During the coronavirus restrictions the usual sound file of the sermon will be replaced with a video of each Sunday’s Mass. We will also be using this page for messages from Fr Doug.
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for the 29th Sunday
Well it was a good tricky question wasn’t it? Any interviewer would be proud of it. Should you pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Caesar’s Roman Empire was occupying Palestine. The Pharisees did not support this or want to collude with it. So they preached resistance and the withholding of taxes. On the other hand the Jewish King, Herod, was the Roman’s puppet King in Palestine, so his supporters recommended compliance and the paying of Roman taxes. This was a massive political issue at the time, and they were attempting to draw Jesus into it. But he was having none of it, and he introduced another element into it, a different dimension, a higher authority, higher even than the mighty Caesar – God himself.
They did understand that God sometimes interacted with earthly powers, just as we heard in our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Jews were in exile in Babylon, God used the Persian King Cyrus to defeat Babylon and allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem – because He could. Cyrus wasn’t conscious of this: “Though you do not know me, I arm you”, we heard God say to him. God is a higher authority than any earthly ruler and God is able to make use of any earthly powers, whether they are aware of it or not. In fact God has always made use of earthly powers and so we should be open to the idea that secular, earthly authority can be compliant with God’s will, knowingly or unknowingly. It does complicate things though, and it challenges us to make subtle judgements, but that’s politics for you!
Paying taxes to Caesar is therefore in itself not a bad thing. “What have the Romans ever done for us?” “Well, they built the roads, they kept law and order and so on”. God may well have been using the Romans for his own ends. It was after all, through the Roman Empire that the gospel would in time, reach the ends of the earth. So, give to Caesar what is necessary, but be careful to recognise that God’s agenda is paramount.
This means that politics in this country should be important to all of us as Christians. I emphasise ‘this country’. I for one, am really fed up with listening to Donald Trump, upon whom I can have no influence. My finger is poised over the remote control when I watch the news, ready to change channel at any moment but God does call upon us to participate in our own political debate. We should urge politicians of every party to work for the common good, for the good of all, and we should support those who commit to doing this. Or if we think that the process doesn’t work, that the system does not allow individual politicians to act according to what is right then we should engage in trying to change the system.
In the same way we should be prepared to pay our taxes happily and without fraudulence, because taxes are in some measure used to bring about what we pray for: that ‘God’s will be done on earth’ – providing care, providing homes, providing safety, providing refuge, and so on. The government would have to be way out of line before I could possibly consider being a conscientious objector to paying my share of the tax bill. But there were for instance, many Germans who took exactly that position in Nazi Germany. Caesar undoubtedly had his own interests most at heart. So did Cyrus. So, most likely do many of our own politicians. We can still make a judgement though, as to whether God is getting done what he wants to get done through their efforts, their compliance, knowingly or unknowingly. Let us be sure to help build the Kingdom of God here on earth.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But recognise that God’s is a higher authority and be ready to see his fingerprints anywhere, in those who profess his name but equally in those who don’t. We try to build the City of God, but the village of Bexley is part of it.
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for the 28th Sunday.
The Gospel provides us with another parable of the Kingdom of God, but actually, all the readings today speak of the Kingdom. Isaiah describes the kingdom as a fabulous banquet on Mt Zion in Jerusalem, the Holy Mountain of God. There’ll be food and drink galore, “rich food and the finest wines”. Moreover it will be a kingdom where there is no longer any death. It looks beyond death and holds a promise of life to come, life beyond death. It is a reading very often chosen for funerals for this reason. The promise though, is of a future banquet.
But there is life in the kingdom before death too, and the psalm picks up on that. The kingdom is in the here and now. Remind yourselves of the words of the great psalm 23. They are in the present tense. “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want, he gives me rest, he revives me, he refreshes me, he guides me, he protects me and he saves me, yes even in death. And, he makes sure my cup of life, my cup of his love isn’t just full but it’s overflowing. I have more than enough.
Okay the world is in economic recession and there is a terrible threat from the Corona virus, but still when we look at our lives we can surely see that we have plenty. The cup overflows. I can’t drink out of it as much as God is putting into it. I can’t drink God’s love as quickly as he pours it in. We should humbly acknowledge our blessings. And that is a very important message to share with others at this time. Let us not identify with those who only ever moan about the rain and ignore the sunshine, who groan about the end of summer but fail to embrace the fabulous colours of autumn. God’s kingdom even here on earth is a wonderful place to be, while its promise for the future is beyond all our imaginings.
Jesus picks up the image of the banquet again in his parable to describe the kingdom. He picks out a wedding banquet. In actual fact, St Matthew has joined up 2 parables about wedding feasts but they don’t really make sense when you try to read them as one. A guest would hardly be ejected for not wearing his best clothes if he’d just been dragged in off the street so we should listen to the parables separately.
The first is, like last week’s parable, having a dig at the Pharisees in particular, but others too, who won’t listen to Jesus and accept a personal invitation to enter God’s kingdom. Many were interested in the institution of the Temple and in the rules and regulations that went with it. But they were only supposed to be a means to an end, the end being life with God himself. Again for us, it is not the Church and its rules that we really seek. We use them to find and follow Jesus. That doesn’t make following the right Way any easier; it just makes it more fulfilling and more meaningful.
The second parable picks up on this and tells us that we must ‘dress’ or behave appropriately, otherwise we won’t make it! We will be ejected. We will not receive God’s outpouring of love if we don’t have the discipline to hold our cup out in front of us. There is much in our lives that we have to sort out in order to embrace the kingdom of God, or to enter it. We have to be ready with the wedding garment. That may require a change of heart, repentance in other words, or a change in our daily or weekly practice – spending time with God or sharing our experience of the day with God. But whatever it takes, it is worth it.
The kingdom of God: where my cup is overflowing both now and for ever; for ever, but also right now.
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for the 27th Sunday.
In one of my previous parishes, the bishop was doing a visitation and one of the events was a mass in our parish primary school. He was the main celebrant and I was assisting. At the start he tried to introduce himself to the children – who I must acknowledge were well briefed by the teachers. When asked, they knew his name, they knew that he was the bishop, and they even knew what his mitre and crozier were, but then he asked them what they thought his job was, as a bishop. I could see them struggling and then one little hand went up. “Yes, my child?” said the bishop. “Do you work for Fr Doug?”
When the bishop managed to close his mouth he explained that it was really the other way round and that he had put me in charge of the parish, ‘for now’, and then he gave me such a look! I only had stewardship of the parish on his behalf. If a parish is the vineyard in today’s gospel then I am a mere tenant of it. And in a wider sense we are all tenants in the vineyard that is the Kingdom of God. We are answerable to the landowner.
Jesus was warning the tenants of his day – the Jews – that they were not exercising their stewardship well and that they were in danger of forfeiting it. Years later when Matthew writes his gospel he has it in mind that stewardship has passed from the Jews to the Gentiles, from the Jewish Temple to the new Christian Church.
And why did this happen? In the parable it was because the tenants did not respect the owner. They tried to take over. They showed both greed and arrogance. Whether by Jesus’s prophecy or Matthew’s ironic hindsight, we hear in the story that their final act of betrayal was to assassinate the Son and heir. But it did not work out well for them!
The Jews had lost sight of God. The Temple and the Jewish Faith had ceased to be about God and had instead become about them. The Law focused on their power, their wealth, their nationhood, ¬their well-being and so on.
So we need to be careful and ensure that everything in our lives is referenced to the “Landowner”, to the God in whose kingdom ‘we live and move and have our being’, as the preface (VI) says in our mass today. When a society or a community or a family or an individual loses the awareness of God, who is bigger, greater and ultimately in charge, then troubles will follow. This earth for instance, upon which we stand and which sustains us, is God’s gift – for now. We are merely stewards and when we forget that, and think we own it, that we can do what we want with it, well that’s when things go wrong, and our planet is indeed, now very unwell. What would St Francis want to say to us about Mother Earth on what would normally be his Feast Day? The same as Pope Francis, I would guess, that we need to heal her or at least stop poisoning her!
Now as ever, for us in the Church, there is a responsibility to make sure that God’s voice and his authority is heard and acknowledged in society, in our communities, in our families, and in our friendships. And we do that not just with words but by the way we live our lives. How does St. Paul put it in the letter to the Philippians?
‘Fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honour, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise… Then the God of peace will be with you.’
We must enter into that mission, and as far as the planet is concerned, that means avoiding waste, pollution and over consumption. But in all things, we must defer to the landowner because if we forget that we are mere stewards or tenants then we are lost.
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for the 26th Sunday.
It used to be that my diary ruled my life. What was in the diary for the day was what I undertook during the day. But since the virus curtailed much of my activity, the week is much more my own. I am sure the same thing happens when you retire. At the beginning of the week I make a list of things that I want to achieve. But I often find that once I have really thought hard about the list, I am quite tired and I need to sit down and have a cup of coffee. There is a great danger that like the second of the brothers in today’s parable, I won’t actually get anything done.
There can be a disparity between the words I say and the things I do – or don’t do! Having a good wish-list doesn’t make things happen. There has to be action. St. Matthew in the gospel is using the parable to contrast apparently upright Jews who praised John the Baptist’s teachings but did nothing about it, with apparent low life who did respond and change their ways. In its original telling by Jesus though, the parable was merely intended to challenge his followers to make an authentic response to his teaching – a disciple’s response.
We need to take care to link our thoughts and words with our actions. Prayer and reflection should of course precede our actions but equally, actions should proceed from our prayers. There is a danger that our prayer, like my weekly lists of jobs, can become mere wish-lists, like the ones we send to Santa at Christmas. We sit back and wait for everything to arrive. We send off our prayer to God and then make a virtue out of our confidence that he will solve everything, without our having to do anything. It is as if we have done our bit by putting the prayer up there!
Praying in such a way is simply asking for miracles. Now admittedly, that sometimes derives from our sense of powerlessness which we can feel in a global village. We hear of terrible things happening in, let’s say Yemen, but we feel unable to do anything for the poor victims and so we say a prayer for them and ask God to fix it. Well that is understandable and we shouldn’t avoid the prayer because we are not sure what we can do. That would be like leaving difficult tasks off the weekly jobs list.
There are things we can do to express our prayer in action.
First of all there may be things we can do to directly affect the people of Yemen; maybe financially through aid agencies or maybe politically by lobbying about arms sales and so on. But beyond that we can still link action to our prayer. We can recognise feelings of anger or violence in our own lives. A prayer for peace in Yemen, demands that we address such issues personally. We need to express forgiveness and mercy, healing and love wherever it is needed in our own village, as opposed to the global village. Violence abroad should prompt me to pray for peace, but I can live and express that peace at home. It might seem small in the world but it is often big in personal challenge. AND I can offer it up to God for him to multiply, like he multiplied the five loaves and the two fish.
If I pray for vocations to the priesthood, what do I do to help foster a culture of volunteering and commitment? If I pray for wise leadership in church or country how and where do I contribute the little bit of wisdom God has given me? If I pray for the poor how do I help them?
So of course, pray before you do anything but if you pray for anything then make sure you do something.
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for the 25th Sunday.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways”. That’s what the prophet Isaiah said in that first reading. How true that seems when we listen to the parable in today’s Gospel. We cannot re-invent God in our own image and likeness. If we could, I suspect that those in the Gospel parable who laboured longest in the vineyard would have received more than those who started work at the eleventh hour. To our mind it seems totally unfair that they all got the same, doesn’t it?
It would appear that the human mind-set was similar in Jesus’s day to what it is now. In particular it seems that they, like us want to define what goes on in relationships as transactions so that if I do something for someone, I merit, and should receive what I have earned, or I should at least expect a favour in return. If I work harder or, as in the parable, for longer, then I should receive more. That’s only just and right. That is our way of thinking, surely?
It is as if everything about a relationship can be described in the form of a contract: You do this for me and I will do that for you. If either of us doesn’t fulfil our side of the bargain then the deal is off. That’s how many relationships are defined and actually how our country describes marriage, as a contract that two people enter and if either party fails any of the terms of the contract then the deal is off and that is then called ‘divorce’.
Well in the Catholic Church we believe that marriage is bigger than that and we describe marriage as a covenant. In that covenant each person gives the rest his or her life to the other unconditionally. So if one side breaks a term of the covenant the deal is by no means off. The way forward is for the offending party to find true sorrow – not regret at having been caught, but sorrow at hurting someone they love. The other party too must act in love and the only appropriate response for the innocent party is to offer forgiveness.
Now we know all that. We experience it or know it in marriage and family life and in many relationships beyond, but it is important to notice that in the most precious of our human relationships what we do for each other is in the realm of gift, freely given and received, not in payment, earned and measured.
And if that is true of the best of human relationships then it is infinitely more true of our relationship with God. So in the parable what the landowner gives each worker is pure gift. In other words our relationship with God is defined as a covenant and not a contract. This has been the way of it since the time of Abraham. I never earn God’s love. It is freely given. What I do or try to do for God is merely a disciple’s response to God’s love. It is not payback.
Looking at the parable again, the landowner has every right to give whatever he wants to the latecomer. We should conclude that he values each worker equally however much they do or CAN do. We could imagine that those hired first were the most able and those hired last were the least able or maybe even disabled(!) The landowner’s message to his workers, and God’s message to us, is to count our blessings, not our earnings. We appreciate God’s generosity, his love and our response should be free-flowing and never measured. His love for me is not dependant on my performance, and thank goodness for that!
Saint or sinner, he loves us equally.
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for the 24th Sunday.
During the week the Moria Refugee Camp on the Greek island of Lesbos was ravaged by fire. 13,000 people were instantly without shelter and are mostly still without shelter sleeping by the sides of roads. Police are managing to keep them away from the main towns where many of the residents live in fear though many, it should be said, are doing all they can to help. Other refugees in other camps have been trying to share what food they have. Currently there is no solution. They are not to be allowed to leave the island, let alone be offered the chance to settle elsewhere in Europe and be given a chance to share in the peace and prosperity that we enjoy and which for the most part we were born into. Their human stories are just dreadful. All is not well with our world!
So does the Gospel have anything to say? It doesn’t offer a quick solution but I think it has something important to offer. It speaks of God’s love, specifically love as expressed in forgiveness. The parable invites us to recognise how much we receive from God in forgiveness and therefore how duty bound we are to pass that on to others. We heard the Book of Ecclesiasticus saying the same thing: ‘Resentment and anger, these are foul things.’ We must avoid resenting those who harm us. How much more must we avoid resenting those who haven’t even harmed us yet, like refugees, for instance!
But this command, this duty to pass on to others the mercy we receive from God is a big deal for Jesus. He even includes it in the words of the Our Father, the model of prayer he offers to his followers:
‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ He is very clear about our need to share forgiveness with others. But he widens that injunction beyond the gift of forgiveness. He applies it to all God’s gifts. So we could on his behalf add words to the prayer:
‘Share with us your love as we share that love with others’, or even:
‘Provide us with peace and prosperity as we provide peace and prosperity to others.’ Our duty to provide these things corresponds to the rights of others to receive them. It is not good enough for us to say: ‘Oh, bad luck being born where there is a failing government, failing authority and failing economy. Be happy for me though, that God has blessed me so much.’
The dreadful human tragedy in Lesbos did not grab the headlines really. We prefer on the whole to not notice. But every time we say the Our Father we should feel a dig in the ribs from the Lord. Our country – and other countries too, have been woeful at accepting refugees. We seem to be terrified of helping them. They are such a danger to us! It won’t do to stamp our feet in Dover to protest at those risking their lives paddling across the Channel to try and gain a life. It might be better if we tried to find a way of integrating their skills and qualities into the society we are so privileged to be part of. If I had escaped from Afghanistan or Syria, I would be desperate to receive some love and mercy from those so blessed by God.
So once again our starting point as Christians, as followers of Jesus, must be to recognise in gratitude all we have received from God, avoiding the arrogance of thinking that we have created it or earned it. Then we must search our hearts to see if we are sharing these blessings with others, blessings of peace, prosperity, love or forgiveness or … all of the above. The Gospel doesn’t offer a simple solution to the refugee crisis but it challenges us to make a start by getting our attitude right – an attitude of gratitude.
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for the 23rd Sunday
It is hard to argue with St. Paul when he says that love is the answer to everything. But it is also true that it needs to be said out loud – proclaimed and celebrated. I heard a story once at an Irish wedding I was at. It was told of a couple who’d been married a good long time. They were on their way home after watching a romantic film at the cinema and the woman said to her husband: ‘In the film the man told his wife dozens of times that he loved her. Why do you never say it to me?’ The husband replied: ‘I told you that I loved you on our wedding day. If the situation changes I promise you’ll be the first to know!’
No, it won’t do, will it? It is important in any relationship to say the words, and to hear the words of love as much as possible. Every moment they are said and heard becomes a sacred moment. The relationship deepens every time. It is enriched by the variety of moments when the love is proclaimed just as it is enriched by the variety of experiences that are shared by those involved.
And it is of course the same in our relationship with God. Prayer is where and when we open to God’s telling us how much he loves us and when we tell him of our love for him – or praise him, in other words. Prayer is a communication and proclamation of the love that is between God and each of us as we journey through life together. Our lives are joined. What goes on in our human earthly reality has a heavenly reality too. What we loose on earth is loosed in heaven, the gospel tells us.
Prayer is the mutual exchange in our loving relationship with God and so what we call our “prayers” must be understood in that way. If I share with a friend that I have a really painful knee at the moment, my aim is not to get my friend to fix it. I may be seeking a little sympathy and understanding but the main thing is to exchange information, feelings and thoughts. When I tell God that my knee is bad I shouldn’t necessarily expect him to fix it either. But he will listen. He may heal it or he may be happy to share in my pain or reflect a little with me on the experience. He may have insight to impart to me. “Oh that today you would listen to his voice. Harden not your hearts.” This was what we repeated in the psalm just now.
So when I pray about the pandemic and express to God my sorrow about the damage it is doing to people and to communities, I need to be doing so as a friend shares his sorrows, not as an infant demands its food. I hope that I will be safe and I hope its dark shadow will be lifted from our world, but until it is I don’t think my prayer is going unanswered. God is answering in lots of ways. There are lessons about our environment that we may yet need to hear. It may be that we need to listen harder to what God might be revealing. In any case our prayer should be deeper than: “Get us back to normal as soon as possible!” Sure enough Jesus says that if we together, ask for something there will be an answer, but we know, even from his own prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, that the answer can be different to the one you think is best.
Opening in prayer is like opening the curtains on a sunny day. God’s love, like the light of day, comes pouring in and it is up to us to capture as much as we can. And he is always there expressing his love. Just because he doesn’t fix everything we want him to fix doesn’t mean he doesn’t love us anymore. He loves us in our joys and happiness but he also loves us in our discomfort and sorrow. We do have to listen to his voice and not harden our hearts.
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for the 22nd Sunday
“Get behind me Satan”? Well, that wasn’t a very nice thing to be saying to Peter when only moments ago, as we heard last week, he was telling him that he was his right hand man, the rock on which he would build his church – and the future means of God’s encounter with humanity! I think it is really because it’s not so much Peter that he was addressing but the temptation he has faced all along, though this time through Peter, which was to walk away from it all, to avoid Calvary and all that suffering. But he knew he had to put the temptation of Satan behind him and face his cross.
What’s more, he says that we have to face it too. We have to take up our cross and any difficulties or suffering that goes with it. The trouble is that we are programmed to avoid these things, and quite right too, for the most part. God does not wish unnecessary suffering upon us but that’s not the whole story. Our difficulty comes in discerning what is necessary or desirable, knowing when to stand firm and not avoid things. That discernment comes with God’s help in prayer.
But it’s not easy. For me and maybe for you too, there are 2 sides in my life. There is a safe and secure pain-free side but there is also a more vulnerable, risky and sometimes painful edge. I put a lot of effort into building up the secure side. I buy insurance to make sure I won’t be troubled by loss or accident. I carry a credit card and a mobile phone so that I won’t be stranded. I avoid confrontation because it makes me uncomfortable and I don’t challenge people much because it makes me vulnerable to their criticism. Actually, I don’t watch horror films because they scare me and if I am watching a thriller I can find myself shouting at the on-screen hero: ‘Don’t go out there into the garden in the dark. There could be the monster or the intruder! You are better off drawing the curtains and staying under the duvet.’ But they don’t listen.
And yet I know that it is on the edge that character grows and that relationships progress too – including our relationships with God. It is outside the castle walls that the adventure gets going as we stand humbly before the Lord reaching toward him in the darkness. For many that is an experience not so much chosen as accepted, in illness or bereavement, or rejection for instance. To be honest when the Corona virus first started to impact, when we entered lockdown and isolation and faced our fears, I felt fully alive. In such times we can take God’s hand and allow him to lead us through the difficulty – not away from it necessarily – but placing our trust and our hope in him. That is what he means by taking up our cross. To be in such a place without him is to my mind truly terrifying.
There are other ways to take up the cross as well. At the edge of our lives, there also exists the realm of opportunity. There are crosses to take up in giving of ourselves – our time, our particular gifts or our material wealth. We can make generosity and kindness our leading edge if we try hard enough. We can throw ourselves into relationships risking rejection and hurt. It is easier to stay in our comfort zones, but we don’t grow that way. Indeed, we decay.
So we are challenged by Jesus today to take up our cross: to speak up and to speak out, to stand up and to stand out, to get up and to get out into our adventure with God and our adventure with each other.
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for the 21st Sunday
You may recall that back in February I was on a spiritual direction course up in St. Beuno’s in north Wales. You always feel a little vulnerable on a training course, but you especially do so on one as personal as that. Well it was near the end and I was trying to share some personal feeling or other and began to apologise a bit – you know how it goes: “It’s probably not very helpful but I just …” – and the lead tutor Sian jumped in and said “- No, Douglas, stop apologising; you are a joy.” “ Douglas, you are a joy.”
It might take me too long to explain why, but that was the most precious thing anyone has said to me in years. I recall it, now, whenever I need to. It gives me huge energy and strength. “You are a joy.”
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” asked Jesus. ‘Really, (?) John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or Elijah even; interesting’, “but who do you say I am?”
‘Well I think you are all that I have ever hoped for, all that I have ever believed in, the Christ, the Son of the living God’, says Peter.
There is no doubting the affirmation that gave to Jesus and the joy and excitement that it released in him. He exploded at Peter’s expression of faith, of hope and of confidence. He responded by affirming Peter as his personal rock, the one upon whom he would build the future. He might have said ‘Well you mean everything to me, Peter.’
I love it, I really do. When I worked years ago as a youth worker for the diocese, it was clear to me how important it was to try and tell young people the truth about themselves, any truth, but especially anything positive. This exchange between Jesus and Peter is at the very heart of the Church. We give praise to him and acknowledge him as Lord (and all that that means) and he speaks to us telling us that we are his people, his flock even, that he loves so much. And our mass encapsulates or expresses that exchange. It’s what we do.
I marvel at those who marry. They stand, each before the other and say: ‘I promise the rest of my life to you.’ How amazing is that! The emphasis is often put on the generosity of the speaker but I always underline in any wedding ceremony how important it is to be the listener and to hear the affirmation. It is really important to hear: ‘I am the one, the only one in the rest of your life’. How amazing is that?! (More amazing, I’d say.)
What we say to each other can be very powerful, very life-giving. Amidst the chaos the government prompted this week, I heard a young person speaking about her A-level results, and she said it is not just about getting a university place or a job. It is important for her, she said, to hear from someone else an assessment of how good she is at her studies. It is personal. She is wise, I think. We all need to hear from others, truths about ourselves.
And it is, I believe, a call to share in God’s ministry to speak kind words to each other, but only when they are true of course. My mother used to say that if you can’t say a good word that you know to be true then don’t say anything at all.
The entire Church is based on that exchange of truth that is expressed in today’s gospel. Entire marriages are based on those words spoken on a wedding day. Our lives are given significance by God’s telling us how precious we are in his eyes.
If we see something good in someone else and don’t get round to telling them, what a cosmic mistake that is. Let us build the up the People of God.
You are a joy!
Sermon for the feast of The Assumption
I was reading a few weeks back about Constantine who became Roman Emperor in 312. A year later he issued what we know as the Edict of Constantine whereby he not only made Christianity legal but also the religion of the Empire. In 325 he called the great church Council of Nicea to agree and formulate church doctrine. We still say the Nicean Creed today. Well scholars argue this way and that about his achievements but his life certainly affected the history of the world.
I would be proud to think that my life has affected anyone else’s life but I am not sure it has. One person who affected the lives of everyone in the world is the person we honour today, Mary, the Mother of God. Today we celebrate a feature of her life that is special to us all. She had perceived that her life and her mission was special. ‘All generations will call me blessed’, she had said to Elizabeth before her child was even born. But I wonder what she anticipated as she approached her death.
This may have occurred in Jerusalem or Damascus where there are great basilicas honouring her “Dormition” as it is called, or it may have been in Ephesus in Turkey, a place I know well from the many pilgrimages I have led there. There will be huge celebrations there this weekend, but elsewhere too. All over Southern Europe, for instance, there will be ‘festa’ celebrating the Assumption. Plenty of fireworks!
It was not recorded in scripture but it was accepted from the earliest days that when she died she was taken, body and soul, into heaven. Nobody ever claimed to hold relics of her body, which would otherwise have been likely given the market for even fake relics! It is just that everyone held that her body was taken to heaven. No question about it! A feast celebrating this dates back to a few centuries after Constantine. It was never a matter of controversy that she would ever need purification. She would pass straight to bodily resurrection in heaven.
Now the whole point of the feast is that the same destiny awaits all of us. Our bodies that are so much part of who we are on earth will be part of who we are forever. It is the whole of me and of you that is called to heaven. But we must be purified first in what we call purgatory, but not I hope with a 70% alcohol spirit like the church is purified today!
Interestingly when Constantine thought he was close to death he asked for baptism, to wash away any sins he had – he had some good ones, like the murders of his wife and son! The sacrament of Reconciliation was not practiced at that time so people would delay baptism till the last moment that they could. Picture Constantine walking around during his last days in his white baptismal gown trying to stay good till he died!
We have enjoyed Baptism and Reconciliation and hopefully will have the opportunity to receive the Sacrament of the Sick before we die but then we will not take Mary’s Route 1 direct to heaven but we will hopefully take the scenic route to end up in exactly the same place as her.
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for the 19th Sunday Year A
The Covid 19 virus seems to be making a come-back, doesn’t it? The false prophets who said it was successfully conquered in this country have been found out. It may not be the time to be trying to return to normal, not in the pubs and not elsewhere. We are now bearing some of the cost with compulsory face coverings in church. And in frustration and anger people are saying ‘enough is enough, if Jesus can feed thousands of people with a couple of fish as we heard last week why can’t he fix this virus?’ In fact why can’t he fix all illnesses and unemployment and racism and poverty and war and ALL the storms that afflict our lives?
The early church was experiencing a storm as well, as we have noted before. It was being attacked by Jews and by the Romans too. Jesus had gone, ascended to the Father, so where and when would God act? Church leaders were reflecting on this and they recalled the event that Matthew describes in the gospel today. Jesus sent the disciples on ahead while he dealt with the crowds that remained after the feeding of the 5,000 and then he put in some quiet prayer time with his Father. But the disciples were in a boat, all at sea as it were, in stormy conditions, battling a head wind. They were frightened and alone. Where was Jesus when you needed him? It was very late indeed, the 4th watch of the night – somewhere between 3 and 6 in the morning, as we would say, when Jesus came to them. He wasn’t there straightaway, but he came in the end and how! He walked across the top of the water showing that he could overpower both the wind and the sea. He brought peace and calm and they knew what this meant. The message for the early church was to be patient and to trust that God would see them through the storm they were experiencing, but not necessarily straightaway. That is the clear message for us too in the storms we are living through.
But there is more to the story. When Jesus did come to them, they didn’t know it was him. They thought they were seeing a ghost. They just didn’t recognise him. Elijah could have taught them a thing or two, as we were told earlier. As he waited for God in a cave on Mt Sinai or Mt Horeb, as it is also known, he saw out the mighty wind and the earthquake and the fire before going out to meet God in the gentle breeze. And that is where we will find God’s presence, in the peace and in the calm, in the quiet moments that we can find in our day or in our week if we try hard enough and wait long enough. God isn’t one for shouting out loud; he is more of a mighty whisperer.
And what about Peter, as he tried to walk on the water and go out to Jesus? He walked on the water at first but he did so knowing that it was the authority and power of Jesus that was holding him up and sustaining him, but he got distracted by the force of the wind and that’s what sunk him. He panicked and Jesus had to save him. That seems familiar to me in my spiritual journey – acts of faith and trust but then distractions and panic that require me to be rescued yet again by God. What Peter needed to remember and what we need to remember is that those steps he did take were no illusion. They were real. With more faith and trust he could have taken a few more steps and it is the same for us. Jesus will give us power over what afflicts us but we need to trust him.
Anyway the main thrust of the readings today is to tell us to listen out for God in times of quiet and reflection and to keep trusting in him to come to our aid. He may not come immediately, but he will come.
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for the 18th Sunday Year A
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch”, we are led to understand. But is there? We just heard Isaiah expressing God’s invitation to:
Come for refreshments. No charge. Grain? How much do you want? No charge. Wine? Milk? No charge. All that you really need. No charge.
Imagine that in Tesco’s or wherever. Your trolley full of shopping:
Blip, blip, blip. No charge, no charge, no charge.
That’s God’s special offer this week and every week on what never fails to satisfy, which is soul food, nourishment for deeper life, eternal life. His Word, his Sacrament, his intimate friendship. Every little helps.
In the gospel today we get a vivid picture of this with Jesus offering spiritual AND physical nourishment free of charge. He has reacted to the news of John the Baptist’s execution by, not surprisingly withdrawing a little to reflect and mourn and consider things but people have sought him out. He offers healing and friendship, wisdom and love. Then he ends up feeding the huge crowds gathered round him using the meagre resources that his disciples, between them, could muster. For all this? No charge.
The real offer of the week was and remains the gift of Jesus himself. He put it to us through a parable last week that if we thought that we had found the pearl of great value we would sell everything we owned to go and buy it and yet for the gift of friendship with him – eternal friendship with him – he says: No charge.
There is a reflection of this in family life and in friendship, isn’t there? both of which are priceless – literally. How much for the love and care we give and receive? How much for a hug? No charge.
It is also worth reflecting on that at this holiday time, especially in the light of the Corona virus, that we don’t have to go to Disneyland to get what we really want or need because … for the sea and the seaside? No charge. For the countryside around us? No charge. For the Thames valley, the Cray valley, the Darenth valley? No charge. So yes, let us be grateful for our experiences of God’s abundant blessings in our lives.
What a sacrilege it is then, that there are barriers to such experiences of God in many parts of the world. We can’t pretend that we don’t know what is going on in Syria, in Bangladesh, in Israel, in Yemen, and in parts of this country too, where so many are denied their right to experience the generosity of God’s providence in their material existence and therefore struggle to see God. “Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ”, we heard St Paul saying a moment ago, not persecution or hunger or poverty. God IS there, of course. People WILL find him – on the cross, but that bit is a challenge for all of us. It is an essential part of our experience of Jesus and of his Way to the Father but he clearly indicates that God’s plan is that it should be transitory and temporary. We live our lives free from its dominance, free from its power over us. That is a spiritual reality but I might just find that difficult to understand if I live most of life waiting for the next bomb to physically kill me or if I am worried about whether there will be any more food or water to eat or drink. Our spiritual selves and our physical selves are connected. So you and I must do what we can to relieve their suffering and also to fight for the justice they deserve. If we don’t do this, our religious message becomes one of oppression instead of liberation.
In the meantime we ought to be aware of all the blessings that we do enjoy and be grateful to God for what we have, which is so much more than we need. Even in the incident recorded in the gospel today when everyone had consumed as much as they wanted there were still bags left over! Baskets left over. There is more than enough to go round. We think about how we can share, and we pray in the meantime for those denied what they have a right to enjoy.
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for the 17th Sunday Year A
Solomon was given an amazing offer by God, wasn’t he? He could have any gift he wanted. What would you choose? God seemed to think Solomon might choose wealth or long life or the defeat of his enemies or rivals. It was a surprise that he chose Wisdom, or at least a discerning judgement. He could judge what was right and what was wrong. Funnily enough, I heard that said of someone whose funeral I was at recently, that he always knew right from wrong – he was always right and everyone else was always wrong! Anyway going back to Solomon, God was so pleased with his choice that he granted it straight away.
But the pressure was on then, wasn’t it? He had to use that gift well; he had to spend it in the world prudently on God’s behalf. Using your gifts fully can be quite a challenge and the more gifted you are, the more demanding that can be. There has been a resumption of sport in the country recently hasn’t there? Now if your greatest gift is in sport, for instance, you owe it to yourself and to God, and to everyone else to train it and develop it to the fullest. Those gifted in that department are often called upon to make great sacrifices. Their gifts are God-given but they are professionally, humanly trained.
I love that old film ‘Chariots of Fire’ that recalls the preparation for the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. I particularly admire Eric Liddell, ‘the flying Scotsman’, as he was called. He went to school a Eltham College I think. There was a great line attributed to him: ‘When I run I feel God’s pleasure’. It was an expression of how close God’s gifts in us remain to God and how important it is therefore, to work on nurturing and spending such talent.
Today’s gospel challenges athletes and the rest of us to really go for it, to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to grasp the prize, the pearl of great value. We need to train and develop our gifts to the full. In fact Jesus says on another occasion that he wants us ‘to have life and have it to the full’.
My gifts from God are not as special as Eric Liddel’s and unlike King Solomon, I didn’t get to choose them, but I still get great joy and fulfilment from trying to use and express them in his name, as his steward. But one gift he has given us all is the Gospel itself, the good news about Jesus’s Way to the kingdom and that is the real pearl of great value, the treasure lying in the field. We should be prepared to set other things aside in order to pursue it. We would be mad not to.
Interestingly, back in 1924, Eric Liddel famously refused to run in a final because it was to be staged on the Sunday and that was against the practice of his religion. So despite setting so much aside in order to pursue his sport he was prepared to set his sport aside to pursue the Way to the Kingdom of God. He knew a thing or two! He did in fact get a gold medal in the 400 metres race. He went on to be a missionary in China. Sport can indeed be a great metaphor for us in life.
But the greatest jewel that is there for the taking is the Way, the Truth and the Life in the Kingdom of God.
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
One of my favourite areas to walk is down around Eynsford. The Darenth Valley Path offers access to Lullingstone Castle and the nearby Roman Villa, as well as a lot of beautiful countyside. There are fields of lavender, absolutely vibrant at the moment, and more commonly, fields of wheat which await the harvester. Until recently there has been a weed that has been very obvious mostly around the edges of the wheat fields but to some extent mixed through the wheat as well. I am glad the farmer hasn’t tried to remove the weeds because the weeds I am talking about are poppies, and their bright red colour adds so much beauty to the fields. Sometimes it is good to let the weeds grow.
But what was Jesus speaking of in the Gospel today? And what else can we hear? I was saying last week that we can hear a parable at 3 levels: first, what Jesus meant, next how the early church was applying it and finally what (if any) special emphasis Matthew was giving it.
First of all, darnel was nothing like a beautiful poppy. It looked very similar to wheat in fact, and it was local practice to separate it out all through the growing season. It was then dried and bundled up for use as fuel, and hence Jesus’s reference to it being burnt. So by saying that the farmer wants the wheat and darnel to grow alongside each other, Jesus is saying that his disciples will have to cope with living alongside sinners, tax collectors, scribes and Pharisees. Judgement can come later, but it is for God to make.
Now years later, the early church is in trouble. The Christian ‘sect’, as it might have been called, has been expelled from the synagogue. They have been thrown out of the Jewish religion, in other words. This was a time of crisis and many wanted to do battle with the Jews to gain control of the synagogues but the parable was used to teach them that the synagogue and the Church must live side by side, for now.
As for Matthew, the Gospel writer, he is grappling with the fact that some choose to follow Jesus but others reject him. His emphasis is on the good seeds producing a good and worthwhile crop while bad seeds produce rubbish, fit only to be burnt. There are consequences to rejecting Jesus.
So for us, we should first of all respect others who live alongside us and not pass judgement on them. That is for God to do. We should humbly accept our limitations. Indeed St. Paul in the epistle was telling us that we even need to let go in prayer and let God’s Holy Spirit carry us.
We should then also hear the call to religious tolerance that the early church heard. There is room for us all, as Ghandi once said. There is no place for the intolerance, especially of Islam, that we see in China and India and America, certainly no place for it in our hearts. Darnel was not wheat but it had its uses!
And thirdly with Matthew we should face those who reject the Gospel with the goodness of our lives. We should produce an enormous crop of good quality love. As followers of Jesus, let us excel in good works – in generosity, in neighbourliness, in care and in support for the needy. Let them know we are Christians by our love.
It was a great thrill to see parishioners once more at the Sunday masses last weekend. Attendance was a fraction of what it was before lockdown of course but we predicted that and indeed relied upon it. It meant that everyone could participate in the mass in a spirit of prayer without being distracted by safety issues which were all taken care of by the stewards. Huge thanks to all of them. Some of those who attended commented on the church itself, about how good it was to be in it in reality instead of watching it on screen. Several noted how impressive the banners are ‘in real life’.
This notion of reality kept coming up. In one conversation I caught myself about to compare the restored ‘real mass’ to the previous ‘virtual mass’. The fact is though, that I have been saying ‘real masses’ all along. It is the participation of parishioners that has been virtual. In that prayer of St. Alphonsus that we have got used to, we say: ‘My Jesus, I believe that You are present in this Most Holy Sacrament…. Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come spiritually into my soul.’ Well those who came to the masses at the weekend did welcome the Lord sacramentally into their souls. This was an emotional and important spiritual event for many.
It has a lot to do with the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. But the big change for me, and therefore what impacted upon me was the real presence of the congregation. I wasn’t measuring gaps in the liturgy for people to make the responses at home, as I do in our broadcast mass. The communication of the mass went to and fro in the normal way. And that real presence of the people is sacramental too, because it is a real presence of God in the people. The joy was not just in the mass but in the little conversations that took place afterwards in the area outside the church. In many instances I didn’t quite know what to say. We have got out of the habit of chit chatting, but it will return soon I am sure. For the first time I really did miss the opportunity to shake hands with people and communicate a simple warmth and welcome in that way.
But that real presence of God is a reality not just in our gathering – “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also” – but also in our mission. We have a responsibility to act in God’s name and bring his word to others. Hopefully this is a word of love – a word of peace, of understanding, of consolation, of reconciliation and of support. It is a Word but it is a deed as well. “Preach the Gospel”, St. Francis said, “Use words (only) if necessary!”
So in mass there is a significant greeting: “May the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God our Father and the fellowship (communion) of the Holy Spirit be with you now and forever”. God’s real presence isn’t just up there on the altar. It is in each one of us.
Whether you are parishioners of St. John Fisher or not, I do encourage you to return to (your) church but only when you feel it is safe for you to do so, and not necessarily on a Sunday. We are blessed in our church with a good deal of space so we can cope with double the numbers who attended last weekend, provided the 1 metre+ social distancing rules are left in place. In fact we were able to use the 2 metre distancing rules where there is no compulsory wearing of a facial covering. But if you do come to John Fisher, you need to bring a facial covering in case numbers necessitate wearing them. (No coverings necessary for under-11s)
Finally, Ramblings were born in a time of abnormality and insecurity seventeen weeks ago when we were all feeling a bit lost and confused. As we are now coming out of lockdown I feel that it is time to suspend them. I have enjoyed writing them and I hope you have enjoyed reading them and at least consoling yourselves in the knowledge that you couldn’t be more confused than I was.
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for 15th Sunday year A
One of the things about lockdown has been that for many of us there has been a bit of slowing down and consequently more opportunity to notice things we hadn’t noticed before, at many different levels. Yes, I’ve always enjoyed the sound of the wind blowing through the trees but I’d never before noticed how different trees produce different sounds in the wind. There is a lot you can discover if you take time to notice.
