The radical challenge

Some of you, who have asked, will be glad to hear that I have turned some of the stuff in these Homilies into a book, which I hope to self-publish in time for my 70th Birthday in July. But it is not actually a book of Homilies, but a book about my life, because, as you know, it is from my experiences of life that I draw most of the material I preach. And one of the things writing this book has made me ponder, is why I ever became a Christian at all?

 It all happened when I was deeply unhappy at my very traditional all boys secondary school. There I met a friend who introduced me to Jesus. I had begun to put the stories of Jesus into the land of fairy tales, when suddenly he was presented to me as a very real person, and someone I could follow. And why was I attracted to follow him? One of the main reasons was precisely because he rejected the traditional establishment – just the kind of people I hated at that horrid school. The rest of my story – how following Jesus led me, to my amazement, to become first a Vicar and then a Catholic priest, is what the rest of the book is all about, for which you will have to wait till you read it, (if you want to!) but let’s have a look today about what the Gospel has to do with all this. (John 21:1-19)

You see there Peter and his friends going back to their old way of life – to the traditional ways that they had been brought up with. In their case “fishing”. “I’m going fishing” says Peter, and off they go. The story then shows the futility of this choice because they catch nothing, and St John, the writer of this great Gospel, adds that it was night; because he wants to link us back to the great beginning of his work that we hear at Christmas, where he writes of Jesus. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  (John 1:4-5)  So we see that the disciples, who failed to catch a single fish in the dark without Jesus, meet Jesus when it is light, and then their fishing is transformed and they are able to make a great catch.

Thus we are shown that following Jesus will affect every part of our lives as it affected theirs ; and that reminds me of an incident when talking to the children last Sunday. One boy said his favourite activity was playing computer games. You ought to have seen the astonishment on his face when I told him that without God there would not be any computer games. Indeed I don’t think he believed me!  He could not see the connection between God and his normal everyday activities. We all need to be reminded that it is God who created the Universe and everything in it. As we heard in our 2nd reading (Rev 5:11-14) it is “All the living things in creation” who cry out the praises of God . Unless we realise – that, however clever we humans are, all things come from God – we are getting everything in the world upside down. Thus we humans exalt ourselves in stupid self-praise, quite forgetting our weaknesses and our failings; and this ends up encouraging us to believe that whatever we think is right must be the right thing to do. Thus the status quo, the thing that most people think is OK, becomes accepted as OK. No wonder my favourite saying of Jesus is “No one is good but God alone!”

 We see this played out in the rest of the Gospel too. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, and why three times? Because although Peter had promised never to deny Jesus, when confronted with a world who had turned against Jesus and was about to crucify him, Peter simply went along with that world, and denied three time that he even knew Jesus. See then how Jesus does not condemn him for his failure, just as he does not condemn us. Like Peter, we also often go along with the ways of the world. And why? – simply for an easy life – simply because we do not want people challenging us, or mocking us, or making us feel different.

 No Jesus does not condemn. He simply asks us again and again, as he asked Peter. “Do you love me?  He asks us this most clearly when we are at Mass. In our own private prayers we can easily excuse ourselves, or convince ourselves that God doesn’t need us to be so openly against the ways of the world ; but at Mass Sunday by Sunday we hear all sorts of challenges to these false assumptions. They remind us all too vividly that as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we will often have to do or say things that we do not particularly want to do or to say.

So Jesus reminds Peter at the end of this Gospel that in the past he often did what he wanted to do, but that in the future he will have to accept the fact that he will have to go and do things that he would rather not do. Such is the radical challenge of the risen Jesus for all of us, whether we like it or not.

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Dignity for the outcasts

It is a sad fact that we humans tend to divide people into two groups – those we like or admire or care about in some way – and those we dismiss as bad and evil and beyond all care. For most of the people in the time of Jesus, that was the position of the woman in our Gospel today(John 8:1-11) caught in the act of adultery – often a woman who sold herself for this purpose. Jesus had already challenged the whole idea of who was good and who was bad, by saying that we are all sinners. But those out to get Jesus wanted to show him up to the people as someone actually condoning evil, and thus they ask him the question. Should she be condemned to death as the law at that time demanded and treated as an outcast, or not?

