Sunday, 14 October 2018

Harvest Thanksgiving in Kilglass Church

A Harvest Thanksgiving address given in Kilglass Church, Kilmoremoy Union on Friday 12th October 2018

I must begin by thanking Archdeacon Stephen for his invitation to speak to you.
My name is Joc Sanders, a diocesan reader from Nenagh in the diocese of Killaloe, part of the united dioceses of Limerick & Killaloe. It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to join you today in your harvest worship and thanksgiving here in beautiful Kilglass Church in this diocese of Kilalla, part of the united dioceses of Tuam, Kilalla & Achonry.

Stephen and I met as we participated in the inter diocesan discussions about the future of our dioceses and became friends. Recently our separate diocesan synods have both voted to seek unity under a single bishop in the fullness of time, so no doubt over future years all of us in our dioceses will be getting to know each other much better, but I already feel I am among friends here.

We all love Harvest Festivals, don’t we?
Just look around at this beautifully decorated church, filled with harvest bounty - how can we fail to feel thankful? The decorators have every right to be proud of their skilful arrangements. Those who have grown the produce have every right to be proud that the best of it should be displayed here in God’s house. We all enjoy the colours and the smells of the fruit and the vegetables and the flowers; we all enjoy the familiar harvest hymns; and we all enjoy seeing so many cheerful people, filled with a sense of accomplishment, now that the year’s work has been crowned with success.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the sheer breadth and variety of our harvest:
·         We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, rape-seed for oil, silage for cattle, and hay for horses.
·         But there is so much more than staples for us to enjoy, isn’t there! There’s milk and butter, cheese and yogurt, nuts and blackberries, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips, pumpkins and marrows, cabbage and lettuce, peas and beans, mushrooms, meat and leather. My wife Marty has harvested delicious vegetables and beautiful flowers this year. I’ve picked 4 supermarket trays of apples, the first quinces on a young tree, and a fine crop of cob nuts.
·         Let’s not forget the animals too – we have this year’s foals and calves, lambs and chicks, ducklings, and goslings to delight us. And we must not forget the fruit of our own bodies, the children born this year.
Thanks be to God for giving us so much to rejoice over!

In today’s 1st reading (Joel 2:21-27) Joel expresses this thankful feeling in beautiful poetry.
‘Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things!
Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.
O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God…
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.’
Don’t you just love it, that Joel calls not just human kind, but all living creation to be glad and rejoice - even the very soil on which fertility depends

Joel is writing at a time when Judean farmers have been suffering hardship - successive plagues of locusts have ravaged the land. In these words, he gives them hope for their future. They ‘shall eat in plenty and be satisfied’, he tells them, because God says:
‘I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you…
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.’

The last year has been difficult for farmers here in Ireland, with the late cold winter and the summer drought. I think the drought may have been worse where I live than for you – no grass grew for two whole months where I live in North Tipperary. One neighbour had to feed fodder he needed for the winter and is already selling beasts he can’t feed for low prices. Another tells me his barley yield is way down, and only partly compensated by the high price he has got for the straw. Farmers are anxious for the future.

And it’s not just farmers who are anxious. Despite the economic recovery very many here in Ireland are trapped in negative equity, at risk of losing their homes, or actually homeless. Others are anxious about Brexit, geo-politics in the age of Trump, and climate change.

And then there are those other anxious, frightened faces we see on the news in foreign countries far away, refugees from persecution, war and intolerable poverty, and those picking up the pieces after natural disasters.

We would all love to believe Joel’s words of hope: that the Lord our God promises us that he is with us, and that times will get better. But how can we?

How do you feel when somebody says, ‘Don’t worry! Everything will be fine!’?
I don’t know about you, but my first reaction is to scream inside, ‘It’s easy for you to say! This is my life. It isn’t happening to you. It’s happening to me.’

Worry is such a large part of all our lives. We worry about everything: our jobs, our children; our personal relationships. We worry whether we have enough money to pay the bills. In this wealthy country, while some go hungry, others worry whether their food is healthy or fattening, and while some have no warm winter coat others worry about fashion. And we worry about our health, our aches and pains, and about dying.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 6:25-33) – part of the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus tells us, ‘Do not worry about your life’. I wonder what the crowds who heard him thought - I feel sure many would have reacted like me: ‘It’s easy for you to say, Jesus!’.

But in our heart of hearts we all know, don’t we, that Jesus is right. We know that worrying can’t add a single hour to our life. We know there really is more to life than material things, more than food and drink and clothing, more than all that stuff that we are greedy for, but which clutters up our lives.

