Sermons from St Faith's     


Fr Neil Kelley, Sunday before Lent, 2012

From the prophet Isaiah: “No need to recall the past, no need to think about what was done before.”

We often hear people say “I can forgive but not forget...” So when God forgives us, does he forgive and forget?

“No need to recall the past, no need to think about what was done before.”

These are words which could almost be said by a priest every time he or she absolves someone in the confessional. In fact the words often said by the priest to the penitent are “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven... and pray for me a sinner also”. That final bit a reminder that all of us are in the same boat. We are all sinners in need of God’s mercy and grace.

In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus say “your sins are forgiven”. The joy of repentance and forgiveness is at the heart of Christian life and discipline. It is what Christ has won for us through the mysteries of his life, death and resurrection.

In the catholic wing of the church, some bemoan the use of the title Sacrament of Reconciliation as they fear it takes the seriousness out of the concept of sin which the use of the word confession possibly retains. Some bemoan the use of the title Confession, because they feel it dwells too much on the negative and doesn’t celebrate the gift of forgiveness found in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

We need to keep both in balance. We are not made by a God who seeks to take pleasure in our wrongdoing and punish us. Nor are we made by a God who believes that “anything goes” is an acceptable rule of life. Unconditional love does not necessarily equal unconditional acceptance! A proper understanding of the concept of sin leads us to value a proper understanding of the forgiveness found when we are reconciled.

The late Pope John Paul II often said that the sacrament of reconciliation is a sacrament in crisis. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, writes about this in his book entitled Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement. One of the virtues we seem to have lost, he argues, is the capacity for remorse.

Forgiveness and absolution are relatively meaningless when we, and society, have lost a concept of sin and wrongdoing.

If the Archbishop of Canterbury is right then the crisis in the sacrament of reconciliation is partly explained by more widespread difficulties about remorse, regret, apology and forgiveness in contemporary experience. The evil in some of the things that have been done in recent history can seem too deep for forgiveness. Who is entitled to forgive people involved in the Holocaust and other genocidal campaigns? What do forgiveness and reconciliation mean in South Africa, the north of Ireland, or after the attacks of September 11th and July 7th?

Sins now belong to communities and societies, if we are very clever we can wash our hands of most things in today’s culture! Both the teaching of the Church and the Scriptures deal with reality, not fantasy! Sin is real. You do it. I do it.

The promise of the Bible as found in Isaiah in today’s first reading – “No need to recall the past, no need to think about what was done before” – can seem incredible in the face of great evil and irreparable loss. It is important to be aware of this background if we want to say something about contrition, reconciliation and forgiveness in a Christian sense, as the New Testament speaks of them and as the Church teaches.

Reconciliation is central to the life and work of Jesus, and to the life and work of the Church. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus shows us that God’s grace is meant for the restoration of the whole human person. Perhaps best of all we see the true nature of God who desires nothing more than for us to be reconciled to Him, in the story of the Prodigal Son. Someone once said that if we lost the entire New Testament, all we need in order for the Gospel to be preached is the story of the Prodigal Son. Well, that’s a very simplistic way of looking at it but you get the picture. In the story of the Prodigal Son we see the true nature of God and in the telling of the story of reconciliation we see the true nature of the Church.

Each and every one of us is a prodigal son or daughter, behaving at times in a way that does not befit us as children of our heavenly Father. But still, no matter how foolish we are, no matter what stupid mistakes we make, the heart of God is always more generous than we ever imagine. The problem very often is not that God’s love is limited, but our capacity to receive that love is limited.

A discipline is there for a reason: ask anyone who takes seriously the business of trying to stay healthy. We can only lose calories and reduce the risk of all sorts of disease when we have a disciplined approach to our bodies and what goes in them. The same goes for our spiritual health, though we often forget that and do so at our peril!
Lent is a time to look at our spiritual discipline and to ask some searching questions:
* Do I think about my sins or is it easier to think about someone else’s?
* Do I long to live in the light of the Lord’s forgiveness?
* Do I live as if I am “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven?”
* Am I truly sorry for my sins?
* Do I present myself for Communion without being reconciled to those around me?

