Sunday, 28 September 2008

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 21:28-32

You’ll sometimes hear people say, “I just can’t help myself”.
Now, this phrase is used about a great many things. It might be said while eating not the first but the THIRD chocolate ├ęclair, “I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help myself”.
Or maybe while sitting slobbed out on the couch, “I know I should get up and do some exercise, but I just can’t help myself”.

But it’s also used about more serious things, “I know I should help my wife more, but I just can’t help myself”; or, “I know I should be more patient, but I just can’t help myself”.

I imagine many of us here have used this phrase many times, and maybe not that long ago.
And like all aspects of our lives, it’s good to measure it against the standard of the Gospel –what would Jesus do?
Well, we know Jesus was God, and that even though He suffered and had His moments of exhaustion, he was nonetheless sinless. So to ask, what would Jesus do, is obvious, he wouldn’t do what we do, he’d do better. He wouldn’t say, “I just can’t help myself”.

The REAL question, however, is what would Jesus expect US to do? What DOES He expect us to do?
Because there is a mistaken view of human sinfulness that says we are powerless before sin, that says we can’t do better, that says, “I just can’t help myself”.

If we say we can’t do better, then we make Christ’s call for us to repent and change meaningless. We say that His death of Cross is powerless to save us, powerless to win us the grace we need to do better –and that is the important point.
We sometimes think that our good deeds are done my our own power, but they’re not, they’re done by HIS power –but that’s the good thing, because it means His power is available for us to rise in other things too, to do those things that truly LOOK like they are beyond us. They might be beyond us, alone, but they are not beyond Him.

Jesus gave us a very simple example in today’s parable. A son, a good for nothing son, was asked a simple thing, to go into the vineyard, and he said no. He just couldn’t help himself. He didn’t offer any excuse, he just couldn’t help himself.
BUT, after, he “thought better of it and went” –and that is sign to all of us that it is possible to ‘think better of it’ and do what we haven’t yet done, to live how we haven’t yet lived, to live better.
Don’t we each have times we can recall when we ended up being better, doing better, than we said or thought we would –we were more generous, or patient etc.

St Paul tells us elsewhere how the words of the Lord came to him when he felt powerless, “My grace is sufficient for thee” (2 Cor 12:9). And Scripture repeats this promise to each of US, many times in many ways: His grace is sufficient for me and sufficient for you too.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to be good,
it doesn’t mean you won’t fall many times while trying to rise,
but He does give us what we need –what we need to be good.
God asks us, commands us, to be good. And God does not ask us to do what He will not give us the grace to achieve –what we need is: to let go of our self, trust in Him and His grace, and so act.

None of us need to say, “I just can’t help myself”, because with the Lord, we can do ALL that He asks of us: we can be more considerate to our spouses, we can even be saints, and we certainly resist that third chocolate ├ęclair.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Isa 55:6-9; Mt 20:1-16
I was called to Dorchester hospital last week to give the Last Rites to someone, and it’s always a great honour for a priest to do that: to prepare someone to go to meet the Lord. To hear someone’s confession and absolve him of his sins; to anoint him to be healed of the ultimate wound, namely death itself, healed in that: grace can overcome death so that death is not a disaster but is instead the entry into eternal life.

Sometimes, I’m called to someone who has lived a long life in close union with the Lord –and that’s a pleasure to behold.
But other times, I’m called to someone who has wandered, wandered long and far from the path of God. Someone who, at the last minute, reaches out and calls for the priest, and, actually that’s something that can be an even greater pleasure for a priest. It can be a living example of the truth Christ taught that, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick... I came not to call the righteous but sinners, to repentance” (Mt 12:13).

Now, this raises a curious question of justice, the one we heard Jesus addressing in today’s parable (Mt 20:1-16). The parable had those who worked only the last hour of the day rewarded just as those who had worked the whole day, ‘under the heat of the sun’.
And it would be possible for me to raise a similar complaint against those who seek a last-minute return to the Lord. I could say that I have made no dramatic wanderings into sin in MY life; I have ALWAYS been a Mass-going Catholic. Why should someone who last showed his face at Mass 50 years ago get eternal salvation too?
While this complaint gets phrased in different ways, it’s a common one, and it deserves addressing.

