One of the phrases used by athletes at the Olympics when they talk about how they prepared for it is “I put myself through a lot of punishment but it was worth it in the end!” Yes, we are all impressed by what these athletes do, but we need to remember that being a Christian is like being an athlete. We get this from St Paul who writes to the Christians in Corinth, Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Cor 9:24) Later of himself he writes “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Now that’s a challenge for all of us today, to do our best to be what every Christian should be, spiritually fit.

A Sports coach faced with improving the fitness of an athlete does not start by imposing the same exercises on everyone he trains. No, he starts by assessing individual fitness. So the first question each of us need to ask ourselves today is “How spiritually fit am I?” Am I just cruising as a Christian… just going through the motions rather than really developing a deeper relationship with God?

We might start our analysis by asking ourselves why we are we here at Mass? Some of us will be here because it makes us feel better. We find comfort from familiar words and prayers and from a sense of the presence of God. For us the questions is : “Would still be faithful if being at Mass, saying out prayers, stopped being comfortable and soothing. Would we carry on then?”

Others of us may be here because we need help. We are faced with some big problem, some big sadness or difficulty in our lives, and in our struggle for a way beyond these difficulties we have turned to God for help. For us the question is: “Would still be faithful if things starting getting better for us?” It is noticeable that better-off people who can afford to go out and enjoy themselves at the weekend, on trips out, on holidays, on sport or shopping, are far less likely to be faithful practising Christians. All these other things seem much more fun! Would we lose the faith. if life became easy and smooth and other things attracted us?

Then there are some of us, and this is particularly true of priests, who come to Mass partly because that is what we have always done for more years than we care to remember. Prayer has become a habit, almost something we do without thinking. Now that may be good ; but the danger is that if our life gets disrupted in some way, then if prayer has become just a habit and has lost its depth, what seemed a fixed part of our life can quietly dissolve into nothingness.

This is precisely what Jesus is warning us about in our Gospel (Luke 13:22-30) He tells us to try our best “to enter by the narrow door”. I was talking to a fervent and fairly anti-Catholic Protestant Christian the other day, and discovered he had been brought up a Catholic. “Why was I never told” he said, “That being a Christian means committing oneself utterly and completely to the Lord Jesus Christ?”  I was saddened to hear that despite the fact that he must have heard Bible Readings like ours today, no-one had explained that this did not mean just going to Mass every Sunday and trying to be good. I’m glad if you do both those things, but unless we also talk to God and listen to God in our life, unless we make this time in church MEAN something to us, then we have missed the point completely. We heard what the Master said to people like that in the Gospel :“I do not know you.”

Sometimes people, especially British or Irish people, apologise to me if they have been crying during Mass. “I am sorry I made such a scene Father.”  “Don’t be sorry” I say “What better place is there than Mass to share our deepest sorrows as well as our deepest joys, with God!

The best exercise to get spiritually fit is prayer; but prayer does NOT mean asking God for things. Prayers means spending some time sharing our life with God, thinking through the day with him, so that gradually his continual presence seeps into our rather dull minds. But we must not be foolish athletes. We must not set ourselves a routine that is too much for us, so that after a few days we fail and sink back into nothingness. Better to spend 5 minutes concentrating on God, than to plan much longer and then fail to find the time. The long term goal must be give ourselves some punishment to get really fit, but God honours every little effort we make, so we must give ourselves time to get there.

A challenge to the smug

August 18, 2016

Frances writes on this coming Sunday’s readings :- These Readings are a reminder to those of us who are devout, and think that we have got our relationship with God all sorted, to think again. It can be so easy for those of us who are regular Mass attendees and who try to live carefully within the bounds of our faith to be critical of others, even to consider them to be quite beyond the pale. It is quite clear that both Third Isaiah and Jesus had a serious problem with such ‘devout’ men and women, and wanted them to think again, to consider very seriously where they were and what they really believed they were up to. An attitude which understood the precariousness of life, and the extreme fragility of the relationship between God and humanity, was what was and is called for ; and seems to have been much more what these people held as correct, rather than any smug security. Believers  must always live life on the edge.

Indeed, it is startling that Third Isaiah, (66:18-21) the prophet of the return from exile in Babylon, should end this great work on a note of such castigation on those in control of religious thought and practice in Jerusalem. The narrow complacency of the elite is threatened by the glorious promise of the story of the Jewish faith being taken out to the Diaspora, indeed, to dark foreign parts where it would be practised by those who had been dispersed and their descendants, even (horror of horrors!) where they had married among foreigners and where their practice of the faith almost certainly did not match up to the demands of those in Jerusalem. We are talking here of a widely diffused collection of Jewish believers, some from parts of Africa with dark skins (Put and Lud); some from the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean from Spain(Tarsish); others from up on the Black Sea and even possibly as far as the reaches of Mongolia. The prophet sees them all coming to worship in Jerusalem and even being made priests in the new temple which is under construction in Jerusalem – truly the cages of the establishment are to be rattled. Whilst the Books of Isaiah end on a note of triumph, it is redolent with the winds of change and even threat. Things will not and never will just settle down to ‘business as usual’.