You might ask how this story takes us to the Work of Mercy I want us to think about today – our duty to bury the dead. The point is that we are called to bury the dead whoever they are, not just our own family or friends, but anyone, even those that  society might think of as outcasts – as the woman taken in adultery had become. Remember how Mother Teresa began her work, by caring for those in Calcutta who were dying on the streets. Instead of being left to rot in the gutters as food for the vultures, she enabled them to die surrounded by the love of their fellow human beings, to die with dignity. Here in England, of course, we do that by paying tax to the State so that anyone who dies with no-one to pay for their funeral can still be buried with dignity; but Calcutta or Oxford, it is the same principle.

But actually our duty to the dead goes further than this. Our modern world in Britain tends to think that death is a private thing, just for family and close friends; but we Christians do not agree with that. For we believe we are all part of one human family, responsible for one another; and we see every death as an opportunity to pray for the one who has died. This will include getting to the Funeral if we can, or having a Mass said if we can’t, and sending a sympathy card either way.  Of course we can’t apply this to everyone who dies, but we certainly ought to apply it to neighbours and work colleagues and not just limit it to family and close friends.

We believe as Christians, that we are responsible for one another, indeed another of the Works of mercy is : to pray for the living and the dead – all that we know of – not just some of them. So if we hear of a death on the TV or online, our first action must be…  to pray…  NOT to sigh and say “How sad”. We may do that too, but always our first response should be to pray, because every person who dies needs God’s mercy and love

 But what are we praying for? Well we have the answer to that in our 2nd Reading. (Phil 3:8-14) Paul prays that he may “know Christ and the power of his resurrection” and “be given a place in him”. And that is what we want for everyone who dies; for none of us know Christ fully when we die, and some hardly know him at all; but we believe we will all meet him in death, and we want our prayers to help those who have died to accept fully the love Jesus has for them, the love he offered them when he went through death himself on the cross. We want our prayers to help them in death to accept fully the offer of life that Jesus gives them, so that they can pass through the process of death, which we call purgatory, to eternal life in him.

Please remember that a funeral should not be a private thing just because you are sad. It was the mistake I made for my mother. A Funeral is bound to be hard for those nearest to the one who has died, and so sometimes people want to suggest something very private to save them the pain, It is actually a mistake, the pain is there whatever kind of funeral takes place, and in the end the presence and prayers of all of us at the funeral actually sustain and support them in their grief. Music is important too, for though it often makes people cry, such tears also bring healing. And when those closest cannot sing because of their grief, our singing and praying lifts them up into the mercy and love of God.

Praying for the dead is not just a good thing to do, it is actually our Christian duty. It may bring back memories of our own grief, but that is a burden we should be prepared to bear because, just as people supported us when we were mourners, so now we must support them. For we are all one people, one family, and Jesus died for us all, for you and me, but also for the outcasts.

 

 

Homily on finding glory

How can we find the glory of God in our very ordinary lives? It can be hard, can’t it? But one way is instead of looking for God now, to look back and identify significant moments in our past. What is interesting, if we do that, is that sometimes they will be moments that we knew were significant then – first day at school – passing those exams – getting married etc. But other moments may well be things that we didn’t realise were so important at the time,; and it’s often when we think on those things that we begin to see how God was at work in us, even though we didn’t realise it.

 

But whether we knew they were special moments at the time or not, looking back on them and seeing where we are now, can often reveal all sorts of things about the event that we didn’t realise at the time. It certainly took me many years to realise what deciding to be a priest has done to me, and I still have to pinch myself occasionally and remind myself who I am, and this can be very challenging (or ought to be) and not just very joyful.

 

There is no doubt that the Baptism of Jesus. that we celebrate today, was a very important moment for him. But there are two things to notice. First, although today’s Gospel writer (Luke 3:15-22) speaks as if everyone saw “heaven open and the Holy Spirit descending”, Matthew and Mark say “he saw” it. In other words, that it was Jesus alone who saw heaven open and the Spirit descending; that this was not seen by those standing round. This is a way of writing from ancient times that is a bit strange to us. Our world tries imply that “real” things are those that can be observed by everyone, whilst things in the mind are less real or not real at all. Yet we all know that there is a distinction that should be made, between dreams and phantasies of the mind that are not real, and thoughts and decisions in our mind, on which we base much of what we do. To love is to have a series of thoughts about caring for someone else in our mind, but these thoughts put into action are very real indeed. Likewise evil thoughts sadly!

