20 October, 2016

Homily for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - Faith and Perseverance in Prayer

Exodus 17:8-13
Luke 18:1-8
‘Will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily.’ (Luke 18:7-8)
After a few weeks spent looking at the ways in which we should relate to possessions, our Sunday readings lead us back to that very centre of the Christian life that is prayer. Both the first reading and the gospel encourage us to look at prayer as our primary occupation; an activity intimately connected to the two fundamental Christian virtues, or good habits, of faith and perseverance.
In the reading from Exodus – a reading that at first may appear distant and difficult to understand – we see how the faithful intercession of Moses for the people is the key weapon through which Israel is able to overcome its enemies. This prayer is expressed in the text by Moses raising his arms – something that a priest still does nowadays at the altar of God and whenever he is leading people in prayer. Whenever Moses’ arms were raised in prayer the people of Israel gained advantage over their opponents, whenever these fell, Israel suffered loss. Throughout the struggle Moses had to persevere in prayer even when it became exhausting or physically painful to continue, or else the battle would have been lost. Now, we may not be engaged in military battles, but as Christians we are constantly involved in spiritual warfare, and the significance of this reading should be clear; if we do pray as Moses did and if we support our priests in their intercession for the people, we and the Church will gain the advantage over our opponents.
In the gospel, the Our Lord encourages us to imitate the widow who regularly nagged the unjust judge with her pleas for justice. The woman’s faith in her cause and her perseverance in her requests won her justice even from a corrupt judge; so – Jesus hints – how much more will we be helped by God who is both the just judge of all and our Father? How many more blessings will we win if we pray with perseverance?

Through these readings the Scriptures teach us that our prayer should be marked by the exercise of both faith and perseverance. Wherever there is no faith at all there cannot be genuine prayer – only empty words uttered in times of distress. But wherever faith is, even in its simplest form, there true prayer can be found as well, because whenever we intentionally pray, in that moment we manifest our belief. In this way, through faith we can readily approach God as Father and unburden on him every concern just as children would do with a loving parent. As Scripture says elsewhere, ‘anyone who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.’ (Hebrews 11:6) So faith is the doorway to prayer; and in turn by praying we strengthen the virtue of faith – the Christian habit of placing all our trust and all our confidence in God alone.
The second good habit, perseverance, allows us to stand firm in our prayers despite a society that overlooks and oftentimes ridicules those who pray. Perhaps, perseverance is more readily associated with our brothers and sisters who endure religious persecution and abuse, but even if we are spared from these trials, we should strive to acquire this way of life for ourselves as well, because perseverance allows us make space for God in our daily routines regardless of what we are going through. At different points in life we all have been tempted to give up on prayer, to give up on God, and to say, “Oh, what’s the use?” Maybe because of peer pressure or maybe because of some tragic loss, prayer can stop, and as a consequence faith can stumble. But perseverance makes us pray even when we find it hard to be in God’s presence and when we are tempted to give up.

But maybe that’s enough theory for one homily. Faith and perseverance are practical habits and I want to look at a couple of examples where these can really benefit the way we pray. Praying for peace is the most obvious of these examples, as so many people would consider it a waste of time – nevertheless let us make every effort to pray for peace daily, to cry out to God as the widow did with the judge in the parable, until we will see ‘justice done and done speedily’, as the gospel says.
The second example is praying for church growth, as there are countless initiatives aimed at spreading the gospel in our society, but none of them is more powerful than you and me praying relentlessly for those whom we know – our families, our friends – that they may come to share the joy of knowing Christ and become part of his Church.

Prayer is our primary occupation as Christians and like any other activity worth doing in this live we must approach it with faith and perseverance.

