Walk on in the light with God

To fully understand today’s Gospel (John 9:1-41) of Jesus restoring the sight of the man born blind, we need to go below the surface of the story. This is so often the case when Jesus speaks or acts. He wants us to look deeper into the inner meaning of the story. To do that in this passage, each of us needs to think of our ourselves as the one who is blind, the one who needs the touch of Jesus to help us to see. So that’s the first step. If we think we can see, that we have everything sorted out, that we think we know all the answers, then we are in trouble. It is when we know we are blind and need God’s light that we are getting somewhere.

So that means first, that we shouldn’t think we have all the answers to the problems of the world – how to persuade people not to use violence – how to make the world a place where people do not starve or have to be refugees – how to prevent crime etc.  But we also need to realise that we don’t have all the answers in our own lives either. There are always choices for us to make. Big decisions sometimes, but more often little actions or words that can make a difference to our future, and also help others. We need to realise the danger of making hasty decisions, to realise how hard it can be for us and for others to work out what is the best thing to do – how to choose what to do when we do not know what the future holds. In other words, we have to learn how to see what God might want us to do or to say, rather than just blundering on with our own thoughts and actions.

St Paul puts this well to the Christians of Ephesus in our 2nd Reading today. (Eph 5:8-14) He tells them, as he would tell us, that as followers of Jesus, we are “light in the Lord”. But that doesn’t mean we can sit back and say “Now life is all sorted”. No, he makes it clear that if we are in the light, we have to “be like children of the light”.  What he means by this, is that like children we need to be ready to learn; and by that he doesn’t mean learn more facts. No, he is talking about our need to constantly learn from God how to be Christians in our daily lives. As he says, we have to to try “To discover what the Lord wants of us”, we have to “Wake up from our sleep… and let Christ shine on us.”  Or, to go back to the Gospel we have to ask Jesus to help us to see. Or, as my dear Mum used to say, quoting an old proverb, we must remember to “Look before we leap.”

The problem with this is that we can never be fully aware of all that lies ahead of us, can we? God surely doesn’t want us to be so cautious that we never risk anything the slightest bit adventurous. Yesterday we remembered the mother of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary saying yes to God. When she said yes she took a risk, not least that she might be rejected by Joseph and her family. The disciples of Jesus also took a big risk when they left everything to follow him, and they had no idea where that would take them. So although we must be careful, we must try to follow what we know to be basically good, from things like the 10 Commandments and the moral teaching of the Church, that must not stop us taking risks for God, just like they did.

This is surely why prayer is so important. Not prayer which is asking things of God, but the quiet meditative prayer where we try to listen to what God is saying to us, to try to think our life through carefully and prayerfully day by day. To think back through the day to what we have done, and maybe see what we could have done better, and to think forward to the day ahead, and ask God to be with us and guide us in whatever we will be doing and whoever we may be meeting.

We also need to ask God to help us to see opportunities in which he will be able to work through us. To give a few simple examples, we cannot know about the person who falls over on the other side of the road, so we cannot pray about what to do, but we can pray that whatever happens we’ll be ready to act for God. We cannot know that we’ll meet a friend or a stranger who needs a word of help or comfort, but we can pray that God will make us never too busy to stop and give us the words to say, when it happens. Most of us will never, thank God, have to face the crisis of what happened in Westminster this week, but we need to thank God, do we not for all the people who did act then in one way or another to help those injured or distressed. Whatever happens to us, as Christians, we must always have our eyes open, so that we can act for God, and remember what that famous song says “Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone.” That is what makes us good human beings. 

 

Advertisements

Love needs God’s grace

This was preached at a Penitential Service in KidlingtonWe all know that we are meant to love everyone, even our enemies, so I have no doubt that failure to do this will feature in many Confessions this Lent. But I think it is worth thinking a little more about what this love we are meant to show others really implies.

