01 February, 2018

Homily for the Third Sunday Advent (B) - Witnesses to the light

John 1:6-8, 19-28
‘He came as a witness to speak for the light’ (John 1:7)
Yesterday afternoon we celebrated the first of our Christingles; earlier this morning we have lit the third candle on the Advent Wreath; and tonight we will come together for our service of Carols by Candlelight. All these liturgies place a very strong emphasis on the belief that Jesus is the Light of the World – a light which darkness cannot overcome (Cf. John 1:5). And as with our candles (in our hands, on top of our oranges, or on the Advent Wreath) we scatter the darkness that surrounds us, we remind ourselves and the world that only through the Light of Christ we are able to see clearly. These candles – whether wonky, propped up with tin foil, or blessed – are only a token witness to that bright, unquenchable, searing, and cheerful light that is Christ. And today’s gospel presents us with an even better example of what it means to be a witness to Jesus as the Light of the World.

St John the Baptist was unquestionably a peculiar figure by any standard. As we heard last week, he wore clothes made of camel’s hair, he fed on insects and wild honey, he was often rather forthright in his speech, and although he lived in the desert he attracted a huge number of people who wanted to be baptised by him. But, what we should find even more remarkable is the way in which we are introduced to him by John the Evangelist.
A man came, sent by God. His name was John.
He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light,
so that everyone might believe through him.
This description of John the Baptist is an integral part of the gospel’s first few verses where Jesus is proclaimed as the Word of God, the Light of Life, and the Light of the World. And John’s ministry – in fact his whole life – was so intertwined with Jesus’ that the evangelist has to specify that John the Baptist ‘was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light’ (John 1:8).
Like Moses, Isaiah, and the other prophets, John was sent by God to point the way to the Messiah, and to bring a testimony about the true Light which was about to be revealed to the world in the person of the Lord Jesus. But, as the last of the prophets, as a cousin of Jesus, and as a peculiar figure, it would be easy to look past John the Baptist and to think that he had nothing to teach us.
Yet, I strongly believe that this short description of John could and should be a fitting description for every Christian – if we only let our lives become so intertwined with the life of Jesus that others would find it difficult to separate our character from his.

A man came, sent by God. His name was John.
He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light,
so that everyone might believe through him. 
Like our candles we might be a bit wonky in our religious life (maybe not propped up with tin foil and stuck in an orange), but we are all, every one of us, most certainly blessed, and so like our candles we have to bear witness to Jesus as the Light of the World.
Then, how good it would be if people were to say of us, “There was a man (or woman) sent by God. His name was … He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him”? 
How good would it be, if with our simple faith we could bring the light of Jesus to others, so that those around us might have faith through us? 
John the Baptist led a rather odd life, but we do not need to move to the wilderness, and star eating insects, to bear witness to the Light of Jesus. We just have to put into practice the simple advice found in our second reading; 
‘Be happy at all times; 
pray constantly; 
and for all things give thanks to God’ (1Thess 5:16).

Our society, perhaps now more than ever, needs happy and positive people whose joy comes from knowing Christ; it needs people who take prayer and the sacraments seriously; and it needs people who know how to be grateful to God for the innumerable blessings we receive from his hand… 
If we do this, we will be not only genuine Christians, but we will set the world alight with the true Light that is Christ the Lord.

Homily for the First Sunday Advent (B) - Stay awake!

Mark 13:33-37
‘What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’ (Mark 13:37)
In our society New Years’ celebrations are usually quite cheerful affairs, sometimes featuring a staggering amount of food, drink, and fireworks; all of this in order to break as much as possible with the old, and usher in the new. And once the partying ceases, we make improbable New Year resolutions wishing to become that new person who is as different as possible from our old self.
Then, perhaps, we might find it odd that the new Christian year opens by repeating the gospel message we have been hearing for some time now. Last week the Feast of Christ the King brought the Sunday cycle of the Christian year to an end with the reminder of Jesus sure return as Lord and Judge of all creation. But as today we officially begin a new liturgical year, Mark’ short parable – about the man travelling abroad who leaves his servants in charge of his household – takes us back, not only to last week, but also to a number of other parables we have read recently. And it’s meaning, like that of all those previous parables, is quite clear; when we will find ourselves face to face with Jesus, he will judge each one of us according to our deeds; according to our trustworthiness and commitment to him. But, perhaps, we may find it even more surprising that the new Christian year should open with sombre notes and reduced singing, rather than with a loud bang and cheerful noise. In this, Advent looks a little bit like Lent. Both Advent and Lent are marked by a pressing call to prepare ourselves for that which it to come. Both of these seasons are defined by the colour purple (or violet), the colour of penitence, introspection, and repentance; and the singing of the Gloria, like the flowers that usually adorn our church get put away. So much for New Year cheerfulness!

