12 October, 2017

Homily for Harvest Festival - Giving Thanks

1Timothy 6:6-11, 17-19
Luke 12:15-21
Christians ‘are to do good, and be rich in good works 
…generous, and willing to share.’ (1Timothy 6:18)
This week, I spent some time with a group of students from All Saints’ Academy helping them to compose a prayer for the whole school. In our conversation we discussed the nature of hope because it features quite prominently in the school vision. We also looked at how hope differs from wishful thinking; and, in the end, we reached the conclusion that hope must relate somehow to the way we live in order to be different from simple wishful thinking.

In the Christians sense hope is a virtue; it is something that we must put in practice, not an abstract concept. Hope has to inform what we do, so that we can dedicate our efforts into realising or attaining that which is hoped for. So for example, in the case of our students, if I hope for good GCSE results, I must also work towards getting good results and not just sit there waiting for divine inspiration to hit me during exams. Or, in the case of believers, if I hope in the life of the world to come, then I must work to live here and now some of those things I will fully experience in heaven, such as justice, union with God, and peace…

But as we the students and I talked about this, our attention instinctively turned towards many of the terrible world events that would seem to work against any bright hope for the future; terrorism, hurricanes, and mass shootings to name a few. Where does practicing hope fit in all this? And can we even dare to pray for those affected by such tragedies when so many people say that our “thoughts and prayers” are just meaningless words? These are old questions, really. But, as the students were, so some of you might also be aware of the debate which flared up again this week, particularly on social media, about those who pledge their thoughts and prayers when something terrible happens. We see and hear this continually as natural disasters are followed by acts of terrorism, or other downright evil events like the mass shooting in Las Vegas last week. “Thoughts and prayers”, or “Pray for this city”, “pray for that place”; these are the the refrains many people use in such situations, but once the heat of the moment has passed they move on with their lives as if nothing actually happened. And this is really what can puzzles non-believers and turn them away from religion altogether. But, like hope, if prayer is not followed by action, then it risks remaining a sterile act; a list of proposition and requests to an omnipotent being in the sky. Instead, prayer has to inform what we do. Just as being people of hope, should inspire us to build here and now the future we hope to attain, so it is with prayer. If we pray for an end to conflicts, we should be people of peace – peacemakers, even; if we pray for an end to terrorism, we should endeavour to soothe our peoples’ fears; and if we pray for justice, we should in turn campaign for it and begin to act justly ourselves.

But what has this got to do with Harvest? Well, as it is with hope and prayer, so it is with gratitude. This morning we come together to give thanks for the bounty of food and means at our disposal every day; but if all we did today was to just sit here sending up very Anglican, half-asked, “thank yous” to God, I don’t think that would quite be enough. Gratitude, must relate to what we do; it must inform the way we live as Christians. Gratitude must inspire us to show our thankfulness to God in some meaningful, tangible way. So, if we really are grateful for what the Lord provides us, if – as St Paul says in our second reading – we are genuinely content with what we have (cf. 1Tim 6:6) then we ought to show it by offering generous gifts to God out of the plenty we have received from him: gifts that today will provide sustenance to our neighbours in need.

The First Letter to Timothy is quite clear about this. Christians, satisfied by the Lord’s divine providence, should in turn be generous and willing to share. In fact, Paul says, we should do good and be rich in good works funded by the precious gifts we have received from God. So, the food we have brought to church this morning, the food that the families of Thomas Whitehead Academy have offered, all these are our thanksgiving offerings to God, made – I hope – with a willing and generous heart.

Without action hope remains wishful thinking; without action prayer remains a shopping list we present to God; without action gratitude remains a polite nod to God for something we thought was rightfully ours anyway.

Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power,
the glory, the splendour, and the majesty;
for everything in heaven and on earth is yours.
All things come from you,
and of your own do we give you. (cf. 1Chronicle 29)

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

Matthew 21:28-32
The man went and said to the first son, 
“My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” (Matthew 21:28)
As a curate, every time I went on holiday my training incumbent would perform his best impression of a martyr to parish life and say, “You have fun, I stay here working and treading grapes in the Lord’s vineyard”. And in many church contexts the Biblical expression of “working in the vineyard” is usually associated with spreading the faith, managing churches, and making disciples of Jesus, but this is not so much the case in today’s gospel reading. In the parable of the two sons we have just read the man is God the Father who extends to his children an invitation to work in his vineyard as an invitation to holiness, a call to enter the kingdom of heaven ever more deeply by leading a life pleasing to him. In the two siblings we see two examples of how a person might respond to the Father’s call; one who, though initially opposed, reconsiders the Father’s invitation and does his will, and another who, thinking either too lightly of his duties or too highly of his status as son, ends up disregarding the commitment he made, and disobeys the Father.

Jesus used this parable to criticise the Jewish religious elite of his time – we see he addresses the parable as a moral question to the chief priests and the elders of the people (cf. Matt 21:28); to those who failed to recognise God at work in the ministry of St John the Baptist and in his own ministry too; to those who paid lip-service to God, but thought too highly of themselves and did not see their need for repentance. They are represented by the son who said, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go’ (Matt 21:30) and so let the Father down. To them Jesus presents the example of faith, trust in God, and openness to conversion given by those traditionally on the margins of the Jewish religious and social establishment, the ‘tax collectors, prostitutes’ and others sinners who were shunned by society. These are represented by the son who ‘answered, “I will not go” but afterwards thought better of it and’ (Matt 21) did the Father’s will. 

But this is not just a story from the past. The Lord Jesus speaks these words to us today as well. We could transpose it to our own time by casting in the role of the first son all those whom the Church has cast to the margins, and as the second son all those baptised and confirmed people who have promised to serve the Lord, but whose actions never match their words. And so the implicit question, “Which one of the two sons am I?” is a simple one, but it should encourage us to reflect how we respond to God’s invitation to holiness and to the Christian life.

This is something of which I am personally (and painfully!) aware. In my journey towards priesthood I was very much the son ‘who answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it’ (Matt 21), and after having put off ordained ministry for over ten years, and even after changing Christian denomination, I relented and decided to do something about it. But the call to holiness is not a call to be a priest; it is an open invitation to all, and things don’t get much easier on this front just because you’re wearing a white shirt collar back-to-front. Even now, when the Father calls for deeper holiness, for closer union with him, and greater personal commitment, I am the one who gets side-tracked by other, less productive, activities, and then has to make amends.

Like in the parable, every day the Father renews his invitation to you and me, and to every Christian to work in his vineyard, his call to change our lives and, slowly but surely, to become the person he wants us to be. The way in which we answer the Father’s invitation will determine the way in which we actually live our faith... we could be the ones who go to church, pay lip-service to God, and hide behind our religious paraphernalia fooling ourselves that we are the ones doing the Father’s will, but this is what the second son did. Or we could be the ones who do go to church, who are repentant when we fail, and also aim to live out our faith in a way that matches our words; in a way that what we say to God may be supported or even exceeded by our good deeds.

11 October, 2017

Homily for the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham - "Here is your Mother"

John 19:25b-27
Jesus ‘said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.’ (John 19:27)
Long before the notes of Pomp and Circumstance were strung together, and its lyrics begun to sing about a Land of Hope and Glory; long before William Blake jotted down the verses of Jerusalem; and before Britannia started to rule any wave; in fact, even before St George’s Cross was borrowed from the Republic of Genoa to become the flag of this land; before that time, England looked to another symbol, indeed to one person, in which to find its unity, its pride, and its comfort in times of need. England looked to Mary. 

