Great Expectations: Invest

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

Consider the humble img_1161bucket.

Have you ever tried to draw water from a well?

Just letting the bucket down on a single rope might not work so well… the bucket floats on the water!

So what can you do?

You can use a heavy weight to sink the bucket. But who wants to be burdened by that weight all the time?

You can TIP the bucket so it falls over and fills from the side.

Or you can use a special bucket designed to let a little water in at the bottom. If you draw it out quickly, you will keep most of the water!


Today, Jesus is thirsty. He meets a woman at a well and asks her for a drink. He has no bucket – but his plan is to offer her the living water that only He can give.

How do we open ourselves to receive that living water?

Like the weighted bucket, we may be sinking into desperation when we turn to Christ. In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programmes, the participants come to a point of despair. They realise that the power to change is not within themselves. They must turn to some “Higher Power”. There are many Christian stories of people who made a new connection with God when they were at their most broken. The Bible tells us: “Seek the Lord and you WILL find Him – if you seek with ALL your heart!”

Like the tipped-over bucket, we can choose to humble ourselves. If we know who Jesus really is, we will bow down our hearts and ask for his help. Scripture says: “Humble yourself in the eyes of the Lord, and he will raise you up.”

Like the bucket with a valve in the bottom, once we receive something of the living water, we will be thirsty for more. The increased weight allows the bucket to sink deeper. Once we’ve had a taste of the Lord’s love, we will be motivated to pray harder and longer, and the Lord can increase our capacity to receive. St Paul must have experienced this; he wrote of how God’s love can be poured into our hearts.

The woman at the well provided the Lord with two things to fill – a bucket for water, and a soul for faith, hope and love. The Lord filled her gradually. She starts the conversation by addressing him as a hated “Jew”. Then a more respectful “Sir”. If we read on, Jesus is acknowledged as a prophet, and eventually Messiah. The more she sinks into the living water, the more able she is to receive who Jesus truly is; eventually the conversation moves from matters of fetching water, to questions of the right way to worship.


A bucket is also a classic sign of holding a collection. As the current tax year draws to a close, it’s appropriate that I say something about money. Indeed, the money we give to the Church is one very practical way in which we worship God – with our wallets! To “worship” is to declare God “worthy”, which means “worth it”. I’ve placed the two banners on the sanctuary reminding us to “invest” and to “worship” because they are so closely connected.

We, the people of this parish, are responsible for keeping our parish running. Each year, it costs us roughly £15k to keep our building warm, safe and in good repair. It costs another £15k to have a priest – that’s not just money in my pocket, that includes my travel and other expenses as well. And it costs a further £12k to adminster the parish – printing, phone, internet and office staff. Let’s not forget that we are also paying off our debt, if we aim to pay off £10k per year, that all adds up to £52k per year or £1000 per week.

Now, a thousand pounds per week might sound like a lot of money, but the good news is that about 300 people worship here each weekend. Some of us are children, but if 250 adults are here each weekend, that’s about £4 per person per week. That’s the bare minimum we can pay into our parish if we want to look after our building and keep a priest.

There are lots of ways we can contribute. We can set up a standing order from our bank, or we can give cash every week. If we pay tax, we can ask the Government to Gift Aid our contribution. We can also choose to sponsor the costs of particular church expenses. At the end of today’s Mass, our finance team will talk about Gift Aid. Next week, we will launch this year’s Sponsorship Appeal.

Remember, the Lord is asking us to meet his needs out of the gifts he has already given us. Today’s psalm is an invitation to give praise to God, who has provided for our basic needs, rather than giving in to the temptation to grumble – that’s what the Israelites did at Massah and Meribah in the desert. If our income has gone down in the past year, it is quite proper for us to give less to the church than we used to. But if we can afford to give a little more, let’s do that. Imagine what our Church could do if we had  the resources to invest in our community as well as keeping our building and our priest in working order?

I’m not going to tell you we’re sinking and desperate for money – we’re managing. Just.

I’m not going to bow down and beg you for money, but I am simply telling you what we need.

I am, however, showing you what we can do with a little more money. We have living water to share with the community we live in. You see at the outside of the church that we now have signs and banners. The is the first step of asking our local community to come in and drink from the living water. Imagine what more we could do with the funds to go out into the community and connect with people!

