01 September, 2015

Homily on Assisted Suicide - Marris Bill

Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days (Psalm 39:40)
Jan Provoost - The Last Judgement
There is a rather pressing subject that will come increasingly to the attention of the national media over the coming days and as your parish priest, I feel I must address this. I am talking about assisted suicide, a subject which will be debated by the House of Commons on 11th September as the Marris Bill under the highly sanitised name of Assisted Dying, or Dignity in Dying. I fully understand that this is a thorny subject that attracts a great variety of views, even in this church, and it may bring back to mind the great hurt many of us have experienced in watching loved ones dying… Yet, it is a subject that ought to be addressed by Church in order to prevent further evil. Last year, I preached about assisted suicide looking at it from a secular point of view, but today I would like to offer a few pointers for religious reflection.

The Bill that will be introduced to the Commons is very similar to the one presented to the House of Lords last year – Lord Falconer’s Bill which run out of time before the general election. This Bill, which in turn is modelled on the one adopted by the State of Oregon in 1998, would allow individuals of sound mind, with ‘clear and settled intentions’ to terminate their lives with the help of physicians who if they were given no more than six months to live. Two doctors would have to evaluate the request and a senior judge could be requested to rule on the matter. After this, the help of physicians would be limited to prescribing lethal drugs to the person.

I understand that this Bill has rather a lot of supporters, and everyone seems to have an opinion on why our society should allow people to kill themselves with the help of the medical profession. Very often these opinions are based on personal experiences of seeing others suffer, on “gut feelings”, or on the idea that society has become so individualistic that one should be allowed to whatever they well like with their lives – even end it when there seem to be much prospect of health. In our Church too these ideas have crept in; for example a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, has been outspoken about Assisted Suicide affirming that is a
‘profoundly Christian and moral thing’.

A ‘profoundly Christian and moral thing.’ To be honest, I am not sure where Lord Carey, a high-flying evangelical Bishop in his days, gets his sense of “profound Christianity” and “morality” from, but it is not the Bible. According to Matthew’s gospel, at the Final Judgement, Our Lord will to the blessed, ‘I was sick and you took care of me’ and you visited me (Matthew 25:36); He will not say to them “I was sick and you prescribed me a lethal drug”. Or again perhaps Lord Carey is reading an alternative version the parable of the Samaritan, something that goes like this,
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.
Now by chance …a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and [helped him end his sufferings by giving him lethal drugs.] Then he went off again on his way”. (Cf. Luke 10).

The Bishop of Buckingham, a person whom I admire for the strength of his convictions, and his chaplain have also come out in support of the principle behind the Bill, yet the official position of the Church has not changed and should not change. The religious implications would be huge, if the Church were to support assisted suicide.
How would we justify our support for this Bill before God ?
How would we plead before God, when both the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church tell us to show true compassion to those who suffer and when the only example of assisted suicide in the Bible is dictated by pride (King Saul’s death wish, Cf. 1Samuel 21)?
There are further implications, however, which concern wider society. First, at a time of financial constraints posed on the NHS, palliative care may become seen as an expensive, needless luxury, when people are given the choice of opting out of the cheaper, quicker option. Day after day we see mounting criticisms towards the weaker in society who seem to “waste” precious welfare resources… How would society react towards those who may wish to continue making full use of or expand end of life care.
Second, the elderly and the disabled would increasingly be put under pressure by a Bill that, although not affecting them directly, assesses a person’s life based on their physical “fitness” rather than on the mere fact of their humanity.
Third, the unspoken moral pressure would be fall on people to do the “right thing” and get out of the way of relatives and loved ones. In fact, in Oregon, ‘40% of those requesting to end their life do so because they feel a burden on friends and family’ (Scope Charity 2014).
Fourth, further legal challenges to the Bill are already on the horizon, and they would open the floodgates for others to legally kill themselves; so if the Bills were to pass, what about people living day-in day-out with chronic pain? What about those affected by severe depression? What about those who cannot physically do the deed themselves?

Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days.
This is not scaremongering. These are serious causes of concerns already flagged up by different groups in our society that would not otherwise have much in common; both religions and secular charities, atheists groups, alliances of doctors, right and left-wing journalists, and others.
The Church should stand her ground for the protection of life in all its forms, and the messiness of it all – whatever or personal feelings on the matter might be. So, please, as you parish priest as ask you if you could write to your MP, and ask him to oppose this Bill.

