Crystal Clear

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B.

God loves us.

God tests us.

These two truths are uncomfortable to hold together.

Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer. The Jerusalem Bible, which we currently use for Mass in England, translates one phrase as “Do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one.” It reminds me that Pope Francis recently commented that God cannot tempt us to sin, but he does allow us to be tested. So we pray not to be tested, but we know that sometimes God will politely decline our request. We have only a promise in Scripture that we will not be tested “more than we can bear”.

On the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus is affirmed as God’s beloved Son – but even that doesn’t spare him from testing. We know that Lent is leading us towards Maundy Thursday, when Our Lord will face the temptation to run away from his crucifxion before it begins, and the agony of the Cross, when he will be dared to come down before it is finished.

Jesus, the beloved Son, had a choice. He chose to co-operate with his Father’s plan. Yes, today’s Second Reading says that the Father sent Jesus, his beloved son, to lay down his life for us. But in John’s Gospel we also see Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his own life – indeed, the literal translation would be, “I am the beautiful shepherd.” As we see Jesus today bathed in light on top of the holy mountain, consider his beauty! Could anyone be more loving than Jesus?

It’s a bit harder to see something beautiful in today’s first reading. We have another father and son on a mountain, and this son almost lays down his life, too – but perhaps not so willingly. Abraham believes that God has asked him to slaughter his beloved son, the very boy God gave Sarah as a miracle baby. He must be hoping that this is a test, and at some point God is going to offer him a get-out, but when they reach the top of the mountain, there’s no alternative yet. It’s at this point that the horrible truth becomes clear to Isaac – because now Abraham binds his son and pulls out his knife…

I’d like to be able to give you a neat explanation which tidies up this story.

Maybe I could tell you that in the ancient cultures around Abraham, it was a normal thing for a father to sacrifice a son to establish a dynasty, and Abraham thought that this would please the Lord too. But that makes no sense of the Bible declaring that God asked for the sacrfiice, or was pleased with Abraham’s obedience.

Maybe I could tell you that Isaac was a willing victim, happy to obey this terrible command from God; but that doesn’t make sense of the full story – we’ve only been given edited highlights today, but read the whole of Genesis 22 and you will discover that Isaac asks Abraham where they will find the lamb to be sacrificed. And if Isaac was a willing victim, he wouldn’t need to be bound.

Yes, I’d like to be able to give you a neat explanation which explains this Bible passage comfortably. But in the end, I can’t. I can only give you these truths which fit so uncomfortably together.

God loves us.

God tests us.

When we’re faced with something like this, we have a word for it: “Mystery”. Not a puzzle to be solved, but a provoking story inviting us to seek God’s message. And the mystery of the binding of Isaac is mirrored in the mystery of our daily lives. For although we believe that God loves us, we may experience more often the truth that God tests us. And I recently came across a true story which mirrors this mystery.

Crystal McVea had every reason to be angry with God. I won’t share the details of the things that happened to her in her childhood, but they were horrible. She cried out to God, but no help seemed to come. She often boasted that should she ever meet God, she would ask him all the why why why questions. And she got her opportunity. She died.

Or rather, she didn’t die. But she was clinically dead for nine minutes and returned with a remarkable story of meeting God. Now no-one can prove that these ‘near death experiences’ are genuine spiritual experiences, but I think this one’s worthy of a hearing, because of its because powerful impact on her life.

Crystal was confronted with the beauty of God, and suddenly understood so many things about his plan for her life. In that light, all questions fell away from her lips except one. Why… oh why… didn’t I do more for you during my lifetime? In that moment of encounter, God showed Crystal a small girl radiant with light, literally playing in the rivers of light in heaven; and Crystal filled with love for this person before realising who it was – it was herself, as seen through God’s eyes. I won’t read out her words here and now; it’s easy to find her speaking for herself, online. But it was through seeing the glory of God, and her own radiance as a child of God, that she found peace with God despite the many, many tests she had endured in her life. Crystal returned from that experience knowing that her horrible past made sense as part of the loving plan of God; she also found strength to embrace a better present, forgiving her enemies and putting her trust in God. That’s the power of God’s beauty.

I can’t explain the mystery of how the Binding of Isaac was a necessary part of God’s plan. But I trust that it was, and one day we will understand, just as we will appreciate all the trials of our life in these times. Though God covers you with shadow, remember the light!

