The Bible (opened)
Sermon - Year B

5th Sunday in Ordinary time

There’s a lot of excitement going on in today’s gospel. The locals were thrilled by Jesus’ presence among them in their synagogue. Then, the news of Simon’s mother-in-law having been miraculously healed by Jesus spread like wildfire in the neighbourhood, and soon after sunset, when the Sabbath day restrictions were over, the house where Jesus was staying was besieged by those seeking either healing or sensation. In a world with neither an effective healthcare system nor a professional entertainment industry, both groups of people must have been especially keen to meet Jesus – the sick or their relatives in the hope of being healed, the rest of the crowd in search of a thrill or a buzz as a welcome distraction from the dullness and routine of life in a small provincial town. Yet there was another small group of people in today’s gospel who were also enormously excited: Jesus’ disciples. Suddenly, they found themselves in the middle of a human maelstrom, a spontaneous gathering that needed to be managed in an orderly fashion. They were basking in Jesus’ popularity; for them, it was proof of their Master’s special status and, thus, of their own as well. It’s so easy to be beguiled by popularity! Jesus’ disciples had yet to learn how changeable the mood of crowds could be and how short-lived and deceptive popularity tends to be. The only level-headed person there seemed to be Jesus, and that was down to one thing that he did: “In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.”

It’s astonishing to discover how busy we are. It comes home to me every time a meeting has to be arranged. With the attendance of every single individual being desirable, the difficulty of finding a slot convenient for everyone grows exponentially. Even more astonishing is that many of those due to attend have retired from their professional careers, and you’d expect them to have plenty of time on their hands. But no, we all seem to be very busy – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! However, every now and again, when looking at my own diary, I wonder whether I should be involved in so many activities, actions and dealings. There’s always a danger that some of the things we do or get involved with are actually in pursuit of popularity (“I can’t say ‘no’”) or a way of hiding emptiness in our lives. On the other hand, the strength of our society depends on our being active members of it, concerned about others and ready to help them in need. So, how can we know whether the motive behind what we are doing is vainglorious or charitable?

In the good old days – as some people call the past – we were taught to pray in the morning and evening. Personally, I think it’s a pretty good idea to start and finish the day with God. It used to be much easier back in the “good old days” when there were very few distractions or alternatives; when the natural rhythms of daylight, shift patterns and routines paced the day. The first major change came about through affordable electric lighting that initially extended our hours of work beyond sunrise and sunset and eventually made it possible for us to work around the clock. The second major change was brought about by the so-called “TV revolution,” which captured us with cheap tellies, a massive selection of channels, and 24/7 broadcasting. At one time a centrepiece of furniture in the sitting room, the humble telly has since invaded other rooms in the house, offering us light entertainment around the clock. Now we are in the middle of the third major change: ubiquitous “Video-on-demand”, allowing its users to watch films and TV shows at their convenience, on the go on mobile devices, without bothering about TV schedules. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, think of  BBC iPlayer or Netflix, or you could ask younger family members. Let me be clear – I’m not bemoaning all those changes. Exactly the opposite! I think such technological developments offer us greater opportunities to better ourselves – if and when they are used intelligently. However, an unintended consequence of media omnipresence is that we start and finish our day in front of a flashing screen rather than with prayer. Effectively, this means that there’s very little – if any – room for God in our hectic day. And then it’s very easy to lose a healthy perspective and overview of life and subsequently find oneself bogged down.

We are just ten days from the beginning of Lent, a time when we are invited to reflect upon our lives and make necessary corrections or adjustments. Traditionally, some of us will give up chocolate, or alcohol, or certain foods for Lent. That’s fine. I’d like to suggest finding time and making space for daily prayer: not as a chore, nor as a set of memorised rhymes to recite at a literally breathtaking speed, but more as a time for reflection, for listening to God rather than talking at Him. To give you an idea, my main prayer time of the day is while leisurely walking. Away from the crowds and surrounded by nature, I listen to God and sometimes have a friendly conversation with Him. So, your personal prayer time doesn’t have to be restricted to the morning or the evening; it can be at any time of the day. It doesn’t have to be in any specific place; it’s more important that it’s a place free of distractions. Over the period of Lent, you can develop a healthy daily prayer routine – the best way to regain a healthy overview and perspective of life, and thus the ability to judge wisely whatever life throws at you.