A Whole Glass of Love

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Some say the glass is half empty.

Some say the glass is half full.

Me? I say the glass is twice as big as it needs to be!

We’ve just passed the half-way mark of Lent. It’s a good time to review our hopes for this Lent, the personal challenges we set out for ourselves. Were they bigger than they needed to be? If you’ve achieved something positive, but not as much as you hoped – I say well done, for taking a step in the right direction. And even if you feel like a failure, remember that it’s better to fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed, than to succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.

Our first reading points us to a time of failure; the people of Israel, up to and including the Temple Priests, had failed to follow God’s Holy law – and not in a minor way. They’d embraced pagan religions, allowed the poorest members of society to be mistreated, and ignored the prophets sent to correct them. When the Israelites were deported to Babylon – present day Iraq – the Bible sees this as a punishment from God. Yet God is merciful, and merely 70 years later their descendants were allowed to return to the Promised Land.

The current lockdown has dragged on for months since Christmas, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel – and no, it’s not a train coming the other way. We may be unhappy with the state of the world; we might even wonder if what’s happening now is some kind of divine punishment. But we don’t need new prophets to tell us that God’s laws still stand: God expects us to care for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, at home and abroad. If we see the state of the world as a punishment from God, it might be that we’re expecting a bigger glass than the one God has provided. Jesus did not come to promise us that we would be safe in this life. He only promises us that we are loved.

God’s love sometimes comes in unexpected forms. In the days of Moses, the people grumbled that their journey to the Promised Land was taking too long. The Bible tells us that God permitted fiery serpents to come among the people and smite them with poisonous venom, as a punishment. But God also instructed Moses to create a bronze serpent held high on a pole, so that those who looked upon it would be healed. I wonder which surprises us more – that God would allow a punishment to be inflicted in this way, or that God would use an image of something apparently evil as a tool of healing?

For St John the Beloved Disciple, that ancient bronze serpent was a prophecy of Christ. Another symbol of evil – the crucifix – would become a sign of healing. We lift up the Cross – we place it on our walls – we exalt the Crucified one – as an act of love.

We should remember that in the ancient Roman Empire, a crucifix had the same significance as a noose, a guillotine, an electric chair or a gurney prepared for lethal injection. It was a sign that a person of the deepest wickedness was being punished for their crimes.

An ancient Roman transported to the 21st Century would gaze at any cross around your neck with the same incredulity we would give to someone sporting a miniature gallows as fashion jewellery. Yet that same cross is a place of incredible love. Jesus embraced the Cross because of love. Mary stood steadfast at the foot of the Cross, because of love. St John the Beloved kept vigil with Mother and Son because of love. Yet of these, the greatest love is that shown by Jesus – causing so much pain to his Beloved Mother and Beloved Disciples by offering his life as a ransom for all the wretches in the history of humankind.

God’s offer is simple. Put your faith in the man upon the Cross. Do this, and you shall live for ever. Perhaps that sounds too simplistic, in the same class as believing that looking at a bronze pole could cure your snakebite. But God’s ways are not our ways. In fact, they are so different from our own ways that God needs to grab our attention. Look at the man upon the cross! Look at the humility of God! Look at what he was willing to do, knowing that it opens the door for you to be forgiven all your sins, cleansed of all your curses, and admitted to unending happiness in heaven. Jesus did this, and he did it for you!

Some decades ago, a Christian poet, one John Williams, was travelling on a train when he noticed one passenger suffering a fit – and another one tending to him. The patient was a wounded soldier from the British Army. The carer was also a soldier, an American who had dedicated his life to caring for the wounded Englishman who had saved his life; indeed, the fitting was due to the wound received in that moment. The American explained to poet Williams how he had abandoned his plans for marriage and life in the United States to remain in Britain for his comrade in arms: “He did that for me! There’s nothing I can’t do for him.”