Now today we hear the wonderful parable of the sower, one of the most well-known of the parables of Jesus. We have parables for 3 Sundays in a row, in fact, so it is a good moment to remind ourselves how to get the most out of them, to be able to notice all that is in them. The were written by early church members and the church has always carried knowledge of the events and the teachings recorded in them alongside the texts themselves. Not unreasonably therefore, the Church has always felt it proper to guide us in how to read and interpret them. Now with the parables we are invited to listen to them and notice what is going on in them at 3 levels:
First we listen to what Jesus said and why he said it. But then we go to a second layer and consider what the church made of his words and how it applied them, because this is the context in which they were subsequently written down. Thirdly we can learn still more by understanding what emphasis or spin the writer gave them. Each gospel is written to a different audience and has a different agenda.
So with the parable of the sower:
Jesus taught in the style of a rabbi using parables to make only one or two points. Here he wants people to see him as the sower, scattering his seeds of truth far and wide for as many as possible to pick up on. The seeds in such an image are generously scattered ‘The kingdom is for anyone’, he is saying ‘but for many reasons it won’t grow strong in everyone’. And that’s it. That’s all he meant.
But a generation later, up in Syria, the early church is confidently applying the parable as an allegory to the issues of the time. The church was being attacked from many quarters and numbers were in decline. So they saw in the parable, references to some who never ‘got it’ in the first place, others who were lured away by the temptations of the world, and others whose faith was never nurtured, deepened or personalised. This is all faithfully written down by Matthew in his gospel.
And then there is Matthew’s own message which is in there too. His particular focus is on the contrast between the good disciple who follows Jesus and the bad scribes and Pharisees who reject Jesus.
Now, all three layers carry God’s Word.
So yes, hear the generosity and inclusivity of Jesus’ call to discipleship and rejoice in the gift we have received. But recognise that for many reasons, not even other members of our family necessarily follow too.
Then just like the early church in Syria looked at their own situation in regards to people falling away from the church, we can look at our world today. We can look at how well we include those who might seem like strangers, perhaps on the edge of the path. Do we welcome them in or do we let them be dragged off. We can look at how well we nurture the personal relationship with God that will sustain people in the faith. We can look at the sin and corruption that strangles our development. There is much for each of us in our lives to consider here.
And thirdly, like in Matthew’s day, there are those who attack the Church and what we stand for. We do receive a bad press. Perhaps we have to fortify ourselves and our families against the values of our society and maybe we have to challenge those values by our deeds as well as our words. The bad spirits are out there. We must stand up to them, strong in Faith and pray for those who stand against us
So there’s a good deal to notice in each layer, just like in a good layered cake.
I remember it well. It was 1972 – the 4th of March, my mother’s birthday. My brother and I incurred displeasure at home that day because we went off to Wembley to watch Stoke City and Chelsea play in the League Cup Final. It was the first time that I actually went to a match at Wembley, instead of watching on TV. Terry Conroy put Stoke ahead. The great Chelsea side fought back and Peter Osgood equalised. But George Eastham secured victory for Stoke with the winning goal in the second half. I remember so much about that day 48 years ago, while more famous matches that I have watched on TV pale into insignificance by comparison. I am not one for shouting at the telly. If you are not there, you are not there! Actually being there and actually being part of the vast crowd of 100,000 people is quite different. It was a marvellous, unforgettable experience.
I can’t imagine what it is like for footballers these days to play in empty stadia as fans are denied the opportunity to play their part in the “beautiful game”. Some enterprising firms have produced (and sold) cardboard cut-outs of fans to be placed in their seats in the grounds but it is at best, a whimsical gimmick. So it is different for players and different for fans. And I must admit, that as I began saying mass in our empty church those several months ago, I tried to imagine the faces that would normally greet me from the pews. I found it quite difficult saying mass with no congregation. I had to concentrate very hard. It was very easy to get distracted.
The virtual mass that we have had to get used to, has though, been a wonderful consolation in difficult times. I am sure we have all learned a great deal from living with this experience. We at least have gained an insight into the lives of those whom we describe as ‘housebound’ and I hope that it in the years to come the church’s ministry to the housebound will be greatly improved as a result. There is no doubt that in recent years digital technology has brought many people closer to God. The modern world has much to be proud of as well as to be concerned about. The virtual mass will have to be part of many people’s Sunday experience for some time to come, so we must be grateful to all those who make it possible. That being said, it’s just not the real thing!
So what a joy it was to celebrate our first public mass in church yesterday. ‘In the name of the Father’, I began, ‘and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. “AMEN” was the reply from so many real people. I quite literally jumped and several people giggled. It was so different from merely pausing for the few seconds that I imagine it takes for people to say ‘amen’ at home. We felt together. We all shared the joy of taking part in a “live” event, I think. Indeed, several expressed deep emotion in the return to the Eucharist. At ‘Holy Communion time’ while there was great reverence there were very many smiles on people’s faces. It is essentially God’s activity that is at the heart of mass, but we contribute to the event as well. No cardboard cut-out is sufficient. I am sure that there was a smile on God’s face too, as God’s great gift of Holy Communion was landed on people’s outstretched hands once more. For me, while I have had the privilege of saying mass all through these dark days, saying the mass with people again was a very much fuller experience, somehow much more natural and true to the essence of the celebration. Even the many new procedures we introduced for safety and health (!) were not any kind of distraction. So July 6th 2020, will be another day I remember for many years to come. And I am now looking forward to the complete resumption of services instead of worrying about what precautions have to be put in place first!
We did see a few improvements that we can make for tomorrow’s mass but I feel confident now about celebrating the Sunday masses at the weekend. There will be more people then and so we will be distancing at 1 metre+ but requiring everyone to bring and wear a facial covering. The Sunday obligation has not been restored though, so no one should do anything they are not yet comfortable with. We have plenty of time to adjust and we can afford to be patient, but we are at last going in the right direction. I am not so sure about Stoke City Football Club though.
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Sermon for 14th Sunday year A
‘So’, the prophet Zechariah says, ‘Your great king will be victorious, triumphant, but he’ll be riding on a donkey – a colt in fact, the foal of a donkey. He’ll overcome the might of chariots and the power of horses (but he’ll be riding on a donkey). His empire will stretch from sea to sea; it will stretch to the ends of the earth (but he’ll be riding on a donkey). He will come with humility. It will in no way look like a state visit looks – then or now! The prophecy was surprising therefore, and very memorable.
So when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on a donkey – a colt, the foal of a donkey, everyone knew the statement he was making. The prophecy of Zechariah was well-known and so the crowds applauded, or rather, they waved palm branches. Those in authority quaked in fear and in anger that Jesus should so blatantly and provocatively enter the Holy City presenting himself as the promised king, the Messiah.
Because of the prophecy, the action of entering Jerusalem in such a humble way was ironically, a very powerful thing to do. Humility is a feature of Jesus’ mission. Remember that hymn from the letter to the Philippians: ‘His state was divine yet he did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave. He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.’ And Jesus commends an attitude of humility to us in the gospel today. We have to be humble in order to grasp the message he has for us. If we think we are really clever and all grown up we are in grave danger of missing the whole point.
We have to be like ‘mere’ children, he says, open and eager to learn, grateful for any nugget we might receive from the Word of God. It is the sort of humility you need in an art gallery. It is easy to walk past a masterpiece. You have to sit or stand humbly in front of it and allow it to convey its meaning to you. It doesn’t usually scream it at you. This is how we have to be with God. We have to sit or stand in front of him and humbly wait for him to reveal something of himself to us – when he chooses to do so. It is his choice. That is what he says here in the gospel.
And if we do pause and humbly listen to his good news today we may hear him telling us that we can share our troubles with him. He is prepared to help us carry our burdens. His teachings will not weigh us down but are light enough to set us free. In him and in his teachings we will find rest and peace and comfort. So whatever difficulties or pains you may be suffering at the moment, they can all be shared with him. He offers to walk alongside you carrying them with you. He will provide respite. But you must ask and then humbly and patiently allow him to reveal his assistance to you.
It does take humility to ask for help though. Children have no difficulty in asking for help. Sometimes the learned and the clever are too proud to ask for help. It’s as if, as Jesus says, the Father has hidden this important truth from the learned and the clever and revealed it to mere children.
Humility. It’s the key.
“STAY HOME, PROTECT THE N.H.S., SAVE LIVES”
This was the slogan that spearheaded the government’s strategy to deal with Coronavirus through the use of lockdown. I am sure we will all remember it for years to come so it was certainly successful as a slogan, but from the start something about it jarred with me. It expressed admirable sentiments. We were to stay at home for the safety of others and so that we would not further burden the NHS by getting ill. But there was something missing, I felt. I think that many others felt that too, at least sub-consciously because we found ourselves offering the greeting “Stay safe” when we communicated with others. We wanted to wish good health to and for each other because of who we are. The slogan did not tell me to stay at home because I am important and so is my health. It told me to stay at home because I could be a nuisance and a danger to others who really are important. As I sat indoors quietly I had to wait for God to tell me that I was cherished by Him and so this was an equally good reason to stay at home.
It seems to be the nature of the beast though, and in many ways the idea is very positive and laudable. We have seen it reflected in the use of face coverings. Months ago when I saw people wearing masks I thought they were a bit paranoid about their health. In actual fact, face coverings do little to enhance your own health. What they do is inhibit your vapours from doing possible damage to others, should you be a carrier of the virus. The masks do little for your health or comfort but quite a bit, it seems, for others. So ‘love your neighbour’, as Jesus would say.
It is a difficulty for me though, because I feel quite disempowered. I am not free at the moment to take a number of actions based only on my own willingness to take risks. I know there is a risk in crossing a road but I am the one taking it and so that is okay, normally. It would be different if I were hiking up a mountain in dangerous weather because if I got into trouble I would be putting the well-being of mountain rescuers at risk, and I shouldn’t do that. Just now every decision we make seems to require us to consider so many other people. During these past weeks I have agreed to visit a few people in their homes in order to give them the Sacrament of the Sick, the oft-called “Last rites”. I have had to do so with careful judgement, not because of the risk of me catching something but because of the risk that I might pass something on!
So while I prefer to construct the world around ME, I have been forced to construct it around others, which is of course not a bad thing at all. And it prompts me to mention the opportunity to open our church for services again and notably for mass. I brought the matter to our parish council and we, together, decided to open for masses starting next Monday, the 6th July. Before lockdown on Monday, Wednesday and Friday we had mass at 10.00 with exposition and private prayer for the half hour beforehand (from 9.30) and that is what we will return to. However with everyone making verbal responses and so on, as well as a probable increase in numbers we will require everyone attending to have facial coverings (scarves or masks) and distance 1 metre apart as opposed to the current 2 metres with no facial covering. Our stewards will supervise the entry, the seating, the communion procession and the exit. Anything we have not anticipated will be seen during the week and we will be confident then to open for Sunday masses the following weekend. It won’t feel like normal and there will be many changes to our practice but what we do, we do for others and for their safety!
There is no resumption of our Sunday duty. We are still free to stay at home and participate in the virtual mass via the website or attend mass during the week if we want to. Indeed I would encourage many who gravitate to our busy 10.30 mass on Sundays to attend a different one if possible, at least for the time being. We will put more detail in the newsletter at the weekend and there will be detailed instructions at each mass. It may feel odd, but it will be wonderful!
Saints Peter & Paul 2020
Sermon for Saints Peter & Paul
Peter and Paul are two great heroic figures, who left a marvellous legacy of Faith behind them. In fact both their deaths are part of that legacy, martyred as they both were. They were two very different men from very different backgrounds, who nevertheless both came to faith, both ended up in Rome and both were executed. It was all because of that Jesus fellow! Somehow he prompted radical shifts in the lives of these 2 giant characters and they were both so deeply affected that they accepted execution rather than deny their truth. It was their encounters with Jesus that affected both of them in such dramatic ways.
Imagine what it was like to be Peter. He was content to run his fishing business up in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. But he was presumably a religious man, otherwise he wouldn’t have been interested in listening to this preacher fellow who’d come down from the hill country where the village of Nazareth was. When he met Jesus something inside of him must simply have switched on and he was prepared to take a risk and leave his family business behind so that he could literally follow Jesus. It was something about Jesus that just drew him on. The more he went around with him, the more he listened to him, the more he got to know him the more he was convinced that this could, should and would change his world. There were ups and downs but Peter was there at all the important moments recorded in the Gospel. And we heard a moment ago about that question that Jesus asked him: “Who do you think I am?” Peter just knew from the depth of his being how he should answer him: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. I can imagine him thinking as he heard himself saying that out loud: You have just said something incredibly important that no other man will ever have said, or, you’ve just made a complete idiot of yourself – and probably uttered an unforgiveable blasphemy to boot!
Imagine Peter a while later, in Jerusalem, frightened to death, denying all that he’d held to be important, which was knowing Jesus, being a friend and follower of his. He’d have to come back from that, otherwise his life would be worthless. And he did come back. Imagine him at Pentecost saying to himself: ‘I am a fisherman through and through. Can I now be a preacher and teacher and leader? Come Holy Spirit! You can make it happen.’ And the Holy Spirit did, but this got Peter into big trouble. He came into conflict with some major, important, powerful players in the Jerusalem of his day – even King Herod, we heard there in the Acts of the Apostles. This fisherman from up north is now playing in the big league there in Jerusalem. And it looks like he is going to be executed just as poor James was. Then at night he has what he thought was a vivid dream, he tells us, about an angel leading him out of prison past the armed guards and away to freedom, but it wasn’t a dream. It was just what really happened! Peter’s world has gone completely crazy, all because of his relationship with Jesus.
And it was the same with Paul. He knew everything there was to know about Jesus. He had to know because he was the Pharisee with the responsibility for crushing Christianity, persecuting its leaders and so on. In fact he is on just such a mission to Damascus when possibly while chewing it all over in his head he actually encounters Jesus in the middle of it all and he stops dead in his tracks and says: ‘Good God, I have got it all wrong.’ He was quite literally going the wrong way. After this encounter with Jesus, all that knowledge about him can be put to better use helping people understand and develop their Faith. His life went in the opposite direction to where it had been going before, before that is he encountered the person of Jesus.
That Christian Faith that Peter and Paul both had is the same Faith that we have. We are grateful to them for their heroic acts in inspiring faith in others and we pray that we can inspire faith in others too. Although as Jesus said to Peter, ultimately we must all acknowledge that this Faith is a gift of God. It is just that as he so often tells us, he relies on us to pass on his gifts with a generous heart. So today we celebrate the faith of Peter and Paul and we celebrate our own faith. When Peter and Paul encountered Jesus, their lives were radically changed. As we encounter him, in the many ways that we do, we need to allow our lives to take the odd turn or two as well.
Do you know what, I’m still disturbed by the images I saw last week of people queuing from 3 in the morning to get into shops opening for the first time? This has nothing to do with the fact that there were no such queues outside churches that opened on the same day – honestly! I would get it though, if people were starving and were queuing for food, but to queue for fashion items? But perhaps it was more than that. Perhaps it was a yearning to do something considered ‘normal’ like choosing something and buying it. Perhaps this participation in consumerism is really important in what we think of as ‘normal’ society. But I wonder that if this consumerism is at the centre of our society, whether or not this is the ‘normal’ society that we really want to get back to.
I feel that we are probably more fatigued by the restrictions of lockdown than we are by the threat of the virus and we yearn to regain our freedom, but we don’t have to go back to where we came from. There is a chance to put the building blocks back in a different way. Many of you will be listening to the BBC’s Rethink series that began this week, where people comment on how we might rethink the way we live after the virus and after lockdown. Pope Francis himself contributed to it on Monday. Now, for some time he has been calling for the creation of a world economy that is more human and which values us as being more than consumers or even earners, a world economy that will, in particular, face up to the issues of people in poverty in the world. Back in March I was struck when he said that the virus had “exposed our vulnerability and uncovered the false certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and our priorities. We have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and were lured away from what is important. We didn’t listen to the cry of the poor and we didn’t listen to the cry of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.”
On Monday he said that we should grasp the opportunity to slow down our rate of production and of consumption and to live more in harmony with the natural world around us. We have the chance not to go back to where we were, he said. In lockdown, it seems to me that so many of us have had a reconnection with the natural world around us. As we get back to ‘normal’ we should bring that with us. I personally am challenged to manage the way of living that I return to, what to keep doing and what to resist doing. I am not the world’s greatest consumer and even at birthdays and Christmas I struggle to suggest to anyone anything I might need so consumerism isn’t big for me but there are other issues that I can address. I will not use spare time to go for a walk. I will use priority time to go for a walk! I will not squeeze in time for reflection and prayer. I will spend time in reflection and prayer. I will value any opportunity I get to talk with people and try to make each conversation worthwhile. I will try to keep on noticing things: birdsong, the wind in the trees, the expressions on the faces of those whom I pass on the road, the sirens of emergency vehicles, and so on. There is so much that I have noticed in lockdown that I don’t want to get back to ignoring.
A colleague in a meeting I was at today said that the lockdown needed to be longer for us to really learn anything. I beg to differ. I think that those who are open to learn have had enough time. Those who are not open to learn will never have enough time. For me the future has to be dominated by God’s creation of me, of us, and of the world around us, and in consequence, our relationship with him, our Creator. We shall see how I get on!
12th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2020
Sermon for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2020
I do enjoy reading a good book before I go to sleep. I have a spy novel on the go at the moment. One of the interesting things in it is the relationship between the spy master and his spies or operatives. The spy master knows every little detail of each operative’s life – his daily routines, who his doctor is, who his dentist is, who telephones regularly and when – everything! And when anything slightly different happens he moves in to protect the operative, to make sure he is safe. He takes great care of all his operatives because he values their mission.
Well Jesus is no spy master but he tells us that the Father takes great care of each one of us. We are his operatives, undertaking his mission. He knows everything about us; he has even counted the number of hairs on our head. Well that is about 100,000 or even 150,000 if you are blond. A little less for many of us, of course. (Isn’t Google a wonderful resource to have during lockdown?!) Now that takes a bit of counting. But he values us and he values our mission.
So as operatives, what is our mission? Jesus tells us that it is to ‘declare ourselves for him in the presence of others’. That is, to make known his truth, to bring it to light, to uncover both right and wrong in the world, in society, in our community, in each of our relationships. We must ‘proclaim it from the housetops’, he says.
And there are 3 parts to that: to live it, to say it and to pray it.
First then, we must live our lives by Gospel values and let our actions express those values. But our responsibility extends to speaking up for those values in the actions of others as well. We must speak out when it is necessary. We have a prophetic role in other words, or a political one if you like. Thirdly we need to bring these issues to prayer where we seek God’s wisdom and God’s help.
This mission can be challenging and even dangerous. We heard in our first reading how Jeremiah needed rescuing. He was forever criticising the powers that be, calling for reform, for justice, for right action. As a result he was persecuted and imprisoned. He lived under the threat of violence. But he didn’t shrink from saying what the authorities simply didn’t want to hear. He would not keep silent. He was true to his mission, a true prophet of his time.
None of us is likely to face what he did but sometimes Christians can be embarrassing or irritating in what we demand of the authorities and that prompts a reaction. Sometimes people wish we would keep our strange or controversial views to ourselves. They don’t always want to hear about our nation’s duty to the poor or to the developing world or to unborn children. The Church is supposed to have such a prophetic role in society. The message of ‘Black Lives Matter’ has not exactly been welcomed with unanimous support. Our bishops in this diocese have been strong on this and following the example of Pope Francis they have issued a very powerful letter to the young people of the Church through our Catholic schools. You can find the letter on the diocesan website. The Black Lives Matter initiative proclaimed a prophetic message. And so did the footballer Marcus Rashford in his call to look out for poor families during the summer, a call that forced a government policy U- turn. So the prophetic role does not belong to the church alone but we should be exercising our lungs in these matters..
This year, our little island decided to leave the haven of Europe and then sailed straight into the storm of Coronavirus. There will be some very severe economic consequences but who will take the hit? And who will challenge the authorities to do what is right? In a democracy we may all have some kind of role but I think we need to pray for Christian leaders and especially for our own conference of bishops, that however unpopular they may become, they proclaim Christian values loudly and clearly in the months and years to come. Society is judged on how it looks after the weak and vulnerable. So now we must put our money where our mouth is.
We don’t need to be afraid, Jesus tells us, but we must declare our Christian values by living them out, speaking them up and continually praying about them.
The Day Our Church Reopened
We spent time predicting what would happen, we spent more time planning what should happen and yet more time preparing for what might happen but yesterday morning I was very anxious and worried, particularly when I saw the long queues of people. Numbers were always going to be an issue and whether or not we could manage the process safely would be a great test for us. But the queues were of course for Primark and other shops on the first day of reopening and only a small number came to church on the first occasion we were allowed to reopen, in fact pretty much the number we predicted, fifteen!
We had divided the church in half and only allocated 20 spaces on either side. The plan is to use the left side on Monday and Friday so that it self-quarantines in between. The right side is then available for Wednesdays. If necessary we can use the whole church with a capacity of 40 (households) and then clean before reopening. But if social distancing is reduced to 1 metre instead of 2, the capacity will be more than doubled. We are ready for this eventuality but there have just been so many different factors that we have had to consider – lots of predicting, lots of planning, lots of preparing. But was it really worth it, all that effort? After all, many churches have not even tried to open.
Well, yes it was worth it. There was a great calm and peace in the church. It felt entirely safe and comfortable. The stewards had put a sign up saying ‘Welcome Home’ and that seemed entirely appropriate; it was a bit emotional. Also, while praying privately it was nevertheless reassuring to be there alongside others. And more than that: Several commented in a similar vein, that watching on a screen is not the same experience as being in Church before the Blessed Sacrament there on the altar. I felt the same way myself, but it is difficult to say why. The ‘real presence’ is different from the ‘virtual presence’. Of course, Jesus is really present with each one of us throughout the day, generously giving and sharing his life with us but he was also at great pains (literally) to give himself to us sacramentally. As restrictions have eased I have begun to meet with people again. Several have made comments such as: ‘How good it is to see you in the flesh as opposed to merely on a screen’. One or two have even kindly noticed: ‘Well done, you’ve lost a bit of weight since I last saw you!’ The fact is that it is different and ‘real’ is better than ‘virtual’.
Furthermore, we can wish each other well, all through the day but when we get to shake hands or give a hug the communication is fuller and deeper. I really look forward to the day that this is possible again. Likewise, praying in church, even in the real presence of the sacrament, is not the same as receiving the sacrament in Holy Communion. Yesterday was ‘One small step for man’(!), though much bigger than I had predicted, but it remains just a step on the way to gathering physically for Sunday Mass and sharing in Holy Communion with each other and with the Lord. And I really look forward to that day as well. Many have felt really deprived without the sacraments and yearn for their restoration. Today that moment feels closer and on your behalf I offer thanks to all those who have worked so hard to make it happen and to get St. John Fisher open again.
Yesterday opened the door to the church but not yet to the full practice of our religion. I for one, now feel impatient. Bring it on!
Corpus Christi 2020
Last week someone sent me a beautiful video clip re-telling a famous old fable or parable about a king who received a gift of two peregrine falcons. He handed them over to his falconer and soon the first was in flight majestically soaring to the heights but the other stayed firmly on the branch where it had first been put. The king was disappointed by this and tried all means and hired every expert to get the bird to fly but it wouldn’t move. Finally he called in a local farmer. Next day he saw the bird gracing the skies in flight. He asked the farmer how he did it and the wise old farmer told him: “Easy, I cut off the branch it was perched on.”
The story speaks loudly to me at this time. Back in March I was quite comfortable in my life in St. John Fisher. There was a long list of things that needed to be done but together we were slowly working through it. Then the virus came, which was a bit scary, but then lockdown came and that really knocked me off my perch, or rather, it took away the safety of the branch I was perched on! I suppose that this branch for me was normal parish life. The experience has been very tough for many but each of our situations has been different. For me, the first impact was the panic to get things in place as best we could to support the parish community and the spiritual lives of its members, but if I am honest I quite enjoyed much of that ministry and also reorienting my life pattern to match, and I definitely benefitted from the need to refocus my activity and my thinking. There was much to be done and I was, well, flying. In many ways I have been enjoyed the weeks that have passed. The sunny weather helps but there has been a freshness about the response in our Christian Faith to life in lockdown. Prayer resources have poured out of everywhere. People have reflected humbly in the face of such serious adversity and there has been a crisp, sharp new focus to the self-awareness and spirituality that many have discovered or deepened. It seems a bit odd but in some ways I have been more free in lockdown than when previously locked down under the routines and rigours of normal parish life. We have all had to explore what it is that is important for us and what it is that is not. That is part of the flight of the falcon. Freedom is in the skies.
I ask myself though, have I found a new normal? Have I settled on a new branch? Maybe I have, because the idea of opening the church again brought a little anxiety at first. I was worried about what we would have to do to keep everybody safe and (selfishly) how much my life pattern will have to change again. Once the announcement was made though, the excitement began and the planning got underway in earnest. I am happy for my safe perch to be cut away again and I am enjoying taking to flight once more. The opening for private prayer is just a first step though. The real excitement will be in opening up for public services which will have to follow in time to come. We just need to take the first steps slowly and carefully and make as few mistakes as possible so that we can safely reach what lies beyond, the gathering for Sunday Mass, which we value so much. But having said that, it is not the final goal. These weeks of enforced flight will surely have reminded us of the truths of Pope Francis’ references to the church. He has described the church as a ‘field hospital’ or even a ‘filling station’ where we go on Sundays for what we need in order to live our lives with God elsewhere, with families, in marriage, at work, in school, in our own homes, wherever.
We really are made to be free. When lockdown ends, let us not get locked down in other ways.
Wishing you good health, a good flight (!) and every blessing,
Trinity Sunday 2020
Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2020 Trinity Sunday
We are celebrating the Solemnity of The Most Holy Trinity.
When I was little I remember learning that the Trinity was a “mystery”, which really meant that nobody understood it – except possibly St. Patrick who also invented shamrock! The idea of three persons in one God was just not made accessible. But actually, a great deal about the trinity IS accessible to us.
We were baptised in the name of the trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We profess our faith in that trinity every Sunday and every time we make the sign of the cross. We understand our church in terms of the trinity:
We are the People of God the Father. ‘You will be my people, I will be your God’, the Israelites were told through the prophet Ezekiel. (36:28)
We are the Body Of Christ. ‘You together are Christ’s Body; but each of you is a different part of it’, St. Paul told the Corinthians. (1Cor 12:27).
And we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Again, St. Paul to the Corinthians: ‘You are God’s temple; his spirit lives among you.’ (3:16).
So the trinity isn’t just about how we understand God, it is about how we understand ourselves: We are the People of God the Father, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
And here is my Bible. We think of it as offering 2 testaments of God’s love and faithfulness, the Old and the New, but I think of it as having 3 testaments. The Old Testament speaks of the activity of God the Father with his people. Then the gospels in particular but also the teachings of St Paul speak of the activity of Jesus, Son of God. Finally the Acts of the Apostles that we have listened to throughout Easter and some of the apostolic letters speak of the activity of Holy Spirit in building the Church across the world. The Spirit’s work continues to be evidenced through further documents of the church – and indeed in the lives of us all. This 3rd testament has not ended. The Holy Sprit’s testament continues.
But crucially the trinity is a description of three persons in relationship to each other. It describes the very life of God, which is marvellous for God but also quite amazing for us because we are invited! We are invited to join in that life. During these days of lockdown we have all had more opportunity to pursue and deepen our involvement in that life. If we open ourselves to God’s Holy Spirit then we are lifted up in prayer to what goes on in God’s life between Father, Son and Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts this beautifully when it says: ‘…even now we are called to be a dwelling for the Most Holy Trinity: ‘If a man loves me’, says the Lord, ‘he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him.’ Of course it is through, with, and in Jesus, that we gain entry. We are a Christian Church. Jesus is the one we know, the one in whom God is expressed. We have images of him. If he were born today we would have photos and videos!
Jesus talks about us living in his kingdom or realm. It is what we aspire to at the end of our days on earth but actually the invitation is to even now, live as much of our earthly lives in that realm as we can. But this does demand our active participation and we have to budget the time for God. Lockdown has provided and will continue to provide the opportunity to spend time with God, but we must continue to find that time when we come out of it.
That time with God is the starting point for living a life of Faith but it is also our final goal – life with God, with Father Son and Spirit. Eternal life!
So let us pray:
May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God our Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, both now and for eternal life. Amen.
During the week a kind parishioner made me a lovely curry. As I enjoyed it at home – the chicken curry and the pilau rice, I smiled at my familiar and oft quoted memory of a talk on the mass given by a colleague from India. In mass we listen to scripture, God’s Word and then we celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist. He described the mass as ‘Word and Sacrament, like curry and rice’. Each has its own taste and nutritional value, but they are better together! In each, Jesus is truly present. (In Word and Sacrament, I mean, not curry and rice!) From the earliest days the disciples met to hear the teaching of the apostles (their gospel) and for the breaking of bread. (Acts 2:42) But now, that wonderful balance has been disturbed. We miss the weekly reception of the sacrament. Some miss it daily! Have we therefore spent more time with scripture, altering the focus of our meal a little, with less curry and more rice? I think that this has been true for me.
Now I am very blessed in that I am at mass every day! But always before consuming the sacrament I say a prayer for those joining in a spiritual communion. Afterwards there is a prayer the priest says: ‘What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity’. Like many of the newly translated prayers in mass there are a lot of words and they are not always in a helpful order so I usually supplement the prayer with one of my own which is ‘And Lord, I wish you a safe onward journey’. My prayer is about wanting that real presence of the Lord in the Eucharist in which I believe, to become a real presence deeper down in my soul and in my heart, so that it can be savoured and enjoyed there before being expressed through the words and deeds of the day ahead. That is the digestive process.
So can I make the same prayer about the scripture that is proclaimed? ‘‘And Lord, I wish you a safe onward journey’. That scripture needs to be digested no less than the Eucharist. The balance of our religious diet has been altered but the Lord does not starve us of life, his life. Many are taking more trouble in digesting the scripture at this time, getting as much nourishment as we can from it. It might also be said that many of us are also taking extra food supplements, like Ramblings, Pray As You Go, online services, novenas, rosaries and so on! When lockdown began we realised that we had to take shopping for food more seriously. I think the same has been true of our spiritual diet. And this is going to continue for a while longer.
If you read the Pilgrim which I sent at the weekend you will be aware that the bishops are lobbying government to allow us to reopen our churches. They argue that the right to worship is being withheld when the right to go shopping is honoured! However, the move is to get the churches open for private worship only. Nothing (as yet) is being said about opening for services and in particular for the Sunday Mass which has been at the heart of our religious practice. It will follow, but when?
So for now, more rice, less curry, more reflection on scripture and only spiritual communion.
Wishing you good food (!), good health and every blessing,
Pentecost Sunday 2020
Sermon for Pentecost 2020
Happy Anniversary Everyone. Today is the day we recall the beginning or even birth of the Church. Every year on my birth day one of the things I do is to thank God for the gift of my life. Well today we all thank God for the gift of the life of his Church, which is the life of Jesus, brought to us by the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost, who fills the Church with the life of Jesus.
St. John, in the gospel describes Jesus breathing out his Holy Spirit over the disciples. St Luke in the Acts of the Apostles comes at it similarly, describing a powerful wind being heard outside the room as the Holy Spirit settled on each of them as they prayed inside the room. No locked doors at that time would keep the Holy Spirit out of the lives of the disciples just as no lockdown, no locked church doors can prevent the Holy Spirit of God giving life to the Church today.
Out in a park during the week I was looking into the distance and just caught sight of some far away trees begin to sway. Obviously a breeze or a wind was blowing in amongst them filling them with movement. At that moment I couldn’t feel any breeze or hear anything but very soon the trees where I was standing started to sway in the breeze which I could now feel on my face as it blew my way. I also heard the leaves and branches rattle as they interacted with each other under the influence of the breeze, its power getting things moving.
That’s how it was for the disciples. They were in prayer, we are told, but they were not really going anywhere, until like the breeze in the trees, the Holy Spirit blew into their lives and got them moving. And wow, didn’t they move! They enabled nation after nation to experience the life of Jesus and then of course, generation after generation. They were driven, empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit. They unleashed that power on the whole world and it blows through our lives today.
It is God’s Holy Spirit who comes down upon us making the Risen Jesus present in so many different ways for us. And we are moved by that presence, like the branches in the trees are moved by the breeze, first of all to be disciples, to be followers of Jesus, learners of his Way. Then we are moved to be apostles, people sent into the world to express and share God’s love, his presence, his life. Disciples first, but then apostles.
So today we first of all celebrate our experience of Jesus, brought to us by the gift of the Holy Spirit. And it is today’s experience of Jesus that we celebrate, not the historical Jesus, the Jesus anyone can talk about if they have a reasonable general knowledge. The Jesus of history is a great heroic figure but Jesus isn’t history! He invested his life in the church, he sacrificed it for us all to share and here it remains thanks to the Holy Spirit. We don’t find the real presence of Jesus in history, not in first century Palestine, and not in our memories, our own past either. He is here with us now as he opens the scripture to us, and breaks bread for us.
But he is also living and working in the world through us. His Spirit orders and directs each of us as apostles, according to our gifts, talents and aptitudes. It is sad that at this time we are not celebrating with our Confirmation Group all their individual gifts and talents that the Spirit is moving them to use in the Church. Their day will come though, soon after the Church reopens, and the church will be stronger for their fuller participation in it. There is a variety of gifts in them and in all of us, as St. Paul tells us, and God is working in all sorts of different ways in different people. His Spirit touches each of our lives differently. That Spirit enables us to be united as the Body of Christ carrying on God’s mission here today.
Our Church is strong and healthy. It has grown up well, though not without the mistakes and difficulties that we call ‘human’. So on this Day of Pentecost, its birth day or anniversary it is good to celebrate and give thanks to God the Father for its life, the life of the Risen Christ, blown into and through our lives by the Holy Spirit.
Fr Doug’s Ramblings Tuesday May 26
You may have heard rumours about an epidemic in this country and I can now confirm that it is official. We are being overrun by joggers and cyclists – or is it overcycled by cyclists? I was speaking with the owner of a bicycle shop who agreed that business is at unprecedented levels. Anyway an epicentre seems to be in Eynsford where I go walking quite a lot. They all look very colourful, wrapped up in latex and they look very, very fit. Mind you, during lockdown I reckon I must have walked something approaching 400 miles in my afternoon walks. And yes, I have got quite fit and I think I have lost a little weight. Without the usual pressures in my week I think I have been able to eat more sensibly and always at the same times each day. My prayer time too has been easier to manage. Yes there have been lots of good things for me in this time which I don’t want to lose when the restrictions are lifted. But things are changing already, at least for some. I had to do an errand today that took me to Bexleyheath. Well I was quite disturbed seeing so many shops open with crowds of people making little effort at keeping apart. The return to ‘normality’ has begun – there at least.
When I got home I reflected on the experience and why it disturbed me. I think that part of it was the speed and excitement of all the activity. It was close to frantic. This fast pace has been noticeably absent from my life of late. I have been able to measure my activity, my conversations and my quiet time with much more control. As a result I have been able to enjoy the calm of everything around me especially in these sunny days and longer evenings. And most importantly, I have been able to feel delight in the centre of my being. That delight is something that I think God places deep down in our soul and we see it or feel it only when we dive deep within. I think this delight is shared with God. He takes great delight in each of us. Sometimes I can only imagine that when he thinks about me he must feel embarrassed at what he has created but in truth when I am really in touch with my inner being I can see that he is after all, absolutely delighted, yes, absolutely delighted! A phrase that comes to me from my previous days as a youth worker is that “God does not create junk”. After a hard day’s work of creation which includes me, he looks down and says “Behold, it is very good – not a bad effort actually”.
So Delight is very sweet but it doesn’t have to be Turkish. It is one thing that I don’t want to leave behind. Nor do I want to gather up those pounds that I have lost during my better lifestyle, in part by avoiding Turkish Delight and other such confectionary. In fact I am going to think carefully about what I have appreciated during these weeks and make a list. It is just too easy to forget, otherwise. I am too concentrated on the things I want to return to like a decent restaurant, a sociable coffee and of course, Sunday Mass. Maybe you already have a list. If not, give some thought to putting one together. A list of good things in lockdown may give you some comfort especially if it takes longer than you’d like for us to get back to normal.
Wishing you good health and every blessing,
P.S. The symbols on my African mass vestment continue to intrigue. The one in the middle is the Gye Nyame that I mentioned last week. The one at the top is called Afena and it pictures ceremonial swords. A retiring warrior has a royal sword to take to his peace in recognition of his gallantry. I guess Jesus was a great warrior in his own way, waging battle with the forces of evil and defeating Satan decisively.
Seventh Sunday of Easter 2020
Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter
Today is my mother’s anniversary. She died on this day in 2007. She was many things – courageous, generous, selfless and funny. But above all she was a woman of Faith who knew God intimately, who trusted him and had to trust him completely and who spent time with him in prayer. She was a woman of prayer. Prayer was very important in her life.
Today’s gospel is part of what is called Christ’s priestly prayer. As he prepared to face his destiny in Jerusalem he prayed for his disciples – those who were his followers at that time, and all who would subsequently be his disciples including you and me. It is called ‘priestly’ because he was acting as our High Priest – which by definition is:
“a religious leader authorized to perform sacred rituals as a mediator between God and humanity, and who has the authority and power to administer religious rites, especially rites of sacrifice.” That was Jesus.
So before Jesus offered himself in sacrifice, giving his life up to be shared with us all he prayed in mediation for us.
And what is it that he prayed for, for you and for me?
‘Father’, he prays, ‘let me give them all eternal life. And eternal life is to know you and me.’ And, significantly, he specifically uses the word ‘Know’ in what’s often called the ‘biblical sense’ (like when Adam ‘knew’ Eve.) So Jesus is praying that we will all enjoy a really intimate knowledge of God, a really intimate relationship with him, union with him – for ever. That is quite some prayer!
So it is quite interesting that St. Luke tells us in his Acts of the Apostles that after the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the eleven named apostles together with several women including Mary – and others besides, all went back to the upper room and they prayed continuously. So before they were moved or prompted by the Holy Spirit to begin the great spread of the Faith, they spent time in prayer with God. They weren’t busy writing down rules and teachings. They were in prayer. What they subsequently shared with the world, initially at least, was not a set of rules and doctrines, it was that intimate knowledge of what God is like and that intimate relationship with him.
Perhaps put simply, ‘the mission of the church began with a prayer’. Now I usually remember to begin a meal with prayer but I fully admit that I often forget to begin meetings with a prayer, even parish committee meetings. But it really is important to focus all such meetings in this way so that we know that what we are about is God’s mission to share his friendship – ‘eternal life’, he calls it, with those around us.
What is true of a meeting of minds is just as true of a meeting with the events of a day. A prayer to begin the day, however rushed it has to be, is really important. We don’t live in monasteries engaging in lives of regulated prayer but each and every day does give us the opportunity to place our work or whatever we are busy doing in the context of enjoying, celebrating and sharing eternal life. If you are married or if you live in a family you are not talking about it all day long but your lives do have a context in that marriage or that family. Your lives speak of that marriage or that family. So it is with our relationship with God. It gives us the context or the meaning of who we are.
So today I can thank my mother for so many things but especially I thank her for showing me that the prayer that was central to her life made her life doable and meaningful. And I thank Jesus for praying that I could receive such a gift from him, through her, such an inheritance that invites me to share in eternal life.
Ascension Day 2020
Something I’ve been reminded of during these last 8 weeks is that one of the more interesting things to observe in life is oneself. There has been much to do and keep busy with but the pace of life has definitely been slower and there has been more time for reflection and time to listen to one’s own feelings. It may be a sign of madness but I have frequently caught myself saying to myself, about myself, things like ‘What the heck did you do that for?’, or ‘now that was very interesting; why did you feel that?’
Last week for instance, with the slight easing of Lockdown I rang a friend of mine whom I have met on occasional Thursdays (my day off) for 38 years or so. I invited him to meet up in Knole Park for a socially distanced walk. It seemed a very straightforward thing to do but when I woke up on Thursday I was all over the place. I recognised that I was anxious and I concluded that this was natural. I was going to be driving much further afield than for some time and I was going to be spending time with someone I hadn’t seen since before Lockdown! Would that feel awkward and would I feel safe or would I feel exposed?
