Hidden Figures, Hidden Faults

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A.

How can we know right from wrong?adam-eve-serpent-colour

Our Lord was tempted by the Devil, who even tried to trick Him by quoting Bible verses. But Jesus knew what was truly right, and resisted.

We’re unlikely to have a face-to-face encounter with Satan. “But the serpent was the most subtle of all the creatures God had made.” What the Devil began, the World continues. Just as the serpent questioned whether God had forbidden eating the fruit, so the world around us today questions whether our Catholic values are the right ones.

Before Lent began, I preached about the challenge to tackle those temptations we know we have but don’t want to face up to. Today I want to talk about something different – about our hidden faults. There are things that we don’t recognise as sins because we don’t know the Church’s teaching well enough – or because we aren’t willing to recognise the Church’s teaching as correct.

I went to see a film last week. Hidden Figures is set in the USA at the time when there was still segregation between black and white people. It tells the story of the African-American women mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race. There’s a memorable scene between Dorothy, the black woman who organises her team, and Vivian, the white manager who isn’t helping Dorothy secure a promotion to supervisor. “I have nothing against y’all,” says Vivian. “I know,” says Dorothy, “I know you probably believe that.” It’s a classic example of how a person can be blind to injustice because they have become so used to the culture around them.

When the world around us agrees with our Catholic values, that’s a mixed blessing. If we agree that a particular action is sinful, society quickly declares it shameful. This deters people from committing the sin, but also tempts the rest of us not to show mercy and compassion to those who couldn’t resist. One sad example is in this week’s news reports from the time in Ireland’s history when it was so shameful to be an unmarried mother, that the mothers and their babies were hidden away in special homes.

On the other hand, when society disagrees that something should be shameful, the church finds itself having to encourage us to swim the other way against the tide of people’s opinions.

The thing is, it’s not up to us to make the rules – that’s the point of the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you say the Eden story is about knowledge. After all, if Adam and Eve didn’t know the difference between right and wrong, how could they avoid sinning? But St John Paul II gave us a deeper way of reading the story. He explained it’s not about knowing the difference, but about who gets to decide what’s right or wrong. We human beings sometimes want to say that something is OK when God’s already said that it’s not OK.

For those of us who have responsibility as employers or managers, this Lent might be an opportunity to look at how we treat our staff. Do we treat our employees in the way we would want to be treated in their place? Maybe you’ve never stopped to see it from that point of view before, but that’s what the gospel requires. This is the heart of what is known as Catholic Social Teaching – which brings the call to “love one another” into the workplace and to wider society.

There’s a lot of talk about migrants at the moment. We might worry whether some immigrants might be terrorists, or be concerned whether there are enough jobs for British people. But it’s not OK for us, as followers of Jesus, to withhold good will from strangers, even when many politicians are voicing views about immigration.

On sexual matters, too, public views have changed. That old serpent whispers into our society that marriage is really about saving up for the big party. That’s not what we believe, as Catholics. What’s really important in Christian marriage is that a man and a woman make a public promise to each other, to God and to us that they will stay together through thick and thin. If your values are truly Catholic, you will get married in church before you start a family, even if you can’t afford the wedding of your dreams. By doing that, you prove that God is more important than money, or what your friends think of you. If you think it’s OK to start a family before you’re married, you’ve fallen for the subtle voice of the serpent, which can take something beautiful – love! – and put it in the wrong place. He failed when he tried to tempt Jesus to jump off the Temple’s pinnacle. The time for Jesus to ascend from the Earth only came after he vowed himself to his bride, the Church, at the altar of the Cross.

Sometimes society changes for the better. Hidden Figures showed a time when racial segregation was slowly being overcome, and we can celebrate that. But society often changes to say that things are OK when they go against God’s law. We can’t always change the world, but we can always encourage one another to resist the world’s temptations. While the world celebrates hidden figures, this Lent is a time for us to find our hidden faults.

How can we know right from wrong? It’s time for us to go deeper, and ask how God’s Law asks us to behave, in areas we haven’t thought of before or where the world has made us blind. Let’s behave as the saints that God is calling us to be. Let’s change – and let’s BE the good news!

The Enemy Within

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.”

