Scarred Not Scared (But Sacred!)

Homily at the Céilí Community Mission to the Drumraney and Ballymore Parishes

Eucharistic Healing Service – Acts 9:31-35 and Matthew 25:14-30

We’ve just heard the very familiar Parable of the Talents, about three servants – but I’d like to share with you a lost page from the Bible which tells of a fourth servant. Like the others, the Master entrusted this one with some wealth, in this case three talents. And this fourth servant knew very well that the Master expected a return on his investment, so he set out for the marketplace with a plan in mind.

On the way to the market, this servant saw a poor beggar at the side of the road. He was moved with compassion and thought: “I have three talents. I can afford to give one away and invest the rest.” And so he reached into his bag of treasures and drew out one talent and gave it to the beggar with a smile.

When he reached the market, he went to the stall of his friend Reuben, who traded in fine spices, and asked if there was any coming venture in which he might invest. Indeed, said Reuben, he was about to sail a ship to India and the servant would be welcome to invest and share in any return on the spices brought back. This seemed like a good investment, but the servant was cautious, so he drew out just one talent from his bag of treasures, and invested this in Reuben’s trading trip. The third talent he took down to the bankers, and deposited it so it would earn some guaranteed interest.

In due course, word came that the Master had come back from abroad and was looking for a return on his investments. Our fourth servant hastened to the bank, and withdrew his deposit. Enough time had passed that he had doubled his money, so he now had two talents in his bag of treasures. Then he hurried on to the marketplace… only to find all the traders dressed in mourning and wearing long faces. One of them drew him aside. “Have you not heard the bad news? A messenger came this morning. Reuben’s ship has sunk in the Mediterranean, and all hands were lost.”

The servant’s heart sank. His friend had perished – and there would be no return on his investment. He had started with three talents – and now he had only two to show for his troubles. Nevertheless, he was an honest man and he knew the Master would demand an account of what had been entrusted to him, so with a heavy heart he started back up the long road to the Master’s house.

Worse was to come. As he made his way along the road, bandits attacked him, and grabbed his bag of treasures, stealing away the two talents he had left. By the time the poor servant had picked himself up, battered and bruised, and completed the weary walk to the Master’s house, the Master had practically finished dealing with the other servants. From the far side of the door, our servant heard the third servant having his one talent taken away and given to the one who had been most successful – and then being cast out into the dark.

Our servant was nervous. What punishment would await him when he came before the Master, empty-handed? It took him ages to pluck up the courage to open the door – so long, in fact, that they’d finished writing the Gospel story and that’s why you haven’t heard about this servant before. But he was a man of integrity and he knew he had to do the right thing, so he took a deep breath, presented himself before the Master, and poured out his tale of woe just as I have shared it with you.

To his great surprise, as he finished his tale, the Master looked at him and smiled. “O good and faithful servant,” he said, “thank you for your great efforts. I can see that you have genuinely tried to do your best with the gifts I have given you. There is no fault in being generous with what you have. Indeed –“ and he reached into his own treasure bag to draw something out – “I am most grateful for the one talent which you gave to me when I was sitting beside the road, begging. Now take it back and have another go.”

As we go through life, we become victims. Things happen to us which are beyond our control. Our loved ones meet with tragedies which cost them their health, their relationships, or life itself. And sometimes things happen to us precisely because we have stepped forwards and offered our services to the church or some other good cause. Somewhere in the Bible it says “I received these wounds in the house of my friends.” As we journey through Lent and celebrate the Stations of the Cross, we retell the story of how Jesus came among us to do good and was wounded with a crown of thorns, a journey of pain and a cross of wood.

Earlier this week, Mgr Pat reminded us that Jesus will always bear his wounds. How will we recognise the Risen Christ in heaven? His hands, his feet, his side, bear his wounds which are now glorious trophies of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. As you look at the beautiful stained glass windows in the churches of your parishes, how many symbols of Christ’s wounds can you find? The spear, the nails, the pillar where he was scourged… the list is almost endless!

A few years ago, a friend of mine, Canon Matthew, was visiting Ireland for his summer holidays when he had an accident – he fell down some stairs and broke his ankle rather badly. As he recovered from surgery, he realised there was a difference between his two feet. One had needed surgery, and there had been a wound where the operation had taken place – now that wound had become a scar. Although he would always be marked by that scar, a scar is a sign of a wound that was healed, and it wasn’t giving him any more trouble.

On Canon Matthew’s other foot, however, he now had an ulcer – a weeping wound which wouldn’t close. That was causing him a lot more trouble; a nurse had to come regularly and dress it. Sometimes we won’t let our own wounds heal – we go back and pick at them and cause more damage. I was 19 when I had chicken pox and it took huge willpower not to pick at the crusts but let them heal in the course of time. If I hadn’t left those wounds well alone, my face might now be visibly scarred.

All of us are wounded. Sometimes we have inflicted wounds on ourselves by our own stupidity or stubbornness. Other wounds are inflicted upon us. Being a follower of Jesus does not make us bulletproof; indeed he promised his friends that the world would persecute them, too. “Rejoice and be glad!” he told them “for this will surely take place.”

Each one of us is honoured with the name of “Christian” – a word which means “a little Christ”. A terrible thing has happened in the English language where sometimes we talk about “Catholics and Christians” instead of “Catholics and Protestants”. No! Any Catholic who is not a Christian is not a true Catholic at all. Being a Catholic doesn’t mean, first and foremost, belonging to a parish – it means being a member of the Body of Christ. It is because we are members of the Body of Christ through baptism – and fed with the Body of Christ in Holy Communion – that we share also in the dying and rising of Christ. None of us will escape being wounded. But what is on offer to us is the power of the Resurrection – the power for our wounds to become scars, healed wounds reminding us of spiritual battles where we have won victory over evil.