Jesus saw a woman with a bucket, and asked her for a drink. She was cautious, but he won her trust, and her life was changed. Today, you see a priest with a bucket, a priest who wants to share living water with the people around us. What will you put in my bucket?

Great Expectations: Worship

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A.

worship

There’s a person in prison for what he believes. His name is John.

What were the beliefs that landed him in prison?

He believes that God is real. He believes that God expects people to behave in a certain way. He had preached a simple message: God is coming soon. You can be friends with God – but you have to change. You have to live your life God’s way.

For King Herod, living by God’s law would have meant separating from the woman he called his wife. That’s why the king had put John in prison.

John is worried. He’s gambled his whole life on his belief that God is coming soon. Now he’s in prison and may soon be executed. Has his gamble paid off?

In his prison, he’s asking the same questions we’re all likely to ask in times of stress. “What can I do when life gets hard? Where is God in all of this?”

The answer John finds is rather unique. He knows that the prophet Isaiah said that when the blind and the lame were healed, it would be a sign that God himself is coming. Now he’s heard rumours that his own cousin, Jesus, is healing people. And more than that, Jesus sends back a message “I am giving Good News to the poor – don’t lose faith in me!”
But do we have faith in Jesus?

For many of us, something inside us resists seeing who Jesus really is.

If Jesus were really our Teacher and Judge, we would have to put aside our own ideas about right and wrong, and find out what Jesus thinks.

If Jesus really wants us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, then we have to adjust our plans for sports, hobbies and socialising to make room for him.

If Jesus really loved me, I would have to look again at that big negative image of myself I secretly think is the real me. If Jesus sees good in me, I can’t be so bad really!

Jesus had a way of asking difficult questions. “Why were you so interested in John the Baptist?” he said to the crowd around him. If he were here today, he might say, “What are you doing at Mass on a Sunday morning? Are you jumping through hoops so your children can have First Communion? Have you come out of a sense of ‘habit’, because it feels as comfortable as an old sweater, or because your friends are here? Or do you really believe that when you attend Mass, you’re taking part in the one thing which delights the God who created you more than any other human activity?”

 

This morning, I wanted to give you a really good reason why you should worship God. In fact, our word-of-the-week is “Worship”.

I could tell you that when you’re in love, it’s natural to say affectionate things to the person you love. But perhaps you haven’t fallen in love with God yet.

I could tell you that if you could only sense how awesome God is, you would instinctively bow down and adore. But if you can sense that, I won’t need to explain.

I could tell you that my main reason for worshipping God is that Jesus said “Do this in memory of me”, and I made a decision when I was 19 years old that I was going to do what Jesus asked me for the rest of my life. But if you haven’t already decided to follow Jesus, that won’t help you at all.

In fact, I’ve reached a stark conclusion.

There is NOTHING I can say in this sermon which will make you believe in Jesus, if you don’t already have faith.

I can only promise you that if God gives you the gift of faith, he will help you to deal with all the obstacles that seem scary when you don’t have faith.

Only God can give the gift of faith. When I was 11 years old, I prayed – not because I was curious, but because I was hurting and needed to know the answer – “God, if you are real, show me.”

God did.

That’s why I became a Catholic.

That’s when I realised that there was nothing I could do on any weekend which was more important than coming to take part in Mass and receive Holy Communion.

You could ask God too, show you whether he’s really there.

Don’t be afraid.

 

Some of you have been given the gift of faith. Some of you are confident that when you receive Holy Communion, it is Jesus himself who nourishes you in body and soul. I have a challenge for you, too. My challenge is to go deeper. Every weekday in school time, we have a time of adoration. We place the body of Jesus on the altar in the Prayer Room. Members of our Indian community have a rota, so that Jesus is never left alone. Often they come as families and spend hours singing hymns and offering prayers.

What about our wider community? I’d like to challenge the rest of us to take adoration seriously. I’ve made an agreement with the regular adorers that the first hour of adoration each day will be in silence. So you can come along at half past ten on a weekday, knowing that your own prayers won’t be disturbed by someone else’s for that hour.

Why not come and try it out?

Even if you are not sure if God is real, why not come and give God the benefit of the doubt?

 

There’s a person in prison because of what they don’t believe.

They don’t believe Jesus is real.

Or if they know Jesus is real, they don’t believe he can change their life for the better.

If that person is you, Jesus would like to set you free today.

I’m praying that you find the courage to say “Yes” to Jesus. John did. Mary did. I did. You can, too.

