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.


Sharing God’s glory

As I am sure you know, Lent begins this Wednesday – Ash Wednesday as we call it – and once again I will be trying to help us all to think, not of what we might give up for Lent, but what extra we might do for God and for others. And this year, being the Year of Mercy, I thought I would choose one or two of the traditional works of mercy each week, to help us think about this.

 I must admit that when I looked at these works of mercy there was one that made my heart sink – to admonish sinners. It conjured up in my mind those stories that some of you have told me of priests who, in the past, went on and on about sin and hell, and turned the Catholic faith into an opportunity to make everyone feel guilty. But then I thought, that this is the very one I should start with, not just because the readings today mention sin, but because it is very easy to turn Lent into a time when we think about sin, and how we ought to be better people, rather than about God and his love and mercy. How easily we start thinking about the naughty things we might give up, most of all things we eat or drink, and miss the heart of the message of Jesus.

So as we think about admonishing sinners, we need to think most of all about how Jesus did it. And as soon as we do that, we will realise that Jesus did not go on about sin at all. No, his message was all about God; and the only people he admonished were those hypocrites who suggested that they were perfect and that everyone else was a sinner. Listen to Jesus on this ;-  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”(Matt 23:27-28)

So that’s the hypocrites dealt with, but how then did Jesus admonish everyone else? And the answer comes in two of our readings today. Look at Peter in the Gospel (Luke 5:1-11) He does not become aware that he is a sinner because Jesus has gone on about sin. No, he realises he is a sinner when confronted with the glory of God displayed in the amazing catch of fish. And then, he does not reel off a list of things that he will try to do to show God his love. No, his only response, is awe and wonder. Not “Lord I will try to be better” but simply “Leave me Lord, I am a sinner.” 

Our 1st Reading (Isaiah 6:1-8) also reminds us that we need first to look at God and his glory, not at ourselves.  Isaiah, like Peter, is blown sideways by this glory. He hears the words we now use at Mass. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. His glory fills the whole earth.’; and he responds “What a wretched state I am in”. But God doesn’t say “Yes you are”, and reel off all the things Isaiah should do to be a better person; no, he reaches out and touches his lips and takes away his sin, so that Isaiah, instead of launching into a massive scheme of self-improvement, can say “Here am I, send me.” In other words, now go and share the glory of God with others.

So as we begin Lent on Wednesday let’s do that too. Let’s do the ashing bit to remind us that we all are imperfect people, but then let’s get on with doing God’s work in one way or another. But as we remember that one of the things we are meant to do for God is to admonish sinners, we know that we do that simply by doing our best to share God’s glory, not going on about sin.

We are all lifted out of our selfishness when we see others doing good in tough circumstances, when we see, for example, people helping others in those refugee camps, or dragging desperate drowning people out of the sea. Most of us may not be able to do such heroic acts, but we can still help others in one way or another on a regular basis. We only have to look at that list of the corporal works of mercy to see what I mean – “to feed the hungry – give drink to the thirsty – clothe the naked – welcome the stranger – visit the sick – care for the imprisoned – bury the dead”  And I will be looking in more detail at some of these in the weeks that follow. Here in England however we will do two of these works of mercy soon as we have our CAFOD Fast Day and Collection in 2 weeks time.  Perhaps however we might think about doing a bit more about this? Maybe setting up a Standing Order so that we give to CAFOD or a similar agency every month rather than twice a year, or if we do this already increasing the amount we give?

 So here is a first suggestion for Lent. More to come in the weeks that follow.



Looking towards God’s future

Writers from ancient times were not interested in history simply as a series of facts. They wrote to make a point in which what actually happened was not all that important provided they got across to us readers the truth they were trying to express.  Sadly this has meant that some modern people have dismissed such stories, particularly the stories about Jesus, as pure fiction, as fairy stories, and have missed the history, the facts, lying beneath the stories, as well as the deep truths the writers of the Gospels are trying to tell us.

 Sometimes however, as in today’s Gospel, (Luke 3:1-6) glimpses of what we call real history, real historical facts, suddenly appear. So, if you know your History of Rome, you can, with no trouble at all I am sure, date the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar off the top of your head….. ??      29AD of course!! Luke gives us this, and a few more dates and facts, because he wants to make it clear to us that, unlike the stories of the Roman and Greek gods, this story is about real people who lived real lives in real time.

 Equally, if I wanted to, I could give you the facts lying beneath the other two readings. But if I did so, if I bewildered most of you with dates from the time the Jews spent in Babylon (1st reading from Baruch) or the geography of where exactly Philippi was (Our 2nd Reading Phil 1:3-11) I would actually lead you away from the message that all our readings are trying to convey to us in various ways.

 But facts of a sort are relevant to every message in the Bible, because the Bible is a history of a people, the Jews, becoming more and more aware that their God was not like the gods of other peoples. The stories about their God were about a real power underlying the whole Universe. Their God was NOT some kind of magic magician who might be persuaded to help them, to take their side against other people, if he felt like it. Their God, who is our God, is rather THE one true God who wants goodness and truth and justice from the human beings he has created. Our God is a God who does not take sides in our human squabbles and wars but is always merciful, standing for what is fair and good, and so always hoping that we will love and care for everyone the way he does

This is what the Advent message in this run up to Christmas is all about isn’t it? We take it for granted as Christians, unlike some people out there, that Christmas, is about more than just presents and food and fun.  We know that Jesus comes to us at Christmas, not just to bring us joy and peace but also to challenge us to work in the real world for justice and truth whatever the cost. In fact, we Christians think this is so important that we gather, not just at Christmas, but every Sunday to remember, to reinforce this truth, and to try to live it out every day in our real lives. Sunday Mass is not an added extra for those who feel like it, but a vital weekly injection of God’s truth. The mercy that every human being needs binds us more closely to God and what he wants, instead of following blindly our own feelings and desires.