In fact, if we stop to think about it, we will realise that it is precisely today’s lifestyle of over-consumption which causes so many of the world’s problems that make us anxious. And that anxiety is unhealthy not just for our bodies and our minds, but for our deepest being, our soul.

We need to live more simply, to love God, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
If we don’t we are lost - as individuals, as a society and as a species. This is what Jesus is telling us - and this week’s latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gives world leaders the same message. Our over-consumption is destroying God’s Earth and making the poor poorer.
We need to learn to trust that God, our Father in heaven, who knows what we need, will faithfully give us enough, so that we can stop grasping for more.

‘Consider the lilies of the field’, says Jesus, ‘how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more clothe you?’

Jesus is not saying we should not work, he is telling us we must get our priorities right. ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’, he says. What does this mean?  God’s righteousness is found in his unconditional love for all his creation, including all of us. To be righteous ourselves we must imitate God’s love. Jesus has told us to love God, and love our neighbour as ourselves. This surely is what it means to ‘strive first for the kingdom of God’.

We must strive – that is, work hard - to show our love by replacing consumption with self-sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing. This is about not simply giving things up, but giving things away. It is a way of loving which moves away from what I want, to what God’s world needs – at the same time liberating us from what makes us anxious.

God knows what we need, and God works in and through us to provide it for one another. If we join together to show our love for one another like this, God will give each and every one of us enough - though maybe less than our foolish desires. If we live simply, so that others may simply live, we really can believe Joel’s words of hope!

St Paul in the 2nd reading (1Timothy 2:1-7) urges us to pray and give thanks for everyone
- including ‘kings and all in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity’.

So in this harvest season let us pray both for ourselves and for world leaders:
Creator God,
We thank you for the wonder of the world in which we live:
for the earth and all that springs from it,
for the mystery of life and growth,
and for the bounteous resources you have given us.
Through your Holy Spirit,
give us the grace to share the good gifts we have received in your Son’s spirit of generosity,
guide world leaders to take the decisions necessary to protect our fragile planet and all its creatures,
and strengthen in us the determination to tread lightly on the planet you have given us.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord we pray.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Faith & Works

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 9th September 2018, the 15th after Trinity.

Do you feel anxious for the future? Many of us do, I think, including me.
Different folk worry about different things. Some dread accelerating climate change, some are concerned by the unknown dangers of new bio-technologies or artificial intelligence, some are frightened that newcomers of different races and religions will change their familiar communities, while others fear that class, race and religious hatreds will lead to social collapse and disastrous wars.

But there is nothing new in any of this. It is part of the human condition, as we grow older, to fear that the world is going to hell in a handcart. Jesus himself warned his disciples not to be alarmed by ‘wars and rumours of wars’, for ‘the end is not yet’ (Matthew 24:6).

Nor should we ignore the good things that are continually happening. In my lifetime, advances in hygiene and medicine have reduced the burden of disease and immensely increased life expectancy. And global development has lifted hundreds of millions of people across the world out of crushing poverty. We should see these as signs of hope, signs that God’s kingdom of peace and justice is growing.

I think today’s readings teach us much that is important about our Christian duty to contribute to the growth of the kingdom. And if we respond to them as we should, perhaps it will allay some of our fears.

In the Gospel, Mark (7:24-37) tells us two stories about Jesus ministering to foreign strangers.
Jesus has left the Jewish homelands to travel on a circuitous route through Gentile country in the regions of Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis. We are told he did not want anyone to know he was there, so perhaps he was taking a holiday from ministry, but news of his presence got out.

In the first story, a Greek-speaking Syrophoenician woman with a sick daughter hears about him and comes to beg him to cure her daughter.
Jesus says to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She boldly and wittily answers, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ And Jesus tells her that because of what she has said, her daughter has been healed.

I ask myself, is this the moment when Jesus realises that his ministry is not just to Jews, but to people of all races and faiths? We believe that he is fully human as well as fully divine – in his humanity we can believe that his understanding of his own significance and mission developed over time.

Do Jesus’s words sound like a rude and crushing response to you? Some have seen his words that way - the children would be understood as the Jews, the children of Israel, and the dogs as gentiles like her. But I cannot believe Jesus was being rude or crushing – it would not be like him.

What I think was going on is this. A pious Jewish religious leader at that time would avoid contact of any kind with a Gentile woman to maintain his ritual cleanliness. But Jesus is different, he is intrigued, and he engages with her, no doubt with a twinkle in his eye and a friendly tone of voice. I think his words were to the effect that, ‘Look, I’m a foreign Jewish Rabbi and I’m on holiday – do you really want my help?’ In the woman’s witty reply, the word translated as ‘Sir’ is the Greek ‘Kyrie’, meaning Lord. She is acknowledging Jesus’s status and insists that she believes he can help. And that is what he does.