Today being Mother’s Day, I would be at fault if I didn’t invite you to pause and ponder the honour due to your mother. She endured the pains of labour for you, and most likely changed your soiled underwear, kissed your wounded knee, and soothed your aching spirit on many occasions. If she has passed into God’s hands, offer a prayer for her. If she’s still with us, what can you do today to show your love and your gratitude?

But once your mother has been honoured, remember also the one who loved you so much he gave up his life for you. He doesn’t ask the impossible from you. Nor does he worry about receiving a half-empty glass. He only asks for your all – 100% of what you can give him, and not one drop more. We don’t earn our way into heaven by our good works, but we do demonstrate our love for Christ by loving others in our turn. And it’s fitting on this Mother’s Day that I give the last word to my own Mum, whose words of wisdom to me on many occasions were these: “Gareth, always do your best, for you can’t do better than that.”

Thanks Mum. I’ll drink to that – a whole glass!


Acknowledgments – quotes in today’s homily were drawn from three episodes of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, by Ann Atkins (22 Sep 2020) , Giles Fraser (30 Sep 2020) and Bill Arlow (10 Nov 2020).

A Greater Time

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Time is greater than space.

That’s one of Pope Francis’ favourite expressions, and it’s worth thinking about.

We’ve just heard how Jesus cleared out the traders from the Temple. What was happening there was wrong on so many levels. At the simplest, the Temple was meant to be a holy space – trading wasn’t appropriate there. But at a deeper level, the whole moneychanging business was corrupt. Middlemen profited from poor people who wanted to buy clean animals for their sacrifices. The very poorest couldn’t afford to do so at all!

If you know a holy place which has become cluttered with things that shouldn’t be there, maybe this is the week to do something about it. But… time is greater than space. So on this day of Lent, we can also ask, is my time filled with things that shouldn’t be there?

“On the seventh day, God rested.” Among the Ten Commandments, we find one which is about stopping to rest. Observant Jews keep a sabbath day from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. By God’s law, they avoid labour. By ancient custom, they make it a family day, beginning on Friday evening with the sabbath meal marked by special blessings.

You won’t find a law in the New Testament about Sunday being a day of rest. Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday morning. The first Christians met to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the evening each Sunday, which was a working day in the Roman Empire. Later, when Christianity was no longer an underground religion, Sunday became a public day of rest.

So what’s at the heart of the idea of a sabbath? Is it a day for rest, a day for worship or a day for families to be together? The Christian Sunday is for all of these things.

St John Paul II wrote a whole reflective letter on what Sunday means. He challenged all followers of the Lord to make this a day for spending time together in a leisurely way. Now this can take a bit of planning, but families who keep Sunday well develop traditions: maybe the whole family bakes together. Maybe Sunday’s food is prepared on Saturday. Or if you’re living alone, it might be a day when you plan to make a longer phone call to someone.

It’s a day when you could plan to do more – and to do less.

Do more – that is, do something to mark it out as a special day. You could wear different clothes – I don’t mean “going to church” clothes but “this is a special day” clothes. You could put a different cloth on the dinner table, or decorate it with flowers.

Do less – if there’s a way to avoid chores on a Sunday, avoid them. Or if there’s cooking, cleaning or gardening which has to be done, can you make a fun family activity out of it? And maybe turn off your mobile devices for a few hours, so they don’t get in the way of family time!

But do something. The Lord’s Day exists in time, rather than space. It’s what you do, more than where you do it, which makes this day different. Time is greater than space!

Making Sunday special is possible.

I have a friend in Bristol who makes it clear to her employers that she won’t work on Sundays. She’s willing to be flexible with shifts on other days, but she won’t take overtime on a Sunday. It’s her day for rest and for God.

I have a friend in Newport who runs an award-winning restaurant – which doesn’t open on Sundays. It shares its front access with a busy supermarket which does open on Sunday; but if you want a meal at the famous Gemelli’s on Sunday, I’m sorry, that’s not going to happen. To the world, this is foolishness; in God’s eyes, this is a very wise position.

I know a couple in Wales who mastered the art of using Zoom to connect with distant family members long before lockdown made us all experts in videoconferencing. By putting a table against a big screen and a video camera, they can share a Sunday meal with their grandchildren in Australia!