Today’s Gospel reminds us of something Jesus said, something which makes our Christian faith stand out from other religions. We’re asked – no, we are commanded – to be passionately committed to doing good for our opponents.

I could probably end this sermon right now, because I’ve said all that needs to be said. Except… what happens when you are your own worst enemy?

Usually when I preach, I try and say something for everyone. But there are times I share a message which won’t apply to everyone, but will be really important for those who need to hear it. Today is one of those times.

Do you find yourself really difficult to live with? Do you find it hard to love yourself? Do you doubt that you are a fundamentally good person, even if you do things you regret sometimes?

One in every ten people here today will suffer from clinical depression at some time of life. Maybe you’ve already experienced this, or are being afflicted by it right now. Loosely speaking, the sign of being clinically depressed is that you feel sad, hopeless and lose interest in things you used to enjoy – and these feelings continue for a period lasting more than a few days.

If you find yourself in this situation, there’s no shame in getting help from your doctor. Often your doctor will recommend some kind of “talking therapy”, but sometimes the treatment will include antidepressant medicine. There’s no reason to feel ashamed of that, either. If you were an insulin-dependent diabetic, you wouldn’t hesitate to take that injection to restore the right chemical balance. If your doctor prescribes antidepressants, that’s doing just the same kind of job, restoring a temporary imbalance in those body chemicals which affect your mood.

Many of us will never be clinically depressed, but will go through low periods in our life where we struggle with a poor self-image. This week, our parish Connect & Explore groups watched a video where a Catholic mother, Giovanna Payne, spoke about a kind of prayer which lifted her spirits during difficult seasons in her life. Some of us, too, might find it a useful exercise to use the kind of prayers which remind us who we are in Christ: we are loved beyond imagining by a God who died to know us. We can also find many affirming passages in the Bible we can repeat to ourselves in daily prayer: I am God’s workmanship (Eph 2:10); I am a new creature in Christ (2 Cor 5:17); I am raised up with Christ and seated in heavenly places (Eph 2:6; Col 2:12). Or we might take comfort in the traditional Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity in many traditional Catholic prayer books, such as this Act of Hope:

O Lord God,
I hope by your grace for the pardon
of all my sins
and after life here to gain eternal happiness
because you have promised it
who are infinitely powerful, faithful, kind,
and merciful.
In this hope I intend to live and die.
Amen.

As I said at the start of this sermon, what I’ve just shared won’t apply to everyone. But if you find that these kind of prayers are useful to give yourself daily reassurance, then use them as often as you need to!pubenemy

Even if our own feelings don’t drag us down, sooner or later, our bad habits will. We’re less then two weeks from the start of Lent, and to begin Lent well, we need to spend a few days focussing on what we might “give up”. So it’s time to acknowledge that bad habit you’ve been trying so hard not to notice these last few months. Maybe it’s something your husband or wife has been gently nagging you about. Maybe it’s something that makes your children uncomfortable. Whatever it is, you know what it is, because you don’t want to tackle it. You’ve been pushing it to the back of your consciousness. It’s not a big thing – but it’s your thing, and you don’t want to let go.

Jesus said: “CHANGE! And believe the good news.”

I’ve got good news for you. This Lent you can choose to tackle that little thing you’ve been trying to avoid. Be bold! Throw off your chains! Don’t give the Devil his satisfaction!

The Bible today invites us to “correct our brother” when he sins against us. But Jesus also told us to take the log out of our own eye before taking the speck out of anyone else’s. Lent gives us permission to correct our own faults.

So I’d like to invite you to spend the days between now and Ash Wednesday examining your own life, and deciding what your Lenten discipline will be. It might be giving up something – or returning to a diet you’ve let slip. It might be giving up smoking or drinking, whether just for Lent or for good. It might be taking on an extra daily round of prayer, or a weekly stint volunteering in a social project. But pay attention to that small thing you really don’t want to tackle. It’s probably the most important one of the lot.

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.” In that one part of your life where you know, deep down, you are your own worst enemy, show a little love. Even if you don’t feel lovable, be kind to yourself. After all, God loves you – loves you enough to die for you – and God doesn’t make mistakes. And keep on loving yourself, until “love your neighbour as yourself” starts looking like the challenge it’s meant to be!

 

 

Make Me Holy! Fast!