God loves us.

God tests us.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Beyond the Rainbow

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the First Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Where is the rainbow leading us today?

The story of Noah isn’t the most obvious one for the start of Lent. We can see some basic connections – Noah and his family passed through a trial of 40 days – in fact longer, because after the rain stopped it took time for the waters to go down – and they lived with wild animals, as Jesus did in the wilderness. Theirs was quite an extreme form of lockdown – no daily exercise and nowhere to go shopping!

St Peter made another connection. Before Noah’s family boarded the ark, the earth had been populated by wicked human beings who refused to repent of their sins. But when Jesus died on the cross, he went to the afterlife where the souls of the dead were ‘in prison’, waiting for Jesus to win forgiveness for sinners. God could have destroyed all life on earth and created entirely new lines of animals and humans. But God didn’t do that – he gave the existing lines a chance to start again, saved in the Ark and passing through water. In the same way, new Christians are able to start again by passing through baptism. God’s promise not to flood the earth again might be understood as a sign that baptism cannot be repeated; though at Easter we will remember and renew the promises made at our baptism.

The account of Noah, like many chapters in the book of Genesis, is God’s way of teaching us through a story which is easy to remember; it’s not an account of world history. Was there ever a flood which covered the entire surface of planet Earth? The evidence says No. Were there floods in ancient days which wiped out whole civilisations, so that from one tribe’s point of view, their whole world had been destroyed? Most assuredly, Yes. Was there a first rainbow in the history of the world a few thousand years ago? That is hard to believe, unless the universal properties of light or of water were miraculously changed. Rather, God’s Spirit is here inspiring a rebranding exercise, taking what already exists – the rainbow – and charging it with a new meaning.

Where is the rainbow leading us today?

We human beings are also good at re-branding the rainbow. When I was a child it was simply a sign of hope and cheerfulness. Kermit the Frog sang of the “Rainbow Connection” while Judy Garland dreamed of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Flowing from God’s promise not to destroy the human race, a rainbow flag was used as a sign of peace. Since 1978, a rainbow flag has taken on a more awkward meaning for Christians, being used as a sign of solidarity with the lesbian and gay community. The Catholic Church agrees that no-one should be discriminated against because of their sexual preferences, while maintaining that God’s plan is that the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy is within the marriage of a man and a woman. During the last 12 months, the rainbow has been rebranded again, as a sign of support for our National Health Service in this time of pandemic.

Rainbows can be a sign of false hope – as in the legend of the crock of gold to be found buried where the rainbow touches earth. Of course, you can never reach the end of the rainbow because it moves to keep its distance from you – rainbows are masters of social distancing! This reminds us that we can be tempted to put our hope in material things which can never really satisfy us.

I was struck by the final words of the first reading – God’s promise never again to “destroy all things of flesh”. There, of course, it means all living creatures – but the Bible never wastes words and I think it is meant to remind us of the other meaning of “flesh” – those bodily instincts which sometimes pull us away from God’s plan for our lives. Anger, our appetite for food and drink, and sexual attraction – all these things can lead us along courses of action which we soon regret. Lent is a time to look anew at the temptations of our flesh and to choose to do what is within our power to destroy them. That may mean joining one of the ‘Anonymous’ 12-Step groups (AA NA GA & SA) or seeking the help of a dieting app. But whatever we need to do, let’s work at it with all our willpower, but never forget, when we succeed and when we fail, to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.

Where is the rainbow leading us today?

Let’s rediscover the rainbow as a sign of hope. A rainbow can only form when sunshine and rain are present in the same sky. Although the clouds are grey, the sunlight finds a way through and is revealed in all its glory after passing through the raindrops. Without the grey there could be no glory. But on many a grey day I’ve seen a rainbow and realised that the sun must be getting through somewhere, and you can find it if you turn and look.

At the start of Mass, we used a song called Oceans. We’ve called upon God’s spirit to lead us where our ‘trust is without borders’ – giving God permission to take us anywhere, however grey, on our journey to glory. Maybe, like St Peter trying to walk on water, our feet will fail. Maybe we haven’t started Lent so well, or faltered in our chosen discipline already.

