If you only knew!

CCRW-roundel

Homily given at Sunday Mass at the Weekend Conference run by the National Service Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Wales. 

“If you only you knew what God could do…”

Is that a threat or a promise?

Given the readings we’ve just heard from Scripture, we might not be too keen to find out what God can do. The Gospel has just warned us that we must enter by the narrow gate, because the easy way leads to destruction. Before that, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that God disciplines his children. The first reading was a little more optimistic, reminding us that God will gather in “outsiders” – but if you’re an “insider” there’s little comfort for you in the Gospel!

As we pray together at this year’s conference, I sense that we’re feeling more vulnerable than usual. We’re conscious of all the uncertainties yet to be resolved around Britain’s ongoing relationship with Europe. We have a sense of the church being under attack, following the slaughter of a Catholic priest in France. We’re praying for more personal concerns, which might never make the news headlines but matter greatly in our families and in our communities. So in the midst of all our pain and confusion, what can God do for us?

God can forgive our sins.

It’s easy to hear the lesson from Hebrews and mishear the message as “God wants to punish us”. In fact, God seems slow to punish throughout the Bible. Even in the beginning, Adam and Eve were told that they would “certainly die” if they ate the forbidden fruit; but since the story has Adam live for another 900 years, death took its time coming. Ezekiel warned the wicked that they would die because of their sins – but if they repented they would live. God allows time for repentance rather than enacting punishment. Our faith assures us that on the Cross, Jesus accepted the price of all our sins, so that no Christian needs to be punished by God for anything.

What Hebrews actually says is that God can discipline us. “Discipline” comes from the same root as “disciple”, and reminds us that God wants to train us to be more like Jesus. The Holy Spirit does this by stirring up our conscience to recognise when our choices have not been in line with God’s will. God disciplines us through the gift of guilt.

Yes, guilt is a truly wonderful gift! If it succeeds in causing us to repent, we can receive total forgiveness of all our sins! Because this is the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wants us to celebrate the open door of God’s mercy in a special way, making a pilgrimage to a Door of Mercy if we haven’t done so already.

What else can God do for us?

God can love us just as we are!

Yesterday we were reminded that Jesus “stands at the door and knocks”, but if we’re ashamed of our untidy lives, we fear to let him in. During the last fortnight, I’ve been on holiday, and I’ve visited several friends whose houses were in the midst of DIY or are home to small children. These houses were far from spick-and-span, but did that matter? No! I enjoyed spending time with my friends, and had they said “don’t come, the house is too messy”, I would have had a lonely holiday and they would have missed out on a happy visit. Our pride can be the greatest obstacle to experiencing what God can do for us. The same Jesus who spent time with tax collectors and prostitutes is not ashamed to spend time with you. It’s not for nothing that we have a song called Come As You Are.

What else can God do for us?

God can heal our bruises! 

Many of us carry wounds from our attempts to love others or to work for the church. Sometimes these wounds are self-inflicted, because we’ve had unreasonable hopes or set up impossibly high standards for ourselves. Other times, we’ve been hurt by our church leaders, by our friends, or by our family members. We may feel betrayed, rejected, or ignored. Sometimes that’s because other people really have treated us badly, or accused us falsely. At other times, it’s because we see other people through our own prejudices.

We keep falling into a well-known trap. We expect other people to meet our needs, and call on God to fix the flaws in our own character. But God only offers us insight and strength for us to choose to change our own character, and asks us to use our own resources to meet the needs of other people. It’s not easy for any of us to change a long-established pattern in our own behaviour, yet we pray hard for God to change the heart of a stubborn relative or, dare I say it, a parish priest who doesn’t jump to support charismatic prayer. Above all, we’re called to forgive everyone, whether we think they deserve it or not. That includes forgiving ourselves, for not being perfect, and forgiving God – not for doing anything wrong, but for graciously refusing to fit into our limited ideas of what God should do for us.

There’s an old saying that when we point the finger at someone, three fingers point back at us. So think of any relationship in your life which currently feels like a trial. Now ask yourself: “What’s my own contribution to making this relationship difficult?” What could you do differently to conduct that relationship with kindness, respect, and Christian love? Remember that we do not offer these things because the other person has earned them, but because Christ lives hidden inside every human person, however awkward.

On Friday evening, Steve, our new NSC Chair, had a sense in prayer of someone’s arms being upheld. That might remind us of Moses, being supported by Joshua and Caleb when he could no longer hold his arms aloft by his own strength. But it also points us towards the instruction in this letter to the Hebrews. When the Lord helps us see that our behaviour has not been great, we are not to throw ourselves a “pity party”. Rather, we must make a decision, a personal decision, to “hold up our limp arms, steady our trembling knees and smooth out the path we tread” – then each one of us shall receive God’s promise that what was injured will grow into health.

So enter by the narrow door. It’s a small door, and there’s no room for the baggage you’re carrying. There’s no room to carry a grudge against anyone else. There’s no room to carry your dreams for how you wish other people to treat you. There’s no room for the patterns of behaviour you know God is nagging you to leave behind. There’s not even room for the false god you’d like to carry with you – the god who would guarantee perfect health and freedom from difficulties for you and your loved ones. There’s only room to squeeze through to the presence of the true God, who allows you to be tested, though not more than you can bear.

If only you knew what you could do for God! Then you would rush to do what God asks. Each one of you is offering God something unique and irreplaceable, the gift of the love that God can bring into the world when you choose to become the very best version of yourself. The woman of Samaria hastened to tell the people of the village that she had met the Messiah. When Jesus frees you of your burdens, you too will rush to tell your friends and family of your new-found freedom in Christ. You may not even have to use words!

