Sunday, 11 October 2020

We must dedicate ourselves to justice and righteousness

Address given at the Harvest Eucharist in St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 11th October 2020, live-streamed in the absence of a congregation due to level 3 Covid restrictions.


The harvest has been brought in once again this year

How we miss our traditional Harvest Festival celebrations, don’t we!

Every year but this one, we bring the best of the harvest to decorate God’s house. We all enjoy the colours and the smells of the fruit and the vegetables and the flowers. We all enjoy the familiar harvest hymns. We visit each other’s churches to celebrate with them – and to assess their decorators’ skills. And we all enjoy seeing so many cheerful people, filled with a sense of accomplishment, now that the year’s work has been crowned with success.

But not this year. This year, as we wrestle with the Covid virus, there are no decorations, no singing, and now churches are closed again, and services are streamed over the internet. Even though we know the restrictions are necessary for our own and our neighbours good, we miss the old traditions keenly.

Yet the harvest has been brought in once again this year. By God’s grace we will have plenty to eat, and delicacies as well, to enjoy over the coming months. God, who is faithful will make sure of next year’s harvest too, when we may hope that we can celebrate it as we have done before.

 Let us take a moment to reflect on the sheer breadth and variety of the harvest. We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, and forage for cattle. I asked a farming neighbour how his year was shaping up. ‘You know’, he said, ‘a farmer never says he’s happy, but I’m not too unhappy!’ He has had a good year, I reckon, though I expect he is anxious about what Brexit will bring next year.

And there’s so much more than staples for us to enjoy, isn’t there! There’s milk and butter, cheese and yogurt, fruit and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips, pumpkins and marrows, cabbage and lettuce, peas and beans.

Let’s not forget the animals too – we have this year’s foals and calves and lambs, chicks, ducklings, and goslings to delight us. And we must not forget the fruit of our own bodies, our children and grandchildren born this year.

Psalm 65:12-13 expresses it in beautiful poetry, ‘The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy’.

Thanks be to God for giving us so much! Let us be sure to turn back to the Lord to thank him for all we have received, like the Samaritan leper healed by Jesus, as we heard in the Gospel reading (Luke 17:11-19) .

In the OT reading from Deuteronomy (8:7-18), Moses speaks to the Israelites as they wait to cross into the Promised Land.

‘The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land’, he says, ‘a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley’. Well, God has placed us in just such a land, hasn’t he? We too live in ‘a land where (we) may eat bread without scarcity, where (we) lack nothing’. It is surely right for us, like the Israelites, to ‘eat our fill and bless the Lord (our) God for the good land that he has given (us)’.

But Moses also gives the children of Israel a warning. As they enjoy all these good things, he tells them, ‘Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances and his statutes, which I am commanding you today’. For, he says, it is God who makes it possible to have all this wealth of good things. And, he adds, if you fail to keep his commandments – that is if you fail to live as God intends you to live – terrible things will happen to you. In the very next verse he says, ‘If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish’.

In his long speech to the Israelites, of which today’s reading is a tiny part, Moses restates the Ten Commandments, and expands on them at length, as a rule of life for the Israelites. Moses believes God is just and righteous. God has made a covenant with the Israelites. This requires them to behave with justice and righteousness to other Israelites. Why? Because that is how God behaves.

“Justice and Righteousness”. These two words are like mirror images, because to do what is just is to do what is right and, vice versa. These two words run right through the OT like a vein of precious metal.

In his life and teaching Jesus extends Moses’ idea of God’s covenant of justice and righteousness to apply to all people, Israelites and gentiles alike. And it is Moses’ rule of life that Jesus summarises for us when he says: ‘You shall love the Lord your God’; and ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. Love of God and love of neighbour go together like two sides of the same coin.

In our Epistle reading, St Paul encourages the Corinthians to be generous (2 Corinthians9:6-15).

Paul is organising a collection for the poverty-stricken church in Jerusalem among the gentile churches he has planted. He has just told the Corinthians about how generous the Macedonian Christians have been, and now he urges the Corinthians to be generous too.

He tells them what every farmer and every gardener knows – you reap what you sow: ‘The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows generously will also reap bountifully’.

He says they must not think they are under any compulsion to give more than they feel they can, because ‘God loves a cheerful giver’.

