Sunday, 14 August 2016

Care for Creation

Address given at the Ecumenical Service of Thanksgiving for the Lough Derg Yacht Club Regatta in Killodiernan Church on Sunday 14th August 2016, the 12th after Trinity. 
1st Reading - Genesis 1:20-31, 2nd Reading - Matthew 6:24-33.

It is right today to give thanks for the great gift of the River Shannon we have all been enjoying.
The great river is much more than just a playground in which we compete in our boats and enjoy the company of friends old and new. It is an ecosystem of amazing biodiversity. All the living creatures we can see: the water weeds, the marginal plants, the mayflies and dragonflies, the fish, the waterfowl, the otters – even sea eagles once again, returned from extinction, thanks be to God!

But there’s so much more that we can’t see with the naked eye. Have you ever looked at a drop of lake water through a microscope? If not, you should try it sometime, as I did recently at a summer school, led by John Feehan of Birr. The water teems with microscopic life: the minute plants and animals of the plankton, the water fleas and insect nymphs that eat them. Innumerable species I cannot begin to name, each and every one is endowed with bodies and behaviours as intricate as ours, that enable it to flourish in the world it inhabits, just as we do. They are beautiful, and the larger creatures we see depend on them - including ourselves.

All who love the Shannon know that we must cherish this diversity, and protect it to the best of our abilities. I say protect rather than preserve, because in its nature the Shannon is always changing, and must be allowed to do so. The river changes because it is living, it will die if we try to preserve it unchanged - it is the rich diversity of ever-changing life in it that makes it worth protecting.

I doubt if anyone here today believes that God created the universe in 6 days.
Through the patient work of scientists, studying the natural world and building on their predecessors’ discoveries, we now know so much more about creation than the authors of Genesis could. There are at least 10 million distinct species on earth today. All are related, descending from a common ancestor. And life on earth has been just as diverse for 100s of millions of years.

Genesis Ch1  is obsolete as a description of creation – it is a myth. To be taken seriously today Christians must engage with the language of science to talk about creation. Evolution is the way that God has created the diversity of life we see today. God has been at work creating it over geological aeons, he is doing so now, and he will continue to do so into the distant future.

But like all good myths the creation story in Genesis Ch1 encapsulates deep truths which we should not carelessly discard. 

One of these truths is that God loves biodiversity - why should he make it if he doesn’t love it? In the 1st reading we heard that ‘God saw everything that he had made and … it was very good’ - it is a refrain running right through the creation story. If we love God then we must seek to protect the diversity of his creation – anything we do to damage it is an offence against him.

Another of these truths is that human beings are special, made in the image of God: ‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them’, says Genesis.

We alone of all the creatures on earth are blessed with intelligence – we can imagine a future, plan how to bring it about, and act to make it happen. And we alone of all the creatures on earth possess a moral sense – we can tell right from wrong, distinguish truth from lies, prefer beauty to ugliness – as God does. We call this capacity conscience. If we follow our conscience we are able to do good, to be as good as God has created us to be, and in a sense we become co-creators with him. This is what it is to be truly human. Of course we know that all too often we fail at this – we sin – but we believe God will forgive us if we truly repent and mend our ways.

We human beings have a special responsibility to care for God’s creation.
The ecological crisis we face - climate change, the degradation of natural ecosystems, and species extinction - has brought the importance of this into sharp focus. In response our different Christian traditions have begun to recognise that care for creation is a Christian imperative.

Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew has challenged us saying, ‘For Human beings … to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation, to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands, to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land , its air, and its life – these are sins’.

Last year Pope Francis published his encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home’. In it he quotes Patriarch Bartholomew approvingly, and he appeals for ‘a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet … a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all’. It is a remarkable document, well worth reading - a gift not just to Catholics but to Christians of all traditions.

My church, the Church of Ireland, along with the rest of the Anglican Communion has committed itself ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth’, as the 5th mark of its mission in the world.

The challenge has been laid down, and now it is up to Christians of all traditions to work together, with people of goodwill from other faiths and none, to care for and cherish the Earth, the Garden of Eden that God has given us.

This is the context in which Jesus’s words from the 2nd reading (Matt 6:24-33) speak to me.
‘No one can serve two masters’, says Jesus, ‘for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

Our society’s single-minded pursuit of wealth in a consumer market economy is surely at the heart of the ecological crisis we face, which threatens our very civilisation. We have a choice to make: either we serve wealth – continue business as usual - and face destruction; or we serve God by changing our lifestyles to live simply without waste, protecting the environment, and generously supporting those in need.

