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).

Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - Prayer

Luke 11:1-13
‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.’
Last Sunday I finished my address saying that if we spent as much time with Jesus as we ought to, we would lead many people to the Lord through our prayers. And today we find prayer as the central theme of our readings. In the gospel, particularly, Jesus teaches us and the disciples to pray, not only by giving them the words of the Lord’s Prayer, but also by inviting them to follow three simple instructions; ask, search, and knock.

‘Ask, and it will be given to you.’ By asking, Jesus invites us to pray to the Father in every circumstance simply by presenting our requests to him. The example the Lord gives of children asking for food from their parents illustrates this very well; like children trustfully approaching a good parent, through prayer we learn rely on the goodness of the Father in everything, both for ourselves and for the world around us. In this way, asking also means entering in a close relationship with the Father; to the point that our prayers are allowed to become a sort of “holy haggling” with God for the salvation of others, like we see Abraham doing in our first reading.
‘Search, and you will find.’ By searching, Jesus invites us to accompany our “asking” with good works, with all those activities that would befit what we are praying for. So, for example, if someone asked God to strengthen their faith, then “searching” would mean engaging with spiritual readings, practicing humility, and become involved in the life of the church. And certainly the Scriptures bear witness in many places that searching for God can be expressed by doing things in his service. Then, if we prayed for an increase of faith in those around us, we should accompany this request by fostering a positive approach to religion; by being good ambassadors for the Church. But supposed we asked for peace, as more and more people increasingly do; what would ‘Search, and you will find’ mean in this context? I guess it would mean actively pursuing all those things that, within our powers, make for peace – in our families, within our local communities, and in our hearts.
‘Knock, and the door will be opened to you.’ By knocking, Jesus encourages us to be very persistent in our asking and in our searching. In fact, by this, the Lord tells us that praying for something cannot be a throwaway activity, something that we do half-heartedly once we have explored every other possible route; rather prayer should accompany all our doings from the outset and cease only once an answer has been granted. As a testimony to this invitation from the Lord, two of the most venerable patterns of prayer that developed in the western tradition of the Church are saying the psalms in the Daily Office and the Holy Rosary. Both of these patterns aim at building a rhythm of prayer, allowing us to present our requests to God with persistent regularity, whilst fostering in us the virtue of patience as we learn to wait on God. 

Ask, search, and knock. These are Jesus’ very practical instruction about prayer. I encourage you to put them into practice in the next weeks and to pray for the people of our parish, for your families and for your friends. Each one of us knows at least one person who has closed their hearts to God, who never wanted to have anything to do with religion, or maybe has lapsed from church practice. Let us ask God to make them feel his lasting love for them, and to increase the gift of faith in them. By asking Jesus invites us confident in our requests; by searching he calls us to be the loving presence of the church to these people; and by knocking he tells us to be persistent in our prayer.

‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.’

Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - Martha and Mary

Luke 10:38-42
Martha ‘had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking’
Georg Friedrich Stettner - Christ at the home of Martha and Mary
Over the past two weeks Luke’s gospel has presented us with few examples of Christian living. Two Sundays ago we had a reading about a large number of disciples being sent by Jesus to open a way for him among the surrounding communities, and then last Sunday we read about expressing love for our neighbours in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In both these readings being a Christian is exemplified as bringing Jesus to others and working for the wellbeing of those in need. Or in other words, in both these readings being a Christian is exemplified as loving God above all things and our neighbours as ourselves.

But if there are two complementary aspects, or “tasks”, about being a Christian, there are also two mutually exclusive ways of going about it. And we see these exemplified in the way two sisters, Mary and Martha, behave towards Jesus and the community of followers, the Church. At first, Martha seems busy and hardworking and perhaps the very essence of a life devoted to the service of both God and neighbour; whilst Mary seems lazy and a time-waster who shies away from practical work and from what Jesus requires. But things are not always what they seem. In reality Martha has let herself be absorbed by worries and by the many things she has to do – so much so that she has become resentful towards other followers of Jesus, even towards her own sister, who does not behave exactly like her; whilst Mary, from her part, has taken time away from mindless activity to sit quietly sits with the others disciples at Jesus’ feet, spending time with him, learning from him, and enjoying his precious presence.

