Sunday, 26 October 2014

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Ex 22:20-26; Mt 22:34-40
"Love your neighbour as yourself" -in that phrase we just heard, Scripture repeatedly tells us, in that phrase is the summation of the whole Law (Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10) and the Prophets too (Mt 22:40).
Today, however, I'd like to consider one of the reasons WHY we should love our neighbour, namely, to focus on the reason given in our first reading today.
That reason, in my opinion, is one that we should be able to easily grasp as penetrating at an EMOTIONAL level. In this text we are minded of how my neighbour is LIKE myself -and when I see this I can grasp why it makes sense to love him "AS myself"(Mt 22:39). But to grasp this I frequently need to be reminded of our own experience of need, of my own experience of needing to having someone love ME.

Our first reading, from Exodus, contained the command to care for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.
This command is repeated again and again in the Old Testament Scriptures. This is part of what the Lord formed His Chosen People to care about. His Chosen People were to not be like other cultures and societies:
Whereas other cultures cast off the weak and powerless, they were to care for them.
Whereas other cultures saw the old and frail as "past it", as having already served their purpose, and fit to just be left to die, in contrast, the Jews were formed to think differently, to care for them.
And whereas our own culture today seeks to abort the disabled in the womb, and calls to euthanise them when new-born, and when they are old to make them feel that their life is not worth living, the Chosen People of God, who we Christians are called to fulfil, are supposed to CARE for those most in need -to recognise their innate dignity, a dignity they have simply by being human.

But HOW are we to recognise that innate dignity in the weak and needy? How are we not to look at the diseased and wounded and not just shy away?
Let us note the reason given in Exodus 22:20: "You must not molest the stranger or oppress him, [WHY? BECAUSE] for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt"
The Lord called on His chosen people to think back to their own experience, their own experience of need, and to thus see how the stranger was LIKE THEM -and thus care for the stranger as yourself.
And, when we look at the record of Salvation History in the pages of the Scriptures we find that God dealt with His people in such a way as to teach them this lesson again and again. He REPEATEDLY laid them low, repeatedly made them weak and destitute, IN ORDER that they might, on one level, know their need of God, but also, so that they might learn the experience that enabled them to live out what we called them to:
To care for the weak. To care for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.

So He caused them to be slaves in Egypt;
He led them in the Wilderness for 40 years until they knew their weakness;
Then, after they lived in the Promised Land but lived forgetful of Him, a life that neglected the calls of the Prophets and oppressed the poor and needy, He then led them into captivity in Babylon.
And, what we see running through all this, and in the details too, is His making a people who knew weakness and need so that they might UNDERSTAND at the level of EXPERIENCE the need to care for others when they are weak and in need.

So, let us pause a moment today and reflect on our own experience, on our own times of being weak and needy.
And, as the Lord had compassion, "feeling-with" (Mt 14:14) us in our weakness (cf my sermon earlier this summer text and audio)
let us also "feel-with" those in need,
and so care for the needy,
For each of us have been poor and needy in our own experiences of "Egypt".

Sunday, 19 October 2014

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Mt 22:15-21; Isa 45:1,4-6
I’m going to say a few words today about the best way to polish your shoes, and to use this as an example of how we can ‘render unto God’ while doing some of the things that at first glance seem to be all about ‘rendering unto caesar’. And I’ve been thinking about shoe polish because since Thursday I’ve been seeing Fr Neville’s shoes, and they are polished to an AMAZING degree!

In that Gospel text we heard the Lord Jesus say, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's"(Mt 22:21). Let me note something: the Lord introduced the matter of our duties to God in response to a question that was apparently nothing to do with God, a question that asked about mere human realities: They asked Him about tax and Caesar, He replied by telling them to render GOD what is His due.
So this might be like you asking a simple human question about whether to watch Eastenders or Strictly tonight, and Jesus answering by saying, “Either. But YOU remember to say your night prayers”. Or, you might be asking one of those long and prolonged parental discussions: “Should young Jimmy join scouts or the rugby club?” Only to hear the answer: “YOU remember to put God FIRST in your priorities, and render God His due by keeping the Lord's Day holy by getting Jimmy to Sunday Mass each and EVERY Sunday.”
(And this week's newsletter insert sheet gives 4 explicitly religious duties we need to 'render unto God.)
So, when we are over-immersed in our human concerns the Lord cuts across them by pointing us to our duties to God.