According to tradition, during the reign of St Edward the Confessor, one thousand years ago, England began to be called “dos Mariae”, Mary’s dowry – meaning that out of all the Christianised countries, out of all the places one could possibly imagine, England was Our Lady’s own possession, her portion which she loved, protected, and offered as her own precious gifts to her divine Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. But what’s more fascinating about this tradition is that “Mary’s dowry” was not an official dedication, some pious slogan that a saintly king or an archbishop came up with, rather this was the fruit of popular devotion to the Mother of God, the product of the faith and love of people like you and me. And if England was Mary’s possession, this sentiment was nowhere more felt than at Walsingham, a tiny speck of village in Norfolk – which many of us know well – where our Lady had a replica of her holy house of Nazareth, and where countless pilgrims from all over the country and even the near continent flocked to ask Our Lady’s intercession.

This morning two of our hymns recall our attention to this tradition.
‘Mary of Walsingham, Mother of Jesus,
Pray for thy dowry, the land that we love.’
and our offertory hymn sings,
‘Joy to thee, Queen, within thine ancient dowry’
But besides the obvious nostalgic sentimentality and emotionally charged devotion of these lines, what can we, in a multicultural twenty-first century England, get out of all this? I mean, we are not it the Middle-Ages anymore and dowries are something that has largely into disuse. So what would be the point of recalling these traditions of times long gone by? 

Well, first, the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham and its connections to England as somehow being as her special possession, should remind us to pray for a revival of the Christian faith in this land; it should give us confidence in praying, as the Walsingham prayer says, for the ‘conversion of England’ so that more and more people may turn to the Lord Jesus. 
Secondly, this feast should inspire us to present Our Lady with gifts of our own. Let us make room for Mary in our lives, giving to her our hearts, our future, and our every good deed, to be her dowry as well, and she will, in turn, present them as precious offerings to the Lord. Indeed, about this second, more personal point, today’s gospel gives us a simple instruction; which is nothing too morally demanding nor too taxing to put into practice. The gospel simply says to each of us, ‘Here is your mother’, and then “take her into your home”.

England may have stopped being widely known as Mary’s dowry, and not many people may know the significance of Walsingham, but the Mother of Jesus, always remains our mother as well. So, when we are pressed down by worries or plagued by indecision; when we find ourselves stuck on top of our own personal calvaries, when we are dejected or discomforted; when, like St John at the foot of the Cross, we feel powerless before the suffering of others; the gospel simply says, ‘Here is your mother.’ Then, in those moments let us take Mary with us and she, Our Lady and protectress, will help us in our every need.

21 September, 2017

Homily for Battle of Britain Sunday - Selective Remembrance

During the formative years of my vocation I took part in a number of ecumenical pilgrimages to the holy island of Iona, off the coast of Mull. We would walk almost ninety miles over hiking trails, fields, and costal paths only to arrive, exhausted and happy, to celebrate Easter Day with the monastic community of the island. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only thing I remember clearly about each of these pilgrimages is the sense of sheer joy I experienced arriving to Iona. I don’t remember the falls along the way, the blisters, or the relentless wind – only joy of having finally arrived.
For those who know me fairly well, what I just said should not come as a shock at all as I tend to be – shall we say – a little forgetful. But the fact that my recollections only focus on joy may have also something to do with selective memory; something that each of us can fall into, especially after experiencing difficult circumstances. In fact, even St John’s gospel recalls Jesus talking about such a thing as selective memory when he says, ‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world’ (John 16:21).

Selective memory helps us to focus on our accomplishments; giving us the morale boost we would need should we be confronted by similar situations in the future. After all, if I remembered all the hardship my group of pilgrims endured walking down steep and freezing slopes in the pouring rain for a week, I would have probably never done that pilgrimage again… So selective memory can be helpful as we make our way through life; but it can also be a trap that prevents us from seeing clearly the reality of what we have been through, hampering our sense of gratitude towards those who have helped us along the way. And this is never more critical than when selective memory affects an entire nation; it is never more dangerous than when selective memory becomes selective remembrance. 

