Humble Yourself in the eyes of the Lord, and He Will Raise You Up

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 4 of 4 in our series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.The word Rejected, as a faded red stamp

Have you ever had the experience of Not Being Picked for something you really wanted to be involved in? I have.

At school, I was the tubby kid who was always the last pick for any sports team. I didn’t mind that – I didn’t particularly want to be running around the field anyway. But when the school set up a School Council, and I wasn’t picked for that, it smarted. So I kindly but firmly pointed out that it wasn’t fair for one person to represent the whole Sixth Form – there should be reps for upper and lower sixth. The staff agreed! They opened up an extra position, for which I was eligible. And guess what? I was Not Picked again!

Later, when I was completing my degree at Oxford University, I started applying for PhD places at prestigious universities. I applied to stay at Oxford – Rejected. I tried Cambridge – Rejected. Imperial College London? Rejected. Cardiff? “Nothing available this year, but please try next year.”

For the first time in my life, I was without options. All the doors I had pushed at were closed. I suffered the deepest sense of rejection I had ever experienced in my life. Then, most unexpectedly, an opening came up to work for the Church in Nottingham for a year, and after that gap year, I was able to come to Cardiff for my PhD. Now, with hindsight, I can see God’s hand at work in all of those closed and opened doors, but at the time it was very painful.

When we experience rejection, we leap to the conclusion that God doesn’t care about us. That’s a mistake! God cares a lot, but in this fallen world God allows situations to take place where we experience temporary rejection. Even God’s own son, Jesus Christ, was rejected by his own people before rising into everlasting glory.

What is God saying to us today? We are the “Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven.” God has no grandchildren – we are all equally, by our baptism, sons and daughters of the living God! The Word goes on to say that we have “been placed with spirits of the saints who have been made perfect”. That doesn’t sound like much of a rejection to me!

God does not reject us – but if we have unrealistic expectations, we will certainly experience rejection. This is why Jesus is so keen to immunize us against rejection with the teaching He gives today.

“Always take the lowest place,” he tells us. First, notice that WE ARE INVITED. Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t come to the banquet. We are invited, and we are expected. It is the right place for us!  If we come without expecting or demanding honours or special treatment, we cannot be disappointed. But if our expectations are too high, we will be humbled.

Friends in Christ, I know that you who worship regularly in St John Lloyd are about to enter a challenging period of weeks. For two months, there will be no resident priest here. Then there will be a new priest to get used to. You will be tempted with proud thoughts:

“Why was OUR parish chosen to be without a priest for two months? Why was Pastor Gareth sent here for such a short time if he wasn’t going to be able to stay? We deserve better!” If you allow those thoughts to get the better of you, then you will experience a rejection which is not God’s plan for you. But if you were to say to yourself: “We are a small parish. The Archbishop could have easily merged us or left us without a priest. We know resources are limited, and whatever we are given is a gift,”, then in our hearts we will have taken the lowest place, and will receive a blessing from Christ.

I want to invite you, here and now, this evening, to make a commitment. Because there will be different priests for the next two months, the style of worship will vary from week to week. Then you will need to get used to your new parish priest. You may feel tempted to go to Mass somewhere else. That might be good for you – but it wouldn’t be good for this parish and it wouldn’t be good for your new parish priest. Therefore, I ask you: if you regularly come to this Saturday evening Mass, or if you come one of the Masses at St John Lloyd every weekend, will you make a humble committment tonight to keep coming here for the next four months, however bumpy things feel?

Will you support each other through the time of change? Will you give your new priest a chance?

Finally, a word to those of you whose hearts have been wounded by rejection. The only person who can heal that wound is called Jesus. I must leave you for a new assignment, but Jesus will never leave this parish, and he, the Good Shepherd, will never abandon even one of you, who are his sheep. There are many ways Jesus comes to us. When we receive Holy Communion, he enters us in the form of the Blessed Sacrament. But he can also touch our hearts and minds in prayer.

Therefore I have one final parting gift for you.

I invite you to close your eyes and open your hands in front of you.

In this moment of prayer, I ask Jesus Our Lord to speak to each one of you, in the depths of your heart. You are not a mistake. Your being here is not an accident. You are loved by God and saved by Jesus.

Whatever rejection you may have experienced from other human beings, however it might have seemed like God himself had forgotten you, he was with you. I ask Jesus to come to you  now and touch your hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit!