Let me point even deeper, however, and note that it can be precisely IN the world of Caesar, the realm of human activities, that we can find God and render Him His due. As St Teresa of Avila (whose feast day was this past week) famously said, about working in the kitchen, we must find God “amidst the pots and pans”.

Let us return to the example of Fr Neville polishing his shoes. How can he find God while doing such a small mundane thing?
First, by doing the task well in itself. We live in God’s creation. He wants His creation treated with dignity and care. He wants the material realities He has made to be perfected and done well. This is the first and basic thing: polish the shoes well.
Second, that natural reality can be “supernaturalised”, as St Josemaria used to say. We can not only do the task well but OFFER it to God. Offering an activity to God transforms it:
it acknowledges that the things of creation come from God, and not just from ourselves;
it implicitly calls on God’s grace to help us do those things well, and with His help;
it becomes something I can offer as a sacrifice for others to prayer for them -so I can offer the drudgery and boredom of a task to Him.
and, by changing the act on the inside it also changes it on the outside. It becomes not a selfish ‘me’ thing, but a ‘love’ thing.
Its because this ‘offering’ can change so much that the spiritual tradition of the Church has put such emphasis on the value of making a ‘morning offering’ prayer such as the one on the reverse side of the insert sheet in your newsletter this week.

If that is how Fr Neville polishes his shoes, then not only are the shoes a wonder to behold (which they are!), but the act of polishing them become a place where he meets God.
and similarly: your washing the dishes, your cleaning the floor, your job of work, and also, the pleasures and enjoyments of life -all offered to God, all places where we can meet Him.

And if we do that, then we will not just no longer have the Lord need to cut across our queries about how to do our human matters by reminding us of our duties to God, but rather, we can find IN those human realities the place where we BOTH ‘render unto Caesar’ AND ‘render unto God.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Mt 22:1-14; Isa 25:6-10
This Saturday we've just had a wedding here in Shaftesbury, of Angela and James. I've been preparing them for this for some months, which has been a great pleasure, and this Saturday afternoon was finally the big day!
Like every wedding, this one has had its moments of tension in getting the preparations all prepared. I remember a wedding I was at over a decade ago where the bride burst into tears at the night before: Why? Because the flowers were the wrong shade of pink(!). I have observed over the years that the preparations for a wedding can be VERY stressful.
However, and this is a point I wish to stress, I have also observed that on the day itself, it seems almost impossible for things to go wrong. Why? Because all you REALLY need, all that REALLY makes it joyful, all that makes it a SUCCESS is: the presence of the person you love.

Our gospel reading today uses such a symbol of a wedding banquet to describe heaven, to describe what we have been called to. And this gospel text does so by drawing on the many Old Testament texts, like our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, that describe the future banquet that God has prepared for His people.
Those preparations, in history, in pages of the Old Testament, in the workings of the Church of the New Testament striving to our ultimate fulfilment in heaven,
those preparations have been long and arduous -even more so that those of Angela and James, even more so that the poor bride whose flowers were the wrong shade of pink.
But those preparations have been aimed at a wedding in the same sense, namely, a union whose joy is defined by it being a union of LOVE, a union that is JOYFUL because we are WITH the ONE we love.

Like most parables, the one we just heard in the Gospel has many levels.
On one level, Christ chose the image of a wedding banquet to indicate the great JOY that the Messianic banquet of heaven will contain.
In a different sort of symbolism, however, I might notice the number of different places in which this parable is writing about ME (and you).
I am one of those who has turned up lacking the wedding garment of good deeds, and so I deserve to be thrown out.
Conversely, I can also see myself as one of those called and allowed to enter to replace those who failed to turn up -dragged in from the highways and byways despite my initial unworthiness.

