Urgently Calling

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Before I became a priest, I worked closely with a man who was a full-time evangelist, promoting the Catholic faith across and beyond the British Isles. His voicemail messages were unmistakable. “Mr Leyshon – I need to talk to you! Please call me urgently!”

I soon learned that for my friend, “urgent” was his default setting. From anyone else, such a phone call would foreshadow a dying daughter or a blazing building. For this man, it just meant we needed to put a date in a diary. It’s easy to over-use the word “urgent”. And yet… today’s Bible readings are steeped in a sense of urgency.

Despite hiding for three days in the belly of a whale-sized fish, Jonah finally carried out God’s command and preached that Nineveh would be destroyed. Amazingly – perhaps hinting that this is more story than history – the people respond immediately and wholeheartedly, mending their ways, and keeping a fast. When Our Lord walks up to Peter and Andrew, and then James and John, they immediately down tools and follow his footsteps. The Bible doesn’t record what Zebedee thought when his sons abandoned him on the spot – and in that culture, respect for a parent counted for a great deal! There must have been something about the person of Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, which was overwhelmingly attractive, even when he hadn’t yet worked miracles or gathered a band of followers with him.

Last Wednesday was the feast day of St Anthony of the Desert. 300 years after Christ, he heard the Bible being read: Jesus invited a rich young man to sell everything and follow him. These words struck Anthony so powerfully that he did just that, moving into the Egyptian desert, first as a hermit, then as Abbot over the community of monks inspired to join him.

But what about us? There may be someone here today who is free to choose a new path in life, who can join a monastery or a convent, become a hermit or enter seminary to try for the priesthood. If you know that God’s voice is whispering to you right now, stop struggling against it, and have a chat with me (or another person you trust), about taking the next step. Whatever you’re waiting for, it won’t get better if you don’t do something about it!

For most of us, though, we’ve made the big decisions already. We’ve chosen to start a family – or not – and many of us have chosen a career in which we’ve invested a great deal of time and training. Yet within our chosen lifestyle, God does not stop calling us. And this can be irritating! If we take God’s presence in our lives seriously, we’ll find ourselves asking deep questions: How can I know what God wants ME to do? I wish I could be sure I’m on the right track…

Finding out might not be as hard as you think! Hasidic Jews tell the story of Rabbi Zusya, who said this: At the end of this life, when I am judged, the question I will be asked is not “Why were you not Moses?” but – “Why were you not Zusya?” The Rabbi understood that everyone has a call. God wants you to be yourself! And to be truly yourself, that means making the most of the gifts and talents God has given you. Blessed John Henry Newman understood this too, in his famous poem “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another… He knows what he is about!”

Sometimes we need a bit of help to see just what our gifts and talents are. You may have undertaken exercises in your workplace to find out what your Meyers-Briggs personality type is, or to work out your role in a team according to the Belbin model – and there are many similar tests. These results tell you something about yourself as a person – what do they suggest about the role that would be right for you in your parish community? I can’t give you all a test right now, but I can suggest some simple questions:

  • With unlimited resources, what would you do for God?
  • What is it, that you love to do?
  • How can you combine talents and passions to achieve your calling?

In a recent survey, 53% of Americans did not strongly agree “that in my parish, I have an opportunity to do what I do best”. Often we get drafted to help with a project because a parish is a small community where “somebody has to do it”. Church can be like one of those military movies where the captain asks for a volunteer and everyone else in the ranks take one step backwards! But in the best church communities, everyone offers their services and then there’s no need for anyone to be a square peg in a round hole – there’s enough slack for everyone to find a way in the parish to do what you do best.

Perhaps, in the past, managers have encouraged you to do something about “addressing your weaknesses” but surely it’s better to develop your strengths? We can acquire skills and knowledge, but perform best when these enhance our innate talents – and every single one of us has some set of natural talents. That doesn’t mean just sports or arts – “talents” are anything we’re wired to do well. We are not called to be “well rounded” – God didn’t make us that way, and a ball won’t stay put where it’s meant to be. God made each one of us with a unique set of things that we do do well, and God is calling is, urgently, to use them for the work of Christ – to love our neighbour and to bring everyone on Earth under the Reign of God.

St Paul’s strange advice about not laughing or mourning came from his belief that Christ was about to return and bring the world to an end. We know now that didn’t happen, so we face a different challenge – how do we use the gifts we’ve been given to live “in the world but not of the world”, following Christ? One way of doing that is being sure that when offered a choice of jobs, choose the one which plays to your strengths, not the one which one has most prestige. The happiness of getting higher rank will fade when you become used to it, but the joy of doing something you shine at will be renewed every day you work! And what’s true of the world is also true of the church. If you are already volunteering, are you in the right role? Perhaps there’s something that you and other parishioners can agree you’d be better at doing instead, and there’s no shame in asking for a change. In fact, if it helps you become the best version of yourself, God might be asking you to follow him by making that change right now. Urgently!

