Friday, February 5, 2016

5th Sunday Yr C (Gospel: Luke 5:1-11) God’s glory and our sinfulness

 A few years ago I sat beside a man at a wedding reception who began telling me about all the wonderful things his family had achieved. They were very impressive. He went on to say that he really felt that we should do away with that part of the mass at the beginning when we say that we are sinners. We shouldn’t be putting ourselves down. We should be focusing on the fact that we are good.

He is right that we shouldn’t put ourselves down, but to acknowledge that we are sinners is not to put ourselves down. That is simply to acknowledge what we are.  God is holy and we are not. That is the reality. God is the Creator, and we are the created. That is also why we acknowledge our sinfulness at the beginning of every mass and why the Lord asks us to confess our sins and to receive his grace. It is arrogant of us to think that we don’t need to.

In the readings of the mass today we are being given the same message in different ways. The first reading was written hundreds of years before Jesus came.  This man Isaiah, whoever he was, had a vision of God in his glory and he was terrified.  His first reaction was to realise that he was a sinner. He says, ‘I am doomed for I am a man of unclean lips.’ The holiness of God which he was allowed to experience made him realise straight away that he was a sinner. Then the Lord sends an angel to cleanse him of his sins. He doesn’t say to Isaiah ‘Don’t worry about it’,  but instead he takes away his sinfulness. And then God is happy to use this man Isaiah as his messenger, but first He needed him to see that he was nothing of himself.

Something similar happens in the Gospel reading. Peter, James and John were fishing. Jesus used their boat as a stage to preach from and then Jesus tells them to put out for a catch. Now the fishermen knew their trade and you can tell from what Peter says to Jesus that he was politely saying, ‘Look preacher, we know our trade, why don’t you stick to your trade, but so as not to offend you we will drop the nets.’ And then Jesus shows them who they are dealing with by working a miracle they would understand. He made the impossible happen and through a miracle they could relate to. What is interesting is Peter’s reaction. Wouldn’t you imagine that he would say something like, ‘Wow, how did you do that?’ He was an expert fisherman and he knew that this was a miracle, but the first thing he said was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man’. He became aware straight away of his own sinfulness and the holiness of Jesus. However, it was Jesus who said, ‘Do not be afraid.’ Jesus didn’t say ‘It doesn’t matter’, he said, ‘Do not be afraid.’

One of the most basic experiences we have in the presence of God’s holiness is to recognise that we are sinners before God. To acknowledge that and to confess it is what God asks us to do. Not to confess it, is arrogant on our part, because we are basically saying I don’t need to confess that I am a sinner.

Every time that Jesus met someone who was possessed by an evil spirit, they nearly always cried out, ‘What do you want with us Jesus of Nazareth? We know who you are; the holy one of God.’ The demons knew who he was and they knew their place.

What is beautiful in both of these accounts is that God is not afraid to use us because we are sinners. On the contrary, He tells us not to be afraid. We must repent, yes, but we must also realise that God is happy to work with us as we are, in our weakness. God doesn’t need us to be perfect, but only to be open to him.
Peter said: ‘Leave me Lord, I am a sinful man.’ 
Jesus replied: ‘Do not be afraid.  From now on it is men you will catch.’

Thursday, January 28, 2016

4th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 4:21-30) I will make you into a pillar of iron and a wall of bronze

Last week I was at the march for Life in Washington DC and we got stranded in the blizzard, which is why there was no sermon!

I heard a story about a priest who was going to stay with his niece and her partner.  It was an awkward situation because they were both into occult practice and he was a priest.  They also knew he knew they were into this, but for the few days that he was with them he never once mentioned a word about it, or made any remarks or comments.  Instead he was just very loving towards them and showed great respect for them.  They were so moved by his that it actually won them over to Christianity.

Frank Duff, the man who founded the Legion of Mary, had a lovely saying: ‘Win an argument, lose a soul.’  Arguments don’t win people over; love does.

Today’s readings present us with two things.  First of all, the prophet, or the person who speaks the word of God, the message of God, is going to meet opposition.  While that applies especially to the one who has to preach it, it also applies to all of us who try to live it.  As you know it is ‘cool’ to be just about anything except Catholic at the moment.  We are in the minority now and the Lord is putting it to us to try and be faithful in the midst of so much opposition.  In the first reading God says to the prophet:
Brace yourself for action… Do not be dismayed in their presence… I will make you into a pillar of iron and a wall of bronze to confront all this land (Jer 1:17-18)

The Lord continues to say the same to us.  ‘Don’t be afraid because people are opposed to you, or to your way of life, or what you believe in.  Instead, stand your ground.’ 
They will fight against you but shall not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you—it is the Lord who speaks (Jer 1:19).