Well, before I or any of you feel self-righteous about some sinner making a last minute dash for salvation, we need to recall what is true of EACH of us:
I too have sinned. I too stand in need of God’s forgiveness. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (Jn 8:7).
Forgiveness is God’s gift and receivers of gifts cannot complain about who they are given to or that someone else gets a bigger gift. As Jesus said of his giving forgiveness: “Why be envious because I am generous?”(Mt 20:16)

We also need to remember that repentance IS possible and CAN be genuine –this is what Christians are expected to believe!
Sometimes people are suspicious of other people’s sincerity in repenting because they think that change isn’t really possible –but Jesus came because it IS possible -He came that by His death and saving grace it might BECOME possible.

People sometimes talk as if they were afraid that someone might be about to ‘cheat’ God by getting to Heaven with a death-bed conversion. And in this, we need to remember that God is no fool. If we fear that someone might be getting into Heaven by a fake death-bed confession, well, God knows the difference between a phony repentance and a genuine one. A true repentance wishes to have never sinned, says that if he could go back he would not do what he did. You can fool the priest, and the priest typically gives people the benefit of the doubt –but you cannot fool God.

But there is a final point to address: People sometimes complain about a death-bed conversion as if they resented the fact that they themselves had been virtuous, as if they had ‘missed out’ by being good. They’ve missed out on all the fun of sinning and yet they think they’ll be no better off that the ones who did the fun sinning –and this seems to be behind the notion that “it’s not fair”.
But people who make genuine death-bed conversions often give the clearest counter-witness to this, they often have a KEEN sense that THEIRS is the wasted life.
Sin has its attractions, and at a puerile level it can seem more fun, but sin does not satisfy. It is an empty life.
And, if we resent that we’ve been living a virtuous life while others have been sinning, then we probably haven’t really been living a virtuous life –we’ve got something seriously wrong in the motivation and manner we’ve been living it. Even though the good life has its difficulties, its moments when it feels like we are ‘labouring under the heat of day’, nonetheless, the good life is a GOOD life, and we’re better off for having lived it –better off even in THIS life.

And, of course, none of us is as good as we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we are: We ALL need that last-minute conversion. The basic point is that God is ALWAYS ready to welcome us home, no matter how late we return. What matters is that we DO return, and that is why I as a priest am happy to be always waiting at the end of the telephone: God is always ready to welcome the repentant sinner.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Exultation of the Holy Cross, Shaftesbury

Phil 2:6-11

Today’s feast of the exultation of the Holy Cross might seem a little odd, especially to the outside world: today we honour and celebrate Jesus being killed on the Cross.
So it’s important to recall a few things about why this is important to do.

First, we need to do it just to remember that it happened. I can remember, when I was child, I had a non-Christian friend come around to the house and I can remember him seeing my crucifix on the wall, and he looked at it like something new. He said, “Is that how they killed him?”
He didn’t know who Jesus was and he didn’t know how Jesus died.
If we don’t recall the crucifix then Christ will also be stranger to us we will forget how he died.
When a friend does something or us we should remember it. Many of us I’m sure can remember debts of various kinds we owe to others.
And Jesus, our best friend, died for us, and we need to remember that
-and that is the first and foremost reason to celebrate the exultation of the Holy Cross.

But we also celebrate this feast to help us more deeply understand WHO Jesus is.
The disciples who followed Jesus around 200 years ago in Palestine THOUGHT they knew Jesus, but they didn’t really, they only PARTIALLY knew Him.
Though many of them grasped that He was the Messiah, they didn’t understand what that meant. They frequently thought of Him as a WORLDLY leader, with worldly power. And so even at the end of the gospels we find them asking, “Lord, will you NOW restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

Jesus, however, in order to be REALLY known, wanted to be known from the Cross. There were many times when He told people NOT to make Him known as the Messiah –why? Because He could only be FULLY known as what He was on the Cross:
On the Cross we see power seeking to be service to others;
On the Cross we see love pouring itself out in sacrifice;
On the Cross we see suffering proving the depth of that love.