With thanks to inspiration from Mgr Bill Hanson, quoted in the Catholic Edition of Living Your Strengths, and other ideas from the authors.

 

Keep on Giving

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, 2018.

The wise men went to a great deal of effort to offer their gifts to the infant King. I wonder what motivated them?

There are all sorts of reasons we might give gifts. It can be a sign of friendship. Or we might be doing so out of duty because the office has organised a “secret Santa”. There again, we might give gifts because we expect to receive something in return. Were the wise men hoping to have places of honour in the court of the new-born King? Or was it a pure act of love? Whatever their motivation, they were willing not only to give expensive gifts but to expend a lot of time and trouble doing so.

The gifts we should think about today are not gifts of money or material things, but the time and talents which God has entrusted to us. The Bible leaves us in no doubt that God has high expectations of what we should do with such gifts. Is God saying: “work as my slaves, or I will punish you”? No! But God is reminding us that actions have consequences. As the philosophy tutor at my seminary once said, “If you consume too much of the blood of Christ, you will get drunk and you should be breathalysed!” If you’ve eaten too many Christmas puddings, you will have gained weight – that’s not a punishment for overeating, it’s just the way the universe works. Our eternal home is heaven, a place of pure self-giving love, and we can only enter heaven when we are a good fit for this – as St John of the Cross once said, “at the evening of  life, we shall be judged on our love”.

The Catholic Church’s job is to invite each one of us to become a saint, and to train us how to live saintly lives. Our church’s task is not to produce nice people, or people with hearts of gold, or people with good intentions; our mission is to produce saints, people of heroic virtue. People like St Teresa of Kolkata, who “give until it hurts” and keep on giving. People like the wise men, willing to go to extreme lengths to offer their gifts to God. The trouble is, we behave more like football fans than saints. Fans are proud of their team, they turn up every weekend, sing their team songs and feel the joy and the pain when their team wins or loses. But they don’t get involved on the pitch. And then what happens? The Catholic Church has been likened to a soccer game, with 22 people running round doing all the work and another 22,000 cheering them on from the stands. But Jesus isn’t looking for fans. He’s looking for followers, people willing to do his work on earth.

In my first parish, I preached many sermons where the message was “get involved”, and one day a parishioner came up to me and said “If you preach one more sermon about ‘getting involved’, I’m leaving this church.” Now he was a man with a disability. Maybe he felt that  he couldn’t do any of the practical things I was inviting people to do. I hope he realised that those of us unable to get involved with our hands can still get involved by our prayers. But those of us who can do more, should do more.

We  have barely enough catechists for our future needs to pass on the Catholic faith to adults and children. Later this month there’s a 2-year course beginning called the “Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies“. It’s a good course for anyone who is a catechist now or wants to be one in future. Could you study now, so you are ready to volunteer in the parish in two years’ time? We would gladly pay your course fees and even help with transport costs if that’s a deal-breaker for you.

More immediately, we need Welcomers. Did you know that most people decide whether they “like” a church based on their first impressions after they have been inside for a couple of minutes? If you regularly arrive at Mass more than 5 minutes early, what’s stopping you taking a turn at smiling at those who follow you through the door and helping hand our hymnbooks or newsletters? It’s a great opportunity for whole families, children can help too alongside parents. In two weeks’ time, I want to meet all our current welcomers after Mass, and I’d like to train some new welcomers at the same time. That could be you.

Today, we re-commission those who do serve in our community. Many of you will stand up in the next few minutes to renew your willingness to serve. I want to thank you for your service – but remember, you are not doing it for me, your parish priest, as a favour. You are doing it for Christ, as a follower, and to help your fellow parishioners become saints. But some of us will not be commissioned today. So I put to you: are you a fan or a follower? If you have a serious illness, or have your hands full with a small child, the parish expects nothing of you except your prayers. For the rest of you, imagine what would happen if you stepped forward to help our parish flourish? How much stronger would we be with your gifts?

There are good works we can do in the local community, as part of organisations which aren’t explicitly Christian. But today, I invite you to focus on your parish – because in your parish, there is no hiding place. No-one else is going to take communion to your sick brothers and sisters. No-one else is here today who can act as a welcomer, usher, collector, reader or minister of Holy Communion at this Holy Mass. If you have the gifts to do any of these things, God expects you to say “yes”. And if you are a visitor here today, and you’re not already volunteering for something in your home parish, I charge you to go to your parish priest next time at your home Mass and ask: “What can I do to help?” Don’t wait to be asked. Those who are truly wise already know that our King deserves our very best.

So arise, shine out, people of St Philip Evans! Become what God has gifted you to be, and you will set Wales on fire!