Virtuous Living

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C.

(Every worshipper today is given a sticky label to write their name on. At the start of Mass, we celebrate the rites of welcome for those to be baptised or received into the Church next Easter. Before reading the Gospel, the congregation are asked to remain standing for a moment when it ends.)

Altar servers, singers, members of the deaf pastoral group, please take your seats. Each of you sits in a certain place because you need to be in that position because of your role. Now, could I ask the rest of you to exchange places with someone else? And be seated.

(A basket of straw is presented.)The outline of a heart, made in agricuotural straw

See in the corner, our crib has been built. Here is straw for the floor – straw for the place where the Son of God will be born among men and women. When the Son of God came to earth, his first dwelling place was a borrowed dwelling. Advent begins today – the season when we must make our hearts ready for the coming of Christ. It is right and fitting that we begin Advent in a place slightly strange and uncomfortable.

Advent! Happy new year!

This weekend, we celebrate a new church year, and as on January 1st we make resolutions for our life in general, so today we should begin afresh our spiritual life. We all suffer from the human condition. We know the good things we are called to do, but we become lazy or distracted. We sometimes need a reminder to do the good things we already know we should be doing. The words of scripture speak to us:

  • Live the kind of life that you are meant to be living;
  • Live the kind of life that you are already living;
  • Do not allow your hearts to become coarsened.

The first words of our parish Vision Statement say: The parish of St Philip Evans is a welcoming Catholic community.

They remain only words on paper unless we put them into practice. How should we welcome others? To answer that, ask yourself how you would like to be welcomed when you visit another church?

For example, you are a visitor sitting in another church and the regular parishioner who normally uses that seat arrives. Do you want to be asked to move, or do you expect the regular parishioner to sit elsewhere without passing comment? The golden rule tells us that we must treat others the way we would like to be treated. So if any one of us comes to St Philip Evans and finds our usual seat occupied, I’ll tell you exactly what to say. Say this: “Thank you Jesus, that a new person has come to join us!”

I’ve asked you to swap seats today as a reminder that the seat you usually sit in is not your seat. It’s only a seat you are welcome to us as long as no-one else is already using it. Even this chair here behind the altar, it’s not my seat. When the Archbishop comes, he uses it. If Deacon Steve conducts a wedding or funeral, without any priest present, he uses it. If the inn-keeper in Bethlehem has said “This stable isn’t a place for families,” Our Lord would have been born in the streets. But Our Lord was welcomed to a place which wasn’t his.

Now, a second reminder. What happens when we exchange the sign of peace? Exactly one year ago, I asked us to begin doing so by name. Today we are wearing name badges to make it easier for us to do so, but on other weeks I encourage you to ask the name of anyone standing near you don’t already know, before you shake hands.

How else can we make this a welcoming parish? We need to ensure that anyone who volunteers to help is given a genuine opportunity to help, as long as they can do so competently. I’ve heard of parishes where no-one else was allowed to help with flowers, or with the collection, or with counting the money, because so-and-so always does it. That is not the sign of a welcoming community. No-one should be forced out of a role where they are doing good work, but neither should any one of us block another person from helping.

Why don’t we always welcome help? Sometimes it’s pride – “I can do this on my own.” But God doesn’t want us to work alone; love asks us to work together. And sometimes we don’t want to let go of a role because we think it’s what makes us important. But there’s a saying, that the graveyards are full of important people. For most of us, sooner or later our health or our family circumstances mean that we can no longer do the things we used to. If I ask “Who am I?” and the answer is “a child loved by God not because of anything I’ve done, but because God’s loves me anyway,” I can feel secure. If I ask “Who am I,” and the answer is, “I am a Reader, or an Extraordinary Minister of Communion, or a Signer, or a Singer,” then I have a problem, because on the day I can no longer do that role, and such a day will come, I will have a crisis.

Each one of us is called to grow in virtue. That is, we must keep practicing our good habits until they become automatic. Getting into good habits is like strewing straw in a stable, it makes the ground ready for Christ to live in our hearts. Today let’s practice the good habits of welcoming others, and helping them to share in our work.

