Sunday, 8 January 2017

God comes close to us - as close as our own skin

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th January 2017, the 1st after Epiphany, celebrated as the Baptism of Christ.

Today the Church asks us to remember the Baptism of Christ.
So I take this opportunity to reflect on what Jesus’s baptism means, both to those at the time, and to you and me 2000 years later.

But first I invite you to picture again, in your minds eye, the moments after John baptised Jesus, as described by Matthew in his gospel (3:13-17).

Here is Jesus, a man in the prime of his life, about 30 years old. He is glistening wet from receiving John’s baptism of repentance, as he walks up out of the river Jordan. Then, suddenly, the heavens burst open. The Spirit of God descends like a dove to alight on him. And the voice of God declares from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

What a strikingly vivid and dramatic scene – it’s easy to imagine being there, isn’t it?

Matthew describes an epiphany, in which God reveals himself to be the Father of Jesus and sends Jesus his Spirit.
The same epiphany, bringing together Jesus at his baptism, the dove and a voice from heaven, is also described by Mark, Luke and John. It must have been part of the common tradition of the earliest Christians on which Matthew and the other evangelists drew when writing their gospels.

For Christians by the 4th Century these baptism passages came to be seen as supporting and illustrating the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that the one God consists of three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. They are the only passages in the NT where we encounter all three persons together at the same time, in the same place.

Matthew would have known the book of Isaiah well, like all educated Jews of his time. He would have seen the parallels with today’s OT reading (Isaiah 42:1-9), in which God declares, ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him’. But there is this crucial difference between Isaiah and Matthew: for Isaiah, God identifies his chosen one as just a servant; whereas for Matthew, God identifies Jesus as his beloved Son.

What did John the Baptist make of Jesus’s baptism?
John recognised Jesus when he came to ask for baptism, not surprisingly since they were cousins close in age. John says to Jesus, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ What’s going on here?

John proclaimed ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). He called people to repent, and baptised them as a sign that God forgave their sins. John knew that he needed baptism, repentance and forgiveness himself. But I think he must have believed that Jesus was such a good and holy man that he had no need of them.

John would also have recalled Isaiah’s description of God’s chosen servant in today’s reading, ‘He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.’ Perhaps John recognised the Jesus he knew in Isaiah’s description - softly spoken, filled with compassion for the damaged and the weak, yet determined and passionate for justice.
Despite John’s reluctance to baptise him, Jesus insisted, and John consented. And we know John then experienced the epiphany described by Matthew, since John’s Gospel records him saying: “I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’ Only then does John realise the full truth, that his cousin Jesus is the promised Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, not just a remarkably holy man.

I wonder what his baptism meant for Jesus himself.
Jesus very deliberately chose to ask John for baptism, and insisted on it – it must have been of great significance to him.

Matthew gives us a clue when he records Jesus saying to John, ‘it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’. For Jews, righteousness meant obeying God’s law and doing God’s will. Jesus clearly believed God wished him to be baptised by John. But for what purpose?

Perhaps God wanted Jesus to seek John’s baptism at the very start of his ministry in order to demonstrate that Jesus was God’s incarnate Son, not just a good man like Isaiah’s servant. This was certainly the effect on John. But perhaps Jesus himself needed to be certain who he was before beginning his ministry. Is it possible this is also the very moment when Jesus finally understood that he was Christ the Messiah, the Son of God?

Whatever the truth of this, Jesus clearly associated himself quite deliberately with John’s proclamation, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 3:2) - he went on to proclaim it in his own ministry (Matt 4:17). And I like to think that Jesus chose to be baptised by John because he wanted to show his solidarity with sinful people like you and me, who desperately need to repent and be forgiven, even if he had no such need himself.

So to finish, what does Jesus’s baptism mean to you and me, 2000 years on?
Well, no doubt there are many answers. But this one strikes me.

The epiphany at the baptism of Jesus marks a great new insight into the nature of God as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As God says through Isaiah, ‘See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare’.

Before it Jewish religious thinkers could only conceive of the relationship between God and a human being as that between a remote master and a terrified servant. After it Christians could begin to see the relationship as one in which God is incarnate in a human being like you or me.