It’s OK to start now, or to begin again.

Jesus took Peter’s hand to save him from drowning, and reached out to the souls of sinners who had died throughout human history. Do you not think he will do the same for you? If you’ve never been baptised, what’s stopping you asking for it? If you have been baptised, you can be cleansed anew through the sacrament of confession – and priests are available to do this securely, even in current circumstances.

Where is the rainbow leading us today? It offers a promise that God’s anger will pass and our sins can be forgiven. That is the true gold beyond the rainbow; so as Jesus famously said, repent, and believe the good news!

New Eyes Will Be Provided

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

There are times when a beacon of hope shines in the midst of darkness.

For the people of Capernaum in the New Testament, that beacon shone out when Jesus was in his home town. Sick people were healed, demons were driven out, and crowds flocked to see him.

For Britain in 2020, that beacon shone out when a war veteran started walking laps of his garden to raise money for NHS Charities. Captain Tom Moore, 99 years old, became a media sensation, recorded a chart-topping song with Michael Ball, and was knighted by the Queen.

The trouble with beacons is that they don’t last forever. Jesus was anxious to move on to preach in other towns, leaving Capernaum behind. This week we received the sad news that Captain Sir Tom is no longer with us, having died of covid complications to a previous lung disease.

It’s when we’ve grown used to the light that the darkness seems darkest.

Job is a case in point. The full story of Job in the Bible begins with a successful man, blessed with wealth, health, plentiful flocks, and a large family. But God permits multiple disasters to fall upon him: his flocks are stolen, his children die in a building collapse, and his skin is blighted by sores. Little wonder, then, that in the First Reading we heard today, Job has decided to throw himself a pity party. “Woe is me!” Job, fretful and worn out, has reached the point where he can see nothing but the negatives of life on earth. When his friends try to cheer him up, Job reasonably responds by asking what he has left to live for. Even encouraging words are not enough to raise his spirits. Job dismally muses, “My eyes will never again see joy.”

Strangely, Job’s misery reminds me of the story of an irrepressibly joyful woman who sat through a cheerless sermon. The preacher went on and on about the danger of going to hell because of our sins, where – as Jesus indeed does say in the Bible – there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Yet every time the preacher warned of the dangers of hell, the woman’s smile grew wider. Eventually, the preacher could stand it no more. He fixed the woman with a stare and said, “Madam! Do you understand nothing of what I am saying? Do you not realise that Jesus warned us of a place of eternal torment where your teeth will gnash forever?”

The woman opened her smiling mouth to reveal a gummy grin. “No teeth!” she declared proudly.

“Teeth,” declared that preacher, “will be provided!”

What today’s preacher, however, would say to Job and does say to you, is that new eyes will also be provided – eyes that will once again behold the joy of life. Job’s misery is not the Bible’s final answer. God will raise up for us new bodies in a new heaven and a new earth. Yes, Jesus did walk among us healing sick people and driving away evil, but that wasn’t his core purpose in coming. His purpose – and the mission which also drove St Paul – was to preach the Good News that God was close to us. It is because God is close to us that we are invited to change and to believe.

Sometimes, we can hang on to joy by our own human abilities. In the film Life is Beautiful, the irrepressible Guido woos his future wife by constantly greeting her with the salutation, “Buongiorno Principessa!” Good Day, Princess! Later, when they are in separate wings of a concentration camp, Guido manages to gain access to the public address system, and his opening words, to encourage his wife, are – of course – Buongiorno Principessa!” She knew, then, that she was not alone.

When Captain Tom recorded a song for charity, he chose the anthem, “You’ll never walk alone.” Some famous sporting songs have religious roots, but this one was written by Rogers & Hammerstein for the musical, Carousel, and later adopted by Liverpool FC.

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone.

Why will we never walk alone? At the human level, because in our care for one another, we can and do reach out to one another – and I’ve spoken several times in the last year about the importance of picking up the phone to call those who might be alone at this time. But also because when we need help, we must overcome that pride which stops us asking for help, especially when it concerns our own mental health. It would be a great misfortune to be alone simply because I chose not to ask someone to walk with me through my secret storms.

