The Fault in Our Stars

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Hazel and Gus lie on grass, their faces touching, with the caption Today’s sermon is inspired by a movie – it’s called The Fault in Our Stars. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s a love story about a boy and a girl, who meet in a support group for cancer survivors. Being a love story, it’s not much of a spoiler if I tell you that Hazel and Gus fall in love. Nor would it surprise you to learn that they end up making love together.

I enjoyed the movie, but one thing left me downcast. I walked out of the cinema knowing that if one more thing had been added to the plot, it would have been a truly heartwarming movie I would have gladly awarded five stars. What was missing? Imagine that Hazel and Gus had called in a chaplain to celebrate a bedside marriage, followed by a discreetly filmed love scene. Then it would have been a beautiful love story we could celebrate without reservation… but it’s a sign of our times is that the climax is simply that they climb into bed together.

“Put an end to the misdeeds of body!” St Paul, in today’s Second Reading, calls us to a high standard of integrity. He is echoing the teachings of Our Lord himself, who warned us many times against giving in to lust. This is a message we don’t hear often – indeed, it’s one I don’t often preach about myself – but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Today, I want to remind us all of the standards to which we are called – that making love belongs in marriage alone.

We need to be reminded of this message, because the world we live in keeps pulling us away from it. There are very few movies or television series today where characters insist on being married before jumping into bed together. A story about divorce always bears the sadness of a broken relationship, and adultery always means a promise has been broken – but perhaps we also see these on screen so often they begin to feel normal.

Our stars of television, stage and screen do not set us a great example away from the camera, either. We look to famous people to inspire us, but under the intense pressure of the media’s gaze and a wealthy lifestyle, half of all celebrity couples divorce before they have been together for 15 years – that’s twice the divorce rate of the rest of the population. Drew Barrymore, Eminem, and Britney Spears didn’t even make it to their first wedding anniversaries. Perhaps we should be thankful that we are not cursed with such fame or such wealth!

The truth is, that even in today’s world, marriage is important. Couples who get married before they start living together or having children are most likely to have a stable relationship. Couples already living together who eventually get married also have some advantage over those who never make their relationship official – this is based on solid research on couples in the UK by a think tank called the Marriage Foundation. Getting married doesn’t need to be expensive – we don’t have to follow the trend for ever-more-lavish parties – and I’ve even heard of churches who pull together to put on a reception so that poor members who feel they can’t afford a wedding can tie the knot.

I know I am preaching to the converted because most if not all of you at Mass today who are in stable relationships are already married – though perhaps I should remind you that if a Catholic gets married without the church’s blessing, your civil marriage is not recognised by the Church. If that applies to you, don’t panic – come and see me so I can arrange a blessing for you.

The reason I’m talking about this today is that we have a major task on our hands – we must correct the fault in our stars. When our stars of stage and screen set a poor example on or off-stage, we must not remain silent. We have a duty to remind our children and our wider families that as God’s children, we are held to a higher standard. In today’s world, this attitude might be seen as naive. But doesn’t Jesus today bless those who are child-like and dismiss those who try to be “adult”? Let’s hold on to our childish romances, then, where a handsome prince sweeps up his virgin queen and celebrates a royal wedding! The Bible itself uses the same romance to speak of God’s love for Zion, symbol of ancient Israel and the Church herself.

Parents, I’m challenging you today to talk to your children about the kind of relationships they see portrayed in movies and on television. We can’t hide from the world we live in – we have to respond to it. Don’t stop older children watching what other people are watching, but ask hard questions. What are the consequences of free relationships? When do relationships become oppressive power games? You might find it helpful to check out the movie reviews commissioned by the United States Bishops, readily available online, which pick out the morals highs and lows.

If we try to ban our older children from watching everyday material, we’ll eventually fail. But what we can do is to recommend positive examples for them to watch or read alongside the more worldly fare. I’ve asked friends who are parents to four children to share with me the books and movies they would recommend, and you’ll find their list in this week’s newsletter (and at the bottom of this page).

The issue is this: we live in a world where our celebrities portrays as “normal” and even “good” kinds of relationships which are against God’s Law. We are temped to compromise our values, but on this matter, we must put an end to the misdeeds of the body. We are called to promote the childlike innocence of Christians, not the serpentine wisdom of the world around us. So do not adjust your sex! There is a fault in our stars!