Jesus understands very well that fear for the future is the greatest barrier to making lifestyle changes, so he tells his followers not to worry, because God looks after his creatures. ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? … Consider the lilies of the field, 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—you of little faith?’

Our heavenly Father knows what we need, and if we ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’, he will give us all that we need – though it will be a little less than our greedy desires. Our heavenly Father is trustworthy, and we must not be afraid to make the lifestyle changes he demands of us.


Sunday, 7 August 2016

Transfiguration

Address given at Templederry on Sunday 7th August 2016, the 11th after Trinity, celebrated as the Feast of the Transfiguration, transferred from 6th August.

Today we celebrate the Festival of the Transfiguration.
In the Gospel reading Luke 9:28-36 gives us a short account of how Peter and James and John had a strange spiritual and emotional experience. Jesus brought them high on a mountain to pray. There they saw Jesus transfigured, in dazzling white clothing, his face changed, and alongside him Elijah and Moses. As cloud enveloped them they hear a voice saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him’. The same story is also told in the other synoptic Gospels – scholars believe Luke and Matthew most likely got it from Mark.

Some people interpret the Transfiguration as a miracle story prefiguring Jesus’s Ascension, a sort of artistic device to reinforce the Gospel drama.  This might be all well and good as literary criticism, but I am sure there is a lot more to it than this. The Church has always seen this as an important story, because it reveals Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God.

In reflecting on the Transfiguration, I’m going to look first at the physics that may lie behind it, then at the disciples’ emotional response to it, and lastly at the effect their experience had on them

First to the physics: Luke’s account gives us a clue as to what the disciples actually saw.
They were high on a mountain, with cloud around. These are just the circumstances where we can encounter an optical effect called a ‘Glory’. In this effect sunlight is scattered back from water droplets in a mist, as a glowing halo. The technical term for this is Mie scattering, and there are even software packages to calculate what can be seen for different droplet sizes.

Historically, the most famous example is the ‘Brocken Spectre’, so named because of sightings on the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz Mountains in Germany. This appears when a low sun is behind a climber who is looking downwards into mist from a ridge or peak. The spectre is the shadow of the observer projected onto the mist, and it is surrounded by the glowing halo of a glory.
The Brocken Spectre

You might be lucky enough to see a Glory yourselves, as I have. I saw it when I looked down from a plane at the shadow it cast on a cloud. The shadow was surrounded with a halo of light – this was the glory.

I hope you don’t feel that this physical explanation takes anything away from the transfiguration story. It helps me to believe that the Transfiguration really did take place, and was not invented by the Gospel writers to serve their own artistic or theological needs. I believe that God is present in and works through the laws of the universe he created. The disciples accurately reported what they saw, even if they could not understand the physics. What matters surely is what this revealed to them about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God.

If you are interested in more of the physics, see http://www.atoptics.co.uk

Now, let us focus on what the disciples actually experienced, emotionally and spiritually.
I imagine Peter and James and John close together on the mountain, with Jesus a little bit away, as the clouds swirled around them. Where Jesus had stood, they each suddenly see a glowing figure – it’s their own shadow cast on a cloud, wrapped in a glory - and two other shadows beside it, those of their companions.

They are awed by what they see. Peter was always the impulsive one. Just days before, when Jesus had asked the disciples who people said that he was, Peter had blurted out ‘You are the Messiah’. Now he identifies the three figures with Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and as the cloud moves away and the glory fades he calls out to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Peter didn’t want this emotional moment to end – such a human response!

Then the cloud closes in around them and all three are terrified. And they heard a voice as if from heaven, saying ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!’

This description of their spiritual experience rings very true to me. When people suddenly realise something of vital importance, something which changes everything, they often talk of having a ‘flash of inspiration’ or ‘hearing a voice’. Many people report such deeply emotional religious experiences. This is so in our own Christian tradition, for St Paul or St Francis for instance; and perhaps for some of our ‘born again’ contemporaries. But it is also so in other faith traditions, such as for Gautama, the Buddha, who experienced enlightenment under a Bodh tree, and for Mahomed, peace be upon him, whose ‘night journey’ took him to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. We may not have had such a religious experience ourselves – I haven’t - but we may have felt something similar, for instance at the moment we realise that this very person I am with is the one I want to marry, to spend the rest of my life with.

