Homily on an ancient declaration of human rights

Perhaps you know the story of people being given a guided tour of heaven and asking St Peter : “So who’s behind that wall?”, and St Peter replied “Shh. That’s the Catholics! (or the Protestants according to who you are telling the joke too )They think they are the only people here.”

Of course it is not true of us Catholics. For though we do say that there is no “assurance” of salvation outside the Catholic Church – by which we mean that the safest and surest way to God is as a member of the Church, we do not thereby exclude the possibility that God does welcome many many other people into heaven when they die.

The Christians of Galatia (Galatians 3:26-29) clearly held the equally wrong idea that some people were more important than others in heaven, and so would be closer to God. So men would be closer to God than women, and free men closer to God than slaves and so on.  St Paul will have none of this. He says firmly that we get to heaven, not by what we have done (as we heard last week) and certainly not by what we are now, but by being “clothed.. in Christ”. “You are, all of you, sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”

This view of us humans proclaimed by St Paul – that all are equal in the sight of God – is at the heart of what we now mean by “human rights”. The Catholic Church expresses this in what is called its social teaching of the Church, something Pope Francis and his predecessors often stress. It is pretty astonishing that the modern world seems to have forgotten that the claim that all humans have equal rights and must be treated in this way is actually based on the teaching of the Church first made clear in the New Testament.

Sadly, the Church as a human institution has often at times been guilty of ignoring this teaching and allowing and even supporting those in power, rich men usually, to oppress and abuse others in one way or another. But regularly throughout history, the teaching that we heard from St Paul, has re-asserted itself, and the Church has renewed and purified its teaching. I recently heard about St Adomnán, (called St Eunan in Ireland) who in 697 caused the Law of the Innocents to be proclaimed by the war-lords of Scotland and Ireland who swore oaths before him to protect and defend innocent people especially women and children who in their wars, even as in wars today, found themselves victimised in horrific ways by brutal men. The Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be the statements we now most often refer to when we argue for justice and peace but it is worth us Catholics reminding the world now and again what the source of such teaching actually is.

This is the reason why Jesus, in today’s Gospel, (Luke 9:18-24) appears almost to reject St Peter’s assertion that Jesus is “the Christ of God” We now take it for granted that Jesus is the Christ, and simply use that word “Christ” as if it were his surname. So why wasn’t Jesus too happy with this name? Because, for most people at the time, the Christ would bring peace and justice –yes – but through war and violence.  So Jesus speaks instead of the “Son of Man” a mysterious figure from the Book of Daniel (7:13) who leads his people to God in a rather different way. Jesus links this in a radical way to the Suffering Servant figure in Isaiah (Ch 53) and also to our Zechariah passage (Zech 12:10-11.13:1) “They will look on the one whom they have pierced”. He says that those who follow him must, like him, take up the cross of sacrificial love, and renounce violence and status and power.

Poor St Paul is often accused of being anti-women. In some of his letters he certainly appears to give them a subservient role, as when he says that they should “submit” to their husbands. But we must remember that he also says that “husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the Church”, and we have just heard that this means taking up the cross. In his world where wives and women were usually treated as property by men, and oppressed and abused, St Paul words would have been quite startling. He begins with the normal idea of submission and then cracks in with a challenge to the existing way of marriage that is, for its time, a quite different way of thinking of marriage! Perhaps this is why he recommends that those who can bear it, should not marry at all!

St Paul is, of course, a man of his time and some of what he says sounds more than a bit odd to us. But when we hear him say “there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus”, we can realise how far ahead of his time God the Holy Spirit had taken him.

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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.

 

Homily on being the Church

Last week, I arrived at the Church day to find 8 great big bags of apples at the door. Some kind person had clearly donated them! So, first I had to move them to some more suitable place, back and forth carrying the bags, and then go and buy some plastic bags at the shop, so people would have something in which to take them away. My one hope, as I trotted around doing these tasks, was that, given the glut of apples in so many gardens this Autumn, no one else would have the same idea, and turn the Church into an apple depository!

