Sunday, 11 February 2018

Mountain top experiences

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh & Killodiernan on Transfiguration Sunday, 11th February 2018, the Sunday before Lent, Year B


Mountain tops are special places, places where we feel awed by the immensity of God’s creation.
When the weather is good, the distant views reveal how puny we really are. When the clouds close in, we experience isolation from all that is familiar. And when the wind blows rain or hail or snow in our face, we understand our own frailty and vulnerability.

Like most of us, I suppose, I love walking and climbing in mountains – though I’m not so limber as I once was. I have vivid memories of many climbs. I remember climbing Keeper Hill as a child with my parents, how each time I thought I had reached the top another ridge revealed itself, until at the final summit half of Ireland was laid out in front of me. I remember climbing a peak called Le Dent du Chat near Annecy in France as a teenager, where close to the top, Mont Blanc and the snow peaks of the alps began to rise above the opposite ridge. And I remember climbing Lugnaquilla by myself in my 40s - on a whim, unsuitably prepared – after a few minutes on the summit the cloud closed in and it grew cold, very cold – I was lucky to fall in with a soldier with a compass walking from the Glen of Imaal to Glenmalure who showed me the right way down.

In today’s Gospel (Mark 9:2-9), Mark tells the story of Peter, James and John’s very special mountain top experience.
High on the mountain, Peter, James and John see Jesus ‘transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white’ – his appearance is changed: the Greek word translated as ‘transfigured’ is from the same root as ‘metamorphosis’. Alongside him they see two figures talking to him, whom they recognise as Elijah and Moses, the two preeminent figures of Judaism, representing the Law and the Prophets.

Peter, always the impulsive one, says, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Peter does not want this emotional moment to end – such a human response!

Then the cloud closes in around them.  They are terrified. And they hear a voice saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!’ When the cloud clears they look around, and can see only Jesus, who orders them not to tell anyone what they have experienced, ‘until the Son of Man (has) risen from the dead’.

Their experience, which we call the Transfiguration, reveals Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God. It must have been very important to them, because they remembered it and after the Resurrection passed on their story, so that it could be told to us not just by Mark, but also by Matthew and Luke.

There is a possible scientific explanation for what Peter, James and John saw.
High on a mountain, with cloud around, is precisely where we may 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 it is Mie scattering.

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. Here is a photo of one, and if you’re interested you can follow the web link to find out more.


The Brocken Spectre – if you are interested in more of the physics 
see http://www.atoptics.co.uk


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 imagine Peter and James and John close together on the mountain, with Jesus praying a little bit away, as the clouds swirl around them. Where Jesus has been standing, 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, whom they take to be Moses and Elijah.

This explanation from physics 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.

Their experience of hearing a voice from heaven also rings very true to me. When someone suddenly realises something of vital importance, something which changes everything, he or she often talks of having a ‘flash of inspiration’ or ‘hearing a voice’. Many people have reported such deeply emotional religious experiences, not only in our own Christian tradition, but also in other faith traditions.

If this scientific explanation is correct, it should not change one whit our awe and wonder at God’s power and glory.
What matters, surely is what the Transfiguration reveals to Peter, James and John - and to us too - about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God.

They saw Jesus transfigured, as ‘the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’, in St Paul’s words from today’s 2nd reading (2 Corinthians 4:3-6). The voice they heard told them to listen to him, and this surely is what they did. From then on Jesus intensified his teaching to them, 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 their 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 Christ’s Church.

And as Christians it should inspire each of us to make our own commitment to follow Jesus as his disciples. ‘For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’.

Let us finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word Transfiguration Sunday.
Holy God,
you have revealed the glory of your love in Jesus Christ,
and have given us a share in your Spirit.
May we who listen to Christ follow faithfully,
and, in the dark places where you send us,
reveal the light of your gospel.
We ask this in his name. Amen

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Who does God call you to be?

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 14th January 2018, the 2nd after Epiphany.