 

 

Catching Hold of Jesus

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A – Catholic Bible Sunday.

One day a little girl asked her Mum: “Is it true that God is everywhere?”
A hand placed over a drinking glass.

“Yes, darling,” said Mum. “God is everywhere.”

“OK Mum,” said the girl. “Does that mean that God is in this room?”

Mum wasn’t a Bible expert, so she thought hard for a moment. It was logical, so she said: “Yes, darling, if God is everywhere then God must be in this room.”

The girl had one more question. “OK Mum, if God is everywhere, and God is in this room –” she picked up a glass – “then is God in this glass?”

Now Mum was trapped. There was only one logical answer. “Well, darling,” she said, hesitantly, “If God is everywhere and God is in this room, I suppose God must be in that glass.”

“Goody!” cried the girl, and clapped her hand over the top of the glass. “I’ve got him!”

It’s Advent. It’s the time when we are looking out for God in a special way. Where might we catch Him?

St Paul has given us some clues. His letter today says that we can learn a lot from what is written in the Bible. In another letter, he told us that all the words of the Bible are “breathed by God”. And at Christmas we will hear the words of St John remind us that Jesus is the Living Word of God.

When we put these clues together, we make a discovery. Jesus is in the Bible! Not frozen in ink fixed to a page, though. First we must bring the words of the Bible to life – we must speak them aloud! When someone proclaims the words of the Bible to us, Jesus is speaking to us!

This Gospel Book is beautiful. It contains the words spoken by the human lips of Jesus – these make the Gospels the most important part of the Bible. But after our last Sunday Mass, this book will be put back on the bookshelf in the back room until next weekend. It is only when we are ready to read it aloud that we have servers stand next to it with candles and incense. What is truly important is not the book – it is what is being read from the book. When we receive the message of this book, Jesus is speaking to us. So here is a question: If Jesus is speaking to us, does that mean that Jesus is HERE when the Gospel is being read? YES!

What was proclaimed from this book today? John the Baptist said that Jesus would come and baptise us with the Holy Spirit. That means, if we have been baptised, we have been connected with the Holy Spirit. It means that God’s spirit lives inside us! Unless, that us… we have asked Him to go away! If we choose to commit sins which we know are serious and offensive to God, the Holy Spirit flees from us until we repent. But when we make our peace with God through Confession, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are restored to friendship with God, and the Holy Spirit returns, with all the gifts we had from God before we sinned.

Now for something else St Paul mentioned. He said God’s plan was that “the pagans” should sing and praise God. He’s talking about us! A pagan is anyone who is not Jewish. I don’t know if any member of our congregation comes from a Jewish family, but most of us don’t. That means we are pagans – people from many nations – who have become Christians. Every time we gather in this church and sing God’s praises, we are doing one of the things the Bible said would happen.

In one of the Psalms, it says: “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.” Now here is another puzzle. Who is the person speaking? Is the Bible God’s Word? Yes! Is Jesus “the Word of God”? Yes! So does that mean that when a psalm says something, Jesus is speaking? Yes! Jesus is going to sing praises to God-His-Father among all the nations on Earth.

He’s already done it this morning! We sang a hymn at the start of Mass. We are the people filled by the Holy Spirit; the Bible says that we are members of the Body of Christ. Does that mean when we gather as a church to sing God’s praises, Jesus is singing to His Father? Yes!

Exactly 50 years ago, the bishops of the Catholic Church were gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council. On the 4th of December, issued a document called Sacrosanctum Concilium. Its 7th paragraph said this:

Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross, but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” 

In more complicated language, the bishops are saying the same things that we have worked out this morning. When we receive the words of the Bible being read to us, Jesus is here! When we sing and praise God the Father, Jesus is here! When I stand at the altar, praying the words of Jesus as a priest, Jesus is here! And we haven’t even talked about Jesus being present in Holy Communion!

Yes, the most special presence of all is what happens when bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. If that little girl came into this church and said “Mummy, show me Jesus!” then Mummy would point to the tabernacle – or at Mass, would point to the priest lifting up the Host and then the Chalice – and say, “look, darling – THERE’s Jesus!”

But if that little girl came in to Mass and said, “Mummy, WHERE is Jesus?”, Mummy could also say: He is here! He is all around us! He is in the praises of His people! He is in the proclaiming of His Word! So let us be careful not only to show our love and respect for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament by bending our knee, or at least doing what our bodies will permit us to do. Let us also recognise that there are many other ways Jesus comes to us each time we gather for Mass.

