Sermon for Xtian Unity Week

Sermon at St Mary Abbots, Sunday 26th January 2020

Choral Matins | Christian Unity Week

            We are still in Christmas mode; the time of the Epiphany. Actually the Roman Catholic Church finished the Christmas period two weeks ago.  It’s good to know that, for once, we are ahead of the Church of England. I am happy to preach on the theme of Christmas and particularly the Epiphany, when the wise men came to Bethlehem, to signify the revelation of this child to the world. Here we are today celebrating the same feast. Not all of us are wise. Not all of us are men. Nonetheless, we are called to replace the wise men and reveal this child to the nations. 

            The Gospel passage we’ve just heard uses, what for many, are abstract words, particularly the use the Greek, philosophical term, ‘The Word’. When you look at the crib and see the little babe; you don’t normally say, “ah, look at the Word”.  I’m sure the shepherds who came to see the child never used such language. They would have said something like, “ah, look. Isn’t he cute”. When we see a baby we can change. We might make funny noises like people do when they try to communicate with babies, “coudgy, coudgy coo” or words to that effect. Some people just pull funny faces. But you wouldn’t say, “hello Word. Coudgy, coudgy coo”, would you? Or, if you were a biblical scholar, “hello Logos. Coudgy coudgy coo”. Well, I wouldn’t. 

            No, the child Jesus is a child. It’s an ordinary looking baby; nothing abstract or philosophical about it. Soon Mary will have to change its nappy as every Mum has to do, because all babies need their nappies changing. Maybe Joseph was liberated and he too changed Jesus’ nappy. This looks like a very ordinary child, except to his parents of course; like all parents it is the most beautiful baby in the world. Now if he were born today you’d be seeing lots photos of him; now this is one just after he was born, doesn’t he luke cute; here’s one of him in the crib: doesn’t he look gorgeous; and here’s one with him with the ox and the donkey; and, look here’s one with one of the shepherds holding him. You can see he looks a bit frightened. Well, what child wouldn’t be. But doesn’t he look beautiful? 

            This child isn’t just beautiful it is God; it is the Word, it is the Logos.  The challenge for us Christians is to believe this. Not something we can take for granted. 

            The great evangelist John writes of this event. John is depicted in art as an eagle; because his vision is so lofty, he flies so high above all others and certainly above the other three evangelists. John is the only one who calls Jesus, ‘the Word’. ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, our hands have handled, of the Word of life”.  The other three evangelists don’t speak in such lofty philosophical terms, their language is more down to earth. They describe how the disciples ate and drank with Jesus. How they walked from village to village with him. How they got hot and tired and thirsty with him. They argued with him, boasted about who was the greatest with him. Fished with him. They went to weddings with him, drank lots of wine with him. Embraced him, hugged him, slapped him on the back.  This is a different description of the Word, as related by Mathew, Mark and Luke, not so spiritual or philosophical but one we could more easily relate to.  

            Then the baby grew up to be a young boy, then a young man, then a man. A man among other men in his mountain top village of Nazareth. He was in many ways just like the other men in his village. Today, we might say: he was “one of the lads”.  It can still shock us when we read in scripture how his own people rejected him; some even thought he was out of his mind!  But we shouldn’t be shocked. We are coming at this truth with the hindsight of 2000 years; and hindsight is the clearest form of sight. Had we been alive at the time, had we lived in Nazareth village, had we gone to school with him, had we seen him grow up, had we seen him going out each day to work with his father, had we seen him at the wine harvest, or at weddings, had we experienced these mundane things, would we have understood what he was saying in the synagogue that the prophesy of Isaiah is being fulfilled even as you listen?  Would we have got down on our knees, as we would today, and worship him as the Son of God: truly God and truly man? I doubt it. 

            History can make us critical and incredulous of those who knew him: that they didn’t recognize who he really was.  But what about us today, with the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight, of experience, of the witness of others, especially the martyrs, the saints: are we any better? Are we like John the Evangelist; when we look in the crib: do we see the Word, the Son of God.  Because if we do, then it will have changed our lives. 

