Thursday, July 30, 2015

18th Sunday of the Year (B) : Homily / Sermon

Work for the food that endures to eternal life (John 6:27)

Do you believe in mind over matter?

Spoon Bending - an example of mind over matter?

It is certainly true that the mind can have great power over the body. (It’s not just a matter of spoon bending - which may well be a conjurer's illusion). There are those who can will themselves to walk barefoot over hot coals, apparently without pain or injury. Under hypnosis people can be encouraged to do things they would never normally be able to achieve. And there is much evidence that when sick people are given placebos - tablets that they believe to have medicinal content, but which have none - they may nevertheless recover just as if they have been given the real drug. It is not just a matter of will-power and determination, the mind is even more powerful than that.

And so people sometimes suppose that the mind, or the “spirit” as we might say, is always greater, more powerful, more real than matter, body, physical reality. They suggest that if you just pull yourself together, or meditate, or pray hard enough, then all your troubles and even illnesses will go away … And (following this absurd point of view) … If your troubles continue, then your determination, commitment, resolve and indeed faith must have failed in some way. Isn’t it said “faith can move mountains”? If so - this idea goes - I only have to pray hard enough and all my wishes will be be fulfilled. And if they aren’t - then hasn’t my faith has failed …

Well. The mind is powerful. And prayer can help us achieve very much.

But no one is all mind, no one just body, both are part of one another - and we know only too well that if we are ill, then it affects both mind and body. Toothache makes us bad tempered - not even the greatest saint can get away from that.
So we need to be careful. This false division, between mind and body, can affect how we think of our spiritual life.

It is a common mistake, that both religious and non-religious people make, to separate out the spiritual and the physical.

On the one hand, religious people may think of the spirit as something very distinct from our physical existence. In this idea we hunger or suffer in the body but the spirit is free from need and free from pain, it is just pure thought, pure personality, free from the chains of physical life. Don’t be concerned about suffering on earth - so this viewpoint supposes - your reward will be great in heaven.

And the reverse of this particular coin is that the physical world is complete in itself. It has no need of “spirit”, or a “next” life. This view gives us the idea that science can answer every question and solve every problem. The physical world - so it seems - can answer its own questions without - as the atheists put it - resorting to our “imaginary friends”.
These are very commonly held ideas. And though they lead to opposite points of view, fundamentally they share the same assumptions. And they are both wrong.

When Jesus explains the spirit he always describes it in very solid, very physical terms. It is the food which endures for ever. It is the satisfying of hunger and the quenching of thirst. It is the bread which comes down from heaven.

It is the spirit which fills the physical with life and truth and purpose, and eternity. Without the spirit, matter has no purpose, no meaning. It is something to be used. Something to be discarded. Something of no value. With the Spirit, matter becomes something we can use in a right or a wrong way. And how we use the physical world, nature, is a moral issue - as Pope Francis has made very clear. The beauty of nature, the diversity of species, the resources of the planet are as much moral issues as compassion and social justice. 

Spirit and matter, soul and body are not two separate things best kept apart. They are one: created by God, redeemed by him in Christ, the Word made flesh, the bread of heaven.

Lord, give us that bread always! (John 6:34)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

17th Sunday of the Year (B) : Homily / Sermon

What is that between so many? (John 6:9)

Loaves and Fishes logo02

How should we understand the miracle stories in the Gospels? To be sure, we can assert that if we are able to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Word made flesh, then this is such a big and all encompassing matter to believe, that any stories of miracles are quite small in comparison.

Well, true as this may well be, it seems all too easy for many.
And there are those, good and believing people, who remain uncomfortable about the miracles in the Gospels and try and explain them away. Perhaps there is some natural explanation, they say. Perhaps the walking on the water was a trick of the light. Perhaps the stilling of the storm was co-incidence. Perhaps the feeding of the 5000 was not supernatural at all, but an extraordinary act of sharing by the crowd, so that all were fed.

Mm. Perhaps. But perhaps those who try and explain these things away are missing the point. They try to make the miracles stories into some moral insight about humanity. They are explained as human actions, human misunderstandings, human gullibility. And in reducing the stories they make them unremarkable, hardly worth telling. Their difficulties lead them to make the account - and Jesus - too ordinary, too banal.

We can see this when we consider today’s Gospel in the light of others. For there is another occasion when Jesus is asked to perform a miracle with bread. Only on that occasion he refused. It was when he was tempted by the devil in the desert. Now why perform the miracle now, and not then?

We might suppose that the obvious reason is that Jesus refuses to turn a stone to bread to create a spectacle - but he willingly makes a little bread into much bread to feed the crowd.

But there is perhaps a much more important reason why he feeds the 5,000, but does not give in to the temptation in the wilderness. That is because the Devils tempts Jesus to Destroy - Destroy the Stone to conjure up the bread - while the miracle which Jesus willingly performs does not destroy nature, but multiplies it.

And this is always true. And this is what miracles are.