By the time of Jesus, things seem to have gone from bad to worse, the aggro has just ratcheted up and up. In Luke’s Gospel (13:22-30) we continually meet Jesus at loggerheads with the religious authorities in the holy city. Since Chapter 9 verse 53, we have been following Jesus en route for Jerusalem and his Passion, and at every turn we find him in bitter, even savage conflict with the religious purists, whether from the temple or from among the Pharisees and lawyers. Jesus’ mission was to the sick and the outcast, either because of their defiling jobs or their illnesses and he also commended the despised and hated foreigners like the Good Samaritan, or travel out of Israel over the Jordan to heal a demon-possessed man, almost certainly a foreigner. Jesus castigated the cities of Judaism and its upright members, insisting that when God’s kingdom finally came to its fruition on earth, the purists would find themselves out in the cold. Indeed, according to Jesus’ understanding of events and expectation of God, at the end those who had believed themselves true to the faith of Abraham and the prophets, would find themselves excluded, whilst those from all the quarters of the globe, and those representing the unacceptable and iffy, would find inclusion in the glories of the Kingdom.

Perhaps the nub lies with the Letter to the Hebrews (12:5-7. 11-13) and all its uncomfortable talk of the need for the believer to be continually ‘reprimanded’, ‘punished’ and ‘trained’, and the writer’s understanding that this includes suffering. All this is very difficult language for us modern people, but for the ancient world, even the Christian world, children were harshly dealt with and corporal punishment was common. The attitude of fathers to sons was far from sloppy, and their training more often might have resembled physical training for the Games. Schooling was hard and harsh. It was even more so for Christians living in a hostile environment, even expecting public antipathy and possible persecution. One needed to be tough, and fitted for the trials which the faith might bring upon one. Such an outlook clearly required constant alertness, revision of one’s values, and a real commitment to the faith, rather than of casual Church attendance on Sundays if one feels like it. All this poses serious questions for us today, and it is right that we should be asking these difficult and disturbing questions of ourselves. Where do we stand on this spectrum of belief? With the cosy and the smug, those who think they have got it made? Where do we make room for the fragile, the unclean, those whose arrival on our shores might mess up all our cosy notions of belief in Jesus? After all, the original was, I suspect rather a curious shade of off-white!

 

 

On Death, Life and Mary

August 14, 2016

For us Christians, the day someone dies is also the day when we meet God face to face. As St Paul says “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1 Cor 13:12) That’s why we sometimes call the day of death our heavenly birthday. For me, the 12th June is a date I cannot forget, because it is the day my mother died over 40 years ago. I hope and pray that she is now with God in heaven, as I remember the words of St Paul from our 2nd Reading today (1 Cor 15:20-26) “Just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ” Notice that! We Christians do NOT believe that people pass automatically to heaven. Eternal life with God is a gift given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God dies to defeat death, and so bring us to eternal life with him.

 

I’m reminding you of all this standard teaching on the faith, because from the very earliest times Christians have celebrated death of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as her entrance into heaven. And just as I can remember the date of the passing of my earthly mother, so they remembered, and have passed on to us, the date – the 15th of August – of the passing of the mother that Jesus gave to us all as he died on the cross. As Mary stood at the foot of the cross, Jesus said to his dear friend John, the only disciple brave enough to stand with her “This is your mother”

 

Now we might say “Yes OK.”, and leave it at that. But the Church tells us that Mary is more important than that, and that we need to think and pray regularly about her part in bringing Jesus to the world, if we are to understand more clearly what it is that God offers us through Jesus. A famous Dominican writer, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, points out that when someone asks us home to meet their mother, we’re actually being offered an even closer friendship with them. This may well have happened to you? Think how in this situation, the Mother tells us stories, sometimes embarrassing ones, about her son or daugher from when he or she was younger; and thus we learn things about them that we never knew before.

 

Some of the stories of Jesus in the Bible, including our Gospel today (Luke 1:39-56) are clearly one’s that do not come from Jesus, but from Mary : stories she must have told the first Christians, so that they could learn more about how God works through Jesus to bring us to eternal life with him.