In the second story, the friends of a deaf-and-dumb man bring him to Jesus to be healed.
Jesus ‘took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue’. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and prayed over him, and the man was healed.

Notice how sensitive Jesus is to the circumstances and needs of the deaf-and-dumb man. The deaf man could not have known what was being said, and perhaps he was frightened by being the centre of attention in a crowd. So Jesus treats him in private, and Jesus uses mime to let him know what is going on.

As followers of Jesus we should model our behaviour on his.
Like him we must engage at a human level with people we meet who are different to us, and pay attention to their needs. We must not demonise Muslims or people of other faiths and races, but rather treat them as our neighbours, and offer them help if they need it.

And when we minister to people in distress, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, like Jesus we must be sensitive to their circumstances and treat them as individuals with rights, not merely anonymous ‘cases’.

The author of the Epistle of James (2:1-17) urges Christians to break down the barriers of class and wealth in order to relieve the distress of the poor.
We can’t be certain who the James was who wrote the epistle, but an ancient tradition says it was James the brother of Jesus, a leader of the earliest church in Jerusalem. At the great council there, he and St Peter supported St Paul’s case that gentiles should be accepted into the Christian church alongside Jews without being circumcised.

Nor do we know what church or churches he is writing to, but they are clearly riven by class divides – the wealthy are being treated better than the poor.

James challenges his readers to ask whether their behaviour is consistent with their faith in Jesus Christ. He points out that God has ‘chosen the poor… to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him’. And he reminds them of the law proclaimed by Jesus, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.

‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters’, he asks rhetorically, ‘if you say you have faith but do not have works?’ By ‘works’ he clearly means good works, deeds of love and compassion toward those in need. He continues, ‘If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food… and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?’ ‘So’, he concludes, ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’.

The message is clear. We have no right to call ourselves Christians – our faith is dead – unless we seek to relieve human distress when we see it. For us in modern Ireland, this means that we should not evade the taxes which fund the social welfare system and the health service – we must pay up with a good grace, provided we’re blessed with the resources to do so. And we must also be generous in giving to the organisations which support those who slip through the cracks - organisations such as St Vincent de Paul, Protestant Aid, the Simon Community, and the newly established Nenagh Food Bank, to name a few.

The 1st reading from Proverbs (22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23) tells us ‘Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor’.
And we are indeed blessed, aren’t we? Most of us live in at least modest comfort, and can well afford to be generous to those with less.  

And as Proverbs also reminds us, ‘the Lord pleads the cause of the poor’.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
O God, whose word is life,
and whose delight is to answer our cry:
give us faith like that of the woman
who refused to remain an outsider,
so that we too may have the wit to argue
and demand that our children be made whole,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Thinking about the bread of life

Adress given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 12th August 2018, the 11th after Trinity

One of life’s greatest pleasures is to share a meal with loved ones and friends, isn’t it?
It is for me, and it is for you too I’m sure – good food, good drink and good company. And it must have been so for Jesus as well, since so often in the Gospels we find Jesus sharing meals with others. He shared meals not just with his disciples and friends, but also with tax collectors and sinners, and with Pharisees and scribes – with all kinds of people.

When Jesus himself broke bread as the host at a meal, he had a special way of doing so – first he took the food, then he gave thanks or blessed it, and finally he broke it and shared it out. It was so distinctive that only when the disciples on the road to Emmaus saw it did they recognise Jesus, after his death and resurrection. Today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John 6:35, 41-51) comes just after Jesus shares a meal with others on a grand scale – the feeding of the 5000 – a truly gigantic outdoor picnic. There too in his special way, he took, blessed and shared the five barley loaves and two fish to feed the crowd.

We can recognise this same sequence of actions – taking, blessing and sharing - in the Last Supper as recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke. And that of course is the model for the Eucharist which we with all other Christians continue to celebrate in his memory. The Last Supper can be seen as an acted parable – and so, I think, can all the other meals Jesus shared in his Eucharistic way of taking, blessing and sharing.

But what does the acted parable of Eucharist mean? In today’s reading John opens out for us the spiritual significance of Eucharist for Jesus himself, in Jesus’s own words. The last verse sums up what Jesus meant:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
Today I want to share with you what these words say to me.

First, what does Jesus mean when he says, I am the living bread that came down from heaven’?
Jesus says ‘I am’ many things on different occasions, among them ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the door’, ‘I am the way’, and ‘I am the true vine’. He is of course talking in metaphors, about his relationship with those he is talking to, but also his relationship with God, who he calls his loving Father.

