25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Michael Deas' Reflection

Today’s Gospel is one of the most baffling passages in the Bible.  I mean, why is the steward praised for being dishonest?!  But it has got me thinking this week about two words beginning with G.  Generosity and gratitude.

We’ve just heard about a steward who wasn’t very good.  He wasn’t doing his job properly and he gets himself the sack.  He starts to think about his future and how bleak it may be, so he takes desperate action to win people over and get them to treat him kindly when he needs it.  Having already squandered some of his master’s money, he decides to give more of it away by reducing some people’s debts.  The money and the debts aren’t his to give away but he does it anyway.  And then bizarrely his master praises him for it.

What the steward has done is taken a gift for which he is responsible and used it wisely to help both him and his master.  We have to remember that this is a parable and so Jesus is not just talking about money but he is using this as an example about our whole spiritual life.  Money itself is neutral.  It’s how we use it that matters.  And that’s the same with a lot of things. Jesus says, ‘You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.’  In fact, you cannot be the slave of anything else if you are totally trusting in God.

A key to this whole puzzle is the word used to describe the steward when he is praised by his master.  We have just heard it translated as ‘dishonest’ but that doesn’t tell us the full story.  It literally means ‘unjust,’ or ‘without justice.’  So the ‘dishonest steward’ is in fact the ‘unjust steward’ or the ‘steward without justice.’  I think that Jesus is telling us that the steward is going beyond the normal bounds of justice, and in fact is being generous with what has been given to him.

Remember that I said this isn’t all about money.  We are given gifts and talents by God, which includes money, and we are made responsible for them.  How we use them is what matters.    God asks us to be generous in helping our fellow human person.  And that is what I have experienced in my time here in Gorton.

Wherever I’ve gone people have been very generous with everything they have.  You have been generous in welcoming me into your homes, and sharing your food with me, as well as your stories and your lives.  You have been generous in letting me a part of funerals and sharing in one of the most difficult times in your life.  You have been generous in welcoming me into the primary schools and allowing me to work with the children.  You have been generous in taking me on Communion visits to some of the care homes.  You have been generous in talking to me and wanting to spend time with me.  You have been generous in sharing a laugh and a joke.

But you’ve not just been generous to me.  I’ve noticed that there are many people with many gifts and talents who give up their time, money and use their particular gifts to serve the community.  You all help each other in some way no matter how big or small.  Even being humble enough to accept help is being generous. 

The Safe project is a marvellous thing and I pray that it will continue to grow and build up God’s community here in Gorton.  And I also pray the parish as a whole will continue to be so welcoming and generous.

The result of all this generosity is people left feeling grateful, and when we are grateful we become more generous, and so it comes full circle.  Generosity leads to gratitude, gratitude leads to generosity and so on.  Two experiences over the last few weeks spring to mind.  First, I took Communion to a man who is your typical northern man.  He doesn’t usually say much about himself or show much emotion.  But as I was leaving he took my hand and said, ‘I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Truly I do.’

And last week we had the children from Sacred Heart over for Mass.  Fr Andrew was asking them what they could do this year to help other people.  After the usual answers like help someone when they’re hurt, or be good for the teacher, I was surprised when one boy said, ‘Be grateful.’  He hit the nail on the head.  Whatever our situation in life, we cannot help but be grateful for any gifts we have, remembering that all these gifts ultimately come from God.

And this takes me back to the word used to describe the steward in the Gospel, ‘unjust’ or ‘without justice.’  The one person who is truly beyond justice, the one person who truly gives unconditionally, the one person who generously provides us with everything we need is God.  He is so beyond justice that even when we throw away the gifts he has given us, or we don’t use them to serve him and his people, he still forgives us and keeps giving, if only we can recognise that and ask.

So I’ll finish with two simple but powerful words that I hope sum up my attitude both to God and to you.  Thank you.

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Michael Deas Reflection

We’ve just heard in the second reading from St Paul’s letter to Philemon.  We don’t hear from or encounter this letter too often at Mass, because it’s one of the shortest works in the Bible.  In spite of this, it is actually an amazing story which I’d like us to dwell on for a few minutes.