But he reminds them that God has given them quite enough so that they can afford to be generous. ‘God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance’, he says, ‘so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work’.

And he tells them that by being generous, not just to the needy in Jerusalem but to all others, they will both glorify God and benefit themselves spiritually. ‘You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God … because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you’.

We must, I suggest, listen very carefully both to Moses’ warning and to Paul’s urging.

Moses warns against breaking God’s covenant of justice and righteousness. Consider the situation that faces us. There is a growing crisis of inequality in our globalised world, as the rich get richer and the poor poorer, and wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. And the gathering environmental catastrophe threatens to unpick the web of life on this planet on which we all depend. Could it be that both crises result from a failure to keep God’s covenant of justice and righteousness? I rather think they do. Both crises are driven by human greed - by people who always want more and more, because they reckon they are worth it – such people worship Mammon in place of God.

Paul urges generosity as a positive value. God who is just and righteous will generously supply more than enough to allow us all to flourish. But it is in our own interests to respond justly and righteously, by taking no more than we need, and by generously sharing the surplus with those who do not have enough.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that anyone here, or listening to me on the web, is greedy or ungenerous - though none of us is perfect. But it is plain for all to see that greed and lack of generosity are deeply embedded within the globalised world we live in. To change this won’t be easy, but it is necessary. Both as a society and as individuals, we need to cultivate justice and righteousness; we need to know when we have enough, we need to recognise when our neighbour has too little, and we need to listen when God calls us to share generously what he has so graciously given us. If we can’t do that, our future is dire.

So, let us rededicate ourselves to justice and righteousness.

Let us love God and thank him for his good gifts. Let us also love our neighbours and share his gifts with those in need of them. And let us pray that all without exception may have enough.

In this way we can join together to pronounce a blessing on all our communities:

Blessed are we when we sing God’s praises 

and walk together faithfully on God’s earth.

Blessed are we when we proclaim God’s justice 

and share together the fruits of creation.

Blessed are we when we are guided by God’s wisdom

and live together in harmony with God’s world.

 

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

A Reflection on St Francis of Assisi

A reflection recorded in Killodiernan Church at Morning Worship for the Community of St Brendan the Navigator on Monday 5th October 2020.

St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds, by Giotto

Most if not all of us must know at least the bare bones of the life-story of St Francis of Assisi. A gilded youth, dedicated to pleasure, he received a vision in a dilapidated church, in which he heard Christ say, ‘Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruin’. He renounced the wealth he would have inherited and adopted poverty as a lifestyle. He repaired the dilapidated church with his own hands. He travelled the countryside, calling those he met to penance, brotherly love, and peace. His example drew others to him. They lived together following a simple rule, ‘to follow the teachings of Lord Jesus Christ, and to walk in his footsteps’. This was the nucleus of what was to become the Franciscan Order, a preaching order which still flourishes.

Francis believed that the world was created good and beautiful by God, but needs to be redeemed because of human sin. He saw God reflected in the natural world around him, and he gained a reputation for his closeness to nature and animals.

The communion of all creation with a loving God is the focus of his distinctive spirituality. This is beautifully captured in a hymn he wrote, the Canticle of the Sun. Let’s listen to it.

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honour, and all blessing. To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name. Praise be to God.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility. Amen.

This creation spirituality makes Francis more relevant than ever to our own times, challenged as we are by the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and the plight of the poor. It is no accident that Pope John Paul II declared St Francis to be the Patron Saint of Ecology. Nor that the present Pope chose Francis to be his papal name. Nor that Pope Francis chose the words from the Canticle of the Sun translated as ‘Be praised’ as the title of his environmental encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, a great gift to Christians of all traditions.

Let us give thanks for the life and witness of St Francis, 8 centuries ago. And let us commit ourselves to the care of God’s creation and the good earth he has given us, our common home.


Monday, 5 October 2020

A Liturgy for the Community of Brendan the Navigator

 


Gathering

Go raibh an Tiarna libh.

Agus leat féin

or

The Lord be with you

and also with you.

O Lord, open our lips

and our mouth will proclaim your praise.

God, make speed to save us.

O Lord, make haste to help us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;

as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be for ever. Amen.