 

The three most famous stories are told at length in the Bible, and so are clearly very important. They are first the story of the Angel coming to Mary, then Mary’s Visit to Elizabeth (our Gospel today) and then finally the birth of Jesus and the few stories we have of his childhood. Mary’s part in all this reminds us that even the most ordinary human beings, like you and me, can be filled with the Holy Spirit and used by God in wonderful ways. They remind us also how God chooses to become fully human, in Jesus, to be a baby in the womb and a child in his mother’s arms. This is the most remarkable thing about the Christian Gospel that we easily take for granted.  God choosing to work in a special way in one of us, Mary, in order that he might be born as one of us, Jesus.

 

Thus we are taught two things. First, that God does not work in us just in a spiritual way, but that he uses our flesh and blood humanity to bring his love and glory to the world – just as he worked in Mary. Second, that, although we are called to a personal faith in Jesus, who died for us, part of the way we are linked to him is by being living members of his family. Remember what Jesus says to us. “I no longer call you servants… I call you friends.” (John 15:15) and in another place Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35). That is what we are called to be ,with Mary our mother, a family supporting and loving one another, and together bringing his message of love and salvation to those around us and to world.

 

Finally, of course, the message for today is that when we die, we do not die alone. We are drawn through the love of God fully into the family of God that we have been part of whilst on earth. We cannot really ever understand what life after death is like, but we can know that somehow the best things about being human, loving and caring for one another, are something we will experience with God for ever after we die. Before Christianity, life after death, if believed in at all, was an entry into a shadowy ghostly world to be feared more than welcomed. Death for Mary, and for all the family of Jesus is quite different, an enter into life and love and glory. That is what we celebrate today.

Homily on Mary & Death

August 14, 2016

For us Christians, the day someone dies is also the day when we meet God face to face. As St Paul says “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1 Cor 13:12) That’s why we sometimes call the day of death our heavenly birthday. For me, the 12th June is a date I cannot forget, because it is the day my mother died over 40 years ago. I hope and pray that she is now with God in heaven, as I remember the words of St Paul from our 2nd Reading today (1 Cor 15:20-26) “Just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ” Notice that! We Christians do NOT believe that people pass automatically to heaven. Eternal life with God is a gift given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God dies to defeat death, and so bring us to eternal life with him.

 I’m reminding you of all this standard teaching on the faith, because from the very earliest times Christians have celebrated death of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as her entrance into heaven. And just as I can remember the date of the passing of my earthly mother, so they remembered, and have passed on to us, the date – the 15th of August – of the passing of the mother that Jesus gave to us all as he died on the cross. As Mary stood at the foot of the cross, Jesus said to his dear friend John, the only disciple brave enough to stand with her “This is your mother”

 Now we might say “Yes OK.”, and leave it at that. But the Church tells us that Mary is more important than that, and that we need to think and pray regularly about her part in bringing Jesus to the world, if we are to understand more clearly what it is that God offers us through Jesus. A famous Dominican writer, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, points out that when someone asks us home to meet their mother, we’re actually being offered an even closer friendship with them. This may well have happened to you? Think how in this situation, the Mother tells us stories, sometimes embarrassing ones, about her son or daughter from when he or she was younger; and thus we learn things about them that we never knew before.

 Some of the stories of Jesus in the Bible, including our Gospel today (Luke 1:39-56) are clearly one’s that do not come from Jesus, but from Mary : stories she must have told the first Christians, so that they could learn more about how God works through Jesus to bring us to eternal life with him.

 The three most famous stories are told at length in the Bible, and so are clearly very important. They are first the story of the Angel coming to Mary, then Mary’s Visit to Elizabeth (our Gospel today) and then finally the birth of Jesus and the few stories we have of his childhood. Mary’s part in all this reminds us that even the most ordinary human beings, like you and me, can be filled with the Holy Spirit and used by God in wonderful ways. They remind us also how God chooses to become fully human, in Jesus, to be a baby in the womb and a child in his mother’s arms. This is the most remarkable thing about the Christian Gospel that we easily take for granted.  God choosing to work in a special way in one of us, Mary, in order that he might be born as one of us, Jesus.

 Thus we are taught two things. First, that God does not work in us just in a spiritual way, but that he uses our flesh and blood humanity to bring his love and glory to the world – just as he worked in Mary. Second, that, although we are called to a personal faith in Jesus, who died for us, part of the way we are linked to him is by being living members of his family. Remember what Jesus says to us. “I no longer call you servants… I call you friends.” (John 15:15) and in another place Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35). That is what we are called to be ,with Mary our mother, a family supporting and loving one another, and together bringing his message of love and salvation to those around us and to world.