Have you got Him yet? He is nearer than you think!

The “God in the Glass” story is not original; the author is not known but it has been quoted elsewhere as God in a cup or glass.

Behold the Lamb!

Homily at St John Lloyd, for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year C

White marble statues: a lamb standing on an altar, and in sequence to the left: St John with an open book, Our Lady with hands raised in prayer, and St Joseph with his head bowed.

The apparition site at Knock

An image! Of a Lamb, surrounded by angels!

One August evening in the year 1879, 15 people in the village of Knock, Ireland, saw a remarkable sight. On the east wall of their local chapel, appeared an image of the Lamb of God standing on an altar, accompanied by St Joseph, Our Lady, and St John. In due course, the church authorities interrogated the 15 witnesses and decided their testimony was credible – Knock remains the only vision to have been authenticated by church authorities in the Celtic nations.

Not a word was spoken by any of the figures who appeared in this vision. If we would understand the message of Knock, we must understand the meaning of the scene presented to us.

On an altar, stands the Lamb of God. Jesus appears as a Lamb because he is meek, and allows himself to be led to the Cross like a lamb to the slaughter. Jesus appears as a Lamb because he is a sacrifice who protects us from the power of death, just as the Jewish people of old sacrificed a lamb and marked their homes with its blood so the Angel of Death would pass over their homes without doing harm. Jesus appears as a Lamb because he was declared by John the Baptist to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

Each of the figures accompanying the Lamb of God has something to teach us.

As we read from left to right, we first see St Joseph with his head bowed in prayer. He reminds us that when we enter God’s House, when we enter this church of St John Lloyd, or any Catholic church where the Blessed Sacrament is kept, we come into a holy place, a place which it is right and proper that we should treat with respect. From time to time we should ask ourselves if we are always respectful of our church as a holy place. We may wish to speak a word of welcome or an urgent message to a friend we see within these four walls – but if doing so disturbs the prayer of even one person who is silently honouring the Lamb of God, we do better to take our conversation outside.

Our next instruction comes from Our Blessed Lady, who has her hands raised in prayer – an image which complements the vision we have just heard described in the pages of the Bible. In today’s Second Reading, the angels and saints attending the Lamb’s throne cry out that the Lamb is worthy of “praise, honour, glory and power, for ever and ever”, and then they bow down in worship. Our Lady of Knock stands in God’s presence with her hands raised in praise.

And we – we also give honour to the Lamb as we stand and kneel for the different movements of the Mass. We sing the Gloria and the Holy Holy at our Sunday Mass because we are joining, on Earth, what is constantly happening in heaven – the angels are singing praise to Jesus, the Lamb who was slain for us. The very words of  the Gloria and the Holy Holy are taken from the songs of angels as recorded in the pages of the Bible. We sing these songs on earth as a preparation for Heaven – because in heaven, we will sing an endless song of praise to Jesus and to His Father, the One who sits upon the Throne.

Before Mass, we gather in silent honour of the Lamb. During Mass we lift up our hands, our hearts and our voices to sing God’s praises. At the end of Mass, we are sent out with a message. We are to go and proclaim the Good News of Jesus to the world around us, and this is the lesson of St John with his open book.

Over the centuries, many thousands of Christians have risked life and limb for the privilege of speaking about Jesus to others. In today’s first reading, we have heard how the Apostles were flogged – that is, they were whipped – by the Jewish leaders who did not welcome the message of Jesus. In more recent centuries, St Paul Miki of Japan, St Andrew Kim Tae-gon of Korea,  and St Augustine Zhao Rong of China, head the lists of dozens of martyrs who were executed for preaching the message of Jesus in the Far East. In the Muslim world, scholars debate whether the Qu’ran requires the death penalty for those who turn away from Islam to follow the Christian faith, and some Islamic states have persecuted former Muslims who turn to Christianity.

What about us? We are free to practice our faith and to encourage others to consider the message of Jesus. In our nation-state, this is our right. As followers of Jesus, this is our duty. And therefore I wish to remind you of two very easy ways to speak about the message of Jesus which I mentioned to you before Easter.