Finally, what effect did this experience have on Peter, James and John?
The voice the disciples heard told them to listen to Jesus, and this surely is what they did. From then on Jesus intensified his teaching to them, as if preparing them for their role as apostles after his death.

I believe the Transfiguration was the moment on their long road when they realised their complete commitment to Jesus and his teaching. Starting from the call in Galilee, this road led them ultimately to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to the Resurrection, to the Ascension, and on to Pentecost, where they started to blossom as the church of Christ.

And they never forgot this moment of insight into Jesus’s relationship with God, for they passed on the story through Mark, to Matthew and Luke, and so to ourselves.

We should value their experience, and other religious experiences, because without them, and without the spiritual commitment that flows from them, there could be no Church, and we would not be here today.


Sunday, 17 July 2016

Martha & Mary

Jesus walked into the middle of a family row when he visited his friends Martha & Mary (Luke 10:38-42).
I’m sure we’ve all had that kind of experience some time or another, to be a guest in front of whom the hosts quarrel. How embarrassing!

As Jesus was talking – we’re not told to whom, but perhaps including Lazarus their brother, whom Jesus raised from the dead – Mary sat at his feet as was the custom then, listening to Jesus speak. Martha, meanwhile, was making herself busy, tidying and preparing refreshments – a banquet perhaps, for their special guest. I imagine that Martha must have been fuming inside for quite a while - perhaps long before Jesus’s arrival - feeling that Mary was not pulling her weight about the house. Now here was Martha, dashing around like a mad thing, while her sister Mary just sat and listened with rapt attention to Jesus’s every word.

Finally Martha’s self-control snapped. She rushed in to Jesus and asked him, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ She deliberately involved Jesus, their guest, in their family row. She didn’t have to. She could have come in and had a quiet, private word with Mary to ask for help, but in her anger she tried to show her sister up in front of Jesus. How embarrassing it must have been for Jesus.

Jesus answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
It was a very mild rebuke. Jesus recognised that it was Martha’s worry and distraction that was the cause of her rudeness. But it was not for him to take Martha’s side in her row with Mary. He surely realised that what Mary needed at that moment was to listen to his words - her ‘better part, which will not be taken away from her’. And perhaps that is what Martha needed too.

‘There is need of only one thing’, Jesus tells Martha. I wonder what Jesus meant by this.
Was it that he didn’t want a big fuss made of him? No big dinner, but just a single, simple dish would be quite enough. Well, possibly – but surely there’s more to it than that.

Many Christians, particularly from contemplative or monastic traditions, have interpreted the one thing needed as to listen to Jesus’s words, as Mary chose to do. Does this suggest that those who work hard at practical tasks of service like Martha have chosen a lesser part? I don’t think this is what Jesus meant at all. Service to others was very important to Jesus - we need only remember the example of service Jesus gave to his disciples by washing their feet in John’s version of the Last Supper.

The truth is, surely, that God has not made everyone alike – some are dynamos of activity who can spend their lives in service to God and other people, while others are naturally quiet and more suited to a contemplative life. God needs his Marys and his Marthas too. And most of us alternate between these two poles at different times – when service becomes too stressful we need to take time out, to re-create ourselves, to listen to Jesus, so that we may return refreshed to serve.

I think the one thing needed must be something else. I wonder if it could be this - that Martha and Mary should love one another, whatever their petty differences, just as Jesus loved them both – as in the ‘new commandment’ which Jesus gave to his disciples, again in John’s version of the Last Supper.

I have a Martha at home – that is my wife Marty’s given name!
I think she must be close to sainthood to put up with me. She spends so much more time than me cooking and washing up, while I lock myself away in my office struggling to understand Jesus’s words in order to preach about them. I don’t think I am very good at noticing when this starts to irritate her, and I fear I often fail to recognise her needs for time out.

Martha’s problem, I believe, was not too much service, but that she became ‘worried and distracted by many things’, to use Jesus’s words. I think this is often a problem for people who give their lives in service. They may feel unable to admit to themselves when they need to take a break, and those around them may fail to notice their rising stress-levels. When the stress becomes too much, something snaps and they can break down in anger, or depression, or physical illness.

Clergy are not immune from this – you only have to look around our united dioceses to see it. At their ordination clergy vow to live a life of service ministering to God’s people. As parishes have got bigger and numbers fewer their job has become ever more challenging and demanding. And all too many suffer the consequences of stress.

