The crazy love of God for us

The Work of Mercy I want to talk about today sounds like an easy one – to visit the sick. Of course it’s easy to visit someone you are fond of; and that is very important, for we should never neglect our friends and members of our own family. But even that isn’t as easy as it sounds.

 What about if they are in a coma or if they have become confused? Then, it suddenly becomes a much more difficult thing to do. And what if the illness is not physical, but mental? Then, all our fears of what it might be like to visit a mental hospital, and encounter people who may say strange things to us, or face a friend who also may say weird things, or will hardly speak at all, rise to the surface; and we can easily lack the courage to make the visit. Then there are those we might visit but we don’t know so well. Here we might avoid going, because we worry that we are imposing, or that the person would prefer to see family or closer friends.

 In a minute I will give some suggestions about things that we might do to make these harder visits a little easier, but first let’s look at why we should make the effort at all; and the answer, as some of you might have guessed, lies with our Bible readings especially our Gospel

 The Gospel (Luke 15:1-3.11-32) is the very familiar story of the bad son who eventually returns home to his father. Now you might well say “What on earth has that got to do with visiting the sick?” The answer is an awful lot, because the parables are not principally about the human story, but are told to get over to us underlying truths about God.  In this story the important person is the father, and what is important for us today is the action of the father when the son comes back. It’s crazy really. What father would spend day after day looking out for his stupid son to return when he has a farm to run? And what father would then run to greet his son and totally ignore his attempts to say sorry.

In this, as in many other parables, Jesus is trying to tell us that God is not like us. God’s love for us stupid humans is, in one sense, quite crazy. Or as St Paul says in our 2nd Reading (2 Cor 5:17-21) For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.”So this story is actually about the amazing love of God, and by extension it calls us to reflect a little bit of that crazy goodness in our own lives. We are not called to be good and kind in any nicely controlled way. We are called to love others as God loves us, beyond all reason and all limits, and that’s what every work of mercy is all about. So we are not visiting the sick just to be nice and kind. Anyone can do that. We are called to reach out to the sick even when it is difficult to do so.

Normally a priest has it easy here, because he is bringing the person the Blessed Sacrament, or anointing them. But I remember one occasion when a lady was in a coma for weeks. I had already anointed her on my first visit, what should I do now? One thing that Doctors recommend is to assume that people in a coma can hear you, and talk to them. The problem then is that one runs out of things to say. In the case of this lady, I simply said the Rosary out loud for her to listen to, and she got better. You can do that too, or simply say an Our Father etc for the person. That’s a very powerful prayer. Another thing one can do is to read to them something that might interest them, their favourite novel, or a magazine or newspaper. This can also be a way to visit someone with who is confused and elderly. Always treat them as if they can understand even if they appear not to.

 One of the reasons some people find visiting exhausting is that they stay too long or they talk too much. For many sick people a short visit of no more than 15 minutes may be more helpful than staying too long, and exhausting yourself and the patient. Sick people need to be listened to, not talked at, so we must not make the mistake, if they find it difficult to talk much, of talking too much ourselves.

Finally it is so important that we Christians work hard to overcome the hang-ups our society has about mental illness. 1 in 4 of us will have mental illness at some time, and visiting people in this situation is so important, even if we find it difficult. Whatever the illness (mental or physical) let us make the resolution today to be better at doing this important work. Remember what Jesus said? If you do this to someone, however insignificant they may be, he will be there in that sick person, and in helping them, you will be serving the Lord Jesus himself.

