Sunday, 30 September 2012

On Faith and the 'Year of Faith', 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 9:30-37
We just heard Jesus speak about “the little ones who have faith”(Mk 9:41). And, in a week and half the Church throughout the world is going to be starting a “Year of Faith”. Faith is something that we speak about a lot and yet for many it can seem a mysterious thing. Why it that some people believe and some do not? They live in the same world, can have read the same Bible, hear the same sermons, and yet some believe and some do not. Why? This Year of Faith should help us in this regard.

Today I want to start with a thought about faith itself. What is “faith”? In our un-believing world “faith” is spoken of as something vague and uncertain. However, the classical Christian understanding of “faith” is the very opposite.
Let us consider what the phrase “I believe you” implies. It is something that we say in response to what someone tells us. Some witness of an event comes in and tells me he has seen something, and I respond to what he tells me, I respond either with faith or with doubt. If I judge the person who is speaking to me to be a reliable witness then I believe him. Whereas if I judge him to be an unreliable witness then I doubt him.

Or let me put it this way: there are some things I know because I have seen them for myself. There are other things I know because someone else has told me so. For example, “the planet mercury is the closest planet to the sun”. I have never been there. I have never seen it for myself. But, wise and learned men, reliable witnesses have told me it is so. I believe what they have told me. I judge them to be reliable witnesses. I say, “I believe you” to their witnessing. And, thus, I have knowledge of something I have not seen.

What of God? When we say, “I believe you” in the context of Christianity we are speaking to Jesus Christ. We are saying that we believe what HE has told us, told us of God, of the meaning of life, and so many other things. To give a two specific example, I believe that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ because He has said so, He has said “This is my Body”. My sight tells me it is bread. But by my hearing, the mechanism of faith, Jesus tells me it is His Body. I recognise that He is a reliable witness, and thus I know it is His Body. Another example, I might well experience suffering in my life, this is what I “see” for myself. But I hear God say in Scripture, “God is love”(1 Jn 4:8) –I trust the reliability of the Divine witness, and so I accept that He is love even though I have not fully seen it for myself.

To return to my opening question: Why do some of believe and some not? At a subjective level each individual person might have different reasons. But there are objective reasons that can help us through our subjective difficulties.
As I’ve said before, this year we’re going to have a series of talks on this and related subjects. At one level, these talks are aimed at enquirers, to help unbelievers come to believe. They are also aimed at believers, to help them deepen their faith. They are also offered to help you know what you might say to help someone who doesn’t have faith to come to faith.
Inside your newsletter there is a list of the talks being offered here between now and Christmas. These talks aim to show:
First, why we can trust Jesus as a reliable witness of those things we have not seen;
how reason and historical facts establish what are called “motives of credibility” for accepting that Jesus is a reliable witness.
Second, how we can know with certainty the content of what He has revealed.
And finally, how, even after reason has shown us the reasonableness of faith, how we then need to make the choice to believe, the commitment to accept something on the authority of someone else, the authority of the Divine witness.
That final step, even though it is not a blind step, even though it is not what critics call “blind faith” or a random “leap of faith”, nonetheless, it is not necessarily an easy final step. And yet fortunate are those who have made it. As Jesus put it, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”(Jn 20:29) –and this is the very nature of faith: to know what we have not seen for ourselves, to know it because we trust the testimony of the Divine witness.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury, 11am Mass

Mk 9:30-37
“Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me."(Mk 9:37) We know that there are many times in the Gospels when we hear Jesus speaking about the importance of being childlike. It can sometimes be difficult to understand what ‘childlike’ means; after all, there are certain things it obviously doesn't mean: being infantile, petulant, throwing a tantrum and stamping our foot when we don't get our way, etc.

In today's gospel the particular context that led Jesus to refer to children was the context of his 12 apostles each claiming to be greater than the others: in this sense, each claiming to be more of an adult than the others. When we look at a child, however, one of the things that a child does NOT claim is greatness -a child may claim the right to our attention, the right to a new toy, and the right to not be punished for fighting with siblings, but it is not typical of a child to claim GREATNESS: a child knows that it is not great -which is why a child looks to the adult for attention, a new toy, justice against siblings and so on.