 

I have a feeling however, that if I told this person that the Church is not really a free apple distribution centre, he or she would say “But surely the Church should be helping the poor?”  To which I would say, “Yes, but the Church is not an organisation to do your work for you. You are the Church. You are the person who should have organised the distribution, perhaps by putting them out on the roadside, as some people do, or taking them to a Food Bank.”

 

I tell you this story, the story of the apples, because too often, the Gospel we heard today, of Jesus praising the poor widow who put two small coins in the Temple collecting box, (Mark 12:38-44) is seen as an opportunity for everyone to be encouraged to give more… to the Church. But actually that’s not what the story is about at all. For, yes, it is good that people are generous in their giving to the Church. But if they see The Church to which they give some of their money, as an organisation, an organisation that puts on worship for them, who provides them with a priest from some magic pot of men, an organisation that does good deeds on their behalf for others; then they have entirely missed the point.  The Church may be seen by some, especially by the Media and those outside the Church, as that large organisation with a Head Office in Rome, but you and I know that this is not really what the Church is at all. We may be glad when Pope Francis sets such a good example for us, but we are also all too aware of The Vatican’s many imperfections now and down through the ages. Indeed, if that organisation, based in the Vatican, with all its human faults and failings, is really what the Church is, I tell you, I am giving it all up now!

 

No, the point I have already made, I must make again. You and I, WE ARE THE CHURCH, and so it is we who have to decide prayerfully what to do with the money we earn, and how to use all our other possessions to the glory of God. The poor widow is praised, not for those two insignificant coins, but for her attitude to life, her approach to God : the fact that she was prepared to give her all, her whole life, to God. That is surely why our 1st Reading today (1 Kings 17:10-16) is about another widow, who gave food and drink to the prophet Elijah, when she and her son were about to eat their last meal, all they had left, before they died of starvation.

 

I was struck last week, when they reported the statistics about the beliefs of people in the UK about God and Jesus and the Church. I wonder if you heard it or read about it? I was shocked that 40% of people thought Jesus was NOT a real person! But I was also intrigued that so many people, who knew a practising Christian, admired that person for their kindness and generosity. And who is that person admired for their kindness and generosity? That person is us, the Church of the real man Jesus Christ, the Church met today to do what he asked us to do the night before he was arrested and killed; to pray together and to break bread together, and to know that when we do so, he is with us in a special way, inspiring us to bring his message of love and sacrifice to the world.

 

Thus we come to our 2nd Reading (Hebrews 9:24-28) where the contrast is made between ordinary high priests, who have to offer sacrifices again and again to please God, and Jesus, the true High Priest who “offers himself only once to take the faults of many…… and to reward with salvation those who are waiting for him.” Here at Mass, we do not offer new worship again and again, but enter into that one sacrifice, the action of Christ himself. All that we do therefore, as his Church, is based not on our own efforts, feeble and imperfect as they are, but on in his presence empowering us.  

 

As one of our parishioners said at the Bible Study we have here every Monday at 10.30am. “The fact that we can only do so little, is no excuse for doing nothing.” And why? Because it is Christ who works in us, and like the boy with the 2 loaves, can turn something little into something great. If we let him.

 

The Glory of the Universe

When I first moved to Eynsham I went out into my back garden soon after I arrived – it’s behind the Church – and was astonished at the number of stars I could see. Maybe some of you have been somewhere that is even darker and where, I am told, you can see thousands if not millions of stars, and …. wonder at their glory!  That is surely the experience of the person who wrote  Psalm 19. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands”. Yes, I think it was a night sky that writer was thinking of, although, of course looking up into the sky on a beautiful day or at sunset or dawn are other examples of times when anyone who has any sensitivity at all is filled with wonder. But the stars and the planets with the moon in the night sky are surely what is meant by “the heavens” for they were so significant for humans some 2600 years ago when this Psalm was written.