These two ways of being a Christian are quite common, in fact, there I say, Martha’s model is more wide spread than Mary’s as quite often if it easier to let busyness and worries consume us, rather than to spend our time in prayer and contemplation with Jesus. Yet, if we only had the courage to imitate Mary’s pattern of discipleship we would find it very liberating, fulfilling, and – perhaps surprisingly – even a lot more productive. By following Mary’s example we would deepen our understanding of Jesus and of his Church, we would attend the needs of those around us first of all through prayer (and only later through action), and we would lead many to the Lord through our prayers for them and inspiring others with a deeply religious way of life.
‘Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one.’

I encourage you to try out this week Mary’s example of Christian living; spend time with Jesus, pray at length for people, pray for the needs of those you can’t easily or readily help, and learn something new about the Lord and his Church.

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - Who is my neighbour?

Luke 10:25-37

The parable we read this morning is a familiar one for many people, so much so that “being a good Samaritan” is an expression we use today. When hearing this parable it is always very easy to cast ourselves in the shoes of the Samaritan traveller, and to think “I would have done the same thing”. Consequently we may look on the priest and the Levite who precede him along the road as heartless individuals, who by moving to the other side of the road, seem to be trying to avoid the voice of their own conscience telling them to help the poor man on the side of the road. In short, we could risk typecasting “the bad” characters of the story and then leave it at that promising ourselves we would never ever be as bad as them. But, as the old saying goes, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ and by looking at the parable of the Good Samaritan in this way we could end up dismissing it as a Sunday School story that does not have much to say for our times.

Yet, this parable has inspired countless people, even outside Christianity, to reassess the way they relate to others and the way they follow the second of the two great commandments, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ This is because in the parable, besides all the details taken from first century life in Palestine, Jesus instructions touch on two basic realities about being human – being in desperate need, and being confronted by someone in desperate need.
Yes, Our Lord is obviously teaching us that a person in need of help is, in that moment, the neighbour to whom we must show compassion and mercy. But regardless of how straightforward this teaching may sound, it is a rather more difficult to put into practice, not simply because of the sheer number of people in need, but because a crucial part of Jesus’ teaching often goes unnoticed. According to the gospel, it doesn’t matter whether or not the neighbour is known to us already and actually lives near to us; it doesn’t matter whether or not he is seemingly deserving of help according to our individual standards, and it doesn’t matter whether or not we think that our help may be wasted on him. The commandment says “Love your neighbour” and the neighbour is anyone we encounter.
Jesus reinforces this point by cleverly crafting the parable to build up a moral punchline. He employs a common literary device used in storytelling to capture the audience attention by introducing three different characters posed with the same ethical question. Nowadays this could sound along the lines of, “A priest, a curate, and a churchwarden walk into a bar…” but in case of our gospel reading it would have been “A priest, a Levite, and an Israelite walk into a bar…” except that Jesus does not say Israelite, he says ‘a Samaritan’. His substitution of the Israelite with the figure of a Samaritan is very powerful. To his first listeners, if the priest and the Levite did not help the poor man, then the Samaritan would have probably done him even more harm – because, if you remember from last week, Samaritans were seen as outcasts.

Jesus surprises his listeners by attributing the role of the proverbial “Good Samaritan” to, well, the Samaritan traveller and in this Jesus shows that especially when we are confronted by people in need any discrimination between ourselves and the others must give way to mercy. Jesus shatters the well-known saying “Charity begins at home”. Instead, Jesus explains that if the commandment says “Love your neighbour” then the neighbour is anyone we encounter (truly!) regardless of where or who they are.
‘A Samaritan traveller who came upon him was moved with compassion when he saw him. He went up and bandaged his wounds… and looked after him’

Looking at the parable in its proper light, I wonder how arbitrary many of our discriminations may sound, and how sinful many of our reasons for not helping others may look. Looking at this gospel passage I wonder what we are going to do to follow Jesus’ teaching more closely.

Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - Like lambs among wolves

Luke 10:1-11; 16-20
‘Start off now, but remember, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves’ (10:3).
Today’s gospel describes how Jesus sent seventy-two disciples ahead of him with a simple, yet challenging mission: to open the way for him in the neighbouring communities. Journeying in pairs, each disciple is sent to bring peace and good news, to cure the sick, and to announce the kingdom of God wherever they are sent. Now, depending on how familiar we may be with this story, one could either be inclined to underestimate the ground-breaking meaning of the mission entrusted to the disciples or to think of it as something impossible to accomplish. But by reading this passage as part of a wider gospel narrative we may be able to look at it with fresh eyes and find its meaning for our day-to-day lives.

