15th Sunday of Year A – The Parable of the Sower – Matthew 13:1–23

If, this morning, I were to go and stand  outside my local supermarket with a suitcase full of £20 notes and give away free money, you would be surprised if anyone refused the offer. There would in fact be a large queue. People would text and phone their friends. They would come from far and wide and would gladly take what I would give them and would go away happy.

And yet, we as the church offer something of far greater value than some bank notes: the love of God and life in all its fullness. If I were to stand in the middle of this village and talk to people about the love of God in Christ Jesus I doubt that there would be the same kinds of crowds, or a similar level of acceptance.

Jesus never had such problems, quite the opposite in fact, in the Gospel He has been teaching people about the Kingdom of God, and how it creates a new kind of family for us to belong to. He has been quoting from the prophet Isaiah, and now there are so many people who want to listen to what he has to say that he has to go into a boat on the Sea of Galilee to use a cove like a natural auditorium or theatre so that people can see and hear Him. He tells a parable to explain the Kingdom in a way that people could understand. A sower scatters seed, and it falls into various kinds of ground, some plants get choked by weeds. Others fall into thin soil and quickly wither and die. But some fall into good soil and produce a miraculous harvest. It’s a parable about people hearing the proclamation of the Kingdom of God: it’s easy to forget about it, to get choked by the cares of the world, to buckle under the first bit of pressure, but if you listen to what God says, and let it grow in your heart and your life then miraculous things can and will happen. Ours is an extravagant God, a generous God, a God who loves us.

The Church has always struggled with the fact that there are those who are unwilling or unable to receive the message of the Gospel of salvation. It seems so strange that people just aren’t interested in who Jesus is, in what He does, and why it matters.

I certainly don’t understand why anyone would think like that. It makes perfect sense to me, as a man of faith who loves Jesus. I want to tell people about Him. That is why I’m standing here talking to you. It is thanks to the example of a great and holy priest, Fr Glyn Bowen, who lived next door but one to us when I was a child. He was a humble, loving man, who lived out his faith and inspired me and countless others to follow Jesus.

We cannot do everything ourselves, we have to leave some things up to God.  But we can hope and trust along with the apostle Paul that ‘the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’ (Rom 8:21 NRSV). We must remember that the spread of the Good News, like all things, is in God’s hands. Unlike in the supermarkets, the Church’s offers are not time-limited. We should not allow people’s reluctance to accept the gospel to detract us from our main purpose. We as Christians are to love God and to love our neighbour, in thought word and deed. This is the key to our faith.

By living lives which proclaim the gospel truth, that there is much more to life than the false enticements of this world, we become fruitful evangelists, with the word of God dwelling in us deeply. As Christians, all of our lives need to be filled with Christ-like love. It cannot be otherwise. Through regular prayer, and reading of the scriptures, but most of all through regular reception of Holy Communion, we can be fed by the Lord, with the Lord,  to become living temples to His glory.

For God is seeking the healing of his people as noted by the prophet Isaiah which Jesus quotes:

You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn — and I would heal them.” (Mt 13:14-15 NRSV)

Isaiah is giving a message of hope to Israel, to trust in God, and turn towards Him, so that they may be healed. It is fulfilled in Jesus, who brings about that healing on the Cross, when He reconciles us to God and each other. ‘And I would heal them’, Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah ends with a promise of God’s healing. It is a promise which Jesus fulfils on the Cross. Here He shows us that God wants to heal His people, and has sent His Son to do it. This is the Good News of the Kingdom.

We can have a truly loving community in and through Christ, who has taken our sins upon Himself, and reconciled us to God and each other. It allows us to live in an entirely different way to the ways of the world, the ways of sin and division. And in the growth of the Church we can see the New Life and miraculous harvest which God offers.

The people of our generation are reluctant or scared to accept God’s love. They have become inherently suspicious of the idea of a free gift. The only way that they can be encouraged to accept it is by seeing in the lives of people around them examples of how the free love of God affects our lives. We need to reflect God’s love in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds.