In two weeks’ time, there is a weekend retreat in Cardiff designed especially for young people aged 16 to 25. I know that many of us here, today, have children or grandchildren who have stopped attending Mass. How can we encourage them to re-connect with God? At events like this weekend run by Youth 2000, the music and talks are led by young people; it’s far easier for a young person looking for faith to identify with another young person who has already found it, than with someone of an older generation. It’s very difficult to communicate faith to a teenager or young adult, but it is very easy to ask them whether they are willing to spend a weekend with other young people – an adventure, no less, staying up half the night if they wish, camping out indoors.

So I invite you to pause for a moment, and ponder:

  • Do you know any young person aged between 16 and 25?
  • Have you yet invited them to come to this retreat?
  • If not, what is stopping you?

If the problem is money, have a quiet word with me after Mass and there may be funds to allow you to offer a young person a sponsored place.

The Bible tells us that on the Day of Judgment, the martyrs will be first in the queue, and Jesus will be beaming at each one of them and congratulating them for laying down their lives for Him. I think that not far behind will be those, from our culture, who plucked up the courage to speak to a young person and invite them to this retreat. It doesn’t matter whether or not they accept this invitation – Jesus will be delighted that we made the effort to offer it. But at the very end of the queue will be those to be greeted by the sorrowful face of Jesus. I would not like to see the look in His eyes which says: “You did not love me enough even to pass on an invitation leaflet to one of my children.” It will be similar to the look which greeted the Apostles the first time they saw Jesus after running away from the Cross. But the Apostles were given another opportunity to speak about Jesus and give their lives for him. They were given another chance – and you, you still have two weeks to pass on the invitation – it’s in the parish newsletter – to any young people you know.

In three weeks’ time, there is another Catholic event in Cardiff, and it’s one open to all of us – you can take your children and grandchildren, too! It’s an opportunity to hear the message of Jesus in a way we don’t normally get the chance to experience. It’s one I strongly recommend to you. We can make lots of good excuses for not attending a God-centred weekend. If we have to work that weekend, we can’t go. But if we have children, we can take them, and if we can’t afford it, then again, have a word with me after Mass. If we, the Catholic community, don’t support these events, they will stop running – and it would be a great shame not to have a resource like this available anywhere in Wales.

Jesus once said to his listeners: “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’” It’s easy to make excuses – but the message of Knock invites us, the Celtic people, to put the Lamb of God at the centre of our lives. Let us not be the generation of whom Jesus says: “I put on two weekends for you, but you did not come and you did not invite your children.” Let us be the generation who receive what is on offer, and pass on the invitation to our children. Yes, it’s something different to what we are used to. But perhaps the Lord is asking us to let down our nets on the other side, to see what we can catch!

Filled with Spirit

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for Pentecost Sunday, 2012

Would you like to get drunk?

I’m not a pub person. It continually amazes me that so many people enjoy going into an atmosphere which is filled with music so loud you can’t hear each other speak, where people drink until they lose so many inhibitions they say and do things they regret, and which, until the anti-smoking laws were passed, was filled with acrid smoke.

Yet… pubs and clubs thrive, and they thrive because people want to go there. There are lots of good reasons: you can meet your friends, express yourself through dancing or karaoke, enjoy a drink or two, and the effect of alcohol might help you drop the mask you usually wear and let the real “you” emerge. As long as you only get “singing drunk”, not “fighting drunk”, and the designated driver takes you home, no harm is done.

When the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost, they did not keep quiet. They proclaimed the message of Jesus in the presence of a huge crowd, who heard them speaking in many different languages. Because of the babble of tongues and the enthusiasm of the apostles, some of the listeners accused them of being drunk. “No we’re not,” said St Peter, “it’s only 9 o’clock in the morning!”

But they looked drunk. And I wonder whether what the apostles had that day held the same attraction as the pubs and clubs of our own age. I think the Apostles looked happy – no, more than happy, radiant with joy. Despite their exuberant behaviour, there was something so attractive about them that many in the crowd of onlookers wanted to be part of what was going on. Through the power of God, they had shed those inhibitions which held them back from being the people of faith which God was calling them to be.

“When the Spirit comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father,” said Jesus, “you too will be witnesses.” Both through the word that they preached and the joy which they radiated, the Apostles showed forth the Good News of Jesus Christ. And this was also the experience of Christians in the fourth century, when Saint Ambrose of Milan and Saint Cyril of Jerusalem could write about the “sober intoxication of the Spirit”.