Today’s readings are mostly about people hearing God’s call and how they respond to it.
I believe that God calls each and every one of us to be the person he means us to be. But how can we be sure that a voice we hear is truly God’s voice? And how can we be sure what he is calling us to be and to do? The technical, theological word for this is ‘discernment’, and discernment is difficult. Most of the time, in our busyness, wrapped up in our own thoughts and desires, we may not even hear God’s voice. If we do, it is often so much easier to ignore it. And sometimes what he asks of us seems so difficult that, like Jonah, we try to run away from it.

Today I’m going to reflect a little on the readings, because I think they can help us get to grips with the problem of discernment.

In the OT reading (1Samuel 3:1-10, 11-20) Samuel hears God calling to him.
You may remember that Samuel’s parents Hannah and Elkanah had dedicated him to God as a child, and left him in the guardianship of Eli, the priest at the pilgrimage shrine of Shiloh.

The boy Samuel is confused when he hears God’s call. Three times he hears a voice calling his name. He thinks it is Eli calling for him, but it is not. At last Eli realises the voice Samuel is hearing must be from God. He prompts Samuel to respond, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’ – only then can Samuel open himself to God and understand his vocation. He will grow up to be a great prophet and a leader of Israel.

Notice Eli’s role in the story, helping Samuel to understand what is going on. When we are trying to discern what God is saying to us, we often need someone else to encourage, support and guide us, to enable our discernment.

I have experienced this personally. I began to ask myself whether I should offer myself to lead worship, at a time when otherwise there would be no one to lead services. I had watched a diocesan reader I admired and trusted do so. But it was not until a priest recognised that God was calling me, and encouraged and guided me, that I could begin to understand my call to diocesan reader ministry. Fostering discernment is an important role in ministry.

Turning to the psalm, Psalm 139 marvels at how completely God knows and understands us.
In beautiful poetry the psalmist tells us that God comprehends us completely, we cannot escape him, even if we wish we could. This is because God has made us: ‘I thank you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made’, says the psalmist.

Indeed, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We have been made as souls with conscience and intelligence, capable of love, able to tell good from evil, truth from lies, beauty from ugliness. And it is these innate capacities, given us by God,  which enable us to hear God’s call and discern what it is he wants of us.

In the Gospel reading (John 1:43-51) Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael to follow him.
Notice that Jesus calls Philip directly, but it is Philip who then invites his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, just as previously Andrew had gone to fetch Simon Peter. This is the way that many disciples of Jesus were made at the very beginning, by one disciple passing on Jesus’s call to follow him to another. And it is the way that disciples have been made ever since.

Notice also how Nathanael initially resists the call from Jesus, passed on by Philip.  ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’, he asks cynically. I suppose the rivalry between Bethsaida and Nazareth must have been a bit like that between Tipperary and Galway in the hurling! It is only when Nathanael accepts his friend Philip’s invitation to ‘come and see’, and spends time in conversation with Jesus, that he gives in, finally confessing, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God’.

How like the way that many of us try to evade God’s call when it comes! But God does not give up on us – he knows us from the inside out, and he will not let go of us easily if he wants us for a purpose.

Philip goes on to be a great apostle, the first apostle to the gentiles, even before St Paul took on the role. Acts tells us that he was the first to bring Samaritans into the Church, and he goes on to baptise the Ethiopian court official who is a eunuch. But what of Nathanael? We hear nothing else about him in the Bible - though perhaps he is the same as Nathanael of Cana to whom Jesus appeared at the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection. We do know that Nathanael responded to Jesus’s call. As Jesus promised, he must have seen ‘heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending’. But God calls only a very few to great tasks, and Nathanael may not have been one of them.

I said at the start, I believe God calls every one of us to be the person he means us to be.
There may be some here who are called to great work, as priests, perhaps even bishops – maybe even prophets or apostles, God help us. But almost all of us are called to much more modest tasks in ordinary places. Yet these too are tasks which God needs us for in order to build his Kingdom of peace and justice.