I’m just going to ask you to take a journey back to 2000 years ago.  Picture the scene.  We have the backdrop of ancient Rome.  A huge, powerful, wealthy and growing empire.  But this wealth and power was only in the hands of the very few.  We all know about the charismatic and ruthless leaders, and the beautiful art, architecture and poetry we have received from that time.  Great advances in building, science and engineering happened then.  But all these great things came at a cost.  And that cost was the human person.

Most people lived in poverty.  In filthy, disease-ridden, and not very comfortable conditions.  Believe it or not, there were more people who were slaves in the Roman Empire than people who weren’t.  Most of us here today, and most people we know in our lives would have been slaves in ancient Rome.  And slaves did not have any rights. 

Enter St Paul.  He wrote this letter from prison, put there because he was preaching Christ, and he’s writing it to a person called Philemon.  We presume Philemon was rich as he had many slaves, and one of those slaves was called Onesimus, and that’s who Paul is writing about in the reading we just heard.

Philemon became a Christian when Paul had stayed with him.  But one of his slaves, Onesimus, turned out to be useless, and may have even stolen some money from him.  So Onesimus ran away to avoid being caught, and he ended up staying with Paul in another city.  While he was with Paul, he was a changed man and he too became a follower of Christ.  He now would like to return to Philemon’s house, but here comes the big problem.  It was a capital offence for a slave to steal from their master, and so if Onesimus goes back, Philemon is obliged by law to hand him over to the authorities where he will be put to death.  So Paul writes this letter to help Onesimus and remind Philemon how Jesus would act in this situation.

Just for a moment try to put yourself in Philemon’s shoes.  You live in a society where nobody cares about slaves.  The law expects you to punish this slave, Onesimus.  If you don’t, your neighbours will start to gossip about you and you may lose your reputation in the community. 

But you are a Christian. 

That means you should try to see Christ in every human person.  There is no longer slave and master, but brother and sister.  Christ gave up everything for you, he died for you, he has given you himself and eternal life.  There is pressure on both sides as you want to do the right thing but that might mean some suffering. 

What do you do?

Now put yourself in Onesimus’ shoes.  You know that society doesn’t value you.  You know that if you go back to Philemon, you are in danger of death.  It is much safer to stay with Paul.  Can you trust that Philemon is a good enough Christian to welcome you back? 

Do you have the courage and the trust in Christ to take that risk?

This is what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel.  When we are making the decision to follow him and put him at the centre of our lives so that he can work through us, it is a huge decision.  It is a life-changing decision.  It affects all the choices we make in the present and in the future.  But we cannot just throw ourselves willy-nilly into being his disciples.  We have to stop and reflect and work out how ready we are, and what needs to change in our lives so that we become closer to Christ.  We can’t decide to build something then stop before it’s finished because we didn’t plan it first. 

Philemon decided to take Onesimus back because he had trust in God.  Onesimus went back to Philemon because he had trust in God.  But how do we develop this trust ourselves?  How do we take a risk and be countersigns to things in the world that are not of God?  The answer sounds simple but takes a lifetime. 

We have to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. 

This means spending time with him in prayer, putting him at the centre of our lives, so that we treat every human person as if they were Christ.

Feast of the Sacred Heart 2013

On retreat this week our very good retreat giver, invited us to reflect upon who we are. To pay attention to our hearts and what’s in them. To be aware of our story; our history; our present reality and our dreams. He invited us very gently to reflect upon the dreams that had not become a reality, the disappointments and moments of pain. He invited us to reflect on achievements, joys our whole experience.  It was a very gentle and sensitive but sometimes difficult journey through the heart.

We don’t always get the opportunity to stop and creatively reflect on our lives. Very often we are just getting on with them, living them as best we can, picking ourselves up from the difficulties and hopefully having time to celebrate the successes. It’s important though that we do increase our awareness of what is in our heart, what needs to be celebrated, what needs to be healed, what simply needs to be given a voice and grieved for. We may not understand everything or have answers but it’s important just to acknowledge, to notice, to be honest with ourselves.  If we are blessed with good friends we can talk through without judgement or opinion what’s there. Sometimes simply talking something through is all that’s needed.

