06 March, 2018

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent (B) - misusing religion, churches, and worship

John 2:13-22
Jesus said, ‘Take all this out of here
and stop turning my Father’s house into a market.’ (2:16)
Being a priest I often hear belittling comments about church worship. There is the timeless “I don’t need to go to church to speak God, I can do it from home”; or again “I don’t go to church because I don’t like x, or y, or z…” This last one is, in my opinion, the best one of all because it crosses boundaries between every Christian denomination. So, this morning I would like you to take a few minutes reflect the attitude we ourselves have towards worship, church buildings, and religion in general. As we do this, John’s gospel presents us with the story of Jesus clearing the temple – a well-known episode in which Jesus gets angry and starts to teach the crowds by using a whip rather than his words. In this reading there are three aspects about Jesus’ attitude towards sacred places, worship, and religion which we would do well to imitate ourselves.
First, we are told that Jesus travels to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, and once there he enters the temple. Jesus is God-with-us, God-made-flesh, yet he longs to be in that holy place, as if he was incarnating the words of Psalm 84, ‘My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord’ (Ps 84:2). Jesus burns with holy enthusiasm for that sacred space. Isn’t this bit of a far cry from the apathy many Christians feel towards church buildings?
Then, Jesus speaks of the temple as his ‘Father’s house’ (2:16), the house where Jewish people believed God dwelled among his people from one generation to another. The ‘Father’s house’. How many times Christians employ possessive language about churches saying “my” church, or “their” church, but rarely ‘God’s house’ or the ‘Father’s house’?
Finally, we see that Jesus does something we might not expect. He does not dismiss the temple and its worship; instead he compares it his own body (cf. 2:19). How many self-professed Christians stay away from churches because what goes on inside is not their “cup of tea”, rather than seeing buildings such as these as physical representation of what it means to be Church? 

In this text Jesus shows what we might think as un-Jesus-like emotions such as anger and strong disappointment towards the people in the temple. But, looking closely, Jesus drives out of the temple only certain types of people and not others. He drives out neither the worshippers – who bought the animals sold on the market stalls – nor the priests – who offered the sacrifices. In other words, Jesus does not cast out of the Temple those who, like him, used that sacred space for its appointed purposes – for worship and for encountering God. Instead, rather tellingly, Jesus drives out those who use religion in order to pursue personal gain, and are rather cynical about the spiritual significance of the Temple In other words, Jesus casts out those who use religion, worship, and holy places like parasites. For example, Jesus throws out the money changers and overturns their tables because of the corruption that underlined the business of converting different currencies into Temple money. Jesus drives out the animal stock not to put a stop to the sacrifices of the Old Covenant but because by buying them worshippers were encouraged to become lazy, to spare themselves the trouble of bringing a genuine offering, something truly valued, from their own homes. Come to think of it, as well as corruption and personal gain, is it possible that Jesus is casting out “lazy worship”, I wonder? 

The story of the clearing of the Temple should make us think of the people driven out by Jesus in a much broader sense. It should remind us as of those who misuse religion and church buildings for other purposes besides worship and the sustainment of the Church. It is in this sense that St Augustine, in interpreting John 2, says ‘Those who sell in Church are those who seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ.’ Then, how do we make use of these things? 
Our religion, our worship, and our churches are all incredible gifts of grace through which the world can encounter God more readily and build a stable relationship with him. To misuse of this grace in order to be fickle Christians or to pursue personal gains are great sins. So this Lent, let us examine closely how we look at our churches and our worship. Let us God for true repentance and for forgiveness for all the times we have misused of these gifts and we have behaved like parasites of the Temple, so that we may learn again to selflessly put the liturgical worship of God and the service of others before any other pursuit.
Look, Father, look on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our misusings of Thy grace,
Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim;
For lo! between our sins and their reward,
We set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent (B) - the life of Christ is us