God loves us endlessly

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- The Jews do not seem to have been a seafaring people in antiquity (Genesis 9:8-15). It was the Bronze Age coastal traders, the Phoenicians and their descendants, who were masters of the sea and traded the Mediterranean so that the Jewish people frequently saw great expanses of water a thing of terror.  If we couple that with their borrowing of ancient ‘flood’ stories from the Middle East, it immediately becomes apparent that big expanses of water were things to be feared. This continued throughout their story, as we see in the much later story of Jonah. Yet the later, account of creation; of the temple priests, which we have as the first account in Genesis 1 does see that life of all kinds emerged from water. Israel appears to have had an ambivalent relationship with the sea, with water, seeing it both as fundamental to the emergence of any life at all, part of God’s plan and at the same time a thing of fear, terror, and to be avoided. It would be from within this dual and ambivalent relationship that Israel would understand its relationship with God, and it saw it all too often in terms of a ‘Covenant’ between God and creation, most especially between the Lord and Israel, his chosen. I suppose this strange way of recounting things helps us to delve deeper into the fraught relationship we all have with God. We would all like our vision of God to be complete and perfect, and that this would be expressed in our affairs with the rest of humanity, and indeed the entirety of creation; that we would not repeatedly mess things up and continually be in the position of returning, fed up and chastened to the beginning. Anyone with the most minimal acquaintance with the Old Testament will be graphically aware that this was Israel’s constant experience and that, despite their conviction that they were the chosen of God, things did not seems to get any better.

Something of this ambiguity is expressed in our Gospel, Mark (1:12-15). Mark paints a glowing and dynamic picture of Jesus, with a brief prologue quoting from Isaiah. and Jesus’ acclaim by John the Baptist. All seems set; Jesus is baptised by John in the Jordan and we might have expected him to begin his ministry. But this is not the case, as Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit rather uncharacteristically drove Jesus out into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. During this strange time, this forty day testing, an echo of Moses and the people of Israel on their exodus journey from exile in Egypt to the Promised Land, we are given a very strange detail, “He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.” Jesus was in a strange and even hostile environment, and yet it appears that it is the very wild animals, so often condemned as unclean by Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but apparently affirmed by that earliest of covenants in Genesis 1 that shelter and support is given. Animals, since they do not consciously sin unlike us, can always be at one with God and co-operate with God’s angels to care for Jesus during this time of temptation and testing. There, in the wilderness, it appears he had the opportunity to think out his role of Son of God. Far from being a place of terror, the wilderness is a place of contemplation and even re-creation, as Jesus was given the opportunity to work out who and what he was. As a result of this creative encounter he was subsequently able to return to society with his call to the kingdom and to repentance.

The writer of the Petrine Letters (1 Pet 3:18-22) was also someone who had to deal with the ambiguities of writing to Christians about the hope and promise of their faith, both amidst persecution and the shortcomings in the lives of the particular believers to whom it was addressed. Quite clearly there was a considerable gap between the message of Christ for them: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”, and the day to day grind of the lives of some of them as slaves; as husbands and wives, in a world with very different valuations of the marriage bond; issues of wealth and consumer expenditure and the wild and vivid attraction of pagan society from which the majority had come. Living as a reformed being, a new creature in Christ was not easy, as it is not for us either. The point all our readings make is surely that this yawning chasm between the vision of God and our own behaviour does not mean that we have failed and should simply give up and forget about the Christian faith. On the contrary, our deficiencies should goad us ever onward as we reach out with greater hope and need towards the God whose patience with us is unending and whose love is undying. God it appears does not give up on his chosen ones despite the messages we have all been sending out over thousands of years. At the start of Lent this message is a welcome one for all of us, especially those of us who will make resolutions many of which will not stay the six weeks course, let alone the life-long journey we have all embarked upon. As Julian of Norwich once remarked “though we sin continuously, he loves us endlessly.”

 

That God may be all in all

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- We live in a time when the world seems to be in chaos, with vicious wars being fought in Syria, led by its own ruler; and equally in Iraq and the Ukraine.  Many of us are facing serious personal crises with illness and death, and in all these situations where we have no control over events it is very helpful to be reminded that God is in control and that our ultimate fate rests secure in him. This was the situation faced by the great prophets of Israel during the Babylonian exile, among them Ezekiel (Ez 34:11-12. 15-17). These men were surrounded by fools; powerful men, kings of Israel who lacked judgment, and their sycophant courtiers. Judah was by the early 6th century a vassal of the Babylonians but had rebelled, seduced by the vain promises of Egyptian help, and as a consequence Nebuchadnezzar had invaded, sacked Jerusalem and its temple, and deported its elite to Babylon. Clear sighted men like Ezekiel and Jeremiah must have despaired, certainly of any human intervention which could make sense of such monumental folly. We may frequently feel the same about our politicians. From within this despair the prophet had a series of visions, moments of clarity from God, in which he could see that despite all the disaster the God of Israel was actually in control and working for the good of his people. “I am going to look after my flock myself…I shall be a true shepherd to them.”