            Someone who has faith in Jesus as the only son of God, will be different from others. This has always been important but never so much as today. Today we are living in a secular and materialistic society; a society that has pushed God to the periphery. Our Christian values are being eroded by other more secular values. No longer is Sunday, for instance, a day to stop work in order to worship God. People now have to go to work, at least many of them. If they are not working many spend their Sundays at a garden centre or rugby or football match, or just simply having a long lie in. The majority of people living in England will not have looked at a crib at Christmas; the closest they’ll come to that is if they watched ‘The Vicar of Dibley, Christmas Special’.  How are those people going to hear the Word of God? It’s such an important question and the answer is equally important: they will hear the Word of God through us. We are called to evangelize these people, to tell them about the Good News of Jesus Christ; to tell them that God is a God of love and mercy. 

            This is the challenge for us Christians today, living in this secular society. We have to believe ourselves that the baby Jesus is the Word; that Jesus is the Logos. Not just any old baby but God himself. If we are to be effective evangelizers then our faith has to transform our lives. And we will be concerned not only for those who come to church but for the majority who don’t. Our faith will give us a desire to be evangelizers, to go out to others. Our faith has been given to us as a gift, it is not meant to be kept to ourselves, but to be shared with others. 

            We, Roman Catholics, haven’t really been very good at evangelization. We have tended to look after our own. But times have changed, and so have we. Several decades ago one of our Popes, wrote an encyclical letter entitled, ‘Evangelization in the Modern World’. He concluded that people today are not looking for teachers so much as for witnesses.  In other words, those who lives convince others to the truths of the Gospel. Who was it who said, “go out and preach the gospel, use words if necessary”. And this is the point: it is not by preaching to others that we will convince people but by the way we live. If we are kind, generous, compassionate, honest and sincere people will notice. They won’t know anything about the Logos but they will see something of God in you.  This is what we were baptized for: to believe and in believing to share that faith with others. 

            And how much more effective would our sharing be if we Christians were one. The Churches in London are too comfortable in their own skin. We need to get out of our comfort zones. As baptized Christians we share a lot in common. In fact, what we share far outweighs what divides us; yet we continue to live our divisions.  

            I don’t want to finish on a negative note. It wouldn’t be right. The true Christian is positive; always the optimist. Our slogan should be “yes we can”. Yes we can be one. The world we live in needs our witness, our united witness, to the gospel message: that Jesus, born in a stable in Bethlehem, is truly God and man. To share this news, this Good News, isn’t an option, it’s an obligation imposed on us when we were baptised. If you love the incarnate Word then you can’t keep that love to yourself. Our world is desperate for this Good News. And for this reason, we owe it to God to try harder to bring about unity. “Yes, we can”. 

Homily for 3rd Sunday

3rd Sunday of the Year ( A ) 2020

            I am sure that like me many people love the fact that the days are getting longer. I don’t mind that it is only minutes each day because I know that we are going in the right direction. And soon we shall have long bright days. There’s something about light that is so attractive. Is it a coincidence that Christ is born into the world when the days start to get longer? I don’t think so. 

            We read in the gospel today that Jesus moves to Capernaum, as a result we are told, from the prophesy of Isaiah, that a ‘great light has dawned’.  It’s a lovely image: not just a light, but a great light has dawned.  Light tends to suggest happiness and joy. Have you seen those summer holiday ads, where you see people lazing on the beach, enjoying the sunshine, laughing and jumping into the sea.  What fun these people seem to be having. 

            So Christ comes to Capernaum and a light shines in this lakeside town. What are Christ first words? ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand’.  At first, it appears to be a bit of a dampener. The word ‘repentance’ has a certain killjoy ring about it. We hear of evangelical preachers threatening people to repent before it’s too late. There is then almost a threat about it: if you don’t repent you’ll suffer for all eternity. So, one might ask: where’s the light, the joy, the fun that Christ is supposed to bring?

            I can’t really say that repentance is fun; that wouldn’t be right. But it is not a negative word, indeed it’s a very positive word. It means to turn back, and in this instance it means to turn back to God. The presumption being that we have turned away from Him. Surely no one is always turned towards God, even the saints had their off days. And if that is true of the saints what about us?  Surely, we can often forget about God. We can switch off. It’s easily done. After all, we live in a secular society, God is pushed to the periphery. Our eyes and ears are bombarded with sounds and images that have nothing to do with God. Our materialistic society seduces us into thinking that happiness comes from possessing as much as possible.  In such a world, it’s so easy to switch God off and to turn in to a world that offers instant pleasure and fun.  Yet so often our secular society leads people to be unhappy and sad and miserable. 