But I also found myself dressing up smartly for the first time in weeks. It was as if I was a teenager on a date! I was actually excited at the prospect of meeting up with someone. I wondered aloud where the ‘dressing up smart’ motivation came from, when on other days, when it was ‘only God’, who was there, I didn’t bother. “Only God?”, I heard myself say! “But it is only God who matters”, I responded emphatically. Ghanaians and some other West Africans have a national symbol that you may have seen on some of the mass vestments I wear. It is the Gye Nyame (pronounced jean yarmy) It means precisely that: (nothing) Except God (matters). And this is clearly important to recognise and keep in mind all day long, especially in Lockdown. It is only God that really matters. So my own action and reaction prompted me to reflect on and affirm an important truth in my life. We have much to learn in Lockdown about ourselves but also much to learn from ourselves and from our own reactions to what goes on. So yes, I did recognise that Jesus walked with my friend and I and I do see Jesus acting through others but I also need to know that he is with me all day long, and that this really matters.
Anyway I anticipate more of the same – anxiety and excitement – as we emerge a little more from Lockdown. I find it a little disturbing that I am as comfortable as I am in the controlled environment that I have had to create during these weeks so I recognise now that there will be reluctance and anxiety in emerging from Lockdown, but also real excitement in leaving the much of the virtual world behind and embracing the real world once more, with God delighting in it all. And I do hope that all the kindness we have seen, all the bravery and all the desire to maintain and build community will not be put back in a cupboard when it does happen.
Wishing you good health and every blessing,
P.S. I put this email list together during the first few uncertain days of Lockdown. It has been much added to since then, way beyond the parish. I use the full list to distribute mid-week Ramblings and the parish part of it to distribute the parish newsletter at the weekend.
I have not offered the opportunity to “unsubscribe” though, and I don’t want to be a nuisance. So if you want to be removed from the list, just let me know; I will not be offended.
6th Sunday of Easter
SERMON FOR THE 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER A 2020
During these days of Easter the Church has been leading us through a drawn out meditation about what Easter means. We began by considering what “Rising from the dead” actually meant on that amazing day back in Jerusalem. We moved on to consider what “being risen from the dead” has meant for Jesus and for us and we have moved on again to focus on how we see and recognise Jesus today. That of course, is an issue about faith. Where and how do we see Jesus today?
It is often worth asking children about difficult questions such as this one. They seem to have an instinct for what’s what and what’s not. Ask a child about where God is and you will either be told that God is everywhere which is true, God is in all things, or that God is to be found in church. The Church is a particular gift from Jesus himself, built initially at least by him, so that we will always be able to find him. ‘Where two or three gather in my name, there will I be too.’ He wants us to see him!
We describe the Church as the sacrament of Jesus. To see the Church is to see Jesus, just as seeing Jesus is seeing the Father. But it is a dynamic presence of Jesus that we see. It is Jesus in action that we see. In and through scripture Jesus speaks to us; he preaches, he teaches and he reveals himself to us. In the Communion of the Church we see Jesus holding us together in union with him and with each other. In the Church’s mission to the world we see Jesus continuing to give loving service to all mankind and continuing to exercise a prophetic voice calling the world to work together for the Common Good of all.
The seven sacraments of the Church give us a particular insight into hisP activity, and in them we get to experience and participate in that activity. In baptism we see and experience Jesus continuing to call disciples – continuing to engage in relationship with us. In Holy Communion we see him continuing to feed us, to nourish and sustain us and build us together. In Confirmation we see him inviting us to mission, to share who and what we are with others – to accept a role in the Church. In Reconciliation we see him continuing to offer mercy and forgiveness. In the Sacrament of the sick we see him continuing to offer healing. In Marriage we see him expressing and helping to live out a life of love, showing us that we can all lay down our lives, one for another. In the Sacrament of Holy Orders we see him continuing to live out his priestly service of others. All these sacraments continue to be visible in people’s lives, whether the doors to our church building are closed or not.
Jesus is truly present in these sacraments but importantly, he is truly active. His presence is a dynamic one. In the readings today we are told how this happens, how we can see it happening and indeed how we can be part of it. Jesus says he will ask the Father to send another advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be with us in the Church for ever. We will not be left on our own ‘like orphans’, he says. That spirit, his own Holy Spirit will enable Jesus himself to be active in our lives and to enable us to remain in friendship with him. “I do not call you servants any more”, said Jesus, “I call you my friends”.
In the celebration of those sacraments the Church is quite explicit about the role of the Holy Spirit in making all this real. In baptism, ‘God has given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit’. In mass the priest prays: ‘Let your Spirit come upon these gifts so that they become for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ In Confirmation: ‘Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit’… And so on, for the other four.
Today then, we hear Jesus preparing his disciples for his going away. On Thursday we celebrate with a Feast day, his ascension to heaven. He is keen to say that it won’t be a problem because his Spirit will come down and remain with us for ever. It’ll be like he never went away. We will celebrate that gift of the Spirit on Sunday week at Pentecost.
So what is this all about? The last line of the Gospel has it. Jesus says: ‘Anyone who loves me will be loved by my father and I shall love him and I shall show myself to him.’ Well, thank God for that!
Fr Doug’s Ramblings Tuesday May 12
This is my 8th Rambling. I never imagined that the lockdown would go on this long. But we have much to be thankful for and much I think, to celebrate or even congratulate ourselves for. We have adjusted and coped, we have found new ways of doing things and we have seen and noticed things in different ways. Even in matters of the Faith we have been able to appreciate God’s presence in so many ways – in the simple actions of many in doing good things for others, ringing people for a chat, doing shopping, and so on. Many have witnessed God’s hand in the wonderful Spring that we have been enjoying and we have recognised God’s presence in the love and care of those working in the NHS and in Care homes. Perhaps we have also appreciated more deeply his personal intimacy with us through prayer.
But there is no getting away from the fact that we miss our personal engagement with God’s presence in the sacraments of the Church. The spiritual communion that we participate in has enriched us and has given us new insights but it’s not the same as gathering at mass on Sunday! And now we are told that churches may not be open until July or even later. And even then, will be able to celebrate public masses? Just before lockdown we were restricted to opening for private prayer only and this may also be part of a staged return to normality. So it is possible that we will not be able to receive Holy Communion or celebrate other sacraments for some time yet.
This is desperately sad, though of course absolutely necessary. The fact is that the life of the Catholic Church is quite physical. Our sacraments usually involve physical contact. We like to gather, to see, to touch, to taste, and so on. Sharing Holy Communion is what we most look forward to, but the way back to this may not be straightforward and may require a little imagination by our Church leaders in regulating the process both safely and reverently. There will be obstacles to overcome before we once again gather for mass and receive Holy Communion but it is crucial that we do so.
The practice of our Faith in this way is fundamental and it derives from God’s choice to communicate with us not just by word but literally through the Word enfleshed in Jesus. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us”. Before Jesus was born, communication between God and humanity was distanced – by more than 2 metres! There might be clouds or visions and even Moses stood back from the burning bush. But in Jesus, God became really, truly human. As we consider during this Easter time, the reality of Jesus, risen from the dead, we have to face what the disciples had to face. He was physically present. He was able to cook and to eat breakfast with them. They could touch his wounds if they wanted to. His appearance was altered and not everyone recognised him at first, but he was really there and it is this truth that is at the heart of the sacramental life of the Church.
We might usefully ponder the importance of physical contact, even in our normal lives. Most of us miss it in one way or another. I heard of grandparents giving grandchildren a hug but with a plastic shower curtain between them! I think social distancing conflicts with something deep down in our nature, and in the life of the Church. We will and must find our way back into contact with each other in society and in the Church.
This Thursday, following an initiative from Pope Francis “believers of all religions and people of goodwill are invited to spiritually unite themselves in a day of prayer, fasting and works of charity to implore the ‘divine’ to help humanity in overcoming the pandemic caused by coronavirus”. This is an important message to share with anyone you know and of course to participate in yourself.
Finally, from a letter this week to you from our bishops: “On that first Easter day, the disciples were in lockdown and the doors were closed. In their isolation the Lord Jesus came among them and said ‘Peace be with you.’ May the peace of the risen Lord reign in our hearts and homes as we look forward to the day we can enter church again and gather around the altar to offer together the Sacrifice of Praise” – and, let me add, to offer each other a physical sign of that peace.
Wishing you good health and every blessing,
Online (or on the phone) prayer and reflection on Sunday’s Gospel.
Join with others in prayer for 30 mins on Saturday 16th May from 9.30 to 10.00am,
email firstname.lastname@example.org and she will send you details of how to join.
5th Sunday of Easter
Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter A 2020
This is a very special Gospel, isn’t it, speaking about the Father’s house as it does? It speaks about where God’s home is and what rooms it has or what room it has for others. A room can be important. I still remember when my eldest brother moved out of our house. It meant that for the first time I got my own room. What an occasion that was. I felt so special. First of all I decorated it and while it wasn’t very big I managed to change it around so that it looked different – it looked mine! I used loud colours on the walls that my mother didn’t like and covered them with my own posters, and pictures of Manchester United. I was so proud. And in today’s gospel Jesus tells me that in His Father’s house there are many rooms but that He was going to prepare one just for me. He was not going to allocate one. He was going to personally prepare one for me. It’ll have my name on the door. Some homes have that don’t they, names on the doors or at least daft indications of whose room is whose? I‘ve seen signs saying ‘No entry’ or ‘Hazardous waste’ or Genius at work’. And why? It isn’t because family members get lost around the house. It is because children especially are proud of their room, or shared room. A room in your parents’ house is a sign of their love and care for you; it sums up where you are in their lives and how much they invest in you. A room in God’s house is a sign of His love and care for you. We are all that special to God. ‘Trust me’ on this one, Jesus says. We each have a room in his house, a place in his heart, because that’s what it represents.
Jesus himself comes chasing after us to reassure us of this and moreover to lead us home. Last week we heard him identifying himself as the Good Shepherd who would do just that. He goes on to tell us that he is our way, our truth and our life. Not in the future, but now. He is now. The life he shares with the Father, he offers to share with us now. That means we share the life of God because he is in the Father and the Father is in him. We live here with one foot in the life that exists between London and Dover but the other foot in heaven, in the kingdom, in the life of God.
When this whole crisis got going and began to strike home I found myself checking that out with God. ‘If the worst comes to the worst’, I prayed, ‘can I move more permanently into my room in heaven?’ The Lord did reassure me that my room is all prepared and ready but that in fact I’m not expected yet. I will walk a little further with one foot in each camp, with a room in both houses. I am at home here AND there. I can therefore live my life with that light heart that I have spoken of before.
The letter of St. Peter also talks about our spiritual home. It tells us that we should ‘set ourselves close’ to Jesus so that we may be living stones that make up a spiritual house, with Jesus as the precious cornerstone. During this Lockdown it is not surprising that more and more people have looked more closely at their inner spiritual life and taken steps to deepen it. We are invited to develop ourselves as ‘living stones’ and therefore be part of the structure of our heavenly home. We have a dynamic role in the building of God’s kingdom. We are not to just walk in and sit in it. When we pray in the Our Father that God’s Kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven we also offer ourselves in God’s service so that we can participate in the building of the kingdom here on earth as in heaven. We have one foot here and the other foot there. We are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart’, we are told.
So right now in this world we are to consider ourselves as essential workers, participating in the preparation and building of the rooms in the Father’s House, building the Kingdom of God, that is. But through our spiritual life we have already taken up occupancy of the room prepared for us. Eternal life is already underway! How blessed we are, with 2 homes, with a foot in both worlds.
Fr Doug’s Ramblings Tuesday May 05
I was on the phone to a friend the other day and I just mentioned in passing that I am not getting through much after-shave at the moment. Quick as a flash he responded: “And do you find that people stand a couple of yards away from you when you are out?” (!) Well, in truth nothing is as it normally is. While the traffic on the road remains light, the traffic on my phone continues to be much heavier than normal and particularly on WhatsApp, with numerous video clips. One that I received last week really brought consolation. It was of the Mladifest Medugorje Choir and Orchestra performing ‘Hosanna’ and I was quite inspired by it. Many of you will already have seen it, but if not then feel free to use this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUxZpLm5Sa0
The conductor begins alone but then brings in the drummer, then the pianist and then other instrumentalists, all performing on their own, in isolation. The first singer is from Italy, the next from Hong Kong, the next from Spain and so on. One by one the ensemble builds up and in the end there is a vast international array of performers, but none of them in the same room! It’s clever, the music is good and the overall effect is enjoyable but I had to reflect on what it was that stirred me.
I think it was the movement from isolation to unity. During these past weeks I have been occupied with managing the situation but the video touched a yearning deep inside to get together again, a yearning that I have necessarily set aside temporarily. Our coming together for mass and for other events, religious or otherwise, is a real joy that currently is missing. It is beginning to burst out. I drove past some houses yesterday and neighbours were on chairs in their front gardens 2 yards apart, trying to commune and communicate, trying to get together. Somewhere in our DNA it is written that we should not be alone, that we should unite with others whenever possible. Jesus understood this and even prayed about it:
‘May they all be one! Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you … May they be one as we are one. With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realise that it was you who sent me’ (John 17:21-23)
In both positive and negative ways this pandemic has taught us that the human race is one family and that when one part of the world is troubled, that is an issue for the rest of us. In future, the world needs to come together, and work together, not just to find a vaccine but to create a better world order where decisions are made with everyone else in the world kept in mind. We must applaud the wide international alliance currently committing to this. National self-interest has in the last decade held sway over the Church’s long held moral principle of acting in solidarity, with a preferential option towards the poorest of the world family. We might even give new and different life to an old slogan: “Better Together”.
Our prayer is of course that the virus will go away or be overcome, that it will not sweep away any more people, but in my view we can also pray that it will sweep away the movements of separatism, nationalism and isolation. That at least would give it a redeeming quality that we as Christians, should be looking for in all of this. God certainly calls us to unity. Maybe the virus will serve to remind us of this important truth.
P.S. Would you enjoy a time of prayer and reflection on next Sunday’s Gospel reading by Zoom? In these times of self-isolation, some may miss the company of others in prayer. If you are interested in joining an experimental online 30 mins of prayer next Saturday 9th May from 9.30 to 10.00am, using the modern online Zoom and the age old method of Lectio Divina, please email email@example.com and she will send you details of how to join.
4th Sunday of Easter
Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter A 2020
The Gospel and of course the great 23rd psalm give us a marvellous image a good shepherd. That psalm has brought many people such great comfort especially at times of bereavement. It speaks of the Lord, as our shepherd, leading us, even through death’s dark vale into a land of green pasture where a special celebration has been prepared, a celebration where the food and drink never stops being served. The cup just overflows. It expresses a hope and promise that was understood way back in the history of God’s people and it was a promise that Jesus said he personally would fulfil. He is our Good Shepherd.
But the promise is not just about the hour of our death. Jesus has been our shepherd all along. If we look back through our lives we should be able to recognise that he has always walked with us. You will remember last week’s gospel about the disciples on the road to Emmaus and how he not only walked by their sides but he then revealed to them how he had been a part, not just of their own lives but part of the history of their people too.
So it is as if Jesus sits beside us on the sofa looking at the family photo album saying: Yes, look, that was me, and there too (!), and oh yes, here’s me helping you out. He is and always has been our shepherd, but now, for me in this uncertain terrain he is, more than ever, my guide, my shepherd. There have, in most of our life journeys been some difficult times to negotiate, and these current days of Lockdown may even be such a time for you. But there’s certainly been rocky ground along the way. And that’s when we’ve needed him most. The Good Shepherd knows where there is good pasture and he calls us to it. In this lockdown there have actually been some very good times for me, and I expect there have been some good experiences for you too. There’s been good pasture to enjoy! Also, notice in the gospel, that he’s not talking about leading us into the safety of the sheepfold; he is talking about leading us out of the safety zone into an adventure, into territories that may be unknown to us, but follow his voice and we will be okay, we will be sure of finding good pasture. But it is not back in the sheepfold.
His point is that we have a mission to undertake, a journey to make. It’s worth remembering that ‘parishes’ were once called ‘missions’. The word ‘parish’ merely means a ‘stopover’, a temporary stop for pilgrims. Our parish is not our end point. It is merely a gathering point where we take refreshment to help us follow our shepherd who leads us in the mission to the world. And what is His mission? Well, he tells us: ‘I have come that they may have life and have it to the full (or have life in abundance)’ Our task is to tell or demonstrate to others what Jesus and his teaching is all about. We heard St Peter in the Acts of the Apostles doing just that and prompting over 3,000 people to respond. In our lives we have to exude the peace and joy God’s life brings to us, and express the proper response to that in offering service to others. We have to share his message of complete love “as seen on a crucifix near you”.
It is a huge mission we are called to. Jesus invites us all to share in his leadership of it, to share in his role as shepherd or pastor. He asks us to volunteer what we can, and the Church calls this ‘Vocations Sunday’. We are asked to commit ourselves to God’s service and also to pray that some individuals will offer themselves up for priesthood in the church. Priests and others have a very privileged role in the functioning of Jesus as shepherd or pastor. I am not sure I have ever experienced that more powerfully than I do in this present time when, strangely, I am so isolated from everyone. It is a role that can sometimes be quite challenging but it is one that is always rewarding. There’s a lot of material anyway, about vocations available on the diocesan website. Indeed there are all sorts of resources available there.
But back in the parish and back in our homes we look to one side and see the expression of the Good Shepherd’s mission in our lives and we look to the other side to see who we might express that mission to, as we share in the pastoral ministry of Christ. In these challenging days many have found that their communication with others is much sharper and less full of trivia. We have the opportunity therefore to let God’s Good News or Gospel take a prominent position in our phone calls and emails, our messaging and our social media work too.
The Good Shepherd leads us on but invites us to lead others too.
Fr Doug’s Ramblings Tuesday April 28
There is no getting away from it. These are bad days for many people for a variety of reasons. For some the virus has been a killer, for others it has been a very severe life-threatening illness, for others a nasty fortnight of fever and debilitation. Others live in fear of it, especially if they are vulnerable in any way to its severity. All of us will have to pay for the damage it has done to our economy and all of us are missing seeing each other and celebrating with each other. The list of damage can go on for a while, but…
But, there is always space to share in God’s redemption, always space for the flip side. In Eastertime we are especially aware that from darkness there can come light, from death there can come life. Without denying the pain and suffering that Corona is causing we can see in our own lives that there are some good things that are coming out of it. A few of you in correspondence have, like me, celebrated the season of Spring that we have been living through. I don’t think there has ever been a Spring where I have noticed so much. I am religious (!) about taking my daily exercise and it’s as if individual trees have become my friends as I have noticed them coming into blossom and leaf. Each one has done so quite separately from the rest. I have really enjoyed it like never before. As the bluebells came into flower I almost wanted to applaud. One of you wrote “an English spring has been described as one of the wonders of the world.” I concur with that in a whole new way this year. On one of my walks I was reflecting on the gospel of the multiplication of the loaves and on the 12 baskets full of excess that were collected. As I looked from tree to tree and valley to valley with the stunning yellow rape seed crops stretching for miles it occurred to me that God was showing me much more than I needed, that there was an abundance, more than 12 baskets full of excess scenery, as it were! That’s just the way God is. It was the abundance of the catch of fish up in Galilee that alerted the apostles to the presence of the risen Lord. Abundance is a sign, I think.
But during such times of changed reality there are many things, many truths that we notice in ways we have not done before. There are people or things that we value in ways we have not done before. What have you found during this time? It will be important not to forget these discoveries, these things we have noticed. I really hope I don’t return to the way I was and that society does not go back to ‘normal’. I hope that I and we can move forward from here and help create a new, improved ‘normal’!
God Bless you.
3rd Sunday of Easter
This is our 3rd Sunday within the 7 weeks of Easter – the 50 days from Easter Day itself to the Feast of Pentecost. We reflect during this time on what ‘rising from the dead’ actually means both for Jesus himself and for us. Throughout the season with just a few exceptions we listen to the Acts of the Apostles and to the gospel of St. John, both of which focus on Faith.
The Acts recall the explosion of Faith that spreads like a shock wave from the Day of Resurrection, moving onwards and outwards through time and across continents until it reaches us here and now – and still it carries on. The Acts record this spread in narrative style, event by event. John’s gospel is different though. It’s not like the other 3 gospels either. John assumes that his readers are familiar with what happened and he offers a reflection or a historical commentary. His approach is to say that now we know Jesus is the Christ, risen from the dead, let us look again at what was going on in the words and deeds of Jesus at a deeper level.
It is the same idea as what is illustrated in today’s actual historical account that St. Luke gives of Cleopas and his unnamed friend fleeing Jerusalem on Easter Day. They were headed for Emmaus, talking about what had been going on but they were joined by another traveller, Jesus, though they didn’t know that. What happens then? It’s a critical process:
First they tell Jesus their story and Jesus helps them see the truth of what had happened – that the Messiah had risen, as he was meant to.
Next Jesus led them through their scripture, reinterpreting it so that they could see that it too spoke of Jesus, his mission, and these sacred days.
Then he revealed himself to them in the Breaking of Bread. Again they look back and almost kick themselves saying that they should have known that it was Jesus by their side. Their hearts were telling them so.
Finally they find courage and head back to Jerusalem to be witnesses to the resurrection and face any consequences of that.
There is a lot in that for us. First, St. John is doing the same thing for us, taking us back through the historical gospel and lifting up for us the touches of the divine that can retrospectively be seen even if they were missed at the time. It is only with the eyes of Faith in the resurrection that we can see these things. And if we read John’s gospel prayerfully it will not be St. John but the risen Lord himself who will be by our side being our guide, even if we don’t recognise him at the time.
But more than that, I think. Since, the day of Lockdown, (and even before that) our lives have been dominated by the threat of the Corona virus. It’s been a profound and quite frightening time for all of us, but for each of us in a different way. Each of our paths during this time has been different but each of us has been accompanied on that path by a fellow traveller, the risen Lord. So follow the same procedure as Cleopas and his pal:
First tell him your story, your own story of what it has been like for you.
Next, listen to his interpretation of your story and then listen to the words of scripture and see what wisdom it offers you about your experience. Then allow Jesus to reveal himself to you and finally take heart in his real presence with you and in doing so give witness to him.
And actually that process is one that we generally follow if we spend time in prayer regularly, examining the day or the week or whatever and trying to notice what God has been saying to us or what he has been up to in our lives. The more we notice him, the deeper will be our knowledge of him and our friendship with him and the more authentic will be our response, our witness and our life of Faith.
The road to Emmaus where ‘they recognised him in the breaking of bread’
Fr Doug’s Ramblings Tuesday April 21st
Since lockdown began many people have made special efforts to keep in contact with each other. And I must say, the number of visual jokes I have seen on WhatsApp has been amazing. One that I saw before Easter was a picture of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper, except that Jesus was alone at the table and the apostles were all pictured separated round the screen edge as if on a conference meeting. No social gatherings indeed! I thought it quite amusing but also profoundly challenging.
That supper demanded intimacy and real physical communion. Today, there wouldn’t be a gathering. (Though arguably, Jesus and his close friends were already isolated together, like a large family and so it could have taken place.) But we have to manage differently. We talk about spiritual communion, a phrase none of us over-used in the past (!) Each morning when I say the parish mass I pause before Holy Communion to pray for those who are making their spiritual communion. At first I found the concept a little bizarre and quite difficult but I have come to sense its reality. How about you?
For me some light can be shed on it through an understanding of prayer. We do often pray for each other and for others, now more than ever before perhaps. I know people pray for me and that makes a huge difference to me. There have been times when that knowledge has seen me through the most difficult of situations. The importance was illustrated for me by a friend last week. She works as a nurse in an intensive care unit in a hospital. I do reassure her that I pray for her each day. She has described some of the very difficult situations that have arisen in the care she gives and the work she does. In a recent message she said that she can only express the love and compassion that is needed in her crucial role because she knows she is supported in prayer. She referred to a bible scene where the Israelites were doing battle with the Amalekites and while Moses held his arms up, the Israelites held the advantage but when he let his arms fall they began to lose. (Don’t ask ‘why’?!) Moses grew so weary he had Aaron and Hur standing each side of him holding his arms up till they won. (Exodus 17:11-12). Well she said that she feels so exhausted that she feels like Moses, only it’s our prayers that hold her arms up so that she can continue to do battle with this horrible virus. Now that’s what I call spiritual communion, through prayer! So be advised that your prayer counts.
So let me know if there is anyone you know who is ill at the moment and needs our prayer. I will lead our pray for those on the list by name at our Sunday Parish Mass.
God Bless you.
P.S. Do you receive the Southwark Spirituality Commission’s reflections? If you are registered you will have received a daily reflection during Advent and Lent and a weekly reflection during Easter. ‘Yours truly’ was on this weekend. A different speaker will be on each weekend with the Archbishop on for Pentecost.
Click on this link and then sign up: http://eepurl.com/dcNmsv
2nd Sunday of Easter
The church is of course closed at the moment – actually as it turns out, it’s only the building that is closed. The parish is operational albeit in a modified form. So the current crisis has provided me with a real challenge to try and help maintain our communion and our community in as vibrant a way as possible. We want to come out of this intact, so I have had to employ new strategies and develop new skills – quite a challenge, as I say.
But facing challenges is usually a good thing. In this lock-down, I for one have found myself asking the question: ‘Lord, are you there?’ or more crucially: ‘Lord, are you here?’ It is an important but challenging question of personal Faith. It is a good question for all of us to ask. And, as it happens, it’s a question that today’s gospel sheds some light on.
St. Thomas wanted that Faith. He wanted to be able to say with his fellow disciples: ‘I can witness to the risen Lord Jesus’ but he knew he needed help. He asked if he could encounter Jesus in such a way as to be able put his fingers in Christ’s terrible wounds. And that is what he was granted. We don’t know whether or not he did put his fingers in the wounds. It doesn’t matter. He could do if he wanted, and that’s what for him authenticated his experience as truly being an encounter with the Risen Lord. His experience gave him the Faith he wanted. From that moment he lived with conviction. Interestingly the narrator of the story, St. John reached that same conviction by another route. He saw the empty tomb with the discarded burial clothes. He saw and he just knew! That Faith is not merely an intellectual judgement about God, it is a personal conviction that the disciples came to and which we each come to in our own way. If we ever find ourselves struggling with this Faith or having doubts we should do what Thomas did and ask for help.
I am truly grateful to God that in these difficult days in which we live, I have that conviction, that Faith, that enables me to meet with the challenging questions of the time. That Faith enables me to say: ‘Yes Lord, you are here with me in my isolation. I am no longer afraid’. It brings me peace, and it is a peace the world cannot give. It is the peace that Jesus promised as his personal gift.
When they lived and travelled with Jesus, the disciples had that peace in their lives. Jesus fulfilled their hopes and their needs. ‘Come to me all you who are overburdened and I’ll give you rest’, he had said. They were able to live with light hearts and spirits …because he was there. It all went pear-shaped in Jerusalem though, and they lost that peace, they lost their hope and now they feared the Jewish authorities as well. But then he appeared to them and says ‘Peace be with you.’ He wanted them to have that gift once more, to live without fear, to live with hope and confidence as they had done before.
His gift of Faith, that conviction we have that he is with us, provides for us that same peace and confidence. We face difficulties in life in a different way. We deal with pain and suffering without fear. We make important decisions, we grow old and we even face death in the peace of Christ. Whatever happens, it will be okay because Jesus is there with us, living and travelling with us.
Our Faith is a most marvellous gift. It is worth looking back in your life and remembering how or through whom you received that gift or how you came to that conviction. It begins for most of us in baptism but it is often nurtured and developed through so many individuals or institutions. If you have time today list them and be grateful to them. And maybe pray that you are God’s instrument in nurturing that Faith in others.
Fr Doug’s Ramblings Tuesday April 14
A strange day today; I was supposed to be officiating at a wedding and instead I was at the crematorium officiating at a funeral. I suppose that about sums up the change in the life of our country just now. But it won’t last forever. Some countries are looking to come out of lock-down though it does seem that our confinement is going to go on a while longer here in the UK. How does the time pass for you? Some of you are working in essential occupations as normally as you can – and ‘hats off’ to you if you are working within the NHS! Some are working from home and are probably as busy as ever. Some of you are living as a tight family unit in ways you never have done before which can be exasperating or at times extremely rewarding. Others have all of a sudden found that you have a lot of time on your hands but with limitations as to what you can do with it.
When the ‘lock-down’ started several weeks ago I thought I was going to have loads of time to do jobs that I have been saving up for years. In fact I have found that I am much busier than I expected but at least I do get to be in charge of my day. The diary has lost its power over me! I am the one in control, making decisions about what happens and what happens next. I have found that to be both energising and exhausting. Usually I don’t have to make many decisions about the day; I go where I am supposed to go and do what I am expected to do. Being in charge is a challenge I have had to take on.
But actually every day is a gift – in so many different ways. Each day when I wake up I thank God that I don’t have a temperature or a dry cough (so far, anyway). That’s a great start as far as I am concerned. It is true that there are less laughs than there normally are because there are less interactions with people and there is some loneliness, or aloneness but if this is part of God’s gift then I’ll take it, I’ll embrace it and not try and take it back to the “returns and refunds” department! That would be rude.
So I thank God for the day ahead and I plan how I am going to spend it, and I do mean “spend” it. Being given a day to spend is just like being given a sum of money to spend. It requires our active engagement to consider what is important to spend it on and what’s not. It may require a bit of imagination but I don’t want the day to just pass so that I can be one day closer to the end of our ‘lock-down’. Each day really is a gift from God and so we need to make something of each day and not bury it in the history of this crisis. So how do we choose to spend our day? Who do we spend it with or spend it on and in what ways? What about spending time with God or spending time on God, the Risen Lord? In what ways can we and do we do that in our day? We have great spending power with a whole day ahead.
So let’s none of us just pass the time. Let’s spend it!
Do keep safe and be assured of my prayers, Family, Friends and ‘Fisher members!
God Bless you.
SERMON FOR EASTER
Who is Jesus?
In Good Friday’s Liturgy we recalled how in history, Jesus was at the very least, a martyr. He died for a cause, namely that God loves every single person and that no one can be excluded from that love and that communion by the Jewish temple authorities or by anybody else! But Jesus was much more than a martyr. He was the one who passed through death and rose again. He changed everything. There was a change in the reality of human existence when Jesus rose from the dead. That is why we are the Easter People.
But right now as we live in isolation under the terrible threat of the Covid 19 virus, who is the Jesus we pray to? ‘Who is he?’ This was the question everyone in the gospel kept asking – the scribes, the Pharisees, the disciples, everyone. Jesus himself wondered what people were thinking and even asked his disciples about it. Then he asked specifically: ‘But who do you say I am?’ Peter spoke up saying that he believed that Jesus must be the Christ, the Son of the living God. Now that is the key insight that our Church is built on. It is the expression of Faith that is at our core. Jesus was and is the Son of God.
So in the historical event of Easter we find Jesus as the one who took on suffering and who surrendered his life, but it was not just as a martyr, it was as a sacrifice. He gave up his life in order to share that life with us all. In our current crisis we can therefore see Jesus all over the place. Some fear his absence but he is very much present. He is of course there through, with and in those who are dying, saying to them ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’ He is there with the bereaved as he was with Martha and Mary when he shed tears with them at the death of Lazarus. He is there with those who are recovering. Having brought them back from the brink he offers them new life – like he did to Lazarus and several others. I can’t imagine that our Prime Minister will see life in the same way as before he came so close. He is there surely in the brave hospital teams – and other medics – who are offering such loving service to those who are sick, just as he did around Galilee and Judea. He is there with those who live with anxiety and fear about the virus. He says ‘Do not be afraid’. He is there when we are on our own and he is saying ‘I am with you’. He is there in this opportunity – with hope, calling us to rethink our lives and our society and commit to rebuilding his kingdom as we emerge from the virus.
He is with us in every molecule of our humanity. Who is he? He is Jesus, risen from the dead to share every bit of his life with us and to celebrate every bit of our lives. So our first prayer might be: Please keep us safe, but we can celebrate his rising from the dead by seeing his presence in so many other people and other situations. We can pray to him in all these places and witness our Faith, our insight to others too. And this is what Pope Francis asks us all to do – not to tell others facts about Jesus; they can read them anywhere, but to be witnesses to the resurrection. Jesus is risen – I know Him. I can perceive him all over the place! And I know he loves me. In fact he is in love with me! That’s the intimacy of his gift to me.
Who is Jesus? He is the one and only, the way, the truth, the life – truly present for ever and ever.
Sermon for Good Friday 2020
We’ve just followed the Way of the Cross recalling the familiar story of brutality and horror. We should really try to recognise the extent of the love and generosity Jesus has for us. There was nothing he wouldn’t suffer or go through for us. He held back nothing.
We are told that Jesus did all this for us. He suffered and died for us but how does that work? How does his death on the cross all those years ago benefit me today? And why did he get into such a conflict with the Jewish authorities in the 1st place?
Jesus entered the conflict quite deliberately. The Temple had been the Way (the only Way) to God and so when Jesus says he is now the Way, it doesn’t go down well. The temple and worship within it was regulated and controlled. Rules dictated who could commune with God through worship and how much it would cost them in temple tax and so on. Rules excluded many people entirely, and those were precisely the ones Jesus sought out and befriended –the poor, the tax-collectors, the sick, the sinners, even the Romans! He wanted no individual to be cut off in any way from communing with God – from sharing God’s love. If he had to overthrow the Temple authorities, so be it. He would not back off.
He talked about his intimate relationship with the Father –his Father!
They couldn’t bear him talking that way, it sounded blasphemous. God was faithful, yes, but not intimate and close.
His New Covenant of intimate love would have to supersede the old one of mere law. He himself would have to replace the Temple. Being with God would now be personalised. You used to speak with God in and through the Temple. Now you could do it in and through him.
Imagine how shocked the authorities were to hear him say that the temple would be destroyed but in 3 days he would restore it – The temple that was currently in the midst of one of the world’s biggest, proudest construction projects. But He was talking about himself.
To love any of those excluded from the temple, he might not have to suffer but he was prepared to and he knew he probably would do. He stood up to the authorities from the start. The fact is that there was nothing that he wouldn’t go through or suffer or give or put up with for US, for any of us, for any one of us. He was prepared to suffer it all for any one person including me! It is a stunning declaration from him to me. It’s how much he loves me. He didn’t so much die for all of us as for any of us. But how often do I find the space or time to consider in prayer this amazing love he expresses for me? It is the Good News Christians proclaim. It is a major part of our Gospel, but… it isn’t the whole Gospel.
He didn’t die just to win the political argument, however important it was. His was more than a martyr’s death. But that’s all I have described so far but there was much more to it. No one knew that then though, they hadn’t had Easter. Nowadays, most people in the world concede that Jesus suffered a martyr’s death. They’d be foolish not to in the face of history. But Christians believe in more, something far greater, resurrection from the dead, shared with us in Eucharist – not today but tomorrow! And that changes everything for us.
We merely pause today at the foot of the Cross and we thank God because Jesus embraces me and each of you – ALL of humanity, excluding no one. We are invited to accept that embrace and in our turn to embrace the cross and pray:
Yes Lord, I hear you, I know what you are saying to me, I know what you have done for me, I thank you and I love you.
I will embrace the cross here but I invite you to embrace a cross where you are.
Sermon for Holy Thursday 2020
1) So this is the night of the Last Supper, a meal that Jesus shared with his disciples at the time of Passover. It was both a family meal and a religious ritual which he lifted to a new dynamic level.
2) Passover recalled the great event of the Exodus from Egypt when blood was taken from the sacrificial lamb b4 it was roasted and this was used to mark the Israelite homes so the destroying angel knew to pass over them and reap destruction elsewhere. This year there is added poignancy for us as we pray that the spectre of Corona virus will pass over each of our homes and leave us unharmed. But back then it allowed Moses and the Israelites to escape. Each year this event was remembered with the same meal. It celebrated the bond between God and the Jewish Nation recalling that God, faithful to his promise or covenant always saved them.
3) Jesus & his disciples were celebrating Passover this very night when Jesus blatantly took it over for his own purposes. He offered himself in sacrifice as the Lamb of God. His life was to be given on the Cross to any who would share in the meal. The new meal or “mass”, still celebrates God’s faithfulness, but the New Covenant now expresses a passion between God and all of us whereby Jesus gives his life so that all of us can enjoy God’s love and share in his life. So God, faithful to his promise and New Covenant will always save us. We must live in that hope and trust at this time.
4) A practice of the mass was established very quickly and Paul even found that he needed to regulate it so he wrote the letter which we’ve just heard, declaring precisely what Jesus did. It is the first written account of the Last Supper. Paul is clear that Jesus described a NEW covenant with anyone who would drink from his cup – his Holy Grail, as we came to call it. Faith is no longer a relationship between God and the nation-state of Israel. Now it’s personal. It’s a relationship between God and each of us. There is to be increasing union between God and each one of us: A holy communion. Paul is clear about Jesus’ words: This is my body which is for you. That’s what Jesus said, and meant! He wished to offer his life to us in such a way that we could really receive his true self, his real presence, and what a precious gift that is!
5) But we mustn’t miss the context of this gift in Holy Communion. Jesus made a grand gesture by washing his disciples’ feet and there are 2 important features to this: It was first of all a private intimate action and secondly it was a gesture of service. In many parts of the world it is still a rude protest to say, sling a smelly shoe at someone!! (Anything to do with feet) So, “Do you understand what I’m doing?” Jesus said. It was in the context of real service to others in intimate relationships that Jesus passed on his gift of his real presence in the Eucharist. His real ministry continues in the Church and within this is his real presence. Jesus is really truly, present in the activity of his Church and in particular in the sacrament of the Eucharist. But that means that it is imperative that our mass celebrates our true relationship with each other as well as with God. We shouldn’t be proclaiming Christ’s real presence in our Church if we are not expressing his real presence in our loving service of each other and of others beyond.
So in the mass Jesus offers us intimacy with him. It is the same intimacy that he enjoys with his father and which so scandalised the Jewish authorities. It is an intimacy though, that demands of us an intimate service of each other.
6) So, Jesus took the Covenant which defined the relationship of God with his people and he gave it a new dimension. He used the Passover celebration and radically altered it so that it would no longer just recall God’s faithfulness and how he had so often saved his people, Israel, but now it would express the full extent of God’s love for everyone in what he called a New Covenant. In the New Passover, or mass as we call it, Jesus shares intimately his life with us, a life he willingly gives in service to us and which he says we must share in service of others.
We must copy his gesture: What he did for the disciples we must do for the world so that everyone can discover his real presence among us.
Fr Doug’s Ramblings Tuesday April 07
“Social distancing, self-isolation”. A few months ago these would have been phrases that meant very little to any of us but now they describe the reality in which most of us live. Many in frontline occupations have a different reality of course, particularly healthcare workers – who are in all our prayers continuously. But isolation is where the rest of us are. Some of us are living alone while others are living in family units or in couples. Whatever situation we are in, the fact is that apart from exercising or shopping we are not getting out much!
I expect we are all reacting to this experience differently. Now I am not particularly well known for my sartorial elegance – my decisions regarding getting dressed each morning don’t amount to much more than choosing a jumper for the day! But these last two weeks have seen a little more decline, I’m afraid! The same jumper and the same tracksuit bottoms (latterly shorts) and pumps have sufficed. Others though, tell me that they have taken great care in dressing. Some who are working from home dress up as if they were going out to work, a discipline designed to stimulate the right mental attitude to their work. Others dress smartly to cheer themselves up. Anyway we are all allowed to react differently to isolation.
How about spiritually? How do you cope with it? There are many who are keeping close using the telephone or emails or through wider social media. There is television and radio too but at the end of the day all these fall away and we are left alone, alone that is, with God. And really, this is the heart of our Faith, the ultimate human experience. As we journey to Easter we see that while Jesus began the week with a huge crowd following or by his side as he entered Jerusalem, by Friday everyone had fallen back, melted away, and on the cross it was just him and his Father. His ultimate experience as a human being is the same as ours. This interface between God and us is what counts. We encounter God in so many ways but our encounter is our own. It is completely personal. It is what all the other practices of our religion will support and nourish. That meeting between God and us is what life is really about. So I think we should try to embrace the spirituality of solitude at this time. As we reach out in spiritual communion with the Lord and with each other, let us be aware of God’s real presence, not just in the Eucharist but in our hearts and in our minds. There in prayer we can grow with him.