Jesus takes what we give him and makes more, much more. A little love is multiplied into great love. A little sorrow for our sins becomes an overflowing forgiveness. Our small talents and abilities become great with his help. Our simple prayers are joined to his all embracing will. Drops of olive oil convey his healing power. A little water is made the gateway to eternal life. Our gifts of bread and wine become his Body and Blood.

Christ takes our little offerings and makes them great. God does not destroy nature, but expands it and enhances it and glorifies it. As St Thomas Aquinas says “Grace perfects nature”.

The stone is not destroyed but the loaves and fish are much multiplied.
It is just like the words of the Christmas carol: 


“What can I give him, poor that I am,
if I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
What can I give him?
Give my heart.”


A small offering: a great reward.

Monday, July 20, 2015

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) : Homily / Sermon

As Jesus stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. (Mark 6:34)

Holiday written in the sand!

So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus and the Apostles go on holiday!
Just like the school children and the teachers and so many others, they set off for a bit of a break.

Last week, in the Gospel we heard about the urgent, almost frantic mission which Jesus gave to his apostles, to go out two by two, to preach to all who would listen, to move rapidly from place to place shaking the dust off their feet as they went. And now, the mission successfully completed, it is time to go off to a quiet place for a bit of relaxation. ‘You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while,’ Jesus says (Mark 6:31). Their mission had been a bit too successful, and they were pressed by the crowds, and just had to get away.

Except, of course, it all goes wrong. The crowd guess where they are going, and get there before them. And the work continues …

Of course, it won’t be the first holiday, the first break, to be disrupted or broken into. I don’t doubt there are many here who have had a long or short break disrupted by a family crisis, or unexpected visitors or a sudden need to attend to an urgent matter from work.

And nowadays, with the mobile phone, it is almost impossible to get away. Many years ago there used to be appeals on the radio: “Here is an urgent appeal for John Smith, last known to be holidaying in Norfolk, to contact the nearest police station, for important information …” Nowadays of course, you’d just get a text …

This kind of disruption is a particular risk for the priest, just as it was for the apostles. We live “over the shop” and are easy to find.

I remember once walking on the beach at Southport in Lancashire. Now if you know that lovely resort you will know that the beach is extensive, and you need to walk miles to reach the sea. It was a midweek break and I walk arm in arm with my wife, not a person in sight, then a voice, a child’s voice I think, rang out “Fr Peter!” I looked in every direction - but could see no one!

Of course, for many caring professionals, unlike priests, it IS possible to switch off from responsibilities, and have the calls diverted to someone else. The Doctor, the Lawyer, the Social Worker, (perhaps even the police officer!) can take a break, safe in the knowledge that someone else is looking after their caseload, and the urgent calls are forwarded elsewhere. The priest, however, is a bit different. Any priest can administer the sacraments, but parishioners often don’t want any priest, but their priest. And even when the priest is away he may be recognised, or be called upon to defend the faith in some way, or … like Jesus and the apostles in the Gospel, realise that there are people in need who are like sheep without a shepherd … it is impossible for a priest, a good priest, someone called by God to this caring ministry, just to walk away.

But of course - priests are not unique in this. Do not compare the priest to the Doctor, Lawyer, Social Worker, the “caring professional”. Compare the priest rather to the Mother, the Father, the Son or Daughter, the Brother or Sister, because … to misquote the story of the brothers Cain and Abel … I am my brother’s keeper. Family ties, can and do overrule holidays, and our own quiet time. … 

No - this is not a Gospel that teaches us about the caring professions, about high professional standards, at all. It is a Gospel which is about compassion, about mercy, about generosity, about love, love of our neighbour, even love of those who do not love us. It is about humanity, and about Christianity in which all are our brothers and sisters. Despite the words in todays readings about the Shepherds, this Gospel is not even about priesthood … But it is about what it means to be Church. About the mutual caring for one another, about valuing and nurturing every member of Christ’s flock.

And so, it is about Baptism. The Baptism we, all Christians share in Christ. Already a children of God through our humanity, we became one of the redeemed through baptism, one of his precious flock, a member of his family. We are joined together in the Unity of the Church, and also in its mission of compassion and love. Like the Apostles, following the example of Christ himself, we are called to care, beyond the responsibility of the moment, as a duty throughout life. May we always be blessed by God, and strengthened by his Grace to live out our responsibilities, as brothers and sisters in Christ.


At St Catherine’s, Birmingham at Sunday Mass 19 July 2015. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

15th Sunday of the Year (B) : Homily / Sermon

Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out … so they set off to preach repentance. (Mark 6:7,13)

Food bank

There’s been a lot of bad news in the press in the past few days. There always is, of course. Bad News always seems to be more interesting that Good News. But the past few weeks have been exceptional. There has been the terrible terrorist attack in Tunisia, and now the flying home of all British people who remain there. There has been the ongoing saga of the financial problems of Greece, and the extra-ordinary difficulties they are encountering by the closure of the banks and the shortages of medicines and other essential items. And this week there has been the considerable anxiety caused by the proposed changes in the budget and the pressure this will put especially on working families on low income. There will certainly be more need of, and more recourse to the food banks and other forms of assistance. Bad news all round.

So what would we think of as being “Good News”?