They may be official jobs in the church, jobs like being a church warden, or serving on select vestry. Or they may be specific ministries in the parish - there are so many, aren’t there? - reading, singing, church cleaning, washing linen, helping with flowers or refreshments after services – even volunteering for the Christmas tree festival! We do not give enough recognition to those who take on these jobs, I think – but I am sure God does. God calls different people at different times to different ministries to build up Christ’s body, the Church, so that the church can continue his ministry in the world.

But just as important, they may not be 'churchy' jobs, but tasks of service to others in the secular world. Tasks like being a carer, teaching children, healing the sick as a nurse or a doctor. Tasks that build and protect community, or conserve the beautiful planet we have been given. Tasks that feed the bodies and nourish the spirits of our neighbours. God needs people who will carry out all these tasks, and so many others, to build his Kingdom. Those called to them are just as blessed as those called to church ministries.

I suggest to you that each one of us should ask ourselves these questions: How has God called me? and How have I responded? I suggest we should do so regularly, because who it is God wants us to be, and what he wants us to do, is ever changing through the course of our lives. I suggest the beginning of a new year is a good time to do so.

And as we ask these questions we should pray, pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to discern what God wants of us. Because it is precisely when we respond to God’s call as he wants us to, that we, like Nathanael, will see ‘heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending’ and experience the joy of his Kingdom.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Eternal God,
whose Son, Jesus Christ, is now exalted as lord of all,
and pours out his gifts upon the Church:
grant it that unity which only your Spirit can give,
keep us in the bond of peace,
and bring all creation to worship before your throne;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Shepherds glorifying God

Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 31st December 2017, the 1st Sunday of Christmas, year B.

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing which has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us”.
So say the shepherds who were keeping watch over the flock in fields close to the town, as St Luke tells us in the Gospel reading (Luke2:15-21).

Luke’s is the only Gospel to tell us about the shepherds who visited Mary and Joseph and their new-born son Jesus. His beautiful story, so familiar to us, still resonates today. So let’s try to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the shepherds that night 2000 years ago.

Some of you I’m sure know much more than I do about sheep. Perhaps you’ve kept and tended them. But I doubt if any of you would call yourselves shepherds. Shepherds are few and far between in Ireland these days - but they would have been very familiar to Luke’s readers. The rugged Judean uplands were a pastoral country. Flocks of sheep represented wealth. A shepherd was paid to stay out night and day in all weathers to guard the sheep against wild animals and robbers. It was a hard, dangerous job, but very responsible. Jesus likens himself to the Good Shepherd, who would lay down his life for the sheep.

Luke’s shepherds are ordinary people, much like you and me. They are not self-important rulers or highly educated opinion formers, as Herod and the Wise Men were, in Matthew’s alternative Christmas story. Luke chooses to tell us about how ordinary people responded to the miracle of Christmas, not the great and mighty. And we have much to learn from them.

The shepherds had just experienced a miraculous vision, a vision of angels.
‘The glory of the Lord shone around them’ – I imagine shimmering light, like the Northern lights. An angel announces, ‘To you is born this day in the city of David’ – that is Bethlehem – ‘a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’  They are given a sign; they ‘will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger’. Then the angel is joined by ‘a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours”’

Wow! What an experience! What an exhilarating joy the shepherds must have felt!

Have you ever heard the heavenly host? I have, I think, and you may have too. I can remember my joy and exhilaration after the births of my children. I can remember literally dancing down the wet deserted streets of Guildford at 4am in mid December, on the way back home from the hospital. It was as if the whole universe was laughing and crying and singing with me. And I shared my joy with everyone I met over the following days. Angel voices, indeed – a memory to treasure!

Surely it is an experience of this same kind that Isaiah speaks of in today’s OT reading (Isaiah 61:10-62:3), when he says:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
   my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
   he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
   and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Most if not all of us, ordinary people, experience once in a while that sudden rush of exhilarating joy, as both Isaiah and the shepherds did. It is not just poets and the mad who experience visions of angels. We should not be afraid of them, I think. Rather we should see it as God granting us a glimpse, just a fleeting glimpse, of his loving power and majesty. We should treasure such experiences when we return to the world of normality, and ponder them in our hearts, as Mary did.