Ezekiel was uncompromisingly convinced of God’s power, and equally contemptuous of any human intervention. This is not however the view of Jesus, as reported by Matthew. (Matt 25:31-46). I am increasingly convinced that Matthew’s gospel is a very ‘dark’ piece of writing, and it is significant that this parable has no parallels in other gospels but stands out as the last parable of Jesus, given immediately before the Last Supper, the Passover and Jesus Passion. Over the last weeks we have explored parable after parable and incident after incident, in which the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities and the Pharisees and scribes would mount to a crescendo, and end in his passion and death. Other Gospels share some of these incidents but in vastly different contexts and with different emphases.

We have to remember that Jesus was a Jew and had originally intended his saving mission exclusively for his own people whose intelligentsia totally rejected him. By the time Matthew wrote his Gospel in the 80’s, Christianity was rapidly becoming a faith of the Gentiles, pagan converts. The Jews had rebelled against the Romans and their city and temple was a heap of ruins, never to be rebuilt. The apparent failure of Jesus’ mission can be closely linked to Jewish expectations of a ‘saviour’ whom they understood in militaristic terms; a messiah who would lead a huge Jewish army and wipe Israel’s enemies off the map. Matthew’s agony is etched out on every page.

All the way through all of the Gospels, Jesus’ ministry has been especially marked by his concern for those traditionally called ‘sinners’. This included the sick, for illness was deemed due to personal transgression. It encompassed many whose occupations: shepherds; undertakers; dyers of cloth and so on, rendered them ‘unclean’ through their contact with animal excrement and birth materials, the dead, or urine, used in laundering and dying. Then of course there were the tax gatherers, Roman collaborators and prostitutes. All these were people who were never going to become ‘clean’, acceptable to the temple authorities or the religious purists. It was to them that Jesus spoke and ministered with such effectiveness, assuring them of God’s love and care and, above all, he did it away from Jerusalem and its all controlling Temple – no wonder they wanted him dead.

Matthew’s Gospel could well be read as his lament for his rejected people, in which those who cared for the thirsty, the poor and ill, the imprisoned; naked and outcast, refer to the mission to the pagan world – our world. No doubt there were Jews to whom Jesus ministered, but remarkably quickly Christianity became a Gentile affair, as we witness in the work of St Paul. What we get here, unlike Ezekiel’s picture, is the clear confirmation that our response to God’s grace matters. Salvation in God is wholly due to the death and resurrection of Christ, but our willing response through our care of others, modelled on Jesus, is central to our relationship with God.

It is unfortunate that so much of our Christian heritage has misconstrued passages like these, and turned them solely into moral imperatives. All those magnificent medieval ‘Doom’s’ have a lot to answer for. I say this because if we are not careful we can assume that our contribution to our salvation is of overriding importance. By way of contrast, St Thomas Aquinas gives the impression that our contribution is equivalent to a single grain of sand on the sea shore in comparison to God’s overwhelming grace – but it matters. God, we must remember, is all in all and can do with us what he wills, and what he wills amazingly is that we share his life!