Jesus has just been responding to hecklers in the crowd who want him to display earthly power, as they believe Moses did by sending bread from heaven – manna - to feed the people in the wilderness. So naturally the metaphor Jesus uses on this occasion is about bread.

As Jesus tells the hecklers, it is God, not Moses, who sent the manna, just as it is God who sends the food we all need to nourish our bodies. But Jesus wants his listeners to look beyond the physical to the spiritual. God also provides what we need to nourish our spirits – by analogy with the bread which feeds our bodies, this too is bread from heaven.

And Jesus knows that his loving-father God is calling him, by his every action and his every word, to offer this spiritual nourishment to all people. So he describes himself as the living bread which comes down from heaven.

The hecklers in the crowd know quite well who Jesus is - the son of Joseph the carpenter from nearby Nazareth. They choose not to understand his metaphor – and they ridicule the idea that Jesus came down from heaven. 

Second, what does Jesus mean when he says, Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever’?
I suppose people since the dawn of humanity have dreaded death and had fantasies of living for ever. But we all know, as Jesus did, that our physical bodies are doomed to die and to decay.

Yet for Jesus this is not what truly matters. What does matter is our relationship with God. It is those who believe that God enfolds and protects them like a loving father that are released from dread of their own mortality. So he says, Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. Eternal life is surely another metaphor for a loving relationship with God.

And more than that, Jesus knows his own importance. Working in and through him, God reveals his own nature as loving Father to those who listen. Those who feed on Jesus’s words and actions, as on bread from heaven, have eternal life.

‘This is eternal life’, says Jesus, in John’s Gospel after the Last Supper, ‘that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Third, what does Jesus mean when he says, The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’?
Jesus equates bread from heaven with his own body, his own very flesh. He does so again at the Last Supper, when he says Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you, words we still hear every time the priest consecrates the Eucharistic bread.

What a shocking thing to say, with that suggestion of cannibalism! It certainly upset the hecklers in the crowd. And it upset many of Jesus’s disciples too, who, we are told, turned back and no longer went about with him.

And it still causes problems for some of Jesus’s disciples today. On the one hand we have those who accept the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby in some miraculous way the essence of the Eucharistic bread is actually transformed into the essence of Jesus’s flesh. On the other, we have those who are disturbed, put off, by the idea that the Eucharist involves eating human flesh.

I think that some people interpret these words of Jesus too literally, as the hecklers in the crowd did. For here surely Jesus is extending the metaphor of bread from heaven, and to understand it we need to look behind the literal words. Christians have wrestled to understand Jesus’s metaphor of his flesh as bread. They have come up with many different ideas – and perhaps this is part of the strength of the metaphor, that it can be understood in so many ways.

For myself, I suspect the point is simply this - that Jesus is expressing in the strongest, most shocking  way the depth of his commitment to God’s saving work for us. He is ready to give up his life, his human existence, his very flesh, for our salvation.  That is precisely what he did for us on the cross.

These words of Jesus are difficult, and you’ve sat patiently through my reflections on them
But why don’t you take a little time to ponder Jesus’s words for yourself? They may speak to you in quite a different way to how they speak to me. And that is alright. Metaphors often bear many different meanings at the same time. God will surely grant you the ones that are right for you.

Listen again to what Jesus says:
‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Gracious Father,
your blessed Son came down from heaven
to be the true bread that gives life to the world.
Grant that Christ, the Bread of Life,
may live in us and we in him,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen

Sunday, 22 July 2018

The Household of God

In today’s 2nd reading (Ephesians: 2:11-22), Paul addresses the Ephesian Christians as ‘you Gentiles by birth, called the “uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”’.
Called that is, by Jews – like Paul himself – who were brought up to despise and dislike Gentiles, whom they saw as immoral and unclean.

What sort of people were the Ephesians Paul was writing to? In his time Ephesus was the Greek-speaking capital of the Roman province of Asia, with a population second in the Empire only to Rome itself, perhaps as many as half-a-million. It was as vibrant and cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-faith as any modern European city. And it was rich, as I saw from the amazing archaeological remains when I visited 30 years ago – including an amphitheatre big enough for 20,000 spectators, and a massive public library!

Paul stayed in Ephesus for 2 years on his 2nd missionary journey, according to Acts. His first dozen or so converts had been baptised by John the Baptist – they were surely Jews like himself. Paul re-baptised them in the name of Jesus and they received the Holy Spirit. At first Paul preached the gospel in the Synagogue, but he encountered opposition there, so he withdrew elsewhere with his growing flock of Christians, both Jews and Gentile Greeks. By the time he left 2 years later, he had converted enough followers of the Greek goddess Artemis to threaten the business of local silversmiths who specialised in making shrines to her, provoking them to a nasty riot.

