Saturday, March 18, 2017

3rd Sunday of Lent (A) : Homily / Sermon

‘Anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life.’ (John 4:)14

 

What an extraordinary Gospel reading! 

And yet this is a tremendous story. 

 

Here, away from the crowds, away from the city, away from the disciples, there is this charmingly told encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman as they both meet at the well. The Well, like the water cooler, or drinks machine, or the cafe or the pub was a place where unexpected encounters could take place. And this is certainly unexpected. The two engage in a bit of banter, and almost flirtatious conversation, which turns to matters serious and portentous. 

 

We may think that the encounters of the first century, of 2000 years ago, are far removed from the lives and concerns of the present day. Surely this far land, and this foreign people, and these unfamiliar cultures can have little bearing on modern life, with its technology, and its diversity, and its myriad lifestyles. 

Yet - while the technology of the well may be truly ancient - the situation which is revealed there is one which is very familiar to the modern day. 

 

First, this is an encounter between two people of different, indeed opposing, religious backgrounds - Jesus the Jew and the Samaritan Woman. Their faiths are related, but so much so that they disagree about fundamentals and their people have deep suspicion and indeed hatred of one another. And they engage in conversation, a conversation which does not avoid what divides them. Jesus seems to have no discomfort or difficulty in talking to the woman - yet even in our day, every is not at ease, or lacks confidence, when dealing with those of a different faith, or a different ethnic background. 

 

And Secondly, this woman is in what the Church nowadays refers as an "irregular relationship". Like so many today she has many partners. Some she married, others not. 50 years ago, if we heard this story, we would have thought the woman to be shockingly immoral - nowadays we probably know someone just like her. And Jesus sits and chats with her. And encourages her. 

 

These two aspects of the story - the dialogue with the diversity of belief in our society, and the breakdown or marriage and family life - we think of as being very modern, very challenging, very different, very new. And how does Jesus deal with it? 

 

Firstly, he does not condemn her. He doesn’t walk away, or denounce her as a sinner, or attack her faith as groundless or even demonic. He speaks to her and he listens, too. He treats her with dignity and with respect. 

 

Yet secondly, he does not condone her either. He doesn’t say about her beliefs or her lifestyle “well, that’s you choice”. He does say, or even imply, that all beliefs, all faiths are the same. He stands his ground, and makes speaks for the truth. 

 

And thirdly, he offers God’s blessing to her, openly and freely. The living water is for her as much as it is for anyone else. He does not tell her that God’s grace is refused to her because of her way of life or even her background. It is offered to all, without favour. It is not a reward for goodness - but hope for sinners. 

 

And fourthly, he sends her out to spread the word. He invites her response and she reacts with enthusiasm. She tells others about him, and they are drawn to him. She becomes a messenger for the truth, a witness for the Gospel, a herald of the Christ, a minister of grace.

 

It is a model we would do well to follow. It is precisely the approach which Pope Francis has used in facing difficult issues, and which he presented before us during the Year of Mercy: 

 

Listen and show respect. 

Surrender nothing of the truth. 

Offer everything.  

Call others to Christ. 

 

Nothing negative here. Nothing easy either.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

World Book Day and the Temptation of Christ : The First Sunday of Lent : Homily / Sermon

Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

 

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In the past week we had World Book Day. Children all over the country went to school dressed as a character from a book. Lots of Harry Potters, and Where’s Wallys out there, as well as not a few Red Riding Hoods and Cinderellas. And there were even two children who were dressed as pages 89 & 165 of the Argos Catalogue. 

 

The point of course is to encourage reading, and an enthusiasm for books. We might read books as paperbacks, hardbacks, audiobooks or on kindles, but they are books all the same. They inspire us, enlighten us, enthuse us and excite us. You can adapt them them into films or on the radio or in TV serials, but even so, there is nothing quite like a book. 

 

The best books of all tell stories that we can identify with. When we curl up with a book it is because we feel ourselves part of the story. These are Stories with goodies and baddies, heroes and villains, with joys and tears. They are Stories which introduces to characters who in some way we feel a connection with. When things go wrong for them, we feel for them. When they fall on hard times, when they are ill-treated or treated unjustly, we feel angry and distressed with them. When they encounter peril and danger, we fear with them, and when they win through in the end, we rejoice with them. 

 

So many books and stories follow this same pattern - a good start, a dramatic fall, an anxious struggle, and at last, a joyful resolution. Think about it, children’s tales, adult romances, science fiction epics, detective mysteries, all follow a similar pattern, from Harry Potter to Agatha Christie, we travel through the lows and highs of the despicable sins and exemplary virtues of human beings. 

