Many years ago, I heard part of a talk given by Bishop David Shepherd, Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, who had been an international cricketer (and captained England on a couple of occasions). So it was not a surprise that when he looked for an example of what he was saying he turned to cricket. He referred to Mike Brearley, who was then captain of England’s cricket team, who was known for his careful field placings – moving fine leg a little closer and a little squarer, moving cover point a little further out and a little finer; and when he had finished placing the field exactly as he wanted, he always looked up at the sun, as though he was moving the sun a little finer or a little squarer. And Bishop Shepherd commented that we would perhaps all like to be able to make the sun do as we wanted – and I suppose after the last couple of months, if we could even make the sun shine for some time each day we might be very pleased. But, he said, God has not given us that amount of power; instead, God calls on us to make best use of the powers and talents that he has given us. If we were able to do so much more, then perhaps we would be less responsible with what God has already given to us; and perhaps our limitations will help us to recognise the ways in which we have been wasteful.
With that in mind, when we recall the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading, we may be struck by the fact that he starts off by giving orders to the islands, just as Mike Brearley might have seemed to give orders to the sun. But then we notice that, while God has given Isaiah great power to do his will, the prophet himself seems to think that he has been a failure. God says – you are my servant, in whom I shall be glorified; whereas the prophet thought – I have toiled in vain, and exhausted myself for nothing.
So how is it that the prophet’s understanding of his work, of all that he has been able to accomplish in God’s sight, has been so much at variance with God’s own understanding? I think that part of the trouble, for the prophet, is that he was expecting to do too much all at once: he was looking for immediate results, or at least that matters would be very significantly better after a few years of work. But God doesn’t look for the quick fix: God’s timespan, unsurprisingly, is eternal, and so what to us might seem an appreciable amount of time (the fourteen years that I have been in this parish, for example), to God is just the blink of an eye.
But towards the end of the passage from the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard today, there is another explanation. God and Isaiah have rather different ideas of success. So Isaiah’s field of view is the nation of Israel, and his idea of success is ensuring that the nation is settled in the land, has sufficient food and drink and shelter, is well governed according to God’s laws, worships God in his Temple, and is safe from attacks from other nations. God’s objectives for Isaiah, however, are rather grander: “It is not enough for you to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel; I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
So I wonder what our ideas of success might be for ourselves as a christian communion. Bishop Ellis, who was Bishop 50 years ago when I first came to the Nottingham Diocese, had very clear ideas of success: building schools – which he considered was more important than building churches. Young parishes would usually have goals, in terms of the money needed to be raised to build a Church for themselves, and success would be first of all when the Church was built and they moved in to their place of worship, and then when the had paid for it. We had to do some fundraising in this parish a few years ago to pay for the extension of the Parish Hall and painting and refurbishing the Church – and again we could congratulate ourselves when the loan was paid off a year ago. Missionary Orders of priests often take it as a mark of their success when young men from the region where they have been working join the Order and are ordained priests; and perhaps that could be an idea for parishes in our own diocese – to mark success by having an ordination to the priesthood, or at least to the diaconate, in the parish.
But that is all rather inward-looking – equivalent, perhaps, to Isaiah’s aim to ‘restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel’. Does God, perhaps, have a different set of objectives for us, which are more to do with the Church in this parish being ‘a light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth’? And if this is what God is calling us to achieve in this parish, and in this Diocese, how are we going to plan for the future so that this will become our objective too?
Last week I raised a few questions which perhaps relate both to this community as the Catholic community in this area, and to the mission of the Church as a whole, to be a light to the nations and to bring salvation to the poor. Perhaps these same questions could be a focus for reflections this week as well.
Shall I take part in the course for catechists?
Shall I come to the safeguarding training?
Shall I form or join a prayer group – whether in Church or at home?
Shall I help in some way in Church, to assist in the celebrations of Mass at weekends, for the greater glory of God?
Could I visit someone who is ill, elderly, or housebound?