Clearly, by the time Paul wrote his letter the Ephesian Christians were overwhelmingly Greek speaking gentiles.

Paul believes in the continuity of the new faith in Christ that he preached with the old faith of the Jews.
He reminds the Ephesians that before they became Christians they were cut off from the true God that the Jews knew. They were ‘aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’.

But he is intensely conscious also of the staggering change that Christ brings. Christ has ‘create(d) in himself one new humanity in place of (Jews and Gentiles), thus making peace, reconcil(ing) both groups to God in one body through the cross’. All Christians, whatever their background or tradition, are made one people in Christ, ‘for through him (all of us) have access in one Spirit to the Father’.

Paul’s insight is just as important for us here today as it was for the Ephesians then. Our town, our country, is increasingly cosmopolitan like Ephesus. Our neighbours come from many countries, speak many languages and hold many faiths. The old divisions of Catholic and Protestant are increasingly irrelevant. All our churches must work together, we must break down the barriers between us, we must move from being exclusive to being inclusive, if we are ever to make a reality of Paul’s vision of one new humanity in Christ.

Only then will we be able to hear Paul’s words clearly, ‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God’.

The Church, ‘the household of God’, is like a building, says Paul.
This lovely, suggestive metaphor is an alternative to the more familiar metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, which Paul also uses later on in his letter (Ephesians 4:11-16).

It is ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone’, says Paul. ‘In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God’.

Without the right foundations a building is unstable – as unfortunate people living in new housing estates discovered, when foundations made from unsuitable pyrites rock swelled and cracked. The right foundation for the church is the teaching of the apostles – those Jesus sent out, of which Paul understood himself to be one – and the prophets – no doubt Christian as well as Hebrew prophets. As the Church we must be grounded solidly in scripture before we can build anything worthwhile using tradition or reason.

In Paul’s day builders made sure the walls of a building were true by carefully aligning them with a cornerstone – Jesus serves that function for the church. Jesus joins all of us together into a structure worthy of God, in which we can find God present.

Can we recognise today’s Church in Paul’s description?
Or do we see instead a building site with a higgledy-piggledy jumble of jerry-built shacks and lean-to extensions, a place where the architect’s plans have been ignored? Maybe we need to take lessons in construction!

Even if we can’t feel proud of the Church we see about us today, we should not be fearful for its future. We should listen, to what the prophet Nathan says to King David in today’s 1st reading (2 Samuel 7:1-14). Nathan advises David that the time is not yet right to build the Lord God a great Temple to live in. God is content to live in the portable tabernacle inside a tent which the children of Israel have carried with them since the Exodus. But, says Nathan, your offspring shall build such a Temple. David’s son Solomon was to build the first Temple in Jerusalem, we are told, but that of course was destined to be destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again.

Perhaps it does not matter so much that the Church does not yet live up to Paul’s vision of the holy temple, because it is what it always has been - a work in progress, one that is being built generation by generation - by us, by our children, by our children’s children, and by generations yet to come.

What does matter, though, is that we are all members of God’s household, whoever we are, wherever we come from, and however we worship. We are the Church, in all our glorious variety, founded on the apostles and the prophets, with Jesus Christ as our corner stone.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

How to train apostles

An address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th July 2018, the Sixth after Trinity

What begrudgery the people of Nazareth showed toward Jesus in the first part of today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (6:1-13)!
The people of his home town took offence at him when he taught in the synagogue there, saying, ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ So, they could not receive his saving message, ‘and he was amazed at their unbelief’. Begrudgery hurts not just the one begrudged, but the one begrudging.

But that is not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the second part of the Gospel reading, about how Jesus sent the Twelve out by themselves, two by two. The same story is told in slightly different words by both Matthew and Luke.

The Twelve have been chosen and called specially by Jesus. They have given up everything to follow him. They have watched as he carried out his travelling ministry. Now Jesus decides the time is right to send them off by themselves, on a training exercise to prepare them for their future role as apostles – the Greek word apostle literally means ‘one who is sent out’.

The story conjures up the memory of the training exercises I took part in as a member of the School Corps – they were called manoeuvres. We went off in a bus, in battledress with boots and spats, with a packed lunch, a map and a compass. We were dropped off in pairs at different grid-references with instructions to march across country to rendezvous at another grid-reference some miles away where we would find our tea. I’m much too bolshy to make a good soldier. But I did learn one useful lesson – a map is completely useless if you do not know where you are!

