Sunday, February 18, 2018

Watch out! Here comes virtue!

Sermon for the first Sunday in Lent

A plane crashes.

You watch the result on the television and see the terrible aftermath. Your heart goes out to the dead and their families and friends. You are genuinely saddened. So what do you do?

Write a Facebook status? A blog post? Video yourself offering thoughts and prayers? 

Why? Why do you need to do anything? No friend or family member of yours was on the plane. No-one associated with the crash is going to know who you are or how valuable your sentiments are. They are going to be concerned with rebuilding their lives. Why should your public display of grief matter?

[PAUSE]

It's a good point. We hear Our Lord say quite categorically to His followers, " when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward." He says that we should not do things for the sake of appearances. The only reward you get is everyone's approval which will very quickly grow cold like a forgotten cup of tea.

Yet, hang on. A plane has crashed. People are hurting. Surely they need to know that you're standing with them? That's a different thing. You're standing in solidarity with them, just as the saints in Heaven, even Our Lady stand in solidarity with us, just as even Our God Himself deliberately chooses human flesh so that He can stand in solidarity with us against the tragedies of our humanity. Surely, that's okay? You're letting people know so that they can find some comfort even in the most remote glimmer that somehow, somewhere, someone kind is thinking of them.

But they won't see it, will they?

Are you sure that you aren't doing something in order to be seen doing something, even if you know full well that the gesture is utterly futile?

We have to be able to see the difference between virtue signalling - expressing our morals with the intent to be socially acceptable - and true virtue. The Devil tempts us to perform acts of virtue signalling just as he tempted Our Lord. The actions of turning stones to bread to feed the hungry and throwing oneself from the top of the temple to demonstrate God's power fall are actions of virtue signalling because they are done for motives that are not pure, rather they are done for personal glory and approval from the people who would see these deeds happen.

We need to be able to tell the difference because actions of virtue signalling can be very subtle as posting something heart-warming on Facebook might demonstrate, especially when you see those "likes" build up.

[PAUSE]

This requires very, very careful examination of our own motives in our lives, and Lent helps us to do just that. It is best to ask your priest for help so that you don't go wrong, but self-examination is something that every Christian should do. The key thing is that true virtue cannot be separated from God, because all virtue comes to us by grace.

St Paul writes words of encouragement for us.
We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also, that ye receive not the grace of God in vain... giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed; but in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God.
God gives us His grace. Remember that grace is God's presence working with us and in giving us grace, He gives us Himself. We can receive God's grace in vain, as St Paul suggests, by working without God's input. However, if we are to do anything at all for good, we need the grace of God. We are made right with God through our faith and by cooperating with God. This doesn't come from good works alone, nor through faith alone, but by uniting the two in our walk with God. With God, it's not what we do, it's that we do.

[PAUSE]

We may be accused of virtue signalling even when we are not. That's irrelevant. St Paul says that, through God's grace, we can approve ourselves as the ministers of God. What does this mean? It means that, however the world looks at us, no matter how our actions are judged, or what consequences they may have, what we do for the love of God will bear God's fruit with God's grace. If we do something for God, then we are God's minister, and through working with God we can be sure that we have done something to demonstrate our love for our neighbours.

Our virtue is not for signalling: it is for doing. Can you be sure that your virtues are signals of God's presence with you?


Sunday, February 11, 2018

For the love of a narcissus


Sermon for Quinquagesima

As spring approaches, we begin already to see the flowers starting to come up. In particular, in March you will see the daffodil and the narcissus start to come out in the flower beds. The narcissus, you may already know, has a particularly sad story behind it according to the Greek Myths.

In this particular myth, we see a handsome young man who deals very cruelly with the women who fall for him. Once such is a nymph called Echo whose love for him is so strong that, even when Narcissus rejects her, does not stop loving him. She mourns and pines away until only her voice is left, doomed only to repeat the last few words in the sentences she hears. As a punishment, Narcissus is doomed to fall in love with his reflection. In this way, Narcissus suffers precisely what he inflicts on others: he cannot receive his own love and eventually he, like poor Echo, wastes away until all that is left is the flower that bears his name.

This is all very well, but is this Christian?