In this feast of the Sacred Heart we are offered something very important. We are offered a safe place to take the contents of our own hearts.  A sacred place, a loving place, a place that contains the experience of abandonment, loneliness, suffering, joy, peace, trust. A place that we are not strangers, a place where nothing contained in our own hearts is shocking or beyond love.

Jesus exposes to us the real dimensions of love, something healing, selfless, gentle, forgiving. He exposes a gift so that we know where to take everything, our gratitude and our regret for the past, our present reality, who we really are and where we really are rather than the fantasy we sometimes live in and try to portray to others, and our future, our dreams and our fears.  This revelation of Divine love, this very human heart, that bleeds with love for us means that we are not alone, we always have somewhere to go, somewhere to take things, someone to trust in and seek healing from. It’s in that heart and only in that heart that we are renewed and healed and made whole again. All that we are searching for is there and we needn’t worry how to find it because he is already searching for us.

Easter Vigil 2013

Easter Vigil 2013

In the Exultet that we heard tonight, the praises of light were sung and we heard the words ‘let this holy building shake with joy.’ Shake with joy. What a wonderful image. We should shake with joy, our default setting, our normal, our most dominant mood should be joy.  If we want to know the answer to how we share our faith best it is joy. If we want others to join us on our pilgrimage we must be a joy to them. Joy is infectious, joy draws people. Who wants to be around a miserable gossiping cynic? Usually other miserable gossiping cynics. The joyful attract people who want joy. Who doesn’t want joy really? We all want happiness. We have absolutely no reason to not to be joyful. If we believe what we celebrate tonight then there should be a pervading joy in us, a joy that leads us to be people who bless, people who affirm, people who build, people who make things new. Those are the kind of people we have to keep on becoming.  No one should be waiting for a reason to be joyful, it’s already happened. Jesus is Risen. This doesn’t remove the sadnesses but our difficulties and our tragedies are passing things. With hearts set on heaven, with hearts that burn with love for Jesus Christ Risen from the dead, we can view our lives with an all new perspective.

 Joy has to be practised and by practising it becomes habit and by becoming habit it becomes who we are. To be joyful is to see the best, rejoice in the good, be compassionate, it’s to be someone who hopes, someone who serves, someone who gives of their self with passion, someone who isn’t waiting for something better but is rejoicing in what there is right now.  Practice takes discipline, and part of the discipline for us is confession. In confession we renew the Grace of our Baptism, so our cynicism, negativity and even our giving way to sadness needs to be confessed. We have to get over whatever it is that stops us using this incredible Sacrament, and the biggest thing we need to get over is thinking we don’t it. If confession is a regular part of our lives then we become people who keep on leaving death behind and move towards joy.  Joy is about removing ourselves from the centre of things, considering ourselves, taking ourselves too seriously. When we take ourselves too seriously, we are missing out on a really good laugh at just how ridiculous we can be.

Baptism was the greatest gift we ever received. Imprinted upon us is the image of Jesus Christ. Being a person of joy is to allow him to come to the surface, to be seen. To be a person of Joy is to allow what is already reality to become visible: namely that we are the image and likeness of God. Tonight we celebrate, we shake with joy, we move on from the tomb, we leave that behind, whatever is there has nothing to do with life, so let us leave death behind, let us shake with joy!