God expects that each one of us will give generously of the talents and abilities entrusted to us. We may even receive a special reward in heaven for doing good on earth. But we don’t do good to earn our place in heaven – we can’t. The child born in Bethlehem earned that for us. It’s HIS seat, but he doesn’t mind if we sit there too. So budge up – make room for everyone! And may the Lord be generous in increasing your love for one another!

 

 

Please Give Generously

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

“Hello! I’m calling on behalf of the Big Charity Appeal of the week – do you have five minutes?”

Giving to Charity has been in the news recently, and for all the wrong reasons. Details of generous givers are passed from charity to charity, and those who are most generous are bombarded with appeals to give – most notoriously, in the recent tragic case of Olive Cooke.

We can try to opt-out of receiving unwanted mail or phone calls, but sooner or later we will be confronted by yet another request for charity – someone shaking a bucket at a supermarket door, an appeal to “spare any change” on the street, and even when you come to church, you know that once or twice a month, there will be yet another appeal for a retiring collection!

It’s easy for us to feel pressured by our own guilt. A charity has sent us a free pen or coaster? We ought to give in return. The people either side of me in church are watching – how much should I put in the bag?

Today, I’d like to share with you a simple antidote to guilt. It’s called planning. The most likely reason for us to feel guilty about an appeal to give, is that we haven’t planned how much we intend to give this year, and set an honest limit. I’m not talking specifically about what we give to church, but all our giving – to family members who don’t live in our household, to charities we choose to support, and to colleagues or strangers who approach us to ask for help. We are called to practise not charity, but generosity.

There’s one key verse in the Bible we should keep in mind – it’s II Corinthians 9:7.

Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

We are called to give generously and cheerfully, not out of a sense of guilt or obligation. So in these next few weeks, we might look at the coming year 2016 and make a deliberate plan of what we will give. We might choose to give to certain charities and no more. That way, when we receive an awkward phone call or meet someone on the supermarket steps, we can say, with no guilt, “I’m sorry, I’ve already decided which charities I am going to support this year. When I re-pick for next year, I will keep your cause in mind.” Or as part of our planning we might keep back a percentage for “contingency giving”, for the colleague at work or the needy person on the street; and once that amount is gone, it’s gone.

But if we are planning how much of our income to give, how much should that be? Here are some suggestions.

100%. That’s what we see in today’s Gospel, and Our Lord speaks warmly of what the woman has done. We aren’t told how God provides for her in return for her generosity, but we know God has seen her good deed and implicitly, she won’t lose out. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal operate a policy where at the end of each year they give away any remaining funds and start on January 1st with zero assets. God provides!

95%. Give away almost everything and keep just the bare minimum. This is what Oskar Schindler did, liquidating his fortunate to buy the freedom of Polish Jews. When it was time for him to make his own escape, the film Schindler’s List portrays him lamenting that he could have sold just a little more to save three or four more lives. St Katherine Drexel, an American heiress, gave away most of her fortune in founding her own religious order.

50%. An equal share for yourself and the person in need. St Martin of Tours cut his cloak in half to warm a beggar. Blessed Mother Teresa told a story of taking rice to a starving family. The mother receiving it promptly poured half into a bowl and took it next door to their equally famished neighbours. The widow in today’s First Reading had an extra mouth to feed, so Elijah’s fair percentage was 33⅓.

10%. In the Old Testament, the Jewish people were clearly instructed to set aside 10% of their income to give to the Temple – this was called a tithe. Compared to the stories we’ve just we’ve just heard, from the Bible and from the saints, suddenly 10% sounds quite manageable!

These decisions are the kind which all the adults in a household need to make together. Once you have decided on your percentage, then you can share this between the different good causes you can support. You might keep in mind how many other people will support the same cause. Your elderly parents? Only your brothers and sisters. This parish? No-one except parishioners. Next week’s diocesan appeal for retired clergy? No-one except other Catholics in South-East Wales and Herefordshire. Big national charities? The whole population of the UK!