25 September, 2016

Homily for the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme - Prophets

This morning’s gospel says that we should listen to the words of the prophets in order to attain eternal life (Cf. Luke 16:19-31). I wander, then, if you have ever thought about what kind of person a prophet might be? Would you think that prophet is someone capable of predicting future events? Or maybe someone dressed in shabby clothes shouting about incoming doom on the street corners? The Scripture definitely number examples of people such as these. But a prophet is primarily a person who is so in touch with God, who nurtures such an honest and deep relationship with God that he (or she) is able to interpret world events in the light of faith and to recall people to God’s purpose for his creation. As we gather to mark the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme, how do we think prophets responded to the horrible tragedy of the Great War one hundred years ago? Did they predict a victorious end for one specific of the warring factions? Did they take to the pulpit to encourage soldiers in the name of God? Maybe, actually quite possibly, they did such a thing, but these too would not have been prophets. No, true prophets of that time spoke and acted about war by putting God and his kingdom before any other human authority. I would like to give you two examples of such prophets. The first was Archbishop Randall Davidson, a man of the British establishment, dear confidant to Queen Victoria in his early ministry, and the longest serving Archbishop of Canterbury since the English Reformation. Despite these claims to fame and grandeur, Archbishop Davidson visited the front line only a few months before the Somme, in a relatively low-key affair, meeting many of the soldiers, witnessing to their sufferings first-hand, encouraging the chaplains in their difficult pastoral duties, and later reaffirming that human hopes and aspirations can only ever be centred on Jesus Christ, because he alone is able brighten our world and make it a better place (Cf. Sermon at the Service of Thanksgiving for WWI at St Paul’s). 

 second prophet of that time was a remarkably short man, who many would have easily dismissed simply as a scholar, but who on his election as Pope on the eve of WWI took up the name of Benedict XV, re-echoing the name of Saint Benedict, the patron saint of Europe. Benedict XV worked day and night to reconcile the warring factions, and sought to bring practical relief to war victims, even to the point of almost bankrupting the Vatican. Most importantly, however, Benedict described the Great War with words that eventually were recognised as a true reading of the Great War and went down in history; he said, “This is no war, this is a useless massacre”. This was not an insult to the courageous men who fell in the trenches, but rather a powerful wakeup call for the political elite whose deeply personal power struggles had brought a terrible catastrophe to Europe.

Between 1st July and 18th November 1916, 419,654 men from the British Commonwealth, 204,253 French, and about 600,000 Germans fell in the fields of the Somme. As the Battle raged only a few men stood up trying to recall nations to their senses and to God who is the Father of all – these were the true prophets of the age. So, as we gather to mark the Centenary of this Battle, we cannot avoid thinking that the world is still plagued by intense fighting and that the livelihood of so many people are still blighted by conflict. Let us ask God for the same faith and clarity of mind that these prophets had, so that we may be faithful prophets and workers of peace for our times. 

Benedict XV composed a prayer for peace and I would like to pray is with you because its words are still valid for us now.
Lord Jesus, 
as we are dismayed by the horrors of a war
which is bringing ruin to peoples and nations,
we turn to your most loving Heart as to our last hope.
O God of Mercy,
with tears we ask you to end this fearful scourge;
O King of Peace,
we humbly implore the peace for which we long.
From your Sacred Heart
you shed forth over the world divine Charity,
so that discord might cease
and love alone might reign among men;
and during your life on earth,
your Heart beat with tender compassion,
for the sorrows of humanity;
so in this hour, made terrible with burning hate,
with bloodshed and with slaughter,
once more may your Divine Heart
be moved to mercy and pity.
Have mercy on the countless mothers
in anguish for the fate of their sons;
pity for the numberless families
now bereaved of their fathers;
mercy on Europe,
over which broods such havoc and disaster.
Inspire rulers and peoples with counsels of meekness;
heal the discords that break the nations asunder.
You, who shed your Precious Blood
that men might live as brothers,
bring them together once more in loving harmony.
And as once before, as the Apostle Peter cried,
“Save us Lord, we perish”,
you answered with words of mercy,
and stilled the raging waves,
so now hear our trustful prayer,
and give back to the world peace and tranquillity.

And we pray also to you,
O most Holy Virgin Mary,
as in other times of sore distress, 
be now our help, our protection,
and our safeguard. Amen.