 

So, when heaven opens for us, as it did for Jesus; when we have a moment when we know God is with us in a wonderful way, this will usually happen in our mind, and nobody else will notice, unless we tell them; and yet it can change completely the direction of our life. It certainly did this for Jesus. But not immediately, for as we know from the Gospels, Jesus then had to go somewhere quiet and alone to work out what actions he should take in response to this inner experience. This is what is called the Temptations of Christ, and they are immensely important for all that Jesus then does, right up to his death on the cross.

 

As it was for Jesus, so it will be for us. God is at work in and around us whether we recognise and respond to his presence and power or not. But working out how to respond to this is not an easy thing. We’re imperfect people and often muddled in our response to God, aren’t we? We may often get it wrong, or at least a bit wrong, on the way; and admitting that, and learning from that, is a very important part of the never-ending journey towards God. We might well call this process prayer; provided we realise that prayer is not just what we do, it is also what we allow God to do in us. So Titus in our 2nd Reading today (3:4-7) does not call this process “prayer” but being “justified by his grace, to become heirs looking forward to inheriting eternal life.”  So the journey is not so much, us moving towards God, as us realising that God is and has been present in our lives all the time; even though often we did not know it.

 

When Isaiah in our 1st Reading (40:9-10) calls out, Shout without fear, to the towns of Judah. ‘Here  is your God.’ Here is the Lord coming with power”; we may not realise this is happening, that God is at work in us with power, even when he is. Jesus knew this only too well. True power is often not shown by outward things but by inward glory. God shows his power most of all when Jesus is weak and helpless on the cross, crying out in agony. We too may learn as much about God when we are weak and uncertain as when we feel strong and uplifted, and we need to use every moment for him.

 

Have you heard the ancient story from Epictetus of a starving man standing in a queue for cheap cabbages? But when he reaches the front there are no cabbages left! The question then is what will we do then? Do we rage and shout, do we weep and curse, or do we simply move on? Whatever we do, right or wrong, as Christians we must realise God is always with us. That is what “compassion” means!

Homily on the Year of Mercy

Well I don’t know about you, but I certainly need God to confirm my heart in holiness this Advent! For, as we see from our 2nd Reading (1 Thess 3:12-4:2) we are called to holiness in order to “love the whole human race”. Now loving everyone may be fine as a general idea, but what with evil terrorists on the one side, and then just simply stupid or annoying people on the other, I find it very hard indeed. The terrorists disgust me, and annoying people just infuriate me; so I am really a bit of a wreck. And I expect you aren’t that different?

 

Holiness, remember, means being open to God. It does not mean saying lots of prayers and going to Mass. These outward things should help us to be holy, which is why Jesus told us to do them, but real holiness is an inner thing, isn’t it, not outward observances.  This is surely why Jesus in our Gospel today says “Watch yourselves” and “Stay awake.”  A central message for Advent as we get ready to celebrate the mystery of God coming to us as a tiny baby.

 

Next week the whole Catholic Church begins an Extraordinary Jubilee Year with Mercy as its focus. This was announced by Pope Francis last April because he knows, as we do, how much we need to pray for God’s mercy for ourselves, and to offer his mercy to others. A Year like this encourages all of us to do something else as well as just coming to Sunday Mass, something that will hopefully make us more holy, more open to God; so I want to explain to you some of the things that have been suggested that you might do in response to his call.

 

The first is to pass through an official Door of Mercy. The main door is the one at St Peter’s in Rome, but the Pope, being a merciful man, has declared that every Cathedral throughout the world, and various other important churches, should also have a Door of Mercy that we can visit and walk through. You will be glad to hear therefore that one of these Doors of Mercy will be at the Oratory Church of St Aloysius in Oxford, so none of us at St Peter’s Eynsham will have any excuse for not visiting this Door some time in the year ahead. Of course, it will not be just walking through the door, but using the walk through as an occasion to pray and perhaps make one’s Confession.