There’s no need to feel guilty because we can’t support every single good cause which comes our way. It’s even OK not to support every retiring collection we hold in church. These days, we need to remember that a person who puts nothing in a collection bag may already have a direct debit set up. What’s not OK is for us as Christians to refuse to be generous. The measure we give to others will be the measure God returns to us.

I’d like to leave you with the story of two friends walking along a beach. The tide has washed up a number of starfish, slowly drying out and dying on the shoreline. Every so often, the first friend reaches down, picks up one of the starfish, A five-armed starfish on a white backgroundand casts it into the sea. They walk on in silence for a long time, and eventually the second exclaims: “Why do you bother? There are so many starfish and you can only throw back a few. Do you think you’re really making a difference?”

The first friend made no response, but simply reached down and picked up the next starfish, smiled, and threw it into the surf with a satisfying plop. “I reckon it made a difference to that one!”

Embassy

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Have you ever been in an embassy?A calculator and a pen on a balance sheet

I don’t think I have. I’ve ordered visas by post, but I’ve never had to visit an embassy in person.

Except… in a very real sense, I am in one right now! Every Catholic church, every Catholic parish, is an embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

All of us who are members of the Catholic faith have a dual nationality – we may hold the passport of some earthly nation, but we also are citizens of heaven, journeying on Earth for a human lifetime.

Unlike most earthly nations, the Kingdom of Heaven is recruiting new members! We cannot read many pages of the Gospels without seeing that God desires his Kingdom to grow. Those entrusted with talents must invest them for the growth of the Kingdom, or have their assets taken away. The King will reap what he has not sown. We are expected to play our part!

Next month, representatives from all over England and Wales will be gathering for a day in Birmingham, to examine how we, as Catholics, can make our parishes more missionary, to help our parish communities make Jesus known to the local community. 37 people are going from this diocese, and I’ve been asked to give one of the workshops. On the same evening, 11 July, all our parishes are being asked to keep an evening of prayer, for the success of the conference, and for God’s blessing on this renewed work of reaching out to make Jesus known – Mass here will be celebrated by Revd Ambrose Walsh, who will ask you to stay behind for half-an-hour of prayer in support of this initiative. Then, in October, we will have our own local conference in Cardiff, and there are brochures about this available at the back of this church.

One thing I do know about embassies is this: they want to present their own nation in the best light, so they are well-maintained and kept in excellent condition.

Another day, I will speak about how we can use our personal skills for the good of the parish, but there are some maintenance tasks for which the only sensible option is to pay for professionals to come and do the work. So today, I would like to speak about our parish funds – where they come from, and how they are used. Later, we will publish detailed accounts in our newsletter, but today I am only going to use round numbers, and whenever I say ‘k’, I will be referring to a sum of one thousand pounds.

Last year – the 12 months ending 31 March 2015 – our income was £83½k. Just over half of that – £43k – came from what you have generously put in the collection at weekend Masses. You have also given us another £15k through the annual sponsorship programme in which individual families pledge to pay the costs for particular items, and another £1½k through other fundraising activities – I should make special mention of the Union of Catholic Mothers who in recent months not only gave us £1000 from their general funds but raised another £480 through a coffee morning.

The remaining £24k came from other sources – £7k from the taxes you paid, returned to us by HMRC; £5k of profits from hiring out our hall; £3k from the diocese to help with the cost of hosting a student, and a whopping £9k from a single parishioner who left us the money in her will.

Eighty-three and a half thousand pounds sounds like a lot of money. But when you consider that 300 of us attend this Church every weekend, that works out at just over £5 per person per week. And it doesn’t stretch far when we have to pay the bills.

What did we spend money on last year?

Looking after buildings is an expensive business. We spent £16k last year on repairs, maintenance, new fixtures such as the sign at the entrance to the car park, and paying the heat, light, water and insurance bills. We didn’t need to do any really big building repairs – so £16k is on the low side of what we could have to pay some years.

To keep me and Jonathan going cost £10½k – that covers our travel expenses, food, fees for retreats and conferences I go to as a priest, and the small salary I draw from the parish.