The people then may not have been able to understand the stars as our astro-physicists do today – more of them in a moment – but they knew an awful lot and their experts were able to plot the yearly movements of the stars plus the planets apparently erratic courses across the sky and interpret these patterns in all sorts of ways.  Yes they were great astrologers, and we even hear of them in the wise men who come from the east following the star to find the baby Jesus. But that is an unusual thing to find in the Bible because the people of Israel were taught not to take any notice of these pagan ideas and to simply wonder at all that beauty and intricacy their God had made.

Nonetheless they knew that peoples everywhere looked up at the same stars they did and they did believe that in some way not fully understood God was speaking through them. So “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out … to the ends of the world” For them,  and for us too, this is an affirmation that whatever gods people worship in different parts of the world, the one true God is always there revealing himself to them. It reminds me of an atheist Staff nurse who said to me as I came to visit her Ward every week. “So where is your God then in all this suffering?”  And I replied “God is in you, whether you believe or not. God is present in you as you care for them.”  So in the same way, the heavens proclaim the glory of the one True God whether people believe or not.

But I want to take this one step further by taking you into the world of astro-physics. Don’t be alarmed. I don’t understand all the maths either, but the fascinating thing to me is to remember it is there. Now in order to explain this I need to take you back to the 1920’s. The scientists in those days had come to the conclusion that the Universe never had a beginning, and they were pleased to be sure about this because it showed how stupid Christians were. But there was one physicist who was Belgian called Georges Le Maitre and after studying all the Maths in great detail laid out a proof that the Universe did have a beginning, that there was a moment when there was nothing and another moment a nano second later when there was something from which at an immense speed the Universe began to expand. He was immediately ridiculed by the atheist scientists and one called Fred Hoyle made fun of this theory by nicknaming it the Big Bang.

What happened next was that more and more physicists looked at Le Maitre’s Maths and found it made sense, and with more study of the stars and more Maths the Big Bang Theory gradually became accepted as the true scientific theory of what The Universe is like. I don’t know if any of you have watched any Programmes where Professor Brian Cox explains what The Universe is like? I find it all fascinating even though I do not understand it. One of his programmes is called The Wonder of the Universe – here is the book based in the programme. I only wish he had called it The Glory of the Universe because, as the Psalm says “The heavens declare the glory of God”. Sadly, although Brian Cox is not anti-Christian, he cannot see, as you and I can, that the fact that all this maths makes sense, that you can calculate distances and the movement of the stars, that it has an order, a pattern that can be predicted and studied, all of this science “proclaims the glory of God”.  Ah yes, and now I will tell you, the man in Belgian who was ridiculed by the atheists then, but now has been shown to be right, was not just a physicist, he just happened also to be a devout Christian, indeed he was a Catholic priest. Mathematics and Physics you see both show the intricacy and order of the Universe. So here too God’s glory is present.

But now, after a description of the glory of the sun rising and setting regularly day after day, another sign of God’s glory, the Psalm appears to change direction completely. The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.  The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple”

But actually I want to show that the Psalmist was making the same point as before, but in another way and this is something I have just realised after reading Pope Francis’ latest Encyclical Laudato Si. First of all, the heavens do not proclaim the glory of God unless we humans recognise that they do. We are the only part of creation that has the ability to not only be self-conscious but also to be conscious of God. So if the heavens are to proclaim the glory of God, then it is through us that it happens. Now I don’t mean by this a rather romantic idea that we look at the heavens and say “Ah, isn’t it beautiful”. No, in order for the heavens to proclaim God we have to actually pause and make it happen. So we look up to the sky and actually praise God for what we are seeing and experiencing. It is, of course, the same for everything. God is in all things but unless we stop and recognise this, then the proclamation of his glory has not taken place.

The law of the Lord for us is therefore not principally avoiding doing wrong, but learning to be fully human, to be what God wants us to be, what God has made us to be; and central to this is that we are made by God to recognise his presence in all things and to respond by affirming that he is there and thus being drawn into a closer and closer union with him. As the poem goes “What is the life so full of care, we have no time to stop and stare” So “the law of the Lord” is that we are to continually praise him. And that law as the Psalm says…. “is perfect” And note what it does –“ it refreshes the soul.” It makes that part of our being that is most able to sense God’s presence more alive. And what is more, this “gives joy to the heart” that is it gives joy to every part of my being.