We don’t need to be afraid of showing our scars. We have all been wounded by life. The world around us pressures us to look perfect; we need the courage to be ourselves and not hide our wounds – they don’t need to be in control of us. Last summer, when Princess Eugenie got married at Windsor Castle, she had the courage to wear a dress which revealed a scar from a major surgery on her back. Fashion models, too, are beginning to say “We don’t need to hide who we are” – you can find their stories online by searching for #ScarredNotScared. And we don’t need to hide our wounds from the Lord. Whatever life has thrown on us – whatever wounds we may have inflicted on ourselves – like a loving mother, Jesus is less interested in chiding us for getting into trouble and more interested in tending to our wounds – but first, we must ask him for help. So are you battered by life? Wounded by choices that didn’t work out so well, or forces beyond your control? Come to Jesus, the wounded healer whose scars have been made sacred by his Sacrifice upon the Cross.

Tonight is a service of prayer for healing. We are invited to stretch out our hand in faith. In one of the Gospels, we read that a woman suffering a haemorrhage of blood pushed her way through a crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’s garment. The moment she succeeded, two things happened: she was physically healed, and Jesus felt power go out from him. He knew that he had not merely been touched – but that someone had reached out to him with an act of faith. This woman knew that Jesus had the power within him to heal her wound. She daren’t come to him and ask; in Jewish Law, her condition made her unclean. She ought not to have touched anyone in the crowd, let alone a rabbi. But she came anyway – and far from making anyone unclean, God’s power at work in Jesus made her clean in body and in soul.

Tonight we will place the Body of Christ, the Blessed Sacrament, upon this altar, and you too will have the opportunity to come before Jesus, the Great Healer. You can even touch the “hem of his garment” as the sacred cloths are draped at the foot of the monstrance. This is not a mere ritual of good luck, but an opportunity for you, like the woman with the flow of blood, to come and make an act of faith in Jesus, your Saviour.

When I was an undergraduate, I was commissioned as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. At the University Chapel, we had a large multipurpose hall, where Sunday Mass was celebrated, and a small dedicated chapel for daily Mass. I remember the last Sunday of the academic year: it was my turn to take what was left of the Blessed Sacrament from the main hall to the tabernacle in that little chapel. And for me, that year had been a very difficult one. I had suffered for months from tension headaches. I had fallen in love for the first time in my life, and suffered a double trauma – not only did the girl already have a boyfriend, but she was also in the process of giving up on her Catholic faith. I’d suffered a wobble in my own faith during the year too, but recommitted myself to Jesus after Easter. Now, on that last Sunday of the year, as I placed the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, I knelt down for a moment before I locked the door. “Lord Jesus,” I said, “I offer you all the joys and pains of this past year. I believe that you can take my sufferings and use them for good. I give you all that I am and all that I’ve done.” And as I prayed that prayer, it seemed that Jesus, in the tabernacle, spoke one word to me – not a word out loud, but a word straight into my heart, which resonated through me. And that word was – “Accepted.”

During that difficult year, I had had to make some important spiritual decisions. I had to choose not to cling to a relationship that I couldn’t have – and that “not clinging” also meant making sure that it didn’t dominate my prayer life. For a few months, my only prayer had been that the Lord would restore the faith of the friend that I loved – but he didn’t do it then, and I’m still in touch with her so I know he hasn’t done it yet, either. I do still pray for her, but not in the obsessive way I did back then.

I also had to make the spiritual decision to forgive. Note that I don’t say “forgive and forget”. Jesus doesn’t ask us to forgive and to forget. Our scars remain with us. But if we don’t forgive, our wounds become not scars but weeping ulcers. We forgive not because we have been asked for forgiveness, but because Christ asks us to be people of forgiveness. Only by choosing to forgive do we choose to stop picking at our wounds, whether the one who inflicted them has said sorry or not.

That year was a pivotal year in my life – it was the year I developed a closer relationship with God, and stopped saying “No” to the priesthood. It was the year that I offered up my wounds to Christ, so they could become scars – and those scars have shaped who I am today. Jesus is the Master of taking the wounds that life inflicts on us and turning them to the good. Indeed, my favourite verse in the Bible is from Romans – God turns all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus.

“Get up and roll up your mat” cried St Peter to Aenas, the man bedridden for eight years. Note he didn’t just say “Get up.” For eight years, that mat had been his place of pity. “Look at me. I’m a cripple. No one is helping me. I’m going to be a professional victim.” Peter didn’t want Aenas to fall back into that place. So he declares healing, and moves him on – take away the place of pity, and let your wounds become scars.

We are an Easter people! In this earthly life, we are living through Lent, but we look forward to the reign of God, when there will be no more sickness, no more death, no more tears. Our Lord sometimes heals us in body during this life as a sign of the world to come; he also offers healing to our minds. Our wounds become scars, and on Easter night, when your priest blesses the new Easter Candle, he will mark it with a cross, declaring “By His holy and glorious wounds may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us!”

Tonight is an early Easter! Tonight the power of Christ is at hand, to heal and to make us whole. Tonight is the night when we can choose to forgive those who have harmed us – not because they have said sorry, but because we choose not to give them any more power to bind us. Tonight is the night when we stop picking at our open wounds and allow them to become glorious scars. Tonight, all of us are called to come before the Lord, no longer scared but willing to be scarred. Hope brings healing. Jesus brings joy. Be scarred, not scared, and your wounds too will become sacred trophies of Christ’s healing power. Come. Come now. Come to the Lord.

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!