Sunday, 30 October 2011

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

on Mt 23:1-12
One of the cattiest insults that can be hurled at us is the accusation that we, that you or that I, are "two-faced". That what I say to one person is not the same as what I say to someone else. That I pretend to some people to be one thing, and I pretend to other people to be something else. And, of course, one way of being two-faced is being a hypocrite -not living out the beliefs that I pretend to. Hypocrisy is something that the Lord condemned very frequently, as we just heard an example.

The opposite of being two-faced is being one-faced. Having one face, my real face. And this one face being the same face that I show to everyone. It is the same face because it is the face that reveals the same real me.
To achieve that, my life needs to be a consistent unity. I must be the same person in everything that I do. I can't pretend to be one kind of person when I'm doing one thing, or with one group of people, and really be something else.
Which means that I must strive to possess the virtue of integrity.

To consider for a moment what that would look like in practice:
Although I must be the same person in everything that I do, this doesn’t mean that I cannot do different things. I can be the same consistent person and still act differently in different situations. In a hospital I must be able to rejoice with the mother of a new baby, and still be able, the next minute, to be sad with someone who has just lost a loved relative, and, yet I must also be the same person who enjoys a drink in the pub.

I can do different thing in different places, as the need calls for. But I am still called to be the same person in all the different things that I do.
I am called to be a WHOLE person.
The alternative is to have a split personality, one face on Sunday, another face the rest of the week. To be a person that is made up of several conflicting parts that only just about hang together. And in as much as that it true of us it produces internal conflict. Conflict arising from the different needs of the different personalities within me. It produces stress. Stress that arises from our insincerity, our lack of integrity.
So, being insincere is bad for us.

Conversely, by seeking sincerity, I am not only obeying our Lord's command to practice what I preach, I am also acting for my own good.
When I am consistently the same person, rather than several different people inside me, then I will be naturally rewarded with peace of soul. The kind of internal peace that was enjoyed by Jesus Christ, and by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Peace that results from the absence of sin. Peace that results from the absence of hypocrisy, from not being two-faced.

This internal peace is a gift that we can only receive from Jesus Christ. As He said to His disciples, "Peace I leave you, my own peace I give you, a peace which the world cannot give"(Jn 14:27). The peace of Jesus comes with the gift of His grace. Grace which makes us a whole united person. Which binds together the conflicting parts within us. Making us one person, with one face.

So, in as much as we feel that conflict within us, feel that being a different person with different people, let us bring our dividedness to the Lord, let us ask for His grace to help us practice what we preach, to be people of integrity, people with one face, not two.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 22:34-40
Last week’s sermon was very interesting for me, and you know, sometimes a sermon can be more interesting to the preacher than to the congregation! It was interesting to me because although I thought it was not interesting, nonetheless, judging from people’s attention and comments afterwards it was something that at least many of you the congregation found interesting.
I preached last week about “rendering unto God what is God’s”, and about justice in general, and about how there are various things that we OWE in justice to God, to the poor, to our family members.
Two interesting questions were put to me afterwards, one asked, If we are acting in justice, where does that leave love? And another asked, if we’re acting out of justice, does that give any joy?
Which isn’t a bad introduction to today’s Gospel with the command of love.

Now, it sometimes happens that we can bristle at the sound of a “command” to love? Surely, it might seem, we love someone simply because we love them, not because we are commanded to love them.
This, actually, takes me to a very important point: There are different kinds of love.

I can love with a very minimal love, a love that renders unto another what I owe him, but does not go beyond what I owe him. This is the love of justice. And it is possible to have a minimal but nonetheless real love.
St Thomas Aquinas makes the point that God has given us the ‘precept’, the COMMAND to love because there IS a level of love that we owe in justice (ST II-II q44 a1). My point in last week’s sermon was to indicate that there are many things that we OWE in justice, in this first degree of love.
It has often been said: The reason why the Ten Commandments are mainly specified in a negative format, “Do not...”, is because they point to the lower limit of love (c.f. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (1993) n.13). Love has a lower limit, when we fail to love, but there is no upper limit –we cannot love too much, though we can love in a disordered way.

But there is also another degree of love, a love that goes beyond what I am required to give, and gives even more. Gives more time, more effort, more care, more money, and so forth. This is a love beyond justice, a love which fulfils justice even as it transcends it.