Good Friday 2013

Good Friday 2013

As a child I found going to Church on Good Friday a little bit scary. Exciting scary like a ride on a ghost train. The hooded statues, the freshness and starkness of everything. The lack of flowers, the quietness of the Church. The priests seeming a little distant, a little far away. By the time Good Friday arrived I was thinking about nothing but sweets. Mt mind was filled with thoughts of dolly mixtures and midget gems and cadbury’s cream eggs. I knew where they were stashed, I imagined how I would eat mine, with a small tea spoon scooping out the centre. So Good Friday was this incredible experience of the senses being starved, starved of taste and colour.  It still is, it’s an emotional ride through the very core of our Christian being, the essence of who we are.  This day, this time is reflection, remembrance and reality, reflection upon our Faith, remembrance of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and a unique exposure to the reality of what we are made for: Sacrifice, service.  These days for all of us are full of deep emotion.  Last night after we had celebrated the lord’s Supper, watched and prayed til 10 and walked from St Francis to here, I sat down and was quite overcome with emotion. We touch something in these days that is very near to home.  If I were to try and express what we all sense when we experience loneliness and grief, loss and profound inner pain, it is a longing for home, somehow these days bring us close to that for which we long, to feel finally and forever; home.  It’s hard just to go straight to sleep with that kind of emotion, and by providence a priest friend phoned: He said “brother I didn’t want to be myself, can we just talk for a while?” We shared with each other our experience of the evening, poured a glass of wine as we chatted, talked about the Pope’s homily that day and after 30 minutes or so we bid each other good night.” Priests in these days are immersed in the very core of what they are and who they act as and for – Jesus Christ. It is an overwhelming reality – pray for your priests, walk with your priests, we are fellow pilgrims entrusted with guiding and teaching, but often we feel just like I did as a little kid, a bit scared and often distracted.

Into this starkness, into this starvation of the senses bursts Jesus Christ crucified. What does this mean, why do we preach this as Glory, why do we boast in the cross of Jesus Christ: because all of our shame, all of our sin, all of our weakness, a failing, our anger, our bitterness, our grief, our loneliness and loss is nailed there.  Jesus Christ, the son of God, the servant King takes upon his shoulders and into his heart, the very stench, sourness and horror of it all and makes it love. Because God is Love, in Jesus Christ crucified we have the perfection of love. Total self sacrifice.  There is then no option for the Christian pilgrim, there can be no avoiding this reality, to avoid the cross, to not nail our lives to the cross, to not place the cross at the centre of everything we are, is to be something less than human and very far from home.  There is the mystery and the reality, that in embracing the Cross of Christ, unifying our suffering with his, is to be most at home, and more human.  Are we human when we are bitter and angry, are we human when we are jealous and condemning, are we human when we take the easier options and choose not to serve.

When Christ is at the centre, when the cross is planted firmly in our lives, when we nail everything to that cross we become more beautiful and human than we can possibly imagine, because the tree of death has become the tree of life.

‘Without beauty, without majesty we saw him, no looks to attract our eyes; a thing despised by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, a man to make people screen their faces; he was despised and we took no account of him.’

And yet there is nothing more majestic and beautiful.  We might think of our sufferings and difficulties as ugly and harsh and something to be overcome. If we offer them, if we unite them with Christ if we nail them to the cross they will make us beautiful, they will make us human.  We might think our past, our sins are too much.  We may think we can never be beautiful, or confident or hold our heads up to the world.  The harsh condemning world, the judgemental, unforgiving, low standards, high shaming world. The world we contribute to.  That is the tempter at work, underming us, seeking to prevent us from believing in the glory and wonder of our Saviour Jesus Christ, because in him we can boast and hold our heads up, whatever our past, whatever anyone elese thinks of us, whoever else has condemned us. God does not condemn us. We condemn ourselves to being less human, less beautiful if we deny ourselves the lover made perfect, nailed to a tree, a tree with roots that run deep through creation and can transform us all.

There’s a song – We found love in hopeless place -  I love listening to the kids on our project singing it – none of us is a hopeless place, because love has made every place, hope filled, every person no longer a problem but a possibility.

