Keep On Praying!

SERMON FOR THE PATRONAL FEAST OF ST MONICA – Wivenhoe, EssexProper Readings, plus Romans 11:33-36

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 first called the Jewish people to a special relationship with him, a covenant relationship, through Abraham, Moses, and countless prophets after the reign of King David. Then God sent 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 we are celebrating a woman of prayer, St Monica, from whom this church community takes its name. She is most famous for the years she spent praying that her wayward son, Augustine, would become a faithful Christian. After many years she was rewarded – Augustine had a moment of clarity when God spoke to him, “Take and Read!” He picked up the scroll closest to hand, which was none other than St Paul’s Letter to the Romans! He was so convicted of the message that God was real, God loved him, and could forgive his wicked ways, that he was soon baptised as a Christian and went on to become perhaps the greatest scholar of the first Christian Millennium.

Today, though, we should focus not on the son but on the mother. St Monica was a great woman of faith, supporting a husband and two sons who didn’t always share her beliefs. She persevered, acting in faith when she could, and praying for the people she loved to come to know Jesus Christ, too.

“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.

Jesus taught us to persevere in praying for things, and St Monica is a perfect example of praying faithfully that other members of our family should come to know Christ. If we have grown tired of praying for our own family members and friends, today is an invitation to begin again. And if we have experienced disappointment in our prayers not being answered, we need to be humble enough to trust God’s timing.

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!

Our first reading today was a Jewish reflection on what makes an “ideal wife”. Sometimes the Bible teaches us values which must be held by all Christians in all cultures and circumstances – but in other places it reflects the values of the people at the time of writing. I’m not going to suggest that our first reading is a template for all the married ladies here this morning! But every Bible passage can be read in a spiritual wife, and a “wife” in the Bible can represent a church community, since the church is the Bride of Christ.

A patron saint’s day is a perfect opportunity for this church community to ask: “What kind of wife am I to Christ?” Are we a “chaste” community? That means, are we faithful to Jesus or do we let other values – money, sex or power – lead us astray? Are we, like St Monica, praying for our “prodigal sons” to return – and not only those in your blood family, but also those in your church family? And being a “silent” wife doesn’t mean that we keep schtum when we see problems in the community around us – but it does mean that it’s not our place to contradict our husband. If Christ, or the church leaders he has given us, ask us to do difficult things, our role is to do our best to fulfil them.

I’m very conscious today of being a visitor on a day which is central to the identity of this community. I don’t know the joys and sorrows which are the story of St Monica’s. So I can’t comment on any specific issues. I’ll be moving on – and that means there will be a happy day next month when my cat discovers that I have come home and probably gets an extra portion of food to celebrate! I will leave you with this question to ponder: If the Second Coming happened today, what would Our Lord find to correct, or to congratulate, in St Monica’s?

Champions of Team Heaven

Homily at St Philip Evans for the Solemnity of the Assumption, 2014

To win the Tour de FranceYellow Jersey with Blue Bar you need three things: the right kind of body, arduous training and a good team behind you.

Only one person can win the race and take the coveted yellow jersey.

If you had the misfortune to be born with the wrong kind of body, you might yet become a reasonable cyclist, but you won’t become the champion.

If you do have the right kind of body, but you don’t train hard, you still won’t become the champion.

Even talent and training together are not enough; winning also requires teamwork. Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome last year each became Tour de France champions because they were part of Team Sky – they were backed by other riders whose actions gave them the opportunity to break away for the lead at crucial stages of the race. These other team members, like Welsh rider Geraint Thomas, know that they’ll never have the glory of the yellow jersey – yet victory for their team-mate is victory for the whole team.

Today’s celebration is like the final stage of the Tour de France. Most of the competition is already settled; the winner, clad in a golden robe, cycles up to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to the adulation of the cheering crowd. The Bible also speaks of the task of getting to heaven as a race, and today we celebrate the greatest champion ever to have been born of a human father, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Just as a champion racer is born with innate talent and body-structure, so Blessed Mary from her mother’s womb was preserved free from sin and its effects by the miracle we call the Immaculate Conception.

Just as a champion racer trains hard each day, so Blessed Mary had to decide each day to do God’s will. At certain seasons of her life, this wasn’t so easy: consider the months when people thought she was an adulterous woman; the years she spent in exile in Egypt; the weeks when she fretted over the strange reports of the things her Son was saying and doing; and the final hours spent at the foot of the Cross. Through all of this, Mary proclaimed, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done according to God’s will.”

Just as a champion racer relies on the support of their team, so Mary didn’t succeed alone. When Jesus was an infant, she was supported by Joseph; during the Lord’s adult ministry she was accompanied by other women who accepted his message; before He died on the cross, he entrusted her to the care of St John.

Today, we celebrate the triumphal entry of our Blessed Mother into the halls of heaven. It is a lap of honour; the woman clothed with the sun takes her place amid the cheering of throngs of saints. It’s a moment of pure glory, and worth our turning out today for a celebration. But in celebrating Mary, we’re celebrating all the members of Team Heaven – it is not for nothing that the final mystery of the rosary is the Coronation of Mary, Queen of Heaven AND the glory of all the saints.

We will not finish the race in first place. Not one of us will displace Blessed Mary from her unique achievement. But this is about glory for the team. With Mary, we can triumph! She is on our team, praying for us, inspiring us to endure difficulties and aspire to greater things.

A champion is made from the gifts they have been given. Not one of us is conceived without sin, but all of us who have been baptised and confirmed have been filled by the Holy Spirit; each one of us have gifts which God has given us to use in the service of the parish and the wider community. Inspired by Mary, let us ask: how are we using our gifts?

A champion is made by a daily routine of training. In the Christian life, we call these, virtues, the good habits and attitudes which we get better at, the more we practice them. Inspired by Mary, let us ask: what kind of person do I want to be in God’s sight?

A champion is made in a disciplined team. As members of a parish, we are called to give moral support and practical help to encourage one another in the race to heaven. Everyone who crosses the line is a winner, but the greatest prizes are reserved for those who help others along the way. Inspired by Mary, let us ask: how am I blessing the other members of this parish?

This is our feast! This is our victory celebration for all members of Team Heaven. Let us rejoice in Mary’s glory, for where she leads, we shall also follow. All we have to do is choose, each day, to keep riding with the team!

O Mary, Champion of Team Heaven – pray for us!