20 September, 2016

Homily for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - Money

Luke 16:1-13
The Lord says, ‘Use money …to win you friends, and thus make sure that …they will welcome you into the tents of eternity’ (Luke 16:9)
Since I was a child I’ve often heard a common complaint parishioners have towards their priests, “He always goes on about money!” I hope this is not the case with you, but on a day like today, even the most subtle preacher cannot easily shy away from talking about this subject. Then again, money is widely covered by the Scriptures both in the Old and the New Testaments, as we see today, and we should not feel uneasy or embarrassed to talk about it. A couple of weeks ago the gospel already touched on the topics of possessions and wealth encouraging us to detach ourselves from material things in order to pursue a Christian life in which the first priority is doing the will of God, and in which the ultimate end is entering God’s Kingdom. Today we go a little further. Our readings present us first with God’s judgment on dishonest money-making, and then with a reading about the way in which we can use money for our good and the good of others.
The entire gospel passage can appear strange and rather challenging to make sense of. Particularly, in the parable, the rich man ends up praising the dishonest steward who squandered what wasn’t his own in order to make friends for himself. Why is that? Then, how can Jesus encourage us to behave in like manner to win friends for ourselves who will help us in time of need? 

I think that in order make sense of this text we need to focus on two rather crucial expressions that may have gone unnoticed; one is ‘what is not yours’ in reference to wealth in v. 12, and the other is ‘the tents (or dwellings) of eternity’ in v. 9.
The words “what is not yours” used in reference to personal wealth may appear rather unsettling. Anyone in employment, and especially people living from pay-cheque to pay-cheque, would expect their hard-earned money to be referred to as “their money”. Likewise, those who are beneficiaries of wealth they didn’t earn may also feel uncomfortable. But the reason behind these words is because for Scripture wealth is not something we can ever truly own, but rather something that we can use (for ill or for good), and that we definitely cannot take with us. Indeed, as Scripture says elsewhere, ‘we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.’ (1Timothy 6:7) 
To the words “what is not yours”, Jesus contrasts expressions such as “your very own” and “genuine riches”. These are descriptions used in the same way as “the dwellings of eternity” and they signify the vision of God in heaven. This is the true treasure we are promised and the true compensation we will receive if we prove ourselves loving and generous towards God and towards others (particularly so if we are generous and cheerful in giving what has been entrusted to us), so that we may receive from God that which cannot be taken away from us – the glory of heaven.

So we see that when Jesus tells us to use money in winning friends for ourselves who will welcome us in ‘the tents of eternity’, he is not asking us to imitate the self-serving behaviours of secular society, but he is really instructing us to use widely the money and possessions we may have at present for the poor, the needy, and yes, for his Church. Jesus invites us to spend our treasures wisely, raising the poor from their misery in the name of God and supporting his Church, because ultimately the Father by giving us great fortunes has, in the same way, given us the opportunity to be greatly generous. In this way the poor, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the angels will welcome us as their friends within the blessed vision of God, within the dwellings of eternity. 

I leave you with the thoughts of St Basil the Great on this subject. May they serve as a further encouragement for us to heed today’s gospel.
You must leave your money behind in the end whether you will or not, but the honour that proceeds from good works will escort you to your Master. All people will surround you when you stand before the Judge of all, calling you “father” and “benefactor”. […] So why are you fainthearted about your giving, when you are about to attain such glory? God will receive you, angels will extol you, all people from the creation of the world will bless you. Your glory will be eternal; you will inherit the crown of righteousness and the Kingdom of Heaven. All these things will be your reward for your stewardship of perishable things. (St Basil of Caesarea, Homily I will tear down my barns, trans. C. Paul Schroeder).

16 September, 2016

Homily for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - Detachment

Luke 14:25-33

A couple of weeks ago we read in Luke’s gospel how the Lord gave a challenging piece of advice to his prospective disciples, ‘Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because, I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed’ (Luke 13:24). On that occasion I said that entering through the narrow door means putting our faith into action. I said that leisurely coming to church and saying our prayers, without letting our worship inform and change the way we relate to others, does not necessarily mean that we are living the Christian life in its fullness.

This morning things seem to be stepping up a little bit more as we read a couple of even more radical sayings that could leave us a little confused or even disheartened, because one thing is talking about a (self-evidently) metaphorical narrow door we must strive to enter; quite another thing is to talk plainly about hating our families and making ourselves destitute for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Ancient culture valued a person’s family and clan above everything else; nothing was comparable to the wellbeing, and protection of one’s relations. Second after this ultimate priority came self-interest. Contemporary culture may be a little different nowadays, but the list of people’s priorities often still include the same two top headings of self and family - in whichever way you’d like to define them.
So the Lord is not commanding us to “hate” in the usual sense; but primarily he is asking us to revaluate the list of our life priorities, if do intend to follow him. “Hate” is not a kind ‘emotional revulsion’ towards particular people, neither it is a leaving behind, a kind of ‘physical distance’, rather it is a command to become spiritually detached, a command to dislodge our top priorities, whatever they may be, and replacing them with him. In this way Jesus redefines relationships and their (sometimes dysfunctional) dynamics for everyone who wishes to follow him, including for us here. Following this command would still demand us to love others as we love ourselves, but not because we like them, because we have to, or because we share family bonds with them, rather to love others because we find them in God whom we place above all else.