 

Yes, clearly making our Confession should be part of the way we grow in holiness, and I am sure you all know that many extra opportunities to do this are available in all Catholic Churches in the run up to Christmas. But here at St Peter’s we have a special opportunity, not just to make our Confession if we want to, but to spend some time in prayer and thought on God’s mercy. This is because we are hosting a Day of Recollection for all the local Catholic Churches in 2 weeks time on Saturday 12th December. This will begin with Mass at 10.30am and then I will give a Talk on Prayer and Mercy. People will bring their own lunch and then in the afternoon there will be a brief Penitential Service and a time for people to make their Confession with two visiting priests as well as me. So even if you cannot come for the whole day you might come in the afternoon.

 

Pope Francis has also suggested that we might mark this Year of Mercy with a Pilrimage to some Holy Place. Some of you might like to go to Lourdes or Walsingham but, being a merciful man a bit like the Pope, I am thinking of organising something a bit easier – a Day Pilgrimage some time in the Spring to the Shrine of Our Lady at Evesham.

 

Pope Francis is also suggesting that we think of something we can do for others during this year. During the first part of the year from January to June he will be offering signs of care to the lonely and marginalised of the world, and he is encouraging us, both as individuals and as local churches, to do the same.

 

He has also suggested that we call on Mary the Mother of Jesus in the words of the Salve Regina (The Hail Holy Queen). This is a prayer ever ancient and ever new which asks Mary to turn her merciful eyes on us and help us to be worthy to contemplate the face of mercy, her Son Jesus. So we will be doing that here at St Peter’s most Sundays as a way of reminding us of this very special year.

 

Parenting at Mass – a heroic service

I was talking to some couples preparing for Marriage last week, and I pointed out to them that when their children arrive, they will need to be prepared for some very difficult challenges. Those of you who have been through the stage of having little children to look after, or are going through it now, will know what I mean! These challenges include lack of sleep, of course! But another challenge for Catholic parents is simply looking after your children at Mass. Suddenly, the truth that Mass is not for me, but is an offering to God, becomes far too real. No chance for the parents to pray quietly as they used to. Now all their love for God has to be offered through caring for their sometimes noisy child, so that Mass ends with them feeling exhausted rather than spiritually uplifted. I remind parents, when they share this with me, that this offering to God where there is very little comeback, means that God is closer to them than he has ever been before. This is serving others – their children in this case – and is a heroic task which we sometimes fail to acknowledge.

 

The parents have promised to do this, of course, both at their Marriage and at the Baptism of the baby – to bring children up “in the practice of the faith”; but many parents just find this too hard, and soon give up the attempt, especially as the little baby becomes an independent and rather noisy toddler.  Indeed, it can mark the point where they give up coming to Mass at all, and it is therefore terribly terribly important that all of us do all we can to support and help them at this time.

 

Today in our Gospel (Mark 10:35-45) Jesus tells us that Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant.”  But it is amazing how many people who are very happy to help and support people, to be the servants of others, outside church, do not want to do this during Mass. No, they seem to think that the Mass is put on for them, that it is meant to be a quiet time of reflection and prayer, and when children make a noise, they are just irritated by the disturbance and sometimes even let their irritation show! They seem to forget that in doing so they are driving away the very people who are the future of the Church. They are ignoring the teaching of Christ “Let the little children come to me..for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

 

I was sharing this with my fellow priests the other day, and they all said they had the same problem, of people complaining about noisy children. All of us found we gave similar answers. “Do not come to Sunday Mass expecting quiet prayer and reflection.” Sunday Mass is the Mass of the whole community where we offer ourselves to God together. If you cannot, by sitting nearer the front, by concentrating on your inner stillness, find quiet prayer on a Sunday, then come to a weekday Mass, or a time of Adoration as well, and find your quiet there.  Indeed we recommend a weekday Mass, or a time of prayer in some Church somewhere, as an extra to everyone. It is amazing how some busy working people can find time to pop into a church near their place of work, whilst some retired people with much more time, find they are too busy!