We should pray for our clergy, that the Holy Spirit may give them the strength, not only to minister, but to know when to take a break or ask for help when they need it. We should cut them some slack when they do take a break. We should cultivate in ourselves the sensitivity Jesus showed to Martha and Mary. And we should love those called to minister to us – and show them our love - as Jesus loves us and shows us his love.

Let me finish with a prayer/poem for all of us who are Marthas
Lord of all pots and pans and things, since I've no time to be
A saint by doing lovely things or watching late with thee,
Or dreaming in the twilight or storming heaven's gates.
Make me a saint by getting meals or washing up the plates.

Although I must have Martha's hands, I too have Mary's mind.
And when I black the boots and shoes, thy sandals, Lord, I find.
I think of how they trod the earth when e’er I scrub the floor.
Accept this meditation, Lord, I haven't time for more.

Warm all the kitchen with thy love, and light it with thy peace,
Forgive me all my worrying and make all grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give us food in room or by the sea

Accept this service that I do - I do it unto thee.

Monday, 27 June 2016

St Peter

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 26 June 2016, the 5th Sunday after Trinity, but celebrated as the feast of St Peter, transferred from 29th June.

In early May on a trip to Rome I paid my respects to St Peter’s head.
Both St Peter’s head and St Paul’s are kept together in a beautiful medieval shrine above the high altar of the great Basilica of St John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome - or so it is claimed. These relics are some of the greatest treasures of the basilica, and they’re venerated by many pilgrims visiting the holy sites in Rome.

I don’t believe in the sanctity of relics myself – and the older they are, the more suspicious I am that they’re faked. But I would not want to belittle the piety of those who do believe they are holy.

It’s a common, very human thing, to keep mementos that remind us of people and events that are dear to us. I’m sure you do, and I’m no exception - I live surrounded by bits and pieces, which mean a lot to me for the memories they evoke. And it surely does no harm to keep something to remind us of Peter, that great Apostle. Even if we do find the idea of a 2,000 year old head a bit gruesome!

So as we celebrate St Peter on his feast day, let us remember his life and reflect upon it.
The NT tells us a good deal about Peter – rather more than we know about the other apostles, except St Paul.

Peter’s given name was Simon, the son of Jonah, and he worked as a fisherman at Bethsaida on the North shore of the Sea of Galilee, with his brother Andrew. John’s Gospel tells us that it was Andrew who first met Jesus and brought his brother Simon to meet him. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’, and they both ‘immediately left their nets and followed him’.

It was Jesus who gave Simon his nickname Peter, meaning ‘Rock’. As Matthew tells us in today’s 3rd reading (Matthew 16:13-19), Jesus tells him, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church’.

We also know Peter was married. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us how Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law at their home in Capernaum. But we are told absolutely nothing about his wife, nor whether they had any children. Was he widowed at the time of his call? We just don’t know.

The Gospels place Peter very much at the centre of Jesus’s small inner circle of disciples. He was there with James and John at incidents where the others were not present - among them the Transfiguration, and Jesus’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane.

The Acts of the Apostles goes on to portray Peter as a leading figure in the early church in Jerusalem and Judea. So much so that the authorities marked him out as a ringleader of the troublesome Christians: twice he defied the Jewish Sanhedrin court by continuing to testify to his faith, and King Herod had him arrested and planned to kill him - Peter escaped through the intervention of an angel, as we heard in today’s 2nd reading (Acts12:1-11).

According to ancient tradition Peter later left Jerusalem, and after serving as Bishop of Antioch for several years, he moved on to become the first Bishop of Rome. There he was martyred along with Paul, most likely in Nero’s persecution of Christians there, who were blamed for a great fire in 64AD. His body is said to be buried under St Peter’s Basilica in Rome - even if his head is kept in St John Lateran.

These are the bare bones of Peter’s life.
But we must dig deeper to discover why he made such an impact on his fellow disciples. What sort of a person was he? And how did this fit him for the leading role he played in the early church? Here are three things that I notice about him.

First, Peter was blessed with spiritual insight.
We see it in today’s 3rd reading - he is the first to make that great confession of faith, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’, in response to Jesus’s question, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

But perhaps we see it best in the story of the baptism of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. In a trance Peter sees a sheet filled with meat that is unclean in Jewish law, and he hears a voice commanding him to eat it. When he objects, the voice tells him not to call unclean that which God has cleansed. Peter grasped the essential truth that God welcomes all people, whether Jews like himself or gentiles like you and me. Soon after, when he meets Cornelius and his family, he tells them, ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’, and he goes on to baptise them all.