 First of all, let’s remember that there can be no ifs and buts about this. We are told that we must try to do it. The passage we have just heard says so (Mark 12:28-34). “You must love the Lord your God… You must love your neighbour as yourself” To add to this we have the famous words of Jesus from the Last Supper. Jesus says “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (John 13:34).

 The obvious response to this from many people would be “How can I be commanded to love?” I am sure you know the answer. The love we are commanded to show people is not a feeling that comes upon us. That’s the kind of love we often hear on Films or in TV Dramas or Soaps. “I couldn’t help loving him.. I just fell in love with him.”  This, of course, is the kind of love that real Christians should be very suspicious of. Yes, it exists, but unless it is controlled by reason it can lead people into making all sorts of foolish mistakes, not least marrying someone simply because we have a beautiful feeling for them, rather than because we reckon we can commit ourselves to caring for them for better or for worse for the rest of our lives!

 This example takes us straight on to what sort of love we are being commanded to show others. It is certainly not love as a feeling outside our control. It would be ridiculous to be commanded to love everyone like that, or even to like them. Even so, I have heard people say, as if it were a sin “I just don’t like that person I have to work with.” My answer to that is straightforward. “We are not asked to like everyone, only to love everyone, which is quite different.”

 The problem is that people confuse the two, and so think that if they don’t like someone they cannot love them. This can often be the case in families. I assure you that there is one person in my family whom I do NOT like, but because I know I don’t like her, I can therefore make an extra effort to love her when she comes to stay for a week in May. God help me!

 This is what real Christian love is all about isn’t it? How often do we find people we live with or people we work with really difficult? It is one of the most common things mentioned in the Confessional, and it should be. The challenge is to face up to this difficulty and find ways of overcoming it, so that we continue to treat that person with care and respect, even if we do not like them. And this extends, of course, to people whom we really dislike.. which is why Jesus tells us to love our enemies.

 The one thing we do know is that we will never do this in our own strength. We need God’s help, his grace;  and that is precisely why making our Confession is so important, because it is a moment when we place very explicitly before God the area or areas of our life, the people, the relationships in our life, that we find most difficult to cope with. Remember that Confession is strictly speaking called The Sacrament of Reconciliation. Note that word “Sacrament”. Just as in Holy Communion, Confession is a moment when we receive God’s grace. At Mass that grace is given to us in a general way to help us with our lives, but in Confession it is given in a much more specific way to be brought to bear on those things we really struggle with.

 Grace is not magic of course. Love remains an act of will, not something we feel. It is something we have to choose to do. But always we need God to help us in that choosing, and that is what we do when we make our Confession.

 

Homily on the saving water given by Jesus

Every now and then a little fantasy slips into my mind. If only I had a few million pounds then all my problems would disappear. Maybe you have it too? When we come to our senses we realise that being rich or good-looking would not really make us happy. Rich people can mask their sadness by surrounding themselves with lots of beautiful things, but in the end these things do not solve the real problem for us all, our awareness that we are more than just flesh and blood. That’s such an important point isn’t it? It is what is inside us, in our thoughts and feelings, in our need for love, in our appreciation of beauty, that we really find true happiness. In other words, to use Christian words, we are spiritual, we have souls.

In our Gospel today (John 4:5-42) we meet a woman who starts off by thinking in purely material terms. So when Jesus offers her “Living water”, her response is fairly blunt. Silly man, she thinks, and then replies: “You have no bucket sir.. and the well is deep!” She knows how to deal with stupid men who say silly things, because she has had five husbands and is now on a sixth!  But Jesus persists, and so she goes along with his offer. Of course, she is still suspicious of him, not just because he is a man, but because he is one of those Jews who think Samaritans like her are nasty foreigners. So she challenges him on where is the best place to worship God, and is clearly quite amazed when he answers by telling her that we can worship God anywhere, because what matters is, as he says, that we “worship in spirit and truth.” Thus we hear Jesus summing up the message for today, that it is what is going on inside us that is most important, both for us and for God

Our problem is, of course, that we are trapped in our physical desires for this or for that, be it biscuits or cake on a plate for me, or clothes, or the latest computer game or gadget, or whatever. Despite our best efforts to be more spiritual, we constantly sink back into what satisfies our physical desires. In Christian terms we call that “slavery to sin” and we also say that we cannot get ourselves out of this mess, and back to true closeness with God, by ourselves. We need to think of the story of Adam and Eve that we heard the other week, and remember that we are the Adam and Eve in that story who are tempted by what looks good on the surface.