 

The Church teaches that parents, with their little children, are what we call “the domestic church”. Their service of sacrificial love for their children, of teaching them to love Jesus and be part of his Church, is one of the most important aspects of the life of the Church; and all of us are called to help them in any way we can. Remember that the parents are not trying to keep their children quiet in church so that you and I can have an undisturbed Mass! No! Gradually, and sometimes very painfully, they are trying to teach their children to take part in the Mass, to join in the prayers. Sometimes this means taking them out for a bit to calm down, and parents have a tough job getting that right. Take them out too quickly and they soon get the idea that if they are noisy they get taken out to play and so they become even more noisy! It is a hard choice.

 

So what do the rest of us have to do in order to serve these children as Jesus tells us to? Well first, we have to set an example. We have to be still, to concentrate on our prayers, however much noise is going on around us. It is equally difficult for the parents if we start waving at the children or pulling funny faces, as it is to look or show irritation. Some of you are wonderful at going and talking to the parents and the children after Mass, and showing them how welcome they are, encouraging them to keep coming, however hard it is. For some of us it may be just a smile and a greeting as we pass by. Little acts of service like this are so so important for the parents in their amazingly tiring work, and we must never neglect our opportunity to support them in some way.  Remember from the Gospel today how James and John seek heavenly glory, and are told that the only way to get this is to follow the way of Jesus in service and sacrifice. That is what we are all called to do in many different ways. So let’s do it.!

Homily on supporting parents with little children

I was talking to some couples preparing for Marriage last week, and I pointed out to them that when their children arrive, they will need to be prepared for some very difficult challenges. Those of you who have been through the stage of having little children to look after, or are going through it now, will know what I mean! These challenges include lack of sleep, of course! A young mother I know asked her sleeping husband the other day to take their baby and put him back into the Crib. Imagine her surprise when this half-asleep young man picked up a pillow and gently treated it as if it were the baby! Most women would not have been as kind as she was, letting him go back to sleep and doing it herself! I suspect she may get more brutal as time progresses!

 

There are many other challenges, of course, but one of the toughest for Christian parents, is the challenge of bringing their children to Mass. They have promised to do this, both at their Marriage and at the Baptism of the baby – to bring children up “in the practice of the faith”; but many parents just find this too hard, and soon give up the attempt, especially as the little baby becomes an independent and rather noisy toddler.  Indeed, it can mark the point where they give up coming to Mass at all, and it is therefore terribly terribly important that all of us do all we can to support and help them at this time.

 

Today in our Gospel (Mark 10:35-45) Jesus tells us that Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant.”  But it is amazing how many people who are very happy to help and support people, to be the servants of others, outside church, do not want to do this during Mass. No, they seem to think that the Mass is put on for them, that it is meant to be a quiet time of reflection and prayer, and when children make a noise, they are just irritated by the disturbance and sometimes even let their irritation show! They seem to forget that in doing so they are driving away the very people who are the future of the Church. They are ignoring the teaching of Christ “Let the little children come to me..for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

 

I was sharing this with my fellow priests the other day, and they all said they had the same problem, of people complaining about noisy children. All of us found we gave similar answers. “Do not come to Sunday Mass expecting quiet prayer and reflection.” Sunday Mass is the Mass of the whole community where we offer ourselves to God together. If you cannot, by sitting nearer the front, by concentrating on your inner stillness, find quiet prayer on a Sunday, then come to a weekday Mass, or a time of Adoration as well, and find your quiet there.  Indeed we recommend a weekday Mass, or a time of prayer in some Church somewhere, as an extra to everyone. It is amazing how some busy working people can find time to pop into a church near their place of work, whilst some retired people with much more time, find they are too busy!

 

The Church teaches that parents, with their little children, are what we call “the domestic church”. Their service of sacrificial love for their children, of teaching them to love Jesus and be part of his Church, is one of the most important aspects of the life of the Church; and all of us are called to help them in any way we can. Remember that the parents are not trying to keep their children quiet in church so that you and I can have an undisturbed Mass! No! Gradually, and sometimes very painfully, they are trying to teach their children to take part in the Mass, to join in the prayers. Sometimes this means taking them out for a bit to calm down, and parents have a tough job getting that right. Take them out too quickly and they soon get the idea that if they are noisy they get taken out to play and so they become even more noisy! It is a hard choice.