 Finally, of course, the message for today is that when we die, we do not die alone. We are drawn through the love of God fully into the family of God that we have been part of whilst on earth. We cannot really ever understand what life after death is like, but we can know that somehow the best things about being human, loving and caring for one another, are something we will experience with God for ever after we die. Before Christianity, life after death, if believed in at all, was an entry into a shadowy ghostly world to be feared more than welcomed. Death for Mary, and for all the family of Jesus is quite different, an enter into life and love and glory. That is what we celebrate today.

Enfolded in God

August 10, 2016

Frances writes on the Readings for the Feast of the Assumption:- In one way we expect the Feast of the Assumption to be all about Mary, as we celebrate the significance of her unique contribution to the salvation of the world in the incarnation. It is therefore about her triumph. In another, it reflects on her humility, as one insignificant peasant woman responds to her God. Yet in another sense, the Assumption is not really about Mary at all, but rather about God and his action in her and through her. It is precisely in and through Mary that our whole understanding of God shifts from traditional expectations of any gods or God, and in our case takes our faith origins in Judaism way beyond the understanding of so many of its people. Yet ,as we shall see, this understanding that we inherit, of God revealed in Jesus the Son of Mary, was there all the way through Jewish history, just waiting to be unveiled. The Assumption is also primarily about the Church, the culmination of Mary’s gift to the world of Christ. Mary’s story and ours as Christians are irrevocably entwined, and each of us is enfolded in God.

 

It will be easiest to begin with the Gospel. (Luke 1:39-56) Immediately after the visit of the angel, Mary goes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth to rejoice at the pregnancy of this formerly barren woman. In a passage heavily plagiarised from Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, we find Mary voicing her joy at the divine action in the vision of a deity whose power and majesty will be demonstrated, not amongst the great, the rich or powerful, but rather in the humble, the hungry and the downtrodden. In short, God manifests himself both to Hannah and centuries later to Mary in ways which overthrow normal understandings of the divine. That this great manifestation should be rooted in that most significant thing for any nation’s thriving – the birth of children – and also to those believed barren and therefore despised, since they were unable to fulfil their most fundamental role in society, is significant. God has touched and made fecund the core of his creation. It will be the story of Israel’s, and our, continual refashioning. It is about the victory of God.

 

This too is what is celebrated in our Reading from 1 Corinthians (15:20-27). For those without belief in Christ, either in the ancient world or even today, physical death represents a stunning and bleak end, the wiping out of a human existence. Ancient paganism had no sense of what we call ‘eternal life’. The very best one could hope for was for some shadowy existence in Hades, some lingering sense of the person, but no more. Even in first century Judaism, ‘resurrection’ would all have been tied up with the eagerly awaited eschaton, the full reign of God on earth, when Israel gained supremacy over all the nations and ruled the roost. The Christian claim that through the bodily resurrection of Jesus after his death, we all have life with and in God himself, living as divine creatures, was and is something quite other. It means that the dark oblivion which threatens every creature is swept away and that believers are party to the life and eternally creative energy which is the being and nature of God himself. For the citizens of Corinth, living in a vibrant lively city with two ports and a myriad of peoples and ideas, few things would have been more stark and sobering than to walk outside the city walls to its roadside cemeteries. For hundreds of them, death was an ever present threat, annihilation literally at a bend in the road. Paul’s magnificent promise that Christ had overcome death itself, and that he is more powerful than any earthly king, and that he can with utter certainty subdue all that gets in the way of our ultimate union with the Father, would have had immense appeal for the Christian community, and been a powerful propaganda tool. They too, like Mary Christ’s mother, have the promise of life in God.

 

Our Reading from The Apocalypse (11:19; 12:1-6.10) needs to be understood in its context. John, its writer, wrote to Christian communities in south-western Turkey to reinvigorate their faith at a period when they might have been flagging under persecution, or even becoming complacent. ‘The woman’ he speaks of here is the Church, in a sense the offspring of Mary. It is a Church under threat of annihilation from the Roman authorities with their many gods – the ‘huge red dragon which had seven heads and ten horns’ – a representation of the city and its empire stretched out to control the Mediterranean. John has taken well known stories or myths of battles between true princes and usurpers and used them in his own ‘myth’ making of the battle between good (Christianity) and evil (Rome). He wants his readers to understand that our God will triumph in the end. His message for the beleaguered churches lies in the dramatic story of God’s rescue of the male child and his mother. They may appear very small and vulnerable, as indeed they are; but Israel’s story, from which Christianity emerged, is that it is precisely the humble, lowly and insignificant who God chooses to work through, and in whom he will triumph.  It has always been the Christian story, and in our day when we feel threatened by acts of terrorism or other forms of oppression and hatred, it is good to remember that this great feast celebrates precisely these moments, and our origins in Mary Mother of the Church. “There is no need to be afraid; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

Did you hear about that family that won 62 million pounds last week? The question they need to ask is whether it will make them happy, for apparently research shows that some people who win sums like that are less happy than they were before. They buy lots of expensive things, houses, boats, clothes and holidays, and find that none of these things really makes them happy. Most of us here are unlikely ever to be rich like that, but we can still allow the longing for such riches to blind us to the more important things in life. I wanted to ask that now rich family how much they were going to give away to others, rather than just keep for themselves.

