Homily for 26th Sunday of the Year:

26th Sunday of the Year (c) 2016

It’s a bit early to be thinking about Christmas, but something in this Gospel reminds me of Christmas. To be more precise, it reminds me of Charles Dickens book, ‘A Christmas Carol’. You know the story how Ebenezer Scrooge is not a very nice man: he doesn’t seem to care about anything in life, except making money. This is shown on tv every year around Christmas time: you could almost say that it isn’t Christmas without ‘A Christmas Carol’. He is mean to his employee, Bob Cratchit, who hasn’t enough money to celebrate Christmas with his family. It’s so sad. But then a miracle happens: Scrooge sees a vision in the night. A ghostly figure shows him the effect of his meanness on others. He shows him Christmases past, the present and Christmases to come. At last Scrooge’s heart is touched and he becomes a different person; he now is kind and generous to everyone especially his employee. And they all live happily every after.

The Rich man in the Gospel is a bit like Scrooge; he only thinks of himself. It is only after his death that he sees how bad he has been. Now he ask that someone from the dead warn his brothers to change their ways or else they’ll end up in torment like him. It seems a good idea, surely the brothers would change if someone came from the dead to warn them. And yet we hear the stern words of Abraham: ‘If they will not listen either to Moses or the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead’. It sounds a little harsh, at first, don’t you think. Especially when you recall ‘Scrooge’. But, of course, Dickens isn’t Scripture. Dickens is a story, it isn’t reality.

But someone might argue: yes Scrooge is only a story, but it could work. Surely the experience of seeing someone appear who has died, would frighten a person into changing their ways. Surely, that can’t be bad. Why didn’t God allow someone to tell these men to change their ways. Wasn’t He being a bit unfair.

God wasn’t being unfair, he just had a better understanding of human nature. It’s true that such an experience would have an immediate effect on these five brothers, they’d be frightened into amending their ways: they’d know what would happen to them if they didn’t. And for a while all would be well, but how long would it last? How long before they started to forget the frightening experience: how long before the attraction of money and a life of luxury started to tempt them again? A week? No, surely longer? Two weeks? No. Maybe after a year or two they’d forget all about the warnings. They’d be back to square one again, or worse.

Notice the only reason they would have changed is out of fear; but that’s not real change. Real change takes place within a person’s heart. It is love that really makes us change. When we fear something we can change but it won’t last. Good catholics used to live in fear of mortal sin? From our earliest days we were threatened with mortal sin. And you know what happens to you if you die in mortal sin?! You’d burn in hell for all eternity. If we missed Mass on a Sunday it was a mortal sin; if we broke any of the ten commandments it was a mortal sin; if we led immoral lives it was a mortal sin. In those days Catholics went to confession once a fortnight. The fear of mortal sin kept many people on the straight and narrow. But was it fear alone that did this?

Look at the situation today when the fear of mortal sin has disappeared, now most good Catholics go to Confession just twice a year, and many don’t go at all. People miss Mass on a Sunday and don’t think they’re going to hell. Many people who used to go to Church now no longer do so. The fear of committing mortal sin has disappeared for many.

Now that fear has gone what makes us go to Church? What makes me get up in the morning when I know most other people are still in bed, or a garden centre, or a car boot sale, or watching Preston North End. What makes me try to live a decent life? What makes me want to give up my selfish ways and become a better person? It isn’t fear. No, we’ve risen above that. The Holy Spirit is now touching our hearts; and once the heart is touched then change becomes much easier, and more permanent. The goal of Scripture is to do just that: to change a person from his or her heart.

A woman told me last weekend that she was in her late thirties before she ever heard of a spiritual life, an inner-life. This is sad, because true religion is about the inner-life. It’s about changing a person from within. No amount of threats will do this. Only love can. Only love can bring about the kind of change that makes a person a better person. It’s not easy and it takes time. But once your heart is touched then you will be a better person; like Scrooge, you’ll stop thinking only about yourself, and go out into the world, with a smile on your face, and a willingness to serve others. Then we’ll all live happily every after.