 

So what do the rest of us have to do in order to serve these children as Jesus tells us to? Well first, we have to set an example. We have to be still, to concentrate on our prayers, however much noise is going on around us. It is equally difficult for the parents if we start waving at the children or pulling funny faces, as it is to look or show irritation. Some of you are wonderful at going and talking to the parents and the children after Mass, and showing them how welcome they are, encouraging them to keep coming, however hard it is. For some of us it may be just a smile and a greeting as we pass by. Little acts of service like this are so so important for the parents in their amazingly tiring work, and we must never neglect our opportunity to support them in some way.  Remember from the Gospel today how James and John seek heavenly glory, and are told that the only way to get this is to follow the way of Jesus in service and sacrifice. That is what we are all called to do in many different ways. So let’s do it.!

Prayer is not magic

Young people often face real stress in their life for the first time when they are away from the support of home as students. They find people who they thought were friends who then let them down badly, or they have conflicts with people they live with, or they find themselves in despair about their work, or even about life in general.  Now, if they’re Christians of any kind, then one of the ways they try to find help is by pouring out their grief or anger or anxiety to God in prayer. Sometimes, of course, this can help a lot, but sometimes, and this is what I want to look at now, it doesn’t seem to make any difference.  So what is going wrong here?

 

Part of the answer is that prayer is not like magic. There is no way we can make things happen the way we want by praying about it. There is no magic formula to take away the pain. If we expect that prayer will be like this, then when it doesn’t happen that way, we are likely to feel that God has let us down, that God doesn’t care, or even that God doesn’t exist. Our 2nd reading is absolutely explicit about this. “When you do pray and don’t get what you want, it is because you have not prayed properly, you have prayed for something to indulge your own desires.” (James 4:3).

 

It always astonishes me that people who have been brought up as Christians forget the words of Jesus, that following him means taking up the cross! How easily we forget that when we pray “Thy will be done”, this is likely to mean more challenges, not less! The disciples had the same problem in our Gospel today, (Mark 9:30-37) for they assumed that if they followed Jesus there would be some kind of big reward waiting for them and so began arguing about “which if them was the greatest.”

In the end, even though Jesus had told them a number of times that he would suffer and die, they hadn’t really heard him, and when the crunch came simply ran away.

 

We can take heart from this because there are bound to be times when we too run away from God.  Sometimes our running can be rather un-dramatic, more like slowly slipping away, as too many other things crowd into our life. But for others it will be some really tough moment where we just do not feel we have the faith or the courage to go on, and so seek comfort in something or someone that provides a more instant relief, or a shallow solution.

 

True prayer is sharing our life with God not just in the good fun times, but also in the tough times where our prayer is more likely to be tears or anger rather than polite words. Sometimes people actually confess that they have shouted at God as if it were a sin, whereas it’s actually more likely to be a breakthrough moment.  But true prayer also includes sharing our life with God through other people. If we try to internalise and privatise our prayer, even our agony, then we’re not really talking to the God who is Jesus our Lord, but just talking to or agonising with ourselves.  This is one of the main reasons Jesus gave us the Church and the Mass. For when we meet and share with one or two others in prayer, Jesus promises his special presence.

 

So please never feel hesitant about asking to speak to me, or another priest. It need not be confession, although this is one important way of getting closer to God.  We cannot provide solutions to every problem, but the very act of sharing and praying is part of the way through which God gives us the strength for whatever we have to face.

 

But remember also that God wants us to be practical and God is present in all sorts of people and places, not just religious ones. Yes, God may well help you through all sorts of people whether they are believers or not. But beware of false advice. Worldly people can sometimes lead us completely astray. Some may do it deliberately – see the First Reading (Wisdom 2:12-20) but others may innocently suggest the easy way out – the quick fix – which in the long run can be disastrous.

 

The quick fix is not the way of God. A world of quick fixes is a world where people seek their own pleasure first. Such an approach can only end up in more conflict not less. And we must also remember that God works slowly. Working for God’s love and peace will mean tough decisions for each one of us sometimes that may require courage and endurance over a long period. Prayer, as I have said, will not take away the pain, but real prayer will help us to endure.. and in the end… like the disciples.. to see beyond… to a greater vision worth even dying for.