This was highly controversial among early Jewish Christians, who believed that gentile converts must first become Jews - undergo circumcision and follow Jewish law. Later, it was Peter’s support for Paul’s case at the leaders’ Council in Jerusalem that swayed the crucial decision, that gentiles should not be required to follow the old Jewish law. Without Peter, the infant church would probably have remained just one more millenarian Jewish sect, worthy of no more than an historical footnote, if it was remembered at all.

Second, Peter was a brave and decisive - a man of action.
This was evident on the day of Pentecost when Peter assumed the role of spokesman for the disciples. Empowered by the gift of the Spirit, on the spur of the moment he decided to speak out about his faith in Jesus, his Lord and Messiah. How brave he was to open his mouth, a provincial from Galilee in front of a crowd from all over the Empire, only 50 days after the Jewish authorities had connived to have Jesus brutally put to death. He was risking his life – what a change from the man who had denied knowing Jesus three times after his arrest. We are told Peter spoke so powerfully that day that 3,000 accepted baptism in the name of Jesus Christ.

It was also part of Peter’s brave, decisive nature that he sometimes acted and spoke impetuously, without thinking things through. Several times, Jesus had to reprimand him. When Peter tried to dissuade Jesus from teaching that it was necessary to go to Jerusalem where he would be killed, Jesus responded, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ And when Peter refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet in John’s version of the Last Supper, Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’.

Third, Peter was faithful to Jesus through thick and thin.
Peter learned from the times Jesus reprimanded him, and continued to follow Jesus faithfully, where another might have left in a huff.

His faith did waver at times, but when it did he sought safety in the love of the Jesus he recognised to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. When Peter started to sink because the wind frightened him as he tried to walk on the water, Peter cried out, ‘Lord save me!’, and Jesus reached out to catch him.

And Peter did remain faithful. Starting with his calling in Galilee to fish for people, through his travels with Jesus learning to be his disciple, through the trauma of Crucifixion and the bemusement of Resurrection in Jerusalem, then later as an apostle obeying Jesus’s great commission to make disciples of all nations and baptise them, right up to his final martyrdom in Rome - Peter was faithful to Jesus.

It was these qualities, I think, that made Peter the leader of the apostles that he was.
Spiritual insight, decisiveness and bravery, and faithfulness – these were the qualities that Jesus found in his friend Peter.

These were what made Peter the right man, at the right time, in the right place to lead the infant Church, which Paul likened to Jesus’s body, to continue Jesus’s saving mission to the world.

I believe these are still the qualities Christ’s Church needs in its leaders today, to enable us all to continue Jesus’s mission through the 21st century.


Sunday, 29 May 2016

Visitation

Address given in St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 29th May 2016, celebrating the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (transferred).

Luke’s story of Mary visiting Elizabeth (Luke1:39-56) is so charming, so human, isn’t it!
Mary was probably quite a young girl - a teenager even – when the angel came to tell her that she is to be the mother of God incarnate. When Mary says, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’, the angel offers her a sign: her relative Elizabeth is already 6 months pregnant, though she is old and supposedly barren. Is Elizabeth a cousin or an aunt? We’re not told.

So Mary hot-foots it from Nazareth to the Judean hill-country to visit Elizabeth and see for herself. It must have been a tough journey, over 100 km on foot or perhaps on a donkey, over bad roads and steep rocky hills. But Mary gets there safely and knocks on Elizabeth’s door.

When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting her unborn child – who we know as John the Baptist - does an in utero backflip in recognition of the presence of the Son of God, freshly conceived in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth exclaims, in the words we know from the “Hail Mary”, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’

And then Mary breaks into song, the song of joy that we call the Magnificat, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’

I know I’m treading on somewhat dangerous ground here!
I’m part of that 50% of the human race which is less qualified to say anything about pregnancy and childbirth than the other 50%. But because I’ve been closely associated with two pregnancies and three births I know that pregnancy is a time of great expectation. So much so that in our culture to say a woman is ‘expecting’ is a euphemism for pregnancy – ‘a baby’ is simply understood.

Elizabeth and Mary are both ‘expecting’ in this euphemistic sense. But they both also bring another dimension of expectation to their meeting on Elizabeth’s doorstep. Elizabeth has conceived late in life. She is carrying a miracle baby, and she has been told that he will be a great prophet who will prepare the way of the Lord. Mary is carrying even more of a miracle baby, conceived through the Holy Spirit, and she has been told that he will be called the Son of the Most High, and will reign over Israel as the heir of the great King David. Both of them have great expectations for the children they are carrying.