Holy Thursday 2013

Mass of the Lord’s Supper 2013

There is almost an overwhelming emotion in these days. We enter into the very heartland of our faith. Through a stripping away of the normal and familiar we are brought into direct exposure to what we are really all about. Through our prayer and our fasting and our charitable giving we have been peeling away the layers that protect our hearts, the comforts and consolations that dull our deepest sense of what we are made for. Those things that fill our lives; those distractions that move us away from who we really are.  In these incredible days now, we are given a graced opportunity to be exposed; to make our hearts vulnerable to the presence of God: a God not imposing or enslaving but a God washing our feet like a servant. A God not all consuming, but a God who gives us His very self to be consumed. It seems too good to be true. But it is more true than anything else in existence.  What we celebrate and make present here tonight, in sign, symbol and reality is more true, significant and compelling than anything else on the face of the earth. Here in this space and this time, eternity itself breaks into our lives, and penetrates our hearts, our inmost being. Tonight here we encounter the living God, kneeling before us, and breaking himself open for us. So great is our dignity, so incredible our calling.  There can be no mediocrity for the Christian, no half measures, no false humility. We are made for greatness, we are called to live with joy, to enlarge our hearts for each other.

Every act of service, every word of encouragement, every smile and moment of forgiveness, every prayer whispered for one another, prevents our hearts from being hidden again, filled with things that our passing and mediocre.  The Lord is always doing something to us that we do not understand now but that we will later, most importantly the Lord is setting an example of a life that is not consumed by self, not obsessed with self; it is a life that keeps going out of itself.  That’s our calling.

To be a Christian, is to be a pilgrim on a journey, a journey that does not have the consolation of satellite navigation with clear instructions, estimated time of arrival and clarity about the direction we are going. To be a pilgrim is to follow the Lord carrying a cross, uniting our sufferings with His, not wishing it were some other way, some other path. We are following closely and faithfully, with a constant mantra “Thy will be done”. It is a way of poverty, and simplicity, a way that is not sophisticated or impressive at first glance. It is the difficult journey that we would rather not take, a way full of the waifs and the strays, the greatest saints and the worst sinners. But is it the only way; it is the joy filled way; it is the way that anyone can walk whatever their past, whatever their present, and a way that leaves none behind, especially those who stumble, and even those who in their stumbling cause others to fall because it is the way of forgiveness and mercy. On this pilgrim way, our pilgrim Church has a clear destination, it is the destination of the whole of humanity – eternal life. We are not to be obsessed or immersed in these passing times. Our hearts must run the risk of exposure through loving service, so as to be able to long for heaven, to feel the tidal pull of heaven on our hearts.  All of our bitterness, heaviness, sadness, anger, vengefulness and desire to dominate can be transformed.  Our lives can become living flames of passionate joy if we allow the Lord to wash and feed us. If as we witness the washing of feet we pray, ‘Lord wash me, humble me, renew me, reform me, rebuild me.’ These prayers uttered even without sincerity are the beginning of the deep conversion that must take place in the Church, not so that we can become more numerous, but so that we can actually be believed! How can we expect anyone to believe in God made flesh in Jesus Christ if our lives don’t speak of that truth? 

As we approach Holy Communion let us deepen our faith in what we are being fed and nourished with ‘Lord deepen my faith in your real presence. Give me an overwhelming  love of you in the Eucharist.’ These truths must become for us worth dying for. We must die to our embarrassment and discomfort at referring to what we receive as the Sacred Body and the Precious Blood of Christ. We must die to our complacency and lack of respect for Jesus in the Eucharist by how we behave in Church and out of Church.

The pilgrim way is in the eyes of the world the way of poverty and nothingness. That is the risk, that is the calling. To live a life of joyful poverty that couldn’t care less what anyone thinks; our friends, our family even our fellow pilgrims.  Sometimes the greatest barrier to our conversion are our friends, because we are more concerned with what they might think or say than what we are called to.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I speak only as a poor wretched sinner, I speak first to myself and ask your prayers that God will give me the strength to be the priest you need and deserve. Sometimes all of us our overwhelmed by our responsibilities and vocation. The Lord has called me to be a priest and for now to be your priest, your shepherd, your fellow pilgrim along the way. Let us set out again in these days praying that all of us will be renewed, reformed and rebuilt, inspired by the example of our patron St Francis and ne Pope Francis and enfolded in the merciful love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.