St Paul puts it even more bluntly when he writes to the Romans. (7:24) He says “Wretched man that I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?” The answer is that no human person can solve this problem for us. No great politician offering a new solution, be it Brexit or Remain, or whatever, can make everything right. Nothing that we humans do can make us right, can save us.  This is the heart of our Christian faith, that the only way we can be put right is if God reaches out to us, and the only way that can happen is by us putting our faith, our trust, in him. Thus the living water that Jesus offers the woman at the well is what we call the grace of God, or the Holy Spirit of God, that breaks through our human mistakes, and draws us, despite our failings, into union with him.

Yes, God the Holy Spirit is like water. Now ordinary water is amazing, for as each human and animal and plant absorbs water, the water disappear into each living being and becomes part of it. It happens to us physically, and a similar process happens when the water of the Holy Spirit enters into us. It actually frees us, rescues us, saves us, and makes us more fully who we really are.

This God does, as you know, in an amazing and powerful way by actually coming to us as the man Jesus, and then challenging death and hell itself by dying on the cross for us. It is his love pouring itself out for us from the cross that gives us a new kind of life, a life that takes us beyond the merely physical. This gift of his love and sacrifice for us wells up in us, if we accept it, to give us eternal life; and eternal life is not just life after death, but is life, real life, now. A life of service and sacrifice like his, yes; but also a life in which there is a deeper sense of who we really are and what we exist for. We may still enjoy physical things, because all good things are gifts from God, but we are taken beyond these surface things and realise what really matters for each one of us.

That is what the people say to the woman when she shares with them what Jesus has said. “Now we have heard him ourselves, and we know that he really is the saviour of the world”

 

 

On finding a vision of God

Every now and then God gives you and me a moment when he shows us his glory. The problem is that we do not always see what it is that God is showing us, because we are wrapped up in our own thoughts and activities. Sometimes we only realise that God has been at work after the event. We look back and can now see that this moment in our past – be it joyful & beautiful or challenging & hard – was a moment in which we were helped on our way through life. We look back and say “Ah yes, now I see why that happened the way it did.”

In our 1st Reading (Genesis 12:1-4 Abram takes a big step into the unknown when he leaves his country and travels over a thousand miles to reach the area we now call Israel & Palestine. Written after the event, it gives the impression that he knew exactly what God was saying to him; but if we were to read on in his story, we would see how often he doubts whether this first experience was a real one, as he is tested and troubled in various ways, and on one occasion almost kills his son Isaac, just to prove to God and himself that he does trust in the vision of the future that he has received.

This was also the case for Peter, James and John. The story we have heard today (Matt 17:1-9) is presented as a clear vision of glory that could not be misunderstood; but we have to remember that the story that we read as our Gospel today is what they told to others after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Then, they could look back through all the suffering they had endured, and see this vision for what it really was. But on the way, despite the vision, we need to remember that although they had sometimes trusted Jesus, they had at other times doubted and misunderstood him. Finally, despite the vision, they had run away when he was arrested, and hid in misery when he was killed on the cross; and then at first been surprised and confused when his full glory was revealed at Easter.

Thus we are reminded today how important it is to look back and to try and identify things that have happened to us where now we can see God at work in our life. As I said earlier, this may not always be a happy event. I have met any number of people who have been brought closer to God by the death of a loved one, or by some illness or trouble that they have had to face, and have somehow got through. When we are in the midst of some such sad time, it is very very hard indeed to see or to feel God’s presence. It is only later, when we have come through it all, that we can then look back and see what it was that helped us through. There we will then see that God was at work.