Running the parish office – postage, photocopying, paper supplies, and paying salaries to our Secretary and Bookkeeper – came to £8k.

The consumable things we need for Mass – candles, wine, hosts, charcoal and so on – came to £4½k.

We are also pledged to pay £1500 each year to help Corpus Christi and St Illtyd’s Schools employ part-time chaplains.

Then there’s the money we have to pay to church’s central funds – to the diocese – to cover salaries for the central staff who help us run our schools, keep our children and vulnerable adults safe, and look after our property. One third of everything we give on Sundays automatically goes to this – that was £23k last year (I know that’s more than a third of what I said the collection was, but we pay in based on the previous year’s income). We are also in debt to the diocese after installing central heating a few years ago. The good news is that we managed to pay off £12k last year. The not-so-good news is that we still owe the diocese £45k.

All told, it cost us £75½k last year to run the parish, and meet our obligations to the diocese. This is not a healthy position for us. If we hadn’t received that legacy of £9k, we would have a £1k shortfall instead of an £8k surplus. And where is that £8k surplus? It is sitting in our current account as a cushion so that we don’t go into the red when several big bills come along at once.

From time to time, perhaps once a year, it is good to review what we give to our church. Perhaps our financial circumstances have changed, for better or worse, and this should be reflected in what we now choose to give.

I’ve shared this financial information with you first so that everything is transparent and accountable. You have the right to know how the money you give is administered. But as a parish priest, I also dare to dream.

I dream that for one year only, if everyone doubled what goes into the Sunday collection or our direct-debit giving, we could wipe out our parish debt.

I dream that if, from next year onwards, the giving stayed doubled, we could employ a lay pastoral worker to assist with the parish workload and save something towards future building works – and then I would never need to preach about ‘giving’ again!

There are four ideas I’d like to share with you about giving.

First, if you don’t currently plan in advance what to give, what about making a definite decision about what you will give to the parish each week? If you want to set up a direct debit from your bank to ours, that’s easily done, or we can provide envelopes to put in the plate each Sunday. If you are a tax-payer and don’t already use Gift Aid, the parish is missing out on more than 20% extra of what you are giving!

Second, think of what you give as an act of worship to God. Although I have shared thoughts about what different amounts of money would make possible, don’t give to meet a target for us to achieve something in the parish. Give as an act of worship. Remember, this parish, this Church, is an embassy for the Kingdom of Heaven, and what you give directly to it is a sign of how much you honour the King – and Jesus asks to be given first place in our lives.

Third, rather than thinking of what you give to the church as a fixed amount for the next 12 months, could you dare to give a percentage of your income? In the Old Testament, the Jewish people gave 10% of their income to the Temple. There’s no Catholic rule that says you have to give 10%, but I know many people who have discovered that if we are generous to God’s work, God repays our generosity in such a way that we are never out of pocket.

Finally, for those of us who have already experienced God’s generosity, there is a further challenge… is God nudging you to give a higher percentage than you do already?

This is our church, our parish, and we are the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven who are responsible for it. God expects us to help his Kingdom grow, and it is up to us to keep our embassy in the best possible condition. Plan to give God what God deserves, and if you dare, give the King a percentage of your income. If you’ve never been responsible for an embassy before – this is your chance!

 

Giving in Confidence

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Year C.

In the pages of the Bible, God often uses bread when he wants to make a point.

Jesus is faced with a hungry crowd, so he challenges his disciples to give them a meal. “Be generous with the little you have available, and God will provide beyond your wildest expectations.” The disciples grumble, but are persuaded to give what they have – and it stretches.

How did God do it? Some Bible scholars suggest that Jesus shamed the crowd into sharing their packed lunches. Me, I believe in a God who can multiply loaves on occasion, just like that. But if we focus on HOW God provided, we miss the point. The starting point is that the disciples had to take a risk and give of the little they had available, before they could receive God’s blessing. And the same applies to us!