Some book links from my friends:

There is a link on this website to the booklist we discussed and there is also a podcast worth listening to. It is called Season 10 RAR Bonus episode (some of the best books by living authors)

Clink on the link for bookishness, go to book lists

Episode 48, age appropriateness

 

Film recommendations

Here is a list of films that have been released in the last 5 years and I consider to be of high quality, have something positive to contribute to the culture and are not (at the very least significantly) saying anything contrary to our faith.

 

Up to age 14

(U or PG films, nothing to cause problems content-wise)

  • The Jungle Book
  • The BFG
  • Moana
  • Inside Out
  • The Lego Movie
  • Boxtrolls
  • Big Hero 6
  • Paddington

Age 14+

(these are all rated 12 (or less), but I think are better suited to 14+ as there will often be some swearing, violence, intensity and/or sexual references which I wouldn’t consider suitable to younger children, however it very much depends on the child. Sometimes for me it’s not just about specific content but what the film is about and what age will best appreciate the story)

  • Marvel Avengers films: series of 15 (and rising) interconnected films starting with Iron Man (2008) and most recently Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017). The stories are overall very positive, good vs evil, protecting the innocent, doing the right thing, friendship, loyalty etc. lots of action, jokes and a cleverly unfolding larger narrative. All have mild bad language and some have intense scenes and occasional sexual reference. Not to be confused with the other Marvel franchise, the X-Men which although 12 rated has more violence and overall lower quality
  • Star Wars films: Everyone knows these! The most recent ones are 12 rated but are mild, with no bad language or sex references, rating for intensity only
  • Arrival (2016): Brilliant sci-fi about an alien arrival with a pro-life undercurrent, intense scenes of bereavement and occasional bad language
  • A Monster Calls (2016): Powerful film about a boy coping with the imminent death of his mother. There is a lot of fantasy adventure in-between and the film emphasises the wonder of life and how trials can bring family together
  • The Hunger Games (4 films 2012-2015): Slightly controversial as at the end of the first film the characters seem to choose suicide as a valid option (although it doesn’t actually happen) but I don’t believe the film endorses this choice, and while there is some intense action and violence, the films have a strong lead character who stands up to tyranny and dictatorship and the series ends on a positive pro-family note
  • Suffragette (2016): Fictional drama about the suffragette movement, very strong message about the value of all individuals and fighting for what is right. Some mild bad language and an ongoing subplot about an abusive relationship
  • The Hobbit / Lord of the Rings films: Fabulous imaginings of Tolkien’s world. Hobbit films not as good as LOTR but still high quality. No bad language or sex references but many intense / frightening scenes
  • Edge of Tomorrow (2014): Action packed sci fi / alien invasion film about a cowardly soldier who is forced to face death many times and learn how to defeat earth’s enemy
  • Ender’s Game (2013): Low key but well-made sci fi about a boy being trained to lead a mission against an alien invasion, more intellectual than action orientated with some interesting ideas about who our enemies are
  • Saving Mr Banks (2013): Story of the making of Mary Poppins, great characters and lots of laughs, as well as positive emotional journey for the main character. Only rated PG but the backstory of an alcoholic father is a bit intense for youngsters
  • Gravity (2013): Stunning sci fi about a woman stranded in space, strong message of the value of life. Some bad language and intensity
  • Captain Phillips (2013): Gripping and moving true story about a cargo ship overtaken by pirates. Mild bad language and many intense / emotional scenes
  • All is Lost (2013): A sailor is stranded out at sea and tries to survive. Celebration of the resourcefulness and resilience of man. One incidence of strong language.
  • The Impossible (2012): Based on the true story of a family hit by the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand. Very emotionally powerful and positive about what family means. Very intense in the Tsunami scenes with some gruesome images.
  • Lincoln (2012): Story of Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to end slavery. Celebration of idealism and value of the individual. Brief strong language and war violence.
  • Les Miserables (2012): Musical of Victor Hugo’s novel. Very strong affirmation of the value of people, full of rousing songs, emotional uplift and positive Catholic characters. Some bleak situations, sexual references and revolutionary violence.

0 Shades of Grey

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, 2015.

The Seven Word Sermon: Reject porn at all costs – it’s sin!a stylized TV set with XXX in red on a black banner

Today God asks us not to be drawn into worshipping false gods. A god is anything which has a controlling effect on our lives, and tonight I am going to speak about one such god: pornography.

In a recent survey, 75% of Christian men admitted looking at porn at least once a month. 42% of Christian men admitted having a porn addiction. That tells me it is something I need to talk about, and with 50 Shades of Grey in the news, it is all too topical.

Why is porn bad?