St Paul put this beautifully to the Corinthians. (1 Cor 15:20-26.28). Corinth was a ‘new town’ full of arriviste men and women; self-made men and women, with a firm belief in making their own destinies. Try telling them that their salvation lay entirely in Christ! Yet his letters are full of his endeavours to do precisely this inspite of the difficulties he experienced with their appalling morals and behaviour. So Paul wrote these words of explanation and encouragement to the Christians of Corinth, insisting that it is solely through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that anyone can find their eternal destiny in God. We have to remember just what a colossal mind-shift this was to pagans, for whom death was the end; one was literally blotted out – unless of course you were the emperors who became gods. Christianity promised a new and astounding future in God beyond the uncertainties of this life through Christ, real life, godlike association with the One God for everyone. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep. Death came through one man and in the same way the resurrection of the dead has come through one man…all men will be brought to life in Christ”. He speaks of an entire universe ‘handed over’ to the Father, a picture of eternal peace and concord. Truly, this Feast proclaims great things for the believer and gives us great hope even in our darkest hours.

 

Everywhere and always looking for new ways to share goodness

How do we explain God to those who do not believe or those who have doubts? Well, first check out what kind of God they do NOT believe in, as often it is some fairy tale God from their childhood that has nothing to do with the God that we believe in. Then, once we have dispelled false images, we need to talk about other things that are invisible and yet very real and powerful. Gravity is an interesting one – an invisible force that literally keeps our feet on the ground. Then there is the air that we breathe. Both these things are so different from us, and that’s the point. In so many ways, God is not like us. We only use human terms to talk about God because we are human and they make sense to us, but woe betide us if we then begin to take them too literally. So in our 1st reading (Isaiah 55:6-9) we heard “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways – it is the Lord who speaks.”

Once we have realised that God is not like us, that he is an invisible power present everywhere whether we realise it or not, then that should give us a different perspective on life. Science and Faith both point us towards the idea that the Universe is not a place of chaos but a place where things have an order. To believe in our Christian God is to believe that underlying this order is a power that is goodness and love. Once we know this, then we too can see that the only way to be fully human, to be a proper part of this Universe, is to live for goodness and love. Then, like St Paul in our 2nd Reading (Phil 1:20-27) we can say that it doesn’t matter whether we live or die, all that matters is that we serve and love God.

But although God is not like us, we would argue that we are a bit like God which is a very different matter. That is why I have saved an important image to explain God till now, because one of the most powerful invisible forces at work in and around us is human thought. Our thoughts, good or bad, simple or complex, have a profound effect on us and on others. How we think about ourselves, as the psychologists say, makes a tremendous difference to how we behave. Oh the troubles people get into when they have a mistaken perception of who they are! Equally, how we think about others also makes a difference to the way we treat them, and this is true both of individual relationships, and of society and nations and how we interact with one another, for good or ill. Remember how Jesus points out that it is not enough to do good or avoid doing wrong on the surface, because what we are thinking inside also has a profound effect beyond our awareness (Matt 25:21-22) 

So we are not just called to love others, but to recognise that the power of love, the source of love, although outside and beyond anything we can imagine, is also inside us. This power within us, God the Holy Spirit, is always there for us if we are prepared to open up and let him get to work in us; because our narrow ways of thinking need always to be expanded towards the greatness that is the love of God.

Our Gospel Parable ((Matt 20:1-16) is just one example of the extraordinary, even the outrageous love of our God for us and for his world. Jesus describes God as a landowner who not only hires labourers in the morning, but is constantly out there in the heat searching for more people to whom he can give some productive work to do. He is telling us that all of us can be active and productive in the cause of love and goodness, and that nobody is excluded just because they come to this realisation later than others. We are called by Jesus to be like God, never giving up on people, always on the look-out for how we can draw people into his amazing love.

But we need to look at this amazing image of God afresh not just in terms of other people who do not yet know God and his love, but also in terms of our own inner life. You know how Jesus says “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” (Rev 3:20) There is a tendency for Christians to think this does not apply to them, that they have opened the door and let Jesus in. But what we have to realise is that we are very complicated beings, and have many rooms inside us, and although we may have opened our front door to God, we may have only let him in as far as our hallway. There are a lot more doors that we need to open and so he continues to knock all the way through our lives. There is always something more, maybe something quite little, or maybe something quite big, but always something more that we can do for God and thus for others.

