Every week we hope to be able to print the latest sermon from Fr Doug and, when possible, also include a sound file recording during the 10.30 Mass to enable you to listen to it as well.
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
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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
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
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
Click above to hear Fr Doug’s sermon.
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