[PAUSE]

As Christians, we are to be in the world but not of it. We may observe the story told about Narcissus and ask ourselves, “is this true? Is God telling us something through this story?” Indeed He is, and He uses St Paul to explain it to us in one of his most famous pieces of writing to us.
He tells us quite clearly: we can be expert communicators, we can be the wisest scholars, we can be the most generous person there is yet, if we do not have love, then we have already become nothing. Like both Narcissus and Echo, if our love is not really the Love that God is, we have already wasted away. What has gone wrong?

[PAUSE]

Looking carefully at what St Paul says, the work that we do to become expert communicators, wise, and generous people is not true love because any love that we are showing is being directed inwardly towards ourselves. We can give up everything we have for the sole purpose of gaining respect and affection of others. Some people do indeed do that. They are prepared to make sacrifices so that they can manipulate others through some form of respect and admiration. If our motivation is not from true love, then everything that we do, and everything that we are actually becomes nothing. It will all pass away when we die, and we shall die indeed because God is not there.

Much of the problems in society come about because people think they know what love is. They will demand the right to love whomsoever they want and express that love however they want. Yet, if we look very closely at their language of rights and love, we see that they are motivated only by a ghost of what love is. Many people behave like Narcissus and spurn true love in favour of a love that bigs up their own achievements or even their own beliefs about who they say they are. They reduce themselves to just being a communicator, a wise man, or a “nice guy”, or something else and expect us to love only that aspect of them. It’s like writing your name on a piece of paper and telling people to love that paper rather the real you, the you that really is, not a nothing that really isn’t.

What is this love, then?

[PAUSE]

It’s very simple. God creates us. God wants to create us. God has no need to create us. He does so out of no desire for Himself, but rather that we should be. This is His love and it is directed out from Himself to us, not back in on Himself.

Our love for others needs to be directed out from ourselves. This is why St Paul says, “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth.”

People who suffer for the good of others and are kind direct their love out from themselves. People who envy, or puff themselves up, or behave in an unseemly fashion, or get irritated, these are concerned only with something about themselves.

[PAUSE]

The trouble is, we now face the Joey Tribbiani question. Is there anything that we human beings do that isn’t actually selfish in some way? Possibly. Possibly not. However, one thing is clear: we cannot be anything unless we have love and draw that love from God Himself. Lent is about an examination of our relationship with God and working on turning to Him as our Creator. As long as we are looking to Him and to Him alone, whatever we do doesn’t matter for it will always be done with Love.

Come May, the narcissus will be gone, wasted away into itself. Will we?

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Your credentials, please!

Sermon for Septuagesima

You hear a woman calling in the street, "repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!" Of course, you feel uncomfortable by this brazen display of being religious, but one of the questions that might go through your mind is, "who is she to say that?"

What might make us trust her message? What will give us confidence that she is qualified to go around and preach this discomfort?

What if she is a doctor of divinity from Oxbridge?
What if she is a Dominican nun?
What if she is well known for having visions from God?
What if she is an Anglican Catholic?

[PAUSE]

Everyone who makes some authoritative statement in today's society has to present their credentials so that people can be satisfied that they have the required authority and suitability for issuing that statement. We would expect someone who says, "the UK Economy will grow, this year" to have had much experience of working in the global financial industry. Likewise, we would expect someone who says, "Chocolate Orange causes ingrown toenails" to have a medical degree and substantial time in medical research before we accept that.

St Paul has to go through this procedure too. His previous message to the Church in Corinth has caused many in that Church to question his credentials. "Who is he to say that to us?" they say as St Paul takes them to task on their obsession with spiritual gifts. The trouble is that the Corinthians will not hear his message - they will not hear the word of God - until it is shown to be acceptable to their earthly way of thinking. They have ears, but they will not hear it with those ears until they cry out to Our Lord Jesus for those earth-filled ears to be unblocked.

You hear that woman's voice again! "Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!" Is this woman speaking God's will?

[PAUSE]

You might call into question her credentials. Perhaps she got her doctorate in Divinity by bribery or studied some obscure topic such as "breakfasts of the apostles." Perhaps she has just been expelled from the Dominican Order for preaching too loudly. Perhaps her visions of God are due to a lithium imbalance in the brain. Perhaps she is one of those people who claim to be Anglican Catholic but is just using the name to validate her own sect.

If we don't want to hear the message, it's very easy to discredit the messenger.

