We must never forget, that the heart of our faith as Christians is that we meet God in and through Jesus. As he said “To have seen me, is to have seen the Father”. (John 14:9) This means that we can feel God the Father’s love and compassion for us in a very real way, as we hear Jesus speaking words of comfort and wise advice, and as we see him dying for us on the cross. But our danger is that this gives us such comfort that we fail to see the challenge in much of what Jesus says; and we fail to realise that the God whom he teaches us to call “Father”, is also the God who is, as we heard in the reading from Hebrews (12:18-24) “Nothing known to the senses”  – an immense and powerful force way beyond our understanding.

We need to remember all this as we hear Jesus’ parable today. He appears to be simply giving wise advice on how to be polite and modest at dinner parties, but actually, like all of Jesus’ teaching, this is more about our relationship with God. Yes, there are places where Jesus teaches us that when we are with God, it is he who will sit us down and serve us; but in this teaching that is certainly not the case. Instead, he is warning us not to take God’s welcoming love for granted, as if we could walk into heaven and say “Hello God”, and walk right up and sit down beside him as if we were the most important person in the room. Now I’m sure that you can see how wrong that attitude to God  is, yet we do meet people who do take God for granted like that, don’t we? And perhaps we sometimes can be a bit like that too. It’s one thing to know that God loves us and always hears our prayers, and quite another to take that closeness for granted, and forget who we are talking to.

Two things follow from this. The first is that we must be careful when we pray, not to spend all our time speaking to God, and never giving God time to speak to us. Of course there are times when we’ll want to pour out our story to God, especially when something upsetting or distressing has happened to us, or when we’re in pain or great sadness. God will always listen. But we also need to develop what our 1st Reading calls “An attentive ear”… maybe we should call it “A listening ear” .

This must apply to the whole of our life and not just to our times of prayer. Sadly, when we get busy with our life, or our work, or our problems, it is easy to forget to be sensitive to what God may be saying to us in and through everything that we experience, not just so-called religious things.  The reason why we are encouraged to have “times” of prayer each day, as I mentioned last week, is to help us to make all of our life more responsive to God’s presence, rather than limiting God to only one area of our lives. If we think it’s all right to rattle off a few prayers, and then forget about God and his will for us the rest of the time, then we have missed the point, haven’t we?

This leads on to the second thing I want to say, and that is the importance of developing an attitude of humility in all that we do. Now true humility is not getting agonised about our sins or our failings, instead it’s much more about having a sense of humour about ourselves – not taking ourselves too seriously. I love the story of the new Head Teacher of a very posh school for clever girls, who introduced the radical idea, that these clever girls should be taught the value of failure. She pointed out that instead of agonising about failure and getting steamed up about trying to get perfect results, the best way forward in life is to see our failures not as things to beat ourselves up about, but as some of our best learning experiences. That, you see, is true humility.

The kingdom of God, that we pray for every day when we say the Our Father, is a place where everyone has an equal place and is equally valued. Life with God is not about scrabbling to reach the top of the tree, but about realising that everyone is equally precious to God even, and perhaps especially, if they think of themselves as a failure. That is what the reading from Hebrews says, doesn’t it? “What you have come to is… the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven…. You have come to God himself… and been placed with spirits of the saints who have been made perfect.”

 Notice that! Not, you have to make yourself perfect to be a saint; but you have been “placed” with the saints, and even they, the holiest of all people, have not made themselves perfect, but have been made perfect….. by God.  That is the kingdom we belong to, and it should affect every aspect of our lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- The ancient world was a society of ‘honour’ and ‘precedent’, one in which everyone knew their place in the pecking order, and woe betide the upstart who stepped out of line and pushed his way into prominence over and above his ‘betters’. Indeed so divided was society, that even seating in the amphitheatres, theatres, or at the Games, were carefully delineated. The seating for the elite in such venues would have been carefully marked off by decorative seat ends, and those sitting in the best seats would have had their slaves bring cushions and throws as well as food and drink. We know that this segregation extended to dinner engagements in the houses of the elite. Their real friends might well be entertained in small rooms and served much superior food and drink to those clients of varying degrees for whom such events could be an exercise in humiliation – as we see in the excoriating Satire V of Juvenal. Such events served many purposes, and one at least was precisely to emphasise the power of the rich and powerful over their dependents and others. Far from being simply events of communality, of coming together, all of these minglings of different classes also highlighted in excruciating clarity their differences, and maintained the status quo.

