20th Per Annum 2019 SMC
How are you? I know before too long someone will say back to me, “And how are you?” I seem to find myself quite often in conversations which go round and around, “How are you?” “Yes, I’m fine thanks. How are you.” “Yes, I’m fine thanks. How are you?” What’s keeping us in that cycle is a reluctance to communicate: perhaps because the two individuals lack a conviction that the other really cares, perhaps because there seems to be the pressure of time and busyness - got to be getting on with the next thing.
Communication is the easiest it’s ever been for human beings and as it becomes easy we lose the ability to do it. Let’s look at communicating that we see happening in our readings today and the lessons we might learn from it.
Notice the power of persuasion in communication. It’s something we are to resist and be expert in. King Zedekiah in our first reading from Jeremiah 38 is portrayed as generally good but weak. He probably knows Jeremiah is from God but will too easily be swayed by his leading soldiers and so, gives in: “He is in your hands.” It makes us think, of course, of Pontius Pilate washing his hands, as we see at the first Station of the Cross, failing to stick up for Christ. We can be too easily swayed by the people around us and they lead us to use words we might not otherwise use; they lead us to reject Christian practices that were once dear to us; they bully us into disowning our Saviour. The remedy to this is to sever ourselves from their efforts. This is part of the fire our Lord comes to bring when He says in today’s Gospel: “I have come to bring fire to the earth … division. For from now on a household of five will be divided.” We need to identify those moments, those interactions, those places where we find it hardest to be a Christian. Then we will either need to firm ourselves up in those places, praying for the gift of bravery to sing like Shadrach Meshech and Abdnego in the fire (Daniel 3). Or we need to shake the dust off our feet as we depart those places. Separation and division will be needed some times in our Christian journey.
The power of communication is also a gift the Lord promises to give us His people: “When they hand you over, do not worry about how to respond or what to say: for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour” (Matthew 10:19). Notice in this promise the Lord makes - and He always keeps His promises - notice how it is not a promise that we will know in advance what we’re going to say; we will still feel nervous in such situations But we are to trust that even though we don’t know what we’re going to say, that in that very hour, that moment, if we are being true to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will be true to us and provide. We just have to trust to open our mouth without necessarily knowing what will come out.
Our lips are indeed holy, my friends. These lips are here in this Temple of God to sing His praises. These lips are for many of us to have the Host, the Lord’s Body, placed upon us, to know the life we receive as His Precious Blood flows into our soul. When the Gospel is proclaimed it is customary to make the sign of the Cross with the thumb of our right hand on our forehead, our lips and on our heart: on our lips that we might proclaim the praises of Jesus. Think also of the powerful commissioning of Isaiah where his sin is cleansed by the placing of the burning coal from the altar on his lips (Isaiah 6). Such lips then must not be involved in gossip; these lips are not to have harsh criticism or judgemental attitudes. We know these things. The saints so often also call us also to be careful about being silly with what we say, as St Paul puts it: “Entirely out of place is obscene, silly and vulgar talk; but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4).
These lips will need to be involved also in preaching the Gospel and telling others about what God has done in your life. Here at St Mary’s we have a particular impetus to do this now because, as many of you know, just over a year ago we were asked to support a local parish, St Philip’s on Philip Lane. We were all asked to think how we might help them and some of us heard that call and responded to it. Some gave money, some committed in prayer, some attend the midweek Masses at St Philip’s, some helped with practical tasks, be it administration or flowers, some help by leaving St Mary’s on a Sunday morning and committing to be with that community and I can think of six from our congregation who will be there this morning. There are cards at the back with more suggestions. Part of the reason for the Church beginning to behave like this is that it encourages our own congregation to do things differently, plugging gaps where people have left, stepping up our own commitment, going the extra mile. It was a sacrificial act for the Gospel on our part. Love and sacrifice go together in the service of the Gospel. My friends, speak of God’s love and convince others to come and worship Him here.
The final bit of communication that strikes me in today’s readings is within this great cloud of witnesses we heard described in our second reading. The cloud is a classic Biblical indicator of the presence of God, and we’re learning especially about that on Tuesday evenings at the Study Group about the Book of Exodus, where the cloud leads the people by day as they walk through the wilderness (Exodus 18) and where the tabernacle is sanctified by the cloud covering it and the glory of the Lord filling it (Exodus 40). The clouds indicating the God’s presence in the New Testament have one subtle different to the Old Testament clouds: they have other people in them too. Hence, up the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear in the cloud of God’s glory as Jesus reveals the beauty of His divinity. Peter, James and John are called into the cloud (Luke 9:28-36). And here, in Hebrews 12, “we have so many witnesses.” Surely this teaches us that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ draws us in and has already drawn the saints in. This is why a community that doesn’t know the saints struggles to be the church, because the glory of God cannot be celebrated truly without knowing those who experience it already and who communicate it to us.
The saints communicate with us about who Jesus is. We ought to read more about their lives and discover there the authenticated account of who the Lord of Heaven and earth is. Two little examples from this week’s saints who teach us what to use our tongues for. On Tuesday, we will ask for the prayers of St Bernard of Clairvaux, a great writer and preacher of the twelfth century. He reminded his community of monks of the danger of the tongue wagging too much. Though it is a small part of the body, he wrote, it is “a most suitable instrument for emptying hearts.”
A second example is that on Saturday this week we will ask for the prayers of St Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles whom we discover most about when he is referred to by his other name, Nathaniel. Nathaniel was invited to come and see Jesus by St Philip (John 1:43-51) and Jesus praises Him as one “in whom there is no deceit.” The Psalmist long foretold that those who shall ascend the hill of the Lord will not swear deceitfully (Psalm 24). May our lips similarly be holy and instruments of truth, strengthened by the prayers of St Bartholomew.
So, let’s get our communication right, not being cajoled into doing that which is contrary to the Gospel; confident that we’ll have the Spirit at work in us when we need to tell others to get to Mass; watching what we say that we don’t soil our lips with wickedness; and let us hear the voices of the Saints encouraging us to be the people God made us to be.