 Of course this longing for truth and justice can weigh us down as we look at the realities of the world, and the realities of our own lives with all our faults and failures. Advent therefore does not just challenge us but also offers us hope. The image of the way of the Lord when mountains and hills are laid low, and valleys filled in, is not meant to make us think of motorway construction, but of the way God can and does lift our hearts and show us a way through when things get too much for us. So John the Baptist today tells us that our failings, our sins, can be forgiven.

 St Paul says some marvellous words to the Christians in Phillipi (Phil 1:3-11) which apply to us as well, don’t they?  He prays with joy for them and for us, remembering all that they and we have done to spread the good news. He assures them, and us, that although we may feel inadequate in the face of so many problems, in our own lives and in the world at large, he is quite certain, as he says “that the One who began this good work in you will see that it is finished when the Day of Christ Jesus comes.”   It’s something I often say at funerals. Our lives are always less than perfect. However much good we have done, there is so much more we could do. There are always things that we regret. But God will take everything we have done, even our smallest acts of love, and, purging away our silly mistakes and failures, will perfect us with his mercy and love.

 We repent not to feel guilty, but in order to see more clearly the perfection that God wants for us and for our world, and in which he has given us our small part to play.

God is like a mother’s womb

The wonderful thing about the Internet, and especially Facebook, is that I can keep in touch with lots of the students I knew from my time as Chaplain at Oxford Brookes University; and one of the things that many who are women share is their experience of being a young mother. I get pictures of the baby in the womb, of the baby just after birth, and many more. But they also share the troubles of being a mother, the worries, the sleepless nights, the hospital visits, even in one case the greatest tragedy of all. Looking at all this means I do a lot of praying as I follow their joy and their tears, and assure them of my support.

 Christianity, following its Jewish ancestry, avoids calling God a mother because in ancient times it wanted to distinguish itself from mother god religions in which God was not distinct and other. The sense of God as separate from us is an important one calling us on beyond ourselves and our small concerns into something bigger leading us one into infinity. But there is one way in which we do think about God as mother without often realising it ; and that is when we call on God to have mercy. For mercy is a word that in its original Hebrew origins has the same root as the word “womb”. So when we say “Lord have mercy” or “Kyrie Eleison”, we are asking God to be like a mother to us, and indeed we are asking God to be like a womb for us.

Now that’s a pretty important idea, especially for those who have got a rather frightening notion of a God who is far away and is always judging us. It is certainly the theme of all our readings today. Listen again to St Paul from our 2nd Reading “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy: when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ.”  (Eph 2:4-10) and then from St John’s Gospel (3:16) Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.”

There is however an additional point about God being like a womb that is worth mentioning. You see when we say “God loves us so much” we are using human terms to describe a power that is not like us at all. In one sense God does not love, because God is love. In the same way God does not exist but God is existence. In both ways God is like a mother’s womb which surrounds the tiny baby with protection, which is the source of that baby’s existence, which is almost part of that baby, and yet is entirely separate.

When we think of God as loving us so much, it is easy to begin to think that sometimes God loves us less and sometimes God loves us more, according to the way we behave. But God’s love is not like that. That is why St Paul says “It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.”  Note that. God’s love for us is not dependent on anything we have done. All we have to do is to accept that infinite love. That is what believing in God means, not believing in a lot of propositions about God, or Jesus, or the Church, simply accepting God’s love, accepting one’s part in God’s Church.

It is intriguing that just before today’s famous passage in St John’s Gospel (See John 3:1-15) about God’s love, we hear Jesus saying that in order to be part of God we do not have to do anything, except…and this is the significant bit…… “born again”. Nicodemus, who is being told this, actually protests.  “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” And Jesus replies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  And that’s the point. Of course we have to accept the gift of life from God. Of course we should use that gift well. That is what grace is – God giving himself. But the gift is given, life is given, like life is given to a baby in the womb. And that is how we need to receive it. Being born again means being “like a little child”, being like a baby in the arms of God.

In one sense this imagery is impossible to understand isn’t it? We want to think of God as a bit like another person, and Jesus wants that too, which is why he teaches us to call God “Father” or more accurately “Abba” – Daddy. But he also wants us to go beyond that in our understanding of God, and in our relationship with God. You remember earlier I said that in one way God does not exist? It sounds extraordinary. But think about it. Things that exist are all made by God – the creative power underlying the Universe. But God is not created. God is infinite. God is the power that creates existence and so God does not exist, God is existence. As St John says of Jesus as the Word of God at the very beginning of his Gospel. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”

A baby, both in the womb and after birth, only gradually understands itself as separate from its mother and from other people. We have to remember the reverse. That whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, we are never separate from God, for if we were separate from God, we would not exist. Of course, we believe that God has given us the ability to choose that way, to choose to absolutely and for ever deny him by denying all that is good and true, but the offer of eternal life is always there. That is why Jesus died for us.