The shepherds ‘went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger’.
These shepherds are straight-forward, practical people. They don’t stand around debating and philosophising about what their extraordinary experience means. They go with haste to look with their own eyes. And what they find confirms their experience – it is just as the angel had told them. This little child is special, very special - a Saviour, a Messiah, the Lord. And they can’t stop talking about it! Just as I couldn’t stop telling everyone about the birth of my children.

The real miracle of Christmas is that through his grace our loving Father God makes the first move towards us, to you and me, to all people. He reveals himself to us as Mary and Joseph’s beautiful, helpless baby, their first-born son. This baby grows up to be our Lord Jesus Christ – in St John’s mystic vision, the Word of God, the true light that enlightens everyone – through whose life and teaching, and death and resurrection, we are shown the way to God. This is surely what St Paul is telling us in today’s Epistle reading (Galatians 4:4-7) – ‘God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”’

But God’s grace is of no use to us unless we respond to it. We should learn from the shepherds how to respond to the miracle of Christmas. They went with haste to find Jesus, and we must too. Like them, we will not be disappointed.

‘The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.’
The shepherds don’t hang about. Once they have seen the child Jesus lying in the manger – the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord – and told their story, they just go back to work, to tend their flocks.

But something has changed - they are changed. They go back ‘glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen.’

And this surely is what we must do too. We are not meant to remain for ever in our visions, no matter how exhilarating they may be. We must come back to earth. Our job is to bring our experience of the love of God back into the everyday world. Let us pray that we too may go about the world as changed people, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.

So we really do have a great deal to learn from Luke’s shepherds:
·         We should treasure the glimpses we are granted of the love and majesty of our loving Father God.
·         We should go with haste to find God’s grace in the Christmas miracle of the birth of Jesus.
·         And we should return as changed people to bring God’s loving Spirit out into the world.

Let me finish in prayer with a collect
Saving God,
whose Son Jesus was presented in the temple
and was acclaimed the glory of Israel
and the light to the nations:
grant that in him we may be presented to you
and in the world may reflect his glory;
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen


Sunday, 10 December 2017

Make straight the way

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 10th December 2017, the 2nd of Advent.

Let’s listen again to the prophet Isaiah’s beautiful, poetic words in the 1st reading (Isaiah 40:1-11):
A voice cries out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Now, we know a lot about making highways around here – just think of the recent remaking of the streets of Nenagh, and the building of the M7 motorway. Isaiah’s words could almost be an anthem for the National Roads Authority! Great cuttings have been blasted through the hills. Giant machines have moved the spoil to make embankments. Bridges have been built over rivers. All to make the road as gentle and smooth as possible.

Road building would not have been so vast in Isaiah’s time, but it would still have been a gigantic community enterprise to make the roads to allow farmers to transport their produce on pack-mules to market in Jerusalem, and to allow pilgrims to travel to the temple on Mount Zion. The roads knit together the Jewish people in the cities of Judah to their holy mountain of Zion, not just in a material way, but also in metaphor as a worshiping community. I feel sure that for Isaiah the way of the Lord was not a road for God to travel to his people on, but a road for his people to travel to God on.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

In our 3rd reading (Mark 1:1-8), in the very first words of his Gospel, St Mark recycles this road building metaphor.
John the Baptist is a wild man, wandering about the Judean desert, clothed in camel’s hair, with only a leather bag at his waist, who ate locusts and wild honey, we are told – the very image of an Old Testament prophet! Mark quotes Isaiah to identify him as: The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ For Luke he is the fulfilment of the hope expressed by Isaiah.