“If you only you knew what God could do…”

Is that a threat or a promise?

It’s a promise! It’s a promise that God will discipline us, that is teach us awareness of our own need to change for the better, so that we can leave behind whatever clings to us and enter through the narrow gate. So don’t be afraid. It is because God loves you too much to leave you as you are, that he invites you to this journey of transformation. As St Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!”

Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News!

Acknowledgement: Many of the ideas in this sermon come from reviewing the Freedom in Christ Discipleship Course.

Enforcer or Encourager?

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

Is God your enforcer, or your encourager?

If you had to draw a picture of God, what image would be the first to come to mind? A policeman? A personal trainer? A prison guard? It’s all too easy to focus on the part of the Gospel which points us to high moral standards and leap to the conclusion that God is out to get us if we don’t live up to them.

In the First Reading, God’s people arrive at the Promised Land, and we’re reminded that even during their time wandering in the desert, God provided manna for them – God was looking after them even while they served their 40-year punishment for not trusting God’s commands in the first place.

Today’s other readings don’t focus on the God who disciplines us, but on the God who wants us to live in that Promised Land, that place of peace and harmony. God is the proud parent, wanting the very best for each one of His children, encouraging them to do the right thing but holding His breath while they mess up.

I’m not a parent myself, so I’m going to borrow my Mum’s eyes for a moment. I left home for the first time when I was not quite 18. Mum had very mixed feelings. Yes, I’d won a place at Oxford University and was off to fulfil my dreams – but Mum knew that I was still very young in the ways of the world and was desperately worried about what was going to happen to little Gareth, out there, on his own. Well, as you can see, I survived – but yes, my first three years away from home were also part of the school of hard knocks.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, let’s acknowledge the very difficult emotional challenge of being a mother. If your child does something idiotic, your maternal instinct is to protect and soothe – while your parental responsibility is to speak a word of correction. Indeed, every parent will feel this tension between caring and coaching, though different families manage this in different ways. Yet every parent knows the day will come when their child has to be given enough space to make their own life-decisions, with all the risks that go along with that!

We are God’s children, and God speaks to us – through the Church and through our own conscience – about the standards that we should keep. If God has spoken to us about Right and Wrong, it’s because God wants the very best for His children, not because He is out to get us! And the Christian life is one where God is ALWAYS calling us to raise our game, to live a higher standard. The great saints weren’t people likely to commit the big sins against the Ten Commandments, but God still challenged them to improve with the small stuff. For St Therese of Lisieux the challenge went like this: “You see that nun who gets on your nerves? Make a special point of being charming to her!” St David must have had something similar in mind, in his dying words to “be faithful in the little things”. For us, it might be that in the stress of ordinary family life, we don’t treat our spouse or our children with the tenderness or understanding which they deserve. In our modern society, each one of us has to deal with ethical questions about recycling, care for the environment, and making economic decisions which are fair to the poorest members of our society. So whether we’re tempted most by pleasure, money, sex or power, each one of us will have some area of our life where we are struggling with temptation, struggling to put the “right thing” ahead of self interest.

RELAX! The normal way of being a Catholic is to spend our life struggling against temptation. Even Jesus was tempted. But look out – there are two wrong ways of handling it.

The first trap is to beat ourselves up. “I’m never going to be perfect! What hope is there for me in this church?”

What is the church meant to be?

A community of shared values.

We all aspire to those values.

We all fail, at times.

We encourage each other to keep going.

The second trap is to reject the values. “These standards are inhuman! They are unattainable!”

No! Jesus shows us the standard. Jesus shows us the perfect example of a human being pouring out love without limit. This is our goal – and without a goal, where would we go? But we can’t do it in our own strength, only by God’s grace. We are meant to find fulfilment in being partners with God.

The younger son says “give me my inheritance now, and I will spend it my way.” Eventually, poverty drives him home to the Father, and only then does he realise the depth of the Father’s love.

The elder son is looking for affirmation, to be recognised as an important person in his own right. Only when he puts his jealousy into words can the Father challenge him to enjoy his status as a Son of God rather than as an independent person.

Both sons got it wrong. But God is merciful! In the Old Testament, our God proclaims to Moses that he is the God of mercy. God offers us this deal: keep admitting that you are not perfect, and things will be great between us.

The world we live in today puts the individual at the centre. You are important! You have rights! Assert your rights! As far as possible, society will make WHAT YOU WANT the most important thing.

No, says God, that way lies tension. Make WHAT GOD WANTS the most important thing, and come together around that. You will fail. Failure is OK. Look at the Cross – the greatest failure in human history! God-in-Christ comes down to earth to preach to his people, to lead them in building a community of love – and they kill him! But God is a specialist in bringing life out of death, success out of failure, hope out of despair. THIS is the God we celebrate every Sunday. This is the God I worship, the one who encourages me to try again when I get things wrong, the one who always offers a fresh start as long as I’m humble enough to admit my mistakes.

My God is the one who encourages me never to lower my standards, always to try again, and to rejoice in my status as a beloved member of His family. You are welcome to share my God. But perhaps your God is the policeman, the punisher, the prison guard. Might I be bold enough to suggest that your God is a false God? Your God certainly doesn’t sound like the one Jesus came to introduce us to. So I ask you: is your God your enforcer, or your encourager? And as always, if this stirs up deep questions, you are more than welcome to speak to me confidentially for spiritual direction. Let me introduce you to the Father Jesus came to reveal!

Am I doubting that God loves me? If so, what hurt or bad experience do I need to talk over with someone I trust?

When did I last ask God for something good? Am I afraid it will not be granted?

What experiences have I had of unanswered prayer? Have they affected the way I pray?