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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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

 

 

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.

 

Homily on power to heal

This Homily on the power to heal is another story that appears in my book and maybe helps us to think about the stories of healing in today’s readings (1 Kings 17:17-24 & Luke 7:11-17).

One of the shocks to my system in my early life as an Anglican clergyman was definitely a message from God! I was called to the hospital to visit a lady called Dorothy who had had a stroke.  She was in a bad way, paralysed down one side and unable to walk, she conveyed to me how frightened she was and how at night dark shapes where coming towards her from the bottom end of the bed. Now as a young modern Christian, I did not believe that prayer could affect the physical body. Prayer was a spiritual thing working through the mind. I was a dualist (as it is called) without realising it!  Anyway I felt strongly that prayer might well deal with those dark things coming for her, for this was clearly just in her mind. Prayers were said. In the Catholic manner these were accompanied by the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil. The next morning the shock came. I was right – the dark things had vanished and she had had a good night’s sleep, but something else had happened as well. She could walk! Never again did I make that mistake. The spiritual and the physical are intermingled in us humans and that is one of the reasons why prayer can be so powerful.

The problem of course is that prayer only appears to get answered occasionally. What most people forget is that if prayer is talking with God then we need to listen and not just talk. There is no point in asking for things just because we want them. What is far more important in life is to find out more clearly what God wants, and it is only within the discovery of this that we can sometimes get what we are asking for. It is therefore terribly important to always have in the back of our minds when we pray the words from the Our Father – Thy will be done. Praying like this can lead to surprising results because what God wills can be very different from what we want. True prayer is really trying to tune in to the immense power that God is, and if we get close enough then God’s power can pour through us like the release of a great weight of water when a dam bursts. This is surely because God has chosen to give us the freedom to act independently of him – this is what free will means. The power is there, like the radio waves that are all round us, but it is up to us, because we have free will, to decide whether to tune in or not.

On another occasion I was called to a lady in hospital because the doctors had said she only had a few days of life left. She was more or less dead. I prayed that God’s will should be done assuming that this would be a quick and easy death. Instead, she got better and went home and was given another year of life. One never knows what will happened when one prays.

In both cases I suppose I just found the right through which God’s healing power could work. Later I began to discover that a bit more sensitivity and a little less pride that I knew best tended to produce better results. But giving healing to people is always a hit or miss procedure. Sometimes you just tune in to God right and amazing things can happen, at other times, the prayer gives the person great spiritual comfort but not the physical healing they hoped for. Now I simply pray with and for people knowing that in one way or another even the smallest act of prayer and love helps.

 

 

Homily on being loved & prayed for

We Christians quite rightly talk a lot about love, and we try to put into practice what Jesus taught us in today’s Gospel, (John 13:31-35) to “love one another just as I have loved you.” But very easily we turn that into something that we must do. I must be kind to those I meet. I must get on with those I work with. I must help the poor of the world. I must try to tolerate those who I do not like etc etc. Now this is all very fine and good, but there is one thing wrong with it. In order to love others, we must allow ourselves to be loved by them. If I fail to let others love me, even to do things for me, or fuss over me, in ways that I do not much like, I have not yet learnt to love the way Jesus loves.

I notice this particularly when, as today, I encourage people to come forward at the end of Mass for Prayers for healing. Oh yes, lots and lots of people come forward, and it’s very moving to see this ; but few of them ask for prayers for themselves, and if they do it is often as a modest afterthought – “Oh, and a little prayer for me too Father.” Now it is wonderful to know that in the heart of each Christian is so much concern for those who are sick or sad in some way; but we must not make that mean, that we are too modest to mention our own needs and ask for prayers for ourselves.  I even know of some people who like to keep their sickness a secret. Somehow they have got it into their heads that although they will pray for others, they would prefer others not to pray for them.

My guess is that they don’t want people to fuss, and I do understand that, because I find that difficult too. A priest has only to limp a little, or cough a bit too much, and endless people are coming up after Mass to show their concern and offer solutions. My instinct then is to minimise the problem – to say “Oh it’s nothing really.” –whatever it is – probably because I don’t want to be accused of being one of those irritating people who goes on and on about themselves and all their ailments! What I should do is simply accept their love.

Jesus has this problem too. The disciples fuss over him when he disappears early in the morning up in the hills to pray. He simply tells them, without criticising them, that they must all move on. The woman with the ointment comes into a public place and anoints his feet and dries them with her hair – so embarrassing! When others say he shouldn’t have allowed this, especially as the woman has a bad name, he gently defends her action. At Gethsemane he, Jesus the Son of God, with a unique relationship with God the Father, asks his weak disciples to pray for him. What good can their feeble prayers do, compared with his, especially as, just as he suspects, they fall asleep! And yet that is what he does.