17 August, 2015

Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Luke 1:39-56
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…
because he has looked upon his lowly servant.
Yes, from this day forward all generations will call me blessed (Luke 1:47-48).
Francesco Botticini - The Assumption of the Virgin
The Assumption of the BVM is one of the ancient feasts Church celebrates in honour of the Mother of God, recalling her entrance into heaven both body and soul. For Centuries theologians have tried to define the mystery of this event; sometimes their efforts and zeal has even become cause of division in the Church, and to this day the Western and the Orthodox Churches hold different views about the actual practicalities of how Our Lady was assumed into heaven. Nevertheless, the mystery we celebrate today should be an occasion of rejoicing for every Christian at the mighty work that God has accomplished in Mary.
This lowly servant of the Magnificat, this Immaculate virgin prepared to be the mother of God, this faithful model of discipleship who followed Jesus even to Calvary, this attentive mother who invites us to carry out whatever Jesus commands us to do; this our sister in humanity and our Mother in the faith has been exalted above all creation and taken up into heaven both body and soul, and in her we see our own humanity fully transformed by the resurrection of Christ.
So today we must honour Our Lady in her glorious feast because today God has indeed manifested his favour for his lowly servant, and – in his immense love for humanity – He has given us in the Assumption of Mary a token, a glimpse if you like, of the blessed life that attends the whole Church in heaven. Today, in Mary, we look upon the effect of the saving power of Christ and we are called take heart about the future; if Mary is our Mother we will come to share in her exalted condition through the overwhelming power of God’s grace.

I strongly believe that the words we use in our prayers and the beauty of our corporate liturgies can express the Christian faith with great power. So I invite you to listen carefully to the words of the Eucharistic prayer later; these express the faith in the Assumption in the most concise and fitting way I can think of by saying,
Today the Virgin Mother of God
was assumed into heaven
as the beginning and image
of [the] Church’s coming to perfection
and a sign of sure hope
and comfort to [God’s] pilgrim people.

Finally, I know that in the Church of England many people, especially outside this church, feel uncomfortable with this solemnity and they barricade themselves behind the “it’s not in the Bible” lame excuse, but how about this for a piece of Anglican devotion to Our Lady? These are the words of Bishop Thomas Ken, who lived through the English Civil War and the false religion of the puritans, he says,
The Son, adored and nursed by the sweet Maid,
a thousandfold of love for love repaid.
Heaven with transcendent joys her entrance graced,
next to his throne her Son his Mother placed;
and here below, now she's of heaven possessed,
all generations are to call her blessed.
May the constant prayer and protection of Our Blessed Mother help us to be faithful to our call as Christians, and to reach safely that vision of glory she already enjoys. Amen.

Saturday - 19 Ordinary Time (Year I) - These stones shall be a witness against us

Joshua 22:14-29
Joshua said, ‘This stone shall be a witness against us because it has heard all the words that the Lord has spoken to us: it shall be a witness against you in case you deny your God.’ (Joshua 24:27).
Our reading from Joshua presents the beautiful imagery of a great stone set up in the place where the faithful have gathered as a silent reminder of the covenant they have made with God. A great stone, standing tall and immovable; a stark reminder of a promise made to God… We may think that this Old Testament verse has no relevance for us, but if we were to change it slightly, making it plural, its significance would be more clear to us: These stones shall be a witness against us because they have heard all the words that the Lord has spoken: they shall be a witness against you in case you deny your God.’

Iona, Inner Hebrides
Look around you, the stones of this church have heard to words of the Lord for centuries, they have witnessed to countless people kneeling in prayer, and they would be witnesses against us if we ever denied our God with the way we live. Every church spire, every church cross, every crumbling monastic ruin in our landscape, are all reminders that at our baptism we too have made a covenant with God to serve him alone. So, each time we enter a church and we see these hallowed stones that witness to our faith, let us pray that we may become ever more constant in God’s service; let us mentally renew our promise;
“Yes, Lord, it is you we chose to serve, it is your voice that we will obey!” (Cf. Joshua 24:22)

09 August, 2015

Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Bread of Life Series - 3

John 6:41-51
Jesus said, ‘Anyone who eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I shall give is my flesh,
for the life of the world.’ (John 6:51).
Today is the third Sunday we spend exploring John 6. Following our weekly gospel readings we have moved from the miracle of feeding of the five thousands to various conversations following that extraordinary event. If you remember from last Sunday, in these conversations, Jesus draws a parallel between the feeding of the five thousands and the feeding of ancient Israel with the manna in the desert, while at the same time trying to make his audience understand that both of these miraculous events are only foretastes of what his followers are going to receive in the gift of himself, the true Bread of Life. The tone of these conversations becomes increasingly tense as we move deeper into the chapter, up to the point at which, today, we are presented with a full-on confrontation between Jesus and “the Jews” – understood as all those people who refuse to accept Jesus’ ministry. Notice how strongly Jesus reproaches them; ‘Stop complaining to each other’ he says (6:43).

In this confrontation Jesus comes out rather more strongly and more clearly than usual about his message: he affirms that he is the living bread, he is the only food which can truly sustain us. Yet, Jesus goes further still affirming that in the bread of life he does not provide just food for physical nourishment, because the Father already did that with the manna and even though the people ate it, they eventually died. No, Jesus, provides a different food, whose nutritional value goes well beyond sustaining our bodies. Jesus is the only bread that grants life both now and in the age to come; by receiving him we have nourishment both for our pilgrimage here and a pledge of the life to come, for, as a favourite hymn of mine sings, how can He deny me Heaven, Who here on earth Himself hath given?

