21 September, 2014

Homily for the Feast of St Matthew, Apostle & Evangelist 2014

Matthew 9:9-13
Jesus saw ‘a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, Follow me.’ (9:9)

Jesus is back in his small home village of Capernaum where he had settled at the beginning of his ministry, and here he goes about healing and making disciples among peoples that probably knew him. Our gospel reading does not say whether or not Matthew was among the number of residents of Capernaum, whether he knew Jesus before this occasion, but we can speculate that in the closely knit community of a small village Matthew would have at least known vaguely about that Jesus who had left the Capernaum, who was rumoured to have miraculously healed many in the region, and was now travelling with a motley crew of disciples, sometimes attracting the wrong kind of people. Matthew may have had an idea about Jesus, but he wasn’t a disciple, that is, until the moment Jesus spotted him and called to him, ‘Follow me’.
This little gospel story outlines the call of Matthew (or the call of Levi as it is referred to in the gospels of Mark and Luke); yet these few verses also express something about our own call, our own vocation to be disciples.

In this passage there are four elements to the call to discipleship that I would like to highlight to you. 
First, being a disciple requires great humility. We read that Jesus says, ‘I have come to call not the righteous but sinners (13)’ so in order to hear and to respond to his call we must acknowledge that we are all sinners and that Jesus alone can change our life for the better. Surely, at the beginning of every Mass we ask God for forgiveness, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are ready to acknowledge our problem, our addiction to sin; whatever that may be, however big or small we consider it to be. Self-righteous, needlessly proud, haughty people cannot easily hear Jesus’ call. Yet, if we daily cultivate humility and keep a close look on our conduct of life we would be ever more ready to hear Jesus calling each of us. He says, ‘I have come to call … sinners’; he comes to call us.

Secondly, being a disciple requires a great deal of courage (or fortitude). We read that St Matthew ‘got up and followed Jesus (9)’. For him getting up meant to physically abandon the tax booth at which he had sat for days on end, and to begin to change his life one baby-step at a time right from that very moment.I say courage, because discipleship requires a radical (and daily) change of life; and this is not easy. Becoming a disciple is not like starting a diet, we can’t say, ‘The diet starts next Monday’, but we have to start here and now, afresh every day, when Jesus says ‘Follow me’.
Doing this requires a lot of courage, that virtue that allows to do what is right regardless of the time, of personal circumstances, and of potential losses.
It always makes me giggle how we are so ready to sing hymn lines such as ‘We’ll be turning the whole world upside down’, but we can’t actually be asked to move a single finger in order to reorient our lives towards what really matters, towards religion.

Thirdly, being a disciple requires learning constantly from Jesus. In our reading he says to the Pharisees, ‘Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”’ (12), but this does not mean that Jesus is inviting only his opposers to do some learning. He invites us all to relearn the meaning of the Scriptures as seen in the light of his blessed presence. 
All too often one hears of so-called Christians who use Bible verses to hurt others, or to put them down. That is not discipleship; in fact, that is not Christianity.
Discipleship means to engage in a lifelong learning enterprise wherein we are taught by Jesus and by the faith of his Church – a learning that is manifested in practice through love, compassion, and encounter with others.

Fourthly being a disciple requires love for community. In our reading we see that Jesus ‘sat at dinner in the house, [where] many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples (10)’; therefore we too must be part of this community of people. We must learn to sit comfortably with many tax-collectors and sinners, because (as mentioned in the first point) we are all sinners and we are all striving to do better and better each day.
The call to be a disciple we receive from Christ is a personal, individual call; but the outworking of this vocation is only possible within the community (the “society”, if you want to use an old-fashioned Anglican word) that is the Church. We cannot be serious about the Christian life if we are obstinate about going it alone, or splintering off when things don’t go our way. Jesus is always surrounded and accompanied by the mixed community of the Church. This community is his own mystical body and he cannot be separated from her, regardless how much people refuse to acknowledge this. If we want to be genuine disciples of Christ we must be part of that group of people, without exalting ourselves above fellow disciples and above other sinners; with love for others, with forbearance, kindness, and words of encouragement for everyone.

Jesus saw ‘a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, Follow me.’ (9:9)
How do we respond to these words? Humility? Courage? constant learning? Love for community?
May St Matthew help us with his prayers to follow Jesus ever more closely every day. Amen.

30 August, 2014

Homily for the Feast of St Bartholomew, Apostle 2014

1Corinthians 4:9-15

To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless.’ (4:11)
Recently I purchased a book about religious art containing detailed explanations of common symbols which traditionally accompany the representations of saints. The book relates these symbols to their proper saints – these are object or characteristic which clearly mark out who a particular saint was or what he or she did. So if you found yourself looking at a sacred image and you don’t know who it is of, you can use this book to decipher, as it were, the image; you can look up the objects and symbols and consequently identify the saint.

