Saturday, February 27, 2010

2nd Sunday of Lent Year C (Gospel: Luke 9:28-36) This is my Son the Beloved. Listen to him.

A few years ago there was a series on the BBC called The Monastery. It was one of these ‘reality’ TV shows where several men were invited to come and spend 40 days in a Benedictine monastery in England. Recently I was reading a book about it written by the abbot of that monastery, Abbot Christopher Jamison, and he makes some very interesting points.

One of the things he noticed with the men who lived there was that they were used to being so busy, that they hardly knew what to do when they were suddenly faced with times of just being on their own in silence. They found this very hard to deal with. Most of them turned to their cell phones and spent a huge amount of time on the phone, really to avoid the silence. Why? Perhaps because they could not face the chaos within themselves? The funny thing is that after several days they all began to realise that they were using their phones and radios as an escape and they agreed to give them up for the time they were there.

We are not used to spending much time in silence and it’s no wonder, since there are fewer and fewer places you can go where you will find silence. Even many churches now have music playing during the day, which I think is a great pity. Almost every shop and restaurant you go into has music playing. ‘Well so what’, you might say? ‘There’s no harm in having music.’ Of course there is no harm in having music. It is a wonderful thing. However, when we have next to no silence it can be a problem, because then we can no longer hear what is going on inside ourselves. That means that we will find it much more difficult to hear God speaking to us.

Now I know that many people will say, ‘God never speaks to me,' but the fact is that God is speaking to us all the time, but for the most part we are not listening. We have almost forgotten how to listen. The truth is that every day God has something to say to each of us. God is constantly offering us guidance, help, direction, encouragement, forgiveness, wisdom, insights. But if we are not listening we will not hear it.

How do we listen? We have to start by switching off the radio and TV for at least a certain amount of time, so that we are alone with our thoughts, and even the chaos that we find inside ourselves. There has to be silence to start with and then at least there begins to be room for God’s Spirit to speak to us.

Who could be more important to listen to than God? Who knows all the answers to every single problem we encounter? Who knows the future? Who can guide us along the exact right path, even after we make mistakes?

Think for a minute of all the things you listen to or read each day. News programs, the paper, chat shows, soap operas and hundreds of ads. How many of them inspire you, make you feel enthusiastic for life, encouraged and positive? Very few I would imagine. And yet the One who can offer us everything positive and inspiring is usually the One we ignore.

Today’s Gospel passage recalls a strange event. Jesus took with him his three closest friends: Peter, James and John, the same three that would be with him in the garden of Gethsemane a short time later, the same three who were also with him when he brought the girl known as Jairus’ daughter back to life. And there on the mountain he allowed them to see him in his blinding and terrifying glory. They were very frightened. But the interesting thing is what happened during this experience when they were suddenly covered by a cloud and they heard the voice of God the Father: ‘This is my Son the Beloved. Listen to him.’ Listen to him. Listen to him.

This happened shortly before the passion, where the same three would witness Jesus falling apart in the garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood because of the extreme stress he was going through and then being arrested, tortured and killed. Peter, James and John would need great strength not to despair, and this is one of the reasons why they were allowed this experience. But they were told on the mountain to listen to Jesus. He is the only one they needed to listen to. If they heard what he had to say, they had everything.

Later Peter recalls in one of his letters, that this event really happened. In the second letter of St. Peter (2 Pet 1:17-18) he writes: ‘He was honoured and glorified by God the Father, when a voice came to him from the transcendent Glory, This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. We ourselves heard this voice from heaven when we were with him on the mountain.’ And it obviously had a deep impression on them. God was teaching them that there was only one person they needed to heed in their life and that was Jesus, the Son of God, the revelation of God.

So what is the point? The point is that of all the voices that we hear every day, speaking to us, calling for our attention, there is One voice above all others that should get space. It is really the only one that matters and that is the voice of the Spirit of God, guiding and teaching us. But in order to hear that voice we must begin by making space for it, giving some time to silence and just being alone with our thoughts. That is where the Lord speaks to us.
‘This is my Son the beloved. Listen to him.’

Saturday, February 20, 2010

1st Sunday of Lent, Year C (Gospel: Luke 4:1-13) Not the way of wonders but the way of service

Since I was ordained a priest almost 12 years ago, one of the temptations for me has been to wish that God would do more spectacular things through me, which would convince people of his presence. I believe that God does do extraordinary things through the priesthood, such as becoming present in each mass in the bread and wine, but as you know it happens in a very humble and hidden way. It is not spectacular and if you don’t believe in it, then it just seems to be some kind of a strange religious ritual. So why doesn’t God do something more spectacular every once in a while to help us believe?

The account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is really the explanation as to why God doesn’t do more extraordinary signs and wonders to convince us of his presence. This is a very sacred story because it must have come directly from Jesus himself, since no one was with him during this time of temptation. At some stage he must have told his apostles what happened there and what he had to go through.

Jesus was about to embark on his public campaign to teach people about God and to win people over for God. Now for any campaign you must choose the weapons you are going to use. Jesus must have been aware that he had extraordinary powers or Satan wouldn’t have tempted him to misuse them. There would be no point in tempting any of us to throw ourselves down from a great height or to turn stones into bread, because we couldn’t do it anyway. So this must have been a very real temptation for Jesus, to misuse his power.

The first thing he was tempted with was to find satisfaction in material things. ‘Give people the material things that they want and they will love you.’ In this case it was bread to a man who was starving. But Jesus said, ‘No. Man does not live on bread alone.’ The human being is not satisfied by material things alone. Jesus was saying, ‘I am not going to try and win people over by just offering them what they want.’ We are much deeper than that and we can only be fully satisfied by God because we are spiritual and not just physical.