Always and at all times our prayer should most of all be an opening up of ourselves to God. Prayer is not asking God for things as if he is outside, because he is already within us. Prayer is opening up to God’s power – to the mystery that is beyond our understanding, but can do great things in us and for us. Our Lady knew that when she said “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord… his mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him.” (Luke 1:46-56) Yes, to fear God is to recognise how far beyond us he is, and yet how much he can do in us, just as he did in Mary.

Learning from Muslims

When I worked in East Oxford, and took weekly Assemblies in the local school I found to my surprise that one third of the children there were Pakistani Muslims. It was a steep learning curve to work out how best to talk to people whose background was so different from anything I had ever met before. Later, I was invited by one of the parents to go out to Pakistan and stay in his house. My first reaction was horror, not just because I am terribly English and am stupidly a little suspicious of foreigners, but because I am obsessive about clean toilets. What would they be like in Pakistan? My Pakistani friend assured me they had Western toilets in his house, and so I went!

Our Readings this week are all about foreigners. In our Gospel (Matt 15:21-28) Jesus knows that his main mission is to his own people, and is therefore very sharp with this foreign woman begging for help. Her witty reply shows him her great faith, and he gives her what she asks for. In another place (Luke 4:25-27) Jesus challenges his own people who think God’s mercy and love isn’t available to foreigners, and later he drives out the money changers from the Temple precisely because their presence is stopping foreigners from coming to pray, and he quotes today’s 1st reading to justify what he is doing (Isaiah 56:1-7) “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”

One of the things I learnt, even before I went to Pakistan, was that the faith of Muslims often puts us Christians to shame, especially their sense of the presence of God, and their regular practice of prayer, often in public. Most Muslims are quiet prayerful people who are absolutely ashamed of those few extremists who give their faith a bad name, and we would do well to remember that. Indeed the Catholic Church teaches that Muslims, along with Jews, are the closest to us Christians because, to quote the Catechism, “They profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God.” (Catech Para 841)

I recently met Adan, now a taxi-driver, who was one of those little children in Pakistan with me. I was reminded how his father Abdul took me to visit one of the great Moghul tombs near Lahore (a bit like the Taj Mahal) and how, when we reached the actual tomb in the centre of this great edifice, this very ordinary young man, opened his hands to pray. How sad it is that we modern Western Christians are losing that practice of prayer. You would never be led in prayer by the aircrew of a Western airline, but when I flew on a Pakistani plane that is exactly what happened. The great Muslim prayer putting us all into the hands of God was recited over the Intercom by one of the crew as we took off. Being a nervous traveller I was much comforted & said my Christian prayers as they said their Muslim ones.

Of course there were things about Pakistan I didn’t like. I was staying in a rich man’s house but I saw plenty of poverty. The Muslim tends to be very fatalistic. Like some Christians they can easily assume that anything that happens is “God’s will” and so do nothing. My host in Pakistan said this once when we were walking beside a drain that was clearly an open sewer. He got a firm lecture from me about how 19thC British cities were once like that, and that Pakistan could change too!

Being the only white person there, was also a lesson in being a foreigner myself, and feeling what it’s like to be stared at. This is surely a very Christian thing to do, to feel what it is like to be different. The first followers of Jesus were all so very different from those around them, that they were often attacked. Yet they were proud to be so, whilst we modern Western Christians, find it very hard to do or say things that mark us as different from the world in which we now live. We could do well to learn from Muslims that being different, being faithful to God, even in public, is a good thing to do.

There is so much more I could say, but I hope I have got my point across. We Christians are called to be part of an international family in which everyone who is a foreigner to us is a brother or sister in our relationship with God. God can and does work in all sorts of people that we may find different or strange. In getting to know them better, we will find some things that are good, that we might imitate. My example was prayer and faithfulness to God. We will also find things that we don’t agree with. My example was a wrong understanding of God’s will.

There are some people who say that all ways to God are the same. I certainly don’t want you to think that! What is wrong is thinking that our way is always right, that there is nothing we can learn from others, that there is nothing good, nothing of God, in other faiths. God is greater than that!