Could I join the SVP, or consider becoming a eucharistic minister?
Could I work for justice and peace, or for CAFOD, or in some way help those in the world much less fortunate than we are?
How would this parish maintain itself as a christian communion
without a resident parish priest?
if we had to relocate elsewhere?
Bishop Malcolm asks us all to reflect on such questions, and to pool our thoughts so that he can discharge his responsibility to make appropriate and wise decisions for the whole diocese.
I heard recently of a survey into food, which produced the rather surprising results that a significant number of people think that bacon comes from cows, and an even larger number of people were quite unaware of how you get raspberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, and so on. It reminds me of the April 1 episode of Horizon, about forty years ago or so, which was based on the idea that spaghetti grew on trees.
There are a lot of things that we take on trust – and in many cases we really have no choice. Most of us have only the haziest of ideas about how the microwave works, for instance, but we still use them quite regularly; and the same probably goes for flat screen TVs. We know that they will go wrong from time to time – but it still catches us out when they do. I know I felt quite aggrieved when the element on the cooker burned out last year, and would probably have similar feelings if the washing machine broke down (it is 14 years old!).
So just as the farmer in Our Lord’s time would sow the seed and then wait for it to come to harvest, in accordance with the ways of the world which God has made, so also we do many things every day with hardly a thought about how our actions produce their results.
And this, Our Lord tells us, is what the kingdom of God is like. It is something of which we are part, but which follows its own rules – the rules that God has given – regardless of whether we are committed to it or not. If we are committed, all well and good: we can sow the seed of the kingdom (the seed provided by our heavenly Father), we might till the soil, or pull out weeds, or help matters along in whatever ways God has gifted us to be able to do; and when the harvest is ready there will be worked commissioned by God to gather the harvest of the Kingdom of God – eternal life and happiness with God. But if we are not committed, the seed will still be sown, and the work will still be done, and the harvest will still ripen. God calls us all to work for the kingdom of truth, peace, life, love, and if we hear his call then our own work will form a part of the eternal kingdom; but if we refuse, that will not frustrate God’s plans; it merely means that our work will not be part of their fulfilment.
A great deal of hard work has gone into building the kingdom of God in this part of Leicestershire, and we have had a part to play in that building. Those who have gone before us – the people who used to worship at the Old Bakery on Church Lane, those who used to worship in the room over the pub – sowed the seed of faith and worship; those who came after them – who were instrumental in raising money, providing the land, supporting the original Church building, ensuring that the young people were raised in faith and practice – tilled the soil and irrigated it; and in recent years we have continued their good work, with the Parish Hall extension, tending to our communion as the body of Christ, and continuing to show a welcome to others, and to look after our young people and our elderly people, those who are healthy and those who are not – all in continuing preparation for the time of the harvest. We look forward to being part of God’s kingdom, when perhaps we will find that what we thought of as just a mustard seed compared with the work that others have done, was counted by God as important and perhaps has grown into a large tree in God’s garden.
But underpinning it all is still faith. Faith that God has some better thing planned for us even than our experiences of life and love and faith in this world. And part of that faith is the knowledge that all things in this world have their time, and there may be a time when all that we have built in our parish must give way to something different. I’m sure we would feel very aggrieved if it was to happen in our lifetime: just as I felt aggrieved when the new central heating boiler refused to work because it had got too cold and the outlet had frozen!
But I think that we owe it to future generations to put in lasting foundations, just as our forebears worked to erect the foundations of this parish. We may not know what will be built on our foundations, any more than they did; but we trust in the power and the love of God just as they did. So what must we ensure that we put inplace? St. Paul is very clear: the foundation is Christ himself and the apostles; building on anything else will not last. And the way that we build must be in faith in God, and in love of God and of his people. Those are the tools of the trade. And we must use all the talents that God has given to us in this work: our intelligence, our imagination, our sensitivity, our appreciation of God’s gifts.