It is perhaps even more difficult to register that God is at work when everything is going well. I find it sad to notice how many people actually give up prayer and going to Church simply because they get too busy having a good time.  Yes, how easily we can ignore him then when times are good, and get fed up with the idea of regular prayer, of regularly opening our life to him; and then when times get hard complain that God never helps us, that God is never there for us.

Looking back to see where God has been with us in the past, may therefore help us to see where God is at work in our lives now, or where he may be at work in the future. Prayer is about keeping our spiritual eyes and ears open for what God is saying to us, and what God is doing in us and for us. This is why prayers of thanksgiving are so important. We must thank God every day that we are alive. We must thank God for friends and for others who support us. We must thank God for the food we eat and for the beauty of the natural world around us, and so on and on.

 The hymn “How great thou art”  comes to mind. Look at the words. This is prayer.

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

Homily on being saved from wrong desires

The first thing we need to remember about the story of Adam & Eve (1st Reading : Gen 2:7-9.3:1-7) is that we must look for the truth within the story, & not waste our time asking if the story is true. Perhaps you know the story of the Hare & the Tortoise having a race? If you were to ask did this really happen, you would have completely missed the point of the story. So what is this story of Adam & Eve trying to tell us. What is the truth within the story?

What the writer is trying to do, is to explain what is basically wrong with us humans and our relationship with God and with the beautiful world he has given us. The garden therefore is an image of the world before we messed it up. In the world there are all sorts of lovely things that are good for us, but we can easily be led into desiring the wrong kind of things. Things that appear pleasant but are actually bad for us.

A classic example is addictive drugs. Cocaine in the form of Morphine is a wonderful help for people in severe pain, but taken for pleasure, it ends up enslaving people. What seemed such a nice sensation as the drug takes away our worries and sadness ends up enslaving us and destroying our life. We could say the same about pornography, about the wrong kind of sex.

If you were to read on from the passage we have today, you would see that the story goes on to say that Adam & Eve then hid from God. They became ashamed of their nakedness. Thus the story shows us that if we go after our own desires, without working out which desires are good for us and which are not good for us, we end up living a life in which our desires dominate our thoughts and hide us from God.

Our Gospel (Mark 4:1-11) shows us how Jesus, the one Christians sometimes describe as the Second Adam, also faces temptations but is able to resist them. Here too the Devil suggests things that we humans desire. The first desire is described as “bread”; but bread here is a symbol for all the food and drink that we might want to consume. The second desire is to throw himself from a tower and be saved by angels. It is the desire to do things to make us admired or noticed by others. The third desire is to rule the kingdoms of the world. It is the desire to make other people do what we want.

In each case Jesus defeats the desire with an appropriate text from the Bible. If we humans think all we need is enough food, then we have forgotten our important need for spiritual things : goodness, care for others and love. If we simply base our life on doing whatever it takes to please others, we are forgetting our need most of all to do what is good, to do what God wants whether people like this or not. If we do not resist our desire to control others, to make them do what we want, then we will turn ourselves into a horrific and monstrous imitation of God.

 One of the principal ways we resist these wrong desires is through prayer, through constantly opening our lives to God. This is the heart of prayer, not us asking God for things we want, but us opening ourselves up to God’s guidance and support.  Prayer helps us to stop and think, instead of jumping into whatever we next FEEL like doing. I often feel like eating more cake. God helps me realise it is not good for me. I often feel like getting angry with people. God helps me control my anger, to turn my strong feelings into something that does good not evil. So we need to share with God all we want to do, to stand naked before God admitting our wrong desires, so that he can help us to resist what we cannot resist by ourselves.