These are tough questions to face seriously but we do so in the knowledge of God’s loving mercy. Walking, running or jogging each day can be hard work and tough, but in time we feel the benefits. Going to confession regularly and naming our sins may seem equally tough, but when we hear those wonderful words “I absolve you from all your sins” the difficulty pales into insignificance and the love of God washes right over us, taking us into a deeper and more loving union with Him.

I reached into a coat pocket the other day and found a scrap of paper. It was a message from a fortune cookie which I was given some weeks ago at a Chinese New Year School assembly. The cookie was long gone but the message remained. It said “You are heading in the right direction”. That was comforting news, especially as I was sitting on a train!”

What direction do you intend to travel during this forthcoming season of Lent? Will you try to get to Easter by an easy non-stop route? Or will you take the more painful stopping train... the path which involves soul searching, humility, prayer and contrition? The journey begins this Wednesday. Don’t miss the train, or you will never travel in the right direction!

Visiting Uncle George

Fr  Dennis Smith, January 22nd, 2012

“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand’."

“George was a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who described his as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful and interested in all of us. Eventually we are taken to visit good old uncle George.” He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. We cannot share our parents’ professed admiration for this jewel in the family.

At the end of the visit, Uncle George turns to address us. “Now, listen dear” he begins, looking very severe, “I want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.”

He then leads you down to the mansion’s basement. It’s dark and becomes hotter and hotter as we descend and we begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one. “Now look in there, dear,” he says.

We see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those who had failed to visit Uncle George or to behave in a way he approved. “And, if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go” says Uncle George .

As we go home, Mum leans over us and says, “And now don’t you just love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?” And we, loathing the monster, say, “Yes, I do,” because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace.”

What I’ve read to you is an extract from a book by the Jesuit Priest, Gerard Hughes, an “identikit” of God drawn from some of the many conversations he has had over the years as a university chaplain.

I’m sure our picture wouldn’t coincide in all respects with this, but it does show the difficulties and problems we face when we begin to think about God. Of course Fr Hughes presents this as a distorted and damaging picture, and his book is written to help people to grow to discover a more wholesome, creative idea of God: a vital task if we are to have a firm and lively faith.

I think it helps if we begin from the conviction that it is hard to speak about God, but of vital importance to our faith that we do so. The essential fact about God is that we do not know who or what he, she or it is.

That great medieval theologian of the church, Anselm, described God as “that Being of which nothing greater can be conceived”. The reality of God is indeed shrouded in mystery. This was accepted from the beginning and was especially important in Greek philosophical thought. God was so different from us that what he was could only described in contradictions.

We are mortal – therefore God is immortal. We are limited in our knowledge – therefore God is unlimited, or omniscient. We are created – therefore God is uncreated. And so on. God doesn’t suffer, is infinite. Everything we aren’t, God is.

This basic understanding of God has been challenged, especially in the last hundred years or so. This change has been most noticeable in discussions by theologians of the suffering or possibility of God. Traditionally it was felt that God couldn’t suffer, since that was a capacity confined to weak and imperfect humans. But a generation which lived through two world wars and saw the concentration camps could no longer live with a God who was above all this mass of raw human pain.

God, if he is the God of love and not some detached monster, MUST be involved, MUST be alongside his people, MUST be there, sharing the dereliction and the hopelessness. And verses from the gospels, especially the Passion Narratives, gained a new significance in Christian – and Jewish, thinking.

So we have come to understand that God is the incarnate God, the suffering God, the God – with – us, the the God we can place our trust and our love in. But it needs to be emphasised that God still inevitably remains different and distant from us, or to use the jargon phrase, “transcendent”. This thought is forced on us not only as we think philosophically but as we live. We know that our lives, and our world are inadequate and imperfect. We know that God cannot be a part of this damaged world, or limited to it. All that we instinctively believe about God would become meaningless if he was just a phenomenon of our world. He is other than us.