So as a christian communion we must make sure that we share our faith with others – the younger members of our communion, and those outside who may wish to become members. This means that we must make sure that we have among us those who are willing to hand on our christian faith and who are properly trained to do so. So there is a catechists’ course starting this autumn at St. Patrick’s, for existing catechists and forthose who might wish to become catechists at some time in the future, and there is shortly to be some training in child protection matters in this parish. We must make sure that there are those among us who take care to visit the sick and the lonely and the elderly and the housebound, and keep them within our worshipping communion; and we must make sure that the group of people who have been doing such great work in the past is regularly augmented by new members willing to carry on this good work into the future. We must make sure that we are always alive to the needs of peoples who are not members of our communion, particularly those who are starving, without shelter, or in fear of unjust imprisonment. We must, as a christian communion, consider the ways that we worship God, formally in Church, and informally – and perhaps this means that we should look to new forms of prayer life in the parish to supplement the prayers and the liturgy that we already have. And in all of this we must remain open to the possibility that there may have to be changes to our established routine: we may well be unable to have regular Mass every weekday; we may have to make do with only two Sunday Masses (and perhaps even with only one); we may have to make do without a resident priest; we may even have to consider life as a parish communion based elsewhere than here in our Church. We have to be open to these possibilities, because they are less important than our shared faith, our celebrations of Mass and the sacraments, our prayers individually and together, and the way that we show our love for God and for one another.
So perhaps this week we need to reflect on some more questions for the future: Shall I take part in the course for catechists? Shall I come to the safeguarding training? Shall I form or join a prayer group – whether in Church or at home? Shall I help in some way in Church, to assist in the celebrations of Mass at weekends, for the greater glory of God? Could I visit someone who is ill, elderly, or housebound? Could I join the SVP, or consider becoming a eucharistic minister? Could I work for justice and peace, or for CAFOD, or in some way help those in the world much less fortunate than we are? How would this parish maintain itself as a christian communion without a resident parish priest? if we had to relocate elsewhere? Bishop Malcolm asks us all to reflect on such questions, and to pool our thoughts so that he can discharge his responsibility to make appropriate and wise decisions for the whole diocese.
When I was growing up, Alec Bedser’s international career was just coming to an end; but he and his twin brother Eric were stalwarts of the Surrey cricket team for a year or two longer. Neither brother married, and they lived together in the same house until Eric’s death in 2006. Alec died four years later.
They were ‘identical twins’, and even later in life, those who did not know them well would have difficulty inidentifying which was which. But much more disconcerting, apparently, was their tendency to complete each other’s sentences, so that it seemed that you could never be quite sure which one you were talking to.
For most human beings, however, true love is not shown by the two people becoming carbon copies of each other, but remaining distinct persons, and yet being totally committed to the other’s welfare. For one person to take over the other would be domination, and domination is stifling; whereas true human love is encouraging. A couple fully in love would wish each one to grow to their full potential, and know with complete certainty that this very fulfilment would be better for both partners. So Kahlil Gibran had this advice for those who are married: Sing and dance together, and be joyous, but let each of you be alone, as the strings of the lute are alone, though they quiver with the same music. Stand together, but not too near together; for the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak and the cypress do not grow in each other’s shadow.
True love is creative: we could think of the vast numbers of poems, songs, ballads, paintings, sculptures, architectural works, which have been produced as monuments to love. Muchmore important, however, is the way that the love between two human beings is to be found in creating children, works of love who can be loved by the parents and can grow to love the parents in turn. So true human love produces a communion of persons, each remaining different from the others, but united nonetheless in this wonderful fellowship of family love.