Even the Scripture readings set before us are geared up, not so much towards the joy of Christmas, but rather towards the more sobering thought of being confronted by our faults.
This morning the prophet Isaiah holds up a mirror to us all, and gives us a talking to, as it were.
‘We were all like unclean people,
- all that integrity of ours like filthy clothing.
We have all withered like leaves
and our sins, like the wind, have carried us away.’ (Isaiah 64:6)
And Jesus then says,
‘What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’ (Mark 13:37)
This combined message is simple enough and yet difficult to hear at a time when we are all so busy with shopping, parties, and making everything just perfect in time for Christmas. Nevertheless, Advent calls us to assess candidly the state of our society so that we might wake up from injustice, consumerism, and selfish behaviours to prepare our world for the coming of Jesus, and so be found ready to meet him when he will come to us as our judge. We must stay awake in a spiritual sense, so that through prayer and good works, we may be prevented from sleepwalking into the hidden snares of vice.

The collect from the BCP for this season helps us to put the Advent message into prayer…
Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day, 
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, 
now and for ever. Amen.

30 November, 2017

Homily for the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25:14-30
Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness. (Matt 25:23)
On Friday I paid a short visit to the church of Christ the King, Gordon Square, in London – and if you ever find yourselves at loose ends in Bloomsbury, I encourage you to do the same as it is a masterpiece of English gothic revival. This church was built by the Catholic Apostolic Church, which was a Victorian religious group (with very little to do with the Church of England, or with Roman Catholicism) that emphasised the second coming of Jesus – in fact members of this church, genuinely expected Christ to come in glory at any moment and they forecasted it to happen in their lifetime. Rumours even have it that in the vestry of this church the best set of vestments was always laid out on the vestment press, ready for the Lord to wear them at his coming. We may find this custom amusing, or even outlandish, but perhaps it should prompt us to reflect on how we relate to Christian belief in the second coming of Christ as sovereign Lord and judge of all creation. Faith in the second coming is often misrepresented by both Christians and non-believers alike, and it may even seem out of place when we think that scientists can now calculate the life expectancy of stars. Yet, the Creed we say together affirms that Jesus ‘will come again to judge both the living and the dead’.

The theme of Jesus’ return is embedded in today’s parable of the talents – indeed, it is the dominant feature of Matthew 24 and 25. And here we read that, at his coming, the Lord will reward those who to have faithfully invested their talents, whilst he will reject from his presence those whom failed his trust. Then, our faith in the Lord’s return should lead us to see ourselves as the characters of the parable, as the servants whom the Master entrusts with a lavish array of talents from his own fullness. In Jesus’ time a talent was an enormous sum of money; it corresponded to the wage for over eight years of work – if not more. But in the parable, talents represent more than just money; they are a symbol of the extraordinary number of flairs and abilities God freely bestows on each one of us. And regardless of whether we see ourselves in the servant with five talents, or in the servant entrusted with one, all we need to recognise is that God has, in fact, given us much… No-one among us here – in fact, I go as far as saying no human being – is deprived of at least a special quality, a something, they can invest to the glory of God – we just need to be able to recognise what has been given to us, and put it to its best possible use. 

But what could our talents be? Do you have free time? Offer it to the Church, or spend it in prayer for others. Do you have a lively faith, or delight in learning about God? Encourage those whose faith is weak. Are you an artist? Say something about God with your art. Do you have administrative skills? There are plenty of churches who need your help. Do you have money or wealth? Give what you can. Do you have musical skills? Join the choir. Do you have a vocation to ministry? Devote your life to it. Are you outgoing and cheerful? Befriend the lovely. These are just examples, but they give us an idea that almost everything can be used to glory of God, and that we are charged with this task.