St John Paul also asks us what time we give to prayer and to studying our faith on a typical Sunday – either alone, or again, with family. Is it a day to read from a book of saints or a Bible story to young family members? Is it a day to connect with godchildren?

It doesn’t take long to form a habit. For the last two month, schools have been closed and we’ve got into the habit of looking after children at home. Now schools are about to re-open, and the rhythm of the week will change again – even if you don’t have kids at home, you may notice a change in the traffic and the way the world moves around you.

Lent is a time for new beginnings. Is it time to make a good habit for Sundays? It’s better to do something small but meaningful, than to shoot for the moon. Maybe start with half a Sunday – if you’re morning people, no chores after 11 am – or if you work best in the evening, none before 4 pm. If you live with others, have a household discussion… and even if not all of the people at home are people who pray, you don’t have to be religious to do family time well. Just make sure there’s enough time for the people who do want to pray, to pray.

Jesus knows the heart of every person. He knows that part of your heart which yearns for sabbath rest, and that part which is caught up in wanting to get stuff done. This is the season of purification: don’t struggle on your own, but ask him to cleanse the temple which is your very self. This may take time, but relax: time is greater than space, and the Lord of all ages will revive your soul and gladden your heart. And in the words of Pope Francis: “Have a good Sunday and a good lunch!”

Acknowledgements to Sarah Damm’s website for inspiration.

Great Expectations: Peacemaking

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 31st Anniversary of the Dedication of the Church and the start of the parish Sion Community Mission – 22 & 23 October 2016. great-expectations-logo

At the start of Mass: Our Church was solemnly dedicated by Archbishop Ward on 25 October 1985. Today, on the nearest weekend, we celebrate another year of the life of our parish community, but we also mark a new beginning, as we enter our Parish Mission. Previously, on this Dedication festival, I have asked you to make a point of exchanging the sign of peace by name. This year, not only for today but throughout our Mission, I am inviting you to take one more step. On the pews in front of you are pens and name badges. I invite you to write your name on a badge and wear it not only today, but whenever you come to a church event throughout the next two weeks of our Parish Mission.

Now please turn to greet, by name, the people in front of, and behind you.

Normally, we would call to mind our sins at this moment. I’m going to hold that back until the middle of Mass today – so let us enter into our celebration with a great song of praise, the Gloria!

Homily: This church is full of sin!

Look! There is the confessional! Every week, sinners come and leave their sins at the feet of a priest.

Look! Here is our altar, dedicated 31 years ago. Whenever we gather around this altar to celebrate Mass, we begin with a moment to “call to mind our sins”. The Lord forgives all our little sins, and we leave them here.

Look! Above us, the great Crucifix, the sign of Christ taking on his shoulders all the sins of the world! When we celebrate Mass, Calvary becomes present on this altar, making present not only our personal sins, but all the sins of the human race!

Look! Gathered here, a throng of people! I don’t know what sins you are conscious of in your heart, but you do – and God does, too.

Yes, my dear brothers and sisters, we must acknowledge a terrible truth: our Church is a magnet for sin.

But I have good news. God can do something about it!

Why do we have a solemn celebration for the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church? It’s a natural, human thing to want to mark another year of our being here with a celebration, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s another reason, too. In the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish people were commanded to keep an annual commemoration of the Dedication of their Temple – the solemn observance of Yom Kippur. Our First Reading today was an extract from the instructions given for that day.

Yom Kippur was the one day in the year when the High Priest was commanded to enter the Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the Temple. First, the High Priest offers a sacrifice for HIS OWN SIN – it’s a bull. (You may be pleased to know that I myself went to confession on Friday; you may also be relieved to learn that no livestock were injured on my behalf!)

Next, the High Priest makes an offering to take away the sin of all the people of Israel – it’s a goat. But what happened to the other goat? If I had included a longer reading from Leviticus, we would have heard how the priest was to speak all the sins of the people over the head of that goat, and it would then be driven out into the wilderness. It was the original scapegoat. That’s where the term comes from!