And that's the problem. Sometimes, we focus too much on the messengers than the messages that they bring.

St Paul know this well. He regards his own credentials as being magnificently irrelevant. All that he has done, all that he has experienced, all that might give him some qualification, all that might earn him respect, all can be called into question by others because they cannot experience St Paul's life for themselves. There is no worth in his actions that will convince everyone that he is telling the truth.

This is why he is asking us to listen to his message, and evaluate that.

There she goes again, "repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!"

[PAUSE]

Suddenly, the women herself becomes irrelevant, though she is infinitely precious in the eyes of God. It is her words that we hear.

If we are good and if we are honest, we will recognise those words as being of Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

Do we, too, ask Our Lord to present His credentials before we will listen to Him?

If we're Christian, there will be one thing that will convince us that this is His message and that His message is true, and that is His Cross. It is that Cross that has the most impact, the most earth-shattering, curtain-rending, heaven-rending impact which must convince the Christian of the truth of the message. This impact we call Glory.

This is how we know whether a message is true - does it bear the glory of Christ's Cross? Does it present the great truth of God made man, born, crucified, risen and ascended? If it does and holds the truth of the Gospel, the message that the Church has always possessed, then it is true and the person of the messenger is irrelevant. For this is the word of God and, in the good and honest heart, it will grow and bear fruit.

You don't need a degree in fruit-bearing for that to happen.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

He can lead us into temptation but a pencil must be lead

Recently, Pope Francis has (again) courted controversy this time with his views on the Lord's Prayer. He takes issue with "lead us not into temptation" because he says, "A father does not do that, a father helps you to get up immediately." He prefers to say, "do not let us fall into temptation".

The trouble is that the Greek text which is the earliest record of what the Lord says does say quite clearly "lead us not into temptation". The Greek word is eisenegkēs - "may you bring into..." - a very clear expression of us being led by God. However, what does this actually mean? Is God responsible for putting us into positions where we can be tempted away from Him.

There is an apparent contradiction here:

1) God wills us nothing but Good.
2) God might lead us into temptation.

We must appreciate the hurt and scandal that our Patriarch is trying to address here. There seems to be an inconsistency in God's behaviour towards us. However, we need to try and unpack what Our Lord says when He tells us to pray "lead us not into temptation."

The Greek word peirasmos can mean an experiment, trial or a test. When the Lord is taken into the desert specifically to be tempted (peirasthÄ“nai) of the Devil in St Matthew iv.1, who does the leading? Answer: the Holy Spirit.  God leads His Son into temptation! In verse 7, we hear "Thou shalt not put the Lord to the test" and the verb "putting to the test" (ekpeiraseis) is again related to peirasmos.

It seems that when the Lord tells us to pray "lead us not into temptation" He means it. What of Pope Francis' objections?

It is clear that we need to understand peirasmos. What is temptation?

When we are tempted, we are faced with a choice: there is one choice which is immediately preferable but has serious consequences; there is another which appears hard but ultimately will bring about some good. The chocolate biscuit tastes nice, but not having diabetes is nicer. It seems, then, that temptation is a battle of wills.

Consider the Agony in the Garden. A choice presents itself to Our Lord Himself who seems never to be free from temptation in the way we are only He does not sin. This Agony comes from a very simple question, "Do I have to be crucified?" His Father's will has led Him to this occasion in which the temptation arises. The Lord's human will is tempted, but He aligns it to the Father's will which causes this agony. Our Lord articulates this desire that the cup should pass from Him and, in doing so, He presents His human will to God and thus gives it the respect of its God-given dignity. However, He seeks only the will of His Father.

Our Lord knows what it is to be led into temptation, and He doesn't wish it upon us. He does not want us to suffer, but knows that we must because of the very nature of what it is to love. Love opens itself up to be wounded: there must be agony. God does not want suffering, but suffering is necessary for some greater good that we cannot understand but rather must accept as we learn to trust God.

It is clear that, by telling us to pray not to be led into temptation, Our Lord is saying that we should not want to be put into this position of having to choose between God and not-God. What we should want is for there to be no choice for us to make, that things should be clear-cut if not easy. This means being utterly aligned to the Father's will even as He is.

It also seems that Our Lord is tempted so that we shouldn't have to be.