1Peter 3:18-22
‘Christ himself, innocent though he was, had died once for sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God.’ (1Peter 3:18) 
Lent has been, from its beginning, the time in which catechumens, the candidates for Baptism, prepared to be welcomed in the Church at Easter. And on this first Sunday of Lent our readings lead us to consider this sacrament as the beginning of the new life we share as Christians. Our second reading compares the sacrament of Baptism to the time when God saved Noah and his family in the ark, and gave them new life in the world he has cleansed from evil through the great flood. So too, at our Baptism the Cross of Jesus was our ark, and God saved us through waters of the font, giving us new life – but not new life in a world purified from evil as in the times of Noah, rather new life in his Son. Since our Baptism the life of Christ has been grafted in us and we have become part of that new creation God brings about in and through the Lord Jesus. This is why Saint Paul writing to the Corinthians says, ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’ (2Corinthians 5:17). So Lent should teach us that, if we are receptive to the grace of God, this new creation, this new life, will keep growing in us, transforming us into ever better likenesses, images of Jesus. Many aspects of Lenten liturgy (the colour purple, the sombre hymns, the silencing of the alleluias) call us to think about our failings asking God’s forgiveness for our sins and strength to rectify, if possible, our wrong decisions. But this is only the beginning of our Lenten journey; because essentially these forty days are given to us by God and by the Church to re-establish more firmly the life of Christ within us. We are not meant to metaphorically sit on a pile of ashes wearing sackcloth for six weeks feeling sorry for ourselves but actually do nothing to reverse our condition… Lent is a time to be active in the spirit and in the service of others.

There are various schools of thought about Lent and about what one should or shouldn’t do during this season. The Church of England, being a broad church, keeps it nice and loose telling us that this should be a time of self-denial. But the substance of the matter is that the time-honoured practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer can be the source of great and unnumbered blessings as we enter the mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection and we prepare to renew our Baptismal commitments Easter.
Through fasting, abstinence from certain foods, prayer, and charitable giving we do not exercise self-loathing or try to reproduce what Jesus went through on Calvary in some measly way. This should be quite clear to everyone – even though people outside these walls might make fun of the whole Lenten enterprise, or think of us a bit dim for denying ourselves things we like. Rather, by fasting and abstinence we aim to refresh the spirit and focus on our spiritual needs; by deeper prayer we aim to reconnect more clearly with Jesus; by giving to charity we aim to imitate the generosity of the Lord himself. And through all these Lenten practices together we aim to free ourselves of those old habits that have taken hold on us; we aim to spiritually die to sin in order to give space for the life of Christ to grow vigorously once again, until we can say with Paul, ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20).
There is a beautiful hymn, “And now, O Father, mindful of that love” which puts these thoughts about being one with Christ in a neat verse. It says,
Look, Father, look on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our misusings of Thy grace,
Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim;
For lo! between our sins and their reward,
We set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.
Through Baptism we have become one with Christ. Lent calls us to make a genuine effort to move beyond ourselves, to rediscover our Baptism to find ourselves, our true identities, in Christ – in the one who leads us to the Father.

Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Compassion

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Mark 1:40-45
‘Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.
‘Of course I want to!’ he said. ‘Be cured!’ (Mark 1:33-34a)
The gospel presents us with a miraculous healing which ends up spreading Jesus’ fame as a healer and wonderworker to such a great degree that by the end of it people from far and wide come to seek the Lord’s help wherever he went (Cf. Mark 1:45). And out of this short story there are two key elements I would like to look at with you. First, let us look at the leper himself. We read that a nameless man suffering from leprosy (or more likely by an unidentified skin condition) approaches Jesus to ‘plead on his knees’ (Mark 1:40). He does not profess faith in Jesus in any explicit way, but his posture before the Lord gives away what he actually believes; in Biblical time, and perhaps even today, kneeling and/or bowing down was a manifestation of “worship”. This man somehow knows and believes that he is standing before the Son of God. And in him we see a person who comes to Jesus asking for healing with confidence about the Lord’s power and faith in him. St Mark doesn’t give us his name so that each of us could picture him or herself in his place, kneeling, pleading before Jesus; ‘If you want, you can cure me.’