This is what Abraham did, whom we hear about in our 2nd Reading. (Hebrews 11:1-2.8-19) In his story we are being taught what real faith is like. He gave up almost everything for a vision of a future that he was never to see. He set out into a new land and lived in it “as if in a strange country” In other words, he gave up almost everything he had, for a vision of the future that he would never see.

As Christians this is what faith must be for us too. If we follow Jesus because we expect it to make us happy or rich, then we are missing the point. Jesus had to teach his disciples not to expect some kind of glory if they followed him.  As Christians, we are called to be like Jesus who died on the cross for us. So we are called to give up our lives in the service of others, even if we are in difficulties ourselves. For it is only as we do this, that we will gain a different kind of happiness, the happiness, the blessedness, of doing God’s will.

In our Gospel (Luke 12:32-48) Jesus calls this happiness “treasure in heaven”; but he does not mean by this something we simply receive in heaven after we die. He taught us to pray “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”, and surely this means that we are called to bring heaven to earth : to find heaven on earth – the presence and glory of God in our hearts and minds, a presence that we must share with others, whatever outward difficulties we face. But Jesus warns us today how difficult that can be. We would like to feel some result of our faith now, or at least very soon. Jesus says we may have to wait a long time, and that this is our big challenge. Can we be like a servant managing to stay awake and wait for the wedding feast, or are we more likely to get so fed up waiting that we go off and do something else?

I know of many good people who have ended up like this. They say that they are not getting anything out of coming to Mass, so they decide to do something more interesting or exciting. Somehow they have lost the message, that we follow Jesus not for outward rewards but simply to do God’s will. It is the same with prayer. How easily we expect prayer to provide some kind of comfort, and so we say to other people, “I am sure if you pray about it, things will get better.”  Of course, things do sometimes get better when we pray, but that is not the point of prayer, and if we turn prayer into an attempt to find comfort, we have missed the point. Prayer is simply opening up to God, allowing God to work in us, that his will may be done on earth as in heaven.

Prayer therefore is a response to God who has already given us so much that we take for granted. Look more carefully at the story of the servant, and you will see that he was actually in charge of the household and had servants under him and had access to as much food and drink as he wanted. All of this he had been given by the master whom he was now supposed to be waiting for.  We are like that. We have life and food just like he had. It may not be as much as we would like, but it is better than nothing. All of this comes from God, and therefore the heart of prayer is thanksgiving, is responding to God’s love already given, rather than spending our time asking God for more.

 Remember the great prayer of St Ignatius Loyola who founded the Jesuits?

Teach us, good Lord,
to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.

AMEN

 

 

Frances writes :- In this weeks readings our relationship with God is presented in something akin to a contractual sense, one in which we gain somehow or other by the amount we ourselves contribute or ‘put-in’ to the relationship. It might almost serve as a metaphor for our understanding of the Mass in which armchair observers; couch-potatoes ‘don’t get much out of it.’

This is beautifully illustrated in our gospel (Luke 12:32-48). We are speaking here of the slave to master relationship, so not one ever of equality; and it is fundamental to the understanding of the story and the point I am making that we appreciate this. Most Roman citizens owned slaves, indeed as did many throughout the Greco-Roman Empire. Owners of slaves frequently lived in apprehension of their slaves, especially since the huge slave revolt in the first century BC under Spartacus. Owners had learned to control and get the co-operation of slaves, especially those in urban and domestic situations, by the promise of giving them their freedom. Trusted household slaves, noted for their fidelity to their owners and the family; their careful management of their resources; or as tutors; financial managers; or even managers of their estates (stewards as in our story) could ultimately gain their freedom, and were frequently set up in business by their former owners, now patrons, of whom they now became clients. Ex slaves without a patron were likely to have a very hard life. The threat of being sold and having your family split up was the safety device by which owners often secured the loyalty of their slaves.

The good slaves therefore in our Gospel are those who remain on the alert, waiting for the master’s return in the small hours; or those who guard his property against burglars and those with oversight of estates who manage them diligently and well. Conversely, those who abuse the system can expect harsh punishment, and all would have been well aware of the score. The benefits of obedience and loyalty were well known and could pay dividends, and so Jesus uses this pattern of living as a very pertinent illustration of the relationship between the believer and God. The trustee would be ensured of enormous rewards and the idle slacker or dishonest severely punished. In short, the Christian only reaps what he/she sows.