There are some other things that we associate with love, however, and chief among them are joy and reciprocity.
When we are in love there is a natural overflow of JOY that we experience, be it in love of spouse, of friend, or of God. Joy is an effect of charity (ST II-II q28 a1).
But, probably most characteristically of all, we think of love, and of ‘being in love’, in terms of a love that is returned. This is not the only form of love –we can love an enemy. But it is what we most associate with love. This is what Aristotle called the ‘love of friendship’ when we not only will good to someone, not only have them will good back to us, but we each know that this goodwill is reciprocated. (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Bk VIII, chpt 2, 1155b30, c.f. Aquinas, ST II-II q23 a1)

This, precisely, is the form of love that the Lord Jesus invites us to. To have the love of friendship with God. (c.f. ST II-II q23 a1)
This includes certain basic things, like what justice demands in the various acts of religion, like coming to Mass each and every Sunday.
But, the love of friendship, to love God as a friend, seeking not merely to avoid falling below the minimum set in the Ten Commandments, means to love Him “with our whole heart, and soul, and strength”, such that we love all things that He loves, such that we love our neighbour, our spouse, everyone, even more than we would love them otherwise.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 22:15-21
We just heard the Lord Jesus tell us that we must, "render unto God what is God's"(Mt 22:21). I want to say a few words today about how prayer, and different kinds of prayer, are part of what we owe to God. When I last preached on this gospel text, when at last came up three years ago, I preached about our duty to “render unto Caesar”, and the interrelationship between God and Caesar, the state. And there are many important points that can be made about this text, but today I want to focus on the primary point, namely, rendering to God what is God's.

As I just said, prayer is one of the things that we must "render unto God". And I say this because it can be a useful reminder of something that we often forget, namely, that there are things we OWE to God. The virtue of ‘justice’ consists in the ready inclination of rendering unto others what is due to them (Aquinas, ST II-II q58 a1; Catechism 1807). I owe it to ‘Caesar’, and through him to the wider society around me as it is served by various state institutions, I owe it to my neighbour that I pay my taxes, that I declare my income honestly, that I don't try to fiddle all my books. And there are all kinds of things that, as a matter of JUSTICE we owe to others. Within a family a father or mother OWES a duty to care for their children. Further, we owe it as a duty that we should give ‘charity’ to those in need -the poor have a claim of duty on the wealth of the rich, and even on those who not ‘rich’, it is not merely a matter of generosity from those who have to those who have not (the word ‘charity’ can sometimes disguise this truth).

The additional point I wish to remind us of today is that there are, similarly, things that we owe to God as a matter of justice. What the saints classically grouped as the virtue of ‘religion’ includes all of those things that we owe directly to God as a matter of justice to Him.
Now, why am I wanting to make a point about this? Well, because I think most of the time when we get around to praying, we tend to think that we are doing something special, that are doing something unusually generous, and we often forget that actually this is just something that we OWE to God as a matter of justice.

For example, when my alarm went off at six o'clock, and when I stumbled out of bed and down the stairs to the church to pray, it may well have been that I wasn't thinking to profoundly about much at all! But my point is that I frequently neglect to think that my struggling down to the church to pray is not merely some kind of super generous act on my part, but is simply something that I owe to God.
Part of the reason, I think, why we tend not to think about prayer as a DEBT of justice is that it is easy to tell ourselves that there are so many DIFFERENT WAYS that we can pray during the day that for most people they could tell themselves that none of these PARTICULAR forms are an obligation of justice. And yet, the rendering of SOME form of REGULAR daily prayer IS a debt of justice we owe to God. And, the commitment to some form of a regular PLAN of prayer is likewise a debt of justice that we owe Him.

And, of course, there are certain forms of prayer that are so essential to our Christian living that they are, for all of us, not something for us to choose but a debt of justice we must pay. Most particularly, the obligation to attend Mass each and every Sunday. "On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass." "The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day." (CCC 2180) The Mass is THE definitive prayer Christ gave us, saying “do THIS in memory of me”; Sunday Mass is THE prayer that has defined Christian practice down the centuries, it is THE practice that the martyrs risked death rather than fail to attend, to quote one example: "Without fear of any kind we have celebrated the Lord's Supper, because it cannot be missed; that is our law” (Martyrs of Abitina, quoted by John Paul II, Encyclical Dies Domini, n. 46). See also:

So, in conclusion, the next time we pray, let us remember that this is not just some super generous act on our part before God, but this is something that we owe Him in justice. He has given us life and breath and everything we have, and prayer is just one of the things we owe Him if we are to, "render unto God what is God's"(Mt 22:21).

Sunday, 9 October 2011

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 22:1-14; Isa 25:6-10a
Sometimes I’m good, but sometimes I can’t be bothered, and I think this is a phenomenon that most people would recognise in themselves.
I make this observation because we heard in the gospel today the Lord Jesus give the parable in which an invitation was made to something great, and yet most of those were invited could not be bothered. Some of those were invited reacted violently, but others, and I would suggest to you that if this is a model of real life, then this was the majority, of the majority of the others it doesn't say that they REJECTED the invitation, it doesn't say that they despised the person who gave it, it just says, "but they were not interested: one went off to his farm, another to his business"(Mt 22:5) and so forth.
And so the Church gives us readings today to reissue this invitation to us, with two rather different reasons as to WHY we should respond to this invitation: from the New Testament, a threat of punishment of those who do not respond, and from the Old Testament, a reminder of the beauty and promise that awaits those who do respond to the invitation.