Then, we should look at the issue of ritual purity. Last week’s gospel showed us how Jesus healed those who sought his help under the cover of night – probably because nigh-time was the only time they could have wandered around without being judged against the strict standards of Jewish purity laws. Today’ story follows on from that, by showing us yet another person oppressed by the sigma of being ritually unclean because of their illness, someone who had to live outside built up areas, had to warn others about his uncleanliness, and had to abide to the purity rules set out in our first reading. Undoubtedly, Jesus could have cured the man without even a word. But instead he chooses to reach out to the man and to touch him, jeopardising his own ritual integrity, and contracting the same social stigma by association. Why?
Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. ‘Of course I want to!’ he said. ‘Be cured!’ (Mark 1:33-34a) 
Jesus feels sorry for him. Or, in a better translation, Jesus has compassion for him; Jesus in that moment is moved by the literally gut-wrenching feeling of compassion – “suffering with”. He reaches out to heal and to give the poor man that human contact which had been denied to him since the very first moment he had been pronounced unclean. But in touching the leper Jesus also shows that nothing whatsoever we could bring to or share with him could ever make him unclean – he has authority over illness, the law, and whatever stigma we can think of. 

On Wednesday we will enter the holy season of Lent. This time of spiritual renewal calls us each year to do two things; to return to God with all our hearts, acknowledging our sins, so as to discover anew forgiveness and freedom in Jesus; and also to exercise self-denial and charity so as to break bad habits, growing into the likeness of Christ. During this time our church will look increasingly sombre as the weeks will go by, we’ll put ash on our heads, a few of us will give up pleasurable things, and others will redouble their efforts in doing good works and in giving to charity. In all these things, it is as if we humbled ourselves before God, so as to move him to move his compassionate heart towards us, and through compassion to win pardon and grace. So, as we stand on the threshold of Lent, today’s reading teach us something about the season we are about to enter. First, as Jesus shows us that no illness can make ritually unclean, let us imitate him in the way we show compassion and reach out to others. Today, the Lord Jesus shows us divine healing powers which we do not possess, but the principle behind his actions holds true for each one of us. By imitating Jesus, striving to grow into his likeness, let us be moved to compassion towards those affected by the stigmas of our society. And in compassion let us reach out to heal. Secondly, on a personal level we are all like the leper who approaches Jesus; sin is something that not only we do, but something that pervades our society, something that we cannot cure ourselves. So during Lent let us approach the Lord Jesus with the same confidence and faith shown by this man. Let us fall on our knees and say to the Lord with one voice; “If you want, you can cure me.” Let this be our Lenten prayer – If you want you have the power to save me, my family, my neighbourhood, my world. Please, Lord, do it!

Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Who is worthy of care?

Mark 1:29-39
‘The whole town came crowding round the door,
and he cured many who were suffering’ (Mark 1:33-34a)
Not many months ago news of proposed changes in the NHS Devon trust sparked a debate across the Country; should the NHS offer routine surgery to morbidly obese people and to smokers only when these have either shed a few pounds or quit smoking? Or should the system be left as it is, offering appropriate care for all? According to officials, the proposed changes were driven by an attempt to save public funds and to focus the attention of healthcare professionals on those patients with better chances to make a full recovery, without “wasting” – for want of better words – resources on those who were considered more prone to illness because of the their lifestyle. However, this debate quickly revealed a broader ethical dilemma at the root of our society, about whether or not to deny treatment to those who have brought illness upon themselves through bad habits. That is to say, “Who is worthy of care?” and “On whom should we invest our limited resources?” 