Well, we could think of many examples. Good news is the surprise lottery win, the announcement of a birth or a forthcoming marriage, being given the all clear, England winning the Ashes, (though not - this year at least, Wimbledon), getting the grades for a university place or success in a job interview. In many cases, these are the deserved results of our own efforts, yet in all of them Good News is also a pleasant surprise, a blessing, something that happens to us, it is gift, it is grace.

Today, we hear, Jesus sends out the Twelve in pairs to preach the Gospel. The Good News. [The word “Gospel” is a very old English word meaning “God’s word”, or “Good News”. It translates the Greek word ευανγελιον, “Good Message”, - from which we get the English “evangelist”, the name for the writer of the Gospels]

Yet what sort of Good News is this? To be sure, the Apostles come to give comfort and healing to the sick. Yet here, in this Gospel, the message is a hard one - one of repentance, contrition, sorrow for sins. It is not unremitting joy, at least not at first. It challenges us - something we have to do, and something which is painful - to admit our own fault, to confess our sins, to acknowledge our failures, our impatience, our dishonesty, our unkindnesses and cruelties. It might be necessary - but how can this be a message to preach. How can this be Gospel? How can this be Good News?

Well it can - it is - of course it is - because what the Twelve are sent out to preach with such urgency is not the wickedness of the world, not the darkness of man’s inhumanity to man, not financial crisis or hardship - but greatness of God’s mercy.

They move from house to house and place to place rapidly, wasting no time with those who do not want to here because they are there not to condemn but to give the offer of a Great Gift, the Gift of Forgiveness, a Gift which is freely given by God to everyone who embraces it, and this gift heals minds and hearts, casts out anxiety and soothes infirmity.

It is a Gift that is easily refused, yet easy to accept. Because all we need to do to receive this great gift of God, the Gift of Forgiveness, the Gift of Healing, the Gift of Peace - is to accept that we need to be forgiven, we need to be healed, we need to welcome into our troubled hearts this promise of Peace.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) : Homily / Sermon

“A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house” (Mark 6:4)

Eva Cassidy, who died in 1996, and because world famous some 4 years later

Fame is a fickle thing. It comes and goes. It damns but rarely blesses. So called “reality” TV shows make celebrities of people who have really done nothing apart from appeared on such programmes.
Fame celebrates not achievement, or merit, or even notoriety, but simply fame itself. And it recedes, like a great wave, even more quickly than it arrived.

Fame can lead to both adulation and rejection. As we hear in today’s Gospel, when Jesus returns to his home town, his fame works against him.

Yet fame has always been much a matter of chance - capricious, volatile and variable. Great figures of history - as we reckon them - were not necessarily great in their own time. Shakespeare was one playwright amongst many. Van Gogh died in poverty. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was unknown in his lifetime. The war poetry of Wilfrid Owen too, was mostly published after his death. The singer Eva Cassidy, who died in 1996, became an international star about 4 years later and had 3 numbers ones from recordings not released in her lifetime. Many other popular musicians performers have gained great fame, greater fame after their deaths than in their lives.

And it works the other way too. There are composers, authors, political figures who were giant while they were alive, but who are now barely remembered. And I guess, if we dig deep we may remember some of these, who are now hardly noted. There is even a website - - dedicated to forgotten celebrities. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since 2003 - which probably says it all!

And of course, even in life, in the present moment, the line between celebrity and anonymity is very thin. Those who knew famous people before they were famous are often able to say how unremarkable they were. Ordinary. Unassuming.

In today’s Gospel it is something of this which Jesus experiences. “A prophet is only despised in his own country” he remarks. His own people lacked faith. They knew him a little too well. He was no one great, they said, no one extraordinary. What on earth is all this we have heard about him? He is one of us. The carpenter. The son of Mary. One of us.

And of course, without realising it they hit the nail on the head. He is one of us. He was born amongst us. He lives with us. He works with us. He shares our sorrows and our joys. He carries our sins and our sufferings. He celebrates alongside us. He turns our water into wine, and our mourning into hope. He is part of our families, part of our lives.

The Ordinariness of Christ, and his relative insignificance in his own time, is precisely the most important thing about him.

This is expressed so well in this famous passage

One solitary life ...

He was born in an obscure village 
The child of a peasant woman 
He grew up in another obscure village 
Where he worked in a carpenter’s shop 
Until he was thirty 
He never wrote a book 
He never held an office 
He never went to college 
He never visited a big city 
He never travelled more than two hundred miles 
From the place where he was born 
He did none of the things 
Usually associated with greatness 
He had no credentials but himself 
He was only thirty three 
His friends ran away 
One of them denied him 
He was turned over to his enemies 
And went through the mockery of a trial 
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves 
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing 
The only property he had on earth 
When he was dead 
He was laid in a borrowed grave 
Through the pity of a friend
Twenty centuries have come and gone.
All the armies that have ever marched 
All the navies that have ever sailed 
All the parliaments that have ever sat 
All the kings that ever reigned put together 
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth 
As powerfully as that one solitary life 

God shares and touches and embraces our lives. The one who made everything, who made us, is one of us. He is with us.