Monday, 30 June 2014

A Sermon for a First Mass

I have generally refrained from posting my Sermons here, for two reasons; firstly. the publication of a Sermon for me is its preaching and reception in its Liturgical Context, the Mass, and not on a screen, and secondly for the very practical reason that I prepare addresses in note form by hand and never keep them!

However, last night I was honoured to preach at the first Mass of my good friend Fr Guillermo Cavieses, in St Giles, Pontefract, and given the positive reaction from both priests and people who were present, it may just be I had something helpful to say. Here it is, minus a personal reference or two:

Homily for the Missa Prima of Fr Guillermo Cavieses,                                                                                   St Giles Pontefract, 29th June 2014.

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Fr Guillermo, thank you so much for the invitation to preach tonight, and I am pleased to bring greetings from the good people of St Mary’s and All Saints, Elland, where you undertook a pastoral placement a few years ago.

It is indeed a great joy, for all of us to be here tonight, at the first sacrifice of the Mass to be offered by our newly ordained priest. Here we celebrate and proclaim the living presence of Jesus in the Holy Sacrament, and we pray for the Guidance of the Holy Spirit upon Fr Guillermo’s priesthood; called, as the Psalmist prophecies, to take up the Cup of Salvation, and to call upon the Name of the Lord for us. We pray too for Helena and Magdalena, and join with Fr G in giving thanks for his family, his friends and benefactors and for all that has brought him to this point, for the roots he shares in Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican traditions. Here at St Giles and St Mary’s, you have got to know and appreciate the many gifts Fr Guillermo has to offer as he has served among you as the Lord’s Deacon. Tonight I ask you to Pray for your new priest, that he may be a sign of God’s faithfulness for you.

Now, given Father’s love of Science Fiction and outer space, I would like to shoehorn in an unusual text for a First mass; ‘Heuston, we have a problem’; with those laconic words, the Crew of Apollo 13 initiated a tense and life-threatening situation that was to be safely and successfully resolved. Those words are not to be found in the Scriptures however, yet perhaps tonight’s Evangelist, St John, from whose Gospel we have just heard, had a similar question in mind, ‘Humanity, we have a problem.’ For St John the answer to a torn and broken world, to human sin and unfaithfulness, is to be found in the person and the presence of Jesus, true God and true man. To this Jesus the Christian community is to be a witness, yet not all are willing to hear. ‘Jesus said, I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats of this bread will live for ever;’ yet the Jews disputed among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his Flesh to eat?’ For St John, the Living Bread is the gift of Christ himself, that we too may live as people of faith, faithful followers of our Crucified and Risen Lord.

To his human gifts that you have come to know and appreciate, this morning  through the Bishop’s laying on of hands and the Church’s prayer, he has been given a gift that no priest deserves, but that he is asked to humbly receive, the gift of priesthood, given for the Church and for the world, to join us to God so that we know who we really and truly are. Your new priest will baptize into the death and resurrection of Jesus, will feed you with the Pilgrim’s food, the Body and Blood of Christ, will pray for God’s healing presence, and will declare forgiveness to the penitent, he will be Christ for you, that you may be Christ for the world.
And all through your hands, dear Father, hands anointed by the Bishop, hands that will handle holy and precious things, that you may live up to your calling as Shepherd and Priest. St Francis of Assisi once said that if he met a saint and a Priest on the road, he would respect the saint, but would kiss the hands of the priest, for at these hands we receive and share the mysteries of God’s love. Yet, as a priest, you remain a human being, subject to sin and failure and pastoral misunderstanding, you will sin and fall short, but above all may you be delivered from the besetting sin of the priesthood, of believing and acting that it is about us, and not about God. When we priests believe that ministry is about our own ambition and our achievement, that people are there to serve us rather than the other way around, then we are the cause of a serious tear in the Body of Christ. And may you be delivered from that priestly tendency to tell others off, as Canon Jeremy Fletcher puts it in his essential book, Rules for Reverends, If all you have to say is to tell others what they shouldn’t do, you’ll just sound grumpy. This, he goes on to say, may of course be the effect you are trying to achieve...

For to accept the gift of priesthood is to be counter-cultural, to step down, to sacrifice your own ambition; for all that we ultimately have to offer, and the reason why, as did Melchizedek of old in our first reading from Genesis, we bring forward bread and wine, is the Cross of Christ. You are offering your life, not for a programme or initiative of action, certainly not for a Diocese, even for a new One, but for the Crucified Lord. Christ and the Cross and you, and the people for whom you are sent. As the Lord hung upon the Cross, in perfect obedience to the Father’s will, he offered even his last breath to the one in whom he placed his perfect trust. Yet, before you begin to cower under the Altar at the thought of all this, remember, as per St Francis, you have been called to Ordination today, not canonisation; you still have time to work on the latter.

And speaking of work still to be done, may your priesthood give to you new and fresh insights for your work at the University of Leeds on Instruments of Communion. May you find comfort and solace, but also challenge and holy disturbance, in the Holy Eucharist. A little before the ill-fated Apollo 13, Buzz Alldrin of Apollo 11, who followed Neil Armstrong to set foot on the Moon, was moved by the sight of the earth from such a great distance, to speak of the greatness and the unity of God’s creation in verses from Psalm 8, O Lord our God, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! After the Eagle, the Lunar Module landed on the moon’s surface at Tranquillity Base, and before Neil Armstrong’s famous one small step, Alldrin received Holy Communion on the surface of the Moon, possibly the only time NASA have been consulted over the means of Reservation. For at this and every Eucharist, we are in touching distance not of the planets, but of heaven, for as the priest raises the Host it is met by heavenly hands, so that as the host is placed into the hands of those who come to receive, it is touched with the possibility and potential of heaven.

Above all, Fr, never stop giving thanks for the gift of priesthood, for priesthood is not your property, but the Lord’s. And do as St John did, Love the Mother of the Lord, welcoming her into your heart. She will teach you how to love her Son.