It is a big temptation for us to take what might seem like an easier option, or just to take the bits of our faith that suit us. After all, that can seem much more ‘reasonable’. However, that is not what the Lord tells us to do. The Lord tells us to try and be faithful to his word, because that is the path that leads to life. That is the path that will bring us to fulfilment more than anything else. Following the way of his teachings is not easy, but it is completely worthwhile.

From the beginning of his preaching Jesus met continued opposition. In today’s Gospel we read how in a matter of minutes the people went from admiring the beautiful words that came out of his mouth, to wanting to kill him. Another time when the apostles came and told him that everyone was looking for him because they wanted to hear him, he said, ‘Let us go elsewhere to the neighbouring towns.’  He knew what he had to do and whether he was popular or not, he just kept going about what the Father in heaven had sent him to do.

The Lord is telling us something through all this.  He is calling us to be faithful.  We may be in the minority and there may be plenty of opposition, but it doesn’t matter. God has given us something extraordinary in his teaching and although we are free to take it or leave it we will never find anything else that could compare to his teaching. 

The second thing that we are presented with in today’s readings is the call to love.  Nothing is more important than this. Love is patient, kind, gentle, tolerant. This is what we are called to try and live. We will say more to the people around us by the way we live than by any arguments we could make. In the beginning the Christians were a small group and people were very suspicious of them, but it was the witness of their lives that convinced others as to what they were about. People were amazed at how they loved each other and how they tried to live. The same holds true for us.

In one of his famous speeches, Martin Luther King said something very similar:
To our bitterest opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We shall meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, we shall continue to love you… Throw us in jail, we shall still love you.  Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half-dead and we shall still love you.  One day we will win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process. (Martin Luther King, Strength to Love)

The ‘secret’ of being able to live this way, is for us to root ourselves in God, because it is only through our relationship to God that we receive the ability to love those around us; to be tolerant with those who are different to us or who directly oppose us. That is why each week we keep coming back to listen to God’s word and see what he is saying to us; and we keep coming back to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, because if we try to live the way of Christianity by our own strength we will quickly fail. The Lord doesn’t expect us to live it by our own strength and neither should we. Our strength comes from staying close to him.

In the end there are three things that last: faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:13)

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Commandments of the Lord 'You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul.'

The Burren, West of Ireland

When I was a child I remember getting lots of orders and warnings from my parents. In fact sometimes it seemed to be nothing but warnings. ‘Don’t do that’ and ‘Be careful not to fall!’ ‘Stay away from the fire.’ It’s only later in your life that you realize how important all these commands and warnings were. They are part of what formed us, taught us, and probably kept us alive a lot of the time. A few days ago I saw a little boy almost run out under a car, but thankfully didn’t. He was met with a sharp reprimand from his mother and hopefully he learned from it.

We are also given commandments by God. They are not suggestions, they are commands and they are also there to help us. Everything God gives us is to help us. The fact that they are still relevant 2500 years later tells us something. The word of God is timeless and I always find it helpful to often ask myself, do I believe the Scriptures are from God? If I do, then there is nothing more important that I could listen to.

The Lord knows exactly what we need to do in order to survive, flourish and  blossom as a society. His commandments are a kind of blue-print for living. If we ignore those commandments we will slip into chaos. Look at what is happening to our world at the moment. Why? because people are ignoring God and what God has taught us. The whole Middle East is falling apart because of lust for power and basically ignoring what God has taught us and so people think they have a right to take over land and to kill whoever is in their way. They will be held accountable for their actions, just as all of us will.

The first thing that God commands us is to recognize him, to worship him and to put him before
everything else; everything else. So when we come to church on Sundays it is not just about seeing what our parish has to offer us this week, it is about making the sacrifice of our time to worship God because God deserves to be worshipped. There is no other reason needed. Everything we have is from God and we would not exist except that God willed to create us and so the very least we can do is to give some of our time to give thanks and praise to our God and that means making the sacrifice of some of our time. We are constantly being told that we shouldn’t have to make any sacrifices and that we should be able to have almost everything our way. That is not the teaching of Jesus and we must decide who it is we follow.

Keeping Sunday as a holy day—which the Lord also commands us to do—means that we give of ourselves to God. It also means we should think a little about how we spend the day. Is it based on, giving time to God, recreation and family, or is it just another day for shopping? Remember these are God’s commandments, not the Church’s suggestions.

The Lord also tells us that his name is holy. It is not to be used lightly, or as a swear word. Think of what the name of Jesus means. It is because of Jesus that we will be able to go to heaven if we make the right choices.