The parable that Jesus gave uses a common scriptural image of the wedding feast. The symbolism inherent in this is that the wedding is between God and His chosen people, which in the new covenant means the Church, means that body of people that you and I belong to.
The banquet, as we had spelt out in that text from the Prophet Isaiah, the banquet is not just about food. Yes, the satisfaction food gives is offered to us as a symbol, but a symbol of a much deeper satisfaction, including the satisfaction that will come when all of the suffering and limitations of this world are removed: “He will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples... He will destroy Death forever. The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek”(Isa 25:7-8). And the destruction of Death is the ultimate symbol of the destruction of all that is wrong with this life.

It is perhaps something of an understatement to say that it is hard to imagine anything greater that we could be invited to. And yet, so often we can be slow to respond.
As the Lord Jesus said in that parable, invitations were sent again and again, just as the prophets were sent again and again to the chosen people of Israel, and down the centuries the saints have risen up in the Church calling us to repentance again and again, and as the Pope today travels to country after country repeating the invitation again and again.

According to the parable, those were originally invited failed to respond, as Jesus put it "those were invited proved to be unworthy"(Mt 22:8). They were destroyed, and others were invited in their place.
In the early Church they would've had a profound awareness of how they had replaced the Jewish people, however, the final part of the parable is addressed to any feeling of complacency that might exist in the Church: we need to have a wedding garment if we are to enter the feast. In the Jewish tradition the wedding garment was supposedly a symbol of the good works that the faithful clothe themselves with. If we would enter that perfection, if we would feast in that banquet, then we need to clothe ourselves the wedding garment of the virtuous life.

As I started by saying, sometimes I’m good, and sometimes I can’t be bothered.
If we want to ‘be bothered’ then let us remember who is inviting us, and the greatness of what we are being invited to. Otherwise, the words spoken by our Lord might apply to us, “many are called, but few are chosen”(Mt 22:14).

Sunday, 2 October 2011

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Isa 5:1-7; Ps 79; Phil 4:6-9; Mt 21:33-43
“The vineyard of the Lord is the House of Israel”(Isa 5:7; Ps 79:9) –I want to say a word today about how that phrase can apply to me, to you, and to the Church as a whole.

I am the Lord’s “vineyard”. I’ve if been thinking about this concept this week with respect to various difficulties I’ve had. “Pride goeth before the fall”(Prov 16:18), and maybe I’ve been overly content with many things in my life and many things in this parish, and maybe the Lord thought it is time to bring me down a peg. Maybe the Lord is pruning and disciplining me, as Scripture tells us He did to His vineyard Israel.

We heard in our first reading in the Prophet Isaiah about how the Lord loved and cared for His vineyard Israel, His chosen people the Jews, lavished great things upon them, and yet that vineyard produced nothing but “sour grapes”. So, what was the Lord going to do next? He was going to bring devastation upon His vineyard as punishment.
Now, we know elsewhere from Scripture, and it's a crucially important truth to remember, we know that God never DIRECTLY wills any evil. He created the world perfect, He did not create evil or suffering, and even now He never directly wills them.
Yet, it is also a truth of Scripture that the evil He permits to happen is somehow part of His plan. And with respect to His “vineyard”, it is part of His CARE for His vineyard. As the Lord Jesus Himself said, the vine dresser PRUNES His vine (Jn 15:2) –not out of spite, but to make it yield fruit. And as St Paul says, “the Lord disciplines every son He receives”(Heb 12:6) –BECAUSE He loves the son.

Pruning is never something that we readily accept, just as no child readily accepts discipline. And yet the vine that is not lovingly and caringly pruned will not properly grow, and the child that is not disciplined will likewise grow into something much less than he could have been.
It is always a risky venture to attempt to read the mind of God, to attempt to know WHY God has allowed THIS particular thing to happen to me, now, in these circumstances -while we live in this world there are many things we simply do not know.
I might think that God has allowed certain failures, certain difficulties, certain things I have got wrong, in order to humble me -but there may be other reasons, and so while it is always good, anyway, to learn humility, the Lord probably has other things He's working through this too, and I should be wary of restricting my own interpretation of events.

Nonetheless, to repeat, it is an important truth of the Faith to know that the Lord DOES have a plan, that He does know what He is about, and that therefore we should ENTRUST ourselves to Him.
When we entrust ourselves to Him it means that we face difficulties in a different way. It means that we face them in the confidence of what Scripture says: "all things work to the good for those who love the Lord”(Rom 8:28).
It means that I don't allow the disappointments of this life to leave me in a spirit of dejection.
It means that I keep my eyes on the prize, Heaven, life with Him.
And that I do this knowing that I'm somehow “chosen” by God as His special "vineyard", as someone He is cultivating and working on, leading me from imperfection to opportunities to move beyond those imperfections, beyond my sins –to not not yield “sour grapes” but “deliver produce to him”(Mt 21:43).

So, as St Paul reassured us in our second reading, "There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving,... Then the God of peace will be with you"(Phil 4:6-9).