In the midst of the Battle of Britain, on 20th August 1940, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons with powerful words that made it into the history books; words that have influenced the collective remembrance of the nation ever since.
‘The gratitude of every home in our Island, …and indeed throughout the world, …goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
Remembrance informs our gratitude. In other words, the way in which remember informs the way in which we give thanks to others, and indeed to God, according to justice for what they have done for us. Therefore, if today we remembered “the Few” and just “the Few” whom Churchill spoke of as “British airmen” then our remembrance would be selective and so our sense of gratitude would also be selective, excluding others whose valiant efforts also determined the outcome of the Battle of Britain.

‘It's not “lest we forget”, it's “lest we remember”. That's what all this is about -the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence… Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.’ 
Alan Bennet places these words on the lips of Tom Irwin, a cynical supply teacher in his acclaimed play the History Boys. This scathing gibe which could appear directed towards the entire culture of remembrance is, in fact, a dig at the way in which we tend to idealize, streamline, and make palatable the ways in which we remember momentous and tragic events, such as war, or in our very case also the Battle of Britain. This is a dig at selective remembrance, and we should do well to heed its call. 

Let us remember that almost a quarter of the pilots who met the enemy in the skies of Britain came from fourteen other countries – 24,39%, if my I am doing my maths right. Let us also remember the ground control staff; the countless civilians who lost their lives in air-raids whilst working in airplanes and ammunition factories. Let us remember those who kept watch over our skies in the Royal Control Corps, now disbanded. 
The very peace we have enjoyed on this continent for the last seventy years was wrought into the brotherhood and the blood of those who fought to defend the skies of Britain regardless of their nationality, but only in the pursuit of justice. If Britain had fallen under the enemy bombardments, God only knows what would have happened. D-Day would have perhaps never arrived, and certainly it would not have played out in the way it did. VE Day would have never dawned, and the oppression of totalitarism, racial hate, and fascism would have held sway across an entire continent… 

In the Christian sense remembering has much to do with making present past events in their entirety. It means being honest about what happened so that we may properly give thanks to God and to everyone involved. That fateful Battle we remember today indeed tuned the tide of the World War, it was won over the skies of Britain and the Channel, and it was fought by the Few, the Forgotten Few from other countries (almost airbrushed out of history), by the Control Corps on the rooves of our cities, and by the many men and women who valiantly supported them at ground control, and in the spitfire factories. Today we call all of them to mind in one single act of true remembrance. To them all today goes out our debt of gratitude. And for them our prayers ascend to God the Father, that he may grant their souls eternal rest, that after the hardships they endured for the cause of justice they may be welcomed into a the joy of his kingdom. Amen.

Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - The church as our context

Matthew 18:15-20 
Jesus says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ (Matt 18:20)
Giotto - Pentecost
I don’t know if you have ever walked into the middle of a conversation, like I have done many a time, and you ended up getting the wrong end of the stick altogether… It is easily done, and it can happen to anyone. In fact, the same type misunderstanding can also happen when we approach the Bible outside its proper context, or even more so when we focus on an isolated verse of the Scriptures and we draw all sorts of conclusions from just that one phrase.

Today’s gospel gives us a couple of examples of very common misunderstandings which can easily arise when we take the teachings of Jesus out of their proper framework. At the beginning of our reading we see that Jesus gives instructions on how to behave towards other Christians when they do something wrong – instructions that could lead even to the exclusion of a member (or as this is known in church terms, “excommunication”). A bit harsh, we might think, but pretty straightforward to apply on the whole. Then again, you see that Jesus says here, ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him’ (Matt 18:15), so you can imagine how it could go horribly wrong. And if this were all the Christian teaching one had to go by, one could feel perfectly entitled to see it as their duty – their vocation even – to corner and to shame another person about their conduct… ‘go and have it out with them!’
The second example of a common misunderstanding comes a little further down as the Lord says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them’ (Matt 18:20). Again, if this were all the Christian teaching we had to go by, we could think that (a) praying on our own wouldn’t get us very far all, and (b) as long as there was at least one other person with us, then we could pray and worship in any way we wanted because Jesus would be with us to make sure the Father would grant us all our wishes like a divine Genie of the lamp. For both of these examples, similarly to walking into the middle of a conversation, if we are unaware of the context in which they were set we could end up misunderstanding what Jesus actually meant to teach us and get ourselves caught up in a religion of our own making. 