Christians and Jews

It’s amazing to me that the persecution of Jews by Christians has such a long history. Amazing, because you only have to read 3 Chapters in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (It begins with our 2nd Reading today : Romans 9:1-5) to see that such prejudice is absolutely not the Christian way. Paul is terribly sad that most of his fellow Jews have not become followers of Jesus, he says “my mental anguish is endless”, but his sadness does not turn into anger or hatred. He goes on instead to say very clearly indeed: (10: 12) “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all” and then (11:1-2) “Has God rejected his people? By no means.” And finally he tells his fellow Christians not to think they are superior. He says (11:20 & 28) So do not become proud, but stand in awe….. they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.”

I suspect that hatred of the Jews comes from St John’s Gospel where he uses the term “Jews” to mean the Jewish leaders not all the Jews. Misread, it reinforced the growing antagonism between the two groups as they moved apart. Yes, we humans always tend to be suspicious or fearful of people who are different from us, and here is a case in point. But here also is another area of life where we Christians today have to put into practice the truth that God loves all men and women of every race and creed, not just us. For Christians, the Jewish people, following St Paul, must always therefore be especially loved and cherished. For they are the people whose belief, way back before Christ, laid the foundation on which our belief is based.

Jesus could not have existed had he not had a Jewish family to be born into. His whole life and mission was based on the ancient Jewish texts which we now call the Old Testament. The songs he sang were the Psalms we sing or say at every Mass, and almost all that we know about him is written by his fellow Jews – the texts which make up the rest of our Bible – the New Testament as it is called.

I think I should make clear however that loving the Jews, for their great gift to us and to the world, does not mean loving the State of Israel. However we do need to remember, with sorrow, that the persecution of the Jews over many centuries, culminating in the attempt to exterminate them by the Nazis, is what has created the modern Israeli State. How sad that they think that the only way they can survive is by returning the brutality they experienced in the past.

But to return to the Jews as a whole. The first Christians were all Jews. Christianity was just one sect of Judaism. Christians believed then as now that the Jewish faith in God had come to its fulfillment in Jesus, and they expected their fellow Jews to realize this. However their vision was of a Judaism that was no longer confined to one race, but was now available to every single human being. They also came to believe that non-Jews who became Christians did not have to keep all the elaborate Jewish rituals and practices. It was this that most Jews would not accept. Some simply believed that only Jews could be Jews, whilst others believed that if someone wanted to become a Jew, even a Christian Jew, then they had to become a Jew in every sense. Anything else was for them not true Judaism. Thus Judaism and Christianity parted company, and sadly became enemies of one another.

What can be confusing for people is that we Christians, because of this history, often speak of ourselves as the new Israel. We sometimes describe the Church as Jerusalem, and, if we are English, sing of building Jerusalem “In England’s green and pleasant land.” We use the Jewish Old Testament, as Jesus did, as the foundation of our faith. How do we know that God is met in quietness, like a gentle breeze, in the still small voice of calm, rather than storms or earthquakes, except from the Jewish history of the prophet Elijah – our 1st Reading today? (1 Kings 19:9-13) How do we know that God reaches out to save us when we are stupid or frightened or sinful, as Jesus did for Peter in our Gospel today (Matt 14:22-33) except from countless stories from the Jewish Old Testament?

The history of the Jewish people before Jesus is indeed a history of a people that constantly failed in one way or another, and yet realized through their prophets and teachers, that God was a God of love who still loved them and willed them on to a better future. Their story is therefore a prefiguring, as we call it, of the new Israel, the Church, us : also a people who fail in many ways and yet God still loves and calls to glory.