In other words, we have to admit that we are Adam and Eve in the story, helpless innocents so easily led to think something is good when it is actually bad. And we have to turn to Jesus who has resisted evil even to the point of dying on the cross, and whose saving strength we need so much. The final temptation for Jesus is, of course, not in the Desert at the beginning, but in the Garden just before he is arrested. He did not desire pain and suffering. None of us do. We prefer things that seem to make us instantly happy. Jesus chose a different way, and calls us to link ourselves to his way, which saves us from the terrible mess we humans have got ourselves into, as we follow our own wrong desires.

Before God naked and unashamed

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Our Readings today emphasise that Bible reading is not for the unenlightened literalist. They are about the use of ‘myths’ to give insight into the human condition. Now to say that something is a myth is not to rubbish it, or deny its use and proper place in all literature, even in sacred texts and in our understanding of reality. It’s just that we can sometimes get fixated on the wrong thing. There never was a garden. Gardens were the work of the ancient Persians who mastered the art of water control in dry landscapes and made them into a great art form. Part of our oldest Creation story, (Genesis 2:7-9. and 3:1-7) and its continuation, the myth of the Fall, which are the work of the oldest Biblical writers, are a picturesque way of getting human beings to think about their situation. For those of you suspecting me of heresy, I refer you to the Letter of the Vatican Biblical Commission to the Archbishop of Paris in 1948 which insisted it was not necessary to read Genesis 1-11 literally. It was sent to combat those who were allowing the pictures to confuse the interpretation and understanding of the message. Those writers of around 9-800 BCE were in fact thinkers, grappling with their faith in the face of the terrible behaviour of their fellow believers. What we might ask has changed?

It is when we put the scenery, attractive as it is to one side, and look at the content, that we begin to appreciate what our Genesis readings are about: food, good (or bad), judgment and power. They are about how we understand ourselves in relation to God the Creator, and how we see ourselves as free agents, choiced human beings, and the dilemma choice can bring. Now you may well, at this point, prefer to stick with the tempting by the serpent and the tragic-comic buck-passing that this engenders. Sadly this is omitted from our Reading, for it does in fact highlight the real issue beautifully. What our myth, or story, is about is the perennial coming of age of every man and woman, who have such potential to be godlike and yet fail so miserably; and in sadness and shame find it incredibly difficult to face the God who created them flawless, perfect and made for divinity. Like them, we all, down through the ages, have resorted to covering our nakedness, our ruined but essential humanity, from the God who so fashioned us and longs to communicate with us.

I was fascinated to see that the Temptations undergone by Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) reflect so closely the account of the Fall in Genesis, something I am sure the Fathers were very much aware of. They are on three issues: food; divine protection and power. They are a figurative account of what it was that finally decided Jesus to take up his given cause, the salvation of the world, in the aftermath of the arrest of John the Baptist. They are about his ‘coming of age’; and are in fact also about every man and woman. They are about how we deal with the most basic issues of human life: what we are to eat to survive and how we get it; how we are to find protection for ourselves and those we love, and the methods we choose to use to get it; and the ultimate dilemma for everyone, power, and how we decide to use or abuse it.

On the surface we might decide that Jesus’ solution was fairly simple and straightforward. Having no family to support, he allowed others to feed him and his closest associates. He decided on an itinerant ministry largely in Galilee, and took on the role of challenging those whose valuations of God he believed to be wrong, and finally he did this by the complete abnegation of power which led to his death on the cross. Whilst things may not be so clear-cut for the majority of us, you can see that for those of us called to see Jesus as the model of perfection and the way for all Christians, the ‘myth’ of the Temptations of Christ do help us to engage with those issues at the core of our being, and through which the fundamentals of our lives are etched out, though, in our case more often hedged about by serpents than we would freely admit!