            Christ came to teach us that a Christian can have fun, can really enjoy the good things of life. Repentance means to turn away from values that appear to offer happiness, to values that definitely offer happiness. Repentance means to begin again, which is something we can do every day, and probably need to do every day. The Lord has infinite patience with us. He keeps calling us to repent, to turn back to Him. He will do this throughtout our lives. Not just once. Never believe people who tell you that you only have one chance; that may apply in some circumstances but not with God; for God gives us endless chances. And what joy is experienced when we do turn back to Him. It is a joy that nothing in this world can give us. It is a joy that no one can take from us. Isn’t that Good News?

Homily for 2nd Sunday

2nd Sunday of the Year (a) 2020

            We can all say with John the Baptist about Jesus, “I did not know him myself”. Jesus lived and died 2000 years ago, so we had no chance to know him. Is that a disadvantage? You sometimes here people say: “if only I could see Jesus then my faith would be much stronger”. You can understand why someone would say that, but it’s not necessarily true. There were many people who saw Jesus in his own day, even saw him perform miracles but they still didn’t believe in him. Faith in Jesus isn’t therefore about sight, about seeing and touching. There are other ways of knowing Jesus, even 2000 years later.  One way of knowing him is through his friends. 

            John the Baptist wasn’t necessarily a friend of Jesus. We know he was his cousin, even though they didn’t seem to know each other. John says at the end of today’s gospel; “Yes, I have seen and I am witness that he is the Chosen One of God”.  It’s that word “witness” that is important: John witnessed to Christ. John’s witness didn’t end at his death. John had his own disciples. They continued to be his disciples for centuries afterwards. As each generation passed away so a new took up the baton. 

            As well as John’s disciples there were, of course, Christ’s own disciples. Beginning with the 12 apostles.  We know that Peter and Paul and James, and many others died a martyr’s death. They witnessed to Christ with their blood.  And this witnessing passed on from generation to generation, down through the centuries, until our own day. Today we have our own witnesses to Christ; some of them are well known: St. Mother Teresa, Saint John Paul II, St Padre Pio, to name but three, but many, many others are not well known. How often have I heard someone say, “my mother was a saint”. Sometimes “my father was a saint” but more often the mother. They will never probably be canonized but they left a deep and lasting impression by their lives. 

            The truth is that we are all called to witness to Christ. We see witnesses to Christ in our own generation; we see people who are gentle, in spite of oppression. We see people who are courageous in the face of terrible violence.  We see people who are kind to those who are rude to them. There are people who would give you their last penny. Those who go out of their way to help someone in need. These are our saints. They witness to the values of the gospel. By knowing them we know Christ. 

            Christ has come into the world in order to be known. He wants us to know him, love him and serve him. And what he is telling us to do is to witness to the people of our generation. He wants us to love like he did. Love makes the world go round; not power, not money, not hatred, but love. It is the greatest force and we are called to know him who is love, our saviour Jesus Christ. Look at him. He is here among us, in the good people you know; but he is also in you; don’t forget that. 

Homily for Baptism of Christ

Baptism of the Lord (2020)

            Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. Baptism did not originate with Jesus. Indeed, we see John baptizing before Jesus; he in fact baptises Jesus. No, baptism began long before Jesus, but not as we know it. John the Baptist learned how to baptise from a group of holy men known as the Essenes. Some of you may have been to the Holy Land, and to the famous Qumram, where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls. In Qumram there is a pool of water, which the men went into once a year to cleanse themselves physically and spiritually. Well it was from this that we get the concept of baptism. They would walk down some steps, into the water, before walking out the other side.  It was an annual cleansing event. 

            The gospel tells us that Jesus was baptised in the river Jordan. It tells us ‘as soon as Jesus was baptised he came up from the water’. Notice that: he was immersed in water. John the Baptist knew who he was and tried to dissuade him; “It is I who need baptism from you”. Jesus saw this event as the beginning of his public ministry; baptism for him wasn’t just symbolic, it was making a statement: that from now on he became a public figure. Till now his life was hidden. God the Father uses this occasion to commission Him: “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.”