So then, let us pray that we may be fed by Him, nourished by Him, strengthened to live lives of gospel truth which proclaim the generous love of God to all those around us. Let us show this love to one another, letting God work in our lives, and helping us to love Him and to love our neighbours, so that the world around us may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. AMEN.

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Sexagesima Yr A (7th in OT)

‘Set your heart on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness’

Hating people is quite easy, you just do it, you realise that they are bad and horrible, and nothing gives you more pleasure that thinking of them unhappy, in pain, tortured by their conscience if they have one. You may even long to see them dead, disemboweled, with their heads on spikes. It’s quite easy to feel like this, but we have to ask ourselves the question ‘Are such feelings good?’ ‘Is this what God really wants?’ The answer is an unequivocal NO. In the Gospels Jesus offers humanity a radical alternative, to the way of sin and hatred. He calls us to love our enemies, to wish the best for them, to fight all that they do to  us with love and forgiveness, it is radical, and it can change our lives, and indeed it can change the entire world, if we live it out.

In the Gospels over the past few weeks Jesus has been telling us quite a lot about how we should live our lives. This concentration should alert us to two facts: it is important and it isn’t easy. How we live our lives matters, as it is how we put our faith into practice and also it forms our moral character: we become what we do. Living a Christian life isn’t a matter of giving our assent to principles, or signing on the dotted line, it’s about a covenant, a relationship with God and each other, which we demonstrate not only by what we believe, but how our beliefs shape our actions.

The call to holiness of life is rooted in the goodness of the created order: God saw all that he had made and it was good. The path to human flourishing starts with the response of humanity to the goodness of God shown in the goodness of the world. It continues with the hope which we have in Christ that all things will be restored in Him, for in this hope we were saved.

Living out our faith in the world can be a tricky business: we cannot serve both God and money. A world which cares only for profit and greed, for the advancement of self, is surely a cruel uncaring world which is entirely opposed to the values of the Gospel. The Church has to speak out against poverty, injustice, and corruption, in order to call the world back to its senses, to say to it ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is close at hand’. The kingdom is the hope that we will live in a world where the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, and all humanity lives in the peace of God. Christianity is a radical faith which looks to nothing less than the complete transformation of the world – you may see us as idealistic, as dreamers not rooted in reality, but this Kingdom is a reality here and now, and it’s up to us to help advance it.

Such is the power of advertising that we are forever being bombarded with enticements to buy new clothes, to diet, to celebrate, to spend money so that it makes us happy, but also so that we feel guilty, we take out loans to finance our extravagance. Against this we need to hear the words of Jesus ‘Surely life means more than food, and the body more than clothing’. But, I hear you cry; you’re wearing fine clothes, and standing in a pulpit telling us about this. Indeed I am, but priests and deacons wear beautiful vestments not to point to themselves, not as a display, put to point us to God, the source of all beauty, to honour Him, in all that we do or say, to remind us why we are here today, to be fed by God, to be fed with God, in Word and Sacrament, so that we may be strengthened and transformed. A God who loves us so much that he died for us on the Cross, the same sacrifice present upon the altar here – given for us to touch and taste God’s love, this is the reality of God’s love in our lives.

So how do we respond to it? This is the kingdom of God, right here, right now, we’re living it, and we need to trust the God who loves us and saves us, and live out our faith in our lives, we need to embody the values of the Kingdom, and help others to live them so that we can carry on God’s work. Every day when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.

As we look towards Lent let us all encourage each other to do God’s will in our lives so that we may hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom and do His will, living out our faith in our lives, helping each other to do this and inviting others in to share the peace and love and joy of the Kingdom, so that the world around us may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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The Sixth Sunday of Year A

Septuagesima is the Sunday roughly seventy days before Easter, or three weeks before the start of Lent.It reminds us that in the Church names and time are important things: they are used to divide and to mark, to draw our attention to things. Historically, the countdown to Lent is a chance to change our focus, with Candlemas our celebration of Christmas drew to a close, and we began to look to the Cross, to Our Lord and Saviour’s Passion. So we begin the countdown to our Lenten observance of prayer and fasting, we begin to get ready to prepare for the most solemn part of the Christian Year: Holy Week and Easter. It’s the Church’s equivalent of an advanced warning – we need to be on the lookout, we need to be prepared, if you like it is the spiritual equivalent of dealing with the current spate of bad weather and power cuts.