The last commandment I want to mention today is the commandment to honor your father and your mother. It is interesting that it doesn’t say ‘love’ your father and your mother. Why is that? Sometimes when we have been hurt by our parents we may find it hard to love them for a particular reason, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t honor them and give them the respect and care which is their due. I have often been told by grandparents that for some reason their children will not speak to them or let them see their grandchildren. Unless there is a very serious reason for this, it is wrong and it is breaking the fourth commandment. The Lord commands us to honor our parents and we must take that seriously because all of us will be held accountable for our actions.

While the Lord teaches us that He is infinitely merciful, God also makes demands of us, just as our parents made demands of us and didn’t let us have everything our way. Whatever God tells us to do is for our own good, and even if we cannot always see that, the Lord asks us to trust that He only has our best interests at heart. Whatever God asks us to do is for our own good.

‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind... You must love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-40).

Friday, January 8, 2016

Baptism of the Lord Year (Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22)

“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35).

One of the many benefits that comes from a more mixed society, where we have people from many different parts of the world living together, is that it helps to broaden our minds. At various times I lived in religious communities where there were people from different parts of the world. One morning when we came down for breakfast two of us noticed that someone had cut the loaf of bread not from top to bottom into slices the way we usually do, but from one side to the other across the middle. In other words they had done the complete opposite of what we were used to. The two of us who noticed this at the same time both began to complain saying, ‘Who is the idiot that did this!’ but then almost immediately we both began to check ourselves and say, ‘I suppose there is no law that says you can’t do it this way!’ and we laughed at ourselves and how fixed we can be in our ways. It was a Taiwanese priest living with us whose culture is very different from ours. Something as simple as this helped us to see how small-minded we can be in our ways. 

In the second reading today St. Peter says he realised how anyone can be acceptable to God if they do what is right. That might seem obvious enough to us, but it wasn’t obvious to them at that time. The Jewish people believed that they were specially chosen by God, and that meant anyone else who was not Jewish was not so important to God, but then the Lord began to teach the Apostles that in fact He was there for everyone, of every nationality and creed.  It took them a while to come around to this way of thinking. In fact the first few times some Gentiles (non-Jews) received the gift of the Spirit, the Apostles were quite surprised. They hadn’t expected this. They didn’t think that Gentiles would be given the gift of the Spirit. God was helping them to gradually broaden their horizons. Everyone, of every nationality and creed was being called into God’s family. The Lord showed this to St. Peter through a vision (See Acts 10:9-16). Peter saw a vision of a great sheet being let down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals and birds. Then he heard a voice saying:
“Now Peter, Kill and eat!” But Peter answered, “Certainly not, Lord; I have never yet eaten anything profane or unclean.” Again a second time, the voice spoke to him, “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane.” This was repeated three times and suddenly the container was drawn up to heaven again (Acts 10:13-16).

This vision helped Peter to understand that no-one was ‘unclean’ in God’s sight if they tried to live the right way. The Lord was helping Peter to see a bigger picture, but as with most of us, this happens gradually. Everyone is called to be part of God’s family.

After Jesus was Baptised in the Jordan a vision was seen of the Spirit coming down on him in the form of a dove. The Father in heaven was empowering him with the gift of the Spirit, to enable him to live the mission that the Father had given him, to teach the people about God and to offer himself for the sins of the world. The Spirit gave him the strength and wisdom He needed for this difficult mission. 

Perhaps another reason why people were allowed to see the Spirit descend in bodily form was to remind us of what happens when we are baptised. We are given the gift of the Spirit to enable us to live the Christian life. It is not a way of life that we can live by our own strength; it would be too difficult. This is why God gives us the gift of his Spirit to guide, strengthen and teach us. Jesus said to the Apostles that after He had ascended into heaven He would send the Spirit, ‘Who will teach you everything’ (John 16:13b). Our minds can only take so much, and we are continually learning about the ways of God. As we continue to pray and try and live the Christian way of life, the Lord teaches us more and more. So much of what our faith is about is completely beyond us, and so the Lord teaches us little by little.

When we are baptised we state what it is we believe in and we commit ourselves to this way of faith. For many of us someone else will have spoken on our behalf when we were baptised as we were infants, but this is done on the understanding that we will be taught about our faith as we grow up, otherwise it would make no sense. If we come for baptism as adults we will be examined before-hand to make sure we understand the commitment we are taking on. But the greatest part of Baptism is the gift of the Spirit who will teach us all we need to know, and who will continue to challenge us in different ways so that we grow ever closer to God. As long as we remain open to the gift of God’s Spirit we will be drawn deeper and deeper into God. Only in God will we find our true happiness and fulfilment and so the more we give ourselves to this journey the more fulfilment we will find.

