The danger of crowds

What on earth is Jesus getting at in today’s Gospel when he tells us to “hate” our family? (Luke 14:25-33) Strange words because we know that he taught us that we must not hate anyone, that we must even love our enemies, so why does he appear to say the opposite here? I think the answer lies in the words that come before it. “Great crowds accompanied Jesus on the way.” The point is that Jesus was quite rightly suspicious of crowds. He knew how easily people will follow the crowd, and think that where a crowd is there must be something important happening. And most of us are more than a bit like this. If there are lots of people in church, we tend to think that means success. If most people go shopping or stay in bed sleeping on Sunday, we find it difficult to be different.

 Jesus says instead that “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” (Matt 18:20) – not two or three hundred, but “two or three”! On another occasion, when he’d begun teaching them about his presence in the bread and wine, the crowds were shocked and turned away from him; and instead of pleading with his few disciples to stay, he challenged them with the words, “Do you want to leave too?” (John 6:67) The final instance of a crowd being wrong was at his trial wasn’t it?  One day, as he enters Jerusalem, they’re all cheering, and the next day they are all shouting “Crucify him!” (eg Matt 27) And if you want a more modern example of the way crowds can turn to evil, look at the way Hitler and the Nazi Party manipulated the crowds in 1930’s Germany.

 We may think we are not like this but beware, for it’s a very natural human tendency to want to be like the people around us, and to behave like them, and Jesus knows this. Try this experiment, sit talking to someone, and put one hand in a different position and watch the way the person will very often mirror your movement. So, when Jesus is faced with the crowds who are all wanting to see him because everyone else seems to want to see him, he has to really challenge them to think and act for themselves, rather than to just go along with the crowd. So he uses brutal language, even that word “hate” to make them really think hard about what they are doing, just as in another place he shocks people by telling them to cut off their hand, if it does wrong!

In today’s Gospel, he explains what he is saying with two stories, one about building a tower and the other about going to war. In both cases, he reminds us, it is like everything important that we do in our lives, it requires real commitment, not just going along with the crowd. If we really want to following Jesus –  to be a Christian – then we have to realise the challenge this is, and not give up halfway because we hadn’t realised how difficult it would be!  

People here in England, especially young people at school, have a big problem here. Most want to be and to think like their friends, and not to stand out from the crowd, and being a real practising Christian – even more a Catholic Christian – is not what most of their friends see as trendy. Much of the scorn poured on the Church is, of course, nonsense, but if the crowd believes it, then it’s difficult not to believe it too. The crowd, for example, in their ignorance, say that since the Universe was created by the Big Bang, there cannot be a God. This is nonsense, of course, because the Big Bang theory is a Christian idea not an atheist one, and was first put forward by a Physicist called George LeMaitre who was also a Catholic priest. But try telling the crowd that. As this example shows, the crowd has their own kind of wisdom which is often just nonsense.  Listen to what St Paul says on this subject:- “If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” (1 Cor 3:18-19)

So when in our 1st Reading (Wisdom 9:13-18) we are told that we need “wisdom”, we need to remind ourselves this is not the kind of wisdom comes from the crowd, from what people around us are saying or thinking, but the wisdom that comes from God. Being a Christian and following Jesus is not easy. It’s much easier to believe vaguely in God as a quiet force that makes few demands on us, or not to believe at all. than to believe in the challenging loving God that Jesus brings to us. Crowds will come and go in their support for this or that, and are not to be trusted. We are called to follow Jesus, and that can often be a hard path of service and sacrifice, and not an easy road.

 

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Homily on being placed with the saints

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homily on Spiritual fitness

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.

Homily on Mary & Death

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.

Prayer is not asking but serving

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

 

 

Homily on non-perfection

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)

 

Close friendship with God

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.