As Jesus neatly puts is, the bread he gives of his actual flesh (Cf. 6:51). Therefore, thinking forward to the crucifixion, Jesus affirms that his own flesh thorn and nailed to the cross can become food eternal life for all in the form of bread.
This we witness at every celebration of the Eucharist, at every Mass; here the flesh of the Lord Jesus is offered and given as life for the whole world under the form of bread broken and shared. Yet, only the eyes of faith can reveal this great mystery to us. We should ask sincerely for faith to see.

The teaching of John 6 upsets Jesus opponents in every age. But from this point onwards the evangelist invites us as well to make a decision about what Jesus is saying; John draws us into the theological dispute and asks us to side with one party or the other – a request that becomes only more pressing towards the end of the chapter when Jesus himself questions his disciples about their allegiance. We are invited to make up our mind, freely and without compulsion.
We can decide to support either of the two factions involved in the debate; we can either side with “the Jews”, the opposers to the gospel, and reject this teaching affirming that what Jesus is talking about is utter nonsense or a mere figure of speech – no-one can give himself as food to others, and so forth… or we can side with the Lord Jesus, and approach the altar rail with thankfulness and humility, simply trusting in his own words and receive him, flesh and blood in the Blessed Sacrament, so that by feeding on him we may have a pledge of the life to come.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you gave us the Eucharist as the memorial
of your suffering and death.
May our worship of this Sacrament
of your Body and Blood
help us to experience the salvation you won for us
and the peace of the Kingdom
where you live with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

08 August, 2015

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Bread of Life Series - 2

Exodus 16:2-4; 12-15
John 6:24-35
Jesus said, ‘The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”’ (John 6:33-34).
The story of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousands we have read last week set the scene for our study of John 6 were Jesus reveals himself as the Bread of Life. For those fed by Jesus in this extraordinary way it must have been a truly incredible experience which resounded full of echoes from their Jewish religious past; in a secluded place, away from the rest of civilization and from food sources, there Jesus fed those who were with him; likewise Moses with his prayers entreated God to provide the manna, the first bread from heaven described in our first reading. This parallel between Jesus and Moses must have been pretty clear to the thousands gathered around the Lord, so it is little wander that these, after having had their fill, chased after Jesus in order to ‘make him king’ (6:15) – though a puppet-king who would supply to their every need.
Today, the gospel reading carries on this idea as we encounter a group of people from those who had been fed by Jesus. They manage to find him and to speak to him about the miracle he had performed. They are still chasing after him, but still for the wrong reasons. They are not interested in Jesus per se or in what he has to say; they are only interested in what he can do for them. They are selfish sceptics and their conversation with Jesus is just an attempt to convince him to continue to provide for their every whim, rather than some lofty theological discussion.

Jesus knows this, and he shifts the focus of the conversation away from the miracle he performed earlier. So, Jesus draws a distinction between the manna Israel received in the desert and another type of bread, the bread from heaven, the bread from God. Whilst it is clear from our readings that both of these breads came down from heaven, Jesus affirms that only one of these is the ‘true bread’ (6:32). The manna responded to the immediate need of the people, but it also provided them with a foretaste of what was to come when the true bread of heaven was to be revealed. This true bread would give life to all in the world, rather than just to the Israelites in the wilderness or to the five thousands. Even more still, this true bread would nourish with the life of heaven, rather than just supply to physical hunger.
However, it is clear that the people do not understand, they are not willing to understand. In fact, if we look at our reading a little more closely, we may be able to detect a little sarcastic irony from John; as Jesus talks about the Bread of God, the people quickly reply to him, “Sir, give us this bread always” (6:34), because they literally think that receiving the Bread of God would grant them a physical life without hunger. Jesus is talking about the greatest gift of God to the world but they just want more food. “Sir, give us this bread always” is not a faithful response; these are the words of those who misunderstand Jesus and expect him to perform another miracle, and we can see this in the words that they use – they address Jesus as “Sir” (not “Lord” or other) and they ask him for bread, when it is clear that it is the Father who provides the bread. Like their ancestors in the wilderness, the people of John 6 are sceptics who cannot look beyond their cravings.

The gift of the true Bread of Life, comes to us in the sacrament of the Eucharist, yet, many people in the history of the Church, have belittled this gift just as much as the people in John 6 did. Many, not wanting to believe, have turned away from it – and a few have even taken an actual loathing dislike for it. Still, as Jesus says, he is the bread of life (6:35) broken and offered for the life of the world, so today as we approach the altar rail to receive him, let us pray the Father to remove from us the selfish scepticism of those who questioned Jesus and to grant us faith so as to recognise his Son in the sacrament.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you gave us the Eucharist as the memorial
of your suffering and death.
May our worship of this Sacrament
of your Body and Blood
help us to experience the salvation you won for us
and the peace of the Kingdom
where you live with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.