But what is the context of the Scriptures? Jesus identifies it as the Church when he says that all his teachings are applicable within “the Community” of believers. The word used here is “ecclesia” (Cf. Matt 18:17), meaning the assembly of all the faithful which the Lord gathers around himself, the collective body of all Christians. It is this Community that the Lord charges with recalling all people to repentance, whilst not to judge anyone; this is the community entrusted by Jesus with “binding or loosing” (meaning forgiving sins and welcoming back stray members); this is the community entrusted with the message of the gospel; and, regardless of its size, this is the place where Jesus primarily meets with his follower.

Oftentimes is can be all too easy to grumble and to feel dejected about “the Church” as an abstract reality, but if today’s gospel teaches us anything about our community of faith is that the ecclesia, the Church, is essentially the backdrop against which the true meaning of the Lord’s teachings could stand out and become relevant for us. Christian thinkers of several denominations, and first among them the Church Fathers, have taught for millennia one simple phrase; ‘extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’ meaning ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’. This is because the Church is essentially our context, the one body of which we became part at our baptism, and the backdrop against which we each play out our individual vocation to be the person – our true selves, as I said last Sunday – that God created, loves, and finds indispensable.

Maybe I sound like an idealist here, painting such a rosy picture of the Church as the community to which all people are called, and the place where each person can be their true self. But I have experienced the alternative to this view. I spent a good few years being angry towards the Church, wanting to ignore it, and to move on. But being part of this community gives full meaning to the gospel – in a sense, the Church brings the gospel to life in each generation as a tangible reality. Being gathered around the Lord Jesus – at least on Sundays – at Mass gives meaning to the saying, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ And being Church gives meaning to our prayers. Indeed, being part of the Church is what gives meaning to our being Christians. To pretend otherwise, to think that Jesus calls everyone to follow him, but that “he doesn’t do Church” would be the biggest misunderstanding of them all.

03 September, 2017

Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - "let him renounce himself"

Matthew 16:21-27
Jesus says, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ (Matt 16:24)
In St John’s Gospel there is a famous statement Jesus makes about himself and his mission that can appear a little puzzling especially when compared to what he says this morning. In John 10 Jesus says, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10); which means that to follow Jesus should make us experience life to all its true and possible fullness. However, today in Matthew Jesus seems to paint a bleaker picture saying, ‘anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Matt 16:25); and besides this Jesus also invites all prospective Christians to ‘deny themselves and take up their cross’ (16:24). 

So, which one is it? What does living the Christian life really entail? On one hand the peddlers and sympathisers of the so-called Prosperity Gospel – popular in America and with the Trump administration – would say that genuinely following Christ would bring blessings of personal achievements, well-being, and financial security as immediate rewards from the Lord; therefore living life to its fullness in a very tangible sense. On the other hand, many people (both within and outside the Church) insist on picturing being a Christian as essentially the pursuit of self-denial, to the point of reducing religion to a cold list of dos and many, many don’ts.
But actually the truth is that both these interpretations, apart from being polar opposites, are also neither helpful in promoting Christianity, nor an accurate picture of what the Christian life really looks like. Jesus does bestow fullness of life on his followers, but this fullness has often little to do with material comfort, financial security, or personal achievements. Similarly, the purpose of the self-denial and of picking up the cross which Jesus talks about is never an exercise in self-loathing. Jesus does not ask us to straggle along behind him beating ourselves with sticks. So, once again, what does living the Christian life really entail?