Everything is changed and made new. God ceases to be a remote figure and we are no longer afraid. God comes near to us, as close to us as our own skin. We feel his presence to be like our loving Father, to be like Jesus, his Son, our friend and brother, to be like the Spirit which inspires all that is good and true in us.


Let us thank God for Jesus’s baptism, most particularly for the insight it gives us into God’s intimate and loving nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Baptism of Cooper Robbie Richardson

Words spoken at the baptism of Cooper Robbie Richardson on 30th December 2016, following the marriage of his parents Katie Hamilton and Blake Richardson.

Today is a joyful occasion, a day for celebration!
It is first a family celebration - a day of joy for you, Blake and Katie, and for your families and friends. You have just been declared man and wife - now you bring your son Cooper to be baptised in the presence of so many who share your joy in him. We all celebrate your new family with you.

For Cooper’s Godparents, it is a day when you promise to encourage Cooper in his life and in his faith. It is a day to celebrate the start of a very special relationship you will have with him as he grows up. My daughter, when she was small, could not understand the word Godmother. When her Godmother came to stay, as she often did, she would sit on the end of my daughter’s bed and they would have long talks together, special talks which my daughter loved. So instead of calling her ‘my Godmother’, my daughter called her ‘my bedsitter’.
May you as Godparents be equally special ‘bed-sitters’ for Cooper!

But today is about more than just a family celebration.
The reading we have just heard tells us how Jesus commissioned the eleven to make disciples of all nations, and to mark it by baptism. They in turn passed on the commission to others, handing on the gift of faith to new generations. And so we, as that part of Christ’s church gathered here today, pass on this gift to a new generation, to Cooper.

We are about to welcome Cooper as a new member of Christ’s Church.  Baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God, which will last for the rest of his life. We celebrate that today. In a moment we will profess our baptismal faith, and as we do so let us reflect on our own journey, and let us be determined to support Cooper’s parents and Godparents as they guide him on his journey.

Cooper will be baptised “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
Matthew tells us that Jesus himself used these words. Those of us who are Anglicans share this baptismal formula invoking the Trinity with other Christians, including Roman Catholic, Orthodox and most Reformed traditions. It is a symbol of unity within the diversity of our traditions that we baptise in the same words.

We shouldn’t see the Trinity as a static thing, I think. Rather, God reveals himself in the Trinity in a dynamic cycle of loving relationships. The Father and the Son loving each other; the Son and the Spirit loving each other; and the Spirit and the Father loving each other.

May Cooper grow up to recognise God’s dynamic cycle of love reflected in his own relationships!

According to Matthew, the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples are these: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus was speaking to the apostles, but he still speaks these words to his disciples today.

What an amazing thing it is, that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, our Lord and Saviour, our friend and brother, travels with us on our journey. Even when we are tired or anxious, lonely or frightened, doubting or lost, Jesus is there with us, to encourage and support us, to love us.


The loving Christ journeys with Cooper, and with every one of us. Let us give thanks for it, and let us celebrate it!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Expectations

Address given in Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 11th December 2016, the 3rd of Advent.

In today’s Gospel (Matthew 11:2-11) we have heard a question and an answer.
John the Baptist sent some followers to ask Jesus this question: ‘Are you the one who is to come’ – meaning the promised Messiah – ‘or are we to await another?’

And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

This exchange raises three questions for me, which I want to explore with you:
1.      Why did John ask his question?
2.      What did Jesus mean by his answer?
3.      And what does this mean to us as Jesus’s disciples 2000 years on?

As a starting point let’s put ourselves in John the Baptist’s shoes – let’s imagine what it was like to be him.
John is under house arrest in the great fortress of Machaerus, on a barren hilltop looking out over the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley to the Judean hills and Jerusalem in the distance. King Herod Antipas has imprisoned him for publicly denouncing Herod’s illegal marriage to his brother’s wife.

It must have been hard for John to be so confined in prison – he was an outdoors kind of man, used to living in the open air of the desert, sleeping under the stars. I imagine a wiry, weather-beaten, driven man pacing up and down in his quarters. He is frustrated and longs to return to his old ministry, to continue preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and hell fire for those who do not listen, like a prophet of old.

John is convinced that God has called him to announce the imminent arrival of the promised Messiah, who will usher in the Kingdom of God, in which God’s people will flourish in justice and peace. And John believes his cousin Jesus is that Messiah. Remember, when Jesus came to him for baptism John saw the dove descend on him with his own eyes, and heard with his own ears the voice from heaven say, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’.