What we are surely being reminded of here is that we are not outside the rest of creation looking on at it as if from afar. WE are part of creation and we have the ability given to us by God to do two things. First, as I have just said, simply to recognise its beauty and to recognise God as its source and sustainer. But secondly, we are able to mould and use creation. We make things, so all that we make and do should also proclaim God’s glory. It is no accident surely that although Jesus does use natural things to proclaim his message, as in “Consider the lilies of the field.  They neither toil nor spin: yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these  (Luke 12:27) He also uses things we have made. So at the Last Supper, not sheaves of wheat but bread, not bunches of grapes but wine.

Some might wonder why this is so important, so let me explain. If we do not recognise God’s presence in the beauty of creation then we will most likely see the world as something simply there for us to use… just as we want.. and in the process spoil it. One simple example…If we simply cut down the rainforests because we have a use for them we end up destroying the planet God has given us. So failing to give glory to God for the world in the long run is a very serious sin indeed and the Psalm warns against it saying, “By them (by the laws of the Lord he means) your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.”

This means that we are not only meant to look at the heavens and praise God for them, but we are also meant to study and understand the heavens, and the earth of course.. not to exploit it, but to be able to use it wisely in ways that God would want us to. So the Psalms says “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.”
  So we are meant to use  maths and physics wisely, that is those who can understand them, because using them to study God’s creation is part of the way we humans do the will of God. So an important part of God’s law for us is that we should strive to understand and use aright the natural world in all its complex splendour. That is why it is so sad that some Physicists are atheists, and so wonderful that many are Christians and do see their work as part of their faith.

Note now the end of the Psalm. It is easy to fail to respond to the natural world with the praise to God that is our calling. It is easy to take it all for granted and so the Psalmist says “Forgive my hidden faults.” Things I do wrong are fairly obvious to me, but failure to fully recognise the glory of God, now that is a fault that I easily do not notice, that is a hidden fault. Of course I must also avoid “wilful sins” but I need God’s mercy and forgiveness for all this if I am to be “innocent of great transgression”
That is amazing isn’t it? That when we fail to recognise God and praise him for his presence in the beauty and glory of the world, the sun and the stars we are guilty of a great transgression!   Think of that great Hymn

Teach me My God and King in all things thee to see. And what I do in anything to do it as for thee.

Caring for those others ignore

Frances writes :- When we lived in Newbury many years ago, I had a Christian friend who belonged to a sect that believed that you could see who God loved by the wealth they possessed. Riches, they claimed, in a thoroughgoing misreading of the Old Testament, were a sign of God’s blessing and poverty an indication of his displeasure. Anyone in their community who fell on hard times was expelled from the group and the very ancient idea that almsgiving and care for the poor was essential to the Christian’s salvation cut no ice at all with them. Quite clearly the message of James, (5:1-6) had no effect at all! Indeed, one wonders quite how they came on any of their ideas from any reading of the life of Jesus and the New Testament.

 

Whilst the distinctions I have just spoken of may be crystal clear to all of you, the fact remains that it can be very difficult to work out what right and wrong behaviour often is. It would be so simple, wouldn’t it, if simply following a set of rules faithfully guaranteed salvation, but that is not the case. In our reading from Numbers (11:25-29) we see that the seventy are only appointed by God to prophesy and only for a short time due to the  complaining of the people of Israel during the Exodus. Moses himself can’t cope and loses his cool with the Lord, so the seventy are commissioned. But then two others, who it appears have not followed the regulations of the Lord given through Moses, also prophesy much to the consternation of the rest who have done what they were told. It is only when challenged on the authenticity of these two, that Moses comes into his own again and recognises that God is in everyone, that following the Lord God is not about rules so much as the spirit of the thing in ways which may be much more problematic, threatening and obscure to the straight-laced rest of us, so that we can see what obedience to God is really about. Perhaps this is precisely why the quirky Pope Francis has taken a family of Syrian refugees into his apartments at the Casa Santa Marta. One can just imagine the fluttering in the dovecote that has occasioned! Clearly this Pope believes that you must take the lead quite literally yourself, not just exhort others to do so, and damn the consequences.