“Who is worthy?” This was (and still very much is) the underlying and divisive question which transcends NHS care to encompass every aspect of our lives. “Why should we show compassion to those whose conditions ae ultimately self-inflicted?” “What charity is more deserving of our money?” “Why should I worry about people outside my family or circle of friends?” To all these questions, and more, a growing number of people might respond that we should not pay for those who have been the cause of their own downfall; that “charity begins at home”; and that limited resources should be invested on those who promise better returns. “Who is worthy of care?” In our first reading Job, a just man whose life has been turned upside-down by circumstances beyond his control, speaks about his dreadful condition. He is very ill, all the members of his family have died, and his great fortune is lost. As things stand, nothing is can bring joy or hope to Job, and in the lowest pits of depression he feels completely abandoned by his friends and by God. Those around him reproach him saying that if he is so stricken down it must be because has sinned; he must have brought illness and misfortune upon himself; what he is experiencing just retribution for his behaviour; and it would be of no use to help or comfort him until he has changed his life and abandoned his bad habits. The people who professed to be Job’s friends are indeed the first to shut their ears and hearts to his plea because, as they see it, he himself it the cause of his own tragic condition, and therefore he is not worthy of care.

However, as we turn to the pages of the gospel Jesus teaches us a different way. Here we see the Lord curing those who came or where brought to him without assessing their worthiness, asking them about their faith, or enquiring about the cause of their conditions. But, what we might find even more interesting is that Jesus does not turn away, or judge, or scold anyone, even those who may have brought about their own illnesses. As Jesus meets people in difficulties, people who may well have been in the depths of despair like Job; he just cares for them and cures them. In fact, this scene has two beautiful features; silence and night. Mark tells us that the sick started arriving after sunset, when they could leave their homes or hiding places without fear of being judged or driven away in cold light of day. Then Mark does not report any words said by Jesus – a silence only occasionally interrupted by commands to the demons to shut up. There, in the dead of night, in the silence of prayer, the Lord administers healing beyond comparison and demonstrates that love and care is available to everyone who approaches him.

“Who is worthy of care?” We may not have the gifts of healing Jesus demonstrated; yet Jesus gives us a pattern of life for us to imitate, so that we may strive to bring relief to others like the Lord did in the gospel. Our resources, both as a society and as individuals are always limited, yet, the moment we start to question whether a person is worthy of our care, that is the moment we depart from the path Jesus traces for us.

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus (Candlemas) - The light of Christ

Luke 2:22-40
‘A light to enlighten the pagans
and the glory of your people Israel.’ (Luke 2:31-32)
Last week during the notices I made a passing comment on how many traditions the Church treasured for centuries have been thrown away like the baby with the proverbial bath water. This streamlining of traditions can sometimes be a positive thing, but more often than not it has been prompted by a misguided belief that progress has made certain things redundant. Even the today’s feast has undergone drastic changes. Although it is still nicknamed Candlemas, many of the ceremonies have gone and this celebration has been completely rebranded to reflect a shift in people’s perceptions of childbearing, and to put more emphasis on the Lord Jesus, who – though an infant – is at the very centre of the gospel reading. Slightly older members of our congregation might remember Candlemas being called “The Purification of the Virgin Mary”, but today it is called “The Presentation of the Lord to the Temple”. Back then the Feast of the Purification went hand-in-hand with something called “the Churching of Women”, a service at which mothers were blessed after giving birth and formally readmitted into the liturgical life of the Church. But now, the Churching of Women has been largely discontinued by most Christian denominations, and so has the ancient name of this Feast. Back then the Feast of the Purification was a special festival in honour of our Lady; but now our attention is drawn especially towards her Son who enters in his own Temple at Jerusalem as God-made-flesh for the first time. Reflecting the gospel reading, now our Lord is at the centre of Candlemas; and he is once more the reason for our celebration. The old focus of Candlemas was Mary and Joseph coming to the Temple to fulfil the requirements of the Jewish Law. Now the liturgy calls us to look upon the infant Jesus with the eyes of Anna and Simeon, and to see in him light and salvation.