On the front of your welcome sheet I have printed a fairly stern image of the St Bartholomew. We can see that he is holding a book and a knife – albeit a large knife. Immediately, even if Bartholomew weren’t standing in front of some rather camp wallpaper bearing his name, the knife and the book should help us identify him. The book is an indication that he had something important to do with the spreading of the gospel and the knife is clue an about his death. However, there is another way of picturing St Bartholomew – something that is a clear giveaway.

When I studied art history I remember being fascinated by the giant fresco last judgment by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. There, sat on a heavenly cloud below Jesus there is a naked old man who is dangling his own flayed skin, the sign of his martyrdom. So if you put two and two together, if you relate the knife in our picture and the flayed skin put on display as if it were an animal hide, you can decipher how Bartholomew was killed, he was skinned alive by his persecutors – oh, and then decapitated just to make sure.

To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless.
Over the past weeks news programmes and social Medias have featured many reports from Iraq and Syria that showed Christians facing daily persecutions for their faith. These people are suffering in the way Paul describes in our second reading, ‘hungry and thirsty …poorly clothed and beaten and homeless’. Many have been forced to leave their homes; many have been the object of violence; the Anglican Vicar of Baghdad has reported that a child whom he baptised a few years back has been cut in two. Many have been killed with a brutality and cold-bloodedness aimed to eradicate the Church from the land by blood or by fear. As you probably know, numerous photographs and videos which have been circulated are too shocking for the conventional media to air; but they have fo
und their way to us over the internet. They show mass crucifixions, beheadings, and innumerable other horrors. In fact, the way some Christians are suffering for the faith it is quite unpalatable for the Ten o’clock news.

One internet video that has become very popular for all the wrong reasons is the one of the beheading of journalist James Foley. I should say that I refuse to watch it and I would encourage you not to watch it either. However, what has not received the same volume of attention is James’ faith and an article he wrote about his captivity in Libya a couple of years back has not been picked up by the conventional media. James writes, ‘If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom.

We might feel helpless in front of so much atrocity. But these people being killed are our brothers and sisters, our siblings, flesh of our flesh as we all are fed by Christ. If we can’t physically rescue them, if we can’t follow them, we must help them in other ways. In fact, we have the weapon against so much violence at our disposal. We have a double edged sword in our hands, not the sword of violence which is the only resort politicians can think of, but the sword of prayer and almsgiving. God calls us to use this weapon daily, but especially now. Prayer is the glue that can enable their freedom. So I encourage you not to be silent and passive towards those who are imitating Bartholomew undergoing sufferings in order to bear faithful witness to Christ. I encourage you to pray for our family. Pray for our brothers and sisters; pray for the conversion of our persecutors. I encourage you to give alms. Give cheerfully and generously to the poor and to the church. These are the ways in which we can fight back against so much horror.

Let us pray,
O God, who will that the Church 
be united to the sufferings of your Son,
grant, we pray, to your faithful who suffer for your name’s sake
a spirit of patience and charity,
that they may be found true and faithful witnesses
to the promises you have made.
Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

29 July, 2014

Prayers for Peace

God, our refuge and strength,
bring near the day when wars shall cease
and poverty and pain shall end,
that earth may know the peace of heaven
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

God our deliverer,
defender of the poor and needy;
when the foundations of the earth are shaking,
give strength to your people to uphold justice 
and fight all wrong,
in the name of your son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Most gracious God and Father,
in whose will is our peace:
turn our hearts and the hearts of all to yourself,
that by the power of your Spirit
the peace which is founded on righteousness
may be established throughout the whole world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. 


Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, harmony;
where there is error, truth;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy. 
O Divine Master, 
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

O Loving God, 
your Son, Jesus Christ, 
came into the world to do your Will 
and leave us His Peace. 
Through the intercession and example 
of our Blessed Mother Mary, Queen of Peace, 
grant us the wisdom and humility 
to reflect that peace to the world. 
Inspire our thoughts, words and deeds 
to bear witness to your presence in our hearts. 
May your Holy Spirit fill us with every grace and blessing 
so that we may pursue what leads to peace for all humanity. Amen.

Under thy protection we seek refuge, 
O Holy Mother of God;
In our needs, despise not our petitions,
but deliver us always from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

15 July, 2014

Assisted Suicide - A few resources

My Sunday homily against assisted suicide was received very well in the parishes; indeed, surprisingly a lot better than what I anticipated. St John’s worshippers were also pleased to receive a few copies of Archbishop Justin’s piece in The Times. As a result, I want to post a few links to people and organisations who are actively opposing Lord Falconer’s Bill, on so called “Assisted Dying”.