 

In our Gospel, (Mark 9:38-43.45.47-48) we see the disciples, in something like a deliberate parallel of this Numbers incident which centred on Moses, the greatest prophet and leader of Israel, and therefore the model for Jesus at the time. It raised similar questions about the authenticity of other healers, not of their group, but who cured people in Jesus’ name. Our Lord’s response, just like that of Moses, was to recognise the power of God in unexpected places. His aim again is to get the disciples to think outside the box, and he does it precisely by expanding the boundaries for what is and is not acceptable in an age remember when divisions between people were tightly drawn.

 

This was a period when Roman citizens were privileged above all others especially under the law; when Sadducees formed an elite which ruled the temple and controlled all its offices and access to it; when Pharisees who were strict adherents of the Mosaic law demanded that all other Jews behave similarly if they were to qualify for its privileged access to God. Perhaps Jesus saw a similar exclusivity developing among his own, for he speaks  about the possibility of their becoming a scandal, a sacrilege (not the Jerusalem Bible translation ‘an obstacle’) against the faith of the ‘little ones’. Surely these people are the ordinary folk, those without claim to status or influence or power, and it is precisely these ‘little ones’ with their incipient faith which is crying out for confirmation and fostering, which the arrived and the rule-bound could so easily crush. We note just how harsh Jesus’ condemnation of these latter people is. It is far more severe than that of Moses, who simply wished that all had the verve of Eldad and Medad. Indeed, Jesus wishes that anyone destroying the fragile faith of others should meet a very gruesome end, being drowned with a huge millstone attached to their neck, or indeed having any offensive bits of their anatomy amputated, rather than sin. The context here again precludes any and every sin, but points precisely to sins against other believers and what we do, or fail to do, to bolster their fragile faiths.

 

Now clearly Jesus is speaking metaphorically here, for he is pointing the disciples once again back to the situation current in Israel where the maimed and the sick, the deformed and the mentally ill, were seen as cursed by God and excluded from the worship of the temple and its structures. Many of Jesus’ miracles revolve precisely around healing such infirmities, restoring men and women to their full stature in society, so that they could play their full part in the social and economic and religious life which flourished around them. Neither Jesus not the Father want more broken bodies, but the point of Jesus’ harsh rhetoric is to get the disciples to empathise, to imagine just what it would be like for them to be in the position of so many who flocked to Jesus, and who they would turn away to protect his purity and theirs. But Jesus, as we have known all along, had quite another agenda, and respectability played no part in it. If the cross is about anything, it is about reaching into the depths of the depravity and sadness and brokenness of this world and redeeming it, from the tragedy of that tiny Syrian body washed up on a Turkish beach to the scandal of ludicrous wealth wasted daily by the super rich, and the colossal waste of the world’s resources. Our job is to care to the uttermost, for that was what he did.

 

God calls ordinary people like you and me

Our prophet this week is a man called Amos. We have a passage from him (Amos 7:12-15) because it links to our Gospel (Mark 6:7-13) where we are reminded that we do not have to be special or clever people in order to share our faith with others. Indeed Jesus makes the point that his disciples are not to be fussed with a lot of clothing and clutter when they go around telling people about God. I am glad that we are not meant to take this too literally, because whenever I go anywhere I always seem to take an enormous amount of luggage with me – just in case – as I say. No, we needn’t be literalists, and wander round getting smellier and smellier because we have no clean clothes, but we do need to accept the spirit of what Jesus is saying, that is, that we do not need lots of “things” in life in order to serve God.

Think of another saying from Jesus that backs this up “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith!” (Luke 12:27-28)  Again we do not have to take this literally, or we would all be wandering around stark naked, but we do need to avoid getting obsessed with these kinds of things.