Jesus not only left one town to preach in another, he finally left us on earth to take up his seat at the right hand of his Father in heaven. Before he left us, he declared:

“I will not leave you orphans! … In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live… Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

John 14: 18, 19, 23

So if you are in a dark place this week, if you need to be filled with that light which only God can give, today is a good day to pray. Heavenly Father – Lord Jesus Christ – Holy Spirit – come and make your home within me. Teach me anew that I am not an orphan, for I have a Father in heaven and the light of Christ to guide me on earth. Holy Spirit, fill me with all the gifts I need to go boldly forward, and make me a beacon of hope for others – through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

We Believe in Grace, Not Karma

Grace-Not-KarmaHomily at St Philip Evans on Easter Sunday 2015

The Seven Word Sermon: What goes around can stop at Jesus.

Christ has died!

Christ is Risen!

Christ will come again!

Today is a great day. Today we celebrate our security. The world around us is full of dangers. Planes crash. Terrorists cause havoc. No-one can predict the shape of next month’s Government. But today we have good news that no traitor, politician or terrorist can take away from us. Jesus is not dead! He now enjoys a life that will never end, in heaven, and we have a place there!

But isn’t this too good to be true? Isn’t it the case that what goes around, comes around?

We human beings have a strong sense of “just deserts”. When someone hurts us, our natural instinct is “Someone must pay for this!” When we ourselves are the culprits, we have a guilty sense that we need to do something to make amends. On the other hand, when someone does a good deed for us, we might just be inspired to pay it forward – at some coffee shops there is now a tradition of buying a “suspended coffee” to be claimed by the next customer, who in turn will pay for another.

Today, we celebrate something altogether greater, an act of generosity which we can never repay.

Our Lord Jesus died, suspended upon a Cross. He resisted the temptation to come down in an act of Divine Power, choosing instead to endure the death penalty. Then, things got interesting. An empty tomb. A mysterious stranger with a familiar bearing. An abrupt appearance through a locked door. Doubt no longer, but believe!

As Christians, we believe in grace, not karma. Yes, our instincts are right when they tell us we deserve some kind of payback for what we have done wrong. But Jesus has paid for it. This is what we are celebrating today! Jesus, with his own body, has paid the ultimate price.

If our innermost being is crying out “Someone must pay for this,” Jesus looks into the depths of our pain and says, “I have. Be at peace.” His sacrifice has paid not only for the sins of our enemies, but our own sins too. It is a free gift, offered out of love, and unlike the suspended coffee, one that we can never repay.

During the past six weeks of Lent, we have struggled to do that which is within our power, to live better lives, to overcome our worst habits, to do good to others. In short, we did what we could to become better people. But today, we celebrate that Jesus did what we cannot. We cannot earn heaven.

We have a special name for the kind of free gift which God offers to us. We call it grace.

God thinks we are worth dying for. That’s grace!

In a few moments, when we renew our baptismal commitment, I will ask: “Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins?”

If you do, then you believe in grace, not karma. You believe that what goes round doesn’t need to come round. You believe that Jesus has willingly accepted the consequence of every wrongful deed you have ever done.

The best gifts are the ones given to us unexpectedly – a loving hand on our shoulder, a handmade gift, a surprise party. Most unexpectedly, Jesus gave his life for us. We can never repay this gift, but we can respond to it – by celebrating Easter with all our heart, mind and strength.

We believe in grace, not karma.

Let us make this a day of rejoicing!

Christ has died!

Christ is Risen!

Christ will come again!

Photo credits – the thinking person design was from Pixabay, the Risen Christ from Flickr user WaitingForTheWord.

Faith in the Future

A gateway looking through the wall of Scarborough Castle onto the seaHomily at St John Lloyd, for The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 1 of 4 in our new series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

When I was a pupil at comprehensive school in Llanelli, our Deputy Head often read those words, at Christmastime or at the end of the school year. And in a primary school where I used to work, the last day of term was often marked by a rousing song with the refrain “I can do anything I choose!” These are stirring words, and the poem and the song both bring us a feel-good factor for an uncertain time in our life. It’s good to have hope.