It is deeply regrettable that Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev’d Rosie Harper have also decided to publically support assisted suicide.

13 July, 2014

Homily on Assisted Suicide - Fourth Sunday after Trinity (A) 2014

Lord, ‘teach us to number our days
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.’ (Psalm 90:12)
On Tuesday I was feeling very smug and I hinted to a parishioner that I had already written 90% of my homily for today, but unfortunately yesterday I felt I had to ditch that sermon in order to tackle another theme.

A debate has been taking place in Parliament about assisted dying. A Bill presented by Lord Falconer proposes to relax the existing law to allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to patients of sound mind who have been given six months or less to live. The perceived aim of the Bill is to prevent needless suffering and to regulate what allegedly has been a long-established and unspoken practice of mercy killings. In this debate the Church of England has sided against relaxing the law and up until Friday all our bishops have been of one mind in upholding the teachings of the Church about end of life care. Unfortunately, Friday evening Lord Carey – whom many of you many have met here in 2010 – decided to break ranks and to cause havoc within the Church he once lead.

Lord Carey has reportedly changed his mind. Now he supports the proposed changes in the law, because as he sees it, the Church’s teaching could actually harm terminally ill individuals, asking them to suffer needlessly. He holds that instead the Church should use “compassion” in her teaching; probably meaning that feeling “compassion” should induce people to morally allow some sort of mercy killing.

Lord, ‘teach us to number our days
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.’
'Mercy killing' might sound harsh, fair enough, but I think we really ought to call this proposed change in the law by its real name, assisted suicide, because all the other names – assisted dying, dignity in dying, right to die – are all sugar coatings and smoke screens for the real issue. “Assisted dying” and “dignity in dying” are activities with which Mother Teresa, and anyone who lovingly nurses the dying, are involved; deathmongering doctors, Swiss clinics, and their vocal supporters have no right of usurping these words comparing themselves to those who daily tend to the terminally ill with true compassion, suffering with them and facing tough moral questions.

Lord Carey’s affirmations are a betrayal under many aspects. First, he undermines his successor by getting his shocking and crowd-pleasing words published on the very same day in which the Times published an excellent piece by Archbishop Justin. Second, Carey betrays the teaching of the Church and of the Bible – which is a rather surprising thing coming from an evangelical of his weight. Third, Carey reinforces the silly but very popular idea that personal feelings (especially feelings of pain and pleasure) are the only actual way to judge whether or not a life is worth living. Finally, Carey paints a picture in which reasoning through theology and Christian ethics does not count for anything in the face of strong feelings and especially in the face of pain.

But so be it. Let us put aside any theological argument against assisted suicide, and let us confront Carey on secular grounds. If Parliament were to endorse assisted suicide the flood-gates would be open and in a few decades society’s conscience would be so thwarted that individuals wanting to stick around until their natural expiry date will be considered a pain in the neck, and scroungers who consume limited, valuable resources and NHS money.

A representative of Scope, a national disability charity, writes on their website 
‘This Bill is all about looking at disabled people and saying ‘I’d rather be dead than be like you’. Disabled people hear this all the time – including me.’
‘Lord Falconer’s Bill is based on the one they use in Oregon, USA. There, 40% of those requesting to end their life do so because they feel a burden on friends and family.’
Concerns about vulnerable people, the elderly, and the severely disabled have been flagged up everywhere, not just by religious leaders, but also – and perhaps more importantly – by charities that have made true compassion their main driving force.
This is not scaremongering. These are serious, tangible causes of concerns and the Church should stand her ground for the protection of life, and the messiness of it all – whatever personal feelings on the matter might be.

Lord, ‘teach us to number our days
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
The words of Psalm 90 should speak to us to remind us that the brevity and uncertainty of life is something inseparable from how we experience the world. If we try to sanitise death by making it nice and neat we would place a tremendous burden on the most vulnerable who daily remind us of the messiness of life through their pain and needs. These words from the psalm should remind us that amidst sufferings and the temptations to take decisions based merely on our feelings, we ought to apply our hearts to wisdom considering the dangers, entering into constructive dialogue about the nature of care, and pursuing true compassion.

So I leave you with some words from Archbishop Justin,
Compassion is not simply a feeling; it is a commitment to sharing in the suffering of others while trying to alleviate it. True compassion can be shown through care, through expending time and resources on those suffering and through offering hope even in the darkest of circumstances.
O Jesus, living in Mary,
Come and live in thy servants,
In the spirit of thy holiness,
In the fullness of thy might,
In the truth of thy virtues,
In the perfection of thy ways,
In the communion of thy mysteries.
Subdue every hostile power
In thy spirit, for the glory of the Father. Amen.