I want to illustrate this by referring to a saint. As Catholics, we know that one of the ways we can understand the Scriptures is by looking at the lives of the saints, and one particularly useful saint for understanding being childlike is Saint Therese of Lisieux (or ‘St Teresa’ in English not French), the saint whose relics toured England back in 2009 and widely reported even in the secular media. Saint Therese is famously known for teaching what is called "the way of spiritual childhood". And in some ways the spiritual childhood she lived was a pretty tough, manly childhood: she suffered, suffered and died from tuberculosis, but suffered without complaining, suffered with grace.

Thinking of greatness, however, there is one particular aspect of St Therese’s spiritual childhood that I want to refer to: her practice of "hidden" acts of kindness. She says in her autobiography (an autobiography she only wrote because she was commanded to by her superior), that, "I endeavoured above all to practice little HIDDEN acts of virtue, such as folding the mantles which the Sisters had forgotten". And that small little act is typical of the way of life St Therese lived and calls upon us to live: to be content to do many small hidden acts, to do them because somebody needs to do them, and WE can be that somebody.

In contrast, that false adulthood that we saw in the 12 Apostles, far from being willing to be hidden demands rather that its greatness be seen, be seen by others and praised by others. Far from being content with doing good just to do good, mistaken greatness demands that the greatness be seen.
For ourselves, it is all too easy to make being seen all too important, to get in a bad mood when people don't thank us for what we’ve done, to grumble when people take us for granted. I know that I don't like it when people take my work for granted -when I tidy the church and hall up and nobody notices who did it, when if feel like I’ve walked the extra mile to meet many different peoples different spiritual needs in a day, and no one seems to notice. To serve Jesus, however, to love as Jesus loved, means being willing to do goodness to others even when others don't see it.

To come back to Saint Therese, I want to conclude by pointing to an irony that we see in her hidden goodness: the irony is that in seeking to keep her goodness hidden it has been manifested to all the world, manifested not by herself but by the Lord. One of the mistakes that the 12 Apostles made was not only to demands their greatness be acknowledged by men rather than by God, but to demand that it be acknowledged right now. St Therese was content to let her hidden acts be seen by God, and as a consequence of the faithfulness of that good God, the glory and greatness of St Therese is on public display to ALL as she tours our country with a schedule fitting a pop star and adoring crowds to match, but the real glory and greatness of St Therese is on display in heaven and will be on display there forever. As we heard Jesus say, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all". He was true to His word for Saint Therese and if we too are "servants of all" he will be true to us too.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Harvest Festival, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

James 2:14-18
Today we're keeping our harvest festival, and every year I've taken a different theme for our harvest festival. Primary, obviously, is our focus on giving thanks to God for the good things He gives us, as we see them manifested in the good things of the harvest. And this includes our need to give thanks to God when things are good, as well as when the harvest has been less good - as many of our farmers have sadly experienced this summer.

This year, however, I wish to focus on a more particular thing, namely, our need to give to others from the good things that we have received, including the good things of the harvest. Its traditional to have a collection for those in need at our harvest festivals, and this year we have three closely related collections: the dry goods you've donated will go to the the Gillingham Food Bank, and this week the money donated in exchange for the fresh goods you take away will go to CAFOD, and next week my 17 mile sponsored run from Wardour Chapel to Salisbury Cathedral will raise money for our parish fund for the feeding station in the Sudanese refugee camp.

But the question I wish to address is WHY should we give at all? Of course, you might think that's a question with a simple answer: Jesus tells us to love our neighbour, especially when he's in need.

However, there is a complaint that often get expressed something like this: why should I give, it's MY money! I worked to have it. I only have it because I've saved for it. And so forth. And, if we're honest, most of us can have something of that attitude within us.
So, the point I wish to raise today is about what ownership means in general, according to what our Catholic Faith teaches us. Because it’s only because we think we OWN things that we think we have a right to keep them and not give them away.

The harvest time is a particularly good time to think about ownership because it's a very easy time to cast our minds back to the creation itself. What our Faith teaches us is that the world did not make itself, and humans did not make themselves - the world was and is a work of the Creator. And the good things of this world come from Him. And He gave the good things of this world to humanity for our use, as we might recall especially at harvest time: "behold I have given you every seed-bearing thing for your food..."(Gen1:29).