25th Sunday of the Year (c) 2016 I remember seeing a film years ago called ‘Cabaret’. There was singing and dancing in it; and one of the lines in a song was ‘money makes the world go round’. I mention that because money is mentioned in our readings today and particularly the gospel, but in a different way; ‘you cannot be the slave of God and of money.’ So, here’s a clash of values: one says money makes the world go round the other, that we are not to be slaves of money. And yet money is something we all need; whether we have vows of poverty or not. We need to pay our bills, buy food, buy all sorts of things. So, you could say that money is a necessary evil. And yet, it can do a lot of good as well. In the right hands money can help people. I celebrated a jubilee recently and people gave me money. I bought a watch with it. I lost my last one some months ago. Everyone knows the saying ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’. Notice it is not money in itself that is the root of all evil but the love of it. Love of money can lead to corruption. We’ve seen far too much of that in recent years, in our banks and big businesses; institutions that we once trusted have in some cases let us down. Money in the bank was always considered to be safe. Not any more. Some banks have even closed due to greed. I think many will remember a man called Nick Leeson, who worked in the Far East and managed to, single handedly, bring down Britain’s oldest bank. No one challenged him, because he was making a lot of money for the bank. But in the end, it all went terribly wrong. He went to prison and his marriage broke up. We know another expression, ‘money does not bring us happiness’ or is there a ‘necessarily’ in there somewhere? I was in a taxi recently. And as is my wont, I got talking to the driver. He said that if he ever wrote a book, the title would be ‘How bankruptcy saved my life’. How extraordinary. I know of other people who went bankrupt and went the other way: some even took their lives. The taxi driver explained that before the financial crash he was a wealthy man, with a lot of property. As a result he lived the life of a high flier. He smoked and drank to excess and gambled large sums of money. But since he went bankrupt he has had to give up drinking and smoking, consequently he is a lot fitter, and now he has time for his family. He has learned a valuable lesson. He now realizes that there are somethings in life that are much more important than money. Money won’t buy you friends. Didn’t the Beatles sing, ‘can’t buy me love’. No, it can’t buy me friends, and can’t buy me love. It can however, buy me a lot of problems. I suppose one could argue the absence of money can also cause problems. But the gospel talks about money in the context of trust; ‘if you then cannot be trusted with money…who will trust you with genuine riches?’ Notice the implication: that money isn’t genuine riches? True richness, true wealth, has to do with values, and often values that you can’t see. I went to a locksmith in Preston, ‘Collins and Son’, Lancaster Rd. I wanted some keys cut. So he cut one but wasn’t sure if it would be ok. He told me he wouldn’t charge me, but go home and see if the key would fit, then come back and he’d cut the other two when I came back, then I could pay. I was struck by his trust. As a result I will always go back there again. I was in London, in upmarket Mayfair, looking for somewhere to have a cheap lunch. Fat chance. However, I eventually found a sandwich bar. I ordered a take away. Was about to pay when the owner said no; he saw me with a roman collar on, and, I don’t know if he was a catholic or not, but he wouldn’t accept any payment. I won’t forget this gesture either. It made me feel good, not just that I had saved money, in fact that wasn’t an issue, it was how good human nature can be. How generous people can be. And this is true richness. Kindness and generosity are worth more than silver and gold. And the person who has these qualities may not have much money, but they are rich in other more important ways. The wealthy man or woman may have many fair weather friends. When the money runs out so do the so called friends. I read recently about a famous professional footballer, who played for one of the top London clubs, and capped many times for England, but who is now homeless. Where are his friends now that he needs them? And I’m not talking about Paul Gasgoigne. No, money won’t buy you friends. But kindness and generosity will. The person who others trust, whose word is their bond, who never cheats or tells lies, is indeed a rich person. This is what Christ is trying to teach us this morning. We wouldn’t have so many problems in our banks and big institutions if the message of Christ was listened to more and put into practice. ‘You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.’