First, have no doubt that someone sins by making it, someone sins by distributing it and someone sins by selling it. As soon as you get involved, you are asking a whole chain of people to sin on your behalf. Anyone who causes others to sin will answer to God for their actions.

Second, recent research shows that exposure to even not-very-graphic images rewires your brain and raises our expectations of what might be possible. But you will marry a real human being, not a porn star. Your current or future spouse becomes more inadequate each time your expectations are raised. And porn becomes even worse when it suggests violence should be involved in lovemaking. This not only raises our own personal level of what to expect, it subtly raises society’s level of what might be tolerated.

Third, porn makes relationships about sex instead of about a person. But St John Paul II warned us clearly that human dignity means we must never use another person as a means to our own pleasure.

What would happen if you lived the Catholic way, and never tried sex until your wedding night?

First, you would be able to give your life partner the gift of being your first time and your only ever partner. You can only give one person your virginity. Make it count!

Second, you would never be tempted to compare your husband or wife with anyone else’s sexual performance… how would you know? St Paul reminds us that any sexual act forms a bond between two souls. This can be dealt with spiritually. But the memories remain.

Third, good sex wouldn’t be the reason you married that person. This will make your relationship more robust for the times when for reasons of health or avoiding conceiving, sex is off the menu.

Of course, any couple who followed Catholic principles wouldn’t find out if they were sexually compatible until their wedding night. But the church has provision for this – a marriage does not become sealed until it is consummated. Being unable to couple with one another is the one reason which does allow the Church to dissolve a valid marriage.

Meanwhile, what are we to do about pornography? For those tempted to use it, the only answer is self-discipline. Every day, renounce your own desires and choose to do the will of God – just as Jesus taught us in today’s Gospel. It’s not easy, but it’s the only way to be holy. It’s the only way to live a life worthy of God. When you wake up, say to yourself: “Today, I will not look at porn.” Make it a promise to God. Make it a promise to yourself. Make it a promise to your future, or current, wife. And get help. Blocking software helps. Confession helps, but don’t fall into the trap of kidding yourself that “it’s OK, I can always go to confession later.” And look for support on websites like xxxchurch and theporneffect.

All of us, whether we struggle with this or not, can make a point of asking newsagents to move dirty images to less visible shelves; and if someone asks us about 50 Shades, we can say we would never dream of going to see such a movie, because it offends human dignity.

Today God sets a path before us of life or death. Each time we choose porn, we drive a nail into our soul, a nail into our current or future spouse, a nail into the soul of each person who works in the porn industry, and a nail into the body of Christ. Each nail takes us one step closer to death. What gain, then, is it for a man to have won the whole world and to have lost or ruined his very self? Choose life!

Update: comprehensive list of useful websites now available at: www.tinyurl.com/PornPreventionResources

Open Your Eyes, Open Your Heart

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 4th Sunday of Lent, Year A.

Ych-a-fi!

The Light Is On For You

I wonder what went through the blind man’s mind during this encounter with Jesus? First he suffers the indignity of having mud and spit put on his eyes. Then he doesn’t even seem to be healed! Jesus tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. I bet he was sorely tempted to stop at the nearest well, wash the mud and spit off, and be done with it. But he doesn’t do that – he goes to Siloam, and because of his act of obedience, his sight is restored.

Sometimes, we can recoil in horror from an encounter with Jesus, too. The trouble is, Jesus wants to open the eyes of our hearts, to see ourselves and our behaviour as he sees us. And His ways are not our ways! But the horror of what Jesus confronts us with gives way to the joy of new and clearer sight.

Too many of us have fallen into the trap of thinking that a sin is “something I do, which hurts another person.” If that were true, we could edit our parish prayer to say: “Here I am, Lord, I come to do what I like as long as I don’t hurt anyone.” No. A sin is something which we do knowing that God has asked us not to do it – or a deliberate failure to do what God has asked us to do. It’s always a good idea to ask ourselves, “If the same circumstances came up again, would I be able to make a different choice?” – if the answer is no, that we had no freedom to do otherwise, then we are not looking at a sin. A sin is always a free choice to do wrong.

Of course, it goes without saying that it is a sin to choose to do something that deliberately harms other people.

It is a sin to post unthinking comments on Facebook or some other social media site which needlessly criticise or embarrass other people.

If we have enough income to spend on luxuries, and we understand how FairTrade works, it would be a sin for us to choose to buy regular goods without caring about whether there is a FairTrade alternative available.

It is a sin to buy or promote anything pornographic, because this creates a demand which requires someone to use their body in a way which is both degrading and immodest.