The only possible reaction to him is one of awe and worship, the response of the publican in the parable, who kept his distance and could only stammer out his repeated cry for mercy. We must begin with the ‘otherness’ of God, but we are led to realise that God is not only other, but other in relation to us. The incarnation, his coming on earth as the Christ means that he enters into a relationship with us, his people.

This relationship is a fact of our existence, we can do nothing to change it however determined we may be to rebel and reject. We are made by God, the distant transcendent creator, and we are redeemed by God, the God-Man, Jesus. It is this tension which is the place where we live our spiritual lives. It is the source of all our religious growth.

It’s an uncomfortable place to be. This discomfort arises from the requirement to change. God is calling us to become something else from what we are, to discover a wholeness and fullness which is the goal towards which we move. And change is painful. So knowledge of God, then, is not something thought but experienced. The key experiences have to be those in which unashamedly we find ourselves living in this uncomfortable tension.

What kind of experiences do I have in mind? First, there’s prayer – the expression of our relationship with God. Prayer isn’t a requirement to say certain set forms of words or to confidently set before God our immediate needs knowing that he will obligingly do what we want. Prayer is simply the state of consciously being before God It’s time set aside, time when we don’t try to achieve anything, time when we have to live with that most uncomfortable of conditions – silence. We force ourselves just to be there for God.

 St. John of the Cross taught that our prayer has little good effect as long as we are enjoying it or finding if fulfilling. If it brings us peace or reassurance then we are probably praying because of the enjoyment we get from it. But when we feel nothing enjoyable, get no pleasure, then we can no longer be praying because of the delights of the experience, that we start praying for God’s sake, not our own. This switch of emphasis from our selves to God is a mark of spiritual growth. It’s true prayer. So, as a result, God is sometimes spoken of as darkness, because in this experience there’s no room for the light of knowledge. We have true knowledge of God when we recognise that there’s no way that we can have true knowledge of God.

I think this is also why people sometimes testify that it’s through some of the most painful of human experiences that they come to a deeper faith. Bereavement, illness, loneliness, coping with long term disability in someone we love: these are sometimes experiences which bring God, because they are experiences which break the familiar patterns, and the human emptiness which results can be mysteriously filled and become a different kind of emptiness.

Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to say that there is a great emptiness at the heart of each one of us. An emptiness which was God-shaped and could only filled by God.

We are here in church today, surely, because there’s something in us that recognises this. We want God. Not human friendship, or beautiful music, or social activity, but simply God.

This does, I’m sure, sound harsh and uncompromising. A far cry perhaps from the warm, comforting “Father” of the preaching of Jesus. But if we stop to reflect, we realise that it’s the only way that the good news of the gospel can become the good news of God’s love. We begin to reach out to God because human love, human knowledge, and human hope are not sufficient and do not bring lasting or real peace.

Please don’t think that I’m criticising the pictures or ideas of what God is like which all of us build up.

There’s nothing wrong in imagining God to be an old man in a throne on the clouds, nor in speaking of him as the deepest level of our personality, or in any other way that makes sense to you. The mistake comes when we identify our picture of God, with God himself, and confuse imagination with reality.

Any picture of God is like a scientific hypothesis. We work out our explanation, then we use it until it’s no longer adequate. We find points where it ceases to explain the phenomena we observe and then we need to move on to another model. Meanwhile the God who is the final reality behind all of our thinking and imagining is always mystery.

It is a voice which beckons us forward and leads us on; sometimes moulding and shaping us painfully; sometimes he is touching us gently and caressing us, but never allowing us to rest content with our half-completed selves.

And now to that same mysterious God be ascribed as is most justly due, all honour, might dominion and power both now and for ever more.

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