“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35).

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12) All peoples of all religions will recognise Jesus as God

The feast of the Epiphany is an interesting one.  In the Eastern Catholic Church, it is the main feast of Christmas.  Here we celebrate it as the feast of Christ being recognised by the world.  The three wise men, or astrologers, were led to this place where Christ was.  They are supposed to have come from different countries.  They represent all the peoples of the world, since they were not Jewish.  It is a way of saying that Jesus’ coming is for all peoples of all religions and color.  All people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. 

The three gifts they bring are symbolic.  They point to something else.  Gold is the symbol of a king.  Jesus is a king, the King of the whole universe.  Frankincense symbolises a God.  Jesus is also God.  And myrrh is a perfume that represents the suffering he will go through to win eternal life for the human race.  The feast is showing us that all peoples of all religions will recognise that Jesus is God and that we only have eternal life through him.

It might seem a bit arrogant of us Christians to say that all people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God.  That seems to imply that we are right and that everyone else is wrong, but that is not the case.  People of different religions have very different ways of understanding God and God speaks to all people through the different religions. Even for those who will never hear of Jesus in this lifetime, they still have eternal life won for them by the death and resurrection of Christ.  And eternal life is still offered to them, just as it is to us.  When they die they will see this at once.  There can only be one God and this God has created us for happiness which will can only be fulfilled in him.  

Although we lost the possibility of eternal life with God through what we call Original Sin (and interestingly most religions have a similar understanding of Original Sin although it is called by different names) God regained the possibility of eternal life for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but because God totally respects the freedom He has given us He does not force this on us but simply offers it to us.  We must accept this gift individually, and we do this through our faith. All people are offered this possibility regardless of whether they come to know of God in this life or not.  There is no neutral ground for those who do not believe.  We accept life with God when we die, which will be our total fulfilment, or we lose it forever, and that is the choice we must make.  

We may have the impression that Jesus died for Christians only and that you have to be a Christian to go to heaven.  This would be to see it backwards. Depending on how we live our life and the choices we make, we accept or reject God.  That is where our conscience is so important, because even if we never hear of God during our life, God speaks to us through our conscience, giving us a basic understanding of what is right and wrong.  Our faith and the teachings of Jesus through the Church give us a better understanding of what is right or wrong.  All of the decisions that we make throughout our life are bringing us closer to, or further away from God.

Christians are simply people who recognise that Jesus is the Son of God and has done all these things for us.  We consider ourselves blessed that God has made himself known to us in this way, but it doesn’t mean that we have a better chance of going to heaven than anyone else.  That depends completely on how we live our life.  When we die we will realise that all this is really true.  And when other people of different religions die, they will also recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord.  That doesn’t mean that they are all wrong now; rather that they have a different understanding of God.  What is important for them is to live their faith as well as they can just as it is for us.  If they do this, God will also draw them closer and closer to himself and bring them to holiness, just as He will with us if we remain open. 

We continue to pray that all peoples will begin to recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord even in this life, because this is the truth which God has revealed to us, but either way we try to respect people who believe differently to us, and remember that they are also children of God.
Every knee shall bow
in heaven, on earth and under the earth
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)

Mary the Mother of God (Gospel: Luke 2:16-21)

For the eternal Father in heaven to choose a human being, Mary, to be so instrumental in God coming among us is truly amazing. If God gave Mary such an extraordinary role and honour, then it makes sense that we should also give Our Lady extraordinary honour. God asked her to be the instrument through which Jesus would come into the world. He didn’t force her, He asked her. That also gives us an idea of how God respects us as human beings. He doesn’t force things on us. He invites us to follow his way, the way that leads to life, but He lets us choose it or reject it. What could be a more wonderful way to begin the new year than by giving honour to that same woman to whom He entrusted so much.

When the angel Gabriel came and told Mary that God was asking her to become the Mother of Jesus, the first words of the angel were: ‘Mary, do not be afraid, you have won God’s favour.’  What the angel then said to Mary might be summed up in a different way.  The Lord was saying something quite startling to Our Lady: ‘Mary do not be afraid...  God is asking you to put aside all your plans for the future and do his will instead.  Will you accept?’  This is what the angel was saying to her, but he started it off with ‘Mary do not be afraid.’  ‘God knows what he is doing.’