Thus, we need to voice to God that we do not seek out to be tempted - we do not want the martyr's death - but rather prefer the stable, quiet life in God. We can see this if we try making the opposite prayer: "lead us into temptation!" While this might appear the prayer of a champion of the Faith to test his resolve, we notice that it would be a prayer for Pelagianism: we seek to earn our way into heaven by overcoming temptation off our own merit.

Thus, perhaps we should see "lead us not into temptation" as a prayer for grace to live out God's will knowing our own weakness and fallibility. We have to fear temptation knowing that, with the best will in the world, we will probably fall so very far short by choosing the path of sin. In praying not to be led into temptation, we are praying to rely on God's grace in the face of temptation and receive our salvation at His hands.

If he is indeed questioning what is in plain scripture, Pope Francis may be inadvertently opening up major Catholic Teaching to question. If the Lord's Prayer doesn't say what it says, then why shouldn't other words of Our Lord say something different? Are the Jehovah's Witnesses actually right when they believe that Our Lord says, "this represents my body" instead of "this is my body"? If this is what he is saying, does our venerable patriarch not make it possible for Protestant innovations to become normalised?

Perhaps he isn't saying this after all. I know that I am fallible but, then again, so is he!

Friday, February 02, 2018

The Holy Family presents....

At the beginning of many of of our television programmes and films, our ears are usually sandblasted with a loud jingle and a title card saying "Cosmos Actors present..." To be honest, once our ears have stopped ringing, those first seconds of any film aren't the bit we remember, nor should they be. We don't discuss the title cards around the water cooler the next day. "Did you see Warmer Bothers' latest introduction to the film last night?"

It seems that the big showy music and logo-building aren't really anything save a declaration of who produced the show. We forget it almost immediately when the film gets going.

Yet, in the temple, an ordinary couple make a presentation to God through an aged, tired priest. No jingle, no logo, no title card, just a presentation of a baby to God as has always been done according to Jewish Law. The sacrifice is a bare minimum according to the poverty of this couple. The woman is here to give thanks for her childbearing and for His tender care through a time of very delicate health. Very few might think anything of it.

And yet in this action, the last action of Christmastide, the child presented to God is God Himself. Like holding a mirror up to a mirror, the presentation becomes reflected back, not just on The Holy Family but for us all. God presents His only begotten Son to the world.

There is no great miracle here, just simple recognition by two elderly people who have waited their entire lives to see this, It is the title card for the end of their earthly lives and the beginning of the journey into Eternity. They don't need the miracles, they just need God.

The world demands flash-bang soundbites and logos before it will respect anything, and this respect will be shortlived when the next flash-bang happens. The Christian life is about the constant presentation of ourselves to God as we are and as He knows us to be. To Him, this is more a cause of rejoicing than any empty noise of vanity could hope to engender in the Divine Countenance. We approach God simply, cognisant of our Sin, yet being bold to stand and present ourselves as we are trusting in absolutely nothing that we have done, but in His manifold and great mercies.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Turn again!

Sermon for Septuagesima

It has been about twenty years since Our Lord spoke. Then He was a child of about twelve reminding us that He must always be found in His Father's house. Now He's back and beginning His ministry to declare His Good News to the people whom He loves. And what is His first word?

It is "Repent!"

Not the most compelling start is it?

[PAUSE]

The trouble is, when we hear the word, "Repent!" we automatically see it as something negative. The word "repent" is nearly always followed by the mention of our sins. This is why repentance is always rejected by the World because of its undeniable connection with sin; and sin is a concept that the world both hates and encourages simultaneously.

However, if "repent" is the beginning of God's Good News for us, then it really cannot be a negative thing. We should be welcoming, indeed even begging for, the opportunity to repent!

[PAUSE]

"Repent" comes from Latin meaning "to seek again". It translates a Greek word which literally means to change one's mind, and this is exactly what repentance is - a change of mind so that we focus on God. In all cases, repentance is a positive, active and compelling search for the One Who created us, Who has always wanted to create us, and Who longs for us to seek Him out of our own free choice.