What about us? When we leave this church building this morning, will we look like we’ve spent an hour having a good time – doing something that we want others to come and join? It’s easy to become cynical about our Church, jaded at doing the “same old same old” time and time again. So let’s resist that, and remember that we are a church of good news. For instance…

  • Last month, in Ilfracombe, 1500 Catholics gathered to enjoy their faith at the week-long Celebrate Conference. Nearly half the participants were under the age of 18, they spent a week being Catholic and loving it!
  • When I visited Washington DC last year, a poster in the presbytery showed that there were over 60 men in seminary for the Archdiocese of Washington (and it had their pictures to prove it) – that was more than the total number of diocesan priests active in the same diocese. (Here in Cardiff, we have 5 seminarians, compared to 37 active diocesan priests.) Washington DC might not be a place you’d expect to be a hotbed of vocations to the priesthood, but it’s happening!
  • Across the world, our church is growing – in Africa and south-east Asia. We may be painfully aware of decline in Europe, but in many parts of the world, people are becoming Catholics with great enthusiasm.
  • In Johannesburg, South Africa, there’s a church they call the “lemon squeezer”. Apparently its Sunday evening Youth Mass is such a vibrant experience that it’s listed in the local press as one of the top 1o attractions to see while you’re in town!
  • Last year, the only Catholic cabinet minister in Pakistan, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed for standing up the rights of religious minorities in a Muslim country. Although tragic, this is also a good news story – of a man martyred for having the convictions of his faith.

What about our own parish? This month, four young people from our parish chose to be confirmed. That’s good news. We have a thriving SVP who have launched the Sunday Café project, and we are actively participating in our local Foodbank. We have a two small faith-sharing groups meeting on Mondays and a prayer group on Thursdays. So while we do see some other parish activities shrinking or ceasing, there’s much to celebrate in the life of our own community, too. All of these good works are signs of a community infected by love. Our good works are excellent – but they are only half of what we are about as a Christian parish. The other half is what we are doing here, now, on Sunday morning.

We are called to be witnesses. When we walk out of this church just after 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning, we should look happier than anyone who’s just finished a session at the best pub or club in Pontypridd. Not by putting on a face, but because we have truly enjoyed our worship this morning. For the psalm, we have all sung: “Send forth your spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth!” God wants to begin with each one of us. We are invited to taste a spirit stronger than any liquor which can be brewed. When we are filled with this spirit, we will lose our inhibitions about how to behave in church. If we have sinned, we will know that we are the forgiven children of a prodigious father. If the preacher tells a joke, we will have no worries about laughing, for we know God approves of happiness in his house. When it is time to sing, we will sing our hearts out for the God who loves us, because we know He is worth it.

The best advert for the Church is a happy Christian. It’s been said that although millions of Christians pour out of church doors every Sunday, they “don’t look very saved”. So let us rejoice that God has forgiven our sins. Let us give thanks that God sent His Son at Easter, making the sacrifice which we celebrate every Sunday. And let us rejoice at the gift of the Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost, so that we, gathered around God’s altar, can be the happiest people on Earth.

Do you want to get drunk? Open your heart, lose your inhibitions, and ask God to plant his Holy Spirit firmly within. It is the Spirit of the God who loves you, and no harm can come of this, for what the Spirit brings is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control. Send forth your spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth!

Come to the Water!

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the Vigil Mass of Pentecost Sunday, 2012

At this Mass, an adult was baptised. Owain had joined the RCIA too late to be ready for baptism at Easter. From the alternative First Readings, Ezekiel 37:1-14 (the dry bones) were chosen.

I am now going to take away your sorrow and restore you to life!

Owain, this is God’s word to all of us this evening, but especially to you.

The reading from Ezekiel gives us the famous vision of the valley of dry bones, immortalised in song. These bones give us a lesson in what it is to become part of God’s life.

First, the bones stand up – the Greek word for “stand up” is anastasia which also means resurrection. Whenever we read in the Bible of someone “standing up” we are invited to see a connection to the rising of Christ. Owain, by your Baptism you will be joined to Christ and share his new life.

Next, the bones are filled with God’s breath. The words for breath and spirit are closely connected – when we breathe in, we inspire, and out, exspire. Owain, through the gift of Confirmation you will be filled with God’s living Spirit.