And it doesn’t matter what we wear!
Please continue to make it your mission to keep in contact with everyone on your contact lists. If you are in contact with anyone not in receipt of these ramblings who would like to be, then please get the address to me. For any without email, why not print this off and drop it through their door during your daily exercise.
So keep safe, be assured of my prayers and God Bless you.
Palm Sunday Sermon
I don’t usually preach on Palm Sunday. I suggest instead, that you take part in the Passion reading using your imagination. Be one of the characters, Jesus himself if you like, or a bystander who is able to follow everything or move from one character to another, but try to be there. It is good to picture the scenes and to feel what your character feels so as to gain an insight from God as to what it was like and what it was about. Try it. On this occasion though, I will offer a brief thought afterwards.
Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey and it seems he enjoyed the ride and the reaction he got. It had been prophesied that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a donkey so Jesus knew that his action would be provocative. He was ready to face his destiny. He rode in on a wave of enthusiasm but that wave was not going to dissipate as it rolled up some long beach. It was going to go crashing into the walls of the Temple. Indeed what was the first thing he did when he got into the city? He attacked the Temple, throwing out the money changers and upturning stalls. Few realised it, but the Temple would be destroyed or at least replaced by Jesus and it would take 3 days for the Temple of Jesus’s body to be restored, as he said it would. He knew, but the crowd putting down their cloaks or waving palms didn’t, and so when many caught on to the fact that their Temple and their religious practice would be threatened, there was a large number who turned and a few days later joined those calling for Jesus to be crucified.
Now we too can be proud to identify ourselves as followers of Christ, to wave our palms joyfully at Jesus but when our principles and practices crash up against established norms do we stick with them or do we go along with the crowd and agree to crucifixion? There is often a rub. Many, including those calling themselves Christians didn’t show their better side for instance when it came to emptying supermarket shelves, or even pinching sanitisers from public places, having no regard for the wellbeing of others – the Common Good. Well everybody else was doing it weren’t they? No, no, they weren’t. But there are so many other areas where our Christian principles clash with those of our society. We need to face up to it all alongside Jesus, and consider this privately this week.
Fr Doug’s Ramblings Tuesday March 31
Today it is a week since the isolation began in earnest.
To me it has seemed a long week. I think this is in part because so much routine has been removed. For me it is certainly not because of boredom – I seem to have been busier than ever, mainly because so many systems I take for granted have been removed. All diocesan employees have had to stop working (including our parish secretary), for one thing.
I spoke in the newsletter about the rhythm of the weekend, Friday to Sunday, but further to that I have had to make myself a daily (and weekly) schedule that is pinned to the wall and as I try to stick to these routines I hope that life will gain a more normal momentum and rhythm. I guess that many of you will have done something similar.
Times are difficult. Those with family at home have so much more interaction than you are used to whereas those, especially those on your own, are copying a younger generation and spending as much of the day on the phone as you can! We face different difficulties but similar fears. As His Holiness said on Friday, we should remember that Jesus is in the boat with us, riding out the storm at sea, and he will not let the boat capsize – even if he is taking his time to calm the storm!
I am glad though that so many of us in the parish are in contact with each other and in being so we are able to maintain a spiritual communion with each other and with God.
Our parish mass seems to have been a great focus of this for many of you. Peter Murphy, who runs the website tells me that there have been hundreds of viewings. I would like to thank him and remind you all to check the website: stjohnfisherbexley.org (note there is no”.uk” on the end – simply .org ) There you will get the link to this Sunday’s Bexley Parish Mass and also the weekly newsletter, and lots more besides.
I say mass each morning, usually at 8.30, for the published intention and spend time in prayer for the parish every day between 5 and 6. I urge you all to express in prayer your spiritual communion, maybe during these 2 daily events. I would gain great strength from the knowledge that many of us are in prayer together at least some of the time.
Please make it your mission to keep in contact with everyone on your lists or in your address books. If you are in contact with anyone not in receipt of these ramblings who would like to be, then please get the address to me.
Please make any replies to me come to my personal email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
So keep safe, be assured of my prayers and God Bless you.
5th Sunday of Lent
Click below for the sound file of sermon.
Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent A 2020
What an amazing event that is recorded in today’s gospel. Its climax has Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb. Can you see Lazarus in your mind’s eye shuffling out, still wrapped up tight in his burial clothes?
Then Jesus commands: UNBIND HIM. LET HIM GO FREE . Wow!
But what’s going on – apart from the obvious, that is, that he demonstrates his power over life and death and that he lovingly restores a beloved brother to his 2 sisters – because he cares? Well in fact, his action does authenticate his teaching and indeed illustrate his teaching. He says: “I am the resurrection and the life… whoever lives in me will never die.” Now, he means this in a spiritual way but this physical demonstration certainly has an impact. When we subsequently hear the command, ‘unbind him, let him go free’, we get an insight into what he really means. He is not just indicating that the smelly burial clothes should be removed. He is saying that this life that Lazarus has been given is to be lived in freedom, a freedom that only Jesus can give – like the peace that only he can give, a peace the world cannot give.
We recognise this freedom and peace, don’t we? I have seen it in several people, most notably in a wartime bomb disposal officer I knew years ago. Each time he was called upon to disarm a bomb he prepared by offering – no, giving up – his life to God and each time he survived he thanked God for giving him his life back. Well the freedom in which he lived his life was wonderful. He was fearless – not reckless, but truly fearless. He did not fear death and remained close to God. Others who have had near-death experiences often have this different way of living their lives as well. And I have heard from at least one of the medics I know who are working on the frontline in this present crisis, say the same thing. She said “If I lose my life to this disease I will have done so in the service of God himself, so if I die, I die”. It is in that freedom that she can carry on the heroic battle that our NHS is involved with.
Like many of you I have at this time faced the possibility that I might contract the virus and that I might not overcome it. I remain hopeful that this does not lie ahead of me in the future. I know God cares deeply for me but I renewed, in a spiritual way the giving up of my life to Him and in doing so I returned to living my life in the freedom I have enjoyed for many a year. At many different levels we are called upon to surrender our life to God. This is what began at baptism and what we do in mass at the offertory. We offer our lives up to God along with the bread, the wine and the offertory basket, and we ask that this be joined to the sacrifice of Christ at Easter, which was the gift of his own life that he so lovingly made.
The point is we are all called to live this new life in Christ. Eternal life does not begin when we die; it began with our baptism, when we joined Jesus in death. We can live in this freedom right now, if we truly believe –
if we truly believe in who Jesus is, that is, and how much he cares. This is what the Holy Father was saying in his Ubi et Orbi address on Friday evening. Many of you will have watched or heard it. We have been given life. As Lazarus was called out of the tomb and made free so we are called out of baptismal waters – living waters – and made free, because God cares.
As Lazarus was, we can be: free from worldly cares, from material concerns, from fear of death even; free instead for life with God, in friendship with him through his Son. We can have life and have it to the full. And that is entirely God’s wish for us all.
Keep safe and enjoy eternal life here and now.
God Bless You All.
4th Sunday of Lent A 2020
Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent A 2020
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
There are so many horrible elements to this Corona virus. I am reticent to list them for fear of offending anyone who is suffering grievously with any single one of them. But our hearts must go out to those who actually have the virus and to all the medics and others trying in terrible circumstances to care for them. I was heartened by an email from a parishioner in Spain who spoke of the general population who are “locked down”, all going out on their balconies each evening at 8.00 p.m. and clapping their thanks to the brave medical staff for all they are doing. Bravo to the doctors and nurses of our NHS!
A relatively minor inconvenience to me is the travel ban, in a week I was supposed to be away on holiday. Having said that, anyone who has ever travelled with me will tell you what a wimp I am when it comes to flying. I get very anxious when there is a threat of turbulence. I remember one occasion when the pilot warned of bad weather ahead of us and that we should be prepared. Shortly afterwards he spoke again and said that while it would add a little time to our flight he hoped to alter course and fly around the bad weather. What a relief I felt and a consolation that I could place my trust in this pilot.
Well for some time now I have been telling myself and others too, that we can trust ourselves to the Lord in this present crisis. However once we started to experience the bite of the drastic measures we now live under, I realised that the trust I was placing in the Lord was that he would steer us clear of the turbulence, but that is clearly not happening. He is still our pilot but he is piloting us through the middle of it, unpleasant as it is. This requires a more unconditional surrender of trust to God. ‘Let go and let God’ is a phrase often used.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at this, especially at this time of preparation for Easter. For Jesus there was no steering round the issues in Jerusalem or avoiding them by going elsewhere. He faced them head on and steered right through the middle, right through his passion and death and on to the resurrection that waited at the far side. There is no reason to stop trusting in Jesus. He is with us every step of the way. It is good to allow him a few moments of silence regularly in our day so that he can personally reassure us of this. We can trust him to see us safely through. But that trust does not mean that he will do everything the way we want him to. That would be obedience, not trust. Answering our prayers is not the same as obeying our orders! He is the pilot, we are the passengers.
May we hear in our hearts the words from the Prophet Isaiah: ‘Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you’.
And as he helps us we begin to see more about him and more about ourselves. We are like the man in today’s Gospel who is given sight by Jesus. The world around him is revealed to him through this marvellous encounter with Jesus, but also something much more profound:
‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ says Jesus.
‘Tell me who he is so that I may believe in him’ is the reply.
‘You are looking at him; he is speaking to you’, says Jesus.
‘Lord I believe’, says the man
He has come to Faith.
This can and should be our story too.
Finally, there is a prayer in mass that may be heartfelt today:
Deliver us Lord we pray from every evil. Graciously grant peace in our days, that by the help of your mercy we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and
3rd Sunday of Lent A 2020
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
We are all familiar with the idea of the half pint of beer in a pint glass. One person sees the glass as being half full. Another sees it as being half empty. It’s not about how much beer is actually in the glass. It’s about the outlook of the observer. And outlook is very important for Christians. Our outlook can, for one thing, express our hope and our ultimate trust in the Lord. The issues we face with Corona provide ample opportunity to demonstrate this. Even the clunky measures we are now taking in church over receiving Communion and sharing the Peace:
In experiencing the inconvenience and unfamiliarity I can choose to either regard the measures as giving me a way to be proudly looking out for the safety of others or I can close my shoulders and grumpily accept it as a way of protecting myself. The actions are the same but the outlook is different. The point is I can engage positively if I choose to.
Jesus was always challenging his disciples to see opportunity where others saw only dead ends. And today’s gospel records one of those occasions. At the sixth hour which is 12 noon he stops at Jacob’s well. Just then the woman also comes to the well, to fetch water. Now there is a reason she is coming to the well at that time of day. The rest of her townswomen would have collected water at the beginning of the day before the burning midday sun scorched the arid lands of Samaria. The fact that she came at midday in the heat, on her own, tells us that she was for some reason set apart from everyone else. We find out later what the reason is –a bad reputation with men.
When his disciples return from the market with provisions they are shocked to find him with her, but he has not seen the awkwardness of the situation, that is to say a Jewish man talking with a Samaritan woman – of ill repute! A decent Jewish chap just wouldn’t do it, but not Jesus. He sees the opportunity to engage with her. He has a particular outlook. He came to call sinners, and besides, he is thirsty. She has something to offer him.
So the encounter begins. Jesus asks for a drink. But Jews didn’t ask favours from Samaritans. It just wasn’t done! The circumstance ia as bad as it could be, but he turns the whole thing around. He goes on to help her see that it is her that has the serious need, a deep need. We hear how gradually she comes to an awareness of the importance of this encounter. There is a beautiful sacred space that they share, talking, even bantering with each other. She comes to Faith and to a recognition of the truth about her life.
In getting to know Jesus she recognises not just who he is but what he is – the Son of God, the Messiah. Knowing what he is doesn’t tell you who he is. For that you have to get to know him personally, just like the woman did at the well. She gets to know him and in knowing him she understands that he is the Messiah.
During Lent we are invited to enter this same sacred space and grow more deeply in our relationship with the Lord, getting to know who he is. (We pretty much know what he is.) And just as for the woman at the well, our encounter in Lent can begin with us helping him. We have engaged, many of us in a commitment to help him, present as he is in the lives of the poor and the suffering indeed, anyone in need. Do something for someone else and you follow the woman at the well who gives Jesus a drink. And as we saw earlier it is possible to grow closer to the Lord through our interior disposition too. Our outlook can be important and that outlook can communicate to others a positive and hopeful way of looking out on God’s world and his activity. God is not hiding from all this trouble. We need to show others that God is out and about. What was the first thing the woman did after her encounter with Jesus? She told the whole town all about him.
Finally, in a few weeks’ time we will hear him say on the cross that he is still thirsty. Let that not be because we didn’t get round to giving him something to help quench that thirst.
2nd Sunday of Lent A 2020
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
I have some holidays coming up fairly soon. I normally go skiing at this time of year on whatever last-minute deal is available, but I admit the Corona Virus is putting me off a bit this year. I went this time last year though. It was terrific and there was great snow but there was one afternoon when a thick snow cloud came right down on us, high up in the mountains where we were. It was at the end of the day and we were trying to get back to our chalet but you couldn’t see more than 5 yards ahead. It was really frightening and quite dangerous. It would be easy to go wrong and end up miles away. It would be easy go wrong and fall down a cliff! Well I have a good sense of direction so I agreed to lead and try and guide us home. The others followed trustfully and hopefully. But as we progressed I got less and less confident. I wasn’t at all sure where we were or where we were heading. Well then for just a few seconds, no more than three seconds, there was a gap in the cloud and I spotted a land mark that I recognised and that was enough to reassure me and give me the confidence that I needed to carry on and lead everyone home through the darkness of the cloud. I must admit that I didn’t tell the others that there had been a clearing in the cloud. I allowed them to be all the more impressed by my astonishing leadership – enough to buy me a drink anyway!
Even at the time though, I was thinking that it was a bit like the transfiguration that we heard about today. The disciples had been following Jesus on a long but very strange and mysterious path. They must have been having doubts and difficulties, conflicts and confusion. And Jesus must have been having his own doubts too. He had much to ask his Father about. Anyway he took Peter, James and John up the mountain with him to be with him as he prayed about these things. We might talk of there being a ‘cloud of unknowing’ surrounding Jesus and his mission. But there on the mountain, Mount Tabor, we’re told, the cloud of unknowing lifts for a short time and then everything is clear. The disciples could see Jesus for who he was AND for who he was to be … in glory. The way ahead leads to a good place. It was enough to reassure them. They could carry on with a bit more confidence and hope in where it was all leading. Their glimpse was enough. So it was just like the clearing in my cloud over the French Alps last year – just enough to see what was ahead.
Now whatever about skiing, in life there are plenty of times when we have questions about where things are going, doubts perhaps about matters of faith, about whether we’re on the right track. There are times when nothing seems at all clear, times when we are baffled like when we glimpse the pain and suffering that so many people experience. There are such dreadful things happening in Syria, in Yemen, in Gaza and in so many other places too. Just recently we have seen the unconscionable abuse of refugees on the Greece/ Turkey border. It’s as if God has given up and run away. But it is at such times that we need to remember those moments when the veil has lifted, when there has been a clearing in the cloud, when everything has been transfigured so that we’ve glimpsed God truly present in the midst of it all, when there has been a clarity, a clear vision and understanding of God’s presence in, and redemption of, humanity. We need to remember those times when everything seemed to make sense. And we do have such moments. There are times when the confusion we often live in is transfigured into clarity.
So it is reasonable that we should pray for these occasional epiphanies and revelations and when we receive them we should treasure them and store them up for the moments we will need them. Our life journeys to the heart of God are made in faith and hope. For the most part, we have to carry on trusting and hoping, living in and with Faith. Much of the time we may feel we are in the dark but every now then there will be a rich and glorious moment of clarity. God knows what each of us needs and he will provide the insights we require to – as it were – ski home safely. The transfiguration on Mount Tabor was a wonderfully gifted moment granted by the Father to encourage Jesus and his disciples and show them the way home. We have good reason to believe that God will be able to guide us home as well.
1st Sunday of Lent A 2020
Please click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
We’ve had 3 heavyweight readings today to get our Lenten season underway. They open up ideas about temptation and sin and their consequences. We hear too how Jesus leads the way in facing temptation and beating it.
Our first reading takes us back to the beginning when we were first created. The 1st creation story is of course the great literary masterpiece of six busy days of creating by God and then his day off. But today we hear this 2nd story of creation, with the Garden of Eden and with Adam and Eve. In the garden was the tree of good and evil, but no one was supposed to eat its fruit. So every day Adam and Eve resist eating any, but they can’t help but wonder what it’s like so inevitably one day, they give in. Eve eats and Adam tries it too. Theirs was the original sin but the same tendency is in our lives as well. We are subject to that original sin. We inevitably turn away from God, eventually, even if it’s only to see what it’s like, just like Adam and Eve did.
In our psalm we pray for God’s mercy, humbly admitting that we do sin, ‘our offences, truly we know them’, the psalmist says. Then in the letter to the Romans St. Paul looks closely at the nature of sin. He reminds us that sin existed ever since the time of Adam and Eve, and he observes that sin leads to death, by which he means the death or destruction of relationships, of trust, of freedom and so on. By contrast, Jesus offers us the gift of life, with relationships restored and trust and freedom re- established. Jesus does this by obedience or adherence to his mission to face and overcome both sin and death.
This is the mission that we hear in the gospel, Jesus goes out into the wilderness to reflect upon and indeed to face up to. He steps out for 40 days to get on top of being truly human which includes facing up to the temptations to sin. He reflects on his life up till now and also his destiny or mission and he seeks the strength he will need. He does this through prayer and fasting and he is then able to face down the temptations – classic ones, which we can all recognise:
The first is to satisfy every need and desire, to ‘scratch every itch’. He resisted the temptation to turn the stones into bread: “man does not live on bread alone”, he says. To be human is bigger than that. He can do without it. But tell that to today’s society which seems to seek the instant gratification of all desires.
Next he faced up humbly to the limitations of being the human being that he was. He resisted the temptation to jump off a parapet and wait for God to rescue him. The person he was would fall to the ground and die. He accepted who he was and did not put God to the test.
Our world is at odds with this. It is into makeovers and it seduces us into trying to be someone other than who we are. We need to accept with gratitude all that we actually are, all that we have received from God and not offer the blasphemy to God of saying that we are not good enough. Each of us is the person God wants us to be with the body he designed.
Finally Jesus overcame any lust for power that could be gained by straying from the true path. We have been witnesses to some pretty horrible politics in our country over the last few years where truth and honesty have been casualties of ambition and self-interest. We must be careful not to be affected or perhaps ‘infected’ by such rotten behaviour and when we are tempted, we should say with Jesus, ‘Be off, Satan’
So there the 40 days of Lent lie ahead when we can work on ourselves. We can step out, into the wilderness as it were, as Jesus did, and find the space to consider our mission and our lives, to help us see more clearly what is going in for us. And just as Jesus did, we can also seek to develop through our acts of penance, the strength we need to further our mission, which is to deepen our union with God. And thus we draw right alongside Jesus in his journey through life, into death and beyond, to eternity. That’s what Lent is supposed to be about.
The liturgies of Easter are ahead of us and they will express the historical reality of Jesus’s death and resurrection and they will also enable us to join ourselves more closely to that cosmic event, to enter the mystery more deeply.
7th Sunday A 2020
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In the ordinary way of things most people would say that it’s right and fair to get even with someone who hurts you – to ‘get your own back’, to right a wrong. After all you don’t want anyone thinking that you are weak or stupid, or a soft touch. But it is, I am afraid, the way of ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth’ and Jesus seems to take exception to this in the gospel today. He tells us that we have to go a step further; we’ve got to do better than that. And we definitely can do better than that:
I was in a shop recently and a kid a little way in front of me in the queue gave the chap behind the till a bit of a bad time. He was quite aggressive – he was abusive in fact, really quite rude. But the shop keeper didn’t react except with a smile and with what seemed like a few kind words. I was quite surprised and when it was my turn to pay for what I’d bought I asked the shop keeper why he’d let the kid walk all over him like that. ‘I’d have given him what for’, I said.
‘Well’, he replied, ‘first of all, if I’d been rude back it wouldn’t change anything and he’d only take out his anger on someone else. But in any case, if I retaliate then he has dictated what I do or say. He’s actually controlled me. His being horrible has made me horrible. I won’t give him that kind of victory. I choose the way I behave. Not him.’
And of course he had a point. In our first reading from Leviticus we were told not to bear hatred in our hearts. Carrying hatred is a bad idea and it’s not in our own interest. It can be a heavy thing to carry and it can wear us out. It is much better to love someone, even in the face of their bad behaviour. It’s a much lighter and much more pleasurable task. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ Leviticus says, a law Jesus himself would quote years later.
It may well sound simple but that’s not to say that it’s an easy thing to do. Jesus acknowledges this but challenges us: ‘If you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even tax collectors do as much, don’t they?’ No, he says, we are called to be perfect, or at least to seek the way of perfection. We have to go that step further and see everyone as our neighbour.
And to do that we don’t have to wait till someone hurts us or even tries to. Here, where we live, there are a lot of isolated and lonely people. In fact we all feel lonely, from time to time. Good Christians need to stand out as being the ones who will say Hello, who will bother to get to know people, who will be generous enough to spare a little time for a chat, who will notice if something is wrong, who might help with a little shopping, who will always be ready to do a good turn. It is not about being outgoing and confident, it’s about seeing God’s presence in all things and in all people, being kind and loving and resisting the temptation to be lazy or selfish.
Our church should be a place where everyone gets a welcome and where no one goes away without the chance to talk to at least one other person. It is too easy to be too busy and not have time for anyone except our own family or our own friends, the people we usually speak to. But even the tax collectors and pagans do that much, don’t they?
‘You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’, says the Lord. We are called upon to stand out from the rest as followers of his, and then as the words of the hymn say:
‘They will know we are Christians by our love’
Now the season of Lent begins on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. This is the perfect opportunity to budget some time each week to give to others or even budget some will-power to speak with, befriend or simply welcome others in to your family, your friendship groups or even your parish! Jesus doesn’t actually say much about giving up sugar or chocolate biscuits. He says a lot though about reaching out in love to others.
Let’s make it a good Lent.
6th Sunday A 2020
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Our first 2 readings both speak of wisdom which is one of the great theological virtues that we would all want to possess. It is about knowing who God is, what He’s like, and where He is to be found. It will therefore open up the depth of any situation so that we can see what is right and what is wrong, and we can then act in such a way as to do good. A wise person sees beneath the surface, beyond the face value.
There is a morality tale told about large numbers of babies being swept away down a river. One passer-by on the bank shows great compassion and concern by rushing to tell the emergency services to come and help. A second bystander shows great courage by diving in to try and rescue them but then a third person who has the gift and virtue of wisdom runs up the river bank to deal with the wretch who is throwing the babies into the river in the first place.
Well, suppose that it is not about drowning babies but instead it’s about people who are starving. The first person might be moved to raise the alarm and call upon world agencies to help. The second person might show great generosity by getting involved in bringing food relief to those starving. Both are to be praised, but the truly wise person will ask why there are people starving in the first place and deal with that issue. S wisdom involves being able to look deeper and understand the root or the source of what is happening.
It is that wisdom that Jesus is speaking of in the Gospel. He is not trying to change the law. He tells us that we have to try and abide by the law, the 10 commandments, but we must also look deeper at our practice. We must search for what the law aims, deep down to achieve. We must be wise enough to understand what the purpose of the commandments really is. And that of course … is love.
Okay everybody, try not to kill anybody, at least not this week! But it’s not hugely virtuous to eliminate murder from your personal agenda. What is virtuous is to go deeper and eliminate the anger that provokes and promotes the violence that leads in extremis to death. Find and then name the fears and the threats that are at the root of the anger and deal with them. This will involve knowing and understanding yourself as well as others and God as well. It is Wisdom.
Likewise, when it comes to “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.
Infancy / adultery?
No, but Jesus tells us that we must not just avoid such a serious sin but we must look deep into ourselves and live our lives with a purity of heart so that we act from the centre of our being with a love and respect for others and for their relationships, with a love and respect for ourselves and a love and respect for God and his presence in all things. The wise person is the one seeking out God’s real presence in all people and all situations and – surprise, surprise – this wise person is the person who ends up doing the right thing.
This wisdom, Pope Francis calls discernment. It is about knowing and understanding ourselves, literally inside out. It is about looking and noticing what is going on in our hearts and then deciding what to do. The Holy Father says that we should be a church of discernment, both individually and institutionally.
So the wise person does not objectify anyone, for any reason, and is the one who avoids labelling others through gender, colour, faith tradition, nationality – whatever. When we label people we give ourselves permission to not treat them as individuals. That’s how we hurt people and God, who is in all people, takes the hit and the hurt as well. We need to be wise and discerning enough to see people for who they are and not what they are. In wisdom we genuinely want them to enjoy happiness, dignity and justice.
‘Yes, obey the rules’, Jesus says, but go deeper into their purpose and act out of the depth or centre of your being with love and then all your thoughts, words and actions will be so clearly wise and will so effectively make the world a better place. What could be wiser than that?
3rd Sunday A 2020
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From now on and throughout the year ahead we are going to be hearing almost the entire gospel of St Matthew and as today has been designated by the Church as the Day of the Word of God, I think it is worth spending a little time giving St. Matthew’s gospel some context. Today for instance, we hear him telling us about Jesus beginning his ministry. It would be a ministry of preaching, of teaching and of healing, but it would be controversial and challenging. He had been down in Judea, close to Jerusalem but when he heard about John the Baptist being arrested he quite wisely travelled up north to the quieter territories of Galilee near the lands, we are told, of Zebulun and Naphtali. There were some Jews up here but the majority were non-Jews or ‘Gentiles’ as they were called. And so Matthew picks out Jesus turning away from Jerusalem and the Jews and embracing the gentiles instead. So now as Isaiah prophesied, ‘the people who walked darkness, (i.e. the gentiles) have seen a great light’.
Matthew has this has a central theme of his gospel and we shall hear it again and again this coming year. Jesus fulfils all the Jewish prophecy about the coming of the Messiah but he consistently turns to the gentiles whenever and wherever his message is rejected by the Jews. Some Jews will become followers, but there will always be conflict with Jewish authority. His movement will mainly attract gentiles. You hear a bit of this in the other gospels but nothing like you get it with Matthew.
And it really isn’t a coincidence that Matthew is writing his gospel for people way up north in the city of Antioch – a long way from Jerusalem in every sense. A bit like Galilee and not at all like Jerusalem, Antioch is made up of gentiles for the most part but there is a sizeable Jewish minority. Now Christianity had caught a hold up here in a major way. Saints Paul and Barnabas had both been very active in building up the Church here. There were followers or converts in the Church from both camps, as it were. There were some Jews who saw Jesus leading them forward in their Jewish faith. For them Christianity was a progressive movement within Judaism. To be a Christian you would therefore have to become a Jew first. But there were many gentiles who embraced Christianity as a totally different religion to Judaism and had no intention whatsoever of becoming Jews first. It’s fair to say that these two groups did not see eye to eye and it often got very political and quite confrontational. Writing in about 90 A.D., Matthew is by and large very sympathetic with the gentile contingent. Throughout the gospel he gives the Jews a hard time. Perhaps as a Jew himself, he expects more from them. Anyway see what you think as the gospel unfolds.
By this time in fact, the Jewish authorities have taken a very hard line and stopped Christian Jews from praying in synagogues. Matthew is going to tell us that Jesus got thrown out of the odd synagogue, himself. So the political issues are very much alive in Matthew’s gospel. Today we simply hear Jesus carefully building his church, far away from Jerusalem, a church made up of both Jews and gentiles, dealing amicably with their differences. Where there’s people there’s politics.
And of course there always has been politics in the church. Many of you will have seen the film The Two Popes which picks up on the huge differences between Pope Francis as a worldly, pragmatic and pastoral pope and Pope Benedict, a dogmatic, academic pope. The unwise, I think, conclude that they cannot both be right; the wise conclude that the Holy Spirit has called upon both of them and both of their leaderships to guide the church through these difficult times. But the point is, there were politics at the beginning, and there are still politics today. The Word of God was addressed through Matthew to all sides of the arguments of his day and to all sides of any arguments in the church of today.
It’s important in this year of the Word of God that we understand that scripture – all the books of the Bible – did not float down to us from heaven on parachutes. They were all books written down in real human contexts and the contexts add to our understanding of God. They don’t diminish it.
2nd Sunday A 2020
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Good old Brendan was a bit exciting – Storm Brendan, I mean of course. From the safety of a slightly windy Bexley, I did enjoy watching some of the TV coverage, particularly when the gales were attacking the coast down in the West Country. There’d be a windswept reporter talking of the terrible damage being done by the tremendously dangerous stormy seas behind him and then you’d see windsurfers whizzing across apparently defying all such warnings, oblivious to the danger. But they clearly relished the conditions, it’s what they are all about, surfing at speed. If you are a windsurfer you don’t say ‘I am not going windsurfing today, it’s too windy’. You don’t disengage. You don’t turn away.
But in some areas of life I think it is tempting to disengage, to avoid taking part in life – in community, in relationships and so on, to turn away. We pull back from making our contribution. We keep our heads down and make sure we don’t volunteer anything. Just like the foolish steward in Jesus’s story who took the talent his master gave him and simply buried it instead of using it or investing it.
Well in the gospel today we are visiting Jesus’s baptism again but this time with St. John’s reflection on the event, as the start of Jesus’s mission. This mission is described by the words of John the Baptist, an announcement almost: ‘I welcome to the stage The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. It’ an important saying that we repeat at mass each week, as we prepare to join Jesus in Holy Communion. So what does it really mean? Well, St. John reflects on this a great deal, and later on he recalls Jesus saying ‘I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full’. The quality of our lives seems to be important to Jesus. He does not want our lives to be empty, or to be disengaged from the world in which we live, our society, our community and so on. That’s at the very heart of the ‘Sin of the world’ that the Lamb of God takes away. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Much of Jesus’s mission was about restoring life to those who seemed exiled from it, the sinners, the sick, the disabled and many others. He wanted everyone to have life in its fullness, to receive his ‘Bread of Life’, to know and engage in intimacy with him, and with others as well. St. John understands all of Jesus’s teaching as being about fully loving God and loving others because of his love for us. So there was nothing ‘laid-back’ about following his Way. His call to follow involved radical change. So we must accept the responsibility of being stewards of our own lives. If God offers us health and relative wealth we can’t just give it back, like some unwanted Christmas present. We must accept with gratitude every opportunity God offers us to take part in the life of community and to celebrate his gifts of life by using these gifts to make a difference to our world. Cynicism, laziness, indifference, turning away, and above all fearfulness – these are the enemies, the devil’s work, the sin of the world. Lamb of God, take these away from us.
And so yes, it may be stormy outside sometimes, but the greater the wind blows, the faster the windsurfer goes!
We might not all be windsurfers but each of us is designed with a high specification. As 2020 lies ahead of us, it is a good idea to open ourselves up to God’s calling, to embrace the gift of life and to embrace it the full. If we trust our lives to God he will make good use of them. There’s a little reflection I like to remember at the beginning of each year:
I said to the man who stood at the gate (of the year):
Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.
and he replied:
Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than any light,
and safer than any known way.
Baptism of the Lord A 2020
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Today is the last day of Christmas. The Feast of Christ’s Baptism is a very appropriate ending. And I’ll tell you why. We began Christmas, not with the October special offers nor even with the start of Advent but with the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. That opened of the deep mystery whereby humanity gazed down on divinity and divinity gazed back up at humanity, the mystery of God being joined to our world as a human. It’s a mystery that deepens and deepens.
In that gaze Mary and Joseph committed to Jesus and he committed to them. The mystery deepened, at least symbolically, with the arrival of the shepherds. They gazed at the Christchild and he back at them. In that gaze the Chosen Race committed to Jesus and he committed to them. That’s why St. Luke wrote them in to the story. But as we heard St. Peter saying in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, ‘It’s true, God sent his word to the People of Israel, but the truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites and anybody of any nationality is acceptable to him’. Hence St. Matthew tells us about a visit from the magi, the dignitaries from beyond Israel. These ambassadors did Jesus homage. They gazed at him and he at them. In that gaze Jesus committed to people of all nations and they to him.
But that was all there and then, a few thousand miles away and a few thousand years ago, so how does it reach us? Well that’s what today’s feast is about. Jesus, by now an adult, punged into the waters of baptism. He went right up to his neck in them. In doing so he committed totally to all of us. He immersed himself into the whole of humanity and took it all on his shoulders. When we were baptised we met him there in the waters. He gazed at us and we at him. In that gaze we see his commitment to us and he sees our commitment to him. Our commitment was expressed by the baptismal promises that we made or more likely that were made on our behalf. His baptism was the final step of his Christmas journey and that’s why it is a very appropriate ending to the Church’s season of Christmas.
So in a moment I shall invite you to undertake the last significant action of this Christmas which is to renew your baptismal promises and then accept a blessing with baptismal waters. Let it be a reminder of your meeting Christ in his baptism, and moreover, engaging in that mutual commitment with him that we call a relationship or a spiritual life…
On the Feast of The Epiphany Fr Doug asked John Rayer to make an appeal on behalf of the parish Finance Committee. To learn more about the appeal please click on the ” Parish Finances” page of the website.
Holy Family A 2019
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I do hope that you are continuing to enjoy this wonder-filled Season of Christmas. There are 2 weeks left. This Sunday we celebrate and give thanks for the Holy Family. In our crib the shepherds are on their way back to the fields and the Kings won’t arrive till next week, which just leaves the Holy Family – three people who love one another and will change the face of the earth. And that is the vocation or mission of us all: To change the face of the earth by loving one another.
It is the mission of our parish therefore. This time last year we were working to rebuild our parish council to ensure it was fit for this purpose. We completed that task at our Parish Annual Meeting and the council then set about discerning a vision for our parish in the years to come. A draft of that vision goes to our next Parish Annual Meeting and the document is on the board in the porch. It tries to give some order to our thoughts about what our parish should be and should do here in Bexley.
But what in a way has to happen first is for each of us to give some order to what we should be and should do in life, a life created by God and for God. Well, I often offer the notion or spirituality of stewardship as a way to describe this human reality. I think the idea accurately describes where we stand before God. God is many things – all powerful, all loving, all merciful, both our closest and most intimate friend and yet also our most supreme judge. Sometimes it is difficult to know where we stand and how we should approach him or respond to him. In the Gospel I find the image that is most helpful in this regard is that of the steward. The landowner, the master entrusts us as stewards with varying amounts of gift or ‘talents’. It is for us to accept, to acknowledge and to be thankful for these gifts, then to develop and nurture them, and then to share them or invest them in others so as to be able to return them to God when they have achieved what they were meant for.
So we think of ourselves as having been given, time, talent and treasure, by God. The starting point for our relationship with God is an attitude of gratitude for these gifts. We need to be aware of them and accepting of them so that we can deliberately spend them well – in the service of God – but invariably by sharing them or spending them on others. I should be deliberate in the way I spend or share my time, my gifts and finally my treasure – my material wealth. At Judgement Day I will be asked to give an account of what I have done with all three.
So our response to God’s generosity should be our gratitude and our generosity. We as humans need to give. The measure of us is how much we give. We are what we give. Just as God is! He is the one who gives everything, his whole life in fact. Through our giving we draw closer to God and who we are meant to be becoming. What God gives to us we try to give back to him. Our parish community is and should be a place to consider, to develop and to express this spiritual relationship with God. It must be part of the parish’s mission and its vision.
I am sure that you do see in our parish a culture of generosity. There is great love expressed for God, for each other and for the world beyond. Many already give up a lot of time, share gifts in ministry and give generously of their wealth. But, it is also important to review and revise our contribution regularly both as individuals and as a parish. The beginning of a year is a good time to do that. I hope we do this every year but it helps to focus each year slightly differently. We want to take stock over a three year period of how we give of our time, talent and treasure, but to start this year with an emphasis on a financial review.
The finance committee has reviewed carefully where our parish stands and what it can commit to in the future but it is dependent on the primary source of income, the offertory collection. Our future is in our own hands so we both individually and collectively get to say who we are and what we do. Over the next few weeks John Rayer, on behalf of the Finance Committee will lead us in a review. He and others will be at the back of the Church after mass to give you a special newsletter and to answer any questions. But we must remain clear that the most important thing is to maintain the integrity between who we are before God and what we do in response. In other words, that it all stays within our spiritual life, our relationship with God.
And on this Feast of the Holy Family we seek the prayers of Mary and Joseph in… getting it together so that we run our Parish Family in such a way as to love one another and change the face of the earth.
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon at Midnight Mass.
Most of you know that I was in Ghana, West Africa, last month visiting a project that I am involved in out there. And I do love Ghana. So much about it is changing and dynamic but much is very predictable too, the heat for instance – and the day time. Every day the sun rises at 6.00 in the morning and every evening it sets at 6.00. But then with very little light pollution the night sky is absolutely fantastic, full of stars and many’s the evening where I would just stand, and stare, and marvel at the universe.
And it’s a very big place, the universe. Do the maths!
It is as wide as light has travelled since God first switched the whole thing on.
So if the universe is 10 thousand, thousand, thousand years old
and light travels at 10 thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand, metres every year, then the universe is 100 thousand thousand, thousand thousand, thousand thousand, thousand thousand metres across – or 100 million, million, million, million metres wide
And there are a lot of stars up there. In fact there are 10 thousand, thousand, thousand galaxies, ours being the milky way. Each has 10 thousand, thousand, thousand stars, ours being the sun, of course.
So that is 100 thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand, stars altogether or 100 million, million, million.
Each of those stars will have a solar system with planets and in ours we get to live on good old Planet earth, the Blue Planet
The King of that vast universe, the Creator of all those stars chose to be born as a little baby in a mucky old stable in a town called Bethlehem in Palestine.
He came an awful long way, whatever way you look at it.
It is truly awesome that he would want to do that – a cosmic event.
So you have to ask: ‘Why? Why would he do that?’
He came because of you and me, to be much closer to us than the stars are. That’s how much he thinks of each and every one of us.
Having come all that way He has a lot to say to us in fact, but today let’s just marvel at his coming to us at all, his being born for us
and therefore how much we mean to him.
It was a great day for us, a day we really should celebrate.
It puts me in mind of a favourite hymn:
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds thy hand has made.
I see the stars, loads of them, (I hear the rolling thunder)
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Yes, How great thou art!
And how humbled am I that you should come and visit my tiny corner of such a vast universe.
And come, he did.
Fourth Sunday of Advent A, 2019
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
So that’s how it’s done. That’s how the Almighty God of heaven and earth came to be born as man. It sounds as if it’s the real beginning to Matthew’s Gospel, but it’s not in fact. We’ve just skipped the first 17 verses which are a genealogy of Jesus, tracing him back through JOSEPH which is significant, all the way back to Abraham, There are a lot of people there in that line of descent, many who are unknown except for this reference, many we are quite uncertain about, and some controversial and dare I say dodgy characters as well. All part of Jesus’s lineage. St Matthew wants us to know that his gospel will not be full of superheroes. Instead it will be crowded with ordinary people trying to do their best, people like Joseph, as we’ve just heard.
He was in a predicament, wasn’t he?. He had found out that Mary whom he was engaged to, was pregnant, but not with his child. He had considered this carefully and decided that for her sake he would separate from her quietly. Then he has this extraordinary dream in which he learns that God himself is responsible for the pregnancy and he then agrees to go through with the marriage, by ‘taking her to his home’ which we understand is in Bethlehem. In doing so he becomes the legal father of Jesus. Joseph says ’yes’ to it all.
Mary hears a similar message from God and her response to this annunciation was similar to Joseph’s. She says ‘yes, let it be done to me.’ This is significant. She doesn’t say, ‘yes, I’ll do it.’ She says ‘let it be done to me’. Joseph and Mary both indicate that they are humble but willing – ordinary people willing to give their lives up to God’s plan. They were not superheroes agreeing to save the world. They didn’t put this together. It was crafted by God and very carefully crafted by God. It would fulfil all the promise and expectation created in scripture, the anticipated, the inevitable interaction of the Creator in His creation. It would bring salvation. It had to be right:
The Christ child would be the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit.