We have a choice. That’s what free will is, we are not compelled. We are not forced, we can choose what we want to do. We can follow the ways of the world, ways which will lead to spiritual death, or we can follow Christ, who came not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it, to show us the new Covenant in the Old, to show us that our is God of Love, of Healing, and of Reconciliation. And the Good news is that this loving God calls people to be in a covenant relationship with Him, a covenant cut on the Cross, bought with the Blood of His Son, which leads to the Resurrection, to New Life in and through Him.

What we do and how we do it are important things, and they matter – there are times when we make the sign of the Cross, when the names of the Trinity, the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit are mentioned, we bow our heads at the name of Jesus, and we bow or genuflect to altars and aumbries, from which we are fed with the Body and Blood of Christ to honour the God who loves us and who saves us. Many of us may receive flowers or other tokens of affection this week – they demonstrate in a physical way the feelings which we have inside. The church’s ritual is just like this – it enacts what it represents and allows us to make a physical demonstration of the faith which we have inside us. The gestures are not empty; rather they are full of meaning, and full of faith, they help us to express it and live it out in our lives.

What we say, and what we do matter. For a start being a Christian isn’t something we just do for an hour on a Sunday morning, without any connection to the other 167 hours in a week. We enter the Church through baptism, and through prayer and the sacraments, being fed with the Word of God and His Body and Blood, we can be transformed to be like the one who saves us, and who loves us. It doesn’t cost us any money, it’s free, it’s all gift – the grace of God, poured out on us, on you and me, to heal us and to restore us. You’d be a fool to turn this down, wouldn’t you?

It is free, but with it there comes a commitment: a commitment to Christ and His Church, to living our lives in a way which is recognisably Christ-like. This morning’s Gospel tells us that we need to be careful – even the words which we use and the thoughts which we have matter. They matter because they form who and what we are. To be a part of the Christian community has as its basis and starting point reconciliation: reconciliation to God and each other – we need to confess our sins, our faults, and our failings to God, and using the ministry of a priest. It isn’t something which we should leave to the secular courts, or the law of the land, because what is at stake is the state of our souls and our relationship with Christ and with His Body, the Church.

All of our life matters, even the smallest thing, even a thought or a glance. It matters because we are what we do, and what we do helps to form our moral character – we get used to it, it becomes normal and instinctive, it is how we put our faith into practice in our lives. It’s not easy, it’s difficult, and I’m certainly not standing here as a moral super-hero telling people off, but rather as a sinner redeemed by God’s love and mercy, who knows that it’s something which we cannot do alone, we need God, and we need each other – it’s a community effort, and through God’s mercy, and our prayer and support we can be built as living stones as a temple to God’s glory. We can do it together, we are doing it, but we need to keep on trying, together – living simple, transparent lives, letting our ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and our ‘No’ be ‘No’, so that the whole of our lives together proclaims the faith of our hearts, that we are set free to live the life of the Kingdom here and now, that we are prepared to keep renewing our commitment to God and each other, so that the world around us may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Third Sunday of Year A [Mt 4:12–23]

If you go to S. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the Chapel of Keble College, Oxford, you can see one of the most popular and reproduced works of Religious Art in the world: Holman Hunt’s painting, The Light of the World. It shows our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ standing at a door with a lantern. The door has no handle; it needs to be opened from the inside: Jesus may be the Light of the World, but he does not force himself upon us, we have to welcome Him into our hearts and our lives. His coming into the world which we celebrate at Christmas, which was made manifest to the world at Epiphany, was not the entry of a tyrant, forcing himself upon the world, but as a vulnerable and loving baby, entirely dependent upon the love and care of others, God comes among us. His coming is foretold by the prophet Isaiah, He is the fulfilment of prophesy, he is the light of the nations, and a cause of great joy: to be a Christian, to follow Christ is it not to be filled with the joy and love which comes from God; we can be serious in our zeal, but should never be miserable: our vocation is to live out our faith, in love, and hope, and joy in our lives, to draw others to Him.

