09 December, 2014

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent (A) - A call to prophesy

Isaiah 40:1-11
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
…do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God! (v.9)
Today we light the second candle on our advent wreath. As we prepare ourselves for the great celebrations and joy of the Christmas season, today we commemorate the prophets who brought the word of God to his people. Their number includes Isaiah and all the Old Testament prophets and prophetic guilds up to St John the Baptist, who was sent by God as the forerunner, the messenger ahead of Jesus.

Our commemoration of the prophets should speak to the Church about her vocation in the world. God’s invitation we read in Isaiah is directed to communities of believers throughout the centuries; and today, one of these communities is us – all of us sat here, and our entire Church as a collective. We are the people of God, the Jerusalem mentioned in the first reading, the heralds of good tidings; and in this season of Advent we ought to rediscover our vocation to be prophets in the wider society. A prophet is not much of a fortune teller or a seer; rather he or she is someone who can read the signs of the times and is able to interpret them within the light of God’s purposes. A prophet is one who acts as a channel of God’s plans for creation, cutting through the confusion of the time. A prophet is a person open to the word of God by prayer and the practice of religion. God invites us all to be prophets in this sense. As we see in our reading, A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ (v.6), and this voice is urging us all. We are invited to call out to others and say, ‘Here is your God!’ (v.9)

O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
…do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God! (v.9)
Sure, people may be slow to respond, wilful in their rejection of the Church, afraid of religious commitments to the point of being paranoid; but our vocation from God does not change – A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ (v.6). Isaiah himself knows this; he knows the difficulties of being a herald of good tidings. Look at the reading; look at his frustration so vividly displayed when he says to God,
‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field (v.6).
The word used here for “constancy” also means “loyalty” and “loving kindness”. We know, we all know well that human loyalty, even from loved ones, can sometimes be severely tested. Isaiah knows that people are often lukewarm in their love for God, insecure in their searching for him, and often ready to turn away… And yet, it is to these people, to the wider society that God wants us to speak, to call out without fear and to say, ‘Here is your God!’ (v.9) in a very literal sort of way. Here in this church, here manifested in our liturgy is the God whom society looks for in the useless things of the world. Here in this church community God reveals himself as the Prince of Peace, the Emmanuel (God-with-us), the healer of the world, and yes, the Bread of life.

Every year around this time wider society get swamped by a flood of adverts, by endless peer-pressure for hosting bigger and better Christmas parties (possibly even at the cheapest price), by greater and higher expectations about having the best Christmas ever – from September, when we are told we must need a new couch in time from “the big day”, to January, when we are told that we can start a new shopping savings account for the next Christmas, passing through sad slogans such as “this is the season for binging”. And yet, because of this unnecessary pressure, quite often all the expectations for the day reveal themselves a serious let-down – probably because society has not found or engaged with that one thing that alone can satisfy every expectation and it is worth every effort to acquire.
God calls us to be prophets to these people, and prophets to one-another. This Advent, God sends us to society with a simple message, “Forget all the pressure and distractions of the season. Look no further. Here, Here is your God! (v.9)”.

04 December, 2014

Homily for the Second Sunday before Advent (A) - Giving and Stewardship

Matthew 25:14-30

Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master (v.21).
Over the last couples of weeks our readings have assumed darker tones and, as we move towards the solemnity of Christ the King, they have gradually moved our attention towards the end of times. Last week Jesus told us the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, teaching us to keep watch for his arrival aided by the lamp of prayer. Today Jesus presents us with the parable of the talents, teaching us how to behave and act as we await for his return.
God is the master, the man going on a journey, and we are the slaves. The talents are the wealth and riches we each receive from God. The trading with bankers is our own stewarding of the riches – though a particular kind of stewarding which requires us to give freely and generously; in other words, giving to charity. The interests accrued are the fruits of our charitable giving, fruits that will win us the praise of our master, and a share in his joy.

I remember that as a child when I went to church I was encouraged to put some money in the collection at Mass. But how could I do that? you might ask, I was only a child and pocket money wasn’t a source of reliable income. Well, as the plate made its way towards my seat, my parents would put a banknote in my hand so that I may have something to give. To this day, when I go home, and I am about to leave for church I am usually asked if I have Euros to put in the collection – you never know, I might have only foreign coins in my pocket. A that time I felt that my giving was a bit like cheating God – at the end of the day I was offering to him something that wasn’t really mine to start with. And yet, later on in life I came to understand that God works with us a bit like my parents did with me. He provides us with life and riches so that we might have something to offer him.

