25th Sunday of Year A: Mt 20:1-16

The First shall be last and the Last first

A CHILD stands in front of their mother with a strange look upon their face. ‘But mummy’ they cry, ‘I want to eat my Pudding first.’ The child’s mother explains how it is necessary that they eat their dinner first. The child remains unconvinced, though as they become aware that they’re not going to have their own way, all they can say is ‘It’s not fair.’ At one level, almost all of us would prefer Sponge and Custard to Brussels Sprouts. It is simply more fun to eat. At a deeper level we are all concerned by matters of fairness. Our God gives us a vision of justice, where in the words of the Magnificat, he puts down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek. The kingdom of God can truly turn this world around.

So, when we turn to this morning’s gospel, we see in the parable of the vineyard a vision of divine justice and generosity. At one level it looks deeply unfair that those who have worked all day should receive the same pay as those who’ve worked for only one hour. If this were simply a matter of business and employment practice, the way the workforce should probably go on strike.

Thankfully, this is a parable. It contains a deeper truth about God and his relation with humanity. In the kingdom of God, all are equal. It is as plain and simple as that. There is no such thing as a better class of Christian. God treats us all in the same way and fundamentally loves each and every one of us. I, though I serve God and his people as a priest was not chosen for being a better Christian in the first place, nor am I better than anyone of you. This morning’s gospel reminds us of the important truth that salvation is the free gift of God, which we receive and baptism and is strengthened through the sacraments of the church. We cannot earn our way to heaven – it isn’t that simple. And we should always remember that heaven is full of sinners, whom God loves and who love God, and trust in his love his mercy and his forgiveness. The more we experience and understand the overwhelming love and generosity of God, the stranger it becomes. All we can do is to listen to what God says in the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, our God is rich in forgiveness his thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways. And if the truth be told, it is a good thing that this is the case.

As Christians we need to respond to this generous love and if we are to be truly thankful then it should affect us who we are and how we live our lives. We need to live our lives like people who are loved and forgiven, and in turn show love and forgiveness to those around us. It’s difficult for us to do on our own, but thankfully we live in a community called the church where we receive forgiveness, where we can be fed by word and sacrament, where we can strengthen and encourage one another, through prayer and acts of charity, to live the truth of the gospel in our lives. If you’re looking for a model of how to live as a Christian, can I recommend the last six verses of the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:

42And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

And to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most just and right, all might, majesty, dominion and power, now and forever…

Some words of S. Teresa of Calcutta

  • Love to pray, since prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself. Ask and seek and your heart will grow big enough to receive him as your own.
  • Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.
  • Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.
  • Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.
  • The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.
  • At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’
  • Live simply so others may simply live.
  • Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.
  • We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.
  • I must be willing to give whatever it takes to do good to others. This requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is no true love in me, and I bring injustice, not peace, to those around me.

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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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Thoughts for the day from S. Francis de Sales: on gentleness and anger

‘Learn of me,’ Jesus said, ‘for I am meek and humble of heart.’ Humility perfects us towards God, mildness and gentleness towards our neighbour.

But be careful that mildness and humility are in your heart, for one of the great wiles of the enemy is to lead people to be content with external signs of these virtues, and to think that because their words and looks are gentle, therefore they themselves are humble and mild, whereas in fact they are otherwise. In spite of their show of gentleness and humility, they start up in wounded pride at the least insult or annoying word.

Present life is the road to a blessed life, so do not let us be angry with one another on the way. Never give way to anger if you can possibly avoid it; never for any reason let it enter your heart. It is safer to avoid all anger than to try and guide our anger with discretion and modesty. Directly you feel the slightest resentment, gather your powers together gently. When we are agitated by passion, we must imitate the apostles in the raging storm and call upon God to help us. He will bid our anger be still, and great will be our peace.

One form of gentleness we should practise is towards ourselves. We should never get irritable with ourselves because of our imperfections. It is reasonable to be displeased and sorry when we commit faults, but not fretful or spiteful to ourselves. Some make the the mistake of being angry because they have been angry, hurt because they have been hurt, vexed because they have been vexed. They think they are getting rid of anger, that the second remedies the first; actually, they are preparing the way for fresh anger on the first occasion. Besides this, all irritation with ourselves tends to foster pride and springs from self-love, which is displeased at finding we are not perfect.We should regard our faults with calm, collected, and firm displeasure. We correct ourselves better by a quiet persevering repentance than by an irritated, hasty, and passionate one. When your heart has fallen raise it gently, humbly yourself before God, acknowledging your fault, but not surprised at your fall. Infirmity is infirm, weakness weak, and frailty frail.