Of our many failings as followers of Christ there is nothing worse than to see strife and division amongst Christians, as S. Paul found in Corinth: it has no place in the church, it isn’t what God intended for us, it’s not how things should be. It has to be resisted: wounds have to be healed, transgressions forgiven, and unity restored. It’s part of how we live out our faith in our lives, it’s why we pray and work for Christian Unity, and why it matters for our proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God.

If we turn to the words of this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To repent as Christ is asking us to, as St John the Baptist proclaimed before him is to change our mind, to make a change of direction in our lives, away from sin, and to Christ, it is what we promise in our baptism and it is how we are supposed to keep living our lives. It’s hard, I know, I fail on a daily basis, and yet I keep trying, turning back to a God who loves me, who took flesh of the Virgin Mary and became incarnate for me, and for you, and all who have ever or will ever turn to Him. Ours then is God of love and mercy, a God of forgiveness who calls us to turn to him, so that we may have life and have it to the full.

We turn away from what separates us from God and each other, we turn to God in Christ, to be close to Him in Word and Sacrament, to be fed by Him, to be fed with Him, with His Body and Blood, so that we might share His divine nature, so that we might be given a foretaste of heaven, so that we may be strengthened to live out our faith in our lives, so that the world may believe – the Kingdom is close at hand, and Christ calls us, the baptised people of God, to share in the work of His kingdom. He asks that we follow Him, that we go where He goes, that we do what He does – it sounds easy enough, but it’s not, it’s something which we need to do together, and while I can endeavour to help you along the way, I cannot without your help, your prayers, your love, and your support. As Christians we are inter-dependent, we rely upon each other, we’re in it together.

In the Gospel, Jesus sees Andrew and Simon Peter and then James and John the sons of Zebedee and says ‘Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people’. He calls them to share in God’s work of saving souls. They drop everything and follow him: it’s immediate and matter of fact. Jesus goes around preaching the good news of the kingdom, and the need for humanity to repent, and to be baptised, and he heals the sick, just as he can heal the sickness in our souls. This is good news indeed.

We need to be like lights in the world, shining in the darkness, so that Christ can knock on the door of people’s hearts. We need to be like those first disciples who heard what Jesus said, who listened, and did what He told them, who were close to Jesus, so that our faith is a reality in our lives. We need to be strengthened and fed by Him who is the greatest medicine for our souls, who comes to us here, this morning,  in His Body and Blood, to heal us, to restore us and strengthen us to follow him, so that the world may believe and and sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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A thought from Henri Nouwen

All of this is simply to suggest how horrendously secular our ministerial lives tend to be. Why is this so? Why do we children of the light so easily become conspirators with the darkness? The answer is quite simple. Our identity, our sense of self , is at stake. Secularity is a way of being dependant upon the responses of our milieu. The secular or false self is the self which is fabricated, as Thomas Merton says, by social compulsions. ‘Compulsive’ is indeed the best adjective for the false self. It points to the need for ongoing and increasing affirmation. Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated or despised. Whether I am a pianist, a businessman or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by the world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failure and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same – more work, more money, more friends.

These very compulsions are at the basis of the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed. They are the inner side of the secular life, the sour fruits of our worldly dependencies. What else is anger other than the impulsive response to the experience of being deprived? When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is a quite natural reaction to a critical word. And when my sense of self depends on what I can acquire, greed flares up when my desires are frustrated. Thus greed and anger are the brother and sister of a false self fabricated by the social compulsions of the unredeemed world.

Anger in particular seems close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm. They are angry at their families, who making them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart. If there is anything that makes ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger in the servants of Christ.