John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. And he is very successful to judge by the crowds he gathers. But John is also the self-effacing herald of the coming of another. Claiming no special position for himself, he says: ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.’ He means Jesus of course. And John continues I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’

Why have the compilers of the Lectionary chosen this reading for today? John’s message of repentance and forgiveness for sin might seem at first sight out of place in this Advent season. In Advent we look forward to Christmas and the great gift that God has given us. God comes to us. He comes in the form of a little child. His parents Mary and Joseph name him Jesus. We rejoice with them at the miracle of his birth. With angels and shepherds and kings we adore him. And we believe he grows up to lead us to God through his loving self-sacrifice. So why spoil all the joy with dismal repentance for sin? I think the answer lies in the metaphor of road building.

Yes, God makes the first move. Yes, God comes to us in the person of Jesus. But he does not force himself on us. He does not compel us to accept his love. He made us with free will, and we are free to refuse him. But we cannot share in his kingdom unless we make a move in response. That essential move is like building a road to travel on towards God. Each one of us must ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ and ‘make his paths straight’. And to do so we must each accept John’s baptism for ourselves. We must admit our own sins, we must seek God’s forgiveness, and we must undergo a change of heart to follow God’s way in future. For that is what repentance means.

In the 2nd reading (2Peter: 3:8-15) the author of 2 Peter writes to disciples who are going through a tough time.
Some are becoming weary of the work. Some have begun to doubt whether the great road to the kingdom will be finished in their lifetimes. Some are questioning the apostles’ teaching.

Time is not the same for God as it is to us, he tells them: for God ‘one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day’; and God ‘is patient … not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance’.
So, he urges them to be patient. While you are ‘waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God’ – in other words, building the highway to God – ‘strive to be … without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation’.

So, to sum up:
By the readings they have chosen for us, I think the compilers of the Lectionary have tried to correct any tendency we may have to be over sentimental in our anticipation of Christmas.

Yes of course we should look forward with joy to Christmas. Let us wonder at the miracle of Mary’s tiny helpless baby. Let us enjoy the stories of the shepherds and the three kings. And let us sing our hearts out with the angels in the beautiful carols we all love so much.

But let us also reflect on this. The love God shows us at Christmas is no use to us - no use at all - unless we choose to act in response, unless we choose to build a good smooth road on which we may travel to God. John the Baptist has shown us the way, by proclaiming his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which Jesus also proclaims. All we need do is to commit ourselves to that baptism, to build the road - and to be patient.

Let me finish with a Gospel collect:
Merciful God,
you sent your messengers the prophets
to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation:
give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy
the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Monday, 6 November 2017

Welcoming Church Conference

I was privileged to lead prayers at the start of the Welcoming Church Conference organised by the diocesan Council for Mission of the united dioceses of Limerick and Killaloe on Saturday 4th November in Adare. The conference was well attended and we were blessed to hear the experience of Rev Alastair Graham (Mullingar), Ven Wayne Carney (Birr) and Canon Liz Beasley (Adare).

The Lord be with you – and also with you

As we begin this conference on ‘How to be welcoming church’, in a few moments of calmness, we listen to the words of Jesus Christ in scripture, we pray that his Father will be with us in our discussions, and that his Spirit will inspire us, and we dedicate ourselves to the service of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

A reading from Luke 14: 1, 7-11
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
This is the word of the Lord – thanks be to God

That was the lectionary reading set for today, and it’s particularly apt for this conference, I think – it is about hospitality and about humility. We must never forget that when we welcome others to church it is not our church – it is God’s church. We must humbly recognise that we are not the host, we are merely servants who open the door to God’s banquet. God is our host, as he is the host of all who enter in.

Let us pray
The Collect prayer for the 20th Sunday after Trinity
Almighty God,
whose Holy Spirit equips your Church with a rich variety of gifts:
Grant us so to use them that, living the gospel of Christ and eager to do your will,
we may share with the whole creation in the joys of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

We pray for the speakers and facilitators of this conference, that their words may sound a bell with us.
And we pray that, called by that bell, we may respond by building a vibrant and welcoming church.