And yes, these are the kind of sins which we can and should take to confession. Not because they are mortal sins – though they might be, if they were committed in total freedom and clear knowledge of how deeply they would harm others. Rather, we should take these and similar sins to confession because God offers us something more than mere forgiveness; God guarantees grace, some divine help so we can begin to raise our standards!

As we mature in faith we might realise that confession is not only a dumping ground for sins but also a moment to celebrate our decision to live a better life. Yes, confession is always there for those bad habits which trip us up time and time again, for which God will always encourage us to get up again and have another go at overcoming them. But in Lent we should also look at ourselves more deeply. For example, if we come to realise that we can do good and bless others by choosing FairTrade goods when we shop, we could celebrate this conversion of heart by acknowledging this to a priest. We would then receive God-given help to live out our new standards, and that is the grace given in confession.

On the other hand, we also need to know how to tell apart sins from temptations. Feelings are not sins. Unwanted thoughts are not sins. We may have angry or lustful thoughts. They only become sins when we start encouraging them. We may have distractions when we are trying to pray. These also are temptations – we only sin once we realise what we are doing and choose to run with the distracting thought rather than the prayer. Remember, a good test for whether something is a sin is this: “Next time, could I choose to do things differently?”

The letter to the Ephesians invites us to “discover what the Lord wants of you.” To know fully what God wants of us, we must be aware of the teaching of Jesus.

When he was asked difficult questions about marriage, Jesus pointed back to Genesis. “God has a plan,” he said, “that one man and one woman should come together and God will join them in an unbreakable bond.” This is why the Church teaches that when two Christians freely and sincerely make wedding vows to one another, no-one on earth has the power to undo this; and the only proper place for intimate relationships is within the security of such a bond. Almost all the Church’s teaching on sexual morality can be traced back to this one teaching point of Jesus. If we have done anything else, Jesus asks us to repent and confess our sins to a priest.

When he was asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus pointed to the Old Testament law which said we should love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The First Commandment is that we should have no other God. This is why, in last week’s newsletter, I published a short reflection on whether we had turned to any form of fortune-telling, or the kind of new-age medicine which claims to work by channelling spiritual energy. If we have done anything like this, Jesus asks us to repent and confess our sins to a priest.

In recent weeks, I have reminded us of the Lord’s challenging teaching that we must love and forgive our enemies. This is so serious that God will only forgive our sins in the measure that we forgive those who have sinned against us. If we have been lukewarm in blessing our enemies, or failed to do so altogether, Jesus asks us to repent and confess our sins to a priest.

So allow me to recap: The Light Is On For You – there is a priest ready to hear your confession – every Wednesday night 7 pm until 8 pm in most churches across Cardiff and I am also available on Saturdays 5.15-5.45 pm or will be pleased to make an appointment at a time that suits you – I can even do a home visit if health, childcare or transport difficulties make it difficult for someone to come to the Church for confession.

Today’s Bible readings remind us to “have nothing to do with the futile works of darkness… The things which are done in secret are things that ashamed even to speak of” – but we are told that God judges the heart. You cannot hide your failures from God. Yes, it’s embarrassing to name your sins out loud, even to a priest in confession. You look at the dark parts of yourself and say “Ych a fi!” You are tempted not to go to confession – it’s too shameful – but to wash at the nearest well instead by whispering to God in your heart. But go to the pool of Siloam – go to confession to a priest – and Jesus will open your eyes and your heart, and you will be filled with light. Our loving God even makes us uncomfortable enough to turn from darkness and be filled with light. What better reason than that this to praise God today, Laetare Sunday? The light is on for you!

 

The Road to Hell

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Sixth Sunday of Year A.Torcello - Registres 5 & 6 - Les damnés

Today’s Gospel is a lesson on how to go to Hell. We are being given a sermon by Christ Himself – and He is serious!

Have you deliberately insulted a fellow Christian by calling that person a fool? You will answer for it in hellfire.

Have you failed to restrain lust in your life? You will answer for it in hellfire.

I wish Our Lord hadn’t said those things. It would make my job as a preacher much easier. I could stand up here and say: “Don’t worry folks! God loves us all! We’re all going to heaven, and we’ll all live happily ever after.” But that wasn’t quite the message Jesus came to bring.

A little later in this same speech he will echo a message which John the Baptist gave earlier in the Gospel, that unless we bear good fruit, we are in danger of being cast into the fire.