St Luke geographically sets the commission of the seventy-two disciples somewhere between Judea and Samaria but without specifying its exact location. In doing so the evangelist hints that the seventy-two disciples may not be sent to Jewish towns alone, but also to the communities of Samaria. The Samaritans were in many senses the outcast of Israel, the people rejected and cut off for mainstream Judaism because of their unorthodox religious beliefs. In their partly-voluntary, partly-imposed marginalisation the Samaritans nurtured deep resentment and mistrust towards Jewish practices, towards any Jewish claim about being God’s chosen people, and indeed towards anything to do with Judaism. So, even if the seventy-two are sent to them by Lord himself, they cannot take for granted that people who have been mistreated for generations will suddenly welcome them with open arms. And in this circumstances the words ‘I am sending you out like lambs among wolves’ assume a very real sense of what the disciples can expect from their mission.
The disciples are to be heralds of peace and good news to people who, in all likelihood, could be overtly hostile towards them, who do not appreciate them going about their land, and who at best probably do not care for them. Yet, if we look at it this way the mission entrusted to the disciples becomes even more poignant. ‘Whatever house you go into’, we read in v.5, ‘let your first words be, “Peace to this house”’. Not only the seventy-two are sent to those whom Israel has institutionally ostracized and allowed to become completely estranged, but they are to give them a blessing of peace and prosperity, and to break down barriers.

Imagine that someone should tell you that after Mass you had to go and visit a long lost relative or friend who was wronged by your family many years ago. Imagine if you were told to patch up relationship with someone who doesn’t particularly like you or you really, really cannot stomach. If you do this you may be able understand how the disciples must have felt; sent to a people grown resentful because of Israel’s own attempt to marginalise them; sent to better their conditions; sent to heal; sent to tell them that the Kingdom of God is open to them too in equal share; and finally, sent to open a way for Jesus, making ready for Him to abide with them.

The seventy-two disciples, people exactly like you and me, are sent to prepare for Jesus, to make way for him in a territory made hostile by recriminations and discrimination. So, this week put yourselves in their shoes. How do you feel as you hear Jesus saying that all those communities in wider society that are hostile to the Church are to be ministered to? How do you respond as he sends you to visit these people in the marginalised conditions we, as the Church, have imposed upon them? How do you respond to the One who is sending you to reach out to them, because through your actions the Kingdom of God will be opened to them? How do you respond?

26 June, 2016

Homily for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - A Christian response to #PostBrexitRacism

Galatians 5:1, 13-18
‘You were called, to freedom; but be careful, or this freedom will provide an opening for self-indulgence. Serve one another, rather, in works of love’ (Galatians 5:13)
The last couple of weeks have witnessed dramatic events that have shaken this nation and that will have severe repercussions for years to come. Prior to this I felt that as an EU national myself I should not meddle into politics or talk about something for which I was not allowed not vote. Yet, I am now convinced that, as your parish priest, this was the wrong thing to do. But the result of the referendum is not the main reason for my change of heart; rather it is the frenzy of ill feelings that has been stirred up which worries me.

However you decided to vote last Thursday, we now must take stock of what has happened, and of what is happening now in the light of faith. Only if we do this we can clearly chart the route ahead as a Christians. The EU referendum result has stirred up emotions and resentments that are unbecoming to a historically Christian nation. On 16th June, one of the Members of Parliament, Jo Cox was shot by a right-wing activist who killed her seeing her as a traitor. This was an unpreceded act of violence against a democratically elected representative of British subjects. A few days later graffiti appeared on the banks of the river in Durham saying, “Jo Cox deserved it. Durham next.” In other places activists have since been seen holding banners reading “Stop immigration, start repatriation”, countless interviewees on the telly have been heard saying, “I am not racist, but…”, and EU nationals have received notes through their door saying “God away, you scum”. 
On the opposite side, angry young people have taken to the streets of London on Friday to manifest their deep seated resentment towards the older generations accused to have “stolen their future”.