In repentance, our focus is not to run from Sin, but to run to God. This might surprise you. However, we do have to be careful. Remember, we simply cannot get to Heaven by our own effort. Each one of us is affected by sin whether we commit it or suffer the effects of it. We are weakened by sin and there is nothing that we can do of ourselves that will free us from it. When the Lord talks about removing the plank from our own eye so that we can see to pluck the speck in our brother's eye, He is telling us that each one of us does not possess the vision to rid ourselves or each other of sin. This is why so many of us waste our Lent in trying to remove sin from our lives by ourselves. We seem to think that we can repent by looking back at our sin. Our Lord has some harsh words to say about that!
No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
Our repentance has to be a positive action. It is not a retreat from Sin, but an assault on Evil itself. In choosing to repent, we do the greatest thing that we can do for ourselves - admit that God is our righteousness and that His way is so much better for us than our own perceptions of it.

The Salvation that God promises to His Church is effected only by the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is His grace - His active presence with us - that He offers to all men. All we have to do is to turn ourselves to Him and receive it. By seeking first the Kingdom of God, we literally turn our back on our sins. That's true repentance and we have to ask God for help in this.

St Paul shows us that the business of repentance is not easy work. Try holding the rudder of a ship steady in a force nine gale! St Paul urges us to train ourselves to run a race. He bids us prepare ourselves to fight a battle - not against Evil, but simply to hold the course to reach God. This is the beauty of Lent:  it gives us the opportunity to focus our attention on how we are turned to God in each aspect of our lives.

[PAUSE]

Repentance is thus the cause of joy in Heaven. Those who have no need of repentance either have no need of God, or they are the very saints in Heaven whose eyes are permanently fixed on the Beatific Vision of the presence of Almighty God Himself sitting upon His throne. This is why we should beg for repentance, and why we beg Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, Blessed Michael the Archangel, Blessed John Baptist, the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, Our Holy Father Benedict and all the saints to pray for us when we confess our sins to God. And Sin has no claim on us when our eyes are truly focussed on God Himself!


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Revealing Wise Opinions

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany 

While you are deep in prayer, it seems that a still, small voice whispers in your ear, "Here the word of the Lord. The world will end on Thursday! "

What do you do?

[PAUSE]

Clearly, you have received a revelation but is it a revelation from God? Well, being a good Christian, you take this revelation with a pinch of salt and remember that St John urges us to test the spirits to see if they be of God. So you go straight to the Bible and read:

"But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only."

But why did you go to the Bible? Surely the voice was convincing enough. Perhaps that Bible verse doesn't really mean that no man knows the hour. If you're female then perhaps you really do know the hour.

It's quite possible for you to start to reinterpret the Bible to support the voice that you heard.

If you can do this, what's to stop others from reinterpreting the Gospel to support what things they hear in prayer?

In fact this is where many Christians today fall down. They develop an opinion which they believe to be the same as God's and change meanings to suit them. They become wise in their own opinions.

[PAUSE]

It's a horrible fact that people are even willing to say that "love thy neighbour" doesn't apply to people who are black, or female, or suffer same-sex attraction, or who aren't Christian. They have used this to justify violence and cruelty against people whom God has created. The Bible is clear: neighbour means anyone who is nearby. This includes anyone you pass as you walk down a crowded street just as much as your parents or your spouse. St Paul says that we must not render evil for evil. We must always be ready to bless and to serve and leave all judgement of our neighbour to Him remembering that He will surely judge us with the same standards of righteousness. 

However, what if the voice says to you, "God has called you to be a priest"? What now? 

[PAUSE]

Again, we have to test the spirits. The Catholic Church has received no authority to ordain women: women priests can not be found in Scripture or Tradition. In fact the Bible is clear that women cannot be priests. This is despite Our Lord's clear esteem for women in the way that He treats them in contrast to the religious society of the day.

If God has called you to be a priest, then He will also make it clear to the Church which is charged with administering His grace on all whom He ordains. A man simply cannot declare himself to be a priest just because he has heard a voice telling him so.

God is not the author of confusion, but of order. He simply will not contradict the teaching that He has given the Church because He wants all human beings to be saved whoever they are, wherever they are, whenever they are. The message is the same today as it was in 1534, 1054, 315, 33AD or 738BC. The revelation of God is not something that can be reinterpreted to fit the day and age.

[PAUSE]

While deep in prayer, you hear a voice. If it distracts you from your prayer, then it's unlikely to be from God. However, if you have any doubt, don't worry. Bring your message to church, and then be prepared to accept what is revealed.