Sunday, October 22, 2006

20th Sunday after Pentecost 22.10.06 Praying for rain (and other things)

Australia is in the grip of a drought. As people of faith we know what we have to do when we come across a crisis. Whatever practical steps we might take we must also and always pray. Pray to Almighty God to rain down His blessings on us.

Rain in particular is a natural thing to pray for because it symbolises so perfectly God’s bountiful mercy. The sacred scriptures often use rain as an image as well as a practical expression of God’s goodness.

Australia is a barren country anyway. From a Christian viewpoint we would say barren in two senses – not much rain and not much faith.

Drought is therefore not surprising if we understand the symbolism that God can withhold His blessings when a people does not pay Him proper attention.

The prophet Elijah had the power to close and open the heavens according to his judgment of the faith status of Israel. What would Elijah say about Australia in 2006?

Is God punishing Australia? Very likely.

What about the innocent people who are doing the right thing (in which number we hope to be considered)? It often happens that the innocent have to carry some of the burden of the guilty (look at world wars for example).

If we are innocent then drought (or any adversity) can be offered by us as atonement for the sins of the nation. We accept the suffering and pray that it will end as soon as possible and that all of us will learn the lesson as we turn to the living God.

So we pray for rain. Can I make it rain single-handed by the power of my faith? Can you? We are not Elijahs, but we can at least make things head in the right direction.

The more of us asking for the same thing in faith, and persistently, will make the thing more likely to happen.

Having been in rural parishes the amount of rainfall was always a major topic. It commonly happened that having come out of Mass where we prayed for rain someone would say, Oh well, we can’t do anything about it can we, Father? A kind of fatalism. What will be will be.

Can’t do anything about it? What do they think prayer is for? Yes we can do something about it. Faith not fatalism.

When we pray in faith for rain (or anything else) we are activating the grace and mercy of God to fall on us like rain (and in this case actual rain).

We don’t always know God’s will. If, for example, He is punishing Australia with this drought He may not wish to break it immediately. But we pray in that case that the need for punishment cease – that is, that Australians repent. And that in the meantime we bear well with the suffering, with the consolation of His grace.

In any case, whether we know what is going to happen or not, we just keep praying because praying will always improve the overall situation. It will bring us closer to God for one thing, and that is always of paramount importance.

The closer we are to Him the better everything else will work.

This is what Our Lord was conveying in today’s Gospel. It was not so much whether He would heal this person or that person. He had enough power to heal everyone.

What concerned Him more was that people did not have faith; did not love God; did not trust Him; would not draw close to Him in confidence.

With a living faith we come to Jesus with every need, large or small, and we entrust the outcome to Him. We trust in Him rather than the desired outcome.

Whether it rains or not God is still God, and the more we acknowledge that, the more likely it is to rain (or any other blessing to happen).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sermon for 19th Sunday after Pentecost 15.10.06

19th Sunday after Pentecost 15.10.06 Reward and Punishment

The Gospel gives the double message of invitation to the banquet and then conformity once inside the banquet.

It shows forth a tension which is always present in Catholic life and preaching.

On the one hand we present the Good News of God’s mercy and the possibility of eternal life to all who want it, a free and abundant gift, lavished on all who receive it.

When we hear that we feel good but just when we start to have some vision of eternal bliss we hear the other message that we have to behave ourselves or the whole thing will be taken from us and we will be cast into the darkness!

So are we happy because of the promise or miserable because of the warning, or some mixture of the two?

Catholic preaching and teaching has always had to give due weight to both of these perspectives.

The carrot of eternal reward, and the stick of eternal punishment.

Many have strayed, either from assuming the reward is so easy to attain that it does not require any response; or from being so depressed at the thought of punishment that they accept it as inevitable. (The twin perils of Presumption and Despair)

We must sail in between these two extremes, and have a healthy hope of salvation (overcoming despair) but realizing we are not saved automatically having to ‘work out our salvation in fear and trembling’ (overcoming presumption).

This means, in terms of today’s parable, that we must first accept the invitation – instantly and gladly. Then we must do all that is required to stay in close union with God, working in the vineyard, persevering in holiness the rest of our lives.

Accept the invitation: It means to believe there is something better than this life and this world the way it is.

It means to look beyond earthly pleasures and ambitions for our ultimate fulfilment. We are looking to a banquet that will satisfy without making us feel bloated and weary, a banquet of eternal delights. Our appetite will always be active and at the same time will always be satisfied.

It means recognizing the Good News as the one piece of news that really does lift us above the normal dreary daily round. It takes us into a higher dimension, and so calls forth a radical response from us.

To accept the invitation to the banquet means we do not just turn up but actively and fully engage with all that it means.

And this leads to the second part; that having arrived here we must put on the wedding garment. We must conform to all that is expected of us as members of this new kingdom, discovering this new way of life.

This could sound like something tedious (you have to work for your keep), but in reality it is a delight to do the will of God, to discover in fulfilling our obligations that God is sweet to the taste and a delight to serve.

My yoke is easy and My burden light.

In practice we are probably a bit of both. We can move away from the fear of punishment and the emphasis thereon, as we take up the positive motivation of serving God out of love, and the reward that flows from that.

We can fear the devil like we fear a shark. I know I will not be eaten by a shark if I swim between the flags etc. So, I am aware of the devil but I will not let him get me.