Last week I quoted one of my favourite theologians in saying that ‘Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary’ (BXVI, Homily, Sunday, 24 April 2005). But I understand that we can’t often perceive how important this is. In a culture where we are constantly told that self-image and worth are determined almost exclusively by what we possess, by what people think of us, by how many likes our social-media accounts get, and by how we conform to the latest trends, we risk creating a fake reality around ourselves in the hope that all this will provide our lives with meaning, shield us from pain, give us security, and ultimately bring us happiness. Yet, this artificial self of our own making has nothing to do with the person God created and loves.

When Jesus invites each of us to follow him, to live the Christian life he is essentially asking us to lose the fake and transient realities we have manufactured for ourselves (sometimes even at great personal costs); he is asking us to dispose of those things that distract us from being a Christian, and he is asking us to lose all those life plans we made without consulting him, in order that we may find our own true self in him; or rather, so that we may discover our own identity in being the person which the Father thought of, loves, and finds indispensable.

If we do this; if we constantly look for our true self in Christ, if we bear the cross of whatever circumstance we find ourselves in because of our faith, if we strive each day to follow Jesus by imitating him, then we will be able to experience the fullness of life Jesus promises to his followers.

Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - "You are Peter"

Matthew 16:13-20

St Peter's Basilica, Rome
Inside the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, several feet high above the place where Peter himself has laid buried for almost two thousand years, there is a large inscription made with black lettering on a gold background;
‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church…
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 16:18-19).
Michelangelo positioned these two verses of Matthew’s gospel at the base of the dome as a golden circlet, a crown above the tomb of the Apostle, and as a reminder of level of responsibility and trust Our Lord places on the whole of his Church; ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven’ (Matt 16:19).

Now, as we read this passage, we could look at its importance in shaping the Church around the ministry of St Peter. But [as a good Anglican] I would like to focus on something slightly broader in meaning; God’s willingness – in fact, his desire – for human cooperation in his work of creation and redemption. The desire of God for human participation comes up as a recurring theme throughout the history of salvation. For example, when God chose his people in the Old Testament he relied on Abraham and made a covenant, a pact, with him; when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord form the land of Egypt God entrusted Moses to lead them out of slavery; when the House of Israel needed the leadership of a faithful steward God entrusted Eliakim (from our first reading) and relied on his decisions. In the New Testament when God sent his Son into the world he relied on the cooperation of the Virgin Mary and he entrusted Jesus to the care of St Joseph; when Our Lord wanted to spread the gospel he relied on his apostles and disciples, and finally, as we see today, when Jesus wanted to build his Church he relied on St Peter, the Rock to be quite literally the foundation stone. And when we focus our attention on examples such as these a clear pattern emerges. In every situation, from the beginning of Salvation history until now, the Lord relies on his people – meaning each one of us as well – to further his work. Much as he did with his first disciples, the Lord Jesus calls us to specific tasks that only we can do, he blesses us with every possible grace to help us in our work, and he gives us the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in all our doings.

But let me put this in another way. On Thursday was the feast of the Apostle Bartholomew. The prayer for that day said,
O Lord, …grant that… your Church
may become the sacrament of salvation for all the nations.
A sacrament is essentially the way in which the grace of God reaches people through the means of ordinary objects and actions consecrated to his service (like bread, wine, touching, and washing). So, when we pray to become the sacrament of salvation, we pray that the Lord may reach other people with his grace through us; through our ordinariness, through our humanity which has been consecrated to his service by baptism.
So here is the beauty of our Christin faith. We are not just infinitely loved by God; we are also infinitely needed by him.
‘We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.’ (BXVI, Homily, Sunday, 24 April 2005)
There may have been only one St Peter and only one ministry to which the Lord has entrusted the keys of his kingdom, but this does not change the fact that each one of us is entrusted with continuing and furthering Jesus’ saving work in the world. So if you don’t take anything away from this service, at least take this; God invites you to work with him, God entrusts you with his redeeming work, God relies on you to bring salvation to others.