And because we know of the Resurrection, we know that all of this was what He had the power to stop, the power to resist, we know that He is and was truly God and that the Cross was not weakness overcome but power choosing to be weakness for the sake of others, for the sake of us.
Read from the second reading (Philippians 2:6-11):
“The state of Jesus Christ was divine, YET he did not cling to his equality with God
but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are;
and being as all men are, he was humbler yet,
even to accepting death, death on a cross.”

It is only if we regularly look to the crucifix, if we regularly exalt the Cross in our minds as we do on this feast day, that we will remember WHO He truly is.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Rm 13:8-10
Catholics sometimes have a reputation for being a little smug in looking down on our non-Catholic brethren. While there is a genuine sense in which the See of Rome does stand above the others, nonetheless, smugness is not a virtue. And I’d have to confess to having been guilty of smugness at times, and I’m reminded of that in particular whenever I hear the Ten Commandments as we just did in our second reading from Romans, because it reminds me of an incident in the seminary.

Some of you may recall that there was a survey done of clergymen in the Church in England that showed that the vast majority of them did not know the Ten Commandments! That survey came out while I was in seminary, and I can remember a group of us sitting around and laughing about it –laughing about the Church of England. And we laughed for quite a while. We laughed, that is, until someone asked, “What are the Ten Commandments?”
-and I’m afraid to say that a rather long silence followed. It turned out that not one of the 6 of us could list the Ten Commandments. Even worse, even when we clubbed together, we could only come up with 9 –and I think a couple of those were bogus!

Now, why am I telling you this? Because I suspect what was true of my friends is also true of many of us here today:
It is very easy to think that the world outside has forgotten about what right and wrong are, that we are Catholics and we know.
But we live in this world, and it influences and corrupts the way we think –it reduces our own capacity to tell right from wrong. That means we need to continually be striving to think straight –to think as good Christians, to look to Christ and what His Scriptures and His Church teaches, to look to Christ and not to Oprah Winfrey or the BBC.
If I asked you all to take out a pen and paper and write out the Ten Commandments, how would you score? And if Christ asked you 20 questions about specific rights and wrongs in your own life, are you confident you’d know what he asks of you this day?

As Christians, we know that Christ asks us to love. Few people in our society would disagree with that. We just heard St Paul reiterate the command to love and tell us that love sums up all the commands. So why do we need to know the commandments?

Its important to note that it was AFTER St Paul said that love fulfilled ALL obligations that he then re-listed the Ten Commandments. He did this because we need to know what love looks like –love has a form and a structure. There are certain things that are in accordance with authentic love and certain things that are opposed to it.
Love is not just a vague fuzzy feeling, love makes demands, and those demands are specific.
As Catholics, in particular, we hold that love and WISDOM must go together in order for love to be true love, otherwise love is not GOOD love.
The Ten Commandments itemised the essential structure of love, the skeleton all other commandments relate to:
The 10th Commandment is to not covet your neighbour’s goods, and all sins of envy and greed are subdivisions of that.
The 6th Commandment is to not commit adultery, and various sins against chastity and purity are subdivisions of that. And so forth.
Love has a structure and we need to use our REASON and the wisdom of Christ if we are to know it.

As I started by saying: I smugly made jokes about other people forgetting the 10 Commandments not realising that I too had forgotten them. I was influenced by the world around me, and so are you. If we would know what true love is then we need to remember the Ten Commandments.

1. I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me;
2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain;
3. Honour the Sabbath
4. Honour you father and mother;
5. You shall not murder;
6. You shall not commit adultery;
7. You shall not steal;
8. You shall not bear false witness;
9. You shall not covet you neighbour’s wife;
10. You shall not cover your neighbour’s goods.