It is not so strange that Anthony and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenets and values of their society. They had come to appreciate how hard it is not only for the individual Christian but also for the church itself to escape the seductive compulsions of the world. What was their response? They escaped from the sinking ship and swam for their lives. And the place of salvation is called desert, the place of solitude.

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, London: DLT, 1990: 14-16

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A Christmas Thought for the Day from Fulton Sheen

Let Christ be formed in You

As God was physically formed in Mary, so he wills to be spiritually formed in you. If you knew he was seeing through your eyes, you would see in everyone a child of God. If you knew that he worked through your hands, they would bless all the day through …. If you knew that he wants to use your mind, your will, your fingers, and your heart, how different you would be. If half the world did this, there would be no war!

How to find Christmas Peace

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An Advent Meditation

The whole problem of our time is not lack of knowledge but lack of love

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

The season of Advent has an interesting character: it is one of joyful waiting, as we await our yearly remembrance of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’s Birth, the dawning of the new hope of Salvation for mankind. It is also a season of penitence, when the church considers the Four Last Things, one for each week of Advent: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Such matters are nowadays rather passed over in our Christian discourse, and while this is understandable, it is not a good thing. Human life on earth, is, by its very nature finite: we are born and we die, we may live for minutes, or decades, even a century – but in the end death comes for us all. This is not morbid, it is a fact of life. The world around us finds death strange and scary: it is sanitised, medicalised, shut away in a hospital or a care home. What was once commonplace and domestic has been put out of sight and out of mind as we seem no longer willing or able to face our own mortality.

As Christians we have hope that this earthly life is not all that there is, we believe that Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem, died on the Cross, and rose again on that glorious Easter morn, and after forty days ascended into Heaven to show us that this is our hope, this is the fruit of our reconciliation with God, and each other. As the Preface for the Dead puts it:

Tuis enim fidelibus, Domine, vita mutatur, non tollitur: et dissoluta terrestris hujus incolatus domo, aeterna in caelis habitatio comparatur.

For the life of thy faithful people, O Lord, is changed, not taken away: and at the dissolution of the tabernacle of this earthly sojourning, a dwelling place eternal is made ready in the heavens

Hence the Christian talk of a good death, a happy death. It is nothing to be feared, but rather to be embraced, as a means to an end, namely the hope of unity with God.

After death comes judgement, and the simple answer is that no single human being deserves to go heaven (with the obvious exception of the Holy Family). We all deserve to go to Hell, ours is a fallen world and we sin, each and every one of us, every day in a multitude of ways. It is that simple, and we cannot work out way to heaven through works, but rather through God’s grace and mercy, through our Baptism, which makes us one with Christ. He gave S. Peter the power to loose and bind, to remind us that sin is a serious matter, it destroys the soul, hence the sacrament of reconciliation, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God, of forgiveness and mercy. The message Our Lord first declares is exactly the same as John the Baptist ‘καὶ λέγων ὅτι Πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ· μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ (Mk 1:15 ESV) This is the message of Advent: repent and believe in the Good News of the Kingdom of God, Good News which starts at the Annunciation, which brings about Our Saviour’s Birth. This is why we say Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!

This leaves us a question, ‘Will we follow Him?’ There are two ways, one leads to Heaven, one leads to Hell; the road to Heaven, the life of faith is not an easy journey, it’s hard. That’s why we have the Church, a frail body, comprised of sinners, but who trust in God’s mercy, and though we keep failing, yet we stumble on, knowing that Heaven is our goal, that the way of the world leads to a future without God, bleak, cold, and devoid of love.

God is a God of mercy, a God who will judge us, knowing that His Son has paid the price, conquering sin and death, so let us believe in Him, trust in Him, and follow Him, let us prepare to celebrate His Birth with joy, and commit ourselves to walking in His way, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Let us experience that mercy and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, let us be fed with His Body and Blood, nourished by His Word, and the teaching of His Church, praying together, loving and forgiving together, so that together our hope may be of Heaven, where we and all the faithful may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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