While never forgetting the awful possibility of punishment, the knowledge of God and the blessed hope of reward will flood our souls and keep us on the right path. We shall, with St Paul, finish the race and claim an eternal wreath.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Sermon for 18th Sunday after Pentecost 8.10.06

18th Sunday after Pentecost 8.10.06 Forgiveness

Our Lord heals both body and soul as He raises the paralytic and forgives his sins.

It takes more authority and power to forgive sins than it does to heal the body. Any doctor can attempt healing and often succeed, but who can forgive sins?

Only God. Because all sin is an offence against Him He has the right to determine how to deal with that sin.

So Our Lord, demonstrating His divinity and His infinite authority tells this man he is forgiven, and so he is.

He demonstrates the power at work by raising the man’s body physically. He is made well again, all deformity removed.

So sin deforms the soul and needs to be removed.

We are ‘raised up’ from our sickbeds every time we experience the mercy of God.

Raised up in two senses: 1) that we are in better spiritual health and 2) that we are raised beyond the power of that sin to hurt us again – we will not (need not) commit that sin again.

It is one thing to receive mercy (not difficult). Quite another to ‘retain’ that mercy, so that we do not lose it and fall back into sin. This is much harder.

Easy to say we are sorry. Easy to be sorry. But so hard not to do it again.

How can we get stronger at retaining mercy, so that it works in our soul for healing and we become immune to that sin or tempation to which we have succumbed.

We say in the act of Contrition that we will not sin again. Yet when we go to Confession we are probably confessing the same sins over and over.

What went wrong? How can we fix the leak in the spiritual system that lets the grace escape and leaves us back where we were before?

The main thing is to believe that change is possible. We might think we are so weak that we will certainly commit the same sin again.

Yes we are weak, but someone else is strong. It is by the grace of God that we hope not to sin again. It is His strength we draw upon.

And it is something of an insult to Him to say that we cannot change when He Himself is changing us!

We are weak but we become less weak as we are exposed to His grace. What seemed impossible now becomes achievable.

We might have thought of Confession as a carwash where we clean the car but fully expect the car to get dirty again, and we come back next week, or month etc. There is no change to our behaviour; we just come back every week and get washed.

But Confession is not a carwash. It is more like going back to the factory where we are remodelled and made into a brand new car. I don’t wash the car; I get a new one each week!

The Sacrament of Confession is an encounter with the Son of God, the One who has power over both body and soul; the One who has authority and power to forgive, to raise up so there is no falling back.

Is it cruel of God to expect us to be perfect? No more than the doctor is cruel in trying to heal us. God can see that our sin is a deformity. He simply removes that deformity. How can it be cruel to make us into something better than before?

His mercy is curative as well as liberating. It is a complete cure. You will never even want to sin again once you open your heart to this mercy. And you will not sin again.

It may need more than one confession to get this right, but each confession is part of the process of total cure. Rise up, take up your mat and walk! Go, and sin no more!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sermon for 17th Sunday after Pentecost 1.10.06

17th Sunday after Pentecost 1.10.06 Love God and neighbour

We have to love both God and neighbour. Hard to love either, because in God’s case He is invisible and in the neighbour’s case, he is visible!

With God we find Him abstract and difficult to connect with.

Yet we can work our way towards Him and find by various paths that He is loveable (literally adorable) and we love Him spontaneously.

Of course it is a strange thing to be commanded to love something, since love seems such a personal matter.

Imagine being commanded to love spinach! Love as just a feeling does not obey commands; it either goes that way or it doesn’t.

But love as an action can respond to command, and this is what is being referred to:

Love God means to do what He says, to act according to His will, to try to please Him.

To obey the command applicable to the present moment is one way to love Him and to discover how to love Him.

When we do the right thing we receive an insight into the mind/nature of God and we come to love what we discover. There is something intrinsically good about what we discover.

The only reason the whole world does not love God is that He is difficult to locate amidst all the noise and confusion.

So people give up the search and they say: He does not exist, or He does not matter, or He is ‘out there somewhere’, cold and remote.

No, we must do better than that. We must search like the lady in the Song of Songs, go through the streets till we find Him.

When we do we will experience great rapture as everything will then fall into place.

We will find, in the famous words of St.Augustine, that our hearts are made for Him and cannot rest until they come to rest in Him.

How do we find Him? By obedience and also by prayer and reflection.

Come to where He is. Ask Him to make Himself known, and He will.

We can find Him in the help He provides in everyday matters where we see the fruits of His love. He is the mysterious benefactor that sets up the world we live in, opens doors in advance of when we reach them.

It is He who provides the sunlight, the air you breathe, the clothes you wear, the ground you walk on, the family you were born into, the brains by which you can think, the many fascinating things which attract and interest you.

It is He who has been there from the beginning of your life and will still be there at the end. It is He who fills the whole universe with His being, knowing every particle of creation and what is happening with it.

Logically of course we can reason that if God made all the people and things we love, He must be greater than they are and must therefore be even more loveable.

So if you would rather go to the football or the beach than to Church, then just consider who invented football or who created the beach.

If we can find such a Being then we have everything else as well.

So, coming logically, practically, mystically, every possible way, we arrive at this Supreme Being who is Love.

We love Love because we cannot resist.

We are being commanded to do something we cannot help doing. It is like being commanded to breathe or eat.

Only in this case we have to search a little bit before it becomes so obvious.

Every person, no matter how unlikely it might seem at first, is called to love God, and is made for that purpose more than any other.

There is a magnetic pull drawing everyone to find this perfect Love. We must not resist that pull. It is our destiny, and if we do this we will also help others to find where they belong.