The parable of the talents teaches us the correct attitude to giving, to sharing the riches we receive. Christian giving implies two aspects; first, we must become aware that all the talents, time, and any wealth that God has bestowed on us are not ours, they are not our possessions but they are still God’s. Secondly, Christian giving means stewarding what we have received for the glory of God. He is the giver and provider of all good things who entrusts us with his abundant riches so that his love may be shown to others through our free and generous giving of time, skills, and yes, also money. We receive things for a season, and then we must render a detailed account of our investments.

Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master (v.21).
The coming weeks and months will present serious financial challenges for our church. As some of you will already know the diocese has decided to increase significantly the common fund contribution that each parish ought to make towards our mission. There will be chances from scrutiny and assessment about what kind of mission the diocese would like us to embark on, but this is not that time. This is a time for us to look at investing the riches entrusted to us by God; it is the time to review our giving and to be ever more generous. In spending what we have received for the benefit of God’s Church and the advancement of his kingdom, we will reap generous rewards from him. What seems to make us poorer in a monetary sense will allow us to hear the words Well done, good and trustworthy slave; …enter into the joy of your master (v.21).

I know all too well that little voice in our heads that says, “But others have more, they can afford to give more.” Yes, in some cases that may be true and I don’t want to open windows of peoples wallets – as it were. I, for myself have to look at my own stewardship of God’s abundant gifs. I just want you to look at the example that Jesus gives us in the two trustworthy slaves; He says of the first slave, The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded (v.16); and of the second he says that he acted In the same way (v.17). The two trustworthy slaves don’t lose time gossiping, looking at others bank accounts in envy or resentments, they just do at once what the master ordered them to do.
Let us pray,
Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach us true generosity.
Teach us to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labour without seeking rest,
To sacrifice ourselves without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will. Amen.

02 December, 2014

Homily for Remembrance Sunday 2014 – Why Remember?

Jesus says, As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love. (John 15:9)
One hundred years ago, after the initial spur of eagerness for a short, snappy war, the world woke up very suddenly to the terrible reality of large scale conflict. The world woke up to the sadness and terrors of a new age in which vast numbers of people could be killed in a very short time. The world woke but it must have felt like a nightmare for many.
Photograph by Tobi Carver - St Ives Times & Echo
The last line of Philip Larkin’s well-known poem MXMXIV captures this moment with dramatic accuracy saying, Never such innocence again. The Great War begun with the high hopes of patriotism, but it revealed itself as a loss of innocence for the entire human race, no matter what side of the conflict people found themselves on.
The idea of ultimate sacrifice for king and country was in many cases put to severe test, as young men kept falling in trenches and battlefields as pieces of a domino. Even the spirits of the most patriotic people took a hard battering as the nation witnessed the number of casualties rise to 888,246 over the war period; a staggering number, a statistic never seen before in the history of the human race, which rose to 1,118,760 casualties for the entire British empire, and to 17,739,896 for the all the parties involved in the war, including 7 million civilians.

A generation lost, entire communities broken to pieces by the tragedy of human hate.
Two mothers lost five sons to the war, and the sentiments of one of them made it into the history books. As Mrs Beechey was introduced to Queen Mary in 1918 who wanted to thank her personally for her immense sacrifice, Mrs Beechey replied, ‘It was no sacrifice, Ma'am, I did not give [my sons] willingly’. All this was described as tragic loss of innocence, and indeed it was.
Yet, as we know too well, the Great War was only the beginning; WW2 and other conflicts have claimed the lives of even more soldiers and countless civilians since. Indeed, over the recent years, and up to this day, war still claims the lives of our service personnel – as two weeks ago we marked the end of British operation in Afghanistan, the forces leave that country having lost 453 soldiers, one of them a true son of our town, Sgt Paul Fox.

Confronted with this much pain, by this loss of innocence, by hate, so crudely and poorly summarised, most people would want to turn away, indeed many would wish to forget all, but every year, and in particularly on this year, remembrance seems to be an important, almost a vital part of our society.
For example, only last week the organisers of the breath-taking poppy installation at the Tower of London advised the public to visit the site after Remembrance Sunday because the number of visitors was getting unmanageable – to the point that Tower Hill Tube Station closed at times to prevent overcrowding.
The nation wants to remember and remembrance can be a powerful thing.