Homily at St Philip Evans for Ash Wednesday, 2014.

A single pea on a plateIt’s a fast day today.

That’s quite a rare thing, actually. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only two official Fast Days in the Catholic Year. Every Friday is an abstinence day, but it’s only twice a year we’re asked to fast. I guess that makes today a bit special!

So why are we skimping on food today?

One kind of answer is that God tells us to fast. The first reading says “Proclaim a fast!” and in the Gospel Jesus tells us what to do “when we fast” – he’s taking it for granted that we will. But we can do better than that – fasting is more than blind obedience to a God who says we should fast and a Church which has picked today as the day. So why fast?

Are we trying to bargain with God? “Hey Lord, I’m doing something difficult for you, now it’s your turn to help me out!” – No. Prayer doesn’t work like that.

When we are grieving, we lose our appetites. “Not eating” can be a very natural expression of sorrow. So it makes sense to fast on Good Friday, when the Lord, whom we love, has been slain. But today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of our Lenten season of self-examination. Are we grieving for our own sinfulness? I doubt many of us feel that bad about ourselves!

And yet… sometimes human beings can get so concerned that they are not the person they should be, that they go to extreme measures of fasting – we call that anorexia. I have known families where a child has become anorexic, to the great distress of the parents. The roots are complex. Partly it’s about chasing an impossible body image, not helped by the magic which the media uses to beautify what we see on the screen and on the printed page. Partly it’s about a young person wanting to control things in a life where they cannot be fully in charge. Each case is unique. But as we choose to fast on this Ash Wednesday, let’s take a moment to pray for those families for whom fasting is not an option, but an affliction.

Anorexia takes to extremes what each one us is invited to recognise in a moderate way: not one of us is yet the person we are called to be. We are called to be holy – and a Catholic author called Matthew Kelly describes holiness like this: “Holiness is being the best version of yourself.” It’s being the version of ourselves that our loving Father in heaven is longing for us to be.

So how do we become holy? In Latin, the word for “holiness” is sacra and the verb that means “making” is facire. To make something holy is sacrum-facire – or in English, sacrifice!

If we want to be the best versions of ourselves for God, we are invited to sacrifice some pleasure which, in moderation, is good and enjoyable, for the sake of something better. This is what makes fasting part of our journey to the heart of God. It’s when we take seriously the prayer of Jesus, “Not my will, but yours be done.” When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm the easier half – God’s will be done. When we fast, we confront the difficult half – for God’s sake, I need to set aside what I want.

Fasting helps us distinguish the different kinds of “want” in our lives.There’s the thing that I desire – and the thing that I choose. “I want a large pizza!” But “I want to lose weight!” They are both desirable. But I want a pizza for the raw pleasure of the taste, while I want to lose weight for the more noble motive of my health. Which will I choose?

It’s very easy to give in to our basic emotions – hunger; anger; lust. It takes effort to say no to those things and choose instead what is best for us and for those we care about. If we are going to say NO to those things which are harmful, it helps to train ourselves to have the will-power to sometimes say NO also to moderate pleasures which are not harmful, yet not necessary. In this way, we show God we are serious about being the best version of ourselves, about being the person God is inviting us to be. When we sacrifice, we are made holy.

It’s a fast day today. That’s quite a rare thing – and Lent comes but once a year.

So what do you want? What will make you holy? What will make you the best version of yourself? Today, begin your journey back to God – begin with fasting, and throughout this Lent, set aside something good as a sign that you are serious about asking God for something better.

Are you bearing fruit?

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

A few weeks ago I picked up a Voicemail message on my mobile phone – someone had clearly dialled a wrong number and left me a message saying: “Keith – Make sure you are in on time Monday, and bring your ID badge – the inspectors are coming.” It was “number withheld” so I had no way of ringing back and ensuring that Keith got the message, and I’ve often wondered since then what did happen when Keith got in on Monday morning.

God’s word also warns us to be ready. It’s not good enough that we come to Mass and receive Holy Communion – God also looks to see if our lives are fruitful. And I’m not going to say any more than this – instead I’d like to show you a video clip which lasts about 7 minutes. As usual, the bulletin contains some questions for you to reflect on this week, at home.

What good works or charity commitments have I allowed to let slip away in my life?