Today, we mark the Dedication of our own Temple, this Church of St Philip Evans. It’s also the beginning of our first ever Parish Mission. It struck me that today ought to be for us a new beginning. God doesn’t want us to be tied down by sins and problems from the past. We haven’t had a perfect history as a parish. Before I became your parish priest, the life of this parish was marked by some very serious disagreements. As human beings, our natural reaction is to ask “Who started  it?” and seek an apology. But that’s not God’s way. No, the question God asks is “Who is willing to end it?” – in today’s Gospel we heard these words:

“If you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first.”

This matters! In fact, it matters so much that St Paul wrote that “anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be behaving unworthily towards the body and blood of the Lord.” The Communion that we receive at Mass is only a Holy Communion when we have made peace with all the members of our community.

Making the first move for peace might seem unfair. What Our Lord did on the Cross was not fair – it was the greatest act of generosity in the history of the human race. He took on himself all our sins. We are asked to imitate him in a very small way, making peace without the satisfaction of an apology.

Often enough there’s no possibility of an apology. We are human beings from different cultures, different nations, and different ways of thinking. Two people can approach the same situation, or even hear the very same words spoken, and interpret things in very different ways. Each person has their own integrity, and might do what they believe to be right – and still conflict comes, because our perspective is so different. This is why God doesn’t ask “Who started it?” but only “Who will make peace?”

Let me begin with myself. At seminary, we’re taught to become aware of our own character faults and weaknesses. I know that I have strong gifts for organising things, but I’m not always sensitive to other people’s feelings. It’s quite possible that at times I have been insensitive and not even realised the hurt I’ve caused. If I have hurt anyone in the three years I have been here by things I have said, done, or failed to do, I ask your forgiveness.

Then, on behalf of all the clergy. All priests and deacons are human beings, capable of having bad days and being tempted. To anyone who has ever been offended by the words, actions or inactions of any minister, I apologise in the name of the Church.

Finally, on behalf of Mother Church herself. Sometimes we feel let down by what the Church has done as an institution, or its failure to be the kind of Church we hoped it would be. But whenever we are part of something bigger, things won’t always go the way that we wish for, and this calls for great patience on our part. Will you forgive the Catholic Church for not being perfect on earth?

The Book of Leviticus lists many kinds of sacrifice that could be made in the Jewish Temple. Some were for the cleansing of individual people. Some were for the whole community. Some were even for the cleansing of the land. God waits for us to ask, before He uses His divine power to free us from the consequences of sin. So today, let us ask! If we are involved in any conflict, great or small, with people inside or outside this parish, let’s decide, right now, to make the first move for peace.

I’m going to celebrate, now, the same rite of blessing and sprinkling holy water which we keep at the Easter Vigil. One of the questions I will ask is whether you believe in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”. When I come among you sprinkling Holy Water, this will be a prayer for cleansing of the parish, that God will free us from all the spiritual effects of all the sins confessed in this church in the past, and all the spiritual baggage from conflicts which we, as members of the body of Christ, have been part of. If you are ready to make peace, if you are ready to receive this new beginning of spiritual cleansing, I invite you to receive the gift of Holy Water with open palms.

After the sprinkling rite:

There’s one loose end from our First Reading. What about the two rams, one for the priest, one for the people? These were “holocaust offerings”, every part was to be offered in sacrifice to God, holding nothing back. God had great expectations of the people of Israel – they were to be totally dedicated to God, trusting God for everything, giving God the very best of what they owned.

In a moment, we’ll do what we do every week – we will take a collection. Let’s remember that what we give in money is an act of worship, an offering to God. But also, while the collection goes on, I am going to pass around this clipboard. We want to give God an offering of prayer while members of our Mission Team are visiting people at home this week. Could you sign up for half-an-hour of prayer one day this week? If you can, please book your slot – and the clipboard will be brought up with our other gifts as part of our offering to God.