God our Father,
as we meet in the name of your Son Jesus Christ
make us to know your presence with us,
and in all our thinking and speaking
keep us in harmony with your will.
Give us a vision of your kingdom,
insight into your purposes,
and understanding of the needs of your work.
We place ourselves at your disposal.
We are fellow workers,
eager and ready to carry out your wishes.
Use us, O Lord, as you will, and for your glory. Amen

Let us join together in the prayer Jesus himself taught us:
Our Father, who art in heaven …

To God, who by the power at work within us, is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, to him be the glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus, to all generations for ever and ever. Amen

Let us get down to work.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Blessing a house

A little while ago I was asked by a friend and cousin to bless a holiday home she had just bought, at a small party among friends. What a privilege! Here is the form we used. The sprinkling was done with a sprig of rosemary, which I hope may root and be planted by the kitchen door as a remembrance of the day.

A word about blessing
We are about to bless this house. But what does that mean? When we bless something or someone we are praying that God, who we believe is like a loving parent to us, will empower that thing or person to be what it is intended to be.

So today we are going to bless this house to be what it is intended to be, a home from home filled with harmony, happiness, warmth and welcome. And our prayer is not just going to be in words but in actions, because we are going to sprinkle water – which we will also bless - as an unspoken prayer of blessing.

Blessing of water
Loving Father, bless this water by the power of your Holy Spirit,
that as we sprinkle it
so you will pour out blessings on this house,
and protect it and those within it from any harm or evil,
in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Blessing of house
Ask if the owners/tenants wish to name the house.

Lord, be present in this house, (house name),
and fill it with laughter, love, peace and pleasure.
May it be a place of harmony, happiness, warmth and welcome,
bringing enduring contentment and lasting memories.
Watch over all who stay here,
protecting, nurturing, guiding and providing,
so that it may be not just a house
but a home and a home from home –
a place of joy touched by your presence
and sanctified by your grace,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sprinkling of water
Sprinkle doorstep. God bless this doorway and all who enter it.

Ask owners/tenants to go round sprinkling, sitting room, kitchen, back door, stairs, bedrooms etc.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Wicked tenants

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th October 2017, the 17th after Trinity

Jesus really, really upset the chief priests and elders when they challenged his authority to teach in the Temple.
After he told them the parable of the wicked tenants - that is the name given to the reading from Matthew's Gospel which we have just heard (Matthew 21:33-46) - ‘They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, (who) regarded him as a prophet’, we are told.

Why were they so upset, I wonder? To understand, we must delve a bit.

The prophet Isaiah uses a vineyard as a metaphor for the Israelites as God’s people. God ‘dug (his vineyard) and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines’. God ‘built a watchtower … and a wine vat in it’. And God ‘expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes’. So, says Isaiah, God ‘will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns’.

It is a thundering prophecy designed to call the Israelite leaders in Isaiah’s time to repent for exploiting the Israelite people.

In his parable Jesus begins by quoting the opening lines of Isaiah’s prophecy almost word for word.
The chief priests and elders would surely have understood that the landowner who plants the vineyard stands for God. Jesus goes on to describe how the wicked tenants mistreat and beat and kill the vineyard owner’s slaves when they are sent to collect the harvest. And finally, when the owner sends his own son and heir, they kill him too, in the hope of inheriting the vineyard.

The author of Matthew’s Gospel, writing a generation later, believes that Jesus is the Son of God. He intends us to identify the son with Jesus. But notice that although Jesus often refers to God as his Father in heaven, he himself never publicly claims to be the Son of God. He leaves that identification for his disciples to make, and he swears them to secrecy.

The chief priests and elders, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s time, would never have suspected Jesus was claiming to be the Son of God. They felt utterly secure in being good people, quite unlike those Isaiah prophesied against. Long after the days of Isaiah, Jerusalem was laid waste and the Israelites had been carried off as captives to Babylon. But the Jewish leaders traced their ancestry back to the faithful remnant of Israel that returned from exile to Jerusalem. They were confident that they yielded good grapes, not wild grapes.