John’s disciples, when they come to visit him in his prison, tell him that Jesus is gathering his own disciples and travelling around preaching to crowds, just like John. But, they tell him, there is no sign of Jesus behaving as a Messiah should behave. Their expectation - and John’s - is that the Messiah will act like a king and lead an army of the people to overthrow the unrighteous and bring in God’s Kingdom of justice.

So why did John send his disciples to ask Jesus his question? We shall never know for sure. Some people suggest John wanted his disciples to see Jesus for themselves, so that they too would come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Others suggest that John had begun to question his own belief that Jesus is the Messiah and is looking for reassurance. But most likely, I think, is this - John is impatient to see the Kingdom of God. He expects to see it, and by his question he seeks to encourage Jesus to fulfil his own expectations of the Messiah – essentially saying ‘Come on Jesus, time to start acting like a Messiah!’

Now let’s look at Jesus’s answer
From earliest times the children of Israel looked forward to a time when God would come to put right all injustice. Despite their trials and tribulations, they did their best to follow God’s law and they were sure that God had chosen them and loved them specially. So they fully expected that God, the God of righteousness, would act to restore their fortunes as God’s chosen people. And they came to believe that God would do so by raising up a Messiah, an anointed one, who would usher in God’s kingdom of justice.

But how would they know when the Messiah was arriving? And what would God’s Kingdom be like? Prophets tried to imagine it - the OT is filled with their attempts to put it into words, in catalogues of amazing things that would occur when God sent his Messiah to establish his kingdom. We have heard 2 of them today, in Psalm 146 and in the 1st reading from Isaiah (35:1-10). Here are some of Isaiah’s words again:
‘Here is your God. He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.’

Every religious Jew of Jesus’s time would be able to quote some of these wonders and signs. So Jesus answers John’s question by quoting from Isaiah - not just from the passage we heard, but others too:
‘The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’
‘Look and see’, he is saying, ‘I am doing what the prophet says the promised Messiah will do’. John and his disciples would have understood very clearly that Jesus is claiming that he is indeed the Messiah, ‘the one to come’.

And Jesus prays a blessing on those who are not offended by his claim. Jesus does not live up to the popular idea of the Messiah leading an army to overthrow the unrighteous and impose the Kingdom of God on the world, because that is not what Jesus has come to do. He is an entirely different kind of Messiah. And there were many who took offence at him.

So, what does this mean to us as Jesus’s disciples, 2000 years on?
John and his disciples could see with their own eyes the first signs of God’s Kingdom breaking out around them, in Jesus’s ministry. They could also see how few had yet experienced it. But they lived in expectation and hope that God’s Kingdom would spread to the whole world.

From apostolic times, through the insight of St Paul, the Church has seen itself as the body of Christ on earth. The Church has continued Jesus’s ministry to spread God’s Kingdom, following his great commission to the Twelve, ‘Proclaim the Good News: the kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons’. The Church has never ceased to look forward in expectation and hope to growth of God’s Kingdom, and its final completion, to be marked by the return of Christ in glory. And for all its many faults, over the centuries the Church has by God’s grace done so much good work to build the Kingdom – healing the sick, freeing the slaves, relieving the poor, educating the young, acting as a yeast in society to make things better – as well as proclaiming the good news. But we all see how much more there is still to do.

The fact is God’s Kingdom is not like an earthly kingdom. It cannot be brought into being in an instant by winning a battle or voting in an election. It is a continuing process, a growing organism. Jesus is the kind of Messiah who forms God’s Kingdom through the action of many willing, loving, human beings – his disciples - by showing them what it looks like, and what they must do to make it grow. And this will take time. We cannot know when the Kingdom will be complete, but we can hope that it is soon and pray ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’

So it is right that in this Advent season Christians should not just look back at the baby in the crib, but also look forward in expectation and hope to the continuing growth and final completion of God’s Kingdom. Let us resolve to do our bit to further it, and pray for God’s help doing so:
O Saviour of the world,
lifted up on the cross to draw people of all races and nations to yourself:
bless the witness of your Church in this and every place,
and help us to finish the work you have given us to do in the world for which you died.