Yes, Jesus loves us by allowing us weak silly humans with all our faults to love him, even to pray for him. God chooses to become a human being, and in so doing encourages us into a quite different relationship with him. Instead of simply loving us from a position of superiority, and expecting gratitude and praise and worship in return, he allows us to love him. We then must try to be like that. We must not just allow, but encourage others to pray for us, to love us. When we are sick or sad or facing some medical treatment, we have to overcome our shyness, our modesty, and ask others to pray for us. How dare we do otherwise? How can we spend time praying and caring for others, as if we are some special person distributing God’s love, and not allow them to pray and care for us?

True love is always a mutual thing – a giving and a receiving. We, the Church, must first of all be a community where that mutual love is shown. Have you the courage to turn to the person sitting near you at Mass, someone you may not know, or may only know a little, and ask them to pray for you? Do you ask to be put on the church’s prayer list when you are in need of prayer, or do you hide your problems because you do not want to make a fuss? Some people even say nothing, but are then upset when nobody appears to notice that they are suffering and need prayer. Jesus said “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.”

Love is an immensely powerful force and when linked to prayer it becomes even more powerful, always bringing comfort and support and sometimes also bringing an amazing result for the person prayed for. But if we do not allow ourselves to be loved, if we do not ask for prayer, then we are failing to allow God’s love to come to us through others, and that’s sad, isn’t it?

True friendship remains even in hard times

I was saying last week that one of the reasons I became a Christian was because I saw Jesus as someone who stood against the status quo. I still love the way he really goes for the posh people in power and mixes with the ordinary people, that the posh people look down on. But although this would have made me admire him, as I might admire other historical figures, this would not have been enough by itself to make me into a Christian. No, what really attracted me was that this man Jesus, whom I admired so much, wanted to be my friend; and a friend who would be with me for ever, wherever I went, whatever I did. That’s why I love his saying “I do not call you servants any longer, but  I call you friends”  (John 15:15) and then the words “Remember I am with you always, to the end of time” (Matt 28:20)

Today’s Gospel (John 10:27-30) takes this even further, because it shows us what kind of a friend Jesus is. I remember when I was a student many moons ago, visiting a friend in hospital. He was so pleased to see me because, he said, I was the only friend who had come to visit him. He had lots of so-called friends, but I was the only one who showed true friendship when things got hard. It reminds me of some words from a poem that I love

“Every man will be thy friend

Whilst thou hast wherewith to spend” 

and then it ends

“He who is thy friend indeed

He will help thee in thy need

If thou sorrow he will weep,

If thou wake he cannot sleep.

Thus of every grief in heart

He with thee doth bear a part

These are certain signs to know

Faithful friend from flattering foe”

(from The Passionate Pilgrim)

 And this is why I follow Jesus. Because I see him as my truest friend, and a friend who is not just for this time only, but is a friend for ever, a friend who will be with me even beyond death, because he has already been there for me. That is surely why Jesus says of us who follow him as the Good Shepherd, “I give them eternal life. They will never be lost.”  And remember, as I have said many times before, this “eternal life” is something we have NOW. It is a relationship with him NOW. What a gift to be given! To be one with God, the eternal power underlying the Universe, and how? Not by some mystical incantation, nor by striving to be perfect, but simply by being friends with Jesus!

 And what a friend! Did you notice the final words from the 2nd Reading, (Rev 7:14-17) words often read at funerals? Jesus, “The Lamb who is at the throne”, will be our “Shepherd”..  and here are the crunch lines “He will lead (us) to springs of living water… and will wipe away all tears from our eyes.”And our link with him is more than ordinary friendship. Jesus says we are as close to him as are branches to a Vine. (John 15:5) What a wonderful and extraordinary gift! To be that close to Jesus, to be one with him, in union with him, so that whatever we face, we are never alone.

 You will be surprised to hear that despite the love for Jesus that I found as a teenager, and never lost, the last thing I wanted to be was a priest. When people said “You would make a good priest” I used to say “Oh yuk, Anything but that!” Not least because sadly, a priest to me was an establishment figure, someone rather proper and conventional – and no way was I going to end up like that! It was only later when I realised what a challenge the priesthood could be, a challenge to me, but also a challenge to society, a challenge to conventional ways of thinking and behaving, that I reluctantly began to look at the idea again.

Today, is the Sunday each year when we particularly pray that more men will think about becoming a priest, and pray for those who are now training to be one. I was at a Conference of priests recently where they asked us to write on Post-it Notes three things that we liked about being a priest, and then we stuck them on a wall so we could compare notes. You will not be surprised to hear that no-one said they enjoyed running a church building, coping with leaking roofs and damaged sewers, making sure enough money came in. No. We all wrote about the joy of serving all sorts of different people, and the wonder of being given time to pray and to support others in prayer.

 Prayer –not saying words at a distant God, and certainly not about sending up endless requests, hoping one or two might get an answer, How tragic that some people think prayer is like that! No, true prayer is the way we make explicit in our minds our eternal friendship with Jesus, and thus with God; our knowledge that we are in him and he is in us, and then to put all that glory into words and actions for others.