Jesus asks them, ‘When the owner returns, what will he do to those tenants?’, and they reply, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time’. Just as, they believed, God had returned Jerusalem to their ancestors.

Nothing Jesus has said so far would have upset them unduly.

Jesus then goes on to quote from Psalm 118: 22-23.
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’. And he addresses the chief priests and elders directly – we can imagine him looking them in the eyes: ‘Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls’.

Jesus would have been speaking in Aramaic, or perhaps Hebrew. Notice that in both the word for son - ‘ben’- sounds like the word for stone – ‘eben’. With this pun Jesus identifies the Son of God with the Cornerstone, which will break and crush anyone on whom it falls.

Jesus is unmistakably telling the chief priests and the elders - to their faces - that their behaviour is unacceptable to God and that their place as leaders will be given to others – just as Isaiah had to their predecessors. And Jesus has tricked them into pronouncing their own sentence! No wonder they want to arrest him and shut him up…

Christians have often interpreted this parable as a story about Christianity supplanting Judaism.
In this story, the vineyard’s owner is God. The tenants are the Jewish people. The vineyard owner’s slaves are the prophets sent by God and so often rejected and killed. The Son who came last is none other than Jesus himself, whom the Jews kill. So God will – rightly - reject the Jews and choose another people, presumably Christians, the followers of Jesus. The Jews will be broken and crushed by Christ, the Cornerstone. It is a vivid story of the ultimate doom of the Jews - but it is a false and very dangerous story.

It is false because Jesus - a Jew himself - focusses his criticism on the Jewish leaders in the Jerusalem of his own time, not on the Jewish people. In fact, the people’s belief that Jesus was a prophet prevented the leaders from arresting him there and then. The Jewish leaders will indeed be broken and crushed, and the Temple destroyed, a generation later, not by Christians, but by the might of pagan Rome, when they rise up in revolt. The Jewish people will survive as a diaspora, as they have to our own day. As the Acts of the Apostles tells us, though the earliest church was a Jewish church, it soon received gentiles into membership through the insights of St Peter and St Paul – both themselves Jews - in today’s Epistle reading we hear Paul boasting of his Jewish heritage. It is this mixed Jewish and gentile church that Matthew was writing for.

I said that this story is dangerous. It is dangerous because over nearly 2 thousand years it has been used to justify Christian persecution of the Jews, culminating in the Shoah, the Nazi genocide of European Jews. By their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus of false prophets. And the fruits of those who tell this story is the murder of millions of men and women each made in the image of God, just like you and me – this story is an evil blasphemy.

It is better, surely, to reflect on what Jesus’s parable tells us about the nature of God.
It tells us of God’s generosity. The owner provided the tenants with all they could wish for in a productive vineyard. In the same way, God by his grace has given us this wonderful living planet to tend and care for, and to feed us.

It tells us about God’s trust in us as human beings. The owner of the vineyard did not supervise his tenants like a slave driver. He went away and left them with their task. In the same way God entrusts us with his work, and he gives us the freedom to do it however we think best.

It tells us of God’s patience and mercy. The owner did not respond with sudden vengeance when his first messengers are attacked, he sent others. He gave the tenants every chance to respond, even sending his son and heir. In the same way God bears with all our sinning and will forgive us, if we will only repent. We Christians are assured of this by Jesus, God’s only Son, the corner stone once rejected by the builders.

It tells us of God’s judgement. When the tenants carried out their deliberate policy of rebellion and disobedience, God eventually took the vineyard away and gave it to others. In the same way if we who are sinners continue to refuse God’s forgiveness and fail to repent, we become useless to God. In the end God’s stern judgement on us will be to give the job he made for us to someone else. And we will die of shame. Perish the thought!

Let me finish in prayer with a Gospel Collect:
Almighty God,
your Son Jesus was the stone rejected by the builders,
and, by your doing, he has been made the chief cornerstone:
grant that, by the power of his Spirit working in us,
we may become living stones
built up into your dwelling place,
a temple holy and acceptable to you;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen