Only by Grace

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

I’d like to begin with a story. It’s about Paddy – a man who was very active in his church community, and died in his 70s.A cartoon showing a queue of people at the Pearly Gates

When Paddy reached the Pearly Gates, he expected them to swing open in front of him. Instead, he was rather bemused to find St Peter standing in front of him with a clipboard.

“OK,” said St Peter, “here’s how it works. In order to get into heaven, you need 100 points. You tell me all the reasons we should let you into heaven, and I will add up the points.”

“Right,” said Paddy. “For starters, I have never missed Mass on a Sunday. Every weekend of my life, I’ve been at church.”

“Excellent,” said St Peter. “One point.”

Paddy’s face fell. “Only one?” he thought – but he didn’t say it out loud.

“I’ve always supported church,” said Paddy, “and ever since I started earning a decent wage I’ve given 5% of my income to church. And I used Gift Aid!”

“Great,” said St Peter. “That’s another point.”

Paddy was beginning to feel rather desperate now. What would earn him another 98 points? He had one more thing…

“I’ve always been a peacemaker,” he said, “stepping in to stop fights. And if I’ve been arguing with someone, I’ve always been the first to step forward to make up.”

“Wonderful,” said St Peter, “the boss is really keen on that sort of thing. That gets you another three points – you’ve scored five so far.”

“FIVE POINTS?” scowled Paddy. “For all that, just five? If I’m ever going to get through those gates, it will only be by the grace of God !”

At that moment, a fanfare played and the gates opened. “That’s the correct answer,” said St Peter, “only God’s grace is worth 100 points. Come on in!”

If we wish to become saints – and if our goal is to enter heaven, then we must all plan to become saints – our first step is to recognise that we need God’s help. “Grace” is just a fancy name for God’s help. When God gives help to people who don’t deserve it, that’s called “mercy”.

It’s easy to get the wrong idea about “mercy”. There’s a playground game where children wrestle until one shouts “mercy” because it hurts; or in a movie, the bad guy might have some terrible torture to inflict on the victim, who calls out for mercy. Do we really believe God is like a Hollywood villain, out to punish us?

It’s true, there’s a prayer which we might have learned to use in confession, where we acknowledge that because of our sins, we deserve God’s “dreadful punishments”. This might fool us into thinking that God is some kind of sadist who delights in handing out justice. But we know that Jesus came to show us that God is the most loving of Fathers, who always wishes to forgive rather than punish. And how do we obtain that forgiveness? We do what the tax-collector did in today’s Gospel! We cry out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Why, then, did the Church ever come up with a prayer which talks about “dreadful punishments”? It’s because we know that, like Paddy, we could never deserve to go to heaven because of our good deeds. Only someone who had never committed a sin in their life could deserve to go to heaven. No sinner could be worthy to spend forever in God’s company. But if we missed out on being with God – if we know there is a God who loves us, and yet we are separated from Him for eternity – that would be truly dreadful! So that prayer is a reminder that none of us deserve to go to heaven. Heaven is a gift – a grace – a free gift offered to us by the Heavenly Father who loves us.

Of course, we should try to do the right thing. Today, at our Harvest celebration, we will shortly present our gifts of food to give to the local FoodBank. It’s important that those of us who can afford to give something away, give food for people in our local community who have fallen through the gaps in the help the State can provide. It’s one of the many good deeds we do as church members, working together for the good of our community. But a couple of weeks ago, St Luke reminded us that we shouldn’t boast about doing things like that – because we are only useless servants who have done the duty expected of us!

Our Lord was not impressed with the Pharisee who listed all his good works. Like Paddy, however many good deeds we can list, we can’t boast of being good enough to deserve heaven. What we can boast of, is this: Jesus loved us so much that he opened the gates of heaven by taking on himself the dreadful punishments that our sins deserve. And we do boast about this – we boast by singing hymns. It’s the amazing thing about graceWhen I Survey the Wondrous Cross spells it out clearly in the words: “Forbid it, Lord,that I should boast, save in the death of Christ my God!”

We need to boast even louder! The Catholic Church is famous for demanding high moral standards – and notorious for cases where its leaders and members have failed to keep them. We must become even more famous for proclaiming that we believe in a God who doesn’t want to hand down dreadful punishments but gives a second chance to everyone who asks for mercy. So let’s rejoice in God’s mercy. Let’s humble ourselves by recognising that we are sinners. Let’s give thanks to God by offering our gifts to the FoodBank and by wholeheartedly celebrating this Mass. And let’s go home knowing that if we have done all this, we will certainly be at rights with God!

Today’s story is not original! You can find versions online by Carey, Mascarenhas and that most prolific of authors, Anon.

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!