St Paul (Romans 5:12-19), as we observe, has done away with myth as the backcloth to the human condition in need of redemption. In its place he put a quite dense and complicated bit of theology in which he plays on the idea of one or many ‘falls’. The need for such an act of divine grace went without saying in such a religious age, and of course Paul was also grappling with the problems raised by his Jewish colleagues, some of them Christian, who believed that scrupulous devotion to the Jewish law could bring redemption. Paul saw through this final power play and, like his master, rejected it. It is only when we abandon all our props, and give ourselves utterly to Christ Jesus, that we can fully encounter God’s grace and the new and eternal life which he alone can give. What I think Paul is saying is that in Christ a great unclothing of each of us is taking place. Where humanity covered itself in shame before God its Creator, in Christ we shall stand before him as we were always meant to be, naked and unashamed.

Homily on what Jesus means by worrying

Someone said to me once “It is hard to stop worrying because if you try to stop, you end up worrying about worrying.” And that’s the problem isn’t it, if we take absolutely literally what Jesus says in our Gospel today? (Matt 6:24-34) However I am sure that Jesus did not mean us to get worried about all this. Surely his aim is for us to have a better grasp of how much God loves us, that God is with us to support us however difficult the situation is that we face.

Once a week I go to say Mass in a Detention Centre where men face an unknown future as they are threatened with deportation. Some deserve deportation but many are sad and confused by what is happening to them as they seek asylum. At the end of the Mass I offer a private prayer and blessing to anyone who wants to come forward; and usually they all do, kneeling one at a time in front of me hoping in some way that this special prayer will help them face troubles that they can do very little about, except worry.  As you can imagine, the kind of prayer I say for them does not ask God simply to take their problems away.  That would be foolish wouldn’t it, for prayer is not magic. Prayer is opening up to the will of God, and the will of God is not always for us to have an easy road. After all, Jesus didn’t. He faced the cross; so why should we as his followers think we should have life easy?

My prayer for them therefore goes more like this. “May God bless you and be with you in all the problems and difficulties you face. May you feel his presence supporting and strengthening you, now in this place, and on into your future whatever that may be. God guard you and guide you now and ever.” 

In other words, I try through the prayer, to reassure them that God will be with them however hard life is. And whatever our situation, mostly much easier than them, that should be our prayer too. So when Jesus says that God will feed them and clothe them, he does not mean that Christians should sit around doing nothing expecting such things to drop down on them from above. No, rather, he is reminding them and us, that God is with us as we work for our food as well as when we pray, that there isn’t a world of prayer on the one side, and a world of work on the other. God cares about every bit of our lives and the more we open up to his presence in whatever we are doing, the more we will find help of one kind or another.

It is also not the case that when Jesus says “Do not worry about tomorrow” that he means us never to think about what we will face tomorrow or the next day. Once again, Jesus is saying that we will be able to face tomorrow or the next day much more easily if we open ourselves up to the presence and support of God in everything we plan and do, and if we fret too much about tomorrow w won’t recognise what we can do for God now. So Prayer is not about magicing everything right, but about allowing God to work in us and through us whatever we face.

St Paul is very fierce about people who interpret passages like this in the literal sense. He was writing to the Christians in Thessalonika some of whom had decided that they did not have to do any work. He writes – “We command you …  to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us… for when we were with you, we gave you this command: ..  Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” (2 Thess 3:6-10) That word “tradition” is very important here. It does not mean traditional which often means simply being old-fashioned. No, tradition means the way the Bible and the Faith is understood. We are not meant to make up our own interpretation of what Jesus says, as some people do. We are meant to rely on the way the Faith has been handed down to us. So the Church gives us the Creed to say on Sundays precisely to remind us of the correct way of understanding and being part of what Christians down the centuries have believed.

It is all too easy to simply go our own way, and rely on our own ideas, and make up our own traditions. When we do that then we are no longer relying on God but on our own cleverness. As a priest I am not meant to preach my own opinions but the faith of the Church. Otherwise I am saying that my wisdom is greater than God’s. This can be a hard lesson to learn can’t it? Perhaps this is a resolution we all might make for Lent as it begins this Wednesday. “Help me Lord God, to seek your will in every part of my life, and thus to discover in unexpected places your presence and power at work to support me.”