We ask it in your name, our living and victorious Lord. Amen

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Remembering and the Kingdom of God

Address given at Templederry on Sunday 13th November 2016, the 2nd before Advent and Remembrance Sunday.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Today I wear a white poppy in my father’s memory.
He was dragged unwillingly into the maelstrom of the 2nd World War. As a Chaplain to the Forces he landed in Normandy on D-day, he was there at the crossing of the Rhine, and he ended up in the ruins of Berlin. He spoke little about his experiences, not to me nor to most others I think - but they marked him. He felt it right to wear a red poppy on Remembrance Day, in memory of his comrades who died, and in memory of the scenes of murderous destruction he had witnessed. I thank God that my life has not been scarred by war in the same way his was.

Many people choose to wear a red poppy today, but not all do. We should be mindful of the sensitivities of others, particularly here in Ireland. I choose to wear a white poppy, as a personal commitment to peace and to challenge any attempt to celebrate war.

It is surely right to remember our family and friends who have suffered in war – for they are part of us. It is right to remember the horrors of war – lest by forgetting we allow them to happen again. But how we remember is important, I think.

Jesus proclaims, ‘the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1:15). War is the very opposite of the kingdom of God. Our remembering should be mingled in equal measure with repentance. We need to repent the very human tendency - which we all share - to hate those not of our tribe, to treat them as enemies, who all too often we seek to kill and maim in war. And we should not let others manipulate our remembering to reinforce the tribal instincts that promote war.

Let us join together in faith and penitence in a moment of silence, in remembrance of all those who have died, been maimed or suffered in war; men, women and children; whether military or civilian; on whichever side, and on no side.

silence

Ever-living God, we remember those whom you have gathered from the storm of war into the peace of your presence; may that same peace calm our fears, bring justice to all peoples and establish harmony among the nations, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

What a beautiful vision of the kingdom of God Isaiah (65:17-25) paints in today’s OT reading!
The Lord is ‘about to create new heavens and a new earth’, says Isaiah. ‘No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.’ It will be a place of peace, in which, ‘the wolf and lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox’. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord’.

For the Jews of Jesus’s time, the holy mountain was Mount Zion, one of the hills on which Jerusalem is built, with the Temple at its summit. Herod the Great had extended, adorned and beautified the Temple in the years before Jesus was born. Judging by the remains excavated by archaeologists and descriptions from the time, it must have been a stunning building.

I imagine that visitors must have seen the Temple as like a foretaste of Isaiah’s new creation, a model of what the kingdom of God would be like when it was realised on earth, a monument to peace and plenty for all.

But Jesus did not see the Temple in this way, as the NT reading (Luke 21:5-19) tells us.
For Jesus, the kingdom of God that he cares so passionately about – his kingdom – is not built of stones, no matter how magnificent. His kingdom is not of this world, as he later tells Pilate at his trial. He recognises that the Temple with all its sacrifices and taxes is an unsustainable burden on God’s people, and he knows all material things turn to dust in the end. So, when he hears some people admire the Temple, ‘how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God’, he publicly foresees its utter destruction. And of course, he is proved right – some 40 years later it is indeed destroyed in the course of a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule.

Some who heard Jesus miss his point completely. They ask him to tell them how to know exactly when this will happen. Many people in Jesus’s time were just as consumed with apocalyptic fears about the end-times as some folk are today. But Jesus does not feed such fears. Instead he warns them not to believe people who claim to be able to forecast such things. And he tells them not to fear that the end is imminent, even when they hear of awful events, such as ‘wars and insurrections’, ‘earthquakes’, ‘famines and plagues’.

Then with amazing frankness, Jesus uses the occasion to teach his disciples what is in store for them. Jesus knows that the political and religious authorities are determined to put him out of the way and the end game is upon him – in just a few days he will be seized, tried and executed on the cross. And then the authorities will turn on his disciples. ‘Before all this occurs’, he says, ‘they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name’.

But Jesus promises to help them to hold on to and testify to the values of the kingdom of God which he has taught them – that is what matters, whatever may befall them. ‘For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict’, he says. ‘You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls’.

