Friday, August 28, 2015

22nd Sunday of the Year (B) : Homily / Sermon

This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless (Mark 7:6-7)


What is worship really all about? 

It is a sad fact that while worship can often inspire us, it at just as much infuriate us. 

Pope Francis, in his letter “The Joy of the Gospel” made it very clear that worship can sometimes become an obstacle to faith as much a window into it. 

“There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter,” he says. Lives, and worship which may be earnest, but is also dour, bland and uninspiring. 

The long and dreary sermons. The awkwardness of the priest. Familiar hymns with unfamiliar tunes. And familiar tunes with unfamiliar words. The new translation. Latin. The lack of Latin. Modern music and clapping. Traditional music and starchiness. Talking in Church. And people who tut when you greet a friend. 

I could easily go on. 

And there are those, of course, who are very concerned  that things must be done correctly. According to the Churches rules. Without variation. 

It can lead to the accusation that the Catholic Church  is just like the Pharisees who Jesus attacks in the Gospel. 

And of course the accusers might be right.  The faith is not at all about how many candles you have on the altar, how much incense you use, whether mass is celebrated in Latin or not, how colourful and valuable the vestments are and so on. The beauty of the liturgy, the splendour of the music, and even the language used can become gods in themselves. If they do, then we fall into Jesus’ condemnation - lip service, worthless worship. 

But of course, it is not just the old mass or the high mass which can go this way. The number of choruses sung, the quality of the sound system or video projector, the number of guitars or flutes, the height of the hands raised in worship - all these can become over-important too. 

The person who claims that elaborate and beautiful worship falls under the condemnation of this Gospel is missing the point. The question about what is the right way of worship is just not the same question as whether that worship is lip-service or not. 

The test of our worship is the meaningfulness of the words. 

Will we forgive those who trespass against us? Are we truly sorry for our sins? Will we leave Church to glorify the Lord with our lives? 

Worship becomes worthless, Jesus tells us, when the heart is not in it - or rather, when the heart is not in God himself. Our words become empty when the focus is on human desires, not divine purposes. 

And the measure of true worship is not the quality of the ceremony, impressive and inspiring though that may be, but the song sung by the charity, the mercy and the love of those whose worship is their lives.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) : Homily / Sermon

‘This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?’ (John 6:60)

NewImageSome people love a good argument and others don’t. Some find it exciting and exhilarating. Others feel uncomfortable at the conflict generated. ‘Why can’t we all get on?’ they would say. ‘Why can’t we just agree to differ? Live and let live?’

But part of the problem is that we are in danger of losing the distinction between an argument and a row. You see a row is just a shouting match, when one person tries to overpower and defeat the other. It is a battle between two opposing forces, in which the stronger (or louder) may prevail. The thing about a row is that everyone is speaking, but no one is listening.

Actually an argument is very different. An argument is a reasoned series of points, propositions, which lead to a conclusion. When two people argue, they listen to one another, pick through the strengths and weaknesses of the points made, and try to come to a conclusion, a result, some kind of agreement.

And the difference between the two is that the row is about the struggle for power, while the argument is about the search for truth. If you are struggling for power, there is no need to listen, because your aim is to defeat the other side, to overcome, to be victorious.

In today’s Gospel, the followers who left Jesus did so because they heard his words but did not listen to them.

In John's Gospel, these words follow Jesus' teaching about the mass, about eating his body and blood. But they might just as well refer to any of his teaching. The point is that some of his listeners, many of his listeners, find this teaching hard, and difficult, and unacceptable.

They became set against him. We see here the seeds of the conflict that will lead to his arrest, his suffering, his death.

Truth always challenges, often offends. It may be comforting, but it can also be uncomfortable. It encounters rejection and conflict and even hostility. And there is a great temptation to play down the hard words, the intolerable language - to agree to differ, to live and let live - but Truth can never be silent, because Truth which is hidden is buried in the dark.

Argument is better than Conflict - in the famous words of Churchill “Jaw Jaw is always better than War War” - but to avoid conflict may be to strangle the Truth.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Assumption of Our Lady • Homily / Sermon

He has looked upon his lowly handmaid (Luke 1:48)


Time and Time again in scripture we read a small insignificant people who make an enormous impact. There is David, who defeats Goliath! There is also the story of Gideon who defeats the Midianites with just a small band of people. There is Elijah, the only prophet of the Lord left, who nevertheless overcomes the many prophets of Baal. The prophet Jeremiah too, risks his own safety and loses his liberty, by speaking out against the king and his counsellors.
And Mary, too, is placed before us as one of these small and insignificant people who has such an important place in God's plan.