Mary said to the angel who announced her pregnancy, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. In doing so she accepted the unimaginable privilege of forming her son Jesus in her body - as all women who are glad to be pregnant do. The Son of the Most High, the eternal Word of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, took human flesh in and from Mary. Jesus the Christ was, quite literally, formed in her while she was ‘expecting’.

Our vocation as Christian disciples is to be ‘expecting’ just as Elizabeth and Mary were.
As Christian disciples, we are called to be pregnant! Whether we are young or old, male or female, single or married, we are called to let Christ be formed in us, just as he was formed in the womb of Mary.

What is it like to be a pregnant disciple, one in whom Christ is being formed? We will be ‘expectant’, always expecting something new, something growing and stirring in us, looking to the future not some unchanging past. As Christ grows in us we will form a deepening relationship with him. We will notice changes for the good in ourselves. We will cultivate habits of worship, prayer and study through which we will discern the different gifts he gives each of us. And he will enable us to use these gifts in his service, whether in ministry within the church or in mission outside it.

All pregnancies end in the fullness of time - in due course Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist, and Mary to Jesus the Christ. Their pregnancies lasted around 9 months, but ours as disciples in whom Christ is being formed will last a lifetime. Stretching the analogy to the limit, it is on our deathbed that we as disciples are finally delivered of the Christ we have nurtured. We may pray that the life we deliver will be an example to others of a Christian life, well lived, in the hope of resurrection to eternal life.

And what of the Church? The church too is called to be pregnant!
It is in the nature of the Church to grow disciples. A healthy, fertile church is a pregnant church which nurtures disciples in whom Christ is constantly growing. Remember, Jesus commanded the apostles, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’. And that can only start with ourselves.

As we mature as disciples – as Christ grows in us – we should expect to see changes in our church communities, changes for the good. We do not know what they will be, but new things will sprout inexorably, organically, in the belly of the church, just as Christ grows in his disciples. Perhaps new forms of vibrant worship will spring up alongside the older traditions so many of us still value. Perhaps groups of disciples will come together, to explore and share different kinds of prayer, or to study how God reveals himself both in scripture and in creation, and report their discoveries back to the rest of us. Perhaps we will together find new ways to nurture one another in faith, to care for one another in love, to welcome the stranger, and to reach out in service to people in need, whoever and wherever they may be.

Those outside the church - family, friends, neighbours and strangers - will see the changes in us, in the way we live our lives, in how we treat others. Some may be annoyed - because our way challenges the way they live their lives. But others will feel compelled to take a closer look, to investigate further, because they see in us something that they hunger and thirst for.

This is how a church community grows, first spiritually as its members grow as disciples, and then numerically as others are attracted to it, become disciples themselves, and in turn grow as disciples as Christ grows in them.

So to finish,
This Feast Day of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a time for us all to be ‘expecting’ - to be pregnant disciples as Christ takes form within us.

Let us pray that the Christ-seed the Holy Spirit has planted within us will grow to full term and be delivered, perfectly formed in every way.


And as disciples in this Union of Parishes, let us pray that our church community will grow spiritually and numerically, attracting new disciples who themselves will grow as Christ grows in them.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Persecution

An address given at Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 24th April 2016, the 5th of Easter but celebrated as the Feast of St Mark the Evangelist.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – bless the bed that I lie on.
I learned this simple child’s bed time prayer from my mother, God bless her, when I was just a toddler. I’ve never forgotten it, and it sprang to mind when I was thinking about St Mark, and what I would say today on his feast day. The prayer names all four evangelists, the four people who wrote the Gospels, through which we learn of Jesus and his teaching. The 2nd Gospel does not say who wrote it, but according to Papias writing around 100AD the name of the author is Mark – Mark the Evangelist.

St Mark’s is the shortest of the four Gospels. Most scholars believe it was the first to be written, perhaps shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD following a Jewish uprising against Rome. Both Matthew and Luke seem to have had his text in front of them when they wrote theirs, since they include many of the same incidents, often in the same words. So we owe special thanks to Mark – without his work so much of Jesus’s life and teaching would be lost to us.

