, where would we go? But we can’t do it in our own strength, only by God’s grace. We are meant to find fulfilment in being partners with God.

The younger son says “give me my inheritance now, and I will spend it my way.” Eventually, poverty drives him home to the Father, and only then does he realise the depth of the Father’s love.

The elder son is looking for affirmation, to be recognised as an important person in his own right. Only when he puts his jealousy into words can the Father challenge him to enjoy his status as a Son of God rather than as an independent person.

Both sons got it wrong. But God is merciful! In the Old Testament, our God proclaims to Moses that he is the God of mercy. God offers us this deal: keep admitting that you are not perfect, and things will be great between us.

The world we live in today puts the individual at the centre. You are important! You have rights! Assert your rights! As far as possible, society will make WHAT YOU WANT the most important thing.

No, says God, that way lies tension. Make WHAT GOD WANTS the most important thing, and come together around that. You will fail. Failure is OK. Look at the Cross – the greatest failure in human history! God-in-Christ comes down to earth to preach to his people, to lead them in building a community of love – and they kill him! But God is a specialist in bringing life out of death, success out of failure, hope out of despair. THIS is the God we celebrate every Sunday. This is the God I worship, the one who encourages me to try again when I get things wrong, the one who always offers a fresh start as long as I’m humble enough to admit my mistakes.

My God is the one who encourages me never to lower my standards, always to try again, and to rejoice in my status as a beloved member of His family. You are welcome to share my God. But perhaps your God is the policeman, the punisher, the prison guard. Might I be bold enough to suggest that your God is a false God? Your God certainly doesn’t sound like the one Jesus came to introduce us to. So I ask you: is your God your enforcer, or your encourager? And as always, if this stirs up deep questions, you are more than welcome to speak to me confidentially for spiritual direction. Let me introduce you to the Father Jesus came to reveal!

Am I doubting that God loves me? If so, what hurt or bad experience do I need to talk over with someone I trust?

When did I last ask God for something good? Am I afraid it will not be granted?

What experiences have I had of unanswered prayer? Have they affected the way I pray?