Jesus gives the Twelve precise instructions as he sends them off.
Their task is to practice what they have seen Jesus do, to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is near, to call people to repent, and to heal the sick. And to bolster their confidence he gives them ‘authority over the unclean spirits’, which were then believed to cause illness.

They are to travel light - to take with them just the minimum they need, a staff, sandals and a single tunic – no food, no bag to carry stuff, no money, no spare clothes. They must rely entirely on the hospitality of the people and the villages that they meet. That means of course that they will have to look outward, to constantly engage with others around them.

And they are to avoid any confrontation. If people in a place do not welcome them and offer traditional hospitality they must simply leave, ‘shak(ing) off the dust that is on (their) feet as a testimony against them’. This is what pious Jews did when they returned after visiting an unclean gentile village so as not to pollute Jewish soil. I wonder if Jesus did the same as he left his home town of Nazareth, amazed at the unbelief he found there.

Mark tells us that they did as Jesus asked them. ‘They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.’ And when they came back, they ‘told (Jesus) all that they had done and taught’ – in other words Jesus de-briefed them. No doubt the Twelve learned important lessons from the whole exercise. And no doubt Jesus too would have understood their individual strengths and weaknesses much better.

We shouldn’t forget that one of the Twelve was Judas Iscariot, who would later betray Jesus. I wonder which of the others went out with him. And I wonder how Judas scored on the training exercise.

Jesus calls a specially chosen few of his disciples to be Apostles.
Apostles are those that are called to give up everything else to follow Jesus, and to travel light as they continue Jesus’s ministry in the world. They’re not perfect – they share our common human faults and weaknesses, as the Twelve did. The difference between them and us is the gift of their call. The rest of us Christians have other gifts and are called to different forms of discipleship. And as St Paul had the insight to see, our gifts as well as theirs are necessary to build up the body of Christ, which is the Church.

St Paul was called to be an apostle on the road to Damascus, when suddenly he saw a great light and heard the voice of Jesus. Perhaps it is this experience that he recalls in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, when he writes about being ‘caught up to the third heaven’. He refrains from talking about this – it was after all a private vision he received.

Instead he tells us about 'a thorn ... given (him) in the flesh'. We do not know what this was, but it must have been painful and debilitating. Paul believes this thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, was to remind him of his weakness. When he asked the Lord to take it away, the Lord told him, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’.

‘I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ’, says Paul, ‘for whenever I am weak, then I am strong’. I think this must be the common experience of all apostles: that when they are weak they are strong. They are given the grace by God to understand that they can achieve nothing through their own strength, but only through God working in and through them. And surely this is a lesson the Twelve learned, when Jesus sent them out two by two without supplies.

At their ordination, the presiding Bishop exhorts every priest ordained in the Church of Ireland in these formal words:
‘We trust that … you are fully determined, by the grace of God, to give yourself wholly to his service … that you will devote to him your best powers of mind and spirit’.
All ordained clergy in the Church of Ireland make this commitment to give up other lives they might have led, to follow Jesus and devote their lives to his service. Our Rector made that commitment. It has brought him and Rosemary to minister to us, far away from their family, their new grandchild, and their friends in Northern Ireland.

The ministry of priests is an apostolic ministry which we need to receive. We do not always give our clergy the recognition they deserve. We should give thanks for them and for their commitment both to the ministry of Jesus Christ and to us, often at great personal cost to themselves.

Let me finish with a Collect of the Word:
O Lord our God,
you are always more ready
to bestow your gifts upon us than we are to seek them;
and more willing to give than we desire or deserve:
in our very need,
grant us the first and best of all your gifts,
the Spirit who makes us your children. Amen

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Sin against the HolySpirit

Jesus is being mobbed like a rock star in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 3:20-35)
He has been travelling around Galilee proclaiming the Good News and healing those who came to him, followed by crowds thronging to see this celebrity. Now he has returned home to the fishing village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. Even there the crowds still press in on him, so that he and his disciples don’t have time even to eat, we are told.

But not all in the crowds support Jesus. In the reading we hear of two groups of people who want him to cease his ministry – first his family, and second a party of scribes from Jerusalem. Mark interweaves the stories of how Jesus responds to these two groups – a favourite device of his, sometimes described as a ‘Markian sandwich’.

The bread in the sandwich concerns his family. Back in Nazareth they were hearing news of what he was up to. He had given up the security of his family, and the carpenters business, for the life of a wandering preacher. They had heard how he was being mobbed, and no doubt feared that the authorities would seek to put him out of the way. He must have ‘gone out of his mind’, they thought – we must go to fetch him home and end this madness. So they set off to Capernaum, around 50km, say a 2 day’s journey on foot. We will hear what happens when they get there later.