But it is not enough for the bones to be restored to life; they are to be restored to their homeland, to become part of the new Israel, which is the Church. Today, you will be joined to us by receiving Holy Communion for the first time.

Because of your baptism, you will begin a new life today. The old is gone, the new is at hand.

Earlier today, I saw a toddler, filled with wonder, taking hesitant steps to explore the world around him – a perfect image of your new life in Christ.

I am now going to take away your sorrow and restore you to life!

These words are also for us as a parish. The toddler filled with wonder is a sign for Owain and for us.

It’s easy to become cynical about our Church, jaded at doing the “same old same old” time and time again. So let’s resist that, and remember that we are a church of good news. For instance…

  • Last month, in Ilfracombe, 1500 Catholics gathered to enjoy their faith at the week-long Celebrate Conference. Nearly half the participants were under the age of 18, they spent a week being Catholic and loving it!
  • When I visited Washington DC last year, a poster in the presbytery showed that there were over 60 men in seminary for the Archdiocese of Washington (and it had their pictures to prove it) – that was more than the total number of diocesan priests active in the same diocese. (Here in Cardiff, we have 5 seminarians, compared to 37 active diocesan priests.) Washington DC might not be a place you’d expect to be a hotbed of vocations to the priesthood, but it’s happening!
  • Across the world, our church is growing – in Africa and south-east Asia. We may be painfully aware of decline in Europe, but in many parts of the world, people are becoming Catholics with great enthusiasm.
  • In Johannesburg, South Africa, there’s a church they call the “lemon squeezer”. Apparently its Sunday evening Youth Mass is such a vibrant experience that it’s listed in the local press as one of the top 1o attractions to see while you’re in town!
  • Last year, the only Catholic cabinet minister in Pakistan, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed for standing up the rights of religious minorities in a Muslim country. Although tragic, this is also a good news story – of a man martyred for having the convictions of his faith.

What about our own parish? I think we see dry bones mixed with green shoots. This Saturday evening congregation is visibly smaller than it has been in recent years, and many of those dear to us have died, or are no longer well enough to attend Mass. Yet there is also good news. This month, four young people from our parish chose to be confirmed. We have a thriving SVP who have launched the Sunday Café project, and we are actively participating in our local Foodbank. We have a two small faith-sharing groups meeting on Mondays and a prayer group on Thursdays. So while we do see some other parish activities shrinking or ceasing, there’s much to celebrate in the life of our own community, too.

Throughout the Easter season we have been sprinkled with holy water and sung “Water of Life”. By our baptism, we stand as members of the Body of Christ – but we also need to breathe the Holy Spirit. We don’t have to do God’s works in our own strength, in fact we can’t. Only by accepting the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus can we find the strength and inspiration to do God’s will in our own life. Today we celebrate that gift of the Spirit, and as the church moves tomorrow back into Ordinary Time, we continue living the lives of exceptional holiness which we are called to as ordinary Christians.

I am now going to take away your sorrow and restore you to life!

Accept God’s gift, and you will become a fountain of living water. By God’s Spirit, we will become a source of living water for all Pontypridd.

Owain, it is time for your baptism: now come to the water!

Family: Not easy, but full of meaning

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2012

A man, his wife and his mother-in-law went on vacation to the Holy Land, but tragically, at the end of the holiday, the mother-in-law died. The family were told they could bury her there for £200, but it would cost £5,000 to bring her back to the UK.

The man thought about it for a while and decided to have her brought back.

The undertaker was surprised and asked the man why he was willing to spend so much money, when it would be so much easier to bury her in Jerusalem?

“Well,” said the man, “because it’s my mother-in-law, I don’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I mean, people say that someone buried here rose from the dead!”

It’s easy to become cynical about family life.  Mother-in-law jokes are the stock-in-trade for many comedians. The weekly diet of drama and entertainment served up by our TV channels revolves around broken families, adultery, violence, or – for radio listeners – perhaps just the everyday headaches of country folk. But occasionally, something cheerful finds it way onto our screens. A generation ago, Carla Lane’s Bread on the BBC showed a happy family – a Catholic family – making their way in the world. Now Sky TV is trailing the launch this weekend of Starlings – billed as a “brilliant, warm and funny series” about a Derbyshire family which will “make you laugh and cry for all the right reasons”. We shall see!