Yesterday, 15th September, I celebrated 40 years as a Discalced Carmelite friar. 1976-2016. That’s a long time. I was 26 at the time and that seemed quite old, but add to that 40 more years. Wow! I was professed with three others, one of whom has gone to his eternal reward. I don’t actually remember that much about the day. I can recall it was sunny; that’s because we had the longest, driest summer in 1976 for many years. I remember longing for rain, even praying for it, as everything was dried up. It was the start of my life in Carmel. I thank God for it, because for several years before I joined I was wondering what to do with my life. I was working in a shipping and forwarding agency in London, my fifth move. I did not want to spend the rest of my life doing this but nor did I know what I wanted to do. So, I am grateful to God for inspiring me to join Carmel. It was a Jesuit priest who first put the thought of priesthood in my mind, then I saw a Benedictine monk at Ealing Abbey, who introduced me to the Discalced Carmelites. When I visited the Carmelites near Oxford, it was all very strange but I felt at home; I felt I was welcomed and accepted. So, I am so grateful to the Carmelites for accepting me. It has been good. I am so grateful for the many people I have met, and the places I have lived and ministered in: England, Scotland, Italy, Spain, the Holy Land and Malawi. I have seen many changes but essentially the Order is the same as the day I joined it. Now I am getting ready for the next 40 years

24th Sunday of the Year (c) 2016 Before I joined a Religious Order I used to work. Which isn’t to say that I don’t work now. Then one day I decided to become a Priest in the Carmelite Order. I didn’t want to tell my work colleagues because I didn’t think that most of them would appreciate it; and if I told the one or two that would, they’d tell the rest. So I told no one. On my last day at the office, the tea lady came around as usual with her tea and rolls. She knew I was leaving but didn’t know where. She told me she didn’t mind where I was going, as long as I wasn’t going to be a monk! What’s wrong with being a monk? I suppose to many people it’s as odd a way of life as you could choose. Monks were not like other people they were different: and for monks read: Nuns, Priests, Brothers. But, truth to tell, I did feel different. Not different in a arrogant way, but definitely different. And when I visited the lady who was making my habit and looked at myself in the mirror, there could be no doubt. I was different. And I was happy to be different. Just before going to the Novitiate I was drinking at our local pub. There was a crowd of us, as usual. And someone who knew I was going off to be a Carmelite friars said in all seriousness: ‘John, don’t change’. To this day I remember his words and the sincerity with which he said them. But what was I to do? I couldn’t help but change. My whole lifestyle was to change: no more pubs, drinking, parties, girlfriends. In our Carmelite novitiate there was no tv, radio, newspapers. We prayed in the chapel for five hours each day, and the rest of the time we were in our rooms. We were not encouraged to write too often, not at all during Lent. We never ate meat; just fish everyday, even Christmas day. But, yes, I did change. I couldn’t but change. And I was happy to change. And yet my very first experience of Carmelite Life was an eye opener. It took place about six months before I eventually joined. As I entered the chapel all the friars were saying the Miserere, Psalm 50, ‘ have mercy on me God in your kindness, in your compassion blot out my offense’. It was the psalm we read before the gospel. So here were these ‘monks’ admitting to being sinners: But of course I couldn’t believe that they were sinners. You only had to look at them. They were so holy. Not like other people. And I was going to be one of them. But then, one day, I discovered that I wasn’t quite so different from others. Actually, it wasn’t something I discovered in a day, it took years. It took me a long time to acknowledge that I was still very human, with all the selfishness and pride like everyone else. For a long time I was in denial. But then one day I acknowledged that I was a sinner. You notice in today’s Gospel how attractive Jesus is to ‘the tax collectors and sinners’. How they were all seeking his company. Not only that but they also listened to him. Why did they want to listen to him?. There were other teachers, other rabbi’s. But you know that some teachers are off-putting: some because they are too clever; some because they are not good teachers; some because they have so much knowledge they make you feel inadequate. Jesus didn’t make people feel inadequate. He wanted all those who heard him to feel comfortable. He didn’t want to make them feel bad about themselves, as others would have done. Instead he sits down with them and eats with them. No judgement, no condemnation; in anything he feels sorry for them. But we too are sinners. All of us struggle with our fallen humanity. We can pretend, ignore it, not look at that side of our lives that is far from good. Or, we can quietly, gently, acknowledge that we are no better than anyone else; that we are indeed struggling with our humanity; we take two steps forward and one back. Sometimes two! But the irony is that the Christian ho acknowledges that she or he is a sinner will be an attractive person: they will attract others, because they have overcome their pride; in a word they are humble. The more humble you are the more attractive you will be to others. Do not complain when strangers sit beside you on the train or bus, or in the pub, and pour out their hearts to you. It is your opportunity to help these people feel better about themselves, as Christ did with the tax collectors and sinners. So, never be afraid to acknowledge your sinfulness; it won’t make you ugly, on the contrary, you will find that people will be attracted to you.