In Luke’s Gospel we meet Jesus at two dinners with wealthy Pharisees, ours today is the second (14:1.7-14). In both, Jesus quite deliberately takes the Pharisee to task. The earlier one (7:36) is where the woman anoints Jesus with costly ointment and her tears, in contrast to the host who deliberately snubs him. In today’s example, Jesus uses the issue of seating precedence as a parable of the kingdom. Our Reading has omitted the related healing of the man with dropsy in the house of the Pharisee and on the Sabbath. This juxtaposition brings a stark clarity to the situation. Jesus has just healed a man with a serious and debilitating disorder – a true sign of the Kingdom of God – and there people are jealously sizing up their personal clout in the dash for the most important seats for a meal, with someone who saw himself as highly influential in the local community of the Jewish devout. Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisee is truly ground breaking in its radical rejection of the social conventions encapsulated in power and place in society. True to his mission, he suggests that real greatness, even God-like generosity, would better be demonstrated by the negation of convention in favour of giving dinners which were offered to the socially outcast, the unclean crippled, lame and blind. In short, as Jesus remarks, it is precisely because these people can never compete on the social scale, or ever pass as real ‘friends’ that they are the very means by which a truly virtuous man can get into heaven. Giving to them would be truly altruistic.

Today we view such passages solely in terms of do-gooding, and fail to perceive their truly radical and ground breaking nature, and hence their power as Parables of the Kingdom in which we can see and measure our total dissimilarity from our Creator and Redeemer God, who has thrown away everything for love of us. Those of us familiar with the way in which the account progresses will be aware of just how precisely Jesus puts the boot-in, relentlessly refusing to let the matter drop, and shaking social convention to its very roots. We ought to be made acutely uncomfortable by this Gospel, for it is rare, I suspect, for most of us to open our homes to social outcasts.

The Letter to the Hebrews (12:18-19.22-24) continues this theme of radical difference, in this case that between the Jewish faith and that of those who were converting to Christianity from Judaism. It begins by taking the believers right back to their earliest origins in Judaism, to moments when Israel first encountered God. Some of those occasions would not have been very dissimilar from those of their pagan fellow countrymen, who met their gods in storm and earthquake, and worshipped them in the mountains of Syria and the Lebanon. We all recall the stories of similar encounters with God by people on the Exodus, or the great meeting of the prophet Elijah with God in 1 Kings. The writer of Hebrews is at pains to emphasise that faith in Christ guarantees something of an entirely different order, one in which everyone is now “A first-born son.. and a citizen of heaven.” This vision is light years away from the earlier understanding of God, met in fear, in a “Blazing fire, or a gloom turning to total darkness, or a storm.” Instead, the believers are invited to God’s great banquet, the place in which they truly belong, and are accorded full rights and an honoured place in society. At this great festival there will be no second or third class citizens, and no one can expect to be humiliated, or have to cow-tow to others of superior rank; for every one of us will be treated like a “First born son”, someone to be cherished, adored and gloried in by God himself.

It is then, all the more interesting that Ben Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (3:17-18.20.28-29) whose words of wisdom were published by his grandson in the 2nd century BC should write as he does. The work come from a period of his residence in Egypt, significantly also a place of great social discrimination between the classes, by then ruled by the Ptolemy’s – heirs of Alexander the Great. Egypt was deemed to be a place of great culture and learning, with famous libraries in Alexandria, yet Ben Sirach advises that the path to true wisdom and greatness lies in humility, gentleness and the willingness to learn from others, rather than overbearing attitudes or the pursuit of power. Significantly this book was not included in the Jewish Canon, though it has found its way into the Christian one which insistently teaches and worships one who ‘emptied himself’ of his divinity to become like a slave and suffer and die for our salvation. This surely means that the God of ultimate power, who shares his own nature with us, has no other desire than that we too take on his form, that of the total self-gift to others of all that he is.

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)