The filling of the sandwich concerns the scribes from Jerusalem, members of the religious and civic establishment, which is threatened by Jesus’s popularity

The scribes are determined to undermine Jesus.
They cannot deny he has been healing the sick, since so many people have seen it. In those days it was believed that illness was caused by evil spirits – by demons. So they start to spread rumours about the source of Jesus’s healing power: ‘He has Beelzebul’ – the chief demon – ‘and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons’.

Jesus understands very well what the scribes are about. He confronts them directly to their faces, dismissing their argument as a logical impossibility. ‘How can Satan cast out Satan?’, he asks. ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand … If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come’.

Look at it this way, he says, ‘No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man’. Jesus turns the tables on the scribes by pointing out, ‘I am stronger than Satan because I have cast out Satan’.

Jesus has refuted the scribes’ claim that he is possessed by ‘an unclean spirit’, not the Holy Spirit from God. Now he turns their words back on them. For the scribes to say that a spirit that comes from God is not good but evil is a blasphemy, an insult to God. It is the scribes whose spirits are unclean, not Jesus.  ‘Truly I tell you’, he says, ‘people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’.

Over the centuries many Christians have been confused by this unforgiveable blasphemy, ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit’. I understand it in this way. Our God-given conscience enables us to distinguish good from evil. People who cannot tell good from evil are conscience-blind. They are unable to recognise what is evil in themselves, so they cannot repent it. And without repentance they cannot be forgiven.

Sometimes Christians worry, fearing that they may be guilty of the sin against the Holy Spirit and so can never be forgiven. But they worry unnecessarily, I believe - their very worry proves they are able to repent, so they aren’t guilty and can be forgiven.

So what happens when Jesus’s family reach Capernaum?
When his mother Mary and his brothers and sisters arrive, Jesus is inside the house teaching his disciples. His family sends a message for him to come out to them. He must have had a fair idea why they had come – perhaps they had previously sent messages from Nazareth asking him to come home.

Jesus asks rhetorically, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And then looking about at his disciples, he says, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’.

I wonder how his family felt when they heard what he had said. Did they feel hurt, spurned in favour of his disreputable band of disciples? The truth is that however much they loved him, and he loved them, his family had no right to try to make him forsake his mission.

We are not told what the family did then, but presumably they returned home to Nazareth, feeling chastened. Perhaps Mary remembered Jesus’s words recorded by Luke (2:49) when she and Joseph lost him as a child of 12 in Jerusalem, and found him after 3 days in the Temple: ‘Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?’. But we do know that his mother Mary and his brother James did not cut themselves off from Jesus, but were faithful to him to the end, and perhaps the others too.

Mark’s sandwich story is about discernment, I think. I take two things from it.
First, Jesus has given us a tool to help us discern whether someone we encounter is motivated by a spirit of evil, as the scribes from Jerusalem were, so that we may confront and overcome the evil, as Jesus did, without violence. Any person whose conscience is so lacking that they cannot distinguish between good and evil must be motivated by a spirit of evil. They will not be able to repent the evil they do, and so they cannot be forgiven - their sin can only be eternal. Unless God intervenes, that is, because all things are possible with God - as St Paul, the persecutor of the Church, discovered on the road to Damascus.

Second, each one of us has the freedom in Christ to follow what we discern to be God’s call to us, our vocation, even if others including family and friends oppose it and say we are mad to do so. If I am certain of my call, I should be prepared to reject the intervention even of those whom I love and who love me. Equally, I should be very cautious of pressing others, even family members or a friends, not to follow what they believe is their vocation, as it may invite their rejection of me. This is not only good psychology, but acknowledges their right to hear and act on God’s call to them.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Almighty and eternal God,
your Son Jesus triumphed over the prince of demons
and freed us from bondage to sin.
Help us to stand firm against every assault of Satan,
and enable us always to do Your will;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Kosmos World

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 13th May 2018, the 7th of Easter, the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost.

I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom for me and for you, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
I apologise for my bad singing! But I’m sure you all recognise the song – it’s perhaps best known sung by Louis Armstrong. And it’s true isn’t it - we all know what a truly wonderful world God has made for us to live in - a veritable Garden of Eden, if only we would learn to look after it and use it rightly.

