Hidden Figures, Hidden Faults

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A.

How can we know right from wrong?adam-eve-serpent-colour

Our Lord was tempted by the Devil, who even tried to trick Him by quoting Bible verses. But Jesus knew what was truly right, and resisted.

We’re unlikely to have a face-to-face encounter with Satan. “But the serpent was the most subtle of all the creatures God had made.” What the Devil began, the World continues. Just as the serpent questioned whether God had forbidden eating the fruit, so the world around us today questions whether our Catholic values are the right ones.

Before Lent began, I preached about the challenge to tackle those temptations we know we have but don’t want to face up to. Today I want to talk about something different – about our hidden faults. There are things that we don’t recognise as sins because we don’t know the Church’s teaching well enough – or because we aren’t willing to recognise the Church’s teaching as correct.

I went to see a film last week. Hidden Figures is set in the USA at the time when there was still segregation between black and white people. It tells the story of the African-American women mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race. There’s a memorable scene between Dorothy, the black woman who organises her team, and Vivian, the white manager who isn’t helping Dorothy secure a promotion to supervisor. “I have nothing against y’all,” says Vivian. “I know,” says Dorothy, “I know you probably believe that.” It’s a classic example of how a person can be blind to injustice because they have become so used to the culture around them.

When the world around us agrees with our Catholic values, that’s a mixed blessing. If we agree that a particular action is sinful, society quickly declares it shameful. This deters people from committing the sin, but also tempts the rest of us not to show mercy and compassion to those who couldn’t resist. One sad example is in this week’s news reports from the time in Ireland’s history when it was so shameful to be an unmarried mother, that the mothers and their babies were hidden away in special homes.

On the other hand, when society disagrees that something should be shameful, the church finds itself having to encourage us to swim the other way against the tide of people’s opinions.

The thing is, it’s not up to us to make the rules – that’s the point of the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you say the Eden story is about knowledge. After all, if Adam and Eve didn’t know the difference between right and wrong, how could they avoid sinning? But St John Paul II gave us a deeper way of reading the story. He explained it’s not about knowing the difference, but about who gets to decide what’s right or wrong. We human beings sometimes want to say that something is OK when God’s already said that it’s not OK.

For those of us who have responsibility as employers or managers, this Lent might be an opportunity to look at how we treat our staff. Do we treat our employees in the way we would want to be treated in their place? Maybe you’ve never stopped to see it from that point of view before, but that’s what the gospel requires. This is the heart of what is known as Catholic Social Teaching – which brings the call to “love one another” into the workplace and to wider society.

There’s a lot of talk about migrants at the moment. We might worry whether some immigrants might be terrorists, or be concerned whether there are enough jobs for British people. But it’s not OK for us, as followers of Jesus, to withhold good will from strangers, even when many politicians are voicing views about immigration.

On sexual matters, too, public views have changed. That old serpent whispers into our society that marriage is really about saving up for the big party. That’s not what we believe, as Catholics. What’s really important in Christian marriage is that a man and a woman make a public promise to each other, to God and to us that they will stay together through thick and thin. If your values are truly Catholic, you will get married in church before you start a family, even if you can’t afford the wedding of your dreams. By doing that, you prove that God is more important than money, or what your friends think of you. If you think it’s OK to start a family before you’re married, you’ve fallen for the subtle voice of the serpent, which can take something beautiful – love! – and put it in the wrong place. He failed when he tried to tempt Jesus to jump off the Temple’s pinnacle. The time for Jesus to ascend from the Earth only came after he vowed himself to his bride, the Church, at the altar of the Cross.

Sometimes society changes for the better. Hidden Figures showed a time when racial segregation was slowly being overcome, and we can celebrate that. But society often changes to say that things are OK when they go against God’s law. We can’t always change the world, but we can always encourage one another to resist the world’s temptations. While the world celebrates hidden figures, this Lent is a time for us to find our hidden faults.