The picture in the Letter to the Hebrews (111-2.8-19) is not dissimilar. It almost speaks of faith as an investment in the future, one in which the investor makes a calculated commitment to an as yet uncertain future, but in the conviction that he/she is doing the right thing. The writer of Hebrews, clearly addressing converts from Judaism to Christianity, is at pains to stress the continuity of the faith in the God Abraham, the Father of the Jewish faith, discovered and worked at so long ago. He is convinced that Jesus is the final and culminating manifestation of the God of the Hebrews, indeed God with us in the person of Jesus. The writer therefore appeals to these new converts to follow Abraham in a similar and powerful act of faith, and cites other heroes of the past as back-up. For Jews, turning their backs on the long traditions of their fathers and the laws, circumcision and sacrifices which Christianity rejected, this re-interpretation of their founding fathers and their faith could only have served as an encouragement in what were uncomfortable and difficult times. Placing your faith, and therefore your religious actions, in something, rather someone, uncertain, and leaving behind what was so sure rooted, took nerve and real conviction. The writer of Hebrews really made this well known material work for the Christian cause, and indicated that, like the founders of Judaism, it required a lot of hard work.

The Book of Wisdom (18:6-9) is the work of a writer of the first century BC at a time when Palestine was under Egyptian occupation. Although ascribed to Solomon, it is of course almost a thousand years from that ‘wise’ king, and is rather a piece of propaganda designed to boost the morale of the people under Egyptian rule and harshly exploited. Our passage in particular reminds the people of the Lord God’s defeat of the Egyptians, and the great Exodus event which brought the Jewish nation into being. It speaks of a divine pact, almost a treaty, between God and his people under which they would be rescued in return for their loyalty to the God of Judaism. It is a great praise-song to God in which the downtrodden place all their faith and hope in God, and trust not in their own power or force of arms, but in the saving grace of the Most High.

So we have been talking about acts of trust (faith) and their acknowledgement in behaviour in all three readings. There are pacts made, but never between equals, rather between those of huge inequality. For us moderns today, all this talk of being like slaves, or the occupied and downtrodden, in relationship to God may well grate. What we have to remember is that however we choose to express our relationship with God, somehow or other we must attempt to capture the enormity of the difference between us and God, yet realise the offer of grace held out to each of us and the invitation given – that we can participate, that we are never simply the objects of divine benevolence but are responsive too. That is God’s invitation to us. We are not mere puppets on his string, but players in the game.

 

Homily on non-perfection

July 31, 2016

I was talking about sin to someone once, and they said, quite innocently, “But I’ve never committed any sins!” I was lost for words for a moment, but then I realised what he meant; because he was reflecting a commonly held idea about that word sin.  “Sin” for him, and for many others, means something really bad, like murder or theft or something else they might be sent to prison for; and so, if they have never done anything like that, they think they have never sinned. It’s one of the reasons I avoid using the word and prefer to talk about our imperfections and our failings, so that people understand what we Christians are actually talking about.

 

I wanted to get this straight because in our 2nd Reading today (Col 3:1-11) St Paul talks about us “killing” all our sins.. “all that belongs to our earthly life” as he puts it. The problem with this is how we react to it. Are you one of those people who, like that man I mentioned at the beginning, says “Well I’m doing OK, leading a reasonably good life.” Or are you one of those people who hears the word “sin” and immediately starts feeling guilty? “Oh dear” you say “Why does the Church have to go on about sin all the time?”

 

Now I don’t think either of those responses is very wise. In a way, both are failing to face up to the real challenges of being a Christian. First, we all need to be aware of our imperfections and failings, and never to become complacent about them. St John says “If we say we have no sin.. the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) Indeed, if we listened properly to the Gospel today (Luke 12:13-21) we must have all realised how attached we are to our possessions, whether we have few or many. How angry we get if people mess up our things, or even borrow or steal things that belong to us. How much some small thing that we own can become so precious that it becomes more important to us than caring for other people. No wonder Jesus refuses to help the man who is arguing with his brother about his inheritance. No, instead, he warns us all about this desire to possess things, and says “a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs.”  And he goes on to tell a sharp story, which ends with death, when God will say “Fool!”- where are all your possessions now?

 

The problem now is that we all start feeling guilty, because we all know how impossible it is not to cling on to the things we own. But this response, as I said earlier, is equally mistaken, because what really matters is not that we fail to be perfect, but what our attitude to our imperfections – to our sins – actually is.  St John may have told us not to say that we do not sin, but he goes on to remind us that in Jesus we meet a God who loves us and takes away our sins, and makes us right with God.  So do we sit back then, and say “Oh good, God takes away my sins so I needn’t bother about them anymore?” 