Our passage from Amos however, is more about who we think we are, than what we wear. Some people can think that they are not good enough or clever enough to do this or that.  Maybe they have been put down by over-strict parents or teachers, and have convinced themselves that they are stupid or clumsy – or to use a modern expression they lack self-esteem. I have often found myself trying to help older people who have been oppressed like this as children, and are still living with the harm this has caused them. Those who, in the past, turned the Christian faith into a way of oppressing children, of making them behave, were actually not behaving as Christians at all!

Back in the time of Amos, over 700 years before the birth of Jesus, prophets were basically official political advisers to the kings of the time. They mainly told kings what they wanted to hear, and thus continued to be paid – perhaps like some modern civil servants??  You can hear from the tone of Amos’s reply that he didn’t think much of prophets like that. “I was not a prophet, neither did I belong to any of the brotherhoods of prophets” he exclaims. “I was a shepherd..”  He is also being told off for being in the wrong court, as he comes from the southern part of Israel called Judah, and the northern part of Israel wants to send him packing, as an interfering foreigner.  People will use any excuse to get rid of someone whose advice they do not like, and one of the classic ploys is to say “You are from somewhere else and cannot possibly understand.”  Maybe we have done that sometimes?

The main message of Amos is the same wherever he happens to be. He points out throughout his short book that those who make war on others and thus destroy the livelihood of others will have to answer for it one day before God. The northern king has been doing precisely this, taking advantage of a time when there is a power vacuum in the Middle East to conquer more land. Sounds familiar perhaps? Listen to this passage where Amos warns him and his advisers. He begins with familiar words “Prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”  and then reminds them exactly who God is,

“He who forms the mountains, and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought; who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth—the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!” (Amos 4:13)

Amos is particularly concerned that those who make war, are also the rich who oppress the poor. So one of his most famous passages is this one

“Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain?
And the sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale,
….. and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” 
(Amos 8:4-6)

Yes, we all know from our news daily that when people make war, it is the poor who suffer most, and that is surely why the Catholic Church spends so much of its energy helping the poor and starving. as we do in Eynsham by supporting various projects.

Pope Francis is not the first Pope to take up this theme from Amos where the rich are attacked for oppressing the poor, and where we are all called to live more responsibly and care for the world God has given us. He makes lots of suggestions in his latest Encyclical from proper recycling to making sure we do not use more electricity than necessary. I need to heed this when I forget to turn lights off in the house! But back in the 19thC, the rise of industrialisation led Pope Leo XIII to condemn this kind of thing in his famous Encyclical of 1892 “Rerum Novarum”, and Popes since then have returned again and again to this theme. Pope, now Saint, John Paul II is praised by some for helping to destroy oppressive Communism, which he did, but he also attacked oppressive Capitalism which these same people sometimes conveniently forget; and this is surely an aspect of the faith that must continue to be stressed, as the rich of the world seems to get richer whilst even more people live in poverty.

 So there is our message for today. To live simply, to realise that we do not need lots of things in order to serve God, and to be aware that when we relatively rich people waste the resources of the world we are not just being wasteful and lazy, but are actually failing God

 

Surprising people with the Gospel

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- All too often we have a tendency to button-hole people. It can easily become racist: “All Blacks are stupid and dirty”, or ‘All Islamic people are fanatics”. More locally, as Jesus experienced, (Mark 6:1-6) it is about people thinking that as they know your family and origins, they have got you taped, and the very idea that a person ‘known’ to the community could achieve surprising, nay even miraculous things, is simply unthinkable. Jesus was the local carpenter and had brothers and sisters and it followed therefore that he could not possibly do or be anything special. Indeed, as the Greek puts it, his community were ‘scandalised’ by his actions. This is completely lost by the Jerusalem Bible translation which simply states “They would not accept him”. Yet the Greek original surely captures far more powerfully the enormity of the shift in thinking required by those who knew Jesus, or thought that they knew him, for to be a source of scandal does suggest someone or something that rocks society to the core. What we have to remember is that everyone comes from a local group and that the things they achieve, both for good or evil come from a known community, a society which on the surface appears completely normal.