The second temptation was to compromise with evil. This is a huge temptation for most people. When you hear people say ‘the Church needs to get with the times’ this is often what they mean. The Church needs to ‘adapt’ (compromise) some of its teachings to the more difficult moral demands of our age. It is always a temptation for me as a priest to water down the teachings of God so that they are easier to swallow. But that is not what we are asked to do. And when Jesus was tempted this way he rejected it outright. He was being tempted to compromise with evil just a little bit, so that it would be easier for people to be convinced. But right is right and wrong is wrong. We must not compromise on the ways of God. Yes it is often more difficult, but if it is the truth then it is better to struggle with it than to try and change it to suit ourselves. The teachings of God don’t need to change; we are the ones who need to change.

The third temptation that Jesus was presented with was to work signs and wonders for the people. ‘Throw yourself down from the temple; since God will save you.’ If he started doing this then no doubt he would have thousands of followers in no time. But Jesus also rejected this, because he knew that the way he had to take was the way of service and the way of the cross, which would win people over heart by heart. You cannot buy love, as you know, and that is why Jesus chose the more humble way, and left it open to us to see what God offers us and then to freely choose to follow him or not.

In many ways I would still love it if God worked spectacular signs and wonders now, so that people would be easily and quickly convinced. But that is not how God works, and I think it is good to remember that, especially when we live in times of great change when God often seems to be very quiet. The Lord knows what He is doing and He puts it to us continually to follow him freely. No one is going to force us.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C (Gospel: Luke 6:17, 20-26) If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, then we are the most unfortunate...

Once a month, as you probably know, we try to bring Holy Communion to the sick and house-bound. Since I started here in Renmore almost four years ago, I’m always struck each time I drive around on my first Friday calls, at how many people I used to visit are now dead and gone. For many of them who were living on their own, their houses are sold within a few months, then renovations take place and soon a few family is living there. Of course they are remembered by those who love them, but that is usually just a few people for most of us. Even just here in Renmore I have seen quite a few houses where this has happened. Sometimes I find it hard to remember what the person looked like, as I didn’t know them very well. And now there is another family living in what was their house, getting on with their lives. It always makes me think: what was their life all about? Is that it?

There is a lovely line in the second reading today which I often use at funerals. St. Paul says: ‘If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, then we are the most unfortunate of all people.’ That is really the answer to my question. What our faith in Jesus is all about is the reality of a life after this one. That is where those who lived here in Renmore and all over the world have now gone. If that is a reality for us it will affect how we live this life. And God has taught us that the life which awaits us, is unimaginably beautiful compared to this one, because we will no longer suffer the way we do here. We will have a much fuller life, with the people we love, so long as that is what we choose.

Why am I saying this? Partly because I am very conscious that so many people at the moment, including many who call themselves Christian, live as though this world were everything. I often hear people talking at funerals about the person who has died as though that is the end of their existence. What we believe is the complete opposite and that should give us great hope, not just for those who have died, but for ourselves too. The death and resurrection of Jesus was to make sure it was possible for us to get to this after-life. That is why it is such a mind-blowing event, which we become present to in every mass. God re-opened the way for us to get to this after-life of happiness. That is exactly what the death and resurrection of Jesus was about. That is why St. Paul says, ‘If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, then we are the most unfortunate of all people.’ In other words, if we see this life as everything, then we have completely missed the point.

That is also what Jesus is saying to us through today's Gospel passage. We needn’t be afraid, if it all hasn’t worked out in this life, because there will be perfect justice in the end. Our time of struggling will end and those who have suffered unfairly will be consoled. And in the same way in the first reading we are being reminded that the place to really put our trust is in God and not in the world. The world will let us down. God will not let us down.

There is just one ‘catch’ as you might say, although ‘catch’ is not really the right word for it. The life that God offers us is not a given. It is offered to us freely, yes, but we must also choose it and choose God. We choose it by the way we live, by the way we love. That is why Jesus continually taught that we must try and love God above everything, and love the people around us. Nothing else in this world is as important as learning to love. He asks us to continually try to forgive those who have hurt us and not to judge the hearts of others, since we never know what is going on inside another person. Of course we never manage to live it perfectly, but God doesn’t expect us to live it perfectly; only to keep trying.

Everything is given to us. All we could ask for is offered to us freely, but we are still free to accept or reject it. However, I think that the most important thing for us to remember is that God has created us to reach this happiness, which can begin in this life; and God will make that happen, unless we deliberately stop him. That is why we should never be afraid for those we love, even if they don’t seem to practice their faith as we think they should. We just continue to pray for them and know that God speaks to people in the language that they will understand best.

‘If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, then we are the most unfortunate of all people.’

Saturday, February 6, 2010

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C (Gospel: Luke 5: 1-11) God's greatness and our littleness

In the book of Revelation (or Apocalypse), John the Apostle gives a description of a vision he had. He says that he heard a loud voice and when he turned around to see who it was he saw what looked like a man. His head and his hair were brilliant white. His eyes were like a burning flame. His feet were like polished bronze. Out of his mouth came a sword. John writes that he was so terrified when he saw this that he fell down as if dead. Who was this being? It was of course Jesus. Now remember that John had been a disciple of Jesus for three years and yet now when he sees him in this form he is terrified. Why would Jesus appear to him in this way? Perhaps to remind John and all of us who would read it, that this is who Jesus is: the holy one of God; the first and the last; and not just a man.

A couple of 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; several of his children had PhDs and he was a very successful businessman. He then said 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.

Well 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 reality. God is the Creator, and we are the created. That is also why we acknowledge this 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 the Lord does take 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 mister 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 of course Jesus shows them who they are dealing with by working a miracle that would baffle them. 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 even though 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 said: ‘Peter do not be afraid. From now on it is people you will catch.’