Either way, I have been invited to the wedding feast, the wedding feast for the marriage of "the son".
But who is "the Son" marrying?
At its deepest level, "the Son" in the parable is Jesus, and the one He is marrying, His bride, is the Church.
And then, at a specific level, this means I can say that He is marrying ME -that all this fuss is about ME. All the wedding banquet is for ME! Because He loves me.
I have been invited to a wedding banquet only to discover that the one getting married is ME!
Of course, this is also where the mixing of metaphors in parables can get confusing. I am a man, so the symbolism of me "marrying" Jesus only works on some levels -Christians, after all, are opposed to same-sex marriage!

But at its simplest level, this is the point:
God has called you and me to heaven, a place so wondrous that He uses the joyful image of a wedding banquet to describe it.
And, like any wedding banquet, what REALLY makes it joyful, is that it is a thing of LOVE.
He loves me. He died for me. He gives me His forgiveness and grace. And what He is yearning for is that you and I should yearn to love Him too, in this, the wedding banquet of the Lamb.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Bishop Kieran Conry's Resignation, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Isa 5:1-7; Ps 79:9,12-16,18-20; Mt 21:33-43
Many of you, I know, have been pondering the shock resignation of Bishop Kieran Conry last week, and I'd like to address some of the issues that people have indicated it has raised for them, because I think you have a right to more than just an awkward silence from the pulpit when there are headlines like this.

First, some of you have referred to a profound DISAPPOINTMENT on reading about this behaviour from a bishop. And I'd like to acknowledge that I too am saddened and disappointed. Contrary to the impression that the media sometimes create, the Catholic clergy are not some "boys club" where we think this is OK for us, both not OK for others. We too are saddened.

Second, on a more general level, There is a sadness about the general MESS that we can sometimes feel that the Church is in these days. Sometimes it can feel like it's one headline after another. Yes, the media does have an anti-Catholic bias. Yes, they do attack us more than they attack others. But it is also true that they have a right to expect a higher standard from the Church.
And when we look at this mess we can find ourselves asking, "Why does God allow it? Why does God not strike all the sinners and purify His Church?"

That's a good question. And an old question. Our first reading and the Gospel this week both give us images of this with the vineyard that fails to produce its fruit. We, the Church, are that vineyard. And often we fail to produce the fruit God asks of us.
But how many of us would be left here if God reduced the Church to only the choicest fruit, purified the Church till only the super-saints remained?
The truth is that part of God's mercy is that He allows us all to remain together, the weeds with the wheat (c.f. Mt 13:24-30, a different parable). He gives us time to change.
Yes, as that Gospel parable also indicated, He does demand fruit BE produced, and He does threaten to take that special "vineyard" status away if we don't produce fruit. But at this moment in time He is leaving the ripe and the sour grapes together -waiting, so that we sour grapes might have time to ripen to sweetness.

And that brings me to my final point, namely, one of hope. Hope that, despite the failings in the Church, holiness and saintliness is still more properly attributed to her than the crud and sin we are currently having paraded before us.
The Church does produce ripe, sweet, choice grapes, and it is proper to her to do so: she has a supernatural power within her that enables us to do what we cannot do alone:
To keep the promises we have made;
To be faithful to marriage;
To live the beauty and dignity of the life that Christ teaches us.
Yes, we can see examples of those who fail, and of those who struggle.
But we can also see examples of those who succeed.

To sum that up: If you're disappointed, I am disappointed too.
If you see a mess, I see it too.
But we should also remember to be cautious in judging others -let us not assume that we ourselves are ripe rather than sour grapes.
And to be wary of being so aware of the crud on the ground that we fail to see to see the light in the heavens that we are called to.
You don't come here because of me, and you don't come here because of this bishop or that bishop. We come here because of the Lord's call. And let us be grateful that we HAVE been called into this vineyard. "The vineyard of the Lord is House of Israel"(Ps 79:9), and we have been granted to be grafted into that house. Let us pray, and strive, to bear fruit ourselves.