Our Christian hope is based on more than mere sentiment or optimism. We do not read cheerful words to create hope where none is warranted. Rather, in our worship we remind ourselves that our God is a faithful God, a God who has kept His promises, and will keep His promises. Our rather mysterious first reading was referring to the way God kept his promise to make Israel a great nation by liberating the Hebrew people from Egypt on the night when the first born males of the Egyptians died, though the houses which had sacrificed a lamb were spared. Over the last couple of weeks, the readings at weekday Mass have recalled the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert, as they doubted whether God was ever going to bring them to the Promised Land. Indeed, the Bible is full of many journeys into the unknown, from the calling of Abraham to St Paul’s journey, as a prisoner, to Rome. These stories are to strengthen each one of us as God leads us on our personal journey from the unchangeable past into the unknown future.

It is not easy, being a friend of Jesus. He allows his friends to be tested, and tested sorely. The apostles had to pass through the pain of Good Friday and the agonising loneliness of Holy Saturday before they could experience the unending joy of the Resurrection. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we recall both the triumph and the tragedy of the Easter story.

There was a time, in the history of this parish, when St John Lloyd was without a Parish Priest for several months. It must have been a difficult time, because the anguish is clear in the voices of those among you who have told me about it. I wonder what would happen if this parish again found itself without a resident parish priest? The temptation would be to throw a pity-party, to despair, to doubt that God or the Church cares about this part of Cardiff. But that would be a tragic mistake! To be sure, when there is no Parish Priest, something significant is missing. But why focus on the one gift which is absent, rather than the many gifts which are present?

Imagine there were no parish priest here. But God has not changed! He is, and always will be, the God who allows his friends to be tested and brings them out of darkness and into light. If you have faith in God – the God who has always rescued his people from dark times – then you will not be alone. Did you know that in the year 1587, priests were expelled from Japan, but lay leaders kept the Catholic Church alive, underground, for nearly 250 years? Without priests, they could have baptisms and marriages, but no other sacraments. In 1865, a French priest was permitted to build a church near Nagasaki; suddenly, a group of visitors approached and asked if it was true that he was single, sent from a place called Rome, and that the church contained a statue of the Virgin Mary. In this way, the hidden Catholics were reunited with the wider Church; Pope Pius IX called this a miracle! For those hidden Christians, who had been keeping watch for several generations, the Master had returned!

Imagine there were no parish priest here. But the official presence of the Church would still be close at hand, in the form of our local deacon, and of the priests in nearby parishes, who would still lend assistance. And indeed the Church is present wherever Christians meet together to pray and to do God’s work. When two members of the SVP visit a person at home, the Church is present. When members of the congregation pray Morning Prayer together, even if neither Deacon Rigo not myself are here, the Church is present. When our First Communion Catechists gather with our children, the Church is present. If you have faith in one another, you will keep the community together and continue to make the Church present.

Imagine that, for a time, there were no parish priest here. When one was appointed, what would he find? A community dejected and mournful, or a confident community ready to present the works they have been preparing for him? I have known of priests who have been disappointed to arrive in their new parish to discover no food in the cupboard, no furniture in the bedroom, no set of keys for their duties and no Christian work taking place in the community. But I tell you this, if a priest were to arrive and to be presented with a warm welcome, a group of candidates well-prepared for the sacraments, and all of the material needs on hand, then surely he would put on his apron, wait upon your needs, and become your friend for life. On the day I moved in, the parish turned out in force to help move my boxes, and for that welcome, St John Lloyd is second to none!

Today’s Gospel is first and foremost about the coming of Christ – the Second Coming at the end of time, or the personal Coming when our earthly lives reach their end. It asks us whether the Lord will find us living out our Christian values of faith, hope and love throughout our lives, even when we are tired. Let’s recognise that it’s not easy, being a follower of Jesus. It’s not meant to be. Jesus embraced his Cross and warned us that we would each have to carry our own Cross. Over the next three Sundays, Jesus will be teaching us something about the price we will pay for choosing to follow him.

We will choose the path of humility, or else we will be humbled.

We will set down our baggage, or else find that we cannot carry it with us through the narrow gate of heaven.

We will choose to follow Jesus when this does not make us popular with friends and colleagues who do not share our faith, or else we will please our friends at the expense of God.

Today’s Gospel can also apply to any wilderness experience when being a faithful Catholic seems hard, and the presence of God, in the form of Christian friends or of the institutional church, seems far away. So if in your life now, or in the future, the presence of God feels far away, remember these words:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.