 

Well we could of course, but what a terrible response that would be to the amazing love, the amazing grace and forgiveness of God!  No, we do not try to be good in order to please God and thus get to heaven, because if only perfect people get to heaven then we are all destined for hell. What we are meant to do is to try to be good, to try not to be obsessed by the things we own, because we know God loves us, even when we fail to be as good as we could be. This is such an important distinction that I must repeat it.  Those clergy, of all sorts of Christian backgrounds, including Catholic priests, who tell us we will go to hell unless we are good, are quite wrong.  The point is, as Jesus says in one of my favourite Bible passages. “No-one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18)

 

So, trying desperately to be perfect, feeling guilty if we are not, is not the Christian way. That was the way of the Pharisees whom Jesus condemned again and again. We start with the fact that God loves us, and that he loves every effort we make to be good, as part of our response to his love. Like a little child learning to walk, we learn by not quite making it, and then God catches us in his arms, and encourages us to try again. We get there not by looking at ourselves, but looking towards our loving God, the one who died for us on the cross. As St Paul says in that 2nd Reading “You have put on a new self which will progress towards true knowledge the more it is renewed in the image of its creator”   or as he says to the Philippians about himself  “I have not already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil 3:12)

 

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings:- The Greco-Roman world, far more than ours, was governed by status and ‘honour’. Who you were, your status in society, mattered and was made highly visible in the clothes you wore; the manner of your speech; indeed, even how you moved. In the theatres and amphitheatres different tiers of seating were reserved for different groups, the senators nearest the orchestra at the front with the second class behind them and going on and up to the provision for slaves and women at the top. Slaves would often have been branded, and so freedmen and women would wear clothes that hid such marks. Rich freed, no matter how wealthy, could never expect to compete with wealthy land owning elites and would often be pilloried for their ostentatious wealth and vulgar showy houses. Any visitor to Pompeii will have made their way to the house of the Vetti, and know exactly what I mean.

 

When St Paul wrote to the Christians of Colossae (Col 3:1-5.9-11) he was addressing a similarly status conscious society, and he was at pains to spell out the significance of the Christian message to this small and probably snobby group. Last week I remarked that his Greek does this by speaking of the believer as “co-buried; co-raised, co-quickened to life with Christ”, hinting at the intimacy of our union with and in Christ by his death on the cross. This is again how our passage reads, though the Jerusalem Bible’s “Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ” fails to retain the intimacy, the indissolubility of our remaking in, by and with Jesus. This is precisely why Paul points out to them just how completely inappropriate their continuing of any former behaviour must now be considered. We have to recall here that this was a slave owning society, and that owners frequently sexually abused their slaves as well as frequenting brothels, since under their previous pagan existences, no moral reform was ever considered necessary. It is only in the light of the enormity of the Christian message, to which every believer is given access and invited to live a God-like life, that any of us can truly consider the rightfulness or abhorrence of our behaviour. St Paul never questioned the existence of slavery, that would have been far too difficult, but he quite simply lays before the Christian community of Colossae the nature of their new and stunning relationship with God, as a God moreover so staggeringly different from the pagan ones they knew, with their pushy power, immorality and fickleness. He offers them Christ the Son who dies to unite us to God and who gives us infinite love and freedom, and asks them/us to choose how to live henceforward. With such an understanding, how can one who is truly of God, made for eternity with him, treat foreigners, slaves and the freed with contempt? His message has never been more relevant.

 

At the complete opposite of the spectrum, we have the tired, world weary and contemptuous answer of Qoheleth or the writer of Ecclesiastes (1:2; 2:21-23). He wrote in the early second century BC, possibly in the Holy Land or Egypt. He wrote at a time when his country Israel was under the rule of the Ptolemy’s, heirs of Alexander, and was exploited by them, and as a result seems to have produced a writer of the most world denying and jaundiced values. There is very little joy or fellowship in his writing, and any idea of values which contribute to the good of others seem entirely lacking. Those familiar with this text will shudder at its views on women and society in general. Perhaps the compilers of our lectionary deliberately included it to remind us precisely what the alternative looks like at its most deathly and unpleasant.