St John uses the Greek word ‘kosmos’, meaning ‘world’, no less than 13 times in today’s reading from his Gospel (John 17:6-19). But this is not the beautiful material world which God made and saw was very good, as the 1st chapter of Genesis puts it. I shall call what John has in mind the kosmos-world, to distinguish it from God’s world. The kosmos-world is a place of spiritual death, filled with souls cut off from God: a place where greedy people trample on each other to grab more for themselves; a place where violent people kill and torture other people; a place where cynical people despise what is good and true and beautiful. And we all know the reality of that kosmos-world too, don’t we!

For John the very opposite of the kosmos-world is eternal life, as he tells us in the preceding verses, This is eternal life, (to) know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. And it is echoed in today’s reading from 1 John 5:9-13, ‘This is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son’.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples.
It is the night of the last supper, after he has washed the disciples’ feet. It is immediately before he goes out with them to the garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron valley, where he will be arrested by soldiers and police led by Judas Iscariot. Jesus is praying for his disciples, but he is also teaching them, for he prays out loud in their hearing. His words are dense with meaning - perhaps because he knows this is his last opportunity to speak to them before he is arrested, tried and executed.

It would take a very long sermon to tease out all the nuances of his prayer. So I shall pick out just three points about the relationship between Jesus’s disciples and John’s kosmos-world.
1.       Jesus’s disciples are in the kosmos-world, but they do not belong to it. God has given the disciples to Jesus, in the sense that God has made them able to respond to the word of God which Jesus has given them. They have been brought to know and believe the truth that Jesus is sent from God. That is what sets them apart from the kosmos-world, even while they remain in it.
2.       The kosmos-world has already shown it hates Jesus’s disciples because they do not belong to it. Those mired in evil, in cynicism, violence and greed, cannot co-exist with those who live by God’s values. So Jesus calls on his Father to protect his disciples from evil, when he is no longer there to do so in the flesh.
3.       Jesus does not ask God to take his disciples out of the kosmos-world. Just as God sent Jesus into the kosmos-world, so Jesus sends his disciples into it. God sent Jesus to redeem the kosmos-world from within. Jesus sends his disciples to continue his redeeming work in the kosmos-world.

The kosmos-world is a metaphor for the evil we encounter all around us, day by day.
It’s hard to see evil for what it is in the abstract. It comes in so many disguises. I think it helps to focus on concrete examples. There are so many to choose from - but let’s focus today on the hatred people harbour in their hearts for others they see as different from themselves, or as opponents.

Personal hatred wounds the soul of both the hater and the hated. These days it is often expressed anonymously on social media, as those of us who use it know only too well. Children are particularly vulnerable to online bullying, whether it is aimed at their body form or their sexuality or some other perceived weakness. Vulnerable adults can also be severely affected. It blights lives and in extreme cases leads to suicide.

We may think that we cannot be guilty of such hateful behaviour - but what about old fashioned gossip? How many of us can say that we have not been party to passing on rumours that damage other people?

Hatred of one group for another on the grounds of race or religion is even more damaging than personal hatred. Such group hatreds are evil. They have been with us since the dawn of the human species, a kind of original sin, to which we are all potentially vulnerable. They fracture communities. And in the extreme they have led perfectly ordinary people, not so very different to you or me, to attempt to exterminate whole populations seen as dangerous enemies.

The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews between 1941 and 1945, alongside innumerable Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals. My father as an army chaplain was taken to see one of the extermination camps after its liberation, and he made sure that as a teenager I saw the horrific movies taken at the time so that I would recognise evil when I saw it.

We do well to remember this Holocaust every year in January. But that has not been enough to stop other genocides in my lifetime, such as those in Ruanda and in Bosnia.

Understandably, surviving Jews sought to establish a safe homeland for themselves. But tragically 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes when the state of Israel was founded in 1948, an event they remember as the Nakba or catastrophe, the root of much of the violence in the middle east today. One group hatred begets another, in a vicious circle of evil.

Lest we think that we cannot be caught up in such events, let us reflect on the cycle of violence in the North of our island. The Good Friday Agreement was meant to break the cycle, and we have had peace there for many years. But the hatreds still fester. And let us also reflect on the continuing prejudice in our communities against Travellers.

So to sum up:
The wonderful world God has placed us in is good. We should rejoice in it and give thanks for it. But as Jesus’s disciples, we must always be on guard against the evil that spoils it.

As disciples we live amidst evil, but we do not belong to it, because God has given us to Jesus.

Jesus confronted evil and refused to collude with it at the cost of his death on the cross, from which God raised him up.

Our task as disciples is to continue Jesus’s redeeming mission. God has set us apart to confront and defeat evil wherever it is found, and that includes evil hatreds, what ever that may cost us personally.

We can and should take comfort that Jesus intercedes for us, asking God to protect us from something much worse than suffering – that is, from being drawn into evil ourselves.