The whole point of the incarnation, of God’s becoming human in Jesus for our salvation, lies precisely in the very ordinariness of his life. The problem for Judaism was that it thought in such stereotypical terms that it could only think of the Messiah as one from a line of existing powerful men, and as one who would be capable of gathering an army to throw the Romans out of Palestine. They had forgotten the fact that their earlier leaders, like Moses a slave, or even David a shepherd, and indeed those their scriptures recognised as the great prophets, came from unexpected and humble beginnings. What they failed to see was that their history taught them to look to ordinary men and women as saviours of their nation, not to the great and the good whom they mistakenly placed all their reliance upon.

When we lived in Newbury some 30 years ago who would have thought that the two blokes who made electronics in their back shed would become Vodaphone, or in Hull earlier, that the rather eccentric librarian at Hull University, Philip Larkin, would rise to international status as a poet? We need to value the ordinary, really scrutinising it for its true potential. Perhaps too, this is why Pope Francis is causing such a stir. Many think they know what a Pope should be like, and he just refuses to play ball. We are however coming to realise that this man, for all his sense of fun and his very rootedness in the real world, has the steely determination to reform the Church and attempt to get it back on track, even if that track is sadly lacking in tiaras and pomp.

Corinth was a city of the nouveaux riche, the upwardly mobile in the first century AD, and in common with much of the ancient world was given to extravagant boasting. Throughout the ancient world there were statues and inscriptions lauding the famous, often for their great achievements and their building projects and donations to the public life. Anyone who was anyone would record their accomplishments in stone or bronze for posterity to see and admire. When St Paul was dealing with this loved but intransigent community in Corinth, (2 Cor 12:7-10) he realised that to get through to them he too had to boast of his achievements in order to make any impression upon them. But instead of lauding his successes Paul turned the tables on them by ‘boasting’ of the history of his persecution in the cause of Jesus Christ. Indeed, he does it so well in chapter 11 that he begins to think that the Christians there will simply focus on his ‘achievements’, and be in danger of simply thinking his sufferings rather like their own achievements. This being the case he wrote, “In view of the extraordinary nature of these revelations, to stop me from getting too proud I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and stop me from getting too proud.”

Paul wanted his converts to understand that all his great work as a missionary had its origin in the grace of God and came entirely from God. Proud as he undoubtedly was of his work for the Gospel, Paul knew that none of it could ever have come about without divine prompting, that is, it was never something he had dreamed-up for his self aggrandisement, but was entirely the work of God in him. It was God who took this respectable young Jew, well on the road to success as a Pharisee, and turned his life upside down in his service. God took this unlikely man, this persecutor of the Christian sect, and made him the great apostle of the Gentiles. Paul knows to his cost just how easily he could have turned all this to his own advantage, and so he recognised God’s authority over his life as he learnt humbly to accept the thorn in his flesh, something that continually acted to level him and keep him on the right track, a true follower of the humble and insignificant Jesus.

A similar story is located around Ezekiel, prophet of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. Like Paul, he came from a prosperous and well educated family, in his case in Jerusalem, and was from the elite of the first deportation in 593. Once away from home and all that was familiar and secure, he devoted his attention to those left behind in Jerusalem, instructing them and warning them against further rebellion against the Babylonians. Like Paul, his cosy life was thrown into turmoil by historical and political events, and he who previously had every reason for self-congratulation and confidence found himself in a very uncomfortable position, one in which he would frequently stand against the ruling classes and the elite from which he had come. Ezekiel, like Paul, recognised the voice of the Lord God calling him to act in ways unfamiliar and unprecedented for one of his family and priestly origins, and yet he knew he could not refuse. Like these people, we too must be alert, listening for God’s call to us, and be willing to respond when that call comes. Great or small, it will come and we must pray that we shall have the grace to respond when it comes.