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


Sunday, 4 September 2016

Discipleship

Address given at St Michael's Limerick City on Sunday 4th September 2016, the 15th after Trinity

Do you know the difference between supporting a cause and being committed to it?
Well the next time you sit down to a nice cooked breakfast you might think of this: the hen that laid the egg you’re about to eat was certainly supporting your high-cholesterol breakfast, but the pig from which the rashers came was truly committed to it!

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke (14:25-33) is about commitment – about commitment as a disciple of Jesus. Jesus is telling the crowds travelling with him what it means to be his disciple.

But at first hearing, what he says is really quite shocking, isn’t it? Surely Jesus can’t have insisted that to be his disciple you must hate your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters? It sounds as if he wants his disciples to be cold-hearted fanatics!

What I want to do today is to tease out what Jesus really did mean in this passage, and what it might mean to us today.

Would the crowds travelling with Jesus have found his teaching as shocking as we do?
At one level, I think they might have been even more shocked. For a Jew to hate mother or father would be more than shocking – it would be a blasphemy against God himself, a violation of the 5th Commandment given to Moses. If you remember, this reads: Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee’.

And again, although the idea of carrying the cross is a very familiar metaphor to us, two Christian millennia later, it would have been quite repulsive to a Jew at that time. Stoning was the Jewish punishment – crucifixion was a barbaric practice recently introduced by the hated Roman occupiers. To say that disciples must carry the cross would have been like saying today that they must travel in the cattle-trucks to the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz.

But at another level, I think they would not have found Jesus’s words at all as strange as we do. There’s a long tradition in the Semitic languages of the Middle East of using over-the-top rhetoric to make a point. It continues to this day – think of Saddam Hussein’s rhetoric about ‘the mother of all battles’ for instance. Here as in many other places in the Gospels, I think that those who heard Jesus’s words would have understood very clearly that they weren’t to be taken completely literally, but that they were used to make his point as vividly as possible.

So what is the point that Jesus is making? Actually, I think there are two.
First, Jesus is warning his followers that to be his disciple, to follow his road to the Kingdom of God, may cost them everything that they hold dear. Everything; absolutely everything.

Matthew (10:37-38) puts different words into his mouth, in what seems to be another report of the same teaching, when he has Jesus say: Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.’ The point is not to hate your family – that is just a rhetorical device – the point is that to be a true disciple of Jesus you must love him - you must love God - more than family, more than anything! And you must be prepared to suffer unjustly because you love God more than anything else.

And Jesus is also warning his followers that before they commit themselves they must ask themselves if they can see it through. Just as they would with any other project. They will be taken for fools if they make a commitment that they can’t live up to. Just as if they were building a tower – the reference is probably to a watchtower which people built in their fields so they could protect their crops. Or just as a wise king would – or any wise leader - before leading his people to war. You cannot make a true commitment without having calculated whether or not you can live up to it.


And second, Jesus is seeking to inspire his followers to make that commitment to be disciples.
Think for a moment about Churchill’s great speech to the British parliament and people when he became Prime Minister early in WW2: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’. That speech was calculated to rally the British nation behind a determination to fight on for victory. He went on: ‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terror — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival’. Churchill used shocking language in his rhetoric, to draw on the human quality of altruism, in order to rally his people behind him. And he succeeded in this aim. Altruism is characteristic of our humanity. No doubt it evolved with our species – but I prefer to see it as given to us by God, when he made us in his image.

Was Jesus drawing on that same quality of altruism when he chose to use his shocking language? I believe so. And Jesus offered his disciples a vision even finer than Churchill’s victory, a vision of the kingdom of God, which they would help bring to pass.

I can’t believe that Jesus expected every single person in the crowds that day to feel able to make that great commitment. Perhaps there’s a role for camp-followers, for fellow-travellers, for supporters, as well as for committed disciples in the service of God. And Jesus must surely have known that even those who did commit themselves would at times be unable to carry it through - they would find their courage fail them. Even that great disciple Peter denied his teacher three times!

But Jesus promised those first disciples that he would always be with them, helping those who wavered to renew their commitment. They experienced his resurrection and received the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. With his help they went the distance. They obeyed his command to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’. And succeeding generations of disciples have continued to do the same. We are here as Christ’s church 2000 years later, to give witness to their success in continuing Jesus’s project of salvation.

We Christians are the crowds travelling with Jesus today.
What should we take from the words he spoke 2000 years ago? Well, just the same things, I believe, that Jesus wanted those who listened to him then to take: warning and inspiration.

Jesus warns us that we must not set out to follow him lightly – he teaches us that his disciples must be prepared to give up everything they hold dear, if that is what is asked of them. And he warns us to consider carefully whether we can pay that price before we commit ourselves to being his disciples.

But if we listen to him, Jesus also inspires us to make that great commitment, and will help us to live up to it, as the first disciples did, and as so many others have done over the centuries. Will we commit ourselves to follow in their footsteps? Will we?

St Ignatius Loyola understood this, I think, when he wrote his beautiful prayer, which I shall finish with:
Teach me, Good Lord, to serve You as You deserve:
To give, and not to count the cost;
to fight, and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Your will.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Amen

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.