The Christ child would be the Son of Man, born through the flesh of Mary
The Christ child would be the Son of David, of the Jewish Nation, because Joseph, of the House of David would marry Mary and thereby give Davidic status to Jesus. God crafted this, not Mary and Joseph.
How would it all work out? They didn’t need to know or understand. It was probably better that they didn’t know. God would do it and take responsibility for it. They simply and humbly accepted their roles in what God was up to. That is what being a steward is all about. We all need to follow suit, and to present ourselves, our time, our talent and our treasure, all for God’s use. What is achieved, even here in the parish is achieved through us by God, not by us. If it were down to us alone all you would see would be our failures and shortcomings.
I was up at the Bracton Centre yesterday – you know, the secure centre up at Joyden’s Wood. I was praying with a young resident or inmate about a number of things. One of his concerns was about a box he had made as a Christmas present for his mother. It was probably a jewellery box (!) It was a very handsome box but his issue was about the space inside it. He was proud of the space he’d created but was worried that it might be occupied by bad things or bad thoughts. He wanted it to be filled in some way with God or with his peace or joy. So the two of us gave it a thorough blessing! Anyway the point is that during Advent especially but throughout the whole of our lives our task is to create the space for one purpose – for God to enter. We are the vessels, beautifully crafted as we are, but what counts is the presence of God that is inside. Mary and Joseph’s greatness lay in emptying themselves out so that God could enter in, and enter our world.
And the same principle applies to the celebration of Christmas. You can pull your hair out and work your socks off; you can empty bank accounts trying to provide or construct the perfect Christmas. But how about making a prayer of it? Gather up humbly all your genuine and sincerely meant preparations, and offer them up to God, so that you are not doing Christmas, He is. Let Christmas be done to you as it was to Mary and Joseph. It is not your peace, it is Christ’s. Let Christmas be visited on your homes and accept the gift of God, the gift of his presence.
Third Sunday of Advent A, 2019
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
Today we have lit our 3rd Advent candle, the pink one. This is not any kind of political statement but a celebration of our joy. I mentioned last week that Pope Francis has challenged us, as Christians to find, to celebrate and to witness our joy to the world this Advent and Christmas. Well today is Gaudete Sunday and our particular Advent theme this week is, like our candle, lighter than those of the last 2 weeks. Today the challenge is to be awake to and t celebrate the presence of Jesus in our midst and hence to rejoice – Gaudete! But it is a challenge, I think. The key to dealing with this challenge lies in John the Baptist’s question: ‘Are you the one who is to come or have we got to wait for someone else?’
Well first of all, what’s going on here? Surely John was the one who did know Jesus. He was the one who directed people to him. So he must have known, surely? But look where he is when he asks the question. In prison, somewhere he never expected to be. He wasn’t the criminal type and nor was he an insurgent. He was a prophet, working away from Jerusalem in the wilderness with no aspirations to power or authority. Was there a moment of doubt in John? Well yes, I think there probably was. In prison John like anyone else would do a lot of questioning, a lot of self-examination: ‘What in my life has brought me here? Have I gone wrong and if so, where? Is it worth it? Well not if Jesus isn’t the Messiah. Could I be wrong about the whole thing? So Jesus, are you the one?’
‘Ever been there? Have you ever had doubts or questions about your Faith? Well it is not a bad thing if you have. It is good to challenge ourselves and ask questions of God – provided of course that like John the Baptist, you listen to the answer. Jesus took the trouble to answer John’s question and he’ll answer ours too, so rejoice, Gaudete.
I walked the Camino a few years ago, the 500 mile pilgrimage across Spain to Santiago de Compostella. It was a great privilege for me, part of which was in the trust that many other pilgrims placed in me by telling me their stories. Many carried important issues in their hearts, including doubts and confusions, which they were relieved to share – very many particular and personal quests. My privilege was to offer a listening ear and to reflect what God might be saying to them. To first of all see that there might be a message and then most challengingly to see who might be the sender. It is a great joy to realise that God is truly present in our life and that he is speaking to us in our hearts. Rejoice. Gaudete.
Meanwhile back here in Bexley we are on our own pilgrimages through life with questions and doubts. Maybe like John the Baptist we are asking ‘Are you the one?’ but more likely we ask ‘Are you really there?’ though a better question is ‘Are you really here, in my life?’ When I look at the news I sometimes wonder, I must say.
But the reply that Jesus sends to us is the same as he sent to John: Tell them what you hear and see. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, lepers are cured, the dead are raised to new life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor, so don’t lose faith. Well I for one, can see all that happening right now. Our, SVP Society provide material and spiritual comfort for many in our area who are in trouble as do the AIC group, our support of international and national organisations doing similar charitable work is outstanding, our elderly and housebound are served by visitors and Eucharistic ministers, the eyes of faith are opened by our catechists and by teachers in our schools, the sacraments of our church and the prayer of our community give life and hope to us all – And yes I had the privilege of going out to visit the Padre Pio Rehabilitation Centre for leprosy survivors in Ghana last month. Lepers are cured. I took with me over £1500 from your gifts which will be used to establish someone back in the community with a livelihood. (I will offer a presentation about this in the New Year) I also took £1000 from the deanery developing world project to train up a special needs teacher.
So let me end by reading from a Christmas Card sent from Ghana by the leadership team: Thank you all for remembering us, our work and our needs. Thank you for helping us to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, bring comfort to the sick and dying, hope to the discouraged and the light of faith to those who are searching. We thank God that he has allowed us to be his hands and you to be the arms that support us in prayer, sacrifice and charity.
So again I say, Rejoice. Jesus is the one, here with us and in us.
Second Sunday of Advent A, 2019
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
Last Sunday we picked up on the first of the four Advent themes and we faced the very fundamental Christian notion that Christ will one day return to take us home with him and that we should therefore find a way to look forward to that event or eventuality, to not fear death and even in some way to look forward to it. A challenging thought and I don’t expect that any of us will long for it like a child longs for Christmas Day! But the idea is that we should be ready and should be awake to it. This week’s theme carries those same ideas of anticipation, of waiting and being awake to Christ’s arrival, but this time in the context of the history of our world.
We heard Isaiah in our first reading prophesying about the advent of a messiah. Amazing! He was speaking near enough 740 years before Christ did arrive. It just underlines the fact that there was always a place in history for the Son of God to be born into this world, to take his place in the midst of mankind. From the moment of creation it was inevitable. The whole of the Old Testament can be seen as the preparation for that cosmic event. It would be an event that would affect the entire history of the human race and give it a meaning and purpose that everyone could grasp. It would be great news, a real gospel. Children often decorate a Jesse Tree, as it is called, with all the great characters of the Old Testament who took a role in the carefully orchestrated prelude to the Coming of the Messiah, the greatest event in earth’s history. Creation had always cried out for its Creator to fully reveal himself and in Christ that is what would happen.
But there had to be a final effort didn’t there? So… some 30 years after the Christ was born, on a Tuesday or maybe a Wednesday – who’s to know?, but it definitely all kicked off:
‘In due course John the Baptist appeared’. His role was to call for the final preparations to be made. ‘Get ready’ was his call and to get ready everyone needed to wake up and turn away from anything that would stop them seeing Christ when he came to them. They were to repent and therefore be alert to the potential to embrace the Son of God himself. And let’s be fair, people responded in great numbers. Crowds from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him out in the Jordan Valley and they were baptised. Pharisees and Sadducees were among them. They all heard him telling them to wake up to what was about to happen. And we have an understanding of how in the next three brief years there was an engagement between the Son of God and his people, an expression of the divine in humanity, a revelation of God to his people. And we know the climax to that engagement whereby it was transformed into a communion between God and his people in which we participate, most especially in mass.
The world would never be the same again. An extraordinary event had occurred in history. A most wonderful thing happened.
Next week we consider his advent into our hearts, our lives, his advent in mystery and we try to recognise how fantastic that is. But this week we would do well to recognise that what John the Baptist said to his contemporaries applies to us well. We should wake up – or at least not doze off and miss the main event. We should repent and figure out what holds us back as humans so that we can leave it behind and reach forward to embrace the marvellous life that God offers us. The Church offers assistance here through the sacrament of Reconciliation. It is on offer here on Saturdays and we will be holding a special reconciliation service here with other priests from the deanery on Monday 23rd at 7.00.
With or without the grace of that sacrament, it is very easy to miss the advent or the arrival of the Son of God. It requires us to pause and reflect a little. And while we are about it, we owe it to the world to join John the Baptist and call on everyone to wake up to the Advent of Christ, or if we don’t want to take on the whole world how about taking the risk with a few of our friends or family? At least let’s take advice from Pope Francis and reflect enough to find joy at what happened all those years ago and again as he says, if you find joy, if you find cheer then don’t forget to tell your face about it!!
First Sunday of Advent C, 2019
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
Here we are, the first day of the New Church Year, the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is all about ‘Arrival’. ARRIVAL.
As you know I have been in Ghana these past two weeks, staying at the PPRC, the Padre Pio Rehabilitation Centre, which was originally just for leprosy survivors but which has now grown to embrace and welcome people with special needs as well. Many there describe special needs as the ‘new leprosy’ because people with special needs are similarly stigmatised, often rejected by their families and villages, outcast as a curse or at least as bad charms. Anyway I have mentioned before that I am an honorary Chief so my arrival was much anticipated. My ceremonial chief’s stool was taken out of storage, dusted down and varnished up. Banners and signs were put up in welcome. The Christ the King Community Centre was given a lick of paint. (Students from our own Christ the King Sixth Form College paid for it to be built some twenty five years ago.) And space was of course made ready for me in the guest accommodation. The arrival, my arrival!
Advent is all about Christ’s arrival so if the preparation for my arrival was significant, the preparation for Christ’s arrival needs to be infinitely more elaborate. And hence this season of Advent. The Church invites us to consider Christ’s arrival or advent in four different ways. It’s not just a countdown to Christmas. We stand apart from the way the rest of cociety understands advent. Today we consider His second coming, his coming to us again at the end of time, or more pertinently, at the end of our time on earth. It is His advent in majesty. Next week we will consider his advent into our hearts, our lives, his advent in mystery. On the third Sunday we consider the importance of his advent in the history of the world and on the final week we meditate on his advent in the reality, the humanity of Mary and Joseph. – majesty, mystery, history and humanity. These are the four themes picked out with our four candles – and I don’t mean handles for forks!!
This first Sunday then picks out Christ’s advent at the end of days or at least the end of our days, and we are invited quite challengingly really, to look forward to that moment of death and prepare to celebrate it well. Again, it’s not what we do in our society much. But the moment of death should be anticipated and longed for, not with fear and regret at life’s ending but with hope and joy at life’s new beginning. Quite a challenge, as I say. We need to see our whole life on earth as a time of Advent, a time of preparing for that meeting, that day of days, that arrival.
I have been at several funerals in Ghana and they are often enormous events, with entire villages taking part in lavish celebrations. The coffin can be the most extraordinary centre-piece of the whole affair. It can be custom made with an individual design. I have seen them made as boats (for fisherman, of course) as minibuses or taxis (for drivers), as fish or chickens or other animals or bibles or airplanes or carpentry tools – anything that celebrates the individual who will be inside it, I saw one on my way home as a pineapple!
There is some debate going on over there just now because many people spend too much money on them and get into debt – just as people do here I suppose. But it is often the poorest people who go to the most trouble. And this is not ironic, it is quite understandable really. Life is very harsh for many, many people, with little to celebrate, but meeting the Lord at the hour of death is by total contrast a great and wonderful moment to look forward to and to celebrate. The new life with God in paradise is anticipated, is prepared for and is welcomed. It is a mark and sign of faith. So there is a point to what goes on.
Now we are aware that this isn’t a part of the season of advent that society as a whole would recognise but for us Christians it is very much part of it. Yes we are preparing to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Christ at Christmas but we are also preparing to greet him at the moment of our death and we are also renewing our commitment to open our hearts in welcome to his being present in our lives in every moment of every day.
So there is more to Advent for us Christians than the number of shopping days that remain before what I have heard described as the mid-winter bank holiday! (Would you believe it?!) It is a time of grace and a time to consider more carefully some of the deeper mysteries of life.
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time C, 2019
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
Well, it was a very tricky question, wasn’t it?
The Sadducees asked Jesus who you’d be married to in heaven if you’d been married more than once in this life. If I didn’t believe in resurrection and the Sadducees didn’t, then I’d be pretty pleased with myself for coming up with such a challenging question for Jesus. How could he possibly answer that? They had him over a barrel – in public – and expected him and his talk about resurrection to look pretty stupid. But it does need answering, doesn’t it.
This weekend we remember and pray for those who lost their lives in wartime. We are separated by at least one generation by now and so we tend to focus much more on their bravery and generosity than on our personal sense of loss but nevertheless we do think of meeting up with them and knowing them in some sense. In any case, throughout November we remember and we pray for those whom we definitely have known and we do talk of meeting them once more when we ourselves die. So if, for instance you have been married more than once who will you be married to in heaven?
Well Jesus, in his response, affirms quite forcefully that faith in the resurrection really goes back a long way and is implicit in the words of Moses himself. Certainly by the time of the Maccabean resistance which took place a couple of hundred years prior to today’s gospel the doctrine of bodily resurrection was explicitly taught and our first reading today refers to the terrible martyrdom of the 7 brothers that gave witness to that belief. Jesus also does respond to the Sadducees taunt about relationships in heaven. He says that we will be individualised and have relationships but that they will be modified in form, not quite the same as here on earth because in heaven we will be much more closely related to each other in God; we will all know each other primarily as brothers and sisters, as sons and daughters of God.
Certain things will mean more and others will mean less.
I am off to Ghana this week as you know. On a previous visit I had a conversation with a young girl, called Esse. She helped me see the truth of this. Esse had lost part of her leg as the result of leprosy and as a leper she had lived apart from her family and from the other children of her own village. She lived in fact in the children’s home run by the Centre. We were talking about heaven before bedtime prayers one night and I said to her: ‘Well Esse, heaven is a wonderful place and Jesus has a special place for you there and there won’t be any more leprosy. I expect you’ll have both your legs again and you’ll be able to run around just as fast as all the other children. What do you think? Well, little Esse went all thoughtful then said to me ‘Not really, I just don’t think it will matter anymore’. And by golly, wasn’t she right? Certain things will mean more and others will mean less.
In heaven we will all be brothers and sisters, sons and daughters and what will matter most will be our love for God and for one another. We will be reunited with loved ones but it won’t be about catching up on the news. I don’t think that it will be much about doing anything , more about being – being fully human and fully alive. It will be about being in love with those we meet again and with being in love with God because we shall see him and know him as he is. We shall have life in him. We shall be alive in him.
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time C, Parish Remembrance 2019
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
In a couple of minutes we’ll be remembering in prayer those parishioners whose funerals we’ve celebrated in the parish during this past year. Each will have a candle lit for them as a symbol of our prayers and of our hopes. There are 13 of them. Each of them will have been known by at least some of you. So all of us should pray for all of them. We will also pray for others we have known and loved, those who have died in other places and in other years. Many of their names are held in our November Book of Remembrance. This book will be brought onto our sanctuary at each and every mass that is said during this month. Please feel free to add names to it after mass today.
On Friday, the Feast of all Saints or All Hallows, as we used to call it, we celebrated our faith in so many people who are with God in paradise and we celebrated our hope that each and every one of us is called to be there. Our soul, the person that each of us is, that soul, that person is immortal. Our bodies will have been buried or cremated and either way every molecule that makes up the body that is ours, every atom will have been gently recycled by Mother Nature. This shouldn’t worry us. After all, the actual physical atoms that make up my body presently weren’t there a while back nor will they be soon. They are continually being renewed. And I do look different to the way I looked say 50 years ago but I am the same person. It is still me. I can pull out one of these hairs and trust that there will be another one coming along soon – or at least that used to be the case! But the souls, the persons that we are, will not cease to be. We cannot be recycled. We live forever. This is what resurrection means.
So, just as our life is sacred, so is our death. Each of our deaths will be precious moments, grace-filled because Jesus will be right there by our side, taking us by the hand and leading us into whatever eternal life with God is. The candles that we will light in a few moments will pick out those 13 special moments of those parishioners’ deaths – and others besides, I’m sure! Hopefully they may help us to be in or at that moment and express our love in the prayer that Jesus, our High Priest, can bring to each of those souls. It is only Jesus who can communicate our love to those beyond the grave.
Each time we join in the mass we are joined to Jesus in his journey through death to new life and being joined to him we are joined to all those he carries with him, the whole communion of saints. In the mass, we touch that timeless, precious, sacred moment. What a privilege that is. And that is why it is so appropriate to pray at mass for those who have died. From wherever and from whenever we do so, our love reaches them at that very moment, that precious moment of death: our prayer to help them in their journey through death and our prayer seeking their intercession. Time limits us, but it does not limit them.
The cemetery, the grave, the memorial garden, whatever it might be, marks the border. It is a very secure border between heaven and earth. Exit definitely means exit (!) But Jesus is right there providing a Way, a conduit, a passage to life beyond. ‘Follow me through here’, he says. As the gate between the two he is the ‘go to’ person and as we thank the Father for giving his Son this role we should respond by seeking him out and gaining his friendship.
So, we are all remembering those who have gone, people we knew and loved. Jesus said to trust in him and believe in him and so we can still trust and believe in the persons we have lost. Jesus himself came to lead them to their heavenly home. None of us knows what that is like but we do know that they will remain the individuals God created them to be, knowable and loveable and also able to love, now more than ever before. May they, each of them, through the faith we have in them give us consolation and may they, each of them, rest with God in peace.
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
There was a novel I enjoyed reading some years back now. It was called A Very British Coup and it was by Chris Mullin, I think. It was about a really socialist government being elected to power in this country with the enigmatic Harry Perkins as Prime Minister. There was a TV series of it with Ray McAnally playing Harry Perkins. Anyway an early scene pictures Harry getting on a train in Sheffield to travel down to London to go meet her majesty the Queen to complete the formalities of forming a government. Well a reporter on the train rather mischievously says to Harry; ‘Well Harry, now that you are Prime Minister are going to abolish first Class Train Travel?’ As quick as you like Harry replies: ‘Oh no, I think we’ll be abolishing Second Class. We are all first class don’t you think?’ His clever reply was meant to highlight discrimination and judgementalism.
And that’s what Jesus’ little story in the Gospel did as well. The Pharisee and the tax collector: The Pharisee judges the tax collector and indeed the rest of mankind into the bargain. In doing so he placed himself above the tax collector and above all mankind. Jesus, fairly often attacked this behaviour and said that it is only God who can make such judgements about people. Our role in judgement is limited to considering actions and motives. I’m not sure whether he said it on purpose or not but I find it amusing that Jesus says that the Pharisee was praying to himself. Certainly God wouldn’t be listening to such a prayer.
But we have to admit that it is sometimes hard not to be judgemental. When you hear about those 39 immigrants turning up dead in the back of a lorry it is hard not judge the perpetrators as being evil. The suffering for those who lost their lives, and of their families who may have begged and borrowed to pay the traffickers – and may still be paying them! Well it is beyond belief! Human trafficking is an evil blasphemous pursuit but as for the traffickers, they must face our justice system for the judgement of their crimes but they must face God for their personal judgement.
Going back though to Jesus in the gospel, he is very critical of the Pharisee who places himself as judge, almost literally above all mankind from where he looks down on the tax collector and on the rest of humankind. The wrongdoing of the tax collector was not in dispute. He himself admits to being a sinner in his prayer, a prayer, it seems that God does hear. He goes home at rights with God. He and God were in communion but the Pharisee was not. The Pharisee did not see the tax collector as another human being, one who had simply gone astray. He couldn’t do; he was too far above him looking down on him.
There’s a phrase we used to use: ‘Level with me’. It had something to do with telling the truth but also to do with communicating one to one. God became man so that he could level with us, each of us – you, me and the odd tax collector. The Pharisee placed himself above and therefore beyond us all. And if Jesus had put himself in the story then the Pharisee would be above Jesus too. So Jesus is very serious about this ‘judgement’ business.
We need to be careful then about staying on the level with everyone and never placing ourselves above anyone whatever they do – or can’t do perhaps. Language, I think, can often lead us astray in this or sometimes give us away or sometimes both.
I’m not listening to you, you are foreign!
I’m not listening to you, you are only a child
I’m not listening to you, you are just a woman
I’m not listening to you, you are only a lay person
I’m not listening to you, you are new here, you are an outsider
I’m not listening to you, you’re an Arsenal supporter – well fair enough but I’m not listening to you, you are you follow the wrong Faith
I’m not listening to you, you vote for the wrong party
I’m not listening to you, you are disabled
I’m not listening to you, you are just uneducated
I’m not listening to you, you are unrefined
I’m not listening to you, what have you have ever done with your life?
I’m not listening to you ..well who else is on the list that we stand above?
I’m not listening to you, you travel this world second class!
Good old Harry Perkins.
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
Today is World Mission Day. It’s a day to pray for the evangelisation of the world- that the whole world will come to believe in the Christian Gospel. It’s a day to focus our prayer beyond the borders of England, wherever they may end up! It’s a day to recognise that we are incredibly blessed to have received our faith and also to resolve to ensure that others right around the world should enjoy the same privilege. And having our faith is a privilege that liberates us, not a burden that pegs us down and limits our lifestyle. The Christian Gospel can light up the world. Our gospel and all our scripture is very important to us. But the way we share it with others is not by hitting them over the head with it. We have to admit though that this was the flavour of missionary work centuries ago. The bible was forced on people and that process harmed those receiving the message AND it damaged the message itself.
In St. Paul’s letter to Timothy we were told that all scripture is inspired by God, and that it has the potential to refute error, to guide our lives well and to enable us to become holy. It can equip us and make us ready for any good work. From Holy Scripture we can learn the wisdom that will lead to salvation. So scripture, the Word of God, is the starting point for us and it is our inspiration.
In missionary work though, it is not usually appropriate to foist it on people, to go round quoting it and reading it out loud. In mission, as in conversation, we first need to listen to people and while affirming that which is holy and wonderful in them, we give ear to their needs and respond by sharing God’s love with them. And generally speaking most people would identify overseas missionary work with works of charity. Good deeds are most often the leading edge of the Christian Gospel. ‘Preach the Gospel; use words only when necessary’, St. Francis once said. ‘By their fruits shall you know them’, Jesus himself said. It is when people have received the love of God expressed by missionaries, that they may choose to seek the source, which is God himself, and then to get to know God by engaging with scripture.
In the Padre Pio mission to leprosy sufferers that I support in Ghana, the sacraments and the Bible are very much at the heart of the lives of the sisters and the other staff who run the mission but the work they do is in caring for those with leprosy or disability or other illnesses. There is a school for children with special needs and a centre for older people with special needs; there is a home to provide childcare for deprived children – no longer just for leper families, and there is a home to care for the elderly. So when I say mass on Sundays there are some who are Catholic and receive Holy Communion but there are many others who are Muslims or of other faiths who just like to come along and be part of the mass and praise God. Many have become Catholic but that’s not the purpose of the mission. But they do all seem to know the bible really well. I am due to go out there in a few weeks and because many have asked how to support this mission there will be a retiring collection next week for anyone who does want to make a financial gift.
Anyway, the Church is making this a Year of the Word, a year to prompt and enable us all to engage more with scripture – with our bible. Most of the bible is proclaimed in the course of the church’s 3 year cycle in mass but the experience of listening at mass and our relationship with God in particular will be enhanced by engaging with scripture in other ways besides. Just as Jesus humbled himself and limited himself by becoming man, the Word of God is humbled and limited by being written down on pages. If we open our minds and hearts to it though, the words of scripture will speak to us at levels well beyond their literary meaning because it is God himself who speaks. Here in Bexley we are as you know, hosting the Diocesan Spirituality Commission’s Day of looking at ways of praying with the bible. It’s on November 9th. Many have already signed up to attend but all are welcome. Ring the parish office to make a booking or use the diocesan website.
So sacred scripture, the Holy Bible is very important to us but we are so lucky to have the sacraments AND to have the scripture. And they are intrinsic to the church’s mission everywhere in the world.
An Indian friend of mine compared them to curry and rice. ‘Both are good in themselves’, he said ‘but together they are wonderful’.
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
We are very familiar, I think, with the event described in today’s gospel. I feel even closer to it because of my involvement with a leprosy rehabilitation project in Ghana. I have mentioned before that I shall be visiting it in November – the 12th is the date I go, in fact.
Leprosy is a very nasty disease. It can do terrible damage to your body if it isn’t treated early enough. It is still around although a treatment was developed in the 1950s and 60s. Leprosy attacks and kills nerve endings. That’s why there is a loss of feeling and without feeling it is easy to pick up cuts, bruises, burns and so on. But the nerve damage also causes disfigurement and sores, often to the face. When treatment begins it does halt the progress of the leprosy but at that time what damage is done cannot be undone. And the thing about it is, as we all know, it’s very contagious and since ancient times sufferers have had to be excluded and live separate lives. That stigma still goes with the illness. There were leper colonies, as they were called even in Europe till the second half of the last century. In any case we can understand how it prompted such terror in biblical times and indeed throughout the centuries.
Having said all that, the passage really isn’t about leprosy although it does shed some light on a few aspects of the story. The ten lepers stood some way off, we are told – because they had to. They couldn’t come close and risk passing on the disease, though on another occasion Jesus reached out and cured a leper with his touch and so he wasn’t able to enter any town for a while. Anyway, Jesus told the lepers to show themselves to the priests. The priests would verify that they were free of leprosy and so they could enter the temple and thus be in the presence of God once more. Exclusion was a terrible part of the stigma.
But the passage recalls the dismay of Jesus that only one of those he cured came back to say ‘Thank You’, and he was a Samaritan, one of the enemies of state! But this is not about good manners. It is much more fundamental. The action of Jesus was not just about a merciful cure. It involved a wider context of healing whereby the individual would be restored not just to health but to the community, to relationships with others, to a relationship with God and often to ministry as in the case of Simon’s mother in law. These ten individuals were given reason to get involved in a relationship with Jesus himself or at least to celebrate an encounter with him. Only one does.
So we hear of ten lepers being cured but we only hear of one being saved. He was the one who found gratitude. He understood that the life he could now lead was based or grounded in the saving action of Jesus. His attitude of gratitude was the start of his relationship with Jesus – with God. We too must discover this truth about life and our relationship with God. It all starts with gratitude and if it starts anywhere else it will inevitably go skewy! My life has to be lived as a response to God’s gift of that life. We model this in childhood, don’t we? For many years the only letters I ever wrote and sent were ‘Thank You’ letters for birthday and Christmas presents. The most important thing I had to say was Thank You. Well, several times Jesus advises us to remember and to act as children.
Thanksgiving is a crucial element of any conversation, any prayer we have with God. We are and always will be in his debt. Growing up is not about growing away from that. ‘It is right and just to give thanks to the Lord our God’, we say at mass. And there is so much to be thankful for.
So here’s a thing, every morning:
Look in the mirror and give thanks to God for the life he gives you.
Open the curtains and give thanks for the world in which you live
Look ahead to the day and give thanks for all the encounters and experiences that lie
Name them if you can.
We seek an attitude of gratitude.
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
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The readings today tell us that we are called to eternal life and that we should therefore be careful about how we live our earthly lives. We are told to look out for those in need, to be loving, patient and gentle. In short we should live lives inspired and guided by our faith in Jesus.
The idea of a life beyond death was a little controversial in the time of Jesus. The Sadducees did not believe in it but the Pharisees did and in the Gospel we hear that Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees so they would have been onside with the parable and they would have heard him emphasising the need to look out for the poor. It’s only a parable, an old Egyptian story in fact, but Jesus goes as far as making up a name for the poor man – Lazarus. Elsewhere in parables he doesn’t do that: the younger prodigal son, the good Samaritan and so on. Jesus is giving great emphasis on the need to positively identify anyone who might be poor. They are not to be ignored or overlooked.
He always speaks of the need to love others. But what is the opposite of love? No, it’s not hatred, it’s apathy, it’s not doing anything. And the rich man, who is not dignified with a name by the way, simply does nothing for Lazarus who lies suffering and starving at the gate. So we are not surprised to hear of their different fates.
But it’s as if the rich man only has a half-hearted belief in life beyond death so that when he does get there and face the consequences of his life he tries to fix things but now it’s too late. Jesus concludes by adding an ironic twist to the story. The rich man asserts that if someone should rise from the dead and warn everyone then all could believe and change their ways accordingly. Well, as we know, it hasn’t quite worked out like that, just as Jesus has Father Abraham predict in the story.
And that remains the situation today, doesn’t it?.
Many will say that they believe in life after death but surely if they really did believe it then they would live their lives accordingly and this is manifestly not the case. The emphasis of the story in today’s world must surely therefore be to assert the reality of life after death, that there are saints living with God in heaven. First of all, Jesus rose from the dead. As St. Paul says, if Christ is not risen our whole faith is foolishness. We can remember then, the very first martyr, Stephen looking up as he was being killed and claiming he saw heaven thrown open and Jesus there waiting for him. The lives of all the saints give real witness to their belief in eternal life and can inspire us to do the same. It is a very worthwhile undertaking to read the lives of the saints. That, famously, is what brought St Ignatius of Loyola to faith.
I myself am very devoted to Bernadette Soubirous, the young 14 year old girl, who in Lourdes back in February 1858, claimed to be receiving apparitions of a ‘lady’ whom others were able to identify as Mary, the mother of God. Bernadette herself had suffered deprivation and illness – asthma, cholera, TB and other illness besides, and consequently a lack of education. She did not know who the ‘lady’ was but the ‘lady’ said to her in the 3rd apparition on February 18th: I do not promise you happiness in this world but in the next. (You soon see those words when you enter the shrine area in Lourdes.) And so it was, Bernadette continued to suffer ill health for the rest of her life and died of a tumour at the age of 35 after 4 years being bed ridden – without the drugs available these days. She was recognised as a saint not because she received the apparitions but because of the way she lived her life and embraced her suffering.
Her life on earth and the lives of all the saints would be foolish were it not for the reality of the life to come. We need to defy that prediction of Abraham in the parable. Jesus has risen and so we are convinced of our place in a life to come.
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
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It is a great joy when someone joins the church and I am absolutely thrilled that Hannah Bourke is joining us today here in the church of St. John Fisher. Hannah will be baptised, and then straightaway confirmed and then later in the mass she will receive Holy Communion for the first time. That’s how it will happen but what is it that will happen?
In the waters of baptism Jesus is waiting, waiting to tell her that he wishes to join his life to hers, so that she will know with certainty that wherever she goes, he goes, to places of joy and to places of sadness, even most crucially through the valley of death into the garden of paradise. In Confirmation the Holy Spirit will affirm in her, the gifts that will enable her to live her life in a Christian Way, in the way we try to undertake together as the Catholic Church. We shall pray for all these gifts in abundance, the gifts of wisdom and understanding, of right judgement and courage, of knowledge and reverence and of wonder and awe in God’s presence. Hannah will promise to try and use these gifts for the good of everyone and so follow the Way of the Lord.
And practically speaking, today’s gospel begins to open up for us why her efforts will be important: ‘The man who can be trusted in little things can be trusted in great.’ If we live all the individual moments in our lives well and with a good moral compass then it will affect the lives of others. The way we live our individual lives affects the welfare of the whole community. Cafod used to use the slogan: ‘Live simply so that others, simply may live.’ Hannah’s life is now part of the church’s mission.
For instance, vast numbers of young people all around the world took time on Friday to publicly protest about climate change and its consequences. They object to the way the powerful nations of the world disrespect the environment of our planet and seem so unwilling to address the issues. There seems to be a lack of awe and wonder, of reverence, wisdom and understanding, right judgement and courage, even knowledge, the 7 gifts of the Spirit I listed earlier. The Church and Pope Francis in particular have a lot to say about this. The individual decisions we make in our daily lives make a difference to the wider picture. It’s not just about trying to knock some sense into President Trump, though might be part of our goal, of course.
This ordinary morality is what we sign up for in being part of the Catholic Church. At the end of the day, at least the end of our days, heaven’s gatekeeper will be very interested in how much food we have wasted, how much pollution we have caused, how much energy we have burned. In any case it is in the simple daily decisions of life that we must face the challenge to choose God’s way.
So much in our lives is only currency. It is not to become our final goal. Wealth, power, status and so on are only of value in so far as we use them to help others. ‘You cannot be the servant both of God and money’. At the hour of my death ask me what joy I have given to others, what service I have offered, what goodness I have shared, what love I have communicated. My life will not be measured by the level of the reservoir I have built, but by the amount that has flowed out of it, downstream, to irrigate the lands of others. All that is not given is lost.
We welcome Hannah who joins the mission today.
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
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We hear in the Gospel that Jesus has been mixing with the wrong sort again – which is to say anyone and everyone. The Pharisees and Scribes are genuinely scandalised. By mixing with sinners and with tax-collectors who were collaborators with the Romans he was seen to be identifying with what they stood for, failing to join in their public exclusion. This exclusion which was enforced by almost everyone was a severe sanction. It was most significantly enforced by the Temple authorities too. This effectively excluded them from God. Access to God was through the Temple. We know of course that Jesus’ message was in part that God’s love is for everyone, including tax-collectors, sinners and others excluded for reasons that weren’t even their own fault – lepers, the poor, the sick and so on. It doesn’t surprise us that Jesus would actively promote their cause and that he would seek to bring them back from exclusion. In the end he would make it clear that access to God was through him. He would replace the Temple or in his language, the Temple would be destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days.
So he tells 3 stories to make his point: the story of the lost sheep, the story of the lost drachma and then the story of the prodigal son. He was going after all those who were lost or exiled and in doing so he would reveal the nature of God’s love. We just heard St. Paul saying in his letter to Timothy that Jesus came into the world to save sinners or really to save everyone including sinners. In any case, we are all sinners.
The prodigal son story reveals so much about God’s love. The young brother who went off with the money gets into trouble and even ends up mixing with pigs, the most unclean of animals as far as the Jews were concerned and he decides to go back and ask for mercy – not because he feels bad about the pain he has brought to his family, but we are told, because he was dying of hunger! He may have had regret but that is not the same as true sorrow. But the father doesn’t care. He runs out to welcome his son while he was still a long way off and a long way from being truly sorry. We are meant to hear it like that. The father hardly acknowledges his son’s confession. He is more concentrated on celebrating the reconciliation. And there is no talk of repaying his debt. His forgiveness is unconditional and always has been.
It is important for us to hear that. God’s forgiveness is unconditional and therefore it doesn’t begin when we say sorry. It has been there all the time. It’s in his nature. Any loving parent does not withhold forgiveness – ever. An apology doesn’t change the parent; it only marks a stage in the change going on in the one who is penitent. It is often only the beginning of repentance. If I had to wait until I found perfect sorrow before I looked for reconciliation with God or anyone else, I’d be waiting a long time. We can enjoy forgiveness long before we really feel the weight of our sin or our crime. That forgiveness will transform us, as any experience of love does. The world should know this.
So forgiveness was there for the younger brother but it was there for the older brother too. He refused to join the party. He refused to join his father as well as his brother. His rejection of the father was different from the younger brother’s rejection but it was still rejection. Jesus was clearly speaking directly to the Scribes and Pharisees in this part of the story, who had tried to follow God’s Law all their lives. Jesus was telling them that they were rejecting God by their actions and attitudes. But what happens? Exactly the same. The father comes out of the house to seek the older brother and encourage him to enter. God’s love and forgiveness is there for everyone.
So we can be at peace in God’s forgiveness, but we will only enjoy it fully when we can humbly recognise how much we need it in our lives. It will transform our lives. Forgiveness withheld – not given or not received is damaging. People’s lives can be blighted when there is a block to forgiveness, but when it is given and received it releases you and gives freedom to your future.
Finally, then we have in the church, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which celebrates the reconciliation that results from God’s forgiveness. It is such a marvellous expression of God’s nature. In celebrating that sacrament at least a couple of times each year, we are challenged to examine our lives, humbly express our sorrow and regret and then commit ourselves to a change in attitude or behaviour – a transformation, a way forward. Not a bad piece of work to undertake, I would say.
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time C
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On my day off this week I managed to get a round of golf in with some friends. It is supposed to be relaxing isn’t it? But I had a major problem this time. My golf ball would not obey my simple instructions and instead kept drifting off the fairway left and right where there was an abundance of stingy nettles out of which I repeatedly had to fetch it . Now everyone knows that if you probe the nettles gently you get stung. The only way is to grasp the leaves firmly, which I did to get the ball,… time after time. My friends took great delight in confirming that I had finally learned how to ‘grasp the nettle’ as the phrase goes.
Well ‘grasping the nettle’ is what Jesus is talking about in the gospel. He is with an appreciative crowd up in Galilee who think he is on a triumphal victory march to Jerusalem. They think it will be plain sailing, an overwhelming success and they want a piece of that! So he is correcting them and saying that it will be no picnic. He and they will have to ‘grasp the nettle’ and make a full commitment to the Way of the Cross. The same is spoken to us. If we want to follow him all the way, through Jerusalem, as it were, all the way to his kingdom then we have to bear the consequences and set aside anything or anyone that will hinder us. It doesn’t mean that we will have to sacrifice everything and everyone but we must be prepared to give up anything or anyone. To hate father and mother didn’t mean what it sounds like to us. He meant that we might have to give even close family second place – on occasion. That’s what it can mean to take up the cross and follow him as his disciple.
So while it would be foolish to make a commitment to him without being fully aware of the consequences he does invite us to grasp the nettle in full knowledge of what it means and follow him.
But, but then, he offers a warning that some battles should not be fought. Some building projects should not be started. People would laugh, he says, at someone who started to build but couldn’t finish or who went through with a decision without knowing what it would mean. If after serious consideration you realise that going to war with an army of 10k men against an army of 20k men is going to be a mistake you hold back and send envoys to sue for peace, to agree compromises. If what might have seemed a good decision based on what was known at the time turns out to be a bad one when full knowledge is gained, it shouldn’t be too late to reverse the decision or at least to negotiate and make compromises and concessions.
As we look around the world we see awful conflicts where there seems to be little or no negotiation. I remember back at Easter remarking on Pope Frances getting down on his knees before representatives from Sudan begging them to negotiate. Thank goodness they have negotiated and a peace is now dawning in that war ravaged country. But in Yemen, in Syria and in so many other countries there is no such negotiation, just a battle of egos and ideologies. There are trade wars and turf wars and all kinds of wars! And in the politics of our own country too, where is any attempt at reconciliation? We only seem to hear about winning or losing, about getting over the line. There is literally no love at all between the opposing groups. That will never lead to acceptance and agreement, only to a gloating winning side and a bitter and vengeful losing side. The national differences cannot now be settled by this hard-nosed battle. Maybe we should do as the gospel suggests, and sue for peace and come at our differences a different way.
In any case and in every case we need to pray about such things. The peace of Christ that we share at mass must go with us out the front door and into our society and into our world. How that happens I am not always sure but if we are prepared to pray for peace in countries beyond our reach and influence we surely must pray for peace in our own lands and we must offer our services to God in order to achieve that peace. He will show us a way. There will have to be compromises and concessions but total victory for one side and total defeat for the other – whichever way round that is, will only produce conflict for a generation to come. I don’t offer a solution, only a desire for one because at the moment we are a divided nation. There has to be reconciliation, not capitulation.
And our job is to pray and to work for that reconciliation.
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time C
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Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if that happened to you, if you had to give up your place at the top table to someone else? Well as the spiritual adviser to our diocese’s Union Of Catholic Mothers I usually accompany them to the annual pilgrimage to Walsingham in July. A few years back it was Southwark’s turn to lead the pilgrimage so I had extra responsibilities which included, I was told, leading one of the services in the afternoon. I was also told that I would have to move fairly quickly but that lunch would be sorted out. After the big mass in the morning I followed directions and a final steward directed me towards a particular building. In I went, and a wonderful table was set for lunch. I accepted a glass of very fine wine, sat down and chatted with those at table. Then the national president came in and her entourage, then a bishop and his staff then a second bishop and his staff and then a third! By now I was becoming suspicious. But I noticed an old friend beckoning me. I went over and she told me that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I told her of the steward’s directions and she explained that I was supposed to go to the kitchen at the back where they had made a sandwich for me! I made a quick apology to the assembled dignitaries saying there was an emergency and I had to leave immediately.
Humbled and nearly humiliated I rushed away.
Anyway, Jesus told his story to commend humility, to not presume or assume anything in life. We heard the same thing in the first reading: ‘The greater you are, the more you should behave humbly.’ Jesus himself behaved with absolute humility, reverencing and respecting the holiness and greatness of everyone he encountered. Humility arises from honesty and accuracy of vision. If we recognise our worth as beings created by God then we will not exalt ourselves. If we see our worth or value in other terms such as power, wealth or status then first of all we have made a mistake and then as a result we are likely to suffer with pride or be insufferable with pride. No, honesty prompts humility and, again as we heard in the first reading, a gentleness in conducting our affairs.
Jesus then thinks a bit laterally and adds a rider to it about how we should give to others, again not to presume or assume any reward for our giving. And there are of course many different ways that we do give and our motivation can be blurred. A Lottery ticket, for instance. Do people buy one because they want to win some money, or because they want to benefit the good causes, or because they like the fun of the gamble? The fact is that our giving isn’t always as selfless as we might want it to be. It can often be a mere investment, as Jesus suggests.
Children often do jobs at home but I saw an advert on TV for an app called Go Henry that allows parents to monitor their children’s use of money and it said ‘see that they are paid for the jobs they do at home.’ Well I am sorry, but if they get paid money to do them the point of giving or even sharing responsibility is lost. How will they ever learn how to give, how to be generous, how to be Christian stewards? There shouldn’t be an expectation of return. There isn’t in marriage for instance. Marriage is no mere 50/50 contract of giving and receiving. It is a 100%/100% covenant of unconditional giving. ‘For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer’.
And it is the same covenant that God made with Abraham. It defines our relationship with God and we can recognise it in the life of Jesus, recorded as a New Testament of God’s love. That’s why we call it a ‘testament’. God asks us to be generous but his love for us is not conditional upon it. We are invited to give our lives to each other in God’s service but he won’t withdraw from us if we don’t. We renew our commitment to that gift though, every Sunday at mass when the offertory procession proceeds through our midst.
To be honest and recognise that all we have is God’s gift and that we are only stewards, even of our personal gifts is the key to humility and humility is the key to our relationship with God. It would be good if some of our politicians would come to that realisation.
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time C
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As you probably know, I like to walk when I get the opportunity. The days of playing football are now behind me, sadly, but I do love a good walk. Well this week on my day off I took advantage of the good weather and did a coastal walk down at Dover. It is a beautiful walk along the cliffs but it does go up and down a little bit – actually, it goes up and down a lot. On Friday my body was aching as my muscles registered their displeasure. But in my head the voice of Mr Perry, my old school P.E. teacher, still lingers: ‘If it doesn’t hurt your just not trying hard enough.’ He was of the ‘no pain, no gain’ school. Well, by his reckoning I must have been doing something right on my walk at Dover.
The Letter to the Hebrews seems to share this approach, adapting it though, into a radical spiritual attitude to life. It actually suggests that we should feel honoured when difficulties and sufferings come our way because, we are told, that means God is taking us seriously as his children, trying to improve us. ‘Suffering is part of your training’ it says. Challenges, difficulties, pain and suffering are all part of the process whereby we are made stronger, fitter pilgrims, fit that is, for the journey that leads to the Kingdom of God.
We need to be clear though. God does not cause our pains and sorrows but he is always ready to use them, to redeem them, if we as his children will entrust them to him. This is, after all, what he did with his Son at Easter. He did not cause his Son’s sufferings and death but he did allow it to happen. Look though what he did with all of that when Jesus entrusted it to him. Jesus rose to new life and did so in such a way as to be able to share that life with all of us.
So the path for the Christian Pilgrim involves first of all the acceptance of any sorrows, sufferings, pains or problems that life presents to us – accepting our cross, in other words. Then, we can offer them up to God, trusting that he will use them to strengthen us and make us spiritually fit. This is what we mean by redemption and it enables us to exercise more freely on the Christian path. We are able to share more love and give with greater generosity. For this is what we need to be doing in order to aim for that narrow door spoken of in the Gospel today. It is a door that is open to all people – from north, south, east and west, but we have to be determined to make our way to it.
Incidentally, the message from the Letter to the Hebrews needs to be heard within our criminal justice system. No parent punishes a child just to get even. That eye for eye, tooth for tooth stuff only leads to a people who are quite blind and who cannot chew. Punishment from a loving parent is designed to improve the child. We are told that it will then ‘bear fruit in peace and goodness’. Punishment of a criminal by a loving society should do the same for the miscreant.
So yes, the Letter to the Hebrews is radical and controversial. It suggests that if your life is completely comfortable then you are not trying hard enough, that there is more that you should be giving or doing. We need to take up our cross and follow Jesus, whether that means accepting difficulties and sorrows already presented to us or taking up the Gospel challenge to give more of ourselves to others.
We do all need to get fit, but sadly a walk along the coast at Dover does not provide the complete answer.
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
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In today’s Gospel we get a glimpse of Jesus’ feelings and in particular his real distress. It’s not that he’s just in a bad mood. He was actually looking ahead. He could see that there would be conflict and division because of him. The Jewish family of which he was so proud would be torn apart by his teaching. And for him personally there was going to be trouble. He’d been predicting his own torture and death. So we hear him today agonising about this. A bit like he would in the Garden of Gethsemane. There was reluctance to go through it all but at the same time some impatience. If it’s going to have to happen, let’s get on with it!
Maybe we are lucky not to have such foresight. I wonder if poor old Jeremiah would have been quite so brave in speaking out about moral issues if he’d known he was going to be dropped down an empty well to starve to death. Anyway, as we heard, he trusted in God and he was indeed rescued. We all hope for heavenly glory but we may yet need courage to deal with whatever lies ahead on our way there. Trusting our lives to God. That is the key.
Let me tell you about a friend of mine. Just about 20 years ago Philip Addo was as happy as Larry travelling with some of his friends to one of his colleague’s ordination. They were on Ghana’s Great West African Highway. Philip was due to be ordained a few weeks later himself, but it wasn’t to be. There was a terrible road accident and Philip suffered serious injuries to his spine. He was taken to Ghana’s best hospital but after 16 weeks in traction there was no improvement. He remained paralysed from the chest down. Furthermore, bed sores had become infected and developed into huge ulcers. He had a high fever and was simply very, very ill.
It was decided that he should be taken to Ahotokurom – that’s the leprosy mission that I support and raise funds for. I think I have told you about it before. I am due to go out there in November this year. Anyway it was considered the best place for him to be cared for until his death which was judged to be imminent. Well the sisters there wouldn’t give up on him and he still had a lot of fight in him too. He had open wounds in his back and on his head and he couldn’t move at all but the care went on and he was, himself, quite determined. After many months he recovered sufficiently to spend a few hours each day in a wheelchair. Somehow this terrible tragedy in his life prompted great wisdom and insight and people started to come and visit seeking advice and spiritual direction and this ministry really did build up. It has become a huge ministry with visitors constantly with him whether he is in his bed or in his wheelchair. It was quite extraordinary to see it. And he never gave up. ‘One day’, he used to tell me, ‘I will be ordained a priest’ And do you know he was. It was about 12 years ago I think. He is now Father Philip.
There can’t be many who enjoy such a fulfilling priestly ministry from a wheelchair as he does. Not in Ghana, anyway. But he often says that he would not have been able to face it if he’d known what lay ahead for him. He always believed that God had a plan for him and that was sufficient for him to accept his cross – not knowing of course just how heavy his particular cross would be. But he always trusted in God, that God would help him through, that God would always be there with him.
Trials can come our way in life and will do – hopefully not as difficult as Philip’s or even Jeremiah’s but trials can and will come. Jesus asks us to trust that he will be there with us and guide us through. Just like he did with Philip and Jeremiah too. We must never lose hope in him and accept whatever crosses life presents us with. We heard in the Letter to the Hebrews a few minutes ago: ‘Let us not lose sight of Jesus who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection. For the sake of the joy which was still in the future, he endured his cross.’
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
I had a visit last week from a friend of mine and her brand new baby boy. Her husband was at work but her mum and dad came. In fact her dad came in first with the baby and she and her mum followed in lugging all the equipment you currently need for a baby – more than an astronaut would need, I think. Anyway I just about managed not to ask how she was. She was clearly exhausted. Instead I asked how often she fed the baby. “Whenever he demands it” was her direct response. And it is like that with babies, isn’t it? There is no negotiation with terrorists or babies. You just have to be ready to respond to them whenever and wherever they call.
It is just such an outlook that Jesus is describing in the gospel. He is challenging us to be always ready to meet God. We don’t know when he will call on us or even through whom he will call on us. But we need to be ready to encounter him all day long. This is the proper disciple’s response to his love for us and to his outlook towards us. After all, he is always ready for us, always there for us. He tells us that, on the day of our baptism. In fact at baptisms we often hear the reading from the end of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus specifically says: ‘know that I am with you always, yes to very end of time.’ There will never be a time when he is not there for us. There is no such thing as a real absence, only a real presence of God. And it is unconditional. That is what he reinforces Sunday after Sunday in and through Holy Communion.
It is God then, who initiates this relationship of Faith and it is for us to respond as well as we can, to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. The letter to the Hebrews that we just heard pointed out how Abraham lived a life that was a faith-filled response to God. It was a covenant whereby God and Abraham believed in each other and it has become the basis of all mankind’s relationship with God, an unconditional relationship of love. We call Abraham our Father in Faith.
We need to live in the same way, trusting in others and trusting in God. We learn this from our parents first of all. Like I was just saying, parents have to be there for their baby at all times. The baby may need feeding in the first, the last or any watch of the day! So we learn to have faith in others. Mind you, as children there can be hard lessons to learn when we place our trust in some who are as yet unable to deal with it. It can be very painful as a child when our secrets get spilled for instance. We have to learn how much we can realistically trust but we do gradually learn to trust and to be trusted. Good friendship is characterised by that mutual faith in each other. Each will be there for the other.
Each and every friendship is sacred. It is, I think, a sacrament. It’s a sign of God’s presence in our affairs, his presence in our lives. In friendship, just as in marriage and family life, God calls out to us. We have be awake to this, ready to ‘open the door as soon as the master comes’, as Jesus says. This can be any place, anytime, anywhere –‘an hour we do not expect’. He is always ready for us. He wants us to be ready for him. He wants us to be ready to greet him, to even see his face in anyone who is in need, as we hear elsewhere in the gospels.
But I remember being told all this by Miss Mckenna in my primary school days and to be honest, all these years later I still can’t see the face of Christ in other people. Others say they can. I have though, been more successful on hearing his voice especially later when I reflect each night on all the encounters of the day. I can hear his call and assuming that it’s not too late I can resolve to do something about it the following day. The old ‘examination of the day’! It’s hard to beat as an effective way to open a conversation with God.
So that’s it, as we are going to say in a moment or two, ‘we believe in the Son of God who was incarnate of Mary and became a man’,
and ever since has been present with us through the Holy Spirit whom he gave to us. He challenges to look out for him, which is to have an outlook focussed on him. Any time, any place, anywhere.
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
When I heard the parable of the man taking down his old barns and putting up new ones, I thought about this parish taking down its old church and putting up this new one. There is a very interesting article on our parish website all about it. I recommend it to you. Some of you here today will have lived through some of it. We are blessed to have the facility we do and the article describes the blood, sweat and tears that went before us to enable it all to happen. The first church was opened back in 1935 though the presbytery wasn’t built till 1961. The church we are in today was opened in 1975 and consecrated 3 years later when the debt was paid off. The statues of our Lady and of Jesus revealing his heart of love came from the old church to the new one, along with the paschal candle. Finally our marvellous parish hall was opened in 1983.
But for everyone involved there was a heavy investment – not just of money but of time and effort, of talent and skill. It took wisdom, faith and courage to build in this way for the future. And the investment has continued, not in putting up buildings but by investing in the parish community. I hope we can all continue to invest in the parish so that its life will stretch far into the future. And yet… in the parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel, the man who built new barns for the future at first seems to be heavily criticised. So let us look at it a little more closely.
First, there is a context. A man in the crowd had asked Jesus to settle a financial dispute. It was fairly normal to ask a teacher or rabbi to pass judgement in civil matters, but Jesus wasn’t happy about it and told the man not to be held back by vices such as greed because the priority should be in attaining the Kingdom of God. Nothing should get in the way of this. So then he tells his story about the man building new barns for his grain. The man isn’t criticised for building them. He is criticised for thinking that this is all he had to do and that he could put his feet up, because he had all the grain he needed. No, with the grain comes responsibility. If he were wise he would use the grain he’d stored to invest further into the future, right into the Kingdom of heaven. So in a way he is criticised for not thinking far enough ahead. A follower of Christ must think, plan and invest beyond death, right into the life of resurrection.
Now that changes everything. It changes how we deal with everything else in this life. It should affect how I deal with the rest of the day! But we live among people who do not see or even try to look beyond death and it is therefore not surprising that the values of society are not identical to our own. Christian values are often counter-cultural. You can hear the preacher from Ecclesiates in our first reading saying to our society ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. In other words the real value of anything we have – any grain we store up, as it were –its real value only lies in what we can do with it.
So if you heard that the world is going to end next year what would you do? Go on a world cruise perhaps? Maybe, but I think I might spend a little more time in this building for a starter! But truly, I would be in a rush to spend more of my available time with God. I would be very keen to share whatever gifts I have with others and I’d be especially keen to shell out whatever savings I’ve got. I don’t want to get caught with trumps in my hand when the game is up. I would in other words be very aware of all that I have received from God, all the grain in my barn.
But we don’t need to imagine, this is happening all the time, isn’t it? A serious illness or the bereavement of a loved one can soon bring us up short and cause us to re-evaluate our lives. Or maybe we have already heeded today’s gospel and we do live our lives slightly differently from those around us. The thing is we need to live our lives in the context of a promised long-term future with God. Let’s invest in that future, one shared with God.
We thank God for all those who have with blood, sweat and tears, provided for the parish that we enjoy, and maybe the family life we’ve grow up in as well, and we pledge ourselves to future generations by the way we live our lives and make our investment in the community of the parish, in family life, in our society and in so many other ways too.
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
“Teach us to pray”, they said. And so Jesus gave them words that we still use nearly 2000 years later, the ‘Our Father’. But there are many other prayers and many other ways to pray. The important thing is that we do pray, that we do speak with God – with him, not just at him.
It’s what makes a religion different from a philosophy or a theory. Any thinker or philosopher could come to believe in a god who made the universe. After all it’s the most likely theory as to why we are here. But that theory or philosophy becomes a religion when we pray or praise god.
I was at the Bexley Inter Faith Forum recently, together with other Faith leaders in Bexley Borough. There were Sikhs and Jews, Moslems and Hindus and loads of others besides. We each were asked what we did in our services, how we prayed. The variation was amazing. The first to speak went on for over 15 minutes listing all the rules and regulations of his religion. The next said that in services they only read from their scripture but that prayer occurred in private throughout the day. And so it went on. We Christians are unique in that we believe in incarnation, that God became man, and having risen from the dead he remains close to us for all time. So we converse and we commune with our God. Our public gatherings are important of course – in the mass we encounter God in an intimate way. But our private prayer life is important too. In that inner life where we speak with God, our actual relationship grows in a very personal and individual way.
There are so many ways that we can pray using scripture, using set prayers, using art, using our imagination, in meditation, in contemplation, etc,etc. The important thing is to pray as you can and not as you can’t. We need to find a practice of prayer that works in our own relationship with God, taking into account the demands of our own life. But it’s also true that a variety of prayer experiences will enrich that relationship just as between people, a variety of experiences will enrich the friendship.
The key to prayer is to make it regular, to try and spend some time each day, even if it’s just to say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Goodnight’. Those simple prayers constitute an act of Faith in God’s presence in the morning and at night. But there can be much more to our daily prayer, especially if we give a little time to reflecting back in God’s presence to all the experiences of the day.
Weekly mass attendance gives us a great opportunity to converse with and to encounter God. The seasons of the Church year give us a challenge as well to reflect a little more deeply during those times: Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. There can also be occasional opportunities for a day of recollection. There are plenty going on with many listed on the Spirituality Board in the porch. And there are so many opportunities provided at the touch of a finger on the mobile phone or computer, ‘Pray as you go’ and many, many others.
As some of you know, I myself had some wonderful time out, nearly 3 years ago. I negotiated a few months away from the Parish to first of all walk what is popularly known as ‘the Camino’. It’s a pilgrimage that has been walked for hundreds and hundreds of years from the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains in the south of France right across Spain to Santiago de Compostella, the burial place of St James. 500 miles in which to think and pray. Many thousands of pilgrims of all ages walk it every year. I then had the chance to do the 30 day silent retreat of St. Ignatius. 30 days of silence wasn’t so hard after walking the Camino on my own. Not many people have such an opportunity, I must admit, but there opportunities for everyone and as I said earlier, you can’t beat a daily encounter with God. I grew up with the simple acronym of ACTS.
A – Adoration, praising God
C – Contrition, humbly recognising a need or desire to improve
T – Thanksgiving for any and every grace and favour
S – Supplication, asking for all that we need or desire ACTS
Supplication was the prayer we heard between Abraham and God earlier, wasn’t it? He negotiated with God about saving the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He asked God if he would relent from punishing them if he found 50 good men there and God agreed but Abraham then negotiated God down bit by bit to only needing to find 10 good men. What we didn’t hear was that God didn’t find any good men so he destroyed the cities anyway. Prayer doesn’t always end up the way we expect.
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
We have just heard one of the most famous stories in the Gospel. The ‘Good Samaritan’ is now part of our language, isn’t it? But it is just a story. It was made up in order to make a point. Though I must say, I was taking a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and we were travelling down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and our coach pulled in to an obvious tourist trap where our Israeli guide tried to tell us that this was the exact place where the man was mugged and we should buy souvenirs here! We had to put him right.
But let me tell you a true story. Years ago I was in Sri Lanka with some young people from my parish. We were there for just a few months working as part of an ongoing Unicef Clean Water Project. We were doing some health education in rural villages, we were building toilet facilities and we were constructing wells. We had use of a couple of minibuses to take us to and from our campsite. On one journey we drove past what at first sight looked like a bundle of rags at the side of the road, … but it moved so we stopped the bus and backed up. Sure enough it was a badly injured man. People walking past didn’t seem to know him at all but we did find out eventually that he’d been at the wrong end of a machete fight with his brother over some land dispute.
We bandaged him up as best we could and took him off to the hospital, where he lived to tell the tale. But I think he did quietly drop his brother off his Christmas card list!
Anyway it was only later when we were trying to counsel each other about the horror that we’d witnessed, that we realised that we’d been in a real life Good Samaritan story. You couldn’t make it up!??
Well, the point is that Jesus’s far-fetched story could and did become a reality for us. And isn’t that what we are hearing in the first reading that grappling with God’s challenges isn’t beyond our reach or our strength, or our ordinary lives. The path to God’s kingdom starts right in front of us beneath our feet. Our needy neighbour is close at hand. We don’t have to look far.
We normally look for reasons not to engage with those in need. That’s why Jesus made up the story, to illustrate that our needy neighbour is just across the road. The lawyer, having agreed with Jesus that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, with all your strength and mind and your neighbour as yourself, is trying to establish the minimum he needs to do. Who is my neighbour, after all? There were six different interpretations from six different schools of rabbis. One said it was only immediate family. Another included friends, another extended to the village, another to the whole Jewish race, another to the all people of the Jewish Faith and the last included those looking to become Jewish. The lawyer was keen to establish just who he could exclude, who he didn’t have to include as his neighbour. Jesus, in his story, looks at things from the perspective of the person in need who would say that anyone who comes to help is a good neighbour. In other words anyone can give you the opportunity to do good. There are always graspable opportunities.
So who could be your neighbour today, or rather who could you be a neighbour to? Could it be someone you know and who you could reach out to in care or in forgiveness or even in simple friendship? Could it be someone or some group you only really know by name, through the news perhaps, but who you could forgive or simply pray for – Some bigot or some awful leader or some criminal or anyone that you have so far excluded from your definition of ‘neighbour’?
And if you can’t think of anyone then say a prayer for the rest of us who can, who have long lists of people we need to reach out to.
But, ‘do this and life is yours’, Jesus says.
John Fisher 2019
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I haven’t had as much time as I’d have liked to watch the women’s football World Cup. And on Tuesday, when England were playing America, I was driving back from Walsingham. (I’d taken a minibus full of pilgrims to the Union Of Catholic Mothers National Pilgrimage.) But I did get to see the highlights which included England Captain, Steph Houghton’s penalty miss – not so much a highlight as a lowlight, I suppose. I really felt for her though, stepping up with nearly 13 million people watching her, and her team mates standing helplessly behind her. She was out there on her own. No one could help. I would have frozen in terror; I mean I can be brave but it’s usually when I am acting alongside others. But to be on your own, the only one, that’s hard.
John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was inexplicably the only bishop to refuse assent to Henry VIII being ‘Supreme Head of the Church in England’. He was the only one! All the other bishops found a way of agreeing to it and avoiding conflict with the king and facing the consequences. They would have liked John Fisher to do the same. They would have felt better themselves, I suppose and in any case they liked Fisher. He was a great bishop and a great Chancellor of Cambridge University. But Fisher felt he had to stand his ground. It was a little bit like Eleazar in that story from Maccabees. He not only refused, as a devout Jew, to eat pork but he refused to pretend to do it and avoid the conflict. He had to do the right thing and he had to give witness to his values. And so he was executed. So was John Fisher. He did the right thing, he gave public witness to it and on 22 June 1535 he was executed for treason. I think it would have been calamitous if he had caved in.
We might be tempted to lose his bravery in history. ‘They were terrible times’ and ‘we’ll never have to face such a situation’ but that would be a mistake. There are times when we are left high and dry on our own. There are times when on our own we have to act or to speak or to make a decision or even make an act of Faith. We have to step up and take that penalty kick.
The most obvious time is of course the hour of our death. We may be used to having someone with us, especially in marriage, someone by your side holding your hand but come the hour, you have step up or step out on your own and put your hand instead into the hand of the Good Shepherd. Only he can guide us from there. We can take inspiration from John Fisher. We can draw strength and courage from him.
There are less dramatic moments though, (aren’t there?) where we stand alone. Many young people have for instance just finished that gruelling time of public examinations. Many’s the time I’ve said to young relations or friends; ‘I wish I could go into the exam with you, but you must trust that God will be there with you.’
In actual fact, every time we really try to pray we face this lonely truth. It is emphasised, I always think, in Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Standing sitting or kneeling before the sacrament, I often think that it’s me that’s really exposed as it dawns on me that in life it really does just come down to there being only me and the Lord. There, he is and here, I am. In fact, years ago when Moses faced God, God gave himself the name ‘Yahweh’ which pretty much means ‘Here I am’.
Ironically though, to get the strength and courage we need to act alone, we have to band together and bond together. We have to build ourselves up in communion as community so as to be able to draw what we need from each other. We build it up in readiness. That’s why the Church is so important and why our John Fisher Day is such a wonderful opportunity to grow together in God. I hope that as many of you as possible can participate in one way or another.
Steph Houghton missed her penalty but that’s because she is English and the English always miss penalties. But she was only able to step up and take it because of her team mates who were stood behind her. They gave her the strength. Like John Fisher we may act alone but we need the love and support of each other to do so.
Peter and Paul 2019
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Have you ever been to Rome, the ‘eternal city’? If you have I am sure you will agree that it is a most wonderful place where you feel that you can almost touch the history of our church.
Last time I was there I started the pilgrimage near St Paul’s Basilica, which is well away from the city centre, outside the city walls. It was originally a bit of a swampy area, in fact. But the great Basilica is built over the tomb of St Paul. It is majestic and yet simple with a cloister built on one side for the resident monks to exercise and to pray. The whole place is quiet, serene and prayerful. Inside, high on the walls where let’s say, our line of windows is, there are portraits of all the popes from St Peter to the present day. Well the earlier ones are only representations. Intriguingly there are just a few spaces left and there are all sorts of prophecies about what will happen to the world when all the spaces are used. Anyhow, in its way it turns your attention to the papacy and St Peter’s Basilica which of course is at the centre of things in the heart of Rome.
St Peter’s is an absolutely enormous building, built over St Peter’s tomb, and in contrast to St Paul’s it is a place that is rarely quiet linked not to a prayerful cloister but to the Vatican, a city in itself, filled with important great offices, a centre of government for the church.
Just as these two great and important basilicas stand in contrast to each other so do Peter and Paul themselves. They are two absolutely key figures in the establishment of the church and yet they are such distinct and different characters. The church is built on the pillars of their faith as today’s readings show us.
Peter or Simon, as he was then, was able to say: ‘You are the Christ, the son of the living God’. Among all the disciples it was him who was the one able to proclaim it. From that moment of his profession of faith or confession of faith as we often say, his life took a radical shift. A simple man whose life had been away from the centre of things as a fisherman up there in Galilee, he was now drawn reluctantly to the very centre.
He was a steady man, ‘a real brick’, as we would say, or ‘a rock’ as Jesus called him and the name Petrus stuck with him ever since. And above this simple man’s tomb is built one of the world’s most magnificent buildings, St Peter’s Basilica, there in the heart of Rome. Peter had been crucified and then laid to rest in a cemetery in an area called Vatican Hill. (which is how the Vatican City gets its name) Such a martyrdom was seen and described as a confession of faith and it was on this faith that Emperor Constantine subsequently went to great efforts to site a church in honour of St Peter, again remembering Jesus’s words ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.’
St Paul’s faith though, has also been crucial in establishing and spreading the gospel. He too was martyred and, by such a death made that same confession of faith. So a great basilica is built over his tomb as well, a church built on his faith. He was able to say: ‘I have run the race to the finish, I have kept the faith, all that is left now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me.’
He was a man, born and brought up in the centre of the Jewish tradition but who in contrast to Peter was drawn to the edge in many ways. And it seems appropriate that his tomb and his Basilica lie away from the centre of Rome providing the quiet and prayerful place of pilgrimage.
We inherited our faith from all the saints but from these two men in a particular and splendid way. In our pilgrimage of life we need, as it were, to visit both of their basilicas. We do need a central gathering point for our regular ordered, Sunday liturgy but during the rest of the week we need to accept the challenge to move away from the security of the centre and go to the more swampy districts of the world, and even of Bexley, where we follow St Paul in expressing the gospel in our mission to others – at home, at work, in school, or wherever we get the chance.
Today we honour St Peter and St Paul but we commit ourselves to following them both as well, in celebrating our Communion with St Peter and our mission with St. Paul.
Corpus Christi C 2019
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
So they had just 5 loaves and 2 fish – between them all. And there were about 5000 men and probably several thousand more women and children. Well let’s be moderate and say about 7000 people in total. That’s a lot of people. I mean if this church is full it can hold what, about 350 or so, 7000 people is about 20 church-fulls of people. That really is a big crowd.
And what happened then was so amazing that it was remembered so clearly in the famous story we have heard today. They even remembered being sat down in groups, seven rows of seven, 49 to 50 people in each group. And with five loaves and two fish and the help of his disciples, Jesus fed them all, every single one, and there was still some left over.
Now I am prepared to bet you that without the 5 loaves and the 2 fish it wouldn’t have happened at all. Because that’s the way Jesus always seemed to do things. Give him a little, and he would do a lot with it.
**Now, with this small wafer of bread – with these small wafers – or let me use this slightly bigger one because it is easier to see, he can give us his life. But without our humble offering he can only think it, he can’t show it or express it.
But of course it’s not just through the bread that he expresses his love and his real presence in the world. It’s through us. You and me, all of us.
Think about the offertory procession in mass, a very important part of our liturgy. Bread and wine, and water are brought up along with financial support. (You might have noticed in our first reading that Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, the priest of old, the priest of God Most High – so that’s the way it’s always been.) But what else comes forward? Well actually, the most important part of the offertory procession is the people who carry those gifts because they are representing all of us offering ourselves to God. The offertory at mass is not what the priest does on the sanctuary at the altar, it is what we all do by making a personal, spiritual offering of ourselves to God.
Consider then, Holy Thursday when we remember the night of the Last Supper. St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we’ve just heard offers the earliest account of what happened but St John adds specifically that at the end of the meal Jesus got down from table and he washed his disciples’ feet. He told them to offer the same service or sacrifice to others.
So just as the loaves and fish formed a very humble offering among all those people, our offering of ourselves at mass may seem to form a very humble offering to God. But with the loaves and fish he did amazing things. Be absolutely certain then that with whatever we give of ourselves he will likewise do amazing things, just as he does with the wafers of bread and the jug of wine.
With your offering of a generous smile God can bring joy and peace to many people. With your offering of a few kind words he can spread peace and harmony amongst many. With your offering of a small kind deed, he can feed the hungry… and so on. The point is that he relied on the gift of the loaves and fish to feed the thousands on the mountainside, he relies on the bread and wine to make himself available to us in Holy Communion and he relies on us to express his love and do his work on earth – to be the Body of Christ on earth. That’s why we should be bothered about what we offer of ourselves. With a small, humble gift from us he can do great things.
So because of the personal, spiritual offering we make, the offertory procession is as important for us as the communion procession is for him whereby he presents himself to us and through us to the rest of the world.
On the mountainside he fed thousands using a humble offering of 5 loaves and 2 fish. Today he nourishes all of us with his life, but he relies on us to give up a little bit of our life for him to use, a little bit of our time, a little bit of our talent or a little bit of our treasure. Christ has no hands now on earth, only ours, no feet but ours. The Body and Blood of Christ that we give thanks for as we celebrate this Feast today, is the source and summit of our Faith. It is both what we receive and what we become – little by little.
Click above to hear the sermon at the First Communion Mass
‘Hands Up’ if it’s your birthday today. Actually we could all put our hands up because it’s the birthday of the Church that we celebrate today in many ways. It’s the anniversary of our creation on the Day of Pentecost. It is the day that God’s Holy Spirit entered the lives of the apostles and joined them together as a Church. It is the day our Church came into being, the day it was born. On the anniversary of the day my own birth, the day I call my birthday, I thank God for giving me my life and I try to make it a special day in some way. Today then, we all thank God for the gift of the Church of which we are part.
St. Luke in his Acts of the Apostles offers us two images, wind and fire, to describe what actually happened. Of those two, I think we are more familiar with the power of the wind or the breeze.
Years ago I used to go sailing down on the River Medway’s Estuary. I say ‘sailing’ but I was more like the ballast on a little 2-person boat that my friend raced on Wednesday evenings. Before the race started all the boats in the race would be bobbing about pointing in different directions at the mercy of the river currents, going nowhere in particular, but waiting for the starter to get us underway. As soon as the hooter went we’d all hoist our sails and the breeze or the wind would fill the sails and a dozen or more boats would all race off – in the same direction, mostly.
That’s a picture of what happened on the day of Pentecost. The apostles were there in Jerusalem all as individuals with no real direction. They were kind of bobbing around going nowhere like our little sail boats. But then the Holy Spirit blew life into them. They started to move, their sails filled with the power of the Spirit. They all started to go in the same direction. They were united in that, as a Church, and everything got underway. The life that was in them was of course the life of Jesus. In the Gospel today St. John pictures for us Jesus himself on the Day of Resurrection breathing that life, his life, into the apostles, so that the Holy Spirit would maintain Jesus’ presence with them in the Church from that moment on.
And that is where we will find Jesus today, not in the tomb of Calvary. He rose from the dead and left the tomb. But we won’t look for him in the Easter Garden either because that is a long way away and a good long way back in history. Because of the Holy Spirit we can look for him in the here and now, in the Church, in its sacraments and especially in Holy Communion.
(You) Seven children will from today onwards be able to receive Jesus in the here and now, thanks to the Holy Spirit whom I call down to bring Jesus’ presence to the gifts of bread and wine that are brought up to the altar. Those children will allow themselves to be joined to Jesus in his Church, joined to the Body of Christ. The priest challenges them (and everyone else coming to receive Holy Communion) with the words ‘The Body of Christ’. They and you look the priest back in the eyes and say ‘Amen’, or in other words ‘Yes’ to receiving the true Body of Christ and ‘Yes’ to becoming the true Body of Christ.
It will be a joy for them to finally feel that breeze in their sails, to start receiving Holy Communion and join together no longer as individuals but in the communion of the Church. Jesus comes a long way to do this for them but it is his Holy Spirit who brings him here.
It is a joy for everyone else too – for their individual families and friends in particular but for the whole parish who celebrate our growth as a family, the extension of our communion through these seven children. They are really important to us. The Body of Christ that is the Church will be just a little bit bigger after this weekend.
It is a very fitting finale to our Easter Season during which we have been considering carefully what ‘rising from the dead’ means and why Jesus being risen from the dead is good news for all of us. That particular Good News is what we call our Gospel; it’s what makes us Christians.
A great day for these children and a great day for us.
Easter 7th Sunday 2019
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
I was listening to the radio and that old song by Dionne Warwick came on: ‘I say a little prayer for you’. I think Aretha Franklin recorded it too – and others besides. It was written as from a woman to her husband serving in the war in Vietnam. Maybe you know it or remember it.
It started: ‘The moment I wake up … I say a little prayer for you’… and when running for the bus and when at work and during coffee break and so on, all through the day, she prays for him.
‘Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart’, goes the chorus, ‘And I will love you
forever, and we never will part. Together, together, that’s how it must be.’
It struck me that this is quite a good expression of prayer or at least the prayer we pray for others. We are fairly practiced at it, aren’t we? We pray for individuals or groups and express a loving concern for them, a love which brings us together, joins us closer to each other, unites us. But we don’t then drop this in a post box, like a greetings card. We entrust our High Priest to personally communicate this love on our behalf. Jesus is this intermediary. Even if the person we are praying for or having a mass said for has died, Jesus expresses that love to them. There is no other way. ‘I am the Way’, he told us, ’no one can reach beyond except through him’. Only through Him can we communicate love to those beyond the grave. And at times it is very important for us to know that our thoughts and feelings can reach others.
AND there are times when it’s important for us to feel the love and concern others have for us. There are many here today who will genuinely say how the prayers of others are helping them through a difficult situation, an illness, a treatment, or whatever. I will always remember back in the seminary when I was training and preparing to be a priest. I discovered that there was a religious sister in a nearby convent, part of whose ministry each day was to pray for me personally, that I might persist in becoming a priest. It was a very powerful moment for me. And I have felt many times in my life that there is a powerful force of love supporting me, love expressed in prayer by many people – parishioners, religious brothers and sisters and others besides, yes, and the prayers of my mother and other saints in heaven too. I’m not talking about experiencing lucky escapes, but times when I have really felt, as they say in Star Wars, that a Force was with me.
So how about today’s gospel where it is Jesus himself who is praying for us! He is praying for his disciples, those who are to build his church and carry forward his mission, but he says quite specifically, ‘I pray not just for them, but also for those who through them will in time come to believe.’ Well, that’s you and me. Jesus is praying to the Father for us. He prays at that moment and for all time for us. And what is his ‘Little Prayer’ for us? That we all be one, completely united or if you like:
‘Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart and I will love you forever, and we never will part. Together, together, that’s how it must be.’
And why is that? He says that it is first of all because that’s how everyone will know that he is really present with us. Disunity, disharmony, separation and isolation are signs, on the other hand of his real absence. But it is also because he wants us all to be with him, where he is, in glory, for ever. That’s what he wants, what he really, really wants – oh no, I’m back on Radio 2!
Our unity is important. We cannot get to heaven on our own. It has to be with each other and with Him.
This is because, as I briefly mentioned at Ascension Mass on Thursday, football’s goal line technology comes into play. In football the whole of the ball has to cross the line in order for a goal to be scored. Half of the ball crossing the line isn’t good enough. We know that Christ has reached the glory of life with the Father but he is like the leading edge of the ball, the Head of the Body. His desire, his mission, is to see the whole of the ball, the complete Body crossing the line for the glory of the goal which is eternal life with God.
He has led the way but we have to follow – together for ever. But this part of the mission, he has entrusted to us. ‘Father’, he prays, ‘Help them do it. Help them join together in love and follow my Way home to you. Help avoid separation and isolation, disunity and self-interest. Let them seek the best or most common good. May the love that you have for me that binds us in unity but respects our distinct personhood be in them too.’
‘Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart and I will love you forever, and we never will part. Together, together, that’s how it must be.’ That is heaven!
Easter 6th Sunday 2019
And so, these are interesting times, aren’t they? History will reflect on the significance of these moments. We have seen it coming, surely: a farewell speech, an evaluation of what has been achieved, (if anything), a description of the legacy – what these last 3 years have been all about? – and a final ‘goodbye’. Am I talking about Theresa May? No, I am talking about Jesus preparing to conclude his earthly mission, talking about what he is leaving behind – his legacy, and how that is to be inherited – and saying goodbye to those he has loved and cherished so intimately.
While in the Conservative Party there may be many pleased to see Mrs May resign there were no happy faces among the disciples as they faced up to Jesus’ departure. And yet, he says, they should be happy for him because of where he is going and happy for themselves because of the legacy he is leaving behind. So what is that legacy?
Well we have been reflecting for the last 5 weeks on what his resurrection actually means for us – and meant for them. On Thursday we will celebrate the feast of the Ascension and actually call to mind his passing from this world to the next – his ‘passing beyond their sight’, as St Luke puts it. And in a couple of weeks we will celebrate Pentecost which is in actual fact his legacy, the gift of His Spirit to us that brings us so much.
And this is what we hear him talking about (today). The Advocate will enable us to understand everything and remind us of the Word, his words, his teaching. We will experience his peace, a peace the world cannot give. In other words not just an absence of war which is what we often mean by peace in our world, but the peace that everyone experienced and experiences in the presence of Christ, a peace that comes from beyond this world: a calmness and serenity, a reassurance, a confidence, a hopefulness, a joy, a trust and everything that made and makes it good to be in his presence. That is his peace, a peace we wish for each other and pledge to share with each other just before we receive Holy Communion at mass. It is a peace ONLY his presence can bring. And that’s the point. Our continuing reflection on the deep mystery of Easter helps us see that Christ’s gift to us is his continued presence among us made possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We call upon the Holy Spirit to enable us to experience Christ’s presence so often! In the Church’s liturgy that call or invocation is usually accompanied by the laying on of hands. In mass for instance the priest prays to the Father with hands spread over the gifts of bread and wine: ‘Make holy these gifts by sending down your Spirit upon them so that they become for us the body & blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.’ In Baptism, in Confirmation, in Holy Orders, in Reconciliation and in the Sacrament of the Sick there is a similar invocation, through which Christ’s Spirit brings Christ to us, or to put it another way, brings us to experience the risen Christ. Now that’s what I call a legacy! It is for us, an encounter with a divine life that is way beyond us. It is a gift the world obviously could never give. It is a gift only God can give. It is as he says, his gift to us, so “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid”.
And while the sacraments are grace filled occasions of our encounters with that which is so far beyond our own reach, there is, characteristically and not unexpectedly an intimacy about that gift. It is given to us in every moment of our lives. It is poured in and on to us.
There is an old story. It tells of God having a word with his angels. He said ‘I am just so worn out with humanity, not just Brexit but the whole thing; I need some peace and quiet.’ The first angel said: Why not go up to the very highest mountain and rest there?’ God said: ‘No, the world and his wife are managing to climb up Mt Everest these days’. ‘Then what about going to the bottom of the deepest ocean?’ said another angel. ‘No’ said God, ‘it’ll only be a matter of time! … I know, I will go and live in their hearts. They will never think of looking for me there!’
Christ rose from the dead – he is risen. He remains risen. Alleluia.
Easter 5th Sunday 2019
On Friday I was with other members of the Diocesan Spirituality Commission and one of the tasks we’d been set was to describe a vision that we could hope for in the future. So we envisioned a future where everyone in the diocese could enjoy a relationship with God, one that would transform them and also their relationships with other people. We then tried to plan a mission for the commission that would help move us towards that. Our parish Council is going to undertake a similar exercise later this summer in describing a vision and setting out a mission.
Actually we heard in the second reading today about a vision of the future that St. John received. His was from God in a dream, and what a vision it was! The heavenly city descended from God and a voice said: ‘And you see this city? Here God lives among men. His name is God-with-them,’ or Emmanuel, which is the name we are familiar with. That’s what our future is to look like then. But that presents quite a challenge to us obviously. That challenge is for us to be able to say: ‘You see this city, this church, this parish, this family life, this marriage, this daily life? Here God is clearly living among us. So that’s our target. Our mission is to reach that vision.