What commitments might I need to let go of, so I can do a few things well rather than many things poorly?

If I were put on trial for being a Catholic, what evidence could others present in court?

When did you last tell someone that Jesus is the person who is in charge of your life?

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

When did you last tell someone that Jesus is the person who is in charge of your life?

The Chinese Martyr, St Anna WangAnna Wang was born in China, to Christian parents, in 1886; her mother died when she was only five years old. At the age of 14, Anna was among a group of Christians captured by a radical group known as the Boxers. The Boxers told their captives: “The government has banned the practice of western religions. If you renounce your religion you’ll be set free. If you refuse, we will kill you.”

Anna’s stepmother decided to renounce her religion, and urged Anna to do the same. But Anna refused, and cried out: “I believe in God. I am a Christian, I do not want to renounce God. Jesus save me!” Anna, with a number of other Christian prisoners, prayed through the night. In the morning, the Boxers took the Christians who refused to deny their faith to the execution field.

There, a soldier said to Anna, “Give up your faith and you will live.” But she was silent, and when he insisted, she said, “Do not touch me; I am a Christian. I prefer to die rather than give up my faith.” After repeated blows, she whispered the name of “Jesus” three times, lowering her head. Saint Anna Wang – for that is how the Church now knows her – was beheaded for Christ on July 23rd, 1900.

As followers of Jesus, we are invited to do two things: believe in our hearts, and profess with our lips.

In Bible-language, the heart is the place of KNOWING. Faith is a special kind of knowing, a knowing which God writes in our hearts. It’s not the kind of knowing which we can back up with a scientific experiment: Jesus refused to provide a proof of his powers to satisfy the Tempter!

When we hear amazing stories of faith – St Anna Wang declaring her belief in God in the face of executioners, or St John Lloyd labouring as a priest when it was forbidden to do so in Wales – we might wonder how we would react if the ultimate test came our way.

Perhaps you’ve never really been confident in your heart that God is real. If so, then this Lent is an invitation to ask God to be real for you. Not to put God to the test by demanding a miracle on YOUR terms – but asking God to choose His way to connect with you and to make His loving presence clear.

Scripture also invites us to confess what we believe with our lips. The Old Testament reading today was a kind of Jewish Creed, to be recited when making an offering in the Temple. Imagine that you had been picked at today’s Mass to bring forward the bread and wine, and on reaching the step of the altar, I paused the hymn to ask you why you wanted to offer these gifts to God today… what answer would you give?

Every Mass is our thanksgiving to God for the dying and rising of Jesus. We should be people who feel no embarrassment about mentioning the name of Jesus, disciples well able to give a short summary of what we believe about Him. But perhaps you’ve never been invited to have a conversation about what you believe, or why. In fact, we hardly ever hear it spoken about at all, apart from sermons in church and R.E. lessons in school – and then we wonder why our children drift away from faith!

Actually, this stuff matters a lot! What does today’s reading say? Roughly this: “If your lips tell other people that Jesus is real and he is in charge of your life, then you are in the right relationship with God.” But perhaps you’ve never said anything like that to anyone…

If you’ve never said it because you’re not comfortable speaking about what you believe, this Lent is a challenge to try and put your faith into words. Choose a safe pair of ears – your husband or wife, a parent, a friend from this congregation – and break the taboo! Speak about faith! Don’t worry about it coming out in an embarrassed or awkward way. The first time will be the hardest.

There again, perhaps you can’t say that Jesus is your Lord because you’ve never made a conscious decision that Jesus is going to be in charge of your life. Perhaps you’re afraid of what he might ask you to do, or have some serious doubt about whether God is really real. It’s OK to not be sure. We have to know where we’re starting from before we can make the journey called Faith. Remember that Lent leads to the moment at Easter when we renew our commitment to God – this year, let’s make that deeply meaningful.

More people than you think struggle with this. You won’t be the only person here thinking “I can’t talk about my sense of relationship with God” or “I’ve never deliberately decided that Jesus is going to be Lord of all the decisions in my life.” Deacon Rigo and myself will both be very happy to have a conversation with you about your inner struggles with God, if you would find that helpful; you have only to ask.