If we look later in St Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 18, we find Our Lord repeating his warning that we must cut off our eye, hand or foot if any of these cause us to sin. He means, of course, that we should cut off the behaviour, rather than the limb, but the meaning is clear: If you’re going somewhere you shouldn’t go – if you’re touching something you shouldn’t touch – if you’re looking at something you shouldn’t look at – STOP IT! Stop it right now, and cut it off for good, or face the consequences.

In chapter 23, Jesus will warn us that those who teach one thing but do another – the hypocrites – deserve to be punished in Hell.

In chapter 25, Jesus will present us with the image of the sheep and the goats – with the goats condemned to eternal fire being those who never gave food, drink, clothing or comfort to persons in need. In St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will illustrate the same theme in the parable of the rich man who went to Hell because he did not feed the beggar, Lazarus, at his gates.

Are we feeling uncomfortable yet?

There are four kinds of sin which Our Lord is explicitly warning us about, because they put us on the fast-track to Hell.

First of all, there is expressing our anger against our brother or sister. It’s no sin to feel angry – but it is a serious sin, to let the anger dominate our reaction. Indeed, we must make the first move to bring peace, even if the fault is not ours. That’s why I devoted a whole sermon, a couple of weeks ago, to the importance of forgiving our enemies.

Second, there are sins connected with the lustful look. With modern printing, television and computer technology, there’s now a whole industry based on treating people as objects, an industry which satisfies lust on demand – for a price. As Christians, we can have no part of it. Jesus is warning us there is no room for compromise here; any answer other than a resounding NO sets us on the road to Hell.

Third, hypocrisy. No Christian should ever need to dismiss a child or an underling with the message “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Fourth, the sin of the goats, a total failure to love those who need our charity.

But take heart!

The picture becomes less bleak when we realise that Our Lord often uses exaggeration to get his point across. If the goats sent to Hell are those who never helped the needy, and the sheep taken up to heaven are those who always helped, where does that leave the rest of us who have offered charity at least sometimes?

There’s clearly a big warning about Hell in today’s passage. But we must read it in the context of the greater message which Jesus came to bring, an invitation to repent of our sins and be carried, by his grace, all the way to Heaven. Any warning from God is an invitation to turn our lives around while we still can. If any of these kinds of sin which Jesus identifies are present in our lives, we can choose today to reject them. We can set out on the road of conversion, the road of virtuous living.

We may need to ask help from a trusted friend so we are not alone in the struggle against temptation. We are invited to make use of the great Sacrament of Reconciliation, through which God forgives our sins and gives us strength to struggle against temptation. We need to fix our eyes not on the warnings of Hell, but on the great teaching that we have a Forgiving Father who welcomes us whenever we come to our senses and return to him. 

The direction we choose determines the destination where we shall dwell. We are called to be people of virtue – passionately committed to living the right values. To behave faithfully is within your power. If you wish, you can keep the commandments. Always seek to repair broken relationships, avoid lust at all costs, shun hypocrisy, and be as generous as you can to the poorest of the poor.  But be careful with the next move of your foot, your hand or your eye – for if you set out in the direction of Hell, you can be sure where you will end up, unless you turn around on the way!

Acknowledgment is due to Revd Ifor Williams for an inspiring Bible Study on “Hell in the teaching of Jesus” which I attended some years ago.

This sermon does not intend to imply that the sins listed above are the only ones which can consign a person to Hell. The Catholic tradition has evolved a broader understanding of what constitutues a “mortal sin”. My intent above is to identify those sins which Jesus explicitly linked to hellfire.

Bonus material for the web:

St Paul knows that God’s wisdom is different from that of the world. The psychologists will give us reasons why it is healthy to vent out our anger, and why we should move on from broken relationships. The adult entertainment industry wants to persuade us that everything is permissible between consenting adults. But the wisdom of Ecclesiasticus is as valid today as it was thousands of years ago. We can choose cooling water or searing fire, eternal life or everlasting death for our souls.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus dangles hope in front of us, too: if we’re in dispute with another Christian, we must make it our business to make peace, even if the dispute wasn’t our fault in the first place. If we fail to make peace, says the Lord, we may be “in prison until we have paid the last penny”. That doesn’t sound good, but it’s not as dire as being condemned for eternity. Could that be a hint about Purgatory?

When Our Lady appeared to three children in Fatima nearly 100 years ago, she warned them: “You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart” – and she taught them to add a prayer to each decade of the rosary for the conversion of sinners. Let’s pray for the conversion of sinners – and act for the conversion of the sinner called “me”!