Praise the Lord.

The Lord's name be praised.

 

Let us hear the Lord’s blessings on those who follow him.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called children of God.

 

Penitence

Let us recall when we have fallen short, and the mercy of God (Seasonal kyries may be used)

 

Father, source of all being

A Thiarna, déan trócaire.

Lord have mercy.

 

Jesus, walker with us

A Chríost, déan trócaire.

Christ have mercy.

 

Holy Spirit, tuner of our hearts

A Thiarna, déan trócaire.

Lord have mercy.


A priest, if present, pronounces the absolution.

Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent,

have mercy on you,

pardon and deliver you from all your sins,

confirm and strengthen you in all goodness,

and keep you in eternal life;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Acclamation (the following, or a Canticle may be used)

The Lord is here.

His Spirit is with us

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

 

Holy, holy, holy Lord,

God of power and might,

Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna is the highest!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna is the highest!

 

Reading (from the Old or New Testament)

 

Reflection

 

Affirmation

We believe in God the Father

the maker and shaper of our pathways;

who sent Jesus to show us the narrow way,

and who is the beginning and end of our travelling.

We believe in Jesus Christ his only Son

the sharer of our flesh;

who entered and experienced the human journey,

and who walks beside us on the road.

We believe in the Holy Spirit

the midwife and nurturer of our potential;

who drove Jesus out into the desert,

and who calls us now to cast off from the shore.

We believe in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God,

the shaper, sharer and stirrer of our journeys;

and we commit ourselves

to follow his Way. Amen

 

or

We Believe in one God,

who is Father creator, Son redeemer, Spirit sanctifier. Amen

 

Prayer

Prayers for the day in the BCP, these, or others may be used

Father, we pray for your holy catholic Church, that we all may be one.

Grant that every member of your Church may truly and humbly serve you, that your name may be glorified by all people.

We pray for all bishops, priests and deacons, that they may be faithful ministers of your word and sacraments.

We pray for all who govern and hold authority in the nations of the world, that there may be justice and peace on the earth.

Give us grace to do your will in all that we undertake, that your glory may be proclaimed through our lives.

Have compassion on those who suffer from any grief or trouble, that they may be delivered from their distress.

We praise you for your saints who have entered their eternal joy,

may we also come to share in the fullness of your kingdom.

We pray for our own needs and for those of others:

Silence. The people may add their own petitions.

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven:

hallowed be thy name,

thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory

for ever and ever. Amen

A collect and/or St Brendan's prayer

Help me to journey beyond the familiar

and into the unknown.

Give me the faith to leave old ways

and break fresh ground with You.

Christ of the mysteries, I trust You

to be stronger than each storm within me.

I will trust in the darkness and know

that my times, even now, are in Your hand.

Tune my spirit to the music of heaven,

and somehow, make my obedience count for You. Amen

 

Going Out

The Lord be with you

and also with you.

Let us bless the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

 

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,

and the love of God,

and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,

be with us all evermore. Amen.

or

Go raibh an Tiarna libh.

Agus leat féin.

Beannaímis ainm an Tiarna.

Buíochas le Dia.

 

Go raibh grásta ár dTiarna Íosa Críost

agus grá Dé agus cumann an Spioraid Naoimh linn go léir. Áiméan.

 


Sunday, 27 September 2020

On authority

Address given at All Saints Stradbally (Castleconnell) on Sunday 27 September 2020, the 16th after Trinity

 All three readings today are about authority, in one way or another.

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 21:23-32), the Temple leaders ask Jesus who gives him the authority to do what he is doing. In the Epistle reading (Philippians 2:1-13), Paul tells the Philippians that it is God who has given Jesus authority over everything in heaven and on earth and under the earth. And in the OT reading (Exodus 17: 1-7), the Israelites question the authority of Moses to lead them through the wilderness when they find no water at the oasis of Rephidim.

This question about who has authority in the congregation of the faithful, and from whence it comes, has troubled people of every religion, not just Christians and Jews, but others too. This is why every faith is divided into competing antagonistic sects, I think.

So let’s examine what we can learn from todays readings, and see how we might apply it to our own circumstances today.

The background to the Gospel reading is this.

