Sunday, 26 October 2008

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 22:34-40
We’ve just heard what is almost certainly the most simple and yet beautiful of all the Commandments of our religions: To love, to love God and to love our neighbour.
Yet, people sometimes say that this seems vague.

So, I want to offer a brief thought on one of the connections between loving God and loving our neighbour. In particular, to comment on how to make this command specific, precisely because people say, “Oh, that’s nice, but ‘love’ is rather a vague concept”.
When we think about what it means, specifically, to love God, then we can think of a number of specific commandments:
To attend Mass each and every Sunday, because it’s THE prayer he left us, “Do THIS in memory of me”;
To pray to Him every day;
To never curse or abuse His holy name;
To always seek His forgiveness each time we sin, and in seeking His forgiveness to resolve to never sin again.

But, in many things, it can seem like the specific commandments, the specific obligations that we owe to God in Himself are relatively few.
In practice, if we want to know what God is asking of us, what He is commanding us, we need to look to our neighbour.
Our neighbour has been made in the image and likeness of God, and Scripture tells us that loving God means loving our neighbour.
“If any one says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”(1Jn4:20)

So we need to constantly ask ourselves whether we see God in our neighbour, and whether we hear the commandments of God in the needs of our neighbour –because this is how God frequently and specifically communicates His commandments to us.

When a child is behaving in an obnoxious manner, and the parent feels the anger welling up inside him, he needs to think: the image of God is inside this child, God is commanding me to respond to him with love. God has made that child in His image in such a way that the child can be loved in a way that a plant or an animal cannot be loved. And, in particular, in specifying the general command to love, the child’s very obnoxiousness is the specific command calling to the parent.
When your mother or father is asking you to do something, you need to remember: the image of God is in my mother and father and the command to love God means to love them and love them in the very thing they are asking me to do.
When the car driver in front of me is going is a steady 30 in a 60 zone, the command to love the image of God in him commands that I put a restraint on my impatience.
And when I’m at my wit’s end because my computer screen has frozen from the 30th time in ten minutes, and then, at that minute, three people call me on the phone, then the command to love God means that each one of those callers gets to be treated as what he or she is: someone made in the Lord’s image, and I must put aside how I’m feeling about something else.

It is often not easy to love my neighbour, he can seem to be a rival to my time and energy –do I satisfy his needs or mine?
But if I can remember that my neighbour is in the image of God, and if I can remember what God has done for me and that he deserves to have me love Him, then I can acquire an additional motive for loving my neighbour, loving the image of God in my neighbour –remembering that God loves this person and so should I.

To return to my initial thought: loving God can seem like a vague concept. But if we recall that God has made my neighbour in His image, then the specific ways I must love God are very often manifestly precisely in my neighbour.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Isa 45:1.4-6; Mt 22:15-21
I want to say a few words about Gordon Brown. This week Mr Brown has been hailed as the “saviour of the world” and he is not the first political leader to be hailed as such, and his rescue plan for the banks may indeed prove to be a great act.
This month, however, will also be when Mr Brown forces through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that will extend experimentation on embryos –increasing the treatment of them as objects and commodities.
While political authorities sometimes receive our praise and admiration, sometimes hero-worship, they often also incur our wrath, our hatred, our scorn.
Today’s readings encourage us to ponder the proper way to relate to them.

Our first reading referred to the mighty leader Cyrus. Like Mr Brown, Cyrus was hailed by some as the saviour of the world. In particular, he was hailed as the saviour of the Jewish people –which is kind of curious because he wasn’t a Jew and wasn’t particularly concerned about the Jews. Cyrus the Great was emperor of Persia when the Jews were slaves in exile in the Babylonian Captivity. Cyrus conquered the Babylonians and when he did so he let the Jews return to Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, and be restored as a people in their Promised Land.
None of this was because of any special concern he had for the Jews, rather, it was how he treated all people had been previously enslaved by the Babylonians. Yet, Scripture speaks of Cyrus as a great saviour, as the Lord’s “anointed” one, His instrument of salvation.

The Church gives us the reading from Isaiah about Cyrus the same Sunday it gives the Gospel text about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s. The connection is that both can be seen as God’s instruments, instruments of His rule –which is kind of remarkable because both were fairly brutal men, not known for their virtue. In particular, with respect to the Jews, the Roman Caesars had been violent and harsh in the subjecting them. Yet, Scripture speaks of them as somehow being instruments of God’s rule. We are called upon, as St. Peter’s epistle states, “Fear God and honour the emperor”(1 Pet 2:17), to ‘Honour’ the emperor who, in many things, has done evil.

This can seem an odd teaching. And many have accused Scripture of being naive, naively offering support for government that can be abused when government is bad. However, if we remember the context they were living in, a context when government was almost ASSUMED to be tyrannical, it is actually a teaching that is very far removed from naivety –rather, it’s a teaching that faces a difficult double truth –the truth that the need for government is a basic human need, and that any particular government will do some things we do not support, sometimes very serious things.

Now, when I was young, I used to something of an anarchist, or, really, a Libertarian (which is an anarchist trying to sound clever). I thought that all government was wrong, or at best an evil to tolerated, that all property was theft, and that taxes were government stealing from the people.
But the truth I have come to realise is that we need government. We are not isolated privatised individuals. We are socials beings and anything humans do involves interaction, that interaction needs coordination, and that government is a part of what it means to be human. And this is what the Church’s social teaching teaches us today.

Our need for government means that we must respect those who govern; that unless a tax is so manifestly improper that it is immoral then we must pay our taxes and not cheat on our tax returns; that we must we heard Jesus say, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”.