The more specific point I want to make, however, and while it is a little technical it's not too complicated, the point I want to make is about ownership. What does I means to 'own' something? Marxism teaches that all ownership is theft. Whereas Adam Smith teaches that the free capitalist market and unrestricted right to private ownership is the only way to wealth creation. Our Catholic Faith teaches us something else, something that is both more ancient and more new.

Our Catholic Faith teaches us that there is truly such a thing as a right to private ownership. It's also teaches, however, that this right is not absolute, and this right is in fact only to be understood in the light of the goal that private ownership seeks to advance. That goal is not the private flourishing of an individual but rather the COMMON good of humanity. And, in this regard, our teaching about the right to private ownership only makes sense if understood within the primary teaching that the goods of creation are destined for the 'Common Good' of all humanity (Catechism 2402-2404) The background question might be put like this: how are the goods of creation to be cared for, to be used, to be developed? By being entrusted to the care of individuals, entrusted to them in what we call 'private ownership'. What this means is that all private ownership needs to look beyond just itself, and our generosity to those in need is not just an act of generosity on our part but is actually a basic work of JUSTICE giving to others what is rightfully theirs.

Many centuries ago the greatest theologian in the history of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas, expressed this when he spoke of how in situations of extreme need the goods of rich belong to the poor by right, because need has put those goods in common. "In cases of need all things are common property... for need has made it common"(Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II q66 a7). This isn't a 19th century Marxist view but the ancient Catholic one.

So, to conclude by returning to that initial question: why should I give, it's MINE anyway? Well, actually, in our Catholic understanding it's only 'yours' in a limited sense to begin with. The goods of creation, even those we have worked hard for ourselves, are all ordered to ALL of humanity, and so our giving on a day like today is a basic work of justice that we owe to others.

So, today, let us give thanks to God for the good things we enjoy, but let us also remember to look at them free from selfishness. "The Lord’s is the earth and everything in it"(Ps 23:1), we only own it in provisional sense, entrusted to our care.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

James 2:1-5
There are a great many places around Shaftesbury where people gather. And if you were to look around and try and think where you'd be most likely to see wealthy person sat next to a person with much less money, a rich person sat in the exact same type of seat as a person with less money and prestige, you might look in many places. You might go and look at the train station, but there you'd find the First Class carriage tidily separately off the better half. Then you might look at where people gather to eat. But here too you would find people separated by class: those who eat at the kebab and pizza take-out on the High Street, and those who can afford to eat at Chutney's Indian restaurant, and then those who eat at the Fleur de Lys - I’ve barely seen the outside of that place, let alone the inside!

But, I think I'm right in observing that, the place in town where you would be most likely to see people of all sorts of social classes sat down in the same place, sat down in the same seats, sat down with no class division at all, that place is the place where you are right now: in the church.
Now, I'm not saying that this is something that is completely and properly lived out ALREADY by us, but, in as much as this is true in church, and I think I’m right in saying that it’s truer in church than anywhere else around here, then it is something all together "right and just". It is altogether as the letter from St James (that we heard as our second reading) would have it. As we heard him say, "do not try to combine faith in Jesus Christ ... with the making of distinctions between classes of people"(James 2:1), and he proceeded to then give some precise examples about not offering different seats for different classes of people.

What I am saying we can observe here in Shaftesbury is something that I can remember observing many years ago when I was a teenage student in London. I studied in South Kensington and around us students there were literally (foreign) princes and paupers, people who slept on the streets and people who slept in silk sheets. But on Sunday I would see people from all those categories and more at Mass together at the Oratory. All coming together because they worshipped the same God. All coming to the same place to worship. All being treated the same when they walked through the church doors. Princes and paupers.

It is, of course, not a truth that's always perfectly lived out. I know that, sadly, there are places, not many places, but sadly I have heard that there are or have been places where there are fancy balconies put aside for the rich. The fact that it is not so here, or anywhere I've seen, is something to be glad about.
However, I would suggest to you, and I'm sure St James would do more than just politely suggest it, I would suggest to you that no matter how true this may be of our seating arrangements in our church there are surely two points that must follow.