One ancient tradition, however, survives; the blessing of candles. About one thousand years ago Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, preaching on this feast said of these candles,
‘The wax which is the product of the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the wick, which is within, is His Soul; the flame, which burns on top, is His divine nature.’
And a few moments ago, we were holding the same lit candles, the same symbol of Christ, like the people in Anselm’s congregation did, and like countless generations of Christians before them. One of the reasons for the enduring popularity of this tradition is found in our gospel reading where Simeon describes Jesus as ‘a light to enlighten the pagans’ meaning that, through Jesus, God is revealed to all, not just God’s ancient people. Through him – our Emmanuel, God-with-us – no-one is barred, and in him everyone is given access to God. Then, Simeon also says that the Jesus has come ‘so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare’; meaning that, in his brightness, the Lord is able to bring to light our innermost thoughts, even those things we hide from ourselves. So our candles are visible tokens of the spiritual enlightenment Jesus brings. They remind us that for us nothing should be more vital than the light of Christ; that we must learn to rely on his light while we journey on, rather than our sense of direction; and that we should follow the road that Christ illuminates for us until we reach our home.

Traditions may come and go. A few may be discontinued for good reasons; others may just fall out of fashion only to be revived later on. But what remains of Candlemas has survived unchanged because it is a practical representation of Christ – the light at the centre of our celebration and, more importantly, the light that must shine at the centre of our hearts.
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

04 March, 2018

Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Repent and believe

Mark 1:14-20
‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’ (Mark 1:15)
One of the most annoying things a satnav can say is, “Use the next roundabout to make a U-turn.” Unfortunately, it is also something that I hear often. And if you’re anything like me, you would find it rather frustrating precisely because there, in the middle of your plodding along and trying to find your way through the traffic, the satnav suddenly reminds you that something has gone wrong – heck, not something, but that you have gone down the wrong road – and that only possible way to reach your destination is to turn around immediately and go back to the appointed route.

Today’s gospel – and first reading for that matter – does precisely that, as we hear the Lord Jesus saying, ‘Repent, and believe the Good News.’ To repent literally means to turn around. To repent is to turn around and away from what we are doing, and to re-orient ourselves toward Jesus. Just as at Mass we all orient ourselves in one and the same direction towards the Lord present on the altar, so we are called to do in life, as Jesus invites us to make a U-turn from our self-centred, self-seeking (and sometimes self-destructing) ways, and start to follow after him instead. Simple enough to say, but what does repentance actually look like in practice? Perhaps unfortunately, repentance has been badly typecast, and I guess most of us would associate it with doing penance, with giving up things for Lent, with fasting and putting on sackcloth like the citizens of Nineveh, and even with a time of boring, joyless sobriety. But all these things are just tools to lead us to true repentance, which is simply a genuine movement of both heart and mind towards Christ… the start of a journey in his direction. 

Mark’s gospel gives us a practical example of what repentance should look like by describing how the first disciples begin to follow Jesus. Last Sunday we read together a passage of John’s gospel where Jesus is manifested by John the Baptist as the Christ. In that version of the events, John and Andrew immediately start to follow Jesus after that testimony. But Mark presents us with the different version of the events, where it is Jesus who calls Peter and Andrew, and then James and John to follow. So which one was it? Which version of the events is more likely to be a true account of what happened when the first disciples encountered the Lord? I personally would suggest that John’s description of how him and Andrew begun their journey with Jesus is probably the more accurate, because John the Evangelist was actually one of the people involved.

However, there is no need to set one version against the other, because they both agree in putting the same two points across. First, Jesus is this hugely charismatic and compelling figure and whether his call to them was individual and explicit or not, the disciples are instinctively drawn to him, to attach themselves to him. Secondly, to follow Jesus means repenting; turning away and leaving one’s life behind in order to be with the Lord. And this aspect is more prominent is Mark’s version. See how Peter and Andrew are surprised by Jesus in the middle of their working day, and how James and John are called by the Lord in the ordinariness of their daily routine... When the Lord calls them, it’s not like they don’t have anything else to do. As fishermen they own their own businesses, so to speak; they have families to provide for and things to do. Yet, all of them turn away from what they were doing, because they can instinctively see that to follow Jesus is far more important than anything else. So without a word they make their first steps in a new direction, in a new life. And for them this is the beginning of true, life-long repentance. 