People often notice this about Our Lady. Scripture tells us very little about her. Mark’s Gospel tells us little more than her name. There is not much more in St Matthew. St John’s Gospel includes the accounts of some important events - most notably the turning of the water in wine at Cana in Galilee, and as she stands at the foot of the cross. But it is St Luke’s Gospel - which we hear today - and the beginning of the Acts of Apostles - which Luke also wrote - which tell us the most. She is mentioned rarely during Jesus’ ministry; at the foot of the cross she stands with the disciple John; and on the day of Pentecost, she is at prayer with the disciples. Many of the other details which have come down to us about Our Lady - that her parents were called Joachim and Anne, that her last home on earth was with St John in Ephesus, have been handed down through tradition, not scripture. 

On the face of it then, Mary did little and achieved little. No real great claim to fame here, perhaps. Few accomplishments. Little to make a fuss about. 

But of course we do not need long stories, many details. She is the one who is blessed because she believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled. She is full of God’s grace. She is our Mother in the Faith. Her honour comes not so much from what she did - because what she did was so very simple - but from who she is. She lived her calling to the full and at the end of her life was gathered up by her Son to share the fullness of his life.
And we can say more - because Mary's story does not end with her entry into heaven - it begins here. 
Though she is mentioned only on selected occasions in the Gospels, and we know very few of her words, yet she has dominated the art, the music and the faith of the world for centuries. She has sometimes been the centre of disputes amongst Christians, but she has also been at the heart of the inspiration and devotion of so many. Catholics and Orthodox unite in calling her Mother of God. Protestant Christians recognise her importance in the Christian story. Even the Koran devotes several chapters to her. 

We could summarise all this  in theological terms, and say that she has a crucial role in the story of salvation, she is the closest human person to Our Lord himself in this life and the next, she most certainly dwells with God. That, in a nutshell, is more or less what is meant by the Assumption, which we celebrate today. 

But we could also put it in a more human, personal way. Mary is always about meeting, about encounter: look at the Gospels - the Annunciation, when she is greeted by the angel; the Visitation, when she greets her cousin Elisabeth; the Crucifixion, when Jesus greets her from the Cross; the day of Pentecost, then and after, when she prays with the Apostles ... and Lourdes and elsewhere, when she greets Bernadette and others. 

Mary is special because she meets us and we meet her - in special places and in our prayers. She is one of us, she is with us, and she dwells in the heart of her Son, as he dwells in her heart. 

Through her, the lowly handmaid,  heaven came down to earth - and with her we share the life of heaven. 

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

19th Sunday of the Year (B) : Homily / Sermon

This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that a man may eat it and not die. (John 6:50)

Contraband cheese, bulldozed in Russia

Food is more than just food.

Food is politics.
I was reading just this morning of massive destructions of contraband food being shown on Russian television. Since their action in Ukraine, the governments of Europe and elsewhere have put sanctions against Russia. It has led to great shortages of foodstuffs in Russia, and so created a lucrative black market - and so to make a great show of the resilience and power of the Russian state, despite the hardships being ensured by the people, smuggled foodstuffs are being publicly destroyed. It is unpopular and impractical. 285,000 people in Russia have signed a petition in protest. But this is politics. Food is politics. And politics is more important than hunger. 

Food is also big business.

Our supermarkets sell food of amazing variety, some of which has been flown in from all parts of the world. Television programmes showcase cooks and recipes. Books and magazines give recipes, advice and wonderful photos of culinary creations. Restaurants and take aways provide meals and snacks to suit every possible taste and level of hunger. There is even a huge business surrounding advice, support groups and products to enable people to eat less and lose weight - weight that they have put on from enjoying food in the first place.

And this is true even in the midst of a financial hardship.

Yet in our affluent society, we tend to lose sight of the most basic fact: that we eat to live, we need food for survival. Without food we will wither, weaken, and die. Food is our fuel and our energy. Well nourished human beings grow and flourish.

Our daily bread is a necessity for life.

Yet notice this - this necessity, this survival is never quite enough for us. We embellish it, decorate it, celebrate it. We could live, survive, on astronaut’s food, tablets, pills, vitamins, but we don’t unless it is a medical necessity. We could live, survive in solitary confinement. But we don’t - unless we are forced to. We want much more - we need more.

The way in which we treat food is itself a proof to us of what we are and what we are called to be. We do not live on bread alone, because we give meaning and purpose to the basic things we do. We do not simply reproduce, but we love. We do not simply communicate, but we converse. We do not simply learn in order to work, but we learn to grow. When we read, we don’t do so just to follow directions, but to think and reflect and to pray. We don’t just look at pictures, but we admire art. All the basic things we do, things we need to do to survive, point us beyond our survival to the celebration of beauty and joy and love. They point us to truth. They lead us to heaven. They point us to God, to Christ, the bread of life come down from heaven.

They instruct us that there is more than just physical survival: there is a bread which we can eat which leads to eternal life.