So, what impact should the parable of the talents and our belief in the second coming have on the way we live? And what should we do so that the Lord may say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? The answer is rather simple; whilst people outside these walls would use everything in their power to advance their position in society or to gain fame and wealth, we, as Christian, should use everything we have received from God so as to further his glory. Only then we can hope to enter the master’s joy, the joy of heaven, and be admitted into the Lord’s presence.

Once saw a fridge magnet at a friend’s vicarage that read, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” And I guess there is a little bit of truth in this. Our faith teaches us that Jesus will indeed come again. But, even though Christians have often tried to forecast his appearing, today’s parable remind us that the point of our faith is neither to determine an Estimated Time of Arrival for Jesus nor to pretend to be busy; rather faith should make us faithful and diligent in working for him.

Homily for the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - "You are all brothers"

Matthew 23:1-12
Jesus says, ‘you have only one master, and you are all brothers.’ (Matt 23:8)
The Bible texts we have just read, with their references to priesthood and teaching ministry, are sadly not the texts used at ordinations within the Church of England. Maybe this is a missed opportunity for checking, at the eleventh hour, that the candidates standing before the bishop truly understand what they are letting themselves in for. But I suspect that introducing these texts might also lead to an increase in the numbers of last-minute drop outs.

In today’s gospel, we see Jesus criticising once again the religious elite of his time as we have seen him doing many times already in the last few weeks. These people, and especially the scribes, were considered the official interprets of the Law, of the Scriptures, and because of this they could claim for themselves position of power in Jewish society, the respect and admiration of everyone, and they could also express judgment – often harsh judgment – on the morality of others. And so the Lord reproaches them because they exalted themselves above fellow Israelites, because they themselves failed to live up to the high standard they set for others, and because through their strict teachings they caused people to stumble in their faith (cf. Mal 2:8). The Church too does not have good track record on this issue. History records countless times when individuals charged with the governance of God’s people have abused their positions of authority, promoted moral double-standards, and failed to care for the flock of Christ. So both the Lord’s criticism to the scribes and Pharisees, and the prophecy of Malachi in our first reading, still ring true today.

Yet, the Lord’s teaching is not directed to the scribes and Pharisees, or priests and theologians, alone; it is aimed to all his disciples and the crowds as well. This is because the point Jesus is trying to put across is not a subversive message against the entire religious establishment, but against those who misuse religion for personal gain, to acquire for themselves moral high ground in every situation, and to conquer the respect of others. The point Jesus wants to understand is this ‘you have only one master, and you are all brothers’ (Matt 23:8). If we excuse the gender exclusive language, Jesus is saying that we are all equal before him, and all equal before the Father in heaven. Jesus does recognise that there are people called by God to positions of authority and by saying, ‘You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say’ (Matt 23) he invites everyone to respect their ministry and, if possible, to learn from them – even when these prove themselves to be wanting in the way they lead their lives.

Within our Christian family there are those who have special responsibility, people entrusted with a duty of care, but this does not change the fact that we are all fundamentally siblings – beloved children of God by adoption whom the Father sees as equal members of the body of his only begotten Son Jesus Christ. In this sense, when Jesus commands us to call no-one father or teacher he wants us to reflect on what those titles mean. This is not a blanket ban on using the words “father” and “teacher”. Jesus is not saying that to call a priest Father is wrong, like many evangelicals would have us believe. In ancient times fathers had the ultimate say in everything – even life or death – for everyone in their household, they could even sell off their children. Teachers too could be harsh masters of their pupils. So Jesus says, no-one but God should have this level of authority over anyone of us, because we are all brothers.

The words of the liturgy help us understand this better. However we refer to our priests in terms of titles – Father, Reverend, Mother, Vicar – at the moment in which the offerings of bread and wine are placed upon the altar, the celebrant says, ‘Pray, my brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours will be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father’. As the liturgy of the sacrament enters into its most profound part, the balance between congregation and priest, the balance among the people of God, is redressed to highlight the fact that actually “we are all brothers and sisters” before God the Father.
The ground-breaking teaching of today’s gospel is not “don’t call anyone father or teacher” but is ‘you are all brothers and sisters’ before God. And, as our society appears to become more and more fragmented, more and more divided by the partisan language of “us” and “them”, the Lord’s commands us to rediscover what it means to be part of the same family, the same household of God.