How can we know right from wrong? It’s time for us to go deeper, and ask how God’s Law asks us to behave, in areas we haven’t thought of before or where the world has made us blind. Let’s behave as the saints that God is calling us to be. Let’s change – and let’s BE the good news!

Instruct the Ignorant!

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Do you show mercy in your daily life?

If we want to be merciful, like the Father, we must offer mercy.

If we want to make a good confession this Lent, we must face up to where we’ve failed.

Over the next few weeks, we will consider the spiritual works of mercy. Today, I invite you to ask: have I instructed those who are ignorant?

Consider ignorance. There are things we don’t know we don’t know, ‘til someone shows us. I’ll always be grateful to the friend who taught me that SHIFT-F3 on my computer keyboard can flip a word into capital letters – a great time-saver! And to the seminarian who taught me to kick a football straight using the side of my foot, not the toe of my boot. I’m reminded of the story of the teenage boy who left home thinking his parents were quite ignorant, and returned from college amazed at how much they’d learned in three years!

What about religious ideas? In last weekend’s sermon, we were reminded that God has poured blessings on outsiders, so we must be ready to reach out and invite them in. But in this day and age, it can feel very uncomfortable to claim we “know the right answer” about religious things.

You might have seen the recent BBC documentary where Adrian Chiles travelled the Mediterranean, interviewing religious believers. His closing comments made his position clear: he was the kind of Catholic who felt he had a lot in common with Muslims who care about people, and with Jews who care about people, but said: “If you believe your way is the only way, your truth is the only truth – I’m sorry, I’m not on your team.”

Ouch.

Our Lord Jesus once said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.”

Does that mean Our Lord and Adrian Chiles aren’t on the same team?

St Paul wrote, in the words we’ve just heard, “The gospel will save you only if you keep believing exactly what I preached to you – believing anything else will not lead to anything.” He also tells us that he has taken care to make sure he is teaching what the other apostles also taught: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures. Knowing the truth matters.

An O-ring seal compressed in a vice - it stays that way when released, if cooledLast weekend, news programmes remembered that 30 years previously, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off. The reason? Safety seals in the outer casing didn’t work properly in very cold weather. The risks were known, but NASA felt pressured to keep projecting a “can-do” attitude to spaceflight. When Nobel prizewinner Richard Feynman pointed this out, he concluded: “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Claiming that we know the Right Answer doesn’t always make us popular. But reality always wins.

There’s a right way to kick a football. There’s a quick way to use a Word Processor. And there is most definitely a wrong way to launch a Space Shuttle, if you want to keep its passengers safe.

We can sympathise with Adrian Chiles. He doesn’t want to claim there is a Right Answer about religion, because he is anxious – “How can we ever be sure that we’re right?” What he really means is that he finds something in our Catholic faith attractive enough that he is drawn to join, but not so compelling that he’s motivated to invite others.

Faith is a kind of knowing. It’s a knowing that we know without knowing how we know.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls fisherman to be fishers-of-men, to seek souls, to win people as his friends and followers. Does he do this out of self-interest, wanting a bigger crowd than any other rabbi – or does he do it because following Jesus matters?

Simon Peter sensed that it matters. What other rabbi could show a fisherman where to make a record-breaking catch?

St Paul sensed that it matters. Hadn’t this Jesus, after dying on a Cross, showed himself to 500 disciples all at once, and then to Paul himself while journeying to Damascus to take many Christians prisoner?

It’s a spiritual work of mercy to instruct the ignorant. But to do this, we have to know the truth, and know how to pass it on tactfully. The basics are the Creeds and Dogmas of our faith. In these, we are confident – we literally “have faith”.

How can we tell the difference between the basic teachings, and other things which are just the opinions of scholars, or the way we happen to do things? This takes study. It’s a spiritual work of mercy to instruct the ignorant. If you don’t know the answer, begin with yourself. After all, for some months now, we have been praying for the Lord to invite us to know him better, through study.

Do you show mercy in your daily life?

Today, I invite you to ask: have I instructed those who are ignorant?

If not, make a good confession – and then begin with yourself!