The results of the referendum have been hailed as an “independence day” by many who supported the Leave campaign. If Friday was “independence day”, then whatever independence has been achieved it came at the price of breaking up the United Kingdom, widening the generational divide between young and old and filling it with resentment, thwarting the peace process in Northern Ireland, and fuelling racism. If this is freedom, then whatever freedom has been achieved was spearheaded by great referendum promises (such as more money for NHS and reducing immigration) that were quickly abandoned leading politicians as early as 6:35 on Friday morning; whatever freedom has been achieved was based on by lies.

As Christians we must be able to respond to the hate and racism that has been stirred up, whatever side we decided to support on Thursday. The archbishops have issued a statement on Friday morning using words such as “compassion” and “hospitality”, and inviting people to pray for much needed healing and reconciliation across the rifts that have been opened. That evening, at Mass, I spoke about the need to foster the virtues of patience, generosity, justice, and charity within our society.

“But this is our Country…” If we are Christians, then we are journeying towards a real country, the true homeland, where there will be ‘a great multitude …from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’ (Revelation 7:9).
“But I don’t like immigration…” If we are Christians, then in faith we were immigrants in the patriarch Jacob he went into Egypt with his sons to rebuild his livelihood; in faith we were immigrants with the Holy Family when they escaped from the Bethlehem after Jesus was born.
“But young people cannot make good decisions…” If we are Christians, then in faith we were with Jesus when, as still a child, he amazed the teachers of the Law with his wisdom.
“But I am resentful because old people took my future…” If we are Christians, then we should listen to St Paul when he says, ‘Do not speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him as to a father’ (1Timothy 5:1).

Consider the words St Paul writes to the Galatians; ‘You were called, to liberty – to freedom; but be careful, or this freedom will provide an opening for self-indulgence. Serve one another, instead, in works of love’. In fact, the NRSV uses even stronger words, ‘through love become slaves to one another’. Then Paul goes on to say, ‘If you go snapping at each other and tearing each other to pieces […] you will destroy the whole community’ (Galatians 5:15). Let us meditate on these words as we move on from the dramatic events of the last few weeks.

As Christians we already have freedom, we already have had our true Independence Day, when Jesus rose from the dead. All the rest is insignificant when compared to this, and this liberty we have received should in itself be an instrument allowing us to build new communities. As Christians we must use our God-given freedom to shape our society, making it a place where hate, generational divides, unjust discrimination, fear of others, and racism cannot thrive because the good habits, the virtues, of patience, generosity, humility, justice, and charity are actively promoted instead.

May Our Lady of Walsingham, protectress of our nation, aid us with her prayers that we may have the courage and strength to do this. Amen.

24 June, 2016

Homily for the Solemnity of the Birth of St John the Baptist

Just a few notes I wrote down for my homily on the Birth of St John the Baptist.

‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’ is a much quoted phrase of the early twentieth century British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, but in a sense these words seem to have renewed significance for us too in the immediate aftermath of the EU Referendum. But in fact, we could also slightly amend them and have them read, 
‘The lamps are going out all over [Britain], we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’.

However you decided to vote yesterday, it is clear today that the lamps of authentic civil virtues are waning and fading in the fierce storm caused by now busted election lies, volatile economy, and, ultimately, by particularly nasty pieces of nationalist rhetoric used by politicians and members of the public alike. Amidst this utter chaos, the virtues of patience, generosity, justice, magnanimity, and charity – the lamps of a civilised society – are fading. Night seems to be falling fast.

In a few regions of the UK the solemnity of the birth of St John the Baptist came to replace the pagan festival of the Summer solstice – the moment in which days begin to shorten and daylight begins again to fade towards winter. In these regions big bonfires were (and are still) lit and blessed on this occasion in honour of St John the Baptist, remembering that John, like the day-star preceding the sunrise, came to be the forerunner to Jesus – he came to herald the true light that never sets.

As we go move on from this historic and tumultuous day, as our political leaders try to find a way forward, as Christians we too must take on the role John the Baptist in the wider community and point towards the light of Jesus for a nation that now more than ever needs reconciliation and to rediscover the practice of virtue. We must become like John and make every effort to relight lamps of patience, generosity, justice, and charity in our society, preventing the long night of resentment and nationalism from falling.