But the gospel does help; it gives some indications about the mission:
‘Love one another, just as I have loved you’, which actually means, love one another in the way I love you. (Oh, maybe that could be a bit awkward.) ‘But that’s how they’ll know that you are my disciples, and that I am with you. But you really do need to love others and God in the way I have loved you’. So we must remember what happened at Easter. He shared his life with his disciples in the fellowship of the Last Supper but also by his insistence on serving them and even washing their feet, and then ultimately by sacrificing his life for them, and for all of us. We must love in the same way he loves.
Anyone looking at our lives should be able to see the way that we do love others in ministry, in service, in marriage, in family life, in single life, whatever. If it’s not there we are denying Christ no less than Peter did that night in Jerusalem. So does the life of our church reflect this? Does the life of our parish? What about our marriage or family life or single life? Is my life like that?
With honesty and humility I am sure we’d all answer: ‘no’ or at least ‘not enough’. And besides, its not always straightforward, is it? In the ways of love, life often gets…complicated. The church’s teaching documents recognise this and especially in recent years they have sought to help and support those who are married AND those who are not married, to make good, loving decisions. In nearly all of our families there are situations that are… complicated and the church understands this. The church is an Easter church and encourages us not just to follow what Christ taught, and not even to try to think what Christ might teach if he were here, but to ask him what to do now because he IS here.
Ask him what to do and he will show the Way for you, the Truth as expressed in your circumstances, and the Life you alone can enjoy as a result. We must discern his will for us and recognise that this may be different from his will for someone else. Its what we have always described as obeying our conscience – a fully informed conscience. And then we will always meet God’s mercy. Pope Francis wrote: ‘The Way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever. It is to pour out the healing balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart’. The Church has a mission to accompany everyone on their pilgrimage to heaven wherever they are coming from to get there.
So it is like a day at the seaside. You drive as far as the car park and walk the rest of the way yourself. Follow the church’s guidance – or if you prefer, ‘rules’ – but in the end you have to discern God’s will for you in your own unique situation, yourself. Which also means you need to think about what you say or think about others. Be careful how you judge, in other words! But the ministers of the church are always there to help you discern that Way or path.
So, ‘See this city – this Church, this parish of St. John Fisher? Here God lives among us.’ That’s how we want people to see us and encounter God, risen and present among us.
Easter 4th Sunday 2019
Today I have to start with a message from Archbishop Peter:
He begins, My Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today is the World Day of Prayer for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Please pray that those God our Father is calling to ministry in the church may have the ‘listening ear’ to discern that call. This is the first step on the journey, though obviously not the last. Pope Francis has entitled his vocations day message, ‘The courage to take a risk for God’s promise.’ He recognises that responding to our vocational call from God can involve an element of risk. This is because we must let go of many different things and trust in Him alone.
The gospel needs all Christian people to bring it to the world, but especially those in Holy Orders or Religious Life.
This diocese has been fortunate over the years to have been blessed with many priests from many different backgrounds and cultures, but I pray that the ‘Lord of the harvest will send labourers to the harvest’, as more priests are needed. (I am praying too for someone to be appointed to my post as I seek to take up my retirement.)
In the gospel today we hear that Jesus said, ‘the sheep that belong to me listen to my voice’. In a special way, the priest listens carefully to the voice of God and then tries his best to speak with that voice to his people. Without priests that voice can become muted or even go unheard.
Today I ask you to pray for your clergy who dedicate their lives to the service of God and of the Church.
I also ask you to pray for the inspiration to see where God may be calling you in your life.
And I ask you to pray for wisdom, to identify anyone who might accept your encouragement to consider a vocation to the priesthood, to the diaconate or to religious life.
With an assurance of my prayers, Peter Archbishop of Southwark.
… To which I’d like to add a few comments of my own about vocations to the priesthood in particular and about vocations in general.
First of all, I recognise that element of risk in my calling, don’t you in yours?
If you are or have been married, do you remember the night or the week before the wedding? My spiritual director asked me a few days before my ordination: ‘ So, finally, do you feel certain about things now?’ I replied: ‘No, not at all. I think I am just going to have trust God every step of the way. And over 36 years later my answer would be the same, except that I can say that God hasn’t let me down yet. But when I was first ordained it was like putting on a new suit. It looked smart but it wasn’t comfortable and it took a while to grow into it. Our vocation in life is often like that, I think. It involves trusting God and trusting those we love.
And we need to understand that we were all baptised into a priesthood, whereby we have to listen to God’s voice and to pass on what we hear. Yes, as A.Bishop Peter says, the ordained priest has a big responsibility here but all of us must be priests to each other, to our friends and to our families. We can’t duck our responsibility to preach the Gospel, which isn’t always about what we say, but is always about what we do. ‘Preach the Gospel. Use words only if necessary’, St Francis once said. And that is the wider purpose of all our vocations, standing as we do, alongside the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd is tasked with getting everyone home to heaven and losing none. We assist.
We heard in the 2nd reading St. John’s vision of people from every nation, race, tribe and language all dressed in white, all reaching safety, never to hunger, thirst or suffer again. So there is a road home for each for us, but a different one for each of us and it will involve our different individual vocations. Some reaching sainthood do so through their priesthood, others through their married life, others through their single life, but always lived to the full and nearly always with great joy.
But today we are all challenged to take that calling to sainthood – and to assisting others to sainthood, very seriously. And that’s why the Archbishop calls upon us to pray for the ministers of the church and to pray for ourselves that we may be clear and positive about our own calling and that we can encourage and affirm others in theirs, even if that involves suggesting to people what we think they may be being called to do.
Easter 3rd Sunday 2019
I love this gospel reading. It paints such a vivid picture in my mind, albeit one that’s coloured in with my own memories of sitting on the shoreline of Lake Tiberias and watching the fishing boats out on the lake. But St. John is remembering one of the biggest days of his life.
It was the day he had breakfast with the risen Jesus on a beach there by the Sea of Galilee, or of Tiberius as it sometimes called. He’d been out all night fishing with Peter and the others, trying to find, I suppose a bit of normality in their lives after all the events that took place back up in Jerusalem. I expect they could have used a bit of cash too. They caught absolutely nothing all night until a man on the shore directed them to the most enormous, humongous catch. It was really weird! It was John who figured it out. Going from failure to success, from no fish to loads of fish, 153 in fact, he’d never forget that. He’d never forget either, his mad friend Peter putting all his clothes on, and then jumping into the water to make his way ashore. But I think it was the abundance that was the clue for John. It had to be Jesus. ‘It is the Lord’, he says. They all came ashore, and Jesus cooked breakfast for them. And John recalls what seemed to be an awkwardness in the conversation. We are told that the disciples were not bold enough to ask direct questions like: ‘who are you?’
But what would you have said or asked if you’d been there? Surely the situation would have begged at least some questions:
‘What happened that night in Jerusalem? How are you now … alive?
What are you doing here? Are you really happy to be meeting your friends again! Didn’t we let you down? What do you really expect of us?
But… thank you for coming, and thank you for the fish, and oh yes, thank you for cooking the fish.’
My goodness, if I’d been there on that day!
But hey, it’s a long way to the beach by the Sea of Galilee, a long way back in time and a long distance from Bexley.
If I met him there today I think that I’d have plenty to say. I would probably end up complaining a lot because, I so often do. I would want to at least know why he has allowed so many people to suffer and die in Sri Lanka and Mozambique last week, in South Sudan, in the Yemen, in Syria, in Afghanistan, and so on. I’d want to know why he doesn’t fix the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. I’d want to know why he allows so many people to suffer long illnesses. I’d want to know what it will take to make Manchester United champions again! But, I think I know the sort of reply that I would get all those kinds of questions.
So I think I’d move on in this encounter to thank him for choosing me and giving me the life that he has given me. I think I’d thank him for the friends and family he has given me – and the parish that he’s guided me into.
I think I’d want to hear whether he is happy with me or not. And what does he really want me to do just now. In fact, I am sure there’s a lot I’d want to apologise for.
I’d like him to tell me more about his life. I’d really love to listen to him talking and of course I am most definitely aware that he does want to talk to me to encourage me and to guide me.
But I don’t need to go all the way over there. There is nothing wrong with having that conversation here and now. Here, in Bexley. Now, on Sunday, 5 May. Because he is here with us right now. He rose and he is risen. Even the liturgy of mass reveals his presence in several different ways.
First, he is here with us in the community of the church. Wherever two or three are gathered there will he be too, he tells us. We have gathered here in his name.
He is here expressing himself in Sacred Scripture and particularly through his gospel.
He is here with us in the breaking of bread, in the Holy Communion we share. He is here with each and every one of us, baptised in his name and opened to his life.
Easter tells us that we can speak to God at any time and that more importantly if we find a little bit of peace and quiet in our lives we can listen to him as well. He rose from the dead and he remains, for us, risen from the dead.
We are the Easter People and Alleluia is our song.
Easter 2nd Sunday 2019
I was at a quiz night not long ago and one of the questions asked was: ‘What was the date of the death of Sherlock Holmes?’ There were two plausible dates offered and the next option was: ‘Neither of the above’ – Which was of course the correct answer because Sherlock Holmes never died. He was never born. He was just part of a story.
Today’s gospel is getting to grips with the fact that Jesus rising from the dead is not just part of a story. It’s part of history. And if we are honest it’s still hard to believe. Today we hear from St John that Thomas was not prepared to believe it until he could see and experience it himself. ‘Doubting Thomas’ seems an unfair description when we also read St. Mark telling us that none of the apostles was prepared to believe it until they could see and experience it themselves. They didn’t believe Mary Magdalene or the two followers who claimed to have experienced Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We hear that Jesus chastised them for their lack of belief.
There is a blessing from Jesus on those who believe but have not seen for themselves. I think that for much of my life I took it all on trust, all on the authentic witness of others, but there came a time when I needed to be convinced of Christ’s risen presence in my life and only then did I have the necessary integrity to pass on the Faith. I think when Baptists talk about being born again, that this is what they mean. So we do at some time need to experience the risen Lord.
No one witnessed the resurrection – Jesus rising from the dead. But plenty did experience Jesus, risen from the dead. There is very good, if not compelling evidence to establish that Jesus was encountered by many people after his resurrection. His body was certainly missing from the tomb. There were profound changes in the lives of every single person who did claim to have experienced him – local fishermen travelling the world, uneducated country people addressing huge, knowledgeable crowds. All sorts of amazing things happened.
So, it happened. Jesus rose from the dead. He appeared to many people and then it ended… or did it? For me, as I said earlier, it wouldn’t make any sense if Jesus just rose again in history. St Thomas, on behalf of the 11, and actually on behalf of us all, makes the point. I need to experience him now, beyond history and beyond somebody else’s testimony. Today’s gospel tells me that if I were there then, that I could touch his wounds. It tells me now that I still can. Easter means that Jesus is by my side, and yet at the same time he is ahead of me, where I want to be, eventually!
Jesus does speak to me and sometimes I listen. He speaks to you too. And he spoke to Sister Faustino, a friend of St John Paul the second. Jesus it seems, encouraged her to foster a pattern of prayer for other people to invoke the mercy and love of God. Her vision is pictured in the image that you see here in the church. The red and white rays that you see coming from the heart of Jesus suggest the blood and water that flowed from his side on Calvary, and which express his love and his mercy. It’s a modern image of what many of us celebrated in the image of the Sacred heart. The image is in fact referred to as the Divine Mercy. And there is a novena of prayer that begins on Good Friday and which ends today, and that’s why Pope John Paul II honoured his friend’s vision in the year 2000 by allowing this special Sunday of Easter to be denoted as Divine Mercy Sunday. So I do think that we can all honour Sr Faustina and her visions through which Jesus emphasises his place in our world, particularly through his mercy.
But Easter is not just for Sister Faustina! You, me, Thomas and the others, everyone has reason to celebrate. We have received, and we pass on the knowledge; we have received, and we pass on the Faith. The key element of what is passed on is that any, each, all of us can meet and greet Jesus, risen from the dead, and passionate to be part of our lives, full of mercy. Trust in him.
So yes, resurrection was definitely an event of history, but it was witnessed by no one. Christ, risen from the dead, was however, definitely experienced by many in history, but most crucially he offers us the chance to experience him now beyond history. And that is the joy of today and of all Easter.
Look at our sanctuary today, so beautifully decorated and imagine that we are in the Easter Garden, facing an empty tomb. When the door of that tomb opened, when the stone was rolled away the door to a new future opened for all of us. Christ is risen – he has entered a new limitless, endless future and what’s more to the point, he has offered to take us with him. He not only shows us the way, he is the Way, from darkness to light from sorrow to joy, from death to life, from slavery to freedom.
On the cross he had faced the limitations of humanity:- powerlessness such as we can all experience in pain and suffering, in violence, discrimination or hatred, in humiliation, poverty, deprivation, weakness or failure, in betrayal or defeat or even death. He experienced all such loss of freedom, he faced it all and he could find no way out of it. But he could, and did find a way through it. When the stone was rolled away he showed us all the way through it.
And we have had to stay with him all the way. If we’d stopped at the cross of Good Friday we’d merely revere the life of a martyr, one who’d given his life for his friends, a great man. We did make a point of embracing him in acceptance. We kissed the foot of the cross in huge contrast to the kiss with which Judas rejected Christ’s gift. But still, Easter brings much more. He is risen and he isn’t just risen for the joy of being with his Father, for his own sake, in other words, he’s risen for us. We are what his passion is all about. We are the object of his passion.
Look at the symbols in the church. Flowers and colours speak of Spring and new life. The new Easter candle sheds light on our world, on our lives and their meaning. Statues proclaim resurrection from the dead. Baptismal waters promise that new life can be shared with all. Oils promise the gift of life in the sacraments of the church.
But it’s one thing to acknowledge this as truth; it’s another to actively be involved, to participate, to take part and knowingly enjoy his love and the life he shares with us. How does the Easter we celebrate up here on the sanctuary become real in my soul? How do I get from the risen Jesus here on the sanctuary to the experience of the risen Jesus in my life?
Well Christ is risen for us, to be in communion with us and so we need to listen to him and respond him – to be in conversation with him. But this is personal to each of us. He’s personal! His conversation with each person will be different. But it will be real and worth engaging in.
And he speaks very gently. We will not hear him when we are rushing so we need always to slow down and settle in order to hear his voice. Even if that only happens once a week on a Sunday we do at least then have the chance to rest in him and trust in him. Hopefully we can grow more accustomed to his presence and his voice in prayer or reflection and that can become more frequent, daily even!
The point is that because of the outcome of Easter he can be present in the very depths of our lives and through the events of Easter we can see that he wants to. And that’s very important – to me at least! He wants to be present in the intimacy of every moment. We can therefore allow his presence to make a difference to every action we take, every word we speak, every thought we have.
There never was such a union as this, never such a marriage as this, the great and wonderful Holy Communion we have with Christ, given to us at Easter.
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Today in the gospel we gain further insight into the nature of God and into the nature of God’s love. Last week we heard Jesus telling a story about a prodigal son and we learned that like the father in the story, Jesus wishes to reach out, to be a saviour who comes to greet us and welcome us home, provided we are humble enough to accept his love and honest enough to see our need for his forgiveness. Today we hear about his role in a critical judgement, literally a moment of life or death for the woman concerned. He is asked for his judgement as a Rabbi and as a result we get to understand yet more about his mercy and his love.
We are probably familiar with the incident and with the very tricky problem that he faced. Would he favour Jewish law which would see her being guilty of a capital offence? If he did, he would be in contravention of Roman law which did not grant such local jurisdiction. Or would he favour Roman law? But then his judgement would hold Jewish law in contempt. It would be conceding the Jewish right to self-determination – self-respect, really.
So what did he do? He avoided making a judgement about the law altogether. He avoided judgement against the Romans or the Jews. Instead he revealed a judgement about the woman herself, and he presents it as GOD’S judgement. It is merciful and above all else it is personal. Our Saviour God reaches out to the woman and grants her life. Jesus shows us that he loved her just as she was. He embraced her in her sin. And his acceptance of her was not conditional. His release of her was not conditional on her future behaviour. He asked her to reform but that’s all. ‘I don’t condemn you; go away and don’t sin any more’. She didn’t sign up to anything.
God’s love saves. God’s love is personal. God’s love is unconditional.
Jesus certainly expressed hopes about her future but his judgement of her past was with understanding, acceptance and forgiveness.
I think that there are things to learn there about God. He will not judge me by the worst thing I have done. That’s not what defines me in his eyes. That’s not how it works in our world. Here you are often judged by your worst behaviour. Someone convicted of murder is, after all defined for evermore as a murderer. If their best action was as a devoted carer, let’s say, we don’t seem to define them as such. Maybe we should do?!
Maybe our judgements about people should be based on the best person they can be rather than the worst version of themselves that they exhibit. I am very pleased, anyway, that Jesus seems to judge by that criterion. He measures me by the best version of myself, not the worst.
There is much need for such positive and optimistic judgement in our country right now. Brexiteers judging Remainers as traitors and Remainers judging Brexiteers as stupid and gullible. The civil divisions that the Brexit disaster has brought us will take a great deal of healing. I have never before seen such a need for healing and reconciliation in our society. We would do well to look at the way Jesus makes his judgements: loving, merciful and personal.
His love, especially as it is expressed in forgiveness and reconciliation, is abundant and limitless. It showers down the whole time. The trick is to capture it and not let it just run off of us, like rain from hard baked soil. Our task, especially as we approach Easter is to prepare our ground so that we can absorb it and make use of it.
Holy Week itself is a fantastic opportunity to do that, and to immerse ourselves in his saving event so that it seeps into the everyday reality of our lives. Going from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday is a completely different journey when you go by way of the Last Supper on Thursday and the Cross of Calvary on Good Friday. We have so much more to gain from the graces of Easter if we are ready and prepared to receive.
God’s love for the sinner in the Gospel was abundant, personal and unconditional. He expressed a judgement about the best version of herself she could be, not the worst. He does the same for us and he communicates that to each of us, individually, above all through our joining in the mystery of his Passion, Death and Resurrection at Easter.
The Fourth Sunday of Lent
Charles Dickens, the great novelist, was once asked: ‘what is the best short story you have ever heard?’ His immediate response was ‘The story of the Prodigal Son, because it has a short clear plot, 3 distinct characters and a clear application.’ So which of the 3 distinct characters did you identify with? The father who let his son go his own way but ran to meet him with joy when he returned? Or the son who wasted and squandered, who did all the wrong things until when he was at rock bottom, returned to the safety of home. Or the elder brother who was steady, trustworthy and reliable, who did all the work but was aggrieved when his errant brother seemed to receive all the love and reward? Let’s come back to it.
Well actually, when Jesus tells the story he sets the elder brother as the Scribes and Pharisees who have guided the Jewish Faith for centuries. He sets the tax collectors and sinners whom he spends time with as the prodigal son and he sets himself or his Father as the father in the story.
The story is Jesus’ sermon about reconciliation, mercy and forgiveness. It tells of the breakdown and then healing of the relationship between the father and younger son. The son not only leaves home but emotionally cuts himself off from his father and spiritually leaves his faith. By claiming his inheritance whilst his father is still alive he is treating his father as if he were dead and by going to a distant country he cuts off all communication with the family. By working on a pig farm he turns his back completely on his Jewish faith and Jewish culture. (Jews were not allowed to go anywhere near pigs.) But at the lowest point in his life when he feels alone, isolated, hungry and abandoned, there is a turning point. He remembers his father’s love and mercy and is drawn back to him. When he returns, his father runs to meet him and welcomes him back as a full member of the family. Rembrandt’s famous painting captures the scene wonderfully. The father’s hands, one of which is painted as a man’s hand and the other a woman’s hand, are embracing the son and the father’s eyes suggest that he is blind, blind to the foolishness of his younger son.
The second part of the story is about the jealousy of the older son and, again the forgiveness of the father. The older son is not at ease with his family. He may not have left home, but he is jealous and resentful of the love shown toward his younger brother and he too is disrespectful of his father. He does not address him as ‘Father’ but curtly says ‘Look here’. The Pharisees would have been expecting the father to rebuke and correct the older son but instead, he gives him everything he has. ‘All I have is yours’, he is told. Wow!
So again, who do you identify with? I think we can identify with either or both of the sons and either way we can experience the mercy and forgiveness of God. If we see ourselves as the younger Prodigal son we must be humble and honest in recognising our need to turn again and seek the arms and the embrace of a loving father. If we want to be rescued we have to recognise that we are in trouble. On a recent skiing trip a woman was telling me how terrified she was halfway down a really difficult and dangerous slope. Really, she should never have attempted it but it was too late by the time she admitted it. She, rather boldly, decided that to get out of trouble she would pretend that she was injured and seek to be rescued. Sure enough the emergency services came and rescued her and brought down the mountain at which point she told them that she was feeling much better. She told me later that she was very relieved and really enjoyed the experience of being rescued. (However, she paid a terrible price, she said, on her credit card. The rescue was not for free!) But the point is that to be rescued and enjoy our Saviour’s embrace we do have to admit that we are in trouble or that we have troubles, and that we need God to complete our lives. Then with the prodigal son we can enjoy the father’s forgiveness.
Or alternatively, like the elder son, we can turn and look with amazement at the father who forgives all and who gives all. The Lord knows us, he understands us, and he forgives us. He has a place for us all and he passionately wants us to be with him. As we contemplate his passion at Easter, let’s remember who that passion is for – not for somebody else, but for me.
The Third Sunday of Lent
There is a sense of urgency in today’s gospel that has been prompted from two different directions. Jesus is talking about impending crisis but really he is referring to 2 different crises which will require his followers to be strong in faith. They have much to face up to.
1) First of all he sees around him persistent nationalism, anti-Roman activity, indeed anti-Gentile activity. With the eyes of a prophet he can see that this is really not at all good. ‘There will be a conflict’, he predicts, and in fact Rome will in the course of the next 70 years completely crush the Jews and even destroy the Temple which would never be reconstructed (at least not up until now). Rome would be used by God, as Assyria and then Babylon were in days of old, to punish Israel.
2) And then as we noted last week, he’s growing in the personal understanding of where his own life is going, and the potential for imminent conflict that may be part of his destiny. It could all come about very soon, and because the lives of his followers are tied up with his life, they will need to be ready too.
So for both of these reasons they need to get their act together NOW. They need to repent. They need to purify themselves and therefore strengthen themselves to be ready for what lies ahead both in conflict with the Jewish authorities and subsequently with the Roman authorities.
It is therefore, the call of Lent. ‘Come back to me with all your heart.’
He is calling for repentance and for people to line up their way of life with God’s way of love.
But Jesus then throws in this odd little parable of the fig tree. The tree is given extra time to get its act together and produce some fruit. So the point of it is to tell us that there is still time to get engaged in the mission to repent. Someone told me during the week that they’d not got started on Lent this year and that they felt they had therefore missed the boat with it, but of course that is not true. If you have missed the first few weeks of Lent, now is time to get on board, particularly with prayer.
Let me ask then: How have you been getting on with the book that I gave you, the book of meditations or prayers? If you took one, put it on a shelf, and left it there, then today’s the day to take it off that shelf and do the first prayer or meditation. If you didn’t take one but would like to, then I will have a few copies available after mass. A good number of you have told me how much they have enjoyed getting into it. So give it a go!
Or maybe now is the time to begin some extra good work or practice. You might make an effort to get to an extra weekday mass or to do the Stations of the Cross, either privately or with others in church on Friday evening at 7.00. There are Lenten discussion groups with pilgrims from our other Christian Churches taking place in the Village on Tuesday mornings or Thursday evenings. The details are in the porch.
Or maybe you might decide to give up something for the rest of Lent, something tangible, some luxury or treat, and if you do give up something then do it in sacrifice, in other words give up something in a way that enables you to share something with others and in that way grow closer to Jesus himself who did not just give up his life but gave up his life so that it could be shared with all of us, particularly in mass. If you give up chocolate then share the money that you would have spent on it with others. The idea isn’t to save yourself some money!
Or maybe make a choice or decision to commit yourself to something in the future. Possibly make a commitment to participate in the Easter services, the great Triduum of the Mass of the Lord’s supper on Holy Thursday at 8.00 in the evening, the commemoration of Christ’s passion and death on Good Friday at 3.00 in the afternoon and the great celebration of resurrection in the Easter vigil on the Saturday night starting at 8.00. There is a reconciliation service on the Monday evening of Holy Week, a chance to celebrate forgiveness and to mark change and progress in our lives. Mark up your diary or calendar.
The fact is that we each have lots to give or give up; we have much to offer to others. Lent offers plenty of opportunity and encouragement. It is a feast, not a famine. We are only halfway through so it is not too late to start. After all, the fig tree got a whole year’s extension.
The Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today I am instructed to read to you a pastoral letter from Archbishop Peter:
Dear brothers and sisters, On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent in preparation for celebrating the Paschal mystery of Easter. Experience tells us that there are moments in our lives where we are offered an opportunity to do something to our advantage, if we take it up. That experience is summed up pithily in the old adage: ‘Seize the day’. It is an exhortation to make the most of an opportunity when it comes, and not dither about indecisively, because that opportunity may not come again at a favourable time.
Lent is the season for each of us to enter into a closer union with the person of Christ and to reflect on how we deal with the temptations which afflict us in different ways. To do that fruitfully we need to be serious about the three traditional Lenten aids, namely, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Important and vital though these personal efforts are, we each need to open our heart humbly to the life-giving grace and presence of Christ, and ask for his help. This is beautifully depicted in the famous picture by Holman Hunt, entitled ‘The Light of Christ’. In Holman Hunt’s picture, Jesus is standing at a cottage door, holding a lantern. The surroundings are dark and gloomy, and the lantern shines on the door which is overgrown with creepers and vines. It looks as if it has not been open for many a year and can’t be opened easily now. But perhaps the most significant detail in the picture is that there is no handle on the door. Clearly, Christ is bringing his light to shine in the darkened and gloomy dwelling, but he can’t do that unless the householder is willing and able to open the door from the inside. The scene is a pictorial representation of the verse in the book of the Apocalypse in which Christ says: ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock. If you hear me calling and you open the door, I will come in’.
So the Archbishop reminds us that we need to open our hearts to the presence of Christ. And that Lent really is the time to exercise that particular heart muscle. We must be ready to encounter Christ, but where? where is he? Well, he’s close, very close. So during Lent exercise that muscle and look out for his presence. It can be perceived in many different ways.
So I want to give you an invitation and a book. It’s called ‘Rediscover Jesus – An invitation’. I got hold of these books a few years ago, at minimal cost, and I am more than happy, much more than happy, to give each of you one of them as a present when you leave mass today.
It contains 40 thoughts for the day, one for each day of Lent but it can be any 40 days or moments in the weeks or months ahead. Let me tell you one of the stories from the book by way of an introduction:
It’s about a friend of the author who was in a desperate hurry and was rushing to cross a street. As he did so he bumped into a street seller’s cart and its fruit and vegetables came tumbling down from it onto the pavement. He went to rush on …but thought better of it and went back to pick up the fruit and vegetables. Lots of people were passing by, but no one else stopped to help. As he looked up he realised that the seller was blind and she was just standing there crying softly. He touched her arm, apologised and gave her some money to cover any damage, then turned to go. ‘Mr’, the woman called after him, ‘Are you Jesus?’ ‘No, oh no!’, he replied. ‘I only asked’, she said, ‘because when I heard all my fruit falling onto the pavement I prayed to Jesus to help me, and then you did’.
Well of course, we can all allow Jesus to reveal himself through our actions and with faith we can experience Jesus in the actions of others. Anyhow that story is in the prologue of the book. I hope that you will take a book as a gift and use it and then perhaps pass it on to someone else as a gift. We watched a similar event to that in the story last weekend in the life of St Ignatius of Loyola when he showed respect and reverence to young woman who he bumped into. What he didn’t know was that she was about to take her own life. The encounter changed her mind. She wrote to him years later and told him, that in effect he had saved her life.
Jesus is alive and can be active in us all.
Behold I stand at the door and knock. If you hear me calling and you open the door, I will come in’.
Anyway the Archbishop concludes his letter:
We need to ask God each day to rekindle in our hearts the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life so that we can witness the love, compassion and mercy of God.
Peter, Archbishop of Southwark. Let’s pray for each other during Lent
The Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
My goodness! That seems a tall order – Love your enemies, give to everyone who asks, don’t ask for your property back from the one who robs you. And yet it does seem reasonable to say that there is little merit in only being nice to those who will pay you back.
I used to give money regularly to a bank and do you know what? They always gave me money back, a bit more in fact! But no, that’s not giving, that’s investment. And if there is a risk of not getting it back it’s called speculation.
Really giving is more than just doing a favour for which you expect a return – sometimes our real intent is thinly veiled: “What goes around comes around” is an expectation that detracts from our attempt to truly give. Giving must be generous and not at all self-seeking. So Jesus is presenting us with a demanding challenge. He isn’t asking us to be merely passive and allow people to walk all over us – that would not show self-respect. It would not show that we love ourselves as part of God’s creation. If slaps you on the left cheek then turning the other cheek is a positive, assertive and even defiant action, quite different from passively conceding. It is good to assert our rights, and the rights of others, but it takes love to give to others what they haven’t merited.
This is most obvious in how we deal with someone who robs us. I’ll offer a simple story from my own life that took place many years ago in my final year at University. As we approached the Easter holiday my friend Tim told me that he was a little short of money and would struggle to get through the holiday. If I could lend him some then he would pay it back when our summer term grants came through, immediately on our return. I lent him £80 which was a lot in those days. Well, excuse after excuse followed and as we prepared to leave university he still hadn’t paid me back, and never did! I was very angry at the betrayal and at what was in fact theft. Years passed and whenever I thought of Tim I never thought about the terrific goals that he and I manufactured for our football team; instead I was filled with resentment and hurt.
So I had to do something, if only to stop it hurting. Today’s gospel offered a solution. I wouldn’t allow myself to be trampled upon, I was worth more than that so in my heart I gave him the money. In fact I wrote and told him so – that while he had done me a wrong, the money was now my gift to him and I did not want it back. I never did hear from him but it was much more important that I can always recall the crosses I put in for him to head home. Happy days!
So yes, Jesus’ demand is to love, to give or for-give and not te expect return or reward. Loving is truly selfless and involves no self-seeking. The daily good deed we spoke of last week isn’t always easy to perform. It needs us to exercise true charity:
Love our enemies yes, we can do that
Give to those who ask yes, we can do that
Forgive those who rob us yes, we can do that, eventually.
The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I was out on a golf course recently and clouted my ball down the fairway, which is a great achievement as far as I am concerned. Anyway I started to walk on towards it but for my own amusement I closed my eyes to see how good my spatial judgement might be. Well, actually when I stopped and opened my eyes I was to my surprise only about 10 yards short and I was right on line. So it showed me that we can be fairly good at going in a straight line and it suggested to me that in life generally, we can be pretty good at reaching our targets or goals.
In our first reading we hear with this in mind, that we need to choose our goals carefully. We are told that if we aim for life with God that’s where we’ll get to AND we will be blessed by receiving his goodness along the way, but if we aim elsewhere we will be cursed and we will miss God’s goodness – we will have ‘no eyes for it’. It will pass us by. We want to be receptive to God’s graces and therefore we need to be discriminating, to exercise good judgement. So, if we do not discriminate and choose God’s way we will inevitably end up following goals that others set and they can be quite different. Again, ‘A blessing on the man who puts his trust in the Lord, a curse on the one who doesn’t’, we are told.
The psalm picks up on this and our response in it was therefore ‘Happy the man who has placed his trust in the Lord’. Then in the gospel Jesus himself runs with the same words and ideas. He tells us to target the Kingdom of God. If that’s where we aim then we will be happy not just in eternity but now as well. Because he’s not offering some naïve form of social justice: ‘If you are wealthy in this world then you’ll suffer in poverty for eternity’No, that’s not what he’s saying. His message is more subtle than that. He’s echoing the ideas we’ve just heard from Jeremiah. He’s not justmaking promises and threats, he’s offering invitations. He is saying that if, for example, you are full up then you will hardly be receptive to everything that is on offer in the feast of the Kingdom of God. Whereas if you are hungry, then you can enjoy it hugely and not just in the life to come but now in the Kingdom of God on earth. The values and the rewards of God’s Kingdom are available now if we are receptive to them and if we are truly discriminating, if we are truly aiming to reach for them. If you set your sights on the Kingdom of God you will be able to grasp its rewards. Happy are you if you place your trust and your life in the Lord. There is much to receive. Alas for you if you choose otherwise.
Right now then, the direction of travel is most important and we need careful discrimination in this. We need to choose our targets well. I think it is the use of little targets on the way that gets us to the final destination. But it seems to me that as Catholics we are prone to avoid this by using sin as our measure – or misusinga concept of sin, I should really say. We sometimes think of sins merely as the things we do wrong so that if I sit in a darkened room all day and do nothing I haven’t committed any sins and therefore I must be going in the right direction, but that’s not how it works. I am required to positively discriminate and choose to do good things in order to travel towards the Kingdom of God.
We need to positively choose things to do, just as much as bad things to avoid. One takes you forward, the other takes you back, but to do nothing at all leaves you nowhere, and still separated from God. Find some targets therefore, ones that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and possible within a short time period. Daily ones are the easiest to manage. If you can say at the end of each day that you did one good thing for someone – for free of course, not as part of paid employment, then you should know that you are on target. It could be something practical or it could be some kind words or it could be that you bring people to God in your prayer, but one good deed each day is doable. When I was walking the Camino, a pilgrim’s walk across Spain a few years ago I asked God for the graceto have at least one conversation each day where I could help someone, where I could give something of who I am with the gift of Faith that I have. It was, let me tell you, a wonderful grace-filled month! Give to us daily bread, we pray, but let us then commit to giving some bread each day to someone else.
‘Happy the man who has placed his trust in the Lord’ – or his golf ball down the fairway!
The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
During my holiday last month I was encouraged to have a go at ‘paddle-boarding’. If you’ve not seen or tried it let me describe it: You go out to sea (or out on a lake, I suppose) standing on a large surf board but instead of swimming and riding the waves you have a long oar or paddle and you paddle your way around while standing on the board – hopefully not losing your balance in the waves and falling in! More easily said than done, I have to say. Well I was keen to have a go, and as I was trying to learn I kept right close to the beach in the shallow waters for fear of floating off into the ocean or falling in the sea and maybe losing the board altogether or some other disaster. Well guess what happened in the shallow waters. I kept coming to a full stop as I got grounded and then fell off. The only way to do it was to go out into the deep. It was a bit scary but it was, eventually, great fun. You had to commit though.
I was reminded of that when I heard Jesus in the gospel telling Peter to take the boats out into deep water. ‘There you will find what you are looking for’, he says. And Peter took the boats away from the safety of the shore and then netted a famously huge haul or trawl of fish. After a night when they’d caught nothing, imagine Peter’s thoughts and feelings. If it were me, I’d at the very least be a bit wary. ‘What the heck is going on here? What kind of trick or sign is this? Get away from me, whoever you are’, he says, ‘I’m just a simple fisherman, an ordinary soul/sinner!’ ‘Do not be afraid’, Jesus says and Peter’s response is … in all fairness to leave everything behind and follow. Wow.
Our other readings today follow a similar theme. Isaiah has his vision of God asking him to be a prophet and he takes the plunge too. ‘Here I am, send me’, he says. And Paul tells the Corinthians that he was persecuting the Church and should be the last person on earth to be preaching the Gospel, … but nevertheless he opens his life up to God, takes the plunge and, he says, worked harder than anyone at it.
But making these commitments, taking ourselves into deep waters is quite a challenge. It is, I think, a mark of our society currently that we are really not very good at moving out of our comfort zones. In fact we work hard to ensure those comfort zones stay in place. I have heard people say that they couldn’t go out of doors without their phone. I myself feel a little insecure if I travel too far without a credit card. (That card can get you out of all sorts of trouble!) But all this is not God’s way. He calls on us to go out into the deep, out on a limb armed with our faith in him alone which is the Gospel Paul spoke about, the Gospel many have lost their lives for proclaiming it or even just for believing it!
So despite our fears and failings we need to risk a little in saying ‘YES’ to God. Yes to a spiritual journey in a relationship with him grounded in prayer but lived out in our community. There is plenty of safe ground in prayer but there is deep water too. In our relationships with others as well, it is easy to play safe but more worthy to reach out in love. It easy to have safe, polite conversations but more worthwhile to speak to others about what’s important. Someone was telling me this week how she had told someone she was making it her mission to challenge her about God’s existence and relevance. Good for her. ‘Never speak of politics or religion’? What nonsense that is! People don’t always want to hear about the Faith but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t. A friend who doesn’t broach difficult topics isn’t really the best friend to have.
And how will we get people and especially young people to accept their vocations in life if we don’t encourage them to step out of their comfort zones, the places where they feel completely safe? Even here in this parish community where so many people give so much of themselves in service we still need more people to read, to organise things, to be special ministers, to be servers, to be choir members, to be catechists, to staff our repository and so on. We need a culture of ‘Yes, I’ll commit’
If St Peter had kept his boats close to shore the most likely outcome would have been like me on my paddle-board. He’d have gone aground. If Isaiah had said ‘I don’t want to be here, don’t send me’… If St. Paul had said ‘you are making a mistake, ask someone else’… the world would not be as great a place as it is. God’s calling is always to generosity in the spending of ourselves, in offering ourselves to God and to each other.
‘Put out into deep water’.
The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I was talking with someone during the week about her treatment for cancer up at the Royal Marsden and she was telling me how the time in the waiting room was very precious to her as God always seemed to speak to her through the conversations she had there with others waiting for their treatments too. She recalled the conversations and described those she met as ‘angels’. I felt obliged to say to her that she was an angel too, because God would just as wonderfully be speaking to those other people through her! It is so easy to not recognise or identify God’s presence and activity. It seems as if the nearer it is, the easier it is to miss.
That’s what we heard about in the Gospel. St Luke is pointing this out at 3 levels. First of all in the incident itself: They just couldn’t see it, could they? The carpenter’s boy, he couldn’t be the Messiah. They knew him too well in Nazareth and actually ended up trying to throw him off the cliff at the edge of town – and if you’ve been there you’ll know that it’s a seriously big cliff. Such was their rejection of him.
St Luke is also looking wider and saying that in the end it wasn’t just the people of Nazareth who missed it but the Jews in general missed it and rejected Christ, they who had the very best chance to recognise him. Now it’s up to the gentiles and the Romans in particular to acclaim Jesus as the Christ.
But he is writing to us as well and telling us, especially us in Church, not to miss the obvious. We might be good at recognising His presence in mass and in scripture and in the sacramental life of the Church but do we recognise him in our daily lives? We might be good, in other words, at spotting him on Sundays but what about the rest of the week?
Do we see him in the kindness of others (as my friend did up at the Marsden), do we see him in the words and wisdom of others, do we see him in our partners, our children, our parents and in our friends, in our colleagues and in all whom we meet? If only we had ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’, as he used to say. And do you know, as I pointed out at the beginning, the easiest place to him is in ourselves. He embraced our lives in baptism and has been in our lives ever since. We, each of us, remain temples where God dwells. We each are sacred vessels, sacred spaces. We need to lead lives that respect that sanctity and which merit the respect of others AND self-respect, self-esteem. We are very precious. I was saying last week how important it is for us to count our blessings, to be aware of our own gifts and talents, our own treasure, and how in humility we should be open to the Lord expressing himself through us and through our gifts, to others.
Where God is, love is, and where love is, God is. St Paul could have substituted ‘God’ for ‘Love’ all through that famous passage we heard a few minutes ago: God is patient and kind. God is never jealous or boastful or conceited. God is never rude or selfish. God never takes offence and is not resentful. God takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth. God is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope and to endure what comes. God never ends.
So when we show love in any of these ways we show God. We allow God to speak to others and express himself through us. We place ourselves in his service as his stewards. Yes, my friend met angels in the waiting room at the Royal Marsden and God spoke to her through their kindness and through their wisdom, but she was an angel too as God expressed himself to them through her.