 

The Christian life, as presented to us by Jesus, both in what he said and in how he ultimately lived and died, is one in which such values find no place at all. In our Gospel (Luke 12:13-21) we are given a small glimpse of this. A man in a crowd has found this impressive teacher, and thinks that he can appeal to him to sort out his legal dispute with his brother. Jesus resolutely declines the offer. Of course, he could have obliged and made a judgement favouring one or the other, or even offering a fair distribution of the property, but he refuses. It is not that Jesus did not care for justice or fairness, but perhaps behind the request he sensed the animosity and anger, the divisions within a family, and the build up of explosive tensions there, where his intervention would inevitably result in his taking sides. Perhaps, given the second part of the Reading, he was aware of the selfishness and satisfaction any judgment might bring, and knew that it was not part of his mission and identity to be party to such divisions. Given that this part of Luke’s Gospel is also about the build-up of increasing tension between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees (those who lived by and for the Jewish law in all its strictest application, thereby using it to exclude those less able to be observant) are we to see it as an indication of Jesus’ rejection of the things, the ways of living, which divide people and keep them apart, enslaved to other values, and ones not in accord with the divine will?

 

Those of us, who contribute to things like Facebook, can often be heartened by the generosity of others towards foreigners and visitors. Sometimes we are appalled and saddened by the ferocious lack of charity voiced by some. We, who today are faced with the enormous tensions within our own nation and across Europe, as thousands of refugees flood out of the Middle East, not to mention the economic migrants, need to take to heart the enormity of Paul’s message to Colossae. It wasn’t written just for this small and relatively isolated community, nor was it given because their behaviour was especially noticeable. No, it was precisely because their attitudes were so common. They and we have a long long way to go, as we reach out into the heart of God, and even more, allow him to reach out into ours.

It is easy to forget that when Jesus taught us to call God “Father”, he did not mean Grandfather. I always get furious with people who think we Christians believe in a God who is like an old man – a grandfather with a beard – sitting on a cloud! No! What he wanted to share with us was that very special idea that God is very close to us and that through our brotherhood with Jesus we are drawn into the same closeness with God that he has. Listen to the prayer of Jesus just before he is arrested “I pray also for those who will believe in me..  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21) 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that God is so close to us that he is not far away beyond us as well. Jesus prayed regularly in the Synagogue and the Temple where God was always addressed in more formal ways, just as we all do when we say “Holy holy holy, Lord God Of hosts” during Mass. Indeed these are words Jesus knew well, as they are from the great prophet Isaiah’s vision of God, (6:3) a vision taken up by us Christians where we find it in the last book of the Bible as a vision of God in heaven (Rev 4:8)

It is only when we have something of that vision of God – a power quite beyond our understanding eternal and almighty – that we can feel something of the shock and the wonder of the teaching of Jesus, that this same God can also be approached as “Father”. Indeed in our Gospel today, (Luke 11:1-13) when Jesus teaches us to pray, he puts the two images of God side by side. “Say this when you pray : Father, may your name be held holy”

But our Gospel takes us further into the teaching of Jesus on the closeness of the Father with his story of the two neighbours. Our problem here is that we are so concerned with our own desire to pray better, that we concentrate on that aspect of the story; so we need to look more closely at the relationship between the two neighbours. Think about it!  Nobody would have the nerve to go banging on their neighbour’s door late at night unless they knew them very well indeed.  Jesus emphasises how inconvenient it is, by having the disturbed person cry out from inside the house, “Go away, we have all gone to bed.”  By this time Jesus has all his listeners laughing. But then he takes the story further, for the man outside continues knocking and calling until .. finally.. his friend, with a sigh I guess, gives way and gets out of bed and gets him what he wants.  Did you notice how I put in that word “friend” because that’s the point. That neighbour would never have got up unless they had actually been friends as well.

Remember that Jesus says in another place “I have called you friends”? (John 15:15) This is so important to him, he wants us to see God as our friend, to see God as someone whose door we would feel happy to knock on in the middle of the night. So God is not only a Father to us, but also the kind of father who we feel really comfortable with, the kind of father who we would be happy to phone up and chat to, even in the middle of the night. I know of one person who sometimes does this, and knows that her father is always happy to hear her voice and listen to her problems even if he is far away. We may not have a father like that, but we can imagine what it is like, and that is the God that Jesus gives us, as he calls us to be his friends, and thus the friends of God.

We might end by looking at what we are given if we do pray like that. We might think that Jesus is teaching us that if we persist in prayer we will get what we want. But that is not what he says. He says “If you then…  know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Did you hear that? What God will give us if we persist in prayer is not what we ask for but himself as Holy Spirit. In other words he will fill us with his strength and his wisdom and it is that which will answer our prayer. We may not get what we want, but what we will get is his even closer presence to guide us and probably show us that what we were asking for is not necessarily the riht thing for us.

 I remember when I was in great pain in hospital asking God again and again to take away the pain so I could sleep. Finally I realized that I was going to have to live with the pain at least for a while, and instead of crying out for relief, I had to simply relax in his presence. and in that knowledge manage that living with the pain that I did not really want. God sometimes answers prayer this way. It may be hard but if God is with us, we can and will manage.