But remember St Anna Wang. She had the gift of knowing that her faithfulness to God was most important, and she was not afraid to say so. She faced martyrdom; we only face a little embrassment and awkwardness. But it’s not a magic formula – we can’t just say “Jesus is Lord”, we must also know it in our heart. That’s a gift which God will give us at the right time – if we ask for it.

Today I leave you with some questions to ponder during the week ahead, and you will also find them in the bulletin:

How would you answer a friend who says: “Who is Jesus Christ for you?”

What makes it so difficult to speak to others about your religious beliefs?

How do you give thanks for the gifts God has given you?

When did you last tell someone that Jesus is the person who is in charge of your life?

Saint Anna Wang – pray for us!

Called to be Trustworthy

Homily at St John Lloyd, for Ash Wednesday 2013

When was the last time you were let down by a person you trusted?

When we’ve been let down, it hurts.

When trust is breached, we notice.

For Ash Wednesday, in this Year of Faith, let us ask ourselves a challenging question: are we trustworthy people?  Do we keep faith with others? Can others have faith in us?

We are ambassadors for Christ; God’s goodness lives in us. Part of God’s goodness is that we can always place our trust in Him; therefore, as people called to make God’s love present in this world, we also should be trustworthy. We are not to draw attention to the fact that we are praying, fasting, or giving alms – but as Christians we most certainly should be seen to be trustworthy people, making God’s love present in human society.

So let us ask ourselves: What kind of promises have I made to others? How well have I kept them? Have I betrayed confidences? Have I failed to do what I said I would?

Sometimes, of course, we find that we are no longer able to keep a promise we have made. This week we are still taking in the remarkable news that Pope Benedict XVI believes he can no longer fulfil the duties which the successor of Peter must deal with in the 21st century – and His Holiness has decided that the honourable thing in this circumstance is to step aside because he can no longer faithfully carry out all that is required of him.

Pope Benedict, of course, is not stepping aside from the committment he has made to serve as a priest and bishop. He remains a passionate servant of the church, and feels he can serve the church best by stepping aside from its most demanding role. The way we serve may change, but our committment to serve is for a lifetime.

As members of Christ’s Church, there are three special life-long promises that many of us here, today, may have made.

If you are married, you will have made a solemn vow to your spouse, to God, and to the whole Christian community, that you will love your husband or wife – that you will put their needs and well-being ahead of your own, in all circumstances. This requires a renewed decision each day to love your partner, and to communicate with them. Sometimes this benefits from a more focussed time together – whether that’s a Valentine’s supper, monthly sofa time for a family-needs discussion, or going on a retreat designed at helping couples deepen their communication with each other. So, if you are married, have you faithfully kept your commitment to love your spouse?

If you have accepted the challenge of becoming a godparent to a baby being baptised or sponsored a Catholic being confirmed, you have made a promise to that person,  to God, and to the whole Christian community, that you will help them to grow up as a member of God’s family. When did you last make contact with that person? Are you teaching them how to pray? If others in their life are critical of the Catholic faith, how have you encouraged them to stay faithful?

If you are an adult Catholic, you will have renewed each year at Easter, the committment made at your baptism that you will be a member of Christ’s Church – a promise made to God, and to the whole Christian community. So, I now ask you – and I include myself in the challenge – can our friends trust us to be Catholic? Can they trust us to be Christ to them in their time of need? Can they trust us to be people who pray for their needs? And on this day of fasting and abstinence, let us not forget that we are wielding spiritual weapons which can be used for the good of others. Who are we offering our fasting for today? A friend in trouble? A family member whose faith is weak? Our own need to growth in holiness?

It is God who invites us to wholehearted repentance. God knows how weak we are. We know that Christ came to forgive sinners: even from the Cross, he forgave those who were crucifying him, and invited the Good Thief to join him in heaven. The Good News – the Gospel – is that God is always willing to offer us another chance; today even the Old Testament readings speak loudly of God’s mercy.

The tough news is that on our part, we must be willing to change our ways in order to become more trustworthy. It may be that we have to keep promises we know we have been neglecting; we may also have to admit that we have limited capacity and withdraw promises which we know we cannot keep. This is hard – but honest!

To repent is not only to be sorry, but to choose to change. This is the challenge which we will each hear as we receive the ashes with the words: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”