Homily for All Souls Day - "Not defined by death"

Isaiah 25:6-9
On this mountain God will destroy
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever. (Is 25:7-8)
There are a number of things people say to us when we are grieving the loss of a loved one as they try to console our aching hearts, and shield us from the reality of death. They many share their memories of the deceased with us, and tell us that they wouldn’t want us to cry. They may try to comfort us with well-meant thoughts of a spiritual nature saying things like, “He’ll be watching over you”, or “She’s one of God’s angels now”. Even lines from popular funeral poems may be used such as, “He only takes the best”, or “death is nothing at all”. But the thing is, after a while, everything starts sounding like empty platitudes. When the passing of time makes us angry because our memories begin to fade, when the silence of an empty home can seem to drown out every poem or song… In these moments the sadness and harshness of death can leave us even more confused than before. Then, where do we turn? 

The Bible does not try to shield us for the sorrow of death. In the Scriptures death is often seen as heart-breaking, but to this sadness is the Bible contrasts the hope, and yes, even the joy, that we can find in God – because it is only through God’s mercy, that this harsh reality of human existence does not have the final word over our lives and over the lives of those who have gone before us.

In our first reading the prophet Isaiah calls death for what it really is. We read that death is like a ‘shroud that is cast over all peoples’; it is a sheet – a funeral cloth – under which everyone is lives; and finally, it is a ‘disgrace’. But, the prophet also says, God will destroy death forever, and he will restore life to his creation. And when we come to end of all things, there is a banquet, a feast, waiting for God’s people where the Lord himself will wipe away every tear form our eyes, as a parent would do consoling his children.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines. (Is 25:6)
I was recently at a funeral of a friend of mine at St Albans Abbey and the Dean used a beautiful phrase; he said, ‘When we are at the Altar we are not defined my death’. Tonight, as we come to this holy place to remember and to pray for our loved ones, we come to the mountain described by Isaiah, to the place where God prepares a feast for his people. The Mass we offer for those who have died and the holy food we receive break the barrier, as it were, between this world and the next. At the altar, we meet in spirit with those who have gone before us, and we are given a pledge of what is to come – of the joy and celebration of being reunited with our loved ones in the presence of God for ever.

So, the message of tonight’s service, much like the slogan for Sky, is “Believe in better”. Don’t let those well-meant poems and those platitudes that are often used at funerals delude you. Put your faith in the words of the Scriptures, in the words of Jesus, and in the Mass we celebrate tonight. 
On this mountain God …will swallow up death for ever. (Is 25:7-8)

Homily for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - What belongs to God

Matthew 22:15-21
Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” (Matt 22:21)
The age-old saying ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ plays a key role in today’s gospel reading. The Pharisees and the Herodians were two rival factions at the time of Jesus; the first a group of fierce religious nationalists who hated the Romans and their ways, the second a group of collaborators who thrived under the Roman occupation of Palestine, and had embraced many of the non-Jewish customs imported by the Empire. Yet, these two bitterly divided groups found a point of unity in persecuting Jesus and – as Mark’s gospel tells us – in plotting to kill him (cf. Mark 6:3).
Jesus had been a strong critic of sectarian groups such as these, and he had lashed out against their interpretation of religion many times before. Now it was the time for Pharisees and Herodians to hit back. And today’s question about taxation finds its origin in their unlikely alliance. In the minds of both groups, their clever question would have been a catch 22 for Jesus; if the Lord answered that Roman taxation was wrong, he could have been accused before the authorities and put to death; while if Jesus endorsed paying tributes to the foreign super-power of his day, he would have lost the support of many of his followers who were, after all, mostly Jewish. But, as we read, Jesus is not fooled by clever arguments; not then, not now, not ever. And I guess many people still struggle with his response to this day.

Even among us there are those who would find it rather satisfying if Jesus had launched himself into a long discourse about unjust taxes, or if he had laid the foundations of modern democracy saying things like “no taxation without representation”. But he didn’t. Likewise, other people would be rather pleased if Jesus had used this occasion to endorse, one and for all, a specific way of government or another, or if he had laid out some clear guidelines for political leaders. But he didn’t. In fact, Jesus only said then, and says to us now, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”

But what does it even mean? Is this some clever trick Jesus used to get out of a tight spot? Are these are the words of someone who wishes to sit on the fence in order not to lose followers? One could definitely interpret the story in this way, but it would not quite fit within the Christian narrative.