Many people today fear for the future, just as they did in Jesus’s time.
·         They fear Brexit. They fear the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. They fear the consequences of changing climate. They fear their children will be poorer and less healthy than they have been. But disciples of Jesus in every age – including ours - should not be terrified. The apocalypse we dread is not imminent. Jesus reassures us.
·         However, like Jesus’s disciples of old, we must accept that our road will not be easy and there will be trials ahead. But Jesus promises to help us proclaim the values of the kingdom of God. If we stand by the kingdom of God here in Ireland today, we’re not likely to be killed for it, though we may well suffer in other ways. But to proclaim the kingdom is our duty as disciples.
·         Desertion in the face of the enemy is shameful. By our endurance we will gain our souls, as Jesus tells us.


To suffer or die for the kingdom of God is not the worst thing that can happen to us.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Resurrection

Address given at St Columba's, Ennis on Sunday 6th November 2016, the 3rd before Advent


We have just heard Jesus answer a question about one bride who married seven brothers (Luke 20:27-28).
Now, the idea of a woman marrying seven successive brothers, each of whom dies childless, may seem a bit bizarre to us today. But ancient Jewish law in the Torah obliged a man to marry his dead brother’s wife if she were childless. Her firstborn child - if she had one - would inherit the dead man’s name and property. If the man refused to marry her, he would be publicly humiliated. In a deeply patriarchal society this law provided some protection and security to the widow and her future children.

The question was asked by Sadducees, adherents of a Jewish tradition who accepted only the Torah, the 1st five books of our OT, as God’s law. The Torah does not mention the possibility of resurrection, so they rejected the very idea. Later books of the OT – the prophetic and wisdom books – do talk about resurrection. They were accepted by other Jewish traditions who did believe in resurrection – in particular the Pharisees. The disputes between those who did and those who didn’t were very bitter.

The Sadducees’ question was this: if you believe in resurrection, which of the seven brothers will the woman be married to when they all rise from the dead?

It is a trick question. If Jesus replies ‘all of them’, everyone will be outraged, because for patriarchal Jews it was entirely unacceptable for a woman to have more than one husband - even though a man could have more than one wife. If Jesus picks one brother, they will tie him up in knots justifying which one. So - they think - he will have to support their view that resurrection is a nonsense – and that will annoy the Pharisees.

In his answer Jesus reveals what he believes about resurrection – and at the same time he avoids the trap set for him by the Sadducees.
Jesus tells the Sadducees they are mistaken. He quotes the Torah they revere to argue for life after death, for resurrection.

He points them to the story of the burning bush in which God tells Moses, in the present not the past tense (Exodus 3:6), ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’. God, says Jesus, ‘is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive’. They have died, but they are alive - so they must have been resurrected.

And he draws a clear distinction between living mortals and those who have died and been resurrected. He says that after death there can be no such thing as marriage – death really does change human relationships.

‘Those who belong to this age’ – mortal human beings - ‘marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age’ – after death - ‘and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage’. Notice that Jesus does not say that all will rise from the dead – only those who are considered worthy of it. ‘Indeed’, he says, ‘they cannot die any more’ - they have eternal life - because they are like angels’ – and angels were believed to be sexless. They ‘are children of God, being children of the resurrection’.

From this we can be sure of 2 things: 1st Jesus himself does believe in the resurrection of the dead – at least for those considered worthy of it; and 2nd Jesus does not believe that those who are resurrected are simply re-animated corpses – they have become something completely different.

Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead – but do you, do I? I hope so, because every Sunday in the creeds we publicly declare our belief in resurrection.
These days most people find it very difficult to believe in the resurrection of the dead. Even many Christians mouth the words of the creeds without really meaning them. Our modern, materialist world view, informed by science, can make resurrection seem literally unbelievable. The atoms and molecules of which I am made will be dispersed when I die, and recycled into other living creatures, including other human beings. How can they be re-assembled after my death into a living body? My identity as a unique person is encoded chemically both in my DNA and in my memories. How can it persist beyond my dissolution?

But surely it would be wrong to reject what Jesus himself believed! If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Jesus did not rise from the dead, and as St Paul said, our faith is in vain.

Our world view – how we make sense of everything around us – is not the same as the Sadducees’. When Jesus talked to the Sadducees about resurrection he spoke to them in language they could relate to and understand – the language of the Torah. I feel sure that when we try to make sense of the resurrection we must also use language that we can relate to and understand – and for many of us that is the language of modern science.