It is never easy to realise when we are going wrong, to eat humble pie and to make a U-turn. But if we carry on and let ourselves be guided by social conventions, bad habits, unfulfilling occupations, or human values with very little meaning, our journey through life can easily become an aimless (if not disastrous) wandering along unsuitable roads. Yet, turning around is always possible and well worth the effort; to repent and accept the gospel is to make the first steps is a new direction toward something different, something better, and something altogether more satisfying.

Homily for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Come and See

John 1:35-42
‘Andrew met his brother and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ and he took Simon to Jesus.’ (John 1:41-42)
The Sunday readings between the Feasts of the Epiphany and Candlemas present us with a number of other epiphanies, other moments in which Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the Christ. Last week a star led the Wise Men to the Lord and they adored him as “King, and God, and Sacrifice”. Today John the Baptist and the Apostle Andrew are among the first to lead other people to Jesus – not coldly and from a distance like the star did, but in a warm and personal way. Andrew and the beloved disciple John are the first to become disciples of Jesus after John the Baptist revealed him as the Saviour, the ‘Lamb of God’ (1:35). As Jesus sees the two men literally walking behind him, he says to them, ‘What do you want?’ Jesus didn’t expressly invite them to follow him, so his question might seem entirely reasonable, if a little abrupt. But Jesus implies something more meaningful; “What is it that you actually want? What are you searching for?” And when they tell him, Jesus invites them to become his disciples with a very simple invitation; ‘Come and see’ (1:39). “Come and see where I live, the way I live” the Lord seems to say, “and stay with me as long as you wish.” Then it is Andrew’s turn to reveal Jesus as the Christ to someone else. He finds his brother Simon and leads him to Jesus after announcing to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (1:41). We are not told Simon’s feelings about being taken to meet Jesus; maybe he goes with Andrew out of politeness, maybe he is just curious, but one thing is certain; Andrew’s words change his brother’s life forever, so much so that Simon is even given a new name by the Lord; Peter.

After this, the series of revelations and invitations to follow Christ continues, even though our gospel reading today ends with the joining of Peter. A couple of verses later, it is the turn of another disciple – this time Philip – to go to Nathanael (one of his friends) and to say to him “We have found the Messiah” (Cf. 1:45) followed by the simple invitation first extended by Jesus; ‘Come and see’ (1:46). 
John the Baptist, Andrew, and then Philip give us examples of what to do. They all led someone to Jesus, but not someone at random – Andrew and Philip especially did not stand on street corners talking about Jesus like the preachers one finds on Oxford Circus. No. John the Baptist, and Andrew and Philip led to the Lord people whom they already knew; a friend, a family member, a companion… Their invitations were warm and personal, and so should ours be. 

But where does this leave us? When I was young my parish priest quite often used the same refrain at the end of a poorly attended service, “Next time” he would say, “if we each invite someone else – a member of our family or a friend – there’ll be a few more of us at Mass”. And this is what today’s gospel invites us to do as well. We are called to act like John the Baptist, Andrew, and Philip. Our common vocation is to reach out, to our family members, friends, and neighbours, showing them something about the joy of having found Christ. We are called to invite the Simons and Nathanaels of our times to “come and see” the Lord Jesus present in our midst, “come and see” how his presence reshapes our lives; “come and see” how he teaches us ways of justice and love.

‘Come and see’ is an open invitation to join that community that the Lord calls “his church” (Cf. Matt 16:18), because it is this unique gathering of extremely different people that Christ has chosen to be a continual epiphany, a constant manifestation of his presence in the world.