We don’t have perfect families, of course; but our own expereinces of family life nevertheless show us the reality of love in action, and awaken in us the possibilities of even greater and more perfect love. Perhaps it is because we are all prone to mistakes, to sin, and, of course, we are all mortal, that this imperfect family love becomes even more important for us. We recall that when the samaritans asked Our Lord about marriage, he said that there is no marrying in heaven because there is no death! So if we were each perfect, would we need others who are different from us? Is it only because we are not perfect, that we need others to love, and we need to be loved by others, and together we need to be creative in love, so that there will be something good lasting beyond ourselves? But thathardly seems to be right; if we were perfect, we would not love ourselves – for such narcissistic love is unhealthy; and yet – could anything be perfect, without love? Surely love is such an important emotion and act of the will that the world would always be poorer without it.
So could God be perfect without love? The difference, of course, is that God does not need something other than God to be complete. So even before creation, God is love; but real healthy love must always be focussed on another. So within God there must be another: there is one God, but within that one God there must in some way be two, who are equal to each other, but distinct as the lover and the beloved. And then again, this love must be creative: so the love of the lover for the beloved, and the love of the beloved for the lover, must provide a third within God, equal to the other two, but distinct. And so we celebrate the Feast of the Blessed Trinity: that within the one God there are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the Father who loves the Son; the Son who is loved by the Father; that the Holy Spirit, who is produced by the love of the Father and the Son, so that the Father and the Son are united in love for the Holy Spirit.
This was the case before time began; before creation. And we know that the universe exists only by the will of God, who created it by his Word and by his Spirit: so the lover, the beloved, and the Spirit who is loved by them both, are all involved in creating the universe, and ourselves as part of it. But just as any loving creation within our universe will show the abilities of its maker, so also our Universe must contain within itself the imprint of the love between the three Divine Persons. And this love can be shown in our human families, and in the Church.
So our reflections on the Church in our diocese, and in our own parish, which we have been undertaking over the past few weeks, must continue within this atmosphere of love: for without love, we will have missed out an essential ingredient. Our communion must be a loving communion, or it cannot be christian. This christian love will have two aspects: love of God, and love of our neighbour, the two greatest laws which between them contain the wholeof the Law and the Prophets, as Our Lord told the lawyer. But because the love of our christian communion must be a share in the love of God, we can see that there must be two movements in christian love: for just as the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, so we must love one another within our christian communion. As Tertullian said in his Apology: See how these christians love one another.
But also, just as the Father and the Son share in their love for the Holy Spirit, so also any good christian communion must love those who are not members. Our love cannot be inward-looking, or it will not be healthy; it will run the risk of degenerating into narcissism. Bishop Malcolm used to say (and perhaps still does say) that it is organizations such as CAFOD, which ensure that we do look outside ourselves and come to the aid of others, which keep our communities christian.
So perhaps we have no another dimension to add to our reflections. With the number of active priests likely to decline over the next ten to twenty years, how will our diocese, and our own parish (even if there is no longer a resident priest) continue to show in practical ways our christian love for others? How will we put structures into place to make sure that our christian love for others is not left to a few individuals, who do great work, but who certainly cannot be expected to last for ever?
In this parish I am very grateful to those who have shown such christian love for others for many years. Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul; Eucharistic Ministers; those who have been parish representatives for CAFOD or for Justice and Peace; and no doubt other groupings of people as well. But how are we to make sure that this will continue? The ministry of charity is part (and perhaps the most important part) of the ministry of the deacon. Do we need a deacon in this parish? Deacons can be married or single; and they will have their own secular employment (until retirement). But they are also ordained ministers of the Church, and on behalf of the community they are ministers of the love of God. It takes time – perhaps five years or so – for a community to put forward a candidate for the diaconate, for his to be accepted as such by the Bishop, and for him to be trained. There are about 40 deacons working at present in our diocese. It is certainly worth while asking whether we should also have a deacon in this parish. Do you think we should look into this possibility? And if so, how should we go about deciding whether we really do want to present a candidate to Bishop Malcolm?
This is just one possibility: there will be other ways forward. If we do believe that God is Three Persons, One eternal God, and if we do believe, as St. John tells us, that God is love, then we must take very seriously our duty to be a loving communion in Jesus Christ.