We should not be afraid to express our faith in new ways that make sense to us.
I ask myself how Jesus might explain to me what resurrection means to him in language I can understand and believe in. I can imagine him saying something like this:
‘Our lives are world lines, like threads in the 4 dimensions of space-time. They start at our conception and end at our death, and each of them is entangled with the world lines of the others we encounter.
God, who is not constrained by space-time, loves and apprehends each of us in our entirety, from start to finish – in other words, he apprehends our world line - and every other person’s world line too.
God judges our worth against the quality of our love - our relationships with others – measured over our entire world line, our whole lives.
Our resurrection is precisely God’s apprehension of us as being worthy of him. In our resurrection, we are as different from our mortal selves as a line is to a point - we cannot die a 2nd time, we have been transformed into immortal children of God.’

I find these ideas help me to understand resurrection and to believe in it. Perhaps you will find them helpful too. If not – if this sounds to you no more than meaningless science fiction psychobabble, like Star Trek speak – don’t worry, just ignore them.

But if you find the idea of resurrection difficult, I urge you to search for your own way to understand it, and to believe in it.

Because Jesus believed in resurrection, and Jesus was himself raised from the dead.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect for Resurrection from the BCP (p495)
Bring us, Lord our God, at our last awakening,
into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate, and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitation of your glory and dominion, world without end.

Amen.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Pride & Humility

Have you heard the joke about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman?
An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman were confessing their secret vices to each other. 'I'm a terrible gambler,' said the Englishman.
'I'm a terrible drinker,' said the Scotsman.
'My vice is much less serious,' said the Irishman, 'I just like to tell tales about my friends.'

We’ve just heard Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax-collector, as told by Luke (18:9-14)
The story goes like this. A Pharisee and a tax-collector go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee in his prayer boasts of his piety, while the tax-collector humbles himself before God and pleads for mercy.

At this point I feel I have to defend Pharisees – they have had an unfairly bad press! In part because of this parable, the word Pharisee in modern English has come to mean a self-righteous or hypocritical person. But we also hear of upright Pharisees in the NT, people like Nicodemus, who helped to bury Jesus after the crucifixion, and Gamaliel who defended the Apostles in the Sanhedrin court – and some of the earliest Christians were Pharisees, among them St Paul.

The Pharisees were a small but influential Jewish sect. They separated themselves out from others in their attempt to be as holy as possible - the name Pharisee literally means ‘separated one’. They took their religion seriously. They revered the written word of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, our OT. They did their best to follow the minutiae of the Jewish law in their own lives in order to be justified before God – that is so that God could accept them as being good people. Pharisees in general deserved their popular reputation as good and upright - if perhaps a bit over punctilious and not much fun.

And what about tax-collectors? We must not confuse them with our friends and neighbours who work for the Revenue Commissioners in Nenagh! Tax-collectors in Jesus’s time worked for the Roman occupiers collecting taxes from their neighbours to pay for the colonial administration, for the army and for public works. Unpaid, they kept a proportion of what they collected for themselves in lieu of pay. Many were greedy, out to make a fortune for themselves by extorting from their neighbours, and they were tainted by their association with gentile Romans. They were detested and shunned as bad people, often with good reason. But not always: the apostle Matthew was a tax-collector before Jesus called him, and so was Zacchaeus who climbed a tree to see Jesus in Jericho and welcomed him gladly to his house.

We can see in Jesus’s parable these popular preconceptions about Pharisees and tax-collectors. The Pharisee attends the Temple to pray, he fasts and he tithes – in fact, he tithes more than he has to, and fasts more often than he has to. He more than meets the requirements laid on him by the law. He appears to be a charitable, kind and faithful man. But the tax-collector appears to be no better than he ought to be, a confessed sinner, no doubt quite as bad and despicable as any other tax-collector.

But then Jesus says, ‘I tell you, (the tax-collector) went down to his home justified rather than the (Pharisee)’. His punch-line must have been quite a shock to his audience – it is the opposite of what they would have been expecting! Jesus was an expert communicator – here he has reversed expectations in order to emphasise the point he is making – it’s a bit like that joke about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman.