This understanding of a God of love who would put down those who were proud and haughty, and lift up the humble and lowly, was deep in the heart of many Jewish people at the time of Jesus, but particularly deep in the heart of one very special young Jewish woman. Perhaps you can guess her name?  Mary. All through Jewish history we have stories of Jewish women who in the midst of troubles and sorrows acted with courage and faith in the service of God. These were clearly the stories that inspired Our Lady as she sat Jesus on her knee, and told him about this wonderful history and sang him the songs of his people. It’s always worth remembering this, when we honour Our Lady, as we will be doing this Friday (The Feast of the Assumption). When we honour her, we do not just honour all women, but most especially all Jewish women who nurtured the faith that now sustains and supports us.                           Holy Mary. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  Pray for us

Homily for Sally

HOMILY for the Requiem for Sally Gross

Isaiah 25:6-9   Ps 23 Romans 8:14-23  John 6:37-39

The essence of the Christian message as expressed in our readings today is that nobody is perfect and that it is God who in death raises up our imperfect bodies and perfects them and so brings them into his glory. That is our hope now for Sally as we commend her to Almighty God.

Sally would certainly have found that summary more than a little brief. She would have pointed out to me, as she did many times via Facebook, the many different nuances present in the text that I hadn’t noticed, not least because she would know them well in the original Hebrew and Greek which is why I thought at least one of our readings – Psalm 23 should be read in Hebrew today. Yes, she clearly read my Homilies on a regular basis once she had linked up with me on Facebook, because occasionally I would get these very polite but very long and complicated commentaries on something I had said. I always groaned when I got one, because Sally, being Sally, would go into endless complications that would leave a simple fella like me a bit bewildered. But if I took care I could often find a fascinating things to ponder on.

Yes, Sally may sadly have felt rejected by the Church, but she never cut herself off from us, and we, gathered here in Oxford today, are declaring before God that we never cut ourselves off from her; but felt for her in the difficult journey she took when she decided, because of her intersexuality, to live as a woman rather than a man. I suspect that none of us found this easy. I remember the first time she came to visit us as a woman, deciding to take the plunge and ask her the most direct and intimate questions possible. Her response was equally direct and frank and it helped Frances and me, and I think Sally, in our future relationship with her in her new life.

But we are saying much more today than this. We are affirming something that deep down she always knew well, that whatever her doubts and agonies in the journey she took, however awful for her were the conflicts with the official Church, God never discarded her. She could, of course, as she faced up to her intersexuality have quietly gone on living as a man and as a Dominican Friar, but for her that would have been to live a lie. Instead, she bravely and openly declared her intersexuality and set out on a crusade to make her condition better known wherever she could, so that more of those born like her would not have to face the cover-up she had to face. In that sense she lived for others.

But this did not make her a saint. She was, I suspect, not an easy person to live with, but then that is true of all of us isn’t it? Some more than others!  All of us weep, as she probably did, being a sensitive soul, when we hurt or upset others, and find the words of Isaiah of great comfort “The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek.”  All of us, not just Sally, find things about ourselves difficult to live with and are glad to hear St Paul telling us as we groan inwardly, that our bodies will be “set free”

But our Gospel takes us further because it affirms something that we humans, and thus our very human Church, is still learning. This is, that we find people who are different from us difficult to accept as our equals. I remember once pushing someone around in a wheelchair because they had simply broken their ankle, and being astounded how many people treated the person in the wheelchair as feeble minded.  “Would he like sugar in his tea?” they said, as if this object in the wheelchair could not be talked to directly – was not fully human. And we easily treat others like this don’t we, and certainly that would include those who appear to be neither fully male nor fully female. We have our stereotypes of what people should be like, and find those who do not fit such stereotypes difficult to cope with.

A classic example from the time of Jesus was not just the lepers – people whose deformity made others react in horror and revulsion – but also all sorts of others regarded as “unclean” by the holy people. The actions of Jesus in mixing with such people is proclaimed by his words in our Gospel today “The will of him who sent me is that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me.” No-one therefore is excluded. All must be welcomed whatever they are like. May God forgive us when we have failed to do this. May we become more and more a Church that follows this teaching. Despite feeling rejected by the Church, Sally never lost her belief in all this that Jesus taught, and would be glad, I believe, that we are praying now that she, as one more imperfect human being, may be drawn into the glory of heaven.