            Our baptisms are a beginning too. Most of us were baptized as babies; I certainly was. You were baptized as soon as possible after your birth. Baptism washed away our sins, above all what we call ‘original sin’.  We begin our post-baptismal life as pure as pure can be. Of course, with the way we baptize today it is hard to see the symbolism of washing and cleansing. The font is small. You couldn’t get in it. You certainly couldn’t be immersed in it. And yet, the Greek catholics still manage to put the entire baby into the water. All we roman catholics do is pour a few drops of water over the babies head. This isn’t good enough. It is a poor symbol of what is happening. Our sins are being washed away by the waters of baptism. The more water, therefore, the better. 

            Like Jesus, baptism is for us too a beginning. It is the beginning of our life in God. It is therefore, after our birth, the most important event in our lives. We are cleansed of our sins. We are no longer the same. At the same time we are commissioned by God to imitate His Son; to go out and tell people about the Father: about his love, his mercy and justice. But the awareness of what has happened takes time. Usually a very long time; often a lifetime. A great change has taken place on the day of our baptism, but because we were babies we don’t see it. Nothing extraordinary happens; there is no voice from heaven, yet we are not the same; we are holy; we are sacred to the Lord.

The good Christian will become ever more aware of the importance of his or her baptism. And once they do it makes such a difference. Our ordinary lives now take on an extraordinary dimension. Everything we do has a significance it never had before. We are now holy, sacred. Yes, we are sinners, we are far from perfect, but God looks on us and smiles. On the day of our baptism He has given us a role to fulfil which only we can. And our lives are that much fuller when we discover what that is. Which is essentially to tell others about the love and mercy of God. 

Homily for The Epiphany

The Feast of the Epiphany 2020

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Wise Men came to Bethlehem. They must have wondered why was the star guiding them to this small place. They knew from their Arabic that the town meant: ‘house of bread’. But that is all they knew. They were dependent on the light of the star to guide them. 

What were they doing this in the first place? They were called ‘wise men’ for a reason. Today we might have used the word intelligent men or even scientists. Back in their native land they studied the stars. They were experts. One day they noticed a strange new phenomenon: a new star had appeared in the heavens. In the minds of these wise men this could only mean one thing; that a person of extraordinary importance had been born. And so that set off to find this person and to do him homage. 

As they journeyed along they must have discussed with each other who this extraordinary child might be: surely a king. No one would disagree with that. For this reason they were not surprised when the star led them to Jerusalem. It was a magnificent town with a temple the like of which they had never seen for size and beauty. Surely this new born king would be born in a palace; they kind of palace you’d find in Jerusalem. But to their surprise he wasn’t there. Instead the star led them to a poor village just an hour’s walk south of Jerusalem. Imagine their surprise when the star stood still over Bethlehem. They had come such a long way, trusting in the guidance of the star, surely it couldn’t have made a mistake. 

It led them to the home of Jesus Mary and Joseph. It must have caused quite a surprise in Bethlehem to see these three strange men on camels entering their village. It would have caused an even greater surprise to Mary and Joseph. I suppose there was surprise all round, but there was also reverence and mystery. The star did not make a mistake: this was the child. This was why a new star was born. Nature itself recognised the new born king; and not just any old king, if you can say such a thing about royalty, but the King of the Universe. The three wise men offered their gifts to the child and they did him homage. And then they returned home to tell others what they had seen. 

When we come to the crib we shall see the wise men kneeling and offering their gifts. They had come a long way to see the Christ child; a phenomenon like none other, they would never forget this experience. 

We too should never forget this experience. Soon we shall be taking down our decorations and putting the Christmas tree outside for the bin-men; some have done this already. Christmas for too many people will become a memory. For us, Christians, every day we should remember Christmas. Every day we should do homage to our God. He became one of us in order to tell us about the Father. He came to tell us of the Father’s love and mercy. Like the Wise men let us tell others about what we have seen. Let us share the love this child has come to bring with others in our world. Otherwise, Christmas will be just an event that occurs once a year, soon to be forgotten as we plan our summer holidays. Christmas is not just for one day, it is for ever. It is the greatest story every told; and it is ongoing. In our lives God come to us to tell us: I love you. You are lovable in my eyes. Now go out and tell others.