The point, says Jesus, is this: ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted’.
This is a parable about the sin of pride and its opposite, the virtue of humility. It has precious little to do with Pharisees or tax-collectors.

The Pharisee in his prayer shows he is puffed up with pride - he ‘trusted in (himself) that (he was) righteous and regarded others with contempt’ - as Luke describes the people Jesus was talking to. I hope some of them understood the point, but I fear many could not, because their pride blinded them.
In contrast, the tax-collector shows humility by acknowledging his misdeeds and seeking forgiveness.

Pride is an ambiguous emotion. I feel proud of many things: proud of my children and grandchildren, how they’ve turned out, how they’re are growing; proud of my community, and pride, sometimes, in my country. Are these prides sinful? I think not. But pride becomes toxic when it is focussed on self. Then it blinds me to the reality of my own human weakness and my dependence on the goodness of others and God’s loving kindness. It makes it hard to relate to God in prayer.

Humility is not a popular virtue in this age. Siren voices tell us self-esteem is all important and that what we desire is what we deserve, ‘because we are worth it’. We confuse humility with feelings of timidity, of self-disgust and being unimportant. But these feelings too are toxic - they blind me to the reality that I am a unique creature made in the image of God, as other people are too - that we are all equally loved, that we can be better than we are, and that when we behave badly we can receive healing forgiveness if we truly repent and change our ways.

True humility is clear-sighted. 
It enables us to see ourselves as we really are, good and bad, warts and all, so that we can receive the forgiveness God offers us. Because of this we can respond to God’s loving kindness in prayer and worship. And only then we are ready to play our part in making God’s kingdom a reality.

But humility is not easy. We cannot achieve it without help – pride, a desire to exalt our self, gets in the way. That help can only come from God - from Jesus who assures us he is always with us, and who calls us to repentance.

A good way to open ourselves to Jesus, to ask him to help us overcome pride in our self, is to echo the prayer of the tax-collector in the words of the Jesus Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Earthly and Heavenly Harvests

It was a privilege to be asked to preach at the Harvest Thanksgiving in St Burchin's, Bourney by the Rector, Rev Canon Jane Galbraith. The readings were for Harvest Year C: Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and John 6:25-35

It is a great pleasure for me to join you today for your Harvest Festival in this beautiful church.
It is also a privilege to be asked to speak to you, so I must begin by thanking Rev Jane for her invitation.  

Like all of us I’m sure, I’ve loved Harvest Festivals ever since I was a child! Let us just look around us at this beautifully decorated church, filled with harvest bounty. The decorators have every right to be proud of their skillful arrangements, and 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, the familiar harvest hymns, and the cheerful people.

Today I’m going to talk about two things: the earthly harvest, for which we are giving thanks today - and also a different, heavenly harvest. The two are deeply interconnected.

So first, the earthly harvest.
Are you feeling cheerful? I do hope so, because we have so much to give thanks for. And cheerfulness is a Christian virtue!

However, we must acknowledge that many people feel they have little to be cheerful about. Arable farmers have been struggling to harvest crops due to bad weather. Yields are down, and many, particularly in the West, face making a loss on the year’s work. Other farmers too are struggling: milk prices may be recovering, but only a little. And cattle prices have been hit by recent currency movements. Many in the wider community do not feel the benefit of economic recovery after years of austerity. Homelessness continues to rise in our cities. Our public services are in crisis after years of under-investment. And people fear the consequences of our neighbours’ vote for Brexit.

But it is surely right to look at the glass as half full, not half empty! Just reflect for a moment on the breadth and variety of our harvest:

We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, hay for horses and silage for cattle.

And there’s so much more than staples for us to enjoy, isn’t there? There’s milk and honey, butter and cheese, beef and pork, lamb and chicken. There are fruit and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips. There are pumpkins and marrows, peas and beans, cabbage and lettuce, and gardens full of flowers!

Many of us work with animals, and there are this year’s foals, and calves and lambs and chicks – thank God for them!  And there’s also the fruit of our own bodies - our children and grandchildren born this year, and older ones growing apace as mine are - thank God for them too!

Above all perhaps we should thank God for our health and our strength - and also for our intellects, our God-given cleverness. As every farmer knows, this bountiful harvest does not appear from heaven as if by magic: it takes intelligent planning and hard graft!