Jesus is Alive – and He loves you!

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

“I am the bread … that comes down from heaven … [you] may eat it and not die. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.”

By the time St John’s Gospel had been committed to writing, some 40 or 50 years had passed since the dying and rising of Christ. St John and his community would have been well aware that many who had followed Jesus were now dead. Those who had attended the Eucharist and shared in the bread of life had, in fact, died – as martyrs, or from disease, or of natural causes in old age. No-one would have even suggested that Holy Communion could prevent the physical death of the human body. Instead, the “living forever” which was promised would have been understood as living in the same way as the Risen Jesus. It would be a different kind of living, with God in heaven – until the promised day arrives when God will give transformed bodies to all those who have died. Jesus promised in the words we’ve just read that He will “raise [us] up at the last day”.

Enjoying the fullness of this spiritual life, which never ends, needs us to do something. We must choose to stay connected to Jesus. And that’s not as easy as it sounds, because seemingly petty things can get in the way. “Your fathers ate the manna in the desert, and they are dead,” said Jesus. Why was it that the generation of Jewish people who were led by Moses in person could not receive eternal life from God? In the story of Moses we are told that the people grumbled about the difficult journey which God has asked them to make. Their punishment for failing to trust in God was that an entire generation would live and die in the wilderness before their children could enter the promised land. The Jewish ancestors who ate the manna were not spiritually dead because manna was inferior to what Jesus could offer – they were spiritually dead because they failed to put their trust in God.

Keeping that trust firm is not easy. If you are at a stage in your life or faith where you feel discouraged, where your faith in God doesn’t seem to provide much support any more, then take heart. Faith is a marathon, not a sprint, and there are times during the race when God will seem far away. These are the times when we must make a sheer act of will to continue to put our trust in God.

The first temptation is to say “I’m not worth it. God doesn’t care.” Resist! You can’t go far in the New Testament without seeing that Jesus chooses to love and to care for all people. The Good News is that Jesus’ love extends to everyone who is willing to receive it. NO MATTER HOW INADEQUATE YOU FEEL, God really does love you.

We can, however, distance ourselves from God by our own behaviour. “Everybody who believes has eternal life” says Jesus – but believing here is not just an intellectual act. We might translate it better as “everybody who puts their trust in Christ”, and that trust must be expressed through the choices we make. The Israelites who failed to keep their agreement with God were condemned to wander 40 years in the desert. If we claim to be Catholics but do not follow the instructions left to us by our Master, we are not keeping our end of God’s bargain, either. And what God requires of us is that we must always forgive others – we may, when appropriate, offer a word of correction, but we must not penalise anyone for their failings. We mustn’t maintain grudges against others, or behave harshly or rudely towards any other person, or allow ourselves to express any sort of spitefulness.

The next temptation is to say “I’ve blown it. I’ve held a grudge. I’ve been rude. I’ve acted spitefully.” If so – repent! The only way to true healing is through acknowledging your failings. Don’t be afraid to go to Jesus. He already knows your shortcomings. He died on a Cross so that these faults, these very faults which trouble you so, can be forgiven. He is standing with his arms open, yearning for you – “Come! I long to forgive you. Come to me. Ask me. ASK ME!” There are only two things which can prevent Jesus forgiving us: the first is our unwillingness to ask, and the second is our refusal to extend forgiveness to others.

Whatever guilt we carry for our own wrong choices, let us run quickly to the feet of Jesus and exchange our burden of guilt for the free gift of forgiveness. When we receive Holy Communion today, let us also be mindful of how we have received the message of Jesus into our lives.

The offer of the Bread of Life is not costless. It costs our pride – we must admit that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy. We must also give up our diffidence that we are unworthy of a share in God’s life. Of course we’re unworthy – and we acknowledge this at every Mass, in the words we speak just before we receive Holy Communion. But this isn’t about what we deserve. This is about real love, God’s deep desire that we accept the gift which Christ came to offer – his Body, given for the life of the world.

Friends, the Word of God places before you again the choice which all Christians must make: Death, or Life. You can choose to hold on to grudges and spiteful instincts. That way lies spiritual death. Or you can give up your old sins, your spitefulness, your grudges, and choose Life – a life worth living on earth, a life centred on giving and receiving love and forgiveness, a life which, though your body may die, will carry you from glory to glory and into the Heart of God. Choose Life – for anyone who eats this Word, this Life, this Bread, will live for ever.