The previous day, Jesus had ridden on a donkey into Jerusalem in triumph to the cheers of the crowd, many of whom hoped that he was the promised Messiah. He had entered the Temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers, and quoting from scripture, he had declared, ‘It is written, my house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers’. In this way he directly confronts the authority of the chief priests and the elders, and they are furious. Jesus threatens their power and authority, and they begin to plan how to do away with him.

Now, they ask Jesus a trick question, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ If he claims the authority of the Messiah, they will charge him with blasphemy. If he doesn’t, he will disappoint the crowd, making it easier for the Temple leaders to move against him in another way. But Jesus spots the trap. He tells them he will not answer their question until they answer a question of his: ‘Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ The chief priests and elders see that if they reply ‘from heaven’, Jesus will accuse them of not believing in John’s baptism, while if they reply ‘of human origin’, they will incense the crowd who believe John was a prophet. Caught in this dilemma they say, ‘We do not know’, justifying Jesus in his refusal to answer their question.

In his epistle to the Philippians, St Paul answers those who query the authority of Jesus.

Let us hear his words again:

‘Christ Jesus … though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

For Paul, the answer to the chief priests’ and elders’ question about the authority of Jesus flows from his divine nature and complete obedience to God, even to the point of crucifixion. Paul’s words are really a creed, one of the earliest statements of Christian faith that we know about.

In the Old Testament reading Moses faces a crisis of confidence among the Israelites.

They challenge his authority to lead them when they fail to find water for themselves and their flocks in the arid wastes of Sinai. Moses recognises that their quarrel is not just with him, but with the Lord, their God.

The Israelites seem to have forgotten how God through Moses had led them away from Egypt through the Red Sea, and how God had already provided them with food when they were starving by sending bread from heaven in the form of manna, as we heard last week. But despite their persistent lack of faith, God himself is faithful, and once again comes to their aid by sending Moses to strike the rock at Horeb with his staff – the staff with which he parted the Red Sea – to reveal a spring of water.

In this way God shows the elders of Israel that Moses is the agent of God’s care for his people, so confirming Moses’ authority to lead the people.

The issues which sadly divide us as Christians have at their root this question of authority, where it comes from, and how we may recognise it.

The second part of the Gospel reading is relevant here, Jesus’s parable about the two sons. The father asks them both to go to work in the vineyard. The first refuses, but later changes his mind and does as he is asked. The second agrees to go, but never does. Which did the will of the father? The first of course, the chief priests and elders agree. Then Jesus turns their answer into a cutting indictment of their own refusal to respond to John the Baptist’s ministry. The outcasts and marginalised – tax-collectors and prostitutes – who responded to John, will enter God’s kingdom before the religious leaders, who didn’t respond.

The truth is that all authority comes from God, our loving Father, and belongs to those who hear his call and act upon it. Anyone who hears the call, but does not act on it is useless. 

But how do we know when such a call is truly of God and not a false call? Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel (7:15-16), Jesus warns us to beware of false prophets, and tells us how we may recognise them: ‘You will know them by their fruits’.

This is the test each one of us should apply when we must decide whether or not to accept a person's authority in the congregation of the faithful. For, as St Paul advised the Philippians, we must ‘work out (our) own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in (us), enabling (us) both to will and to work for his good pleasure’.

As a diocesan reader I have been entrusted with a small measure of authority to lead worship and to preach the word within this diocese.

This ministry is a great privilege which I enjoy. But where does this authority entrusted to me come from?

This is my story. During a parish vacancy, when sometimes there was no priest to lead worship, I realised that this was something that I could do, and I felt called to offer myself. The new Rector encouraged me and began to train me, and later I had informal sessions with the Archdeacon. Nowadays training is more formal, involving an 18 month part-time course, which those who have taken it, as John Jarvis in your own congregation has, tell me is very worthwhile. The Warden of Readers then recognised my vocation to reader ministry, and recommended me to the Bishop, who commissioned me as a diocesan reader in a service in my parish.

So it is the Bishop who has given me the authority to lead worship and preach, after a period of training and discernment. But ultimately it is up to you, through the power of God at work in you, to decide whether or not to accept my authority to minister as being blessed by God.