 

Today's readings introduce too into that kind of story, a narrative, a Drama which unfolds for us the mystery of human existence, and opens for us the loving mercy of God. 

 

It is a tale in two parts. 

 

Part One is todays Old Testament reading, from the book of Genesis. 

Here we hear the story of the creation of a wonderful paradise, a beautiful garden, and then the original sin which spoils it all. This story contains a deep truth, but not the truth of history or science, but the truth of God’s generosity, and of the selfishness of human nature.  All is made good - yet everything goes wrong. 

 

The fundamental sin of humanity, the basic betrayal, the sin which makes all the difference, is found in the illusion that if we turn our backs on God’s goodness, then we can make ourselves like him. 'Eat this fruit,' the serpent says, 'and you will be like gods'. 

Human beings think that we can decide for ourselves what is right and wrong; that we can solve all problems and answer all questions. Man has no bounds, the serpent says, the world says. Humanity can raise itself to the same level and power as God.

Lets get this straight. Sin and Evil is not something which God has done, or created. No - it is the decision, the choice of Humanity. The First Sin is facing the most basic temptation, and giving into it  The imperfection of the world starts here. This is the Fall, which taints us all. This is Original Sin, which we have all been born into.

What was so good, becomes spoiled and tainted, through selfishness and arrogance. 

The curtain descends in the darkness. The End of Part One. 

 

 

Part Two

And then, the Gospel opens a new Act in this Drama, a new scene in this story, a new chapter in the book. The New Testament is the Sequel, which will tie up the loose ends left by Adam and Eve and provide the ultimate conclusion. 

 

Here we meet the new Adam. The one who comes to confront the serpent, to look evil deep in the eye, to resist temptation on behalf of those who are overcome by it all the time. 

 

It was after all, temptation which was the Theatre of the Fall of humanity, and the Invention of Evil, and now Temptation begins the tale which will lead us through the struggles and sacrifices of Lent, through the apparent calamities of Holy Week to the extraordinary conclusion at Easter. 

 

Let the drama begin. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time : Homily / Sermon

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12)

 

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It is said that when new employees begin work at Cadbury’s in Bourneville, they are allowed to eat as much chocolate as they like. The point is, of course, that once they have done that for a few days, the will never want to do it again. 

 

True or not, this practice makes an important point - the things we enjoy, the things we really like doing, the things that we think will make us feel really happy work, but for a short a time only. Sooner or later we get fed up with them (literally). 

 

Simple pleasures, which might seem fine in moderation, when consumed to excess, and can cause many problems. They no longer satisfy, and even become destructive. As we grow we discover that pleasure is not the same as happiness.

 

This understanding helps us make sense of Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel. When we here these words, we are likely to feel troubled and confused. 

Happy are those who mourn? 

Happy are those who are persecuted?

Happy are those who hunger and thirst? - Even if, in the cause of right, this hardly sounds pleasurable, enjoyable, does it? 

 

But of course, happiness and pleasure are not the same, though we might often confuse them. 

 

St Augustine explains it like this: 

All human beings want to be happy. And the search for happiness is a  kind of restlessness, it is a search for fulfilment.  We think we can find it in things, pleasures, but while they might give temporary happiness, they cannot be fulfilling, because they do not last. 

St Augustine explains that our yearning for happiness is in fact a yearning for that which does last for ever. And when our basic needs are filled by love, by hope, by faith, by God, which last for ever, then we are no longer restless.  Finding God, living with God, is true happiness.

 

And here, in the today’s Gospel, the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches us that this happiness is not a vague hope of life in heaven, but a really possibility now. He tells us:

Happiness is not found in wealth, or in things : happy are the poor in spirit. 

Happiness is not found in pride, or power: happy are the gentle, the meek

Happiness is not found only when things go well for us: happy are those who mourn

Happiness comes through healing broken hearts and the wounds of division:  Happy are the peacemakers

Happiness comes through overcoming injustice and evil: Happy are those who hunger and thirst for what is right

Happiness comes through compassion, mercy and love: Happy are the merciful

 

These are practical, principles of action for this life, which we have already seen most clearly in the life of Jesus himself:

 

As Pope Francis tells us: 

The Beatitudes are the path that God indicates as an answer to the desire of happiness inherent in man … 

The Beatitudes are Jesus' portrait, his way of life, and they are the way of true happiness, which we also can live with the grace that Jesus gives us.”