Introduction to the Devout Life III:8-9

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Second Sunday of Year A ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ Jn 1:29-34

‘Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world’

Sometimes we use words a lot, even to the point of perhaps overusing them. Sorry is a good example: it is perhaps something of a national characteristic – that we as British people apologise for everything just in case. This has led some people to the point of view that familiarity breeds contempt: that the more often we say sorry, the less we mean it, our words are empty and our society debased, rude and squalid. Whereas a more charitable interpretation sees something of love, care, concern, and humility in our apologising: it is a Christian thing to do, and what we say and do affects who and what we are as people, and the more we say or do something the greater its effects upon our lives and characters – the more it can form us and the people that we are. If we genuinely say sorry to God and each other and mean it, and amend our lives accordingly it can only be a good thing.

When John the Baptist greets his cousin in this morning’s Gospel, the words he uses are both familiar and strange. We, as Christians are used to saying and hearing the phrase ‘the Lamb of God’. We are used to it at Mass, we are used to seeing it on the Signs of public houses called the Lamb and Flag, or as the badge of Preston North End Football Club.

While the image is familiar, it is worth spending a few moments to consider exactly what John is saying about Jesus. The image of a lamb brings to mind a passage in the prophet Isaiah, in the Song of the Suffering Servant, who ‘like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb’ (Isa 53:7), a prophecy that will be fulfilled in Holy Week, on Good Friday. Yet here, just after the Baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan, when the Spirit descends at the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry, before the first sign of turning water into wine at the marriage of Cana, we see in John’s description of Jesus a prophetic utterance which points forward to Jesus’ death on the Cross for the world. So then, from the very beginning, as with the gift of myrrh at Bethlehem, we see the culmination at Calvary, the beginning points to the end (and beyond). The other image of the lamb which comes to mind is that of the Passover lamb, by which the people of Israel are freed from slavery to journey to the Promised Land. Yet Jesus is the Passover Lamb who will free all of humanity from sin for all time.

In being baptised by John the Baptist, Jesus was doing something which he did not need to do, he who was without sin did not need to be cleansed from sin, but in his baptism Jesus gives us an example, for us to follow. It is a sign of humility and obedience which we as Christians are to follow: it is how we are to shape our lives, in humble obedience to the example and teaching of Christ, it’s how to be a Christian. It is also how God gives us his Holy Spirit, as a gift which we receive and use with humility.

From the beginning of His public ministry, and even from the gifts offered by the Three Wise Men, Jesus’ life and mission is to be understood in terms of the death he will suffer. It is this sacrificial, self-giving love which God pours out on his World, which streams from our Saviour’s pierced side upon the cross. This is the wood, marked with blood which saves not only the people of Israel, but the entire world. This makes our peace with God, and our peace with one another. It is this recognition of who and what Jesus really is that is capable of showing us all who and what we really are. We can live our lives truly, wholly, and fully, loved by God and loving one another.

That is why we are here today, in a church, at a celebration of Mass, so that the sacrifice of Calvary will be re-presented, made as real for us as it was on a hill outside Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago. As we approach the altar, this is what we are to receive, the Body and Blood of Christ, the self same body and blood which were nailed to the Cross for our sins and the sins of the whole world. Our hands will hold and our lips will touch him who created the entire universe. How can we not fail to be shocked by the generosity of a God who gives himself to us in such a personal way, in a way that we do not deserve? Yet, we can never deserve such a gift, that is why God takes the initiative and gives himself to us, freely and gladly – like the Father of the Prodigal Son, God rushes to meet us, to embrace us and to celebrate with us, to show his love for us. God became a human being at Christmas so that we might become divine, through our baptism and our participation at the altar, the feast of the Lamb, so that we can become what God wants us to be – his people, sharing his body and blood, strengthened for the journey in body, mind, and spirit, to become what God wants us to be – united with him and one another.

The Mass is the sacrament of unity, uniting heaven and earth through the sacrifice of Calvary, making all humanity to share the body and blood of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, feeding on him so that we may become what he is, to share eternity with him, and to live lives of faith and show this faith in our lives in everything we say, or think, or do, that the world may believe. Our faith must then have an effect upon our lives, which other people can see, it must make a difference, and it will, because of our faith and because God gives himself to strengthen us to be able to do this. So then, let us join the Wedding banquet of the Lamb and enter into the mystery of God’s self-giving love, nourished by Word and Sacrament, to grow in faith and love, and share it with others, so that they 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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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 thought for the day from Fulton Sheen

Let go of Fear

God does not love us because we are loveable of and by ourselves, but because he has put his own love into us. He does not even wait for us to love; his own love perfects us. Letting it do this, with no resistance, no holding back for fear of what our egotism must give up, is the one way to the peace that the world can neither give nor take away

Lift up your Heart