The Sunday before last was marked by the church as ‘Vocation Sunday’, where we were asked to consider how God is calling us. Maybe someone here today feels called to reader ministry as I was, and as John Jarvis was. If so, I would heartily encourage you to follow it up, by talking to Dean Rod about it in the first instance. I can assure you it is a most rewarding ministry, and it is one that is increasingly needed.

 

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

 

Address given at Killodiernan Church on Monday 31st August 2020, 
the feast of St Aidan of Lindisfarne.

Statue of St Aidan in front of Lindisfarne Priory


Today we remember St Aidan of Lindisfarne, whose feast day falls on the 31st August, the anniversary of his death in 651AD. Most of what we know about him we owe to the Venerable Bede, from his great history of the English church and people, completed in about 731AD. 

Bede tells us that Aidan was born in Ireland and became a monk of the island monastery of Iona, founded by St Columba. The future King Oswald of Northumbria was fostered in exile and baptised there. The Anglo-Saxon people of Northumbria still followed their ancient pagan religion, but when Oswald gained the crown of Northumbria in 634AD he vowed to convert his kingdom to Christianity. He asked the Abbot of Iona to send him a missionary bishop. The Abbot sent a bishop called Cormán, but he alienated the Northumbrians by his harshness and returned to Iona in failure. The Abbot then chose Aidan and sent him to Oswald with twelve other monks.

Aidan was quite different to his predecessor, an inspired missionary. He allied himself with King Oswald, and chose the tidal island of Lindisfarne to be the seat of his monastery and diocese, in sight of Oswald’s royal castle at Bamburgh. Bede tells us that Aidan chose to walk around the kingdom from one village to the next on foot, rather than horseback, talking politely with all he met and bit by bit interesting them in Christianity. Until Aidan and his monks learned English, King Oswald, who was fluent in Irish from his time on Iona, often had to translate for them.

Aidan earned a terrific reputation among the people for his pious charity and care for orphans. The monastery he founded on Lindisfarne grew and became a centre of learning and scholarly knowledge, where many young men were trained for the priesthood. Aidan founded daughter monasteries, churches and schools throughout the kingdom, so that by the time of his death the church was firmly established throughout Northumbria.

The English church that Aidan founded in the North of England, like Iona, followed the traditions of the Irish church in such matters as how to calculate the date of Easter. But the church that Pope Gregory the Great sent St Augustine to found in the South of England at Canterbury followed different Roman traditions. This caused problems in Northumbria. The Queen, the daughter of a southern king, sometimes celebrated Easter at the same time that the King was still fasting during Lent. The differences were finally resolved after Aidan’s death at the Synod of Whitby in 664AD, when the then King of Northumberland decreed that his kingdom should follow the Roman traditions.

My wife Marty and I enjoyed a day on Lindisfarne a few years ago, crossing the causeway early in the morning just before it was shut by the incoming tide, so we avoided the usual throng of visiting tourists. We found it an inspiring, peaceful, prayerful place. We toured the remains of the later medieval Priory. We wandered the lanes of the village. We joined the daily prayer of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, and we shared lunch with Ray Simpson, its founding Guardian. The Community of Aidan and Hilda is a dispersed ecumenical community drawing inspiration from the lives of the Celtic Saints, a bit like an elder sister of our own Community of Brendan the Navigator.

St Aidan of Lindisfarne is remembered to this day as ‘the apostle to the English’, alongside St Augustine of Canterbury. It is right that we should celebrate him as a hero of the Christian faith, and give thanks for the success of his mission to Northumberland.


Sunday, 30 August 2020

Finding life by losing it.

Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 30th August 2020, the 12th after Trinity.

‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block for me!’

What a shock it must have been for Peter to hear Jesus address him in these cutting words, as recorded by Matthew (16:21-28) in the reading we have just heard.

Peter had been the first to say, ‘You are the Messiah’, when Jesus had asked ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But now, ‘Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem … and be killed. Peter is shocked by Jesus’s words. Like most Jews of his day, he expected the promised Messiah to come as a great conqueror to destroy the gentiles – including the hated Romans - and to rule over a revived Kingdom of Israel. The Messiah would vanquish his foes, not be killed by them! So Peter remonstrates with Jesus: ‘Look here, Jesus, that can’t be right!’ he says - or words to that effect. Then Jesus turns on Peter and calls him Satan.