But there is more. The spiritual detachment Jesus requires us to practice goes beyond human relationships to include everything else. He says, ‘None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions’ (Luke 14:33). In the same way, Jesus is not asking us to become homeless poor in order to be Christians – only certain people are called to self-imposed poverty for the sake of the Kingdom. No, Jesus commands us to prevent our possessions form possessing us, from shackling us in a constant craving for money and objects. Here too then, Jesus asks us to revaluate our priorities and to exercise spiritual detachment. By redefining our relationships and our priorities Jesus doesn’t call us to literally hate or despise anyone or anything. He calls us to be spiritually detached from all the things that distract us or slow us down in walking after him – even if these be our families or our most treasured things. By redefining our relationships in this way Jesus simply calls us to be free to live the Christian life in all its fullness and, importantly, in all its joy - a joy that comes primarily from knowing him, and a joy that (unlike for the rest of society) is not dependant on what we have or don’t have, or on the dynamics of our closest relationships, a joy that endures even when we have to carry our crosses daily behind him.

As we contemplate this passage, I guess few of us may be thinking “This is not for me”. If you are or if you feel that sometimes the bar to be a Christian seems to be set too high, I want you to remember that the Lord loves you and that he wants everyone, even you, to follow him in the way that leads to fullness of life. So, do not be disheartened, because it is in the moments in which I am humble enough to honestly say, “Lord, I can’t do this. This is too much for me.” that he comes to our rescue with his mercy and says, “Yes, you can, because I am walking with you.”

Homily for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - The narrow door

Isaiah 66:18-21
Luke 13:22-30
‘Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because, I tell you,
many will try to enter and will not succeed’ (Luke 13:24)
Chancel Screen of St Mary Church, Tunstead, Norfolk
Well, there’s a cheery message for you to start your Sunday morning with. But in a sense this is the nature of the beast, as it were; as it is often the case with gospel readings, there is a bittersweet taste to this entire passage from Luke. The passage is bittersweet because although it takes up Isaiah’s earlier vision of God’s new gathered people celebrating joyfully in God’s kingdom, it also warns us that maybe not everyone will reach it – indeed, possibly only relatively few. A similar mention about a narrow entrance into God’s kingdom is present also in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus affirms ‘Enter through the narrow gate… small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it’ (Matthew 7:13-14). However, these sayings of Jesus are not meant to dishearten or scare us because Our Lord wants everyone to be saved; rather, they invite us to renew our efforts in pursuing the path of salvation with all our strength, under the direction of God’s grace.
The bitter-sweet character of this passage is highlighted quite dramatically in the parable that follows the narrow door saying as Jesus moves on to describe the reactions of those left outside contrasting them with the joys of those abiding in God’s presence. We read,
‘you will find yourself saying, “We once ate and drank in your company; you taught in our streets” but he will reply, “I do not know where you come from.”’
In these words we find a clear invitation to examine the way in which we, as Christians, are journeying towards that eternal celebration. We are the ones who regularly eat and drink with Jesus here sharing the holy food of the altar, and we are the ones who hear his words speaking to us in the gospel, so although we could legitimately think that going to church and engaging with a few spiritual readings might do the trick, here we read that this is not good enough.

Entering through the narrow door requires more effort than leisurely coming to church when we feel like it, saying that we believe, taking Communion, and listening to Bible readings. Jesus asks us to “try our best” in life – the very best we can do with the persons that we are and the sometimes complicated realities in which we live. Jesus asks us to “try our best” to be Christians not just at church, but also in the world. But when we look at it this way, who indeed will be saved? Or in a better translation of our passage, who are those who are being saved? And what characteristics those being saved possess, so that we may know, and by imitating them, we may succeed in entering through that ‘narrow door’?

Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus criticises those who called him “Lord, Lord” but then did nothing to actually follow all his teachings (Cf. Luke 6:46). If we read the narrow door saying in this context, we see that coming to church, loving the Lord, taking Communion, and listening to the Bible, form just one side of the coin, just one aspect of treading the path of salvation. The other one is doing what Jesus does – trying our best for others, trying our best to grow in good, virtuous habits, trying our best to succeed in being Christ-like people in our society. Together, these two aspects show us what it means to be people who are being saved; people that already live in this present time the joys and the life of the world to come, people who endeavour to follow Jesus even when we fall short of his teachings, and above all, people that can soothe the bitterness that daily life sometime brings to those around us with the sweetness of the life of heaven.

Our Lord says, ‘Try your best to enter by the narrow door.’ May he grant us the will, the courage, and the strength to do this every day. Amen.

31 July, 2016

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - The rich man

Ecclesiastes 1:2,2:21-23
Colossians 3:1-5,9-11
Luke 12:13-21
‘So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself instead of making himself rich in the sight of God’ (12:21)
Rembrandt - Parable of the Rich Man
In the past few weeks our readings have presented us two core teachings about living the Christian life – how we should approach prayer and how we should relate to our neighbours. Today, it’s the turn to look at another important aspect of being a follower of Jesus, considering the ways in which we use our possessions. On one hand, the first two readings form an introduction to this theme by highlighting the ultimate futility (vanity) of pursuing wealth as the greatest life goal, and the pitfalls of greed as vice that is unbecoming to Christians. On the other, the gospel reading introduces a parable featuring an unnamed character identified only as “the rich man” who is used by Jesus to describe a very common way for people in relating to riches of any kind. In the story the man, confronted by the sheer volume of his wealth, finds himself at a loss, and says “What am I to do?” – not knowing how to make the right use of his vast fortune. Faced with the prospect of potentially losing whatever does not fit in his storehouses, the rich man decides to pull down the old barns, to invest in new, bigger ones, and thus setting himself on track for an even more comfortable life than before. Because of this, the rich man may appear to us as a distant figure with whom we may have little in common, an Ebenezer Scrooge, or even a Scrooge McDuck sort of character. He is a wealthy landowner, whilst we live in one of the most deprived parishes in England; he has an inordinate amount of possessions stored up, whilst many school children in our town benefit from subsidised meals; and he is set on increasing his income, whilst we are besieged by an increasing number of payday loan adverts.

Yet, it’s worth bearing in mind that Jesus told this parable to crowds of people who were very often poorer than the poorest among us. To them – and to us! – Jesus speaks about this unnamed rich man to allow anyone to put themselves into his shoes, and to think “Is my behaviour so much different from the rich man’s?”
However big or small, most people have plans or aspirations for the economic security for their families, and by and large, that’s alright. What Jesus is trying to teach us goes beyond that, and it concerns our attitude towards wealth, the way we look at what we receive from God.

The rich man, even in a seemingly enviable situation, is tormented by his many cares for his riches; “What am I to do?” he says to himself, meaning “How am I going to contain and protect all this wealth for myself?” Do we, like him, leave our possessions to dictate the way we lead our lives, and to pile on needless worries on our minds?
The rich man says “I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones”, when he could have said “I will open up my barns and let those who have nothing help themselves out of my plenty.” Do we, like him, act selfishly with what we have?
The rich man conceived great plans for his wealth by himself, when he could have prayed about it, and indeed thanked God for what he had received. Do we, like him, leave prayer and thanksgiving out of our finances?
Through this parable, the Lord puts into question any attachment we might have to material things, helping us not to make the same mistakes as the rich man, and to see ourselves as stewards, rather than owners. But perhaps this second part of Jesus’ teaching becomes clear only at the very end of the reading, when he says about the selfish rich man’s demise, ‘So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself instead of making himself rich in the sight of God’ (Luke 12:21).

Any wealth we may acquire should be used (that is, spent) to make ourselves rich in the sight of God by acting as stewards of the gifts we receive and distributing generously out them to those who have nothing and to his Church. If we do this, when this earthly life is ended we won’t hear the Lord saying to us “Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?” Instead he will say to us, as he promises somewhere else in Luke’s gospel, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been a trustworthy in a very small thing, so you’ll receive even greater things” (Cf. Luke 19:17 - adapted).