Remembrance, a vital part of society… So why do we remember?
Remembrance has two complementary sides; the first is to call to mind the sacrifice of those who have paid the ultimate price on the battlefield. This is the type of remembrance which we do today pinning red poppies to our clothes, wearing the colours of mourning, repeating comforting words, and falling silent for some time.
However, remembrance also means working together so that the peace and freedom we enjoy because of our fallen service personnel may be preserved. They have given everything so that we may enjoy security and freedom and ultimately peace.
Let us not forget the shedding of their blood, but let us strive together to preserve and build a world of peace and equality inspired by their sacrifice; let us show our glorious dead, as it were, that their blood was not poured out in vain!

Jesus says, As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love.
The command we receive from Jesus – the glorious Prince of Peace – is clear; to remain in his love, forsaking hate, is the path to finding lasting peace and serenity. Indeed, if we have never experienced his love, we ought to seek it with confidence.
Abiding in Jesus, doing what he does, sacrificing ourselves for others as he does, is the only possible key to long-lasting peace.
Remember the words He says to his disciples, just before the passage of from St John’s gospel we have just heard. Jesus says, I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).

Today’s remembrance is marked by our quiet and ceremonial honouring of the fallen on a day of mourning. Tomorrow’s remembrance, and every day remembrance, will ask us to work for peace, valuing the freedom conquered by our victims of war, and walking in the path of self-giving love traced for us by Our Blessed Lord Jesus. Let us pray,
Almighty Father,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of all:
govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

23 October, 2014

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (A) 2014 - Worship

Matthew 22:15-22

Jesus said to them ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’.
I believe that our current translation loses a great deal of meaning by abandoning the language used in the King James Bible. As many of you will know, in the Authorised Version this saying goes like this, ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’ The word used is “render” rather than “give”, and render finds it origin in a word meaning ‘to give back’ something. So Jesus invites us to give back to the state that which belongs to it without grudging, while focusing on giving back to God that which belongs to him alone, our worship.

This saying must have been very poignant for the early Church at a time when many Christians were demanded to renounce their faith and to worship an image of the emperor under the threat of death. Yet, up to our days thto God the things that are God’s’ demand us to worship God with perseverance, not in a woolly, when-I-can-be-bothered sort of way, but in a serious and committed sense.
is saying should remind us of the correct ordering of our civic and religious duties. 
For too long we have looked at this saying as some sort of justification for our spiritual sloth; giving to the emperor is fulfilled by paying taxes; while giving to God by some sort of lukewarm worship and occasional attendance to church services. In reality, to render ‘

Worship is not something that we just do once a week, it demands commitment in every aspect of life. Praying daily is worshipping God. Visiting that person in difficulties and giving generously to the Church is worshipping God. Taking good care of spouse, family, neighbours, and of that person whom we find really annoying is worshipping God. Holding on tight to the Cross of Jesus, uniting our distress to his, every time we suffer wrong or pain is worshipping God. Giving joyfully for the relief of the needy is worshipping God. Approaching the sacraments as often as possible, and in particularly Holy Communion, is worshipping God. Giving workers a liveable wage and campaigning for equality, even though many Christian brothers and sisters would disagree with us, is worshipping God. Working for a fairer society transformed by the Love of God, is worshipping God. Through all these examples we offer true worship and we render to God that which is due to him.

One of the Eucharistic prayers that I often use celebrating Mass puts at the very centre of our Christian life a plea to God the Father that he would help us to worship in the all-encompassing way I have just described. In this prayer, as we render ‘to God the things that are God’s’, as we offer to Him all that we are and all that we have ever received in the Eucharist, as the Body and Blood of Christ are present on the altar as a gift received from God and as an offering to Him, the priest says,
Lord of all life,
help us to work together for that day
when your kingdom comes
and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth.

Jesus said to them ‘Render unto Emperor the things which are Emperor’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.
At the end of our gospel reading we are told how Jesus’ opponents react to this saying. The Pharisees and those who accompanied them leave in amazement, they do not leave in anger or frustration; we are told that ‘they were amazed’ (22).
The Pharisees expected a Messiah who would revolt against the Roman occupation. Yet, they find in Jesus something which they did not expect or thought possible. Jesus shows himself as another type of Messiah, someone who wishes his followers to engage with human societies and to transform them through their presence. Earlier in Matthew we are told that the Apostle Peter had an even stronger reaction when Jesus prophesied his own death – Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him, because he too was expecting a Messiah who would free Israel from its military oppressors.

The Pharisees come to Jesus trying to catch him out and they leave in amazement having seen a glimpse of the mission entrusted to the followers of Jesus – we are invited to redeem and radically transform the world from within, not through force or bloodshed, but through worshipping God in everything that we do with perseverance, daily rendering to God what is duly his – that is, our life. 
Jesus said to them ‘Render unto Emperor the things which are Emperor’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

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.
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.