Real family life doesn’t just happen – we’ve got to work at it. When our church commissioned a national report on family life a few years ago, the results were published under the title “Not Easy, But Full of Meaning.” It’s not easy – because we don’t get to choose who our family members are. Certainly, you might marry someone you find adorable, but they do come with in-laws. Each child born to a family is a surprise as the parents discover what kind of person they are raising. There are special challenges for those who choose to foster or adopt older children. What is required in each case is the same: it’s called LOVE.

The New Testament, written in Greek, uses different words for love. “Falling in love” is eros. “Liking” someone is philo. But the love which the readings command upon us today is written agapé – a word which means “I choose your well-being.” Our Lord says to us: You are a community. Choose each other’s well-being! Find a new respect for one another. Decide to make your family work as a community! And yes, that’s going to mean sacrifice of your own plans and priorities.

The whole season of Easter is teaching us one message, the message of agapé love. In order to fully experience the eternal life which Christ has now entered, we must love as Jesus loves. Do you remember last week‘s Gospel – the Father’s promise to prune you, so you can bear fruit in abundance? Do you remember the example of Christ on Good Shepherd Sunday – a different  kind of hero, who can only become what God is calling him to be through sacrificing his own plans and ambitions?  You are also invited to be a hero – a domestic hero, a hero-at-home.

There’s a clue in the very word family. F.A.M.I.L.Y. – Forget About Me – I Love You! [If that sounds like a rap to you, you’re not wrong – the rapping Franciscan priest, Stan Fortuna, sang this at World Youth Day Sydney in 2008.] True family only happens where your needs are more important than mine – and at the same time, you believe that my needs are more important than yours.

What I’ve said about our natural families also applies to our spiritual family, which is the Christian community – in particular, our parish community.  When St John wrote “Let us love one another” he was writing specifically to members of the Christian community. Our first reading from Acts showed St Peter realising that God is inviting the whole world to be part of his family – the message of Jesus was not only for those born Jewish. We are called to be a community of Good News – a house of God where everyone feels welcome, where those who have drifted away know they are always welcome to return, and where newcomers find it easy to join in what we do.

But what does this mean in practice? It’s up to each one of us, as church members, to show agapé love to one another. We do this by a smile and a kind word, especially to strangers. We do this by respecting each other’s silent space for prayer. We do this by promptly volunteering for the church ministries which need to be filled. We do this by helping each other to engage with the worship by choosing to sing and take part with enthusiasm, even with those items which are less familiar. If we are serious about being a FAMILY church, this means each and every one of us must treat the person next to us as more important than ourself. Each one of us must make a decision – an agapé decision – that everyone who walks through the door of St Dyfrig’s is welcome here, and that each one of us will do our bit to make them welcome.

As in a marriage, so in membership of a parish, we will experience times when it seems there’s no spark in what we’re doing. The worship has become routine and ritualised. The music is boring or not always perfectly performed. Even the central heating doesn’t work as well as we’d hoped! It’s especially at these times we must remember: Family life is not easy, but full of meaning. For our parish to be a life-giving centre of Good News, each one of us needs to make a decision to work on it, on the weekends when we feel like it, and on the weekends when we don’t. It needs a positive attitude: I WILL come. I will sing. I will take part. I will volunteer promptly. I will make this a parish that other people will enjoy worshipping in. And you know what? You might just find that in giving life to others, God restores life to you.

As for our natural families, I’d like to invite you to take a fresh look at your own family today. Are there members you aren’t getting on with so well? Are there relationships which need a little extra effort to smooth out? The Lord is calling you to agapé – to make that effort. This isn’t meant to make anyone feel guilty: there are no perfect parishes and there are no perfect families. None of us can accomplish everything we’d hope to do in showing love for different members of our community. But at the same time, there may be some new directions we can take, or difficult relationships we’ve been avoiding dealing with, which we might decide to tackle today. Not easy, but full of meaning.

I’m not married, so I want to borrow a final thought from George Dalton, a Christian writer who is:

I never look at my wife without saying a prayer of thanksgiving for her wonderful parents.   Have I always been the perfect son-in-law? No, do you think the apostle Peter was the perfect son-in law?  Probably not, because he was human just like we are, but we know he had a mother –in-law, and I’ll bet he loved her and honored her.

Dalton invites us to make a decision to show God’s love to all of our in-laws and awkward relatives. He notes that at first, if we change our behaviour, they’ll think we’re taking the mickey – but if we love them for long enough, they’ll realize that you really mean it!