Why was Jesus so hard on Peter, his great friend and disciple? Jesus knew that God’s way was not the way of violent earthly conquest, but the way of self-sacrificing love. He needed to teach Peter and the other disciples to change their thinking. I feel sure Jesus didn’t want to die a painful death, but he must have realised this was the inevitable outcome of what God called him to do. He was determined to face it bravely. But Peter tries to argue him out of it, in an echo of Satan tempting him in the wilderness.

Isn’t this often the way it is? When we’ve made up our minds what is the right thing to do, even at a cost to ourselves, our friends and loved ones may try to talk us out of it. The tempter can be the very person dearest to us! Yet we must not allow even the pleading voice of love to stop us from doing God’s will. This surely is what Jesus felt that day – no wonder he responded as he did.

Jesus immediately seized the moment to show the disciples his way, the way of the cross, how to find life by losing it. It is worth reflecting on his words, which go to the very heart of our Christian faith.

 If any want to become my followers’, says Jesus, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Jesus’s honesty is startling isn’t it? No one can ever say Jesus lures his disciples to follow him on false pretences! He does not offer them – or us - an easy life or a comfortable way to God. Like other great leaders, he calls us as Churchill did to ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. But again like a real leader, he does not call us to do anything more than he was prepared to do himself.

First Jesus calls us to ‘deny ourselves’, to say no to our own selfish instincts. We must do God’s will, not our own will, to the best of our ability, in all things.

But more than simply practicing self-denial, Jesus tells us we must be prepared to take real risks – even to risk our very lives – if that is what God, through our conscience and the prompting of the Spirit, tells us is right.

For those who want to save their life will lose it’, says Jesus, ‘and those who lose their life for my sake, will find it.

Jesus focuses our attention with this great paradox: to save life is to lose it, and vice-versa.

The very essence of life is in risking it and spending it, not in saving it and hoarding it. If we live selfishly, always thinking first of our own security, profit and comfort, not of others, then we are losing life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we follow Jesus’s way of loving self-sacrifice, we are winning life all the time.

The truth is that the only way we can find a life that matters is by losing it in the love of God and the love of our neighbours. That is the way of Jesus, that is the way of God, and that is the way of happiness too.

For what will it profit them’, says Jesus, ‘if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

I’m sure you, like me, can think of people who are outwardly hugely successful, but who in another sense are living a life that is not worth living. In business, they may have sacrificed honour for profit. In politics, they may have sacrificed principle for popularity. In their personal lives, they may have sacrificed their deepest relationships for their own ambitions or desires. Whatever the reason, such people are usually not comfortable inside their own skin, and often live to regret their bad choices. We have been watching a few squirm on the media over recent days.

It is a matter of values really - Jesus is asking us where our values lie. As he says elsewhere, you should store up your treasures in heaven, not on earth, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Our values should be God’s values, as Jesus reveals them to us, not the false values of worldly success.

‘For the Son of Man’, says Jesus, is to come with his angels in the glory of the Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.

Jesus knows that many people do not like what he says nor how he behaves. He stands up for the poor, the despised and the rejected, and he befriends sinners. And the scribes and the Pharisees – the pious and the respectable - attack him for it. But Jesus also knows that he is doing God’s will.

With these words Jesus warns his disciples that in the end they will be judged before him for what they have done, both the good and the bad.

It is a simple truth: we cannot expect to share with Jesus the joy of shaping the world into the place God means it to be, if we are not prepared to act on his message of loving self-sacrifice.

So to sum up, when I reflect on these words recorded by Matthew, I hear Jesus’s voice calling me down through the ages:

·         calling me to be ready to take risks to do God’s will, rather than my own;

·         calling me to find true life and happiness by losing my life in the service of God and others;

·         calling me to live my life by God’s values, not the false values of worldly success.

·         calling me to follow joyfully, Jesus’s way of loving self-sacrifice.

Let us pray for the grace to respond to Jesus’s call:

O God,

whose Son has shown the way of the cross

to be the way of life:

transform and renew our minds

that we may not be conformed to this world

but may offer ourselves wholly to you

as a living sacrifice

through Jesus Christ our Saviour;

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen

 

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Clean and unclean

 Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 16th August 2020, the 10th after Trinity.


‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’, as surely we all heard as children.

A lot of people think this proverb must come from the Bible, since the Bible has so much to say about cleanliness, but it does not. The idea behind it can be traced back to the Babylonians, to the earliest civilisations we know of. And the first known use of the phrase in English is in a sermon by John Wesley from as late as 1778.

As we learn to live with Covid-19, we realise just how important cleanliness is to our health and the health of our communities. If we are to beat the virus, we must avoid contaminating ourselves and others. Among other things we must wash our hands frequently. In particular, we ought to do so before we leave our homes, in case we are infected, to lower the risk of spreading the virus to other people. And we ought to do so again when we return home from public places, to lower the risk of bringing the virus into our households from outside. We must also for the time being avoid close physical contact with our neighbours, even in our churches.

For Jews of Jesus’s time ceremonial cleanliness was truly next to godliness. Jewish law forbade anyone who was unclean from approaching God in worship, and such a person would be shunned by all pious Jews.

They believed that a person or thing was made unclean by contact with a wide range of things, from a mouse to a pig, to a dead body, a menstruating woman, or a gentile. And this uncleanliness was, so to speak, infectious. If a mouse touched a pot, the pot became unclean and anything put in it became unclean. Anyone who touched or ate anything from the pot became unclean. And anyone who touched such an unclean person became unclean themselves.

No doubt these ideas had their roots in sensible and practical hygiene. But by the time of Jesus religious leaders had elaborated them into a complicated system of religious law to purify unclean things to make them clean. This included ritual washing of hands before meals. For the scribes and Pharisees, following the correct washing rituals had become as important as keeping every other aspect of the Jewish Law, including the Ten Commandments.

This is the background to today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 15:10-28).

A party of scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem has just challenged Jesus, saying ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’  He chides them, calling them hypocrites, for insisting people obey the details of a man-made tradition while ignoring the spirit of God’s law expressed in the Ten Commandments.

Then, in the first part of today’s reading, he turns to the crowd telling them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out that defiles’.

As he explains to Peter, ‘What ever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer. But what comes from the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.’

In other words, Jesus says, what matters to God is not our ritual observance, but the state of our hearts, which may lead us to do wrong. No wonder the Pharisees took offence! If Jesus is right, their whole theory of religion is wrong, their rules and regulations about purity have nothing to do with being righteous before God. Instead God requires them to look inside themselves, to control those human impulses which might lead to bad deeds, which might lead them into sin.

We Christians don’t have rituals to purify ourselves as many religions do, including modern Jews, Muslims and Hindus.

Though that doesn’t mean we don’t have taboos – I’ve yet to see horse on the menu in Ireland!

But we have built up great edifices of ritual and tradition over time, as all religions have.

No doubt ritual and tradition can be helpful – but only to the extent to which they help us look into our hearts and strive to live as God intends us to live, loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves. In today’s reading Jesus teaches us that we must not let our rituals and traditions get in the way of this. But unfortunately disputes between Christians about ritual and tradition all too often do just that.

Details of ritual and tradition keep Christians of different denominations from recognising each other’s baptism, or from sharing in the Lord’s Supper. And our Anglican Communion is threatened by schism over disputes about the ordination of women, the acceptability of homosexual behaviour, and equal marriage.

Christians engaging in such disputes should, I think, reflect on Jesus’s teaching in today’s Gospel. What matters is the state of a person’s heart, and the deeds it prompts, not their ritual observance and tradition.

And all who claim to be Christians should reflect on Jesus’s advice on how to deal with Pharisees. ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.’, he says. ‘Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into the pit.’ In other words, leave it to God to deal with those who we think are mistaken.

When we conscientiously disagree about what is right or wrong, we should not try to bludgeon our opponents into accepting our view. We must do what our God given conscience and reason tell us is right. But we should leave those with whom we disagree to go their own way. If they are mistaken, if they are ‘the blind leading the blind’, our heavenly Father will deal with them in his own way.

As he will deal with us if we are mistaken!

I shall finish in prayer

God our loving Father,

grant us wisdom to distinguish right from wrong.

May our hearts bring forth only what is righteous in your sight,

and make us agents of your peace,

spreading good news for all people.

We pray in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.