The Jews accepted the pagan emperor Cyrus, and Jesus accepted the pagan rule of Caesar, because both recognised that someone must rule.
While it may not make for an exciting conclusion to a sermon, respect is owed. Gordon Brown is not the “Saviour of the World”, someone else before us in the Tabernacle holds that title! Mr Brown has enacted many policies contrary to the law of God, but, he is Prime Minister which means he deserves to have us treat him as such. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

Sunday, 12 October 2008

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 22:1-14; Isa 25:6-10; Phil 4:12-20
Some of my weeks are very eventful, and some of my weeks I wish were a little less eventful, and this last week was an eventful one.
By Tuesday my ‘to do’ list for the month seemed it had become too long to be manageable;
On Wednesday I realise that the Icelandic bank with my savings had declared itself insolvent;
On Thursday by car broke down on the A303 at 11pm in the dark;
And on Friday I wondered what was going to happen next –live seemed pretty uncertain!
I say this, in part, because I know that this has been an uncertain week for many people, including many of you –stock market worries mean that pensions and jobs are all causes for concern.

So I turned on Friday to our readings, to prepare a homily for you.
I normally look at the readings and start thinking about them on Monday;
And I realised that if I had done that THIS Monday my experience of the week would have been different. My bank would still be insolvent and my car would still be broken down, but my EXPERIENCE of these events would have been different.

The prophecy in our first reading from Isaiah is of the Messianic banquet that God will prepare. Our Gospel had Jesus, the Messiah, give a parable telling how ALL people will be invited –even though we have to get ourselves ready by holy lives (thus the allusion to the need of white weddings garments).
The Messianic banquet is the standard Scriptural image of the happiness of Heaven –a place where every present need will taken care of, where every present difficulty will be ended.
This is the promise of “pie in the sky”. It’s a promise that is mocked by sceptics and attacked by Marxists as delusional. And, it must be said, if there is no ‘pie in the sky’ then the promise of it is a great injustice.

However, if there IS a Messianic banquet then it does change many things: Why is it that my present worries distress me? In part, because they are real problems. But more fundamentally, because I begin to fear that they will never end. That these problems will only be replaced by other problems, and those by yet more problems –and HOW can I go on?
The promise of Heaven changes this by telling us of a time and place where this chain of problems will DEFINITIVELY end. “The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek”(Isa 25:8). And if I know that there WILL be an end to my problems them it radically changes my ability to confront them.
My knowledge of Heaven IS knowledge and not mere fantasy because He who is the greatest authority, the greatest source of fact, has died and returned from the dead and told me it is so.

Of course, none of this makes my present difficulties vanish –Jesus did not promise us an easy ride. But, as we heard from St Paul, He did promise to be with us on the way and help us on the way. Thus St Paul says, “There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength”, and with this help St Paul is able to calmly if not joyfully say, “I know how to be poor and know how to be rich too” (Phil 4:12).

My car has now been repaired. The government now tells me my savings are, somehow, guaranteed. Many items on my ‘to do’ list are less vital than I sometimes tell myself. And I feel a little calmer about life.
But if I had started my week with a clearer focus on my destination, on Heaven, then I would have remembered in each problem that these problems will not last forever, they will end. And, if I have been good, if I appear before the Lord in a “wedding garment” fit for the banquet, then this vale of tears will open up to the bright promise of immortality.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Harvest Festival, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 21:33-43; Phil 4:6-9
We’re keeping Harvest Festival today, which means that someone today is almost certain to accuse me of being an Anglican. I don’t often get accused of being an Anglican, but ‘harvest festivals’ are often seen as stereotypically Anglican affairs. But, if it’s a good idea –why not run with it? This is a rural area, we have farmers and plenty of farms in our parish, so it makes sense.

In our offertory today we’re offering fruits of the harvest.
In our Gospel parable today, we heard of a vineyard: a vineyard where the tenants who worked on the farm were expected to render to the owner the fruits of the harvest.
These are both reminders that we owe it all back to God.

Now, sometimes, to hear it said that everything comes from God and we owe everything back to God can seem like we lose out, like we’re worse off for realising this truth, and we’d be better off denying it and hording it all for ourselves.
-and I want to say something about that.
Because, to acknowledge God as the source of all good things is also to have Him to turn to, to help when things don’t seem so good.
For farmers, this has been a wet summer, and has meant a poor harvest for many.
For the economy in general, results seem shaky and the future seems unsure.

What then do we do when we feel we have less to thank God for? When we don’t even feel in the mood for thanksgiving?
We have a choice: complain about what we don’t have, or, thank God for what we DO have.
To thank God for what we do have, even when it is less, is an important thing to do.
It’s important because we OWE thanks to Him.
But it’s also important because to thank Him for the little we might have reminds us that it is TO HIM that we can turn in our desire for more.
St Paul reminded us in our second reading: “if there is anything you need, pray for it” (Phil 4:6).
-we can only do that if recall what we recall when we give thanks: that He is Lord.

Giving thanks in our labours, when we labour under difficulty, is also important precisely when we WORK in difficulty:
Often when we work it seems like we labour alone –and this is major part of why we tell ourselves that the harvest belongs to ME.
But if we are giving thanks to Him for the results of our labours then it helps us remember that we do NOT labour alone, He labours at our side, His grace labours IN us –if we will but call on Him and let Him.
-giving thanks is an important way of remembering that and making it happen.

Two other brief things to recall today:
(i) Every autumn we’re called on to have a particular fast on a Friday, and I’d encourage you to do that this Friday. To help spiritualise the harvest, to recall those hungry:
(ii) Our retiring collection, as we recxall those without food.

So as we think of the harvest today, let us recall that we do not labour alone, that we labour in His vineyard and with His help, and as we offer fruits of the harvest to Him let us thank to God for them