What do we know about Mark? Very little for certain! Two people called Mark are named in the New Testament.
·         First there is John Mark who is mentioned several times in the Acts of the Apostles.  He is the reason for the sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas we heard about in today’s 1st reading (Acts 15: 35-41).
·         Second there is Mark the cousin of Barnabas mentioned in some of Paul’s epistles as a companion of Paul’s during his imprisonment in Rome.
These two Marks are traditionally identified with Mark the Evangelist, though not all scholars agree. Mark – Marcus in Latin – was one of the commonest names in the Roman Empire. We simply can’t be certain that these are the same person as the Evangelist.

Our Egyptian Coptic brothers and sisters in Christ have a tradition that Mark was born in Cyrene in Libya and was martyred in Alexandria, where his relics were venerated. In 828 the reputed relics were stolen by two Venetian merchants and taken to Venice. When St Mark’s Basilica was being built in 1063 they couldn’t be found – until, that is, the Saint himself pointed to the place by sticking an arm out of a pillar.

Some of these traditions are doubtful – and some of them downright fanciful – but does that really matter?

Surely, all that really matters is what Mark tells us about Jesus, and how that speaks to us today.
So let us turn to reflect on what Mark tells us in today’s 3rd reading (Mark 13: 5-13). The context is this: Jesus has just foretold the destruction of Herod’s magnificent new Temple in Jerusalem. The disciples Peter, James, John and Andrew take him aside to ask privately, ‘How will we know when this will happen?’ Then Jesus replies in the words we have heard. Both Matthew and Luke have almost exactly the same story in their Gospels – no doubt they both got it from Mark.

Jesus knows his likely fate – to be killed by the authorities as an agitator.
He is sure he will rise again, and that his disciples will continue his saving mission. But he realises it is inevitable that there will be false leaders too who will distort his message. So he begins by warning them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!”’ Christians today must still take care to distinguish between imposters and those who really do come in Christ’s name.  In today’s 2nd reading (Ephesians 4: 7-16) St Paul suggests a test we can apply: do they equip the community of believers, the church, for the work of ministry as the body of Christ?

Jesus knows that his disciples are worried for the future.
Stories abounded then - as they do now and have always done - about terrible events in different parts of the world. It would be all too easy for his disciples to give up the hope they need to continue his mission. So he reassures them in these words, ‘When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs’ - the start of something new.

Jesus’s words send a shiver down my back, as I think of the frightful news that fills the media – now brought to us in our living rooms on screens as it happens in full colour. But hasn’t it always been like this? My grandparents lived through the horrors of WW1 trench warfare, armed rebellion and internecine civil war. My parents lived through total war in WW2 and survived to bring me into the world. I have contemplated nuclear annihilation during the Cold War and made pathetic plans to protect my family. My children fear dastardly terrorist attacks and are terrified by the prospect of catastrophic climate change.

These fears of ours and people in every age are no more than a sign that the great work of building God’s kingdom is in progress now. All of us who are Jesus’s disciples are called to play their part in it. Christians must not let go of hope for the future.

Jesus’s disciples must proclaim the good news to all people.
But Jesus knows they will meet resistance, and some will face persecution. ‘Beware’, he says, ‘for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them.’ Nobody can say that Jesus is other than realistic and brutally honest with his disciples. He understands that religious minorities are often made scapegoats, as the first Christians were.  Christians are not being persecuted in Ireland today – but they are in many other places. And not just Christians: other religious minorities are also suffering, among them Muslims.

If this happens to you, says Jesus, ‘do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.’ Jesus recommends to his disciples that when they face interrogation for their faith they should confront their persecutors directly and frankly. Please God this will never happen to me, but it is surely good advice – tell the truth as the Spirit moves you, as there is nothing to be gained by dissembling and lying at a show-trial.

Some will even face betrayal and death for their faith. ‘Brother will betray brother to death’, says Jesus, ‘and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.’ But there are worse things than death for a Christian. Worse than death would be the shame of denying our faith. ‘The one who endures to the end will be saved’, says Jesus. If death is to be our fate we should face it bravely, in the knowledge that through it we enter God’s heavenly kingdom, where we will meet Jesus, who died on the cross to show us how it is done.

Let me finish with a prayer for those persecuted and martyred for their faith:
Loving Father God, your Son Jesus Christ suffered and died for us.
In his resurrection he restores life and peace in all creation.
Comfort, we pray, all victims of persecution and those oppressed by their fellow humans.
Remember in your kingdom those who have died for their faith.
Lead the oppressors towards compassion and give hope to the suffering.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Suffering & Redemption

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 28th February 2016, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, year C.