Here Jesus is giving us a simple moral commandment. He is establishing some ground rules for the ways in which Christians are to behave in in the world. On one hand, Caesar represents the state, and for Jesus giving back to Caesar means paying the taxes we owe and striving to be upstanding members of society. From the gospels it is clear that Jesus does not endorse the brutalities committed by the Roman Empire, or by any other political system for that matter, but he commands his followers to be good citizens of whatever nation they find themselves living in. This idea of good citizenship is also picked up in the writing of St Paul where he says, 
‘supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity’ (1Tim 2:1-2).
On the other hand, giving to God that which rightfully belongs to him may not seems so clear-cut, so well defined, as filling out an HMRC form or respecting the rules of society. But in Jesus we see that giving to God means paying to him our homage of worship in a way that encompasses everything we do; being constant in prayer, faithful in worshipping together, confident in the faith, generous towards those in need and towards the Church, and pursuing (campaigning for) justice and peace for this world.

In short, today’s gospel recognises that Christians – all of us – are caught up between two competing worlds; between God and Caesar, between the demands of religion and demands of the society we live in; and with his words Jesus strikes some sort of truce between these two worlds. He invites us to play our part in society as good citizens, as long as our duties towards God have the absolute priority, because – as St Paul wrote to the Philippians – at the end of the day ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil 3:20).

Homily for the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - The call to holiness 2

Matthew 22:1-14
The king said to his servants, “The wedding is ready; …go to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone.” (Matt 22:8-9)
If you have ever been invited to a wedding you would know how important etiquette and preparation are. Invitations must be sent out well in advance with a clear indication of timings; menu choices and dietary requirements must be returned; suitable gifts and clothing have to be purchased… It wasn’t like this at the time of Jesus. Invitations to important weddings were more like announcements that the marriage would take place at some point in the future; neither the date nor the time were clearly specified for very practical reasons. Only once the bridal party had gathered all the food, wine, musicians, and everything else that was needed, only then the wedding celebrations could go ahead. Only once everything was ready the household servants would go out to round up the guests. And if you had been put on the spot by the sudden call to attend the party, you didn’t have to worry; even suitable wedding garments would have been provided. So if you had been invited, all you had to do was turn up. A bit haphazard, you might think, but in the days before clocks and professional wedding organisers, this worked pretty well, even when the wedding was not an ordinary one. This is a marriage celebration organised by the king; a party that would have lasted at least a week. The closest thing we could compare it to nowadays would be being invited to Buckingham Palace for a week-long lively programme of state dinners with food, entertainment, clothes, and accommodation all provided. Imagine that. 

And it is in this cultural context that Jesus places today’s parable. A story in which the King is God the Father, his Son is Jesus himself, and the servants are the prophets of old – some of whom had been maltreated and even killed. The original guests – the ones, who though invited, backed away from God’s invitation to be his holy nation – are an illustration of Israel’s religious elite. To them Jesus contrasts the new guests, gathered from the most unlikely of places; from crossroads. These are the gentiles, the non-Jewish people, us; the ones to whom God willingly extends his call to become his holy people. The wedding garments, which are so crucial in order to be admitted to the feast, are a representation of the habits faith and love we must practice. And finally, the celebration itself is an image both of the eternal life which we hope to enjoy, and of holiness we are called to live in the present.

So reading this parable, what does the call to holiness look like? First, we can say that God’s call is open to everyone. Even if so many people turn his offer down, God keeps inviting. Secondly, we can say that God’s call is a free gift. There is no charge, fee, or hoops that we have to jump through in order to be called to become saints. We do not need to be to prove ourselves worthy of it, because God’s invitation is, and always will be, there. And lastly, we can say that the call to holiness is essentially a call to joy; an invitation and a cause for celebration. For too long saints, holy people, and faithful Christians have been seen as killjoys, but the parable of the wedding feast essentially says, “God calls you to joy now, and to celebration in the life to come.” The only thing we have to do is to clothe ourselves in the wedding garments of faith and good deeds which God provides for us.

As unoriginal as it may sound to us now, the meaning of this parable was ground-breaking for Jesus’ original listeners; everyone is invited to the wedding feast – not just one nation or type of people; each one of us, as the parable says ‘bad and good alike’, is called to become a saint. And we should do well to rediscover this meaning.