Sermons from St Faith's
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
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
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
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
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
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
* Do I think about my sins or is it easier to think about someone
* 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
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
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
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
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
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
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