Over the last week or so I’ve been following two developing news stories.
They’re happening in faraway countries and aren’t likely to affect us much here in Ireland. It would be all too easy to ignore them, amidst all the media focus on our General Election, as well as all the other awful news from around the world. But for some reason I can’t get them out of my mind.

The 1st is the Zika virus epidemic in South and Central America. Doctors suspect it is causing the simultaneous surge in cases of infant microcephaly – babies born with abnormally small heads, who are likely to suffer a spectrum of life-long intellectual and physical disabilities. Last year at least 2,500 more babies than usual were born with this condition in Brazil alone, and numbers are growing rapidly across the region. Can you imagine what life will be like for these babies as they grow up? What anguish must it be for their parents, and for all the expectant mothers waiting to learn whether their baby is one affected?

The 2nd is Cyclone Winston in the South Pacific. It struck the islands of Fiji as the strongest ever category 5 storm a week ago. It has destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 45 people, but we still don’t know the full impact because it has not yet been possible to contact some of the outlying islands. It will take years for this small country of around 850,000 souls to recover. That puts our winter storms and floods in the halfpenny place, doesn’t it?

The UN, governments and aid agencies around the world are springing into action to help these unfortunate people. We too must be ready to help if asked. In the meantime let us pray for them, that they may receive the help they need and feel Christ’s healing touch.

Why, oh why does God permit such suffering to occur? 
Surely, if God were both good and almighty he would eliminate suffering from his creation. But we know that suffering exists – there isn’t one of us who hasn’t personally suffered something, sometime, is there? Can it possibly be true that God is both good and almighty? This is what philosophers and theologians call ‘the problem of suffering’ or the ‘problem of pain’.

Jesus confronts this problem of suffering in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 13:1-9).
People tell him ‘about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices’, and in response he reminds them of ‘those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them’. We have very little clue just what these two events were about, but we can take it that they were two disasters that were part of the news of the day that people were talking about, much like the Zika virus epidemic and Cyclone Winston for us.

Jesus knows that many people, then as now, think that if bad things happen to people it must be because they are bad – God must be punishing them for sin, for breaking God’s law. So he asks rhetorically ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Do you think that (the victims at Siloam) were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 

No, I tell you’, says Jesus, answering his own question. Suffering and disasters are not punishments from a loving God. They are just the inevitable other side of the coin to the joy and delights of the wonderful life God has given us.

‘But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did’, he continues. One thing we all know for sure is that we will die. But I don’t think Jesus is talking here about physical death – this perishing is a spiritual perishing - being and feeling far from God’s love. Jesus is repeating the central message of his ministry, his call to repentance. We sometimes have the wrong idea about repentance. It is not about going around with a long face carrying a corrosive burden of guilt saying ‘Oh woe is me!’ Rather repentance is about admitting to ourselves that the way we are living is wrong and determining to change ourselves for the better. A second thing we all should know is that we need to repent. If we repent, God who loves us forgives us, removes the burden of guilt and brings us close to him.

Jesus then tells the parable of the barren fig tree.
It’s a charming, earthy story, isn’t it? A fig tree planted in a vineyard is not producing fruit. The owner of the vineyard says to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” The gardener replies, “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

The owner quite reasonably suggests the barren tree should be cut down, but the gardener pleads for it to be given a second chance, and promises to nurture it.

This is the way God works with us when we do not produce good fruit. With good reason God questions whether we are worth keeping, but Jesus the Son of God intercedes for us and nurtures us. We are given a second chance to come right.

But we should heed Jesus’s warning, the sting in the tail of the parable – the fig tree is given one more year, and we are not given an infinite number of second chances. If we do not respond to the nurturing teaching of Jesus, if we do not start trying to live and bear fruit as God wants us to – if we do not answer his call to repent - we will indeed perish spiritually. And that is a fate worse than any suffering and death.

I confess I don’t know why God permits suffering - and I doubt anybody else does either! 
Could it be that the existence of suffering is simply a necessary logical condition for a creation which can evolve and develop, and in which we can flourish? Perhaps. 

But what I do know is this:
·         God the Father loves each and every one of us.
·         Through Jesus Christ his Son God shares in and understands our suffering.
·         If we allow Jesus’s teaching to nurture us, if we repent and seek to live the lives God wills for us, we will overcome any suffering that may afflict us, and we will experience the reassuring closeness and love of God, in this world and the next.


If you are interested in a Christian approach to the problem of suffering you might find enlightenment in CS Lewis’s book ‘The Problem of Pain’.