If only we can gratefully accept all our gifts from God and place them generously in his service then his presence and his kingdom on earth can grow. Think about that when you pray those words in the Our Father:
Your Kingdom Come, On Earth As It Is In Heaven.
We are not praying for miracles, we are offering ourselves to help make it happen… through love.
The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
We’ve just heard the start – or rather the introduction to Luke’s Gospel telling us why he was writing it and who it was for. He is writing for the benefit of those in authority and particularly the Roman ones, reassuring them that his account is not an eye-witness report but a considered historical document based on other gospels and accounts currently in circulation. Christians were, at the time of writing being accused of terror attacks in Rome setting fire to buildings and so on and Luke is keen therefore to argue that Jesus and his followers were law abiding and peaceful, not the sort to be burning Rome. He also wants to establish the credibility of Christianity, developing out of Judaism and that’s why our gospel today suddenly then jumps to Chapter 4 with Jesus claiming in the synagogue to be fulfilling the Jewish prophecies.
…which must have been an incredible event. In the middle of the synagogue, having just read about the mission of the promised Messiah, Jesus quite shockingly and in the context, quite scandalously says:
“I am the one, I am He.” The reaction must surely have been one of incredulity: “You’re what?!”
And actually, when you think about it, it must have been an amazing thing for Jesus himself to have come to this conclusion, to have come to terms with who he really was. He hadn’t read the script in advance. It was only at the age of 30 that he felt certain and felt ready to begin his public ministry. It was presumably going well enough for him to say in the synagogue that he was fulfilling all that was promised of the Messiah: “This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen”. Amazing! We shouldn’t be surprised that it took him so many years to come to terms with it. Heck I’m over twice that age and I’m still coming to terms with who I am, still discovering what an idiot I am. He had to deal with being God’s only Son and to understanding how he would give himself to humanity.
We have to do likewise though. We have to come to an understanding of all that God has given to us – to accept, to embrace and to humbly thank God for all the different abilities, aptitudes and other gifts that he has blessed us with. We need to count these blessings and not to shy away from acknowledging them. They are the cards that God has dealt us and we must accept them and use them in the game of cards that is our life. It is a game where to end up with unused cards is a very bad error of judgement which Jesus says will be penalised. So it is important to be aware and to acknowledge all that we’ve been given. Sometimes it takes the generosity of others – a friend, a family member OR a stranger to point out or identify a gift in us. But it is vital that we do identify and take ownership of all our gifts and gratefully accept them as God’s gifts to us.
The second task is to nurture them and develop them. Finally we give them back to God by sharing them with others. We heard St Paul describing the variety of gifts among us and how important they all are. They may seem incomplete in any of us but together in the one Body of Christ they are complete – unless someone holds back of course.
But as the one Body that presents Christ to the world we, together, should be able to refer to the text of Isaiah describing the ministry of the Messiah and say to the world:
“This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen”.
Good News is given to the poor. We don’t hold back from reassuring everyone that they are loved by God –maybe through us if no other way.
Proclaim liberty to captives. We do try to release others from loneliness or isolation or maybe its through forgiveness that we can offer freedom.
Give sight to the blind. We do lead others in getting to know God. Maybe through parish programmes, maybe in families, but we don’t hold back.
Set the downtrodden free. We do reach out to the poor, to the marginalised and so on.
Proclaim the Lord’s Year of Favour. For us this means proclaiming publicly God’s presence and activity in the world. Easy to keep quiet but we don’t; we speak up for God even amongst the cynics.
“This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen”. A challenge.
So we need to be open and humble in recognising ALL the gifts that God has blessed us with AND we must be generous in using them for the benefit of others so that they are given back to God. Our gifts are not really for keeps. They are merely entrusted to our stewardship. The parts are many but the body is one.
The Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Feast of the Holy Family 2018
Today we celebrate the Holy Family in which the gift of Jesus was nurtured and shared. It is the right time to consider our Parish (holy) family and consider the ways in which we nurture the gift of Jesus and how we organise ourselves to share it. So…
This weekend we look forward to the New Year and all the blessings it may bring but we also look back and give thanks for the joys of the old. Permit me first of all to say a few words of thanks on behalf of you all:
It is dangerous to compile lists because they are often only remembered for the people you forget to put on them but let me have a go anyway and express your thanks:
To the Parish Council, and to all the parish groups and activity that they lead or coordinate – including the Catechist teams for baptism, first holy communion, confirmation, children’s liturgies and RCIA, our Treasurer, Gift aid organiser and Premises committee, our Offertory collection counters, our Welcome teams at masses and Coffee morning organisers, our Events committee, the Film night organiser, the SVP team, the Liturgy committee, our Newsletter production team, the representatives for diocesan, national and parish charities, our Hall staff, our Meeting Point official and helpers, our Altar servers, the church Care team, the Flower arrangers, the Crib builder, the Christmas tree team, the Organists, the Choir and their leader, our Eucharistic ministers, Shop staff and Sacristans, the parish Secretary, our Readers, the parish Registers keeper, the Safeguarding team and the Information officer who runs our splendid website, amongst many other things…..
and indeed everyone who has taken part in our parish activity and helped to carry our mission forward.
So to the year ahead:
I believe that the parish council has a key role in the development of the parish over the next dozen years or so. We have met to look at the way ahead and decided that we’d like to propose a few changes to help make it work better. For those changes to be agree at our March Parish meeting the current constitution demands that the proposals be published now before the New Year, today in fact.
Since I arrived I have tried not to interfere too much but to observe and reflect on what are the strengths of the parish. I think better with pictures and so I have tried to draw a picture of what I have seen. That’s the basis of the handout that is with your newsletter today. With all the groups or departments or areas that are drawn it didn’t take much imagination to put the Parish Council in the centre of it and suggest that the constitution be amended so that those groups will all have a seat at the table and then be in a good position to coordinate and lead parish activity and deliver the mission that Christ wants us to deliver here in Bexley and beyond. It would be reasonable too to task that group with the discernment and drafting of that mission for consideration by the Parish Meeting of 2020.
In the proposals that we in the current parish council are putting forward there is space for 2 elected and 2 nominated members but the majority of the council would be constituted by those presently carrying responsibilities or in leadership roles or those who could be put forward by their constituencies. Everyone in the parish could exercise an influence through any of these people or through any who stand for election or are nominated for purposes of balance by the parish priest. I hope that you can see from the picture, where you would be and that most importantly, as far as I am concerned, that you would feel connected in an obvious way.
The second piece of the handout is the constitution that would emerge as a result of the change. Please have a look and offer feedback through the current council members or more easily through the contribution or suggestions box at the back of Church. The main thing as far as I am concerned is that we can be together, feel together, work together and enjoy the journey together. God wants everyone to be involved, he has given each and every single one of us gifts that will enable us to do so, and it is really up to us to make sure that it happens. Then we and Bexley parish and others beyond will All be better off.
“Love one another as I have loved you”, Jesus says. But he expects us to figure out the best way of doing it. Please help!
Wasn’t it awful last week, what can best be described as an attack on Gatwick Airport with the drone. So much suffering and heartache brought into peoples’ lives for no good reason. There were hundreds of thousands of journeys thwarted and endless tragic tales: someone failing to get to her husband’s funeral, someone with a terminal cancer unable to join his family for a last Christmas together and so on and so on. We should keep them all in our prayers. So many journeys are really important, not trivial at all.
We are all prepared to travel if there is sufficient reason. Maybe you are here today because you have travelled to be with friends or family for this special occasion or maybe you have got journeys planned for later on. I shall be travelling as far as Croydon, that dream destination of so many people! But next Sunday evening, as some of you know, I am undertaking a much bigger journey all the way to Australia. ‘Madness!’ That’s what I said to the friend who is taking me there. ‘But that’s where my sister lives, so that’s how far I will go’ was the reply. And that’s it really isn’t it. If you do love your sister you will go as far as you have to. Journeys!
There is a lot about journeying in the Christmas story too. The way St Luke tells the story Joseph who is from Bethlehem journeys with Mary all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But actually that journey isn’t really important. It is actually irrelevant. It can be a distraction because the really important journey is the one Jesus makes. Think of his journey from way beyond the universe, from the Godhead to the womb/tummy of Mary and from there to a little place in Bethlehem. Now that’s a journey and that’s a journey of immense significance.
There is a journey I make every few years and it’s to Ghana in West Africa to a mission project for leprosy survivors. I first went there to see a friend called Mark Mantey who grew up there but who came to England and undertook a training course that I used to run. He’d said that I should come and see the work he did and so I went. Wherever I went with him Sr Pat or Sr Monica who were my hosts would say ‘This is Fr Doug, Mark’s friend who has come from England to visit. Everyone thereabouts would respond ‘Congratulations Mark’! (It wasn’t about ME even though I was the one who made the journey!) The point is that my journey was valued because it was of significance to him. It was a measure of his esteem. Indeed Dr Mark Mantey is now the Director of the project which is called The Padre Pio Mission Project.
Now likewise with the journey of Jesus to the place we reserve for him in our beautiful crib. That journey gives enormous significance to every one of us because he would make that journey for any one of us – even if there were only one of us, he would make that journey. That’s how much God loves us and values us, cherishes us. And his journey was a lot further than Australia. This is what Christmas means: that each and every one of you is worth that much to God. You should be very happy about that, today especially.
And the visits you make at Christmas or which others make to you, may be tiny in comparison but they are nevertheless very important. Anything you do for others at this time, a journey, a phone call, a card, or anything, can be a way of telling them that they are special to God. He has come all the way to us and we ensure that through us he reaches others too.
It tells us too that since he has become fully human, that full humanity was the destination of his journey, then all humanity, indeed all creation is special and is graced by this most Royal of visits. All the experiences and all the feelings we ever have are blessed by his visiting them too. He experienced hunger and thirst, frustration and disappointment. He had fears and loneliness, headaches and sore knees when he fell over. And He knew what it was like to be loved and cherished, to have fun, to learn a trade, to study, to have friends, to enjoy a meal and simply relish being alive! He grew up to know humanity because he grew up fully, truly human, while being fully, truly God and that’s how close we now are to God.
It means I can encounter him, meet him and know him through my experience of being me. He knows and understands me completely – from the inside out. His whole life as a human gives enormous dignity to my life. We are connected and He draws me along the path that his life took towards his final, final destination which is eternal life with the Father.
So the Christmas story is about Jesus but it tells us as much about ourselves as it tells us about him, and that’s why “the virgin Mary gave birth to a Son and they named him Jesus”
The 4th Sunday of Advent C
And so to our final Sunday of Advent which in fact points us to the Nativity, to the Christmas story. We’ve looked at the advent of Jesus in other ways but now we consider how he came to us literally through Mary.
We already knew that she and her kinswoman Elizabeth were both carrying babies at the same time and we hear today that Mary set out to visit Elizabeth, presumably so that they both could share in each other’s joy and give support to each other.
Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, was one of the very elite temple priests. Now I can tell you that a lot of the despised temple tax went to the Jewish priestly tribe so Zechariah and Elizabeth would not have been short of a shekel or two. The local knowledge in his town of Ein Kerem suggests that they had two houses, one in the village and one in the hillside where it would be a bit cooler. It seems that this is where Elizabeth was during her pregnancy. She and Zechariah would have been taking no chances and it would have been a good place to prpare to give birth to such a special baby. I suspect some of you may well have visited the site. It was where she would have greeted Mary and their meeting is elaborately depicted there today. It is also where Zechariah and Elizabeth are said to have hidden their son John during King Herod’s terrifying attack on infants born in around Jerusalem at that time.
Mary was of course a young girl while Elizabeth was, we are told, ‘getting on in years’, and in her maturity and wisdom she was able to say something so very profound to Mary. ‘Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled’. And that is the wonderful thing about Mary. She held fast to that promise. During her pregnancy how hard must that have been? She was trying to deal with the most extraordinary circumstances. She would of course, have gone through the feelings familiar to all who have been mothers: the excitement, the anticipation, but also the fear and the worry – The very personal and intimate experience of being with child, but added to that she would have been pondering within whatever understanding she had, the global significance of the boy that she was to give birth to.
The Holy Spirit had come upon her and brought her the gift of Jesus. Now she was preparing to give to Jesus his birth and to give to the world its redeemer. We are just a few days away from Christmas. Try to imagine how it would have been for her just a couple of days before giving birth. How special must she have felt? How determined was she to place any doubts behind?
But the Holy Spirit has come to us too, in baptism, and brought us the gift of Jesus. We need to be like her, keeping faith in God’s promise, placing doubts behind us, ready to share the news and make a present of Jesus to others. And how do we do that? Well actually Jesus is already here so what lies in our gift is to be able to point out his presence to someone else. For instance we identify his presence with us if we speak to him silently or aloud in a prayer – a grace before present-opening or a grace before our meal or a prayer of thanksgiving at the arrival of any visitors. We can speak up about his presence in the events of our year perhaps if we are reminiscing and catching up on news. We might even be able to give that prophetic witness of spotting and identifying his presence in the lives of others! I know some families who have got into the habit of reading a little scripture at the Christmas gathering. For those of you who enjoy the computer, there is a fantastic Christmas song on You Tube put together by a trainee priest in Rome. It’s called Bethlehemian Rhapsody (https://youtu.be/S67XYlnmu2I) You might just tickle someone’s interest with it. But however you can, do try to make a present of Jesus even if it’s only to honour Mary who presents him to us. He is the best gift anyone can give.
The 3rd Sunday of Advent C
Today we focus on our third Advent theme. We celebrated two weeks ago our hope that Christ will come again in majesty at the end of days. Last week we recognised that Jesus really and truly did come in history – His coming or his advent is not just a story, but an historical fact. This week we rejoice in our knowledge of Jesus being with us right now in mystery in so many different ways. His mysterious presence pervades our world and our lives. The Scriptures today are full of it:
‘Shout for joy, shout aloud, rejoice, exult with all your heart’ says the prophet Zephaniah in our first reading.
‘Sing and shout for joy for great in your midst is the Holy One’, we responded in our psalm.
‘Be happy, always happy in the Lord because he is very near’, says St Paul to his friends in Philippi.
Finally in the gospel we hear John the Baptist announcing The Good News, which is that Jesus is here, and here for you.
This is Gaudete Sunday, a day to proclaim Emmanuel: God-is- with-us.
And let’s be clear that’s what that gospel was about. The Good News that is announced is not about John. It is about Jesus and this is what John is at some pain to point out. So, to all those who came asking questions about what they should do, John is saying that now that Jesus is here there are loads of possibilities because in Jesus there is mercy and forgiveness. There is a future. Rejoice, Gaudete!
The message John the Baptist was preaching was in fact Christ’s radical and revolutionary gospel, the one that would get him into so much trouble. John the Baptist was quoting Jesus. He wass telling everyone, every single person that they are loved by God. ‘There is a way to God for all of you’, he says, ‘whoever you are, whatever your occupation is, whatever you’ve done’. ‘Tax collectors’, he says, ‘here is what you must do…’ ‘Roman soldiers’, he says, ‘here’s what you must do…’ and so on.
Before Christ there was no such good news. Tax collectors would have to stop being tax collectors. Romans, well I am not sure they had any chance whatsoever. There was no way for them to get to heaven until Jesus arrives and says I am the Way to heaven, for tax collectors, for Romans, for sinners, for lepers, for everyone.
So a significant and important expression of God’s mysterious presence is clearly in his mercy. It is forgiveness that enables everybody to get to God and to get to know God. Now we here at St John Fisher have the opportunity to soak up some of this mercy. On Monday evening we will be celebrating God’s forgiveness in a service of Reconciliation here at 7 o’clock. There will be another priest from the deanery, Canon Ed Perreira from Welling parish. He will join me on the sanctuary in giving absolution to anyone who will confess individually a desire to receive such forgiveness from God. What a great offer it is that God makes. Rejoice, Gaudete!
Yes God’s mysterious presence is right there in that sacrament, just as it is in all the sacraments, his true real presence, as the Church has always emphasised. But his true real presence is also there in Holy Scripture and so it is truly him we are in conversation with each Sunday:
He speaks to us through the first reading and we respond with a psalm before he speaks again in the next reading. We respond again with the Alleluia verse before we greet his Words in the Gospel. After a little summarising and so forth from the priest we respond once more with the Creed and with our Prayers of Intercession. That completes our Liturgy of the Word before we go on to the Eucharist. Gaudete!
But we celebrate his presence in many other ways too, simply by gathering as Church for a start off. Then there is the whole mission of the Church where we go beyond these hallowed walls to be the hands with which he continues to conduct his mission through the mystery of our lives. He is in us and with us and especially between us in our love for one another. Gaudete!
John the Baptist had heard the good news and was passing it on. He was being a witness to the gospel. Now it is our turn. We must celebrate and then give witness and expression to God’s mysterious presence in our world especially in and through our church. God in Christ comes to us and God in Christ then comes through us to others. Rejoice. Gaudete
The Second Sunday of Advent
And so we enter the second week in this great season of Advent. From God’s point of view, looking from God’s side of things, Advent is one long celebration of the gift of Jesus to the world. But from our side, from our point of view, it’s a series of challenges about the different ways we receive him, welcome him, make space for him in our hearts, in our minds, in our intellect, in the ways we live our lives and the adjustments we are prepared to make.
Last week we were challenged to accept his coming again, his Advent, at the end of days, at the end of our lives to take us home to heaven. If we truly accept that hope and promise, if we really would welcome a final journey into heaven, then it must affect the way we live our lives on earth. If I didn’t think he was going to take me to a life beyond this one, there would be a few things that I would do quite differently, I can assure you!
This week’s challenge is to accept and make a welcome for his coming, his Advent in history. If last week we thought of him coming again in majesty, then this week we recognise that he has come in history. St Luke in the gospel goes to a great deal of trouble to pin down the event to a date in history as well as anyone could do in his day: ‘In the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, when Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, when Philip was tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitus, when Lysanius was tetrarch of Abilene, during the pontificate of Annas and Caiaphas’ – well that’s the time or even the date that John the Baptist’s famous ministry kicked off with Jesus’ ministry following on shortly behind that. They were born roughly 30 years earlier and that’s what we now call ‘year zero’, B.C and A.D. And that’s important.
There are many excellent films and many really good stories that I like to watch and listen to at this time, many in fact associated with Christmas. James Stewart in A Wonderful Life is one that springs to mind and which I love to watch around now. It doesn’t matter that they are fictional stories, that they are not true. They are uplifting and I feel so much better for seeing or hearing them. But the history of Christ’s birth isn’t like that. It is of course an uplifting story but if it were just uplifting then our faith would be merely something that makes us feel good, that gets us through a long winter, ‘the opium of the people’ as was once said. But it’s much more.
We are challenged to recall the birth of Jesus as an historical fact. However astonishing it was, it took place 2018 years ago, about 2018 miles away from here. Really, there aren’t many things that I find astonishing these days. Most of what happens is predictable or at least explainable with a generous dollop of hindsight or a good look on the internet. But this event in history is truly astonishing,
So I’ve got to welcome this fact and make space for it in my mind and deal with all the intellectual challenges that it brings to my poor little brain. Exactly how was Jesus born as a man? Can Jesus be both human and divine? And so on. I can’t say that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s true or not. It affects the way I live and make sense of things – in two ways, at least:
First, if God does sometimes act above the rules of science and nature, in a supernatural way, then I should look out, and listen out for his activity in this way. It also means that I can trust God with things that don’t make sense in my ordinary natural world, even or especially things such as tragedies or even deaths that seem to have no earthly meaning or explanation.
And it also means that I have to contemplate why he caused such a major intervention in our world, as Christ’s birth. What was so important about our world? Or perhaps rather, who was so important in our world? Me? Surely not. But maybe I should consider that this is a real possibility, that me and you and others are so important to God that this event was planned to take place in that stable in that town of Bethlehem.
All in all Christ’s birth in history is an absolutely crucial event for humanity, and indeed for God
The First Sunday of Advent
No sermon from Fr Doug this week, instead there is a pastoral letter from our Archbishop Peter Smith
The Feast of Christ the King
We have this Feast day each year to celebrate Christ as our King. But what does that mean? There aren’t many kings around these days. Queen Elizabeth II has been our monarch since, well, before I was born and I still don’t really understand her role except in a ceremonial sense. Her queenship doesn’t shed much light on Christ’s kingship.
I’m not sure that Daniel’s vision, that we heard about in the first reading helps us much either. A ‘Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven and on him is conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship. And everyone becomes his servants.’ Such a figure would be mighty powerful a very important person indeed. Such a Messianic figure was very much expected at the time and therefore temporal rulers such as King Herod and Governor Pontius Pilate were very wary. Pilate in particular, felt terribly threatened by Jesus, as we know, and indeed, as we heard in the gospel today. But Jesus said to him that his kingship is not of this kind. They had got that a bit wrong. So what kind is his kingship?
Oddly enough, I got a personal insight into this, three years ago. I had the honour of being made a chief out in Ghana in the village where the charity project that I help to run has been offering support for leprosy survivors for many years. I am now Nana Paa Kwesi Obeng I. And I am very proud. But it was for the paramount chief, the chief of chiefs, Nana Kodjo Eduakwa V, to explain to me the nature of chieftaincy. He said that it was all about serving mankind. He had placed his life in service of his people and I know that he does in fact work very hard for them. He is very well respected indeed. He even came to this country to address a joint meeting of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
Now in fact he does exercise a certain amount of power and authority through the Chiefs Council but without a doubt his main role is in service. He is a Muslim man but he tried to explain to me the nature of chieftaincy in this way: He said. ‘I think that really, it’s like Jesus and his kingship. His kingship is all about service, isn’t it?’
And of course he is absolutely correct. We know Jesus as our Servant King. As our king he guides us, he leads us, and sometimes he even carries us. He loves us and ‘He has washed away our sins with his blood’, St John tells us in our second reading from his Book of Revelations. He goes on to say that Jesus has made us all ‘a line of kings, to serve his God and Father’.
So we have the opportunity to share that role and responsibility, leading, guiding, and also serving. An obvious model of this is in family life where both parents are called to lead and guide their children, but also to serve them. There are naturally enough, many young people who might from time to time accuse their parents of overdoing it on the power and authority front but, really, we all know that service dominates the parental role.
Today then, we recognise and we celebrate Christ’s kingship. We honour his power and authority, exercised in service to us, leading and guiding us. We must pledge our service alongside his, because if serving others is the main thing for him then it should surely be the main thing for us. He said on the night of the Last Supper as he washed the feet of his disciples: ‘You must surely have got it by now! If I wash your feet then you must was the feet of others.
And that’s what we must do in daily life: at work, at home, at school, wherever – even in and through our parish. Our attention has been called of late to someone who is stepping down from a voluntary role in the running of our Hall after 38 years! We thank God for all the service she has given us and we celebrate already, the generosity of 3 younger people who have offered to take roles in the future. In a few minutes the Parish Events Team are going to send up in the offertory over £500 that was raised for our maintenance fund through the quiz night that they ran for us last weekend. But this is all sharing in Christ’s kingship: Not a vague theoretical notion but a practical, loving one that we all should participate in.
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
The readings today are a bit scary, aren’t they? Both the prophet Daniel and St Mark are, well literally, apocalyptic. They speak of a terrible day of great distress. Are they referring to the day of Brexit? No they’re not. They’re speaking about everything coming to an end – the end of the world… !? Oh!?
The universe is not eternal. Only God is eternal. The universe had a beginning. It started with the Big Bang. It started, so it will finish. Our lives on this world also had beginnings. They started and so they too will finish – at least on this world, they will.
The readings are understood to refer to either of these endings or to both of them. After all, that ending is the same in both: Christ will come again. – at the end of time or at the hour of my death.
It seems to me that society, for the most part, sees and always has seen death as the ultimate defeat for mankind. It is to be feared and it is to be resisted at all costs. But as Christians we live our lives a little bit counter-culturally, don’t we? We have a hope in eternal life and that changes the way we view and live our lives in the present. (It is a theme we shall return to in Advent.) Because for us, at death, life is changed, not ended. Jesus has re-deemed death. He has deemed it differently. He now deems it as the entry into eternal life. And so we can look forward to his Second Coming. That’s precisely what we pray in the Eucharistic prayer.
So yes, we understand the awe and wonder described by both Daniel and St Mark. We celebrate the moment of death with awe and wonder, … just as we celebrate the moment of birth with awe and wonder. I have not been present at any births – except my own, of course! But I have had the privilege of being present at many deaths, and despite the dreadful loss and grief that families may experience at that time the moment of death is a very special one; it is awesome. These two moments are often used to describe our lives in actual fact. Long after we’re gone they can be put together to define us – ‘Joe Bloggs: 1929 to 1999.’ But they both are, at least, grace-filled moments.
Our understanding of death, redeemed as it is, informs our attitudes to life as well. What a precious gift, life is. My spirit, my soul, the person that I truly am, whatever it is that is me, … well that’s immortal, and that should make a difference to everything I do, think or say. Whatever conversations you and I have, you will be able to remind me about for ever! Whatever we say about each other in the dark will be known by all of us in the light… for ever. Every life is a sacred life and all our encounters are therefore sacred. Any damage we cause to a life is a blasphemy, an insult to Christ’s presence in it.
Again, every single one of us will pass through death. Our bodies are mortal. But our souls are immortal. That’s what the Letter to the Hebrews is telling us today. Our souls will be brought to perfection in and by the single sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross at Calvary. The single event of his sacrifice is the event we are joined to each and every time we participate in mass. It is an incredible privilege for us to touch that timeless moment.
We reach through and beyond death into eternity and in so doing we reach through to those who have died. We meet them in and through Jesus. Our prayers, our wishes, our love, and our hopes are all carried through, and reach them at their moments of death, of purification and of resurrection. This is of course why so many people have masses offered for particular intentions, very often for a loved one. (Mass offering envelopes.) It is Jesus who carries all this for us, from Earth to Heaven and so we describe him as our Eternal High Priest.
In our mass we encounter Jesus, risen from the dead, and in him we encounter all who are joined to him in new life. So for instance in the parish I think that there have been six funerals in the past year. These were for six parishioners who died and they celebrated six grace-filled moments as Jesus led these six members of our parish family home. Today then, finally it is good for us to be aware in our prayers of these six people: Bill Keefe, Les Thomas, Elizabeth Iroku, Liam Gray, Ellen Gilligan and Ann Turp. Eternal rest give unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.
And may their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Today’s readings offer us two stories of generosity, …and much more besides. First, we hear in the Book of Kings, of the widow of Sidon who was starving to death as a result of a great famine. In fact, she was preparing a last humble meal for herself and her son before they would die together. Elijah asked her to share some of the meal with him. Incredibly, she did. How amazing is that? Utter generosity! There was no obvious place any food would come from in the future but she trusted in God and she was rewarded. She, her son, and Elijah all survived the famine. But she’d given the very last of what she had.
The gospel echoes this with Jesus praising a widow who gave a mere penny to the collection, but it was her last penny. Jesus observed that she had given everything she had. How generous was that, and how trusting? There was no social welfare system, no gyro in the post. She made herself literally penniless for God. If God did not provide for her she would have nothing.
And Jesus was to do the same thing himself. He was going to give up his life for us all, any of us, all of us. There was no guarantee from his father about what would happen. But Jesus, after getting himself together in the Garden of Gethsemane trusted everything, his life and his death to the Father. Again, that trust was not misplaced. There is a point in the mass where, for me, this is beautifully expressed. When we say: The Lamb of God, the priest breaks the bread. It’s the prelude to sharing the bread. The bread is broken so that it can be shared, but it’s an image too of Christ’s body being broken so that his life can be shared with us. In every mass I have ever said I have found this a very moving moment.
But God asks no less of us all. He asked us all to take up our cross, to follow, and to give our lives to and for others, and ultimately to God. Today is of course Remembrance Sunday, when we pray for those who have given their lives for us in armed conflict and we celebrate their generosity, and their trust. Years ago I knew a man, Pat Carroll was his name. During the war he was a bomb disposal officer. He once told me that every incident he was called to he spent some time in prayer. He gave up his life to God with acceptance and generosity and promised God that if God were to give it back to him he would accept with joy, with gratitude and with resolve. He died just a few years ago. But we celebrate his trust and generosity and that of all servicemen and women.
Last weekend I was able to concelebrate a mass at our cathedral, St George’s. We celebrated and gave thanks to God for the canonisation of Archbishop Oscar Romero. St Oscar was made a saint by Pope Francis just a few weeks back. He gave his life to his people in El Salvador. He stood up for the poorest of them in their struggle against an oppressive regime. In doing so he taught the world a lesson about justice and peace. Listen to some of his words: Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty. Saint Oscar was assassinated in 1980 while he was saying mass.
So, as far us, it is not just in the hour of our death that we give up our lives to God. It is in the hours, days, weeks and years of our lives that we journey with this generosity. All parents for instance, are called to show us this way as they give their lives to their children and to others beyond their family. Parents who have a child with a disability very often provide the most powerful example of this generosity, this trust. How often we use that phrase. ‘Life changing experience.’ The ones that really count are the ones where we trust in God and give of ourselves to others in generosity and in love. But we are all called in different ways to be generous in the way we live our lives.
At this time of year anyone with any soul at all, spends some time watching the golden leaves fall from the trees. It’s really beautiful isn’t it? We normally think and talk of the trees shedding their leaves. But I invite you finally, to think of leaves freely letting go of their trees and trusting themselves to the adventure of falling in gravity, blowing in the wind, and landing in their final destination. If I can let go, like a leaf, trust in God, and fall into his arms, I know that I should be truly happy, living with God in his kingdom for ever.
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
So, when asked about Jewish law and therefore the Jewish way of life, Jesus says that at the heart of it all is a call to love God, to love yourself and to love each other. Everything we think, say or do must be about love. The trouble was that this heart, this soul of the law had dropped out and the Jewish way of life had become about compliance to the rules, obedience to the commandments. Jesus and the scribe agreed that this had to be addressed. The Pharisees in particular, had lost the plot.
We should address this too. Our lives need to be centred on the personal, on our relationships with each other and with God and on our self-awareness and self-acceptance. We must hold the right attitudes at the heart of all we do, think or say. Then we can live lives of integrity, where our actions match our words, our words match our thoughts and our thoughts are at one with God’s. This can only be achieved with time for reflection perhaps at the beginning or end of each day.
Otherwise our actions can get disconnected. Our words say one thing but our actions say another. Our words say for instance: ‘I’m really interested in your story’, but our actions might be saying ‘I’m much more interested in what’s on the television over there’ or even that ‘I’m much more concerned about the dust on that windowsill’. I was with someone during the week (not from this parish) and during our conversation the parish telephone rang. The person hesitated in the telling of her story. I said ‘Please carry on, the caller will go to voicemail, you are much more important right now’. I could see the person was a little lifted by that, and we continued… A few minutes later her mobile phone went off. Straightaway she picked it up and: ‘Hello’. So it doesn’t always work.
It’s not always what we say but the way that we say it that really counts and it was Mother Teresa who used always to say ‘We must have more love. We must do everything with love’. In our society we’re not so good about using the word ‘love’ all the time but we can at least talk about doing things in a ‘person centred’ way. Let everything we do, think or say be person centred. And the person of God should be right in the middle of that. My mother used to say. Make a prayer of everything. Every conversation or interaction we have with someone has the potential to impart a little bit of love or friendship or kindness as well as whatever the conversation was meant to be about.
This is especially important in our religious practice. Again, Jewish practice got disconnected from its purpose. It had got ritualised and the personal communication had fallen out. It was replaced by compliance, to the rule. We need to be careful about our religious practice too. When I was young we talked about attending mass or answering mass. After the developments that came from the Vatican Council we talked instead about participating in the mass. But that’s a challenge.
From the very start! Saying the words ‘Lord have mercy’ can’t make you penitential and self-aware. You have to find the attitude of humility first and then use the words to express your openness and your real need for God’s gift that he expresses in the mass.
Scripture isn’t just to read out. It is proclaimed so that we can react and develop or change aspects of our lives.
In the offertory, the bread, wine and financial contribution is only supposed to symbolise a wider offering of our lives to God both for the building of the communion of the church and for its expression in mission to the world. It is a very sacred procession and when possible is led by altar servers carrying candles.
In the Eucharist God expresses the gift of his Son. We need to be actively accepting in gratitude and thanksgiving this amazing act of love.
In the Communion procession we honour that gift when the priest or minister makes that challenge of faith. We need to look him or her in the eye and answer positively. The priest or minister says: ‘The body of Christ’ or ‘The blood of Christ’. It’s really a question: ‘Do you believe, do you accept?’ We answer the question: ‘I do’ or ‘Amen’. But once again they are not ritualised words spoken into thin air. There is a conversation between two people before God, the Minister and the communicant.
Then of course: ‘Go in peace to love and to serve the Lord’. Well, clearly that response doesn’t want to be: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’, but it sometimes is, isn’t it?
Integrity, that’s what it’s about. It’s not what you say or do but the love and integrity that you say or do it with.
All Saints Day 2018
I am Douglas Gerald Bull. I always have been, at least since I was born, and I always will be Douglas Gerard Bull. I was born in 1956. I cannot be unborn. I cannot be uncreated. Not ever. I was born to live for ever. Yes, of course I have to pass through death but I will live a new life for ever. I will always be Douglas Gerald Bull. I will always be distinct, individual, different from other souls.
And then there are only two possibilities. I will either live with God for ever or I will live without God for ever. That’s a very frightening prospect, one that I will do my best to avoid. I really want to live with God for ever, to be with God as a saint. And that was always God’s plan, too. You might remember the old catechism of the Faith. Question one: Who made you? Answer: God made me. Question two: Why did God make you? Answer: God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him for ever in the next. Happy for ever in the next.
So our feast today celebrates two things. First of all, it celebrates the lives of all those saints who are with God. Secondly it celebrates the fact that Douglas Gerald Bull is called to be a saint, alongside everybody else. God wants me to choose him by living the way of life that his Son revealed to us. He always allows the possibility of our not choosing him, but he really, really wants us to choose him.
Quite simply, today’s gospel offers us a way to live our lives and practice choosing him. To live our lives deepening the virtues or the values expressed in today’s gospel will surely help us make the right decision and achieve the great destiny to which we are called. A great Feast then, today, to celebrate the lives of those who are with God and the great destiny we all share that we can choose to join them.
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) 2018
The scene at Jericho is very vividly described in today’s gospel, almost certainly because it’s an eyewitness account. I have been to Jericho many times. I can easily picture this scene with Bartimaeus sat there on the edge of town as Jesus passes by. It is a very, very hot, dusty place down near the Dead Sea, well below sea-level and at the foot of the great mountain range where Jerusalem is situated. And it was of course, Jerusalem that Jesus was heading for.
St Mark has put his gospel together very carefully. He records Jesus calling and then teaching his disciples up in Galilee, about a hundred miles north of Jericho. Jesus builds them up and trains them in the Ways of Faith until finally when he asks Peter: ‘Who do you think I am?’, Peter replies: ‘You are the Christ, the Messiah’. Well that was it. It was a great profession of faith and a great moment for Jesus, the pivotal moment, in fact, the way Mark tells his gospel. Jesus’ troop was now ready and so he set off from the green hills of Galilee, leading his followers south to Jerusalem where he will confront the Church authorities. Jericho is the last stop, about 15 miles short of Jerusalem, a day’s walk away. A steep mountain climb will be the last stage.
Jericho is the kind of place where nothing and no one moves about much during the day. It’s just too hot. People fetch water, do their jobs and so on, early in the morning and then again in the evening. I’m fairly sure Jesus and the ‘large crowd’ that Mark speaks of, was setting off early in the morning hoping to make as much of the climb to Jerusalem as possible before it got unbearably hot. He wouldn’t be keen to delay. But then he passes Bartimaeus, who seems to know something. Blind though he is, he has inner vision and calls out: ‘Son of David’. Well, ‘Son of David’ meant ‘Messiah’, so he was publicly proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah and that’s why we heard that the crowd was trying to shush him up. Blind as he is he makes exactly the same profession of faith that Peter had done. This profession of Faith, is as I say, a most important element in Mark’s gospel. And Mark intends us to see an irony in it. We who have good physical sight should maybe recognise our blindness to some of God’s truth and seek that in-sight.
When he gets his chance Bartimaeus jumps up and rushes across to Jesus and asks for the gift of sight that will enable him to follow Jesus. He does not know where that will be. Probably he followed Jesus into Jerusalem. He may have been one of those laying down palms and cheering ‘Hosanna’ as Jesus entered Jerusalem. We don’t know. And who knew what Jesus was walking into? Who knew where it would lead?
And for us too, who knows what lies ahead? I was thinking that on Friday evening when Bishop Pat inducted me as parish priest and led me to the parish’s presidential chair. We have, please God, many years ahead travelling together, on pilgrimage, deeper into God’s kingdom, deeper into his mystery of grace. As I said on Friday evening, I will listen very carefully to the needs and concerns of this, your parish and I will try to discern exactly what my role should be. Always though, we must, like Bartimaeus, seek out the presence of the Lord and ask for greater sight, or in our case, greater in-sight, greater faith so that we can follow Jesus on his way, even if it is a bit uphill, and even if like in Jerusalem there is a cross to face and overcome. But wherever we together, or we as individuals are led, the Lord will be with us and he will provide us with joy, with what resource we need – and with a bit of good fun too, I am sure!
But we are The People of God and we are on our way.
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) 2018
(click above to hear the sermon.)
Today is World Mission Sunday. It is not helpful, I don’t think, to think of it as Foreign Mission Sunday. It is a day to consider the mission of the worldwide church, a church that is or should be all joined up. The mission of all Christians throughout the world is, as Pope Francis says, to get to know God more intimately, more personally, and then to let everyone else know how good that is, to share that good news, in other words. God sent us His Son and His Son sends us! That is the purpose of the church: to go out to the whole world and spread the good news. And that’s the point of Doug Bull individually: to know God and then to help others to know God.
It’s a worldwide church and it is a world mission. Last weekend Archbishop Oscar Romero was canonised, made a saint (along I must say with Pope Paul VI whose life we can celebrate on Wednesday evening at our parish film club) Archbishop Oscar Romero was a courageous but reluctant church leader in El Salvador who was murdered and therefore martyred in 1980 when he was shot, literally while he was saying mass. He had expressed solidarity with the people in their poverty and in their persecution. He had challenged the ruling regime there to act with justice and integrity. It was a government militia who “took him out”.
Now I remember being at the seminary back in the late 1970s when a priest from El Salvador came to this country and concelebrated Mass with us one Sunday. He said that his fellow priests had discouraged him from joining us for mass because they felt that the church in Europe had abandoned them in El Salvador, had become disconnected from communion with them by our indifference to their suffering. This priest took a different stance obviously, but it made the point that in the worldwide church we are and must be connected in our mission and in our lives to each other. We are all joined up. Their concerns are our concerns and must be met by them and by us. But also, our concerns are and must be their concerns and likewise must be met. It’s not just World Mission Sunday in Bexley. Catholics around the world are including us in their prayers today. They are praying for us – supporting us as, we must support them.
On Friday evening I hope many of you will choose to come along to what the church calls an Induction Service where I will officially be installed or “enstooled” in the presidential chair of the parish, as Archbishop Peter’s representative or agent. We Catholics in Southwark are an apostolic church. He is the apostolic successor. He is linked to all the other apostolic successors, all the other bishops of the world, and through him and them we are all joined to the Catholics of the entire world. The Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis has a role to play in regulating those relationships but essentially the church is a communion of dioceses from Southwark to Salvador.
So that has consequences: Jesus said to James and to John, ‘Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I must be baptised?’ In other words: ‘Can you walk the walk? Can you bite the bullet?’ It was ironic that they had been asking for the privilege of sitting left and right of him in his glory. I’m sure their Jewish mother would have been proud. Well arguably, the highest point of Christ’s glory was on the cross of Calvary in apparent humiliation and defeat. And actually James and John both did have to taste such glory on their way to heaven.
The challenge is there for us too. To be part of a worldwide church we have to walk the walk, bite the bullet, drink of the chalice and live out the promises of our baptism. We must accept the responsibility to be supportive of our communion around the world both financially and prayerfully, but also through the personal integrity of our own Christian life. The worldwide mission to know God includes us. And the personal call to holiness and integrity of life is the first call of the mission that we must hear on this World Mission Sunday.
We will also be having a collection for the work of Missio later on.w