In the first reading, we meet the mysterious priestly figure called Melchizedek. Abraham recognises him as a holy man. When this priest offers bread and wine, Abraham gives him a tithe – that is, one tenth of all he owns and possesses! It is from this that the practice of tithing – giving one tenth – came into the church.A pie chart showing a 10% sector being removed

Now, tithing hasn’t always been popular, especially when the taxman has gotten involved. In Germany, even today, if you register that you belong to a particular church, the taxman automatically gives a slice of your income to that church. In Ireland, the state used to take a tenth of the income of Catholics and give it to the Anglican church – in the 1830s, this led to a campaign of civil disobedience by Irish Catholics which became known as the ‘Tithe War.’ Here in Wales, the 1880s saw another ‘Tithe War’ – nonconformist chapel-goers in Denbighshire also objected to being forced to make payments to the Church of England. It’s not surprising that among Catholics, and in Wales, ‘tithing’ is something of a dirty word.

Yet today, Corpus Christi Sunday, we do well to stop and ask ourselves what we are willing to offer to God in return for His gifts to us – the gift of our sins being forgiven whenever we repent – which Jesus had to pay for on the Cross – the gift of eternal life, and the gift of Holy Communion which connects us to heaven even while we remain here on earth. Often, in St John Lloyd, we sing Lord, how can I repay? – a worship song in which we pledge to God that we will trust Him, give of our lifeblood, and praise Him without reserve. These are easy words to sing, but what do they mean in practice?

Part of the answer is that we praise God by choosing to attend Mass, and to take a full part in it, including the singing. In this way, we honour Jesus hidden in the Blessed Sacrament. Part of the answer is that we give of our time to serve the needs of the Church community, and of the needy members of our local community. In this way, we honour Jesus hidden in the poor. And part of the answer is that we praise God with our wallets, purses and bank accounts!

Now, don’t be alarmed by the word ‘tithe’. I am not going to insist that you give St John Lloyd parish 10% of your income… but I’m not going to stop you either! The money which we give to the Church and to other good causes is an act of worship, because we are giving to God’s work knowing that it is God’s work. So our giving to church and to charity should be something which we think through and do as a deliberate part of our whole relationship with God.

There are four questions in today’s newsletter, and one of them will be relevant to the way you organise your giving to church and to charities right now.

If you don’t already plan how you are going to give, then consider making a plan. The needs of the poor, and of the church, are too important to be left to an absent-minded search for loose change in your pocket.

If you do plan what to give, but God’s work comes at the bottom of the list after all the other bills, ask yourself whether God deserves more than that. This is the scary bit! There are all kinds of logical reasons why we should pay the mortgage, gas bill and credit card bill before we give a penny to the church. But God is King of the Universe, and his resources are infinite. In the Bible – you can look it up in Malachi chapter 3 – God says ‘Test me out on this!’ Give to God’s work as a priority and you will discover that you will not lose out in your personal finances. Humanly speaking , it shouldn’t work – but it does!

I have found God to be faithful to this over and over again when I am nudged in my own personal prayer life to give generously to certain causes, and God has always arranged for me to be repaid in full, with interest, within a week or so! It’s the same challenge which the Disciples faced with a crowd of 5000 – they had to take the risk of giving away what they had before they could discover how God was going to bless them in return.

If you do give to charities and to church because it is important to you as Catholic to do this, but you give a fixed amount, perhaps it’s time to review that amount. It honours the way God blesses us, if we give a percentage of what we have received.

Finally, if you do already give a percentage, is God inviting you to raise it? As our relationship with God deepens, as we discover how to listen to God’s nudges and experience the blessings which come our way when we give generously, God might invite us to take the next step of faith. Maybe even as high as ten percent!

In the pages of the Bible, God often uses bread when he wants to make a point.

When we give from our surplus, that’s an act of charity.

When we give from our core resources – because we know the Lord is asking for a greater sacrifice – that’s an act of faith. And it’s one the Lord has promised to repay!

Today, Corpus Christi Sunday, we celebrate the Lord’s gift of His Body to us. How will you repay God for his goodness?

 Acknowledgements: the four point plan for growing in giving is from Rebuilt by Corcoran and White. The pie chart was adapted from free clip-art at FCIT.