In this rich corner of the world today, no one will starve because of a poor harvest or recession, as our forefathers so often did. With our God-given cleverness we have invented ways to store food and to transport it, and economic and social systems to distribute it to where it is needed. And if we consume a little less, it will probably be good for our health; and perhaps the whole planet will benefit.

So let us be cheerful, and follow the good advice of Deuteronomy: ‘You shall set the first of the fruit of the ground down before the Lord your God … Then you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you.’

Yet for all our cleverness, the earthly harvest is perishable and uncertain. Why has God not given us perpetually good harvests - and recession free economies? Perhaps to remind us that we are not masters of the universe: God is. God’s laws don’t change: Nature is as God has made it; and what we sow, we shall reap. We remain as we have always been, totally dependent on God’s continuing fatherly goodness.

In the passage from John’s Gospel that we’ve just heard, Jesus asks us to look beyond the earthly harvest, to a different heavenly harvest.
He tells the crowd: ‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’ ‘The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world, he says. And finally he makes this great claim: I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whosoever believes in me shall never be thirsty. What is Jesus talking about?

This teaching is difficult. I find it so - but then so did many of those who heard his words, as John tells us in the next few verses. One way to look at it, which I find helpful, is this:

Just as God has made us clever, able to till and keep the world of which we are part, so he has made us in his image to be moral beings, to be souls. Souls with the capacity we call conscience to distinguish right from wrong, truth from lies, love from hate - and to prefer good to evil, as he does. If we use our conscience to make the right choices, we reap a heavenly harvest of good, which nourishes us for eternal life. As the old saw says, the good we do lives after us.

But we are not masters of our own souls, any more than we are masters of the universe: our souls are as God made them, with free will, vulnerable to temptation. So it’s hard to be good. We have to work at it, just as we do for the earthly harvest. It is hard work resisting temptation, putting what is right above our own desires. All too often we fail. We name that sin. And when we fail and sin, the evil we do poisons our soul, and that evil too is eternal. A bad deed done can never be undone!

What a mess it is! How can we possibly be as good as God wants us to be? As good as God has made us want to be in our best moments.

This is where Jesus’s teaching speaks to me: he promises us all the help we need to reap the heavenly harvest. All we require is the faith to come to him. As the bread of life, he strengthens our souls. He helps us to resist temptation and to do good. And when we fail, he sucks out the evil that poisons the soul – in other words he redeems us. The only cure for a bad deed is to repent and be forgiven!

It is in this sense that Jesus is the bread of life that nourishes us for eternal life.

What are the practical implications of this? Consider greed for example:
Greed is the cause of so many of the problems we face, I think, from global warming to the global crash; old-fashioned, sinful human greed. Greed to consume more than we need at the expense of our planet. Greed for profit at the expense of other men and women.

To overcome the problems we must be generous to others, not greedy for ourselves. We must be unselfish and learn to know when we have enough. This wonderful planet – our God-given Garden of Eden – would be enough and more than enough for all of us if only we could do so.

But we cannot do this by ourselves, because our innate tendency is to be selfish and greedy. We can only do it through the grace of Jesus Christ, the bread of life, who will help us transform our sinful greedy natures into generous ones. He will help us to be as generous as God wants us to be.

And think on this: human greed threatens our future.
Selfish over-consumption in the rich world not only pushes the poor into deeper poverty and violent responses, but it drives the climate change that is damaging our planet’s ecosystems on which all life depends. Without Jesus’s help to transform our greed into generosity, we stand to lose the earthly harvest too. The earthly harvest depends in a very real way on the heavenly harvest.

So to sum up:
Let us thank God our loving Father for this bountiful earthly harvest. God makes it possible, and we work hard for it, so it is right for us to celebrate it and enjoy it together.

But let us work just as hard for the heavenly harvest of goodness, to nourish our souls.

Let us also thank God for the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. We need his help to reap this heavenly harvest. If we believe in him, if we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty for good things.

And let us pray that Jesus will transform our selfish natures into the generous natures on which both our earthly and heavenly harvest bounty depends, praying together a Christian Aid Harvest prayer:
The earth is fruitful - may we be generous.
The earth is fragile - may we be gentle.
The earth is fractured - may we be just.
Creating God, harvest in us joy and generosity
as we together share in thanks and giving.
Amen