First, it is not enough that people have the same seats in church, they also need to be treated with the same dignity, and greeted with the same attention. If, when we come to church, we recognise that each person here has come to worship the same one Lord, has been made by the same one Lord God, loved by the same one Lord God, then surely we should recognise something in common among ourselves and show a common respect for each other. And surely this holds even more when, as we do in this country and in this era, when we come to church as people who have recognisably chosen to acknowledge the same one true God even in an era when others have forgotten Him, then surely we should recognise something in common among ourselves and show a common respect for each other.

Second, St James would remind us that we must also treat each other OUTSIDE church in a way that likewise acknowledges our mutual relationship with the one true Lord. If I recognise that that person is see outside of church is made by the same one Lord God then I cannot fail to see my obligation to love and care for him. To back back to my student observation: if the prince at Sunday Mass at the Oratory sees the homeless at Mass too then surely he should be reminded of his need to care for the homeless. We have other readings in the following weeks that are also from St James as he spells out further details on this point, and it is important that we are listening in the weeks ahead to what he says.

So, to conclude and repeat the observation I started with, it is in our church more than anywhere else in town that someone is most likely to be treated with equal dignity. The challenge to us is to not only live that more FULLY in church but also to live out its implications in our daily lives.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 7:1-23; Dt 4:1-8
We just heard Jesus give hard words of condemnation, and I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped to think what Jesus will condemn YOU for, but today’s readings give us ONE category: The Pharisees were condemned for ranking their human traditions over the commandments of God. Now, we might think that that doesn’t apply to us –after all, how many of us follow Pharisaic customs like washing up to the elbow, sprinkling ourselves on returning from the marketplace, and scrub our bronze cups? I don’t even have any bronze cups!

But in our society today there are a great many OTHER human traditions that are ranked above the commandments of God. And there are many other gods that are ranked above the one Lord.

There is the god of money, and the tradition of placing our private concerns and desires over the greater needs of the poor, and our neighbour.
There is the god of freedom, and the tradition of not letting anything interfere with my “rights”, the tradition of not letting anyone tell me what to do.
There is the god of convenience, and the tradition of doing right ONLY when it is convenient. Like only going to Mass on Sunday when it doesn’t interfere with other things I want to do.
There is the god of tolerance, and the tradition of not believing in an objective truth, and objective standards of behaviour, in right and wrong, in sin. The contemporary human tradition of endorsing perversion as so-called “alternative lifestyles”. The tradition of ranking political correctness over the Bible, the Church, and the words of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus called re-marriage after divorce “adultery”, but the tradition of our English society calls it normal.
There is the god of sex, and the tradition of seeing physical pleasures as the entire purpose of life, and not wanting any strings attached.

The bulk of our society today thinks that it knows better than the commands of God, and it knows better because it calls itself “modern”. Modern society is so much better and wiser that it has produced a world where families are under such pressure that half end in divorce, where children are offered so little direction that many seek escape in drugs, or more mundane things like endless TV and non-stop Game Boys.

There is nothing wrong with money, sex, freedom, tolerance and convenience –all these are gifts of God, but they are not gods to be worshiped as ends in themselves.

There is a real God, and an authentic Tradition. The authentic Tradition is to be found in keeping to the commandments of God, and they are not hard to find. They were given in Jesus Christ, and Jesus established and infallibly guides His Catholic Church to teach these commandments to us. And as our first reading from Deuteronomy (4:6) said, “No other people is as wise and prudent” as those who keep the commands of the Lord. No other people has “laws and customs to match” (4:8) with the wisdom of the morality Christ’s Church calls us to. No other people “has its gods so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to Him”(4:7).

You may worship the god of money, but it is not a faithful god, it can leave you at a moments notice. It may seem attractive, but it is a false and faithless god. And the same can be said of all false gods.

The commands of God may seem hard, and we know that we sin and fail to live up to them. But that is not enough of a reason to turn from them and follow modern human customs instead. If we sin and fail He will forgive us as often as repent and turn back to Him. It is only if we give up on Him and His law, and devote ourselves instead to other gods, and follow modern human customs instead, that the condemnation of the Pharisees will then apply to us. The Lord gives us His Law because it is the way to life and wholeness. What He asks is that we seek to follow it.