No doubt all of us have had various ideas as to what we hoped our lives might involve; different plans and indeed often very good plans.  I believe that one of the greatest challenges facing anyone who tries to be faithful to God, as most of us do, is when God dramatically changes what we thought He was going to do.  God asks us, ‘Will you leave aside all your plans for serving me, and take on my ones instead?’  The thing is we probably weren’t even aware that we had our own fairly definite plans, until He asked us to give them up, by making our lives take all kinds of unexpected turns.  And then what did actually happen may have turned out to be quite disappointing.  ‘I had hoped it would be much more.’  Think of the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection when they meet Jesus but don’t recognise him: ‘Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free’ (Luke 24.21).  ‘We are so disappointed.’  What must Our Lady have been thinking as she watched Jesus being tortured and suffer such a brutal death?  What about all the promises of the prophets and the angel?  Now he was dead.

The plans we had may have been really excellent ones.  I have no doubt that Our Lady probably had really beautiful plans as to how she would serve the Lord, but the Lord may ask us at some stage, ‘Will you follow my plans for you?’  ‘Are you prepared to give up this brilliant work that you are doing at the moment, because I have a different one?’  ‘Are you prepared to accept this disappointment in your family, or your marriage?’  I think that this can be a key moment in anyone’s life.  Two things can happen from it.  We can accept it in faith and go with it, thereby opening the door to allow Jesus to transform us.  Or we can fight it and resent the fact that ‘It all went wrong for us’, which may lead us to great bitterness. 

If we really remain open to accept what God asks, to the many twists and turns that God takes us through, He will bring the greatest good out of our life, because He will transform us through these struggles.  This is really the only thing that is important, that we allow God to transform us.  God’s purpose for us is to fill us completely with himself, to unite us to himself at a far deeper level than we may have ever imagined was even possible and then use us a hundred times more effectively in the world, but God asks for our openness, our consent.

To sum up:  If we are open to following God, He may continually ask us to take different directions, often having to let go of plans or ideas that we thought were very good.  The more open we are, the more quickly the Lord can transform us within.  So if you do find yourself thinking sometimes, ‘Everything seems to have gone wrong.  I never managed to do this or that,’ remember that if you just stay open and allow the Lord to guide you, then not only have your plans not been wasted, but in fact you have allowed the Lord to do far more in you than you might have imagined.  ‘Mary, do not be afraid.’

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas (Gospel: John 1:1-18) The Word was made flesh and lived among us

It may sound strange to you but I always find it hard to preach about Christmas and Easter, maybe because they really speak for themselves. Christmas and Easter are really two halves of the same event. God the Son comes among us in the person of Jesus in order to teach us about God, why we were created and what God asks of us and then to sacrifice himself for us so that we might have eternal happiness with him. He does this for no other reason than that He loves us. With all that’s happening in the world at the moment I think we need to hear that message often. What awaits us, if we choose it, is something wonderful beyond our wildest dreams and we must never lose sight of that. That is what helps us to keep going when nothing else makes sense.

I want to share with you a story I heard from an old Dominican priest I lived with for a year. His name is Simon Roche and he spent 25 years in India and had many fascinating experiences of faith there.  He told me the following story about a young girl called Asha. 

Asha, who was a Brahman (high cast) and a Hindu, went to Mary Immaculate school.  As happens with many children there she got encephalitis, a disease which causes the brain to swell.  Apparently about 500 children in India die from it each year.  Asha got encephalitis in Nov and had to be hospitalised.  She quickly began to deteriorate.  In mid December she went into a coma and on the 23rd Dec the doctors said she was not going to improve.  She only had a short time to live.

On Christmas eve, her mother who was staying in the hospital in a bed beside her, saw lots of different coloured lights over her bed and a man standing with his hands extended over her daughter.  The next day, Christmas day, Asha woke up at 7.30am for the first time.  She asked her mother for something to eat.  Then she said, ‘What day is today?’  Her mother said it was the 25th of December.  Asha said, ‘Today is the day of the Christians.  Can you turn on the radio so I can hear some of the Christians’ songs.’  The doctors were astonished and had no explanation for what had happened.  Asha was completely healed.

About a week later the mother came to the convent school even though it was still closed for Christmas and asked to see the head mistress.  She said to her, ‘I think your Jesus healed my Asha.’  And she said, ‘Do you have a picture of Jesus?’  The sister showed her a picture on the wall but she said, ‘No that’s not him.’  10 days later Asha’s mother was back in the school for something and she happened to see on the wall a picture of a man getting into a boat.  It was a picture of Jesus getting into a boat in Galilee.  She pointed up at the wall and said, ‘That’s him. He is the one who healed my Asha.’

The Word was made flesh and lived among us 
and we saw his glory.’

Jesus, the Word of the eternal Father, is still among us.