Sunday, 5 December 2021

John the Baptist

 An address given at Templederry and St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 5th December 2021, the 2nd Sunday of Advent

As I dodge the potholes on North Tipperary boreens, I often pray that the County Council would take to heart the words of Isaiah we’ve just heard Luke quote in his Gospel (Luke 3:1-6):

"Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;”

Joking aside, today I want to focus on John the son of Zechariah, the subject of today’s gospel reading. There are 3 questions I shall try to answer:

                 i.    Who was he?

               ii.    What was his teaching? and

             iii.    How is it relevant for us today?

So, firstly, what do we know about John the son of Zechariah?

Quite a bit, in fact - and not just from the Gospels. Josephus the 1st Cent Jewish historian is an independent source, who says more about John than he does about Jesus. John was a real person, not just a character in the gospel story. Notice how firmly Luke places John in his historical context.

He is the person we familiarly call John the Baptist. But Orthodox Christians call him John the Forerunner. This is quite as it should be, because the gospel writers and the early church saw him as the forerunner of the Messiah, foretold by Old Testament prophets including Isaiah.

Within the gospels, Luke tells us the most. He weaves the story of John’s birth in with that of Jesus. At the very beginning of his gospel, he tells us about John’s parents, a priest called Zechariah and Elizabeth his wife: both good, pious people, but getting on in years and childless. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to tell him that Elizabeth will bear a son to be named John, who will be a great spiritual leader. Zechariah doesn’t believe Gabriel and is struck dumb, but Elizabeth does indeed conceive.

Elizabeth is a relative of Mary the mother of Jesus. Six months later, after Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her she will give birth to Jesus, Mary rushes off to visit Elizabeth. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, the baby John leaps for joy in her womb, and Mary responds in the words of the canticle we know as the Magnificat.

In due course, Elizabeth bears her son, whom Elizabeth and Zechariah duly name John. Zechariah’s speech returns, and he gives thanks in the beautiful canticle we know as the Benedictus, which we used as our psalm today. It echoes the OT prophesies:

And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest,
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation unto his people,
for the remission of their sins.

All 4 of the gospel writers tell us how John, now grown up, goes out into the barren desert country by the Jordan, calling on the crowds who followed him to repent, and baptising them as a sign of their repentance. The background to all this was a great popular religious revival: many people were convinced that the Messiah of prophesy was about to appear, and they were urgently looking for signs that this was so. As we all know, Jesus went to John to be baptised, and John recognised him - not surprisingly since they were cousins.

John was just as blunt and bold a preacher as any of the Old Testament prophets before him. He was bound to run into trouble with the authorities. And he did. He upset Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch or King of Galilee, who ordered him to be arrested, and later beheaded. Josephus says he had John killed ‘to prevent any mischief he might cause’.

Let’s now turn to examine John the Baptist’s teaching.

In today’s gospel passage, Luke says that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. In the following passage, which we will hear next Sunday, he goes on to outline John’s teaching. Three points stand out for me:

 i.    All the gospel writers are clear that John never claims to be the Messiah, but believes that he is the forerunner. Luke puts these words in his mouth: I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

ii.    John is what we might call a hellfire preacher. Luke quotes him saying: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. () Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’. John seeks to shock the crowds into repentance by terrifying them with the consequences if they don’t. Then he seals their repentance by immersing them in water to symbolise that they are washed clean of sin. His preaching must have been very effective, judging by the crowds he gathered.

iii.    But John’s message is about much more than just hell fire. He calls for social justice. Quoting Luke again, he says: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. And he calls for people, even tax collectors and soldiers, to do whatever work they do fairly and not extort more than their due. No price gouging!

So what relevance does John the Baptist and his teaching have for us today?

Luke saw John the Baptist as the hinge on which salvation history turns, the forerunner promised by the prophets, making straight the way for Jesus the Messiah. It is difficult for us to see the world as Luke and his contemporaries did, through the prism of scriptural prophecy. And we deeply distrust fundamentalists who see it that way today.

But that world view empowered the early church to respond to Jesus’s message, no matter what the cost. Without it, the church would never have survived, and we would not be Christians today. The mysterious working of the Holy Spirit through prophecy is something we should celebrate.

Few Christian preachers nowadays stir up hellfire in their sermons, as they once did - and not so very long ago. We have become uncomfortable with the idea of the wrath of God. Instead it is ecologists and scientists who have been leading denunciations of our foolish and wicked trashing of this beautiful, God-given planet from secular pulpits, as David Attenborough did only a month ago at the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow – you probably saw him on the TV.

Now more and more people are hearing the call to protect our planet, and are starting to act upon it. Christians are to the forefront. Our Anglican Communion has adopted as the 5th mark of mission, ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth’. Pope Francis has given us a clarion call in his encyclical Laudato ‘Si. In the run up to COP26, Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Justin Welby, in an unprecedented joint statement, have warned of the urgency of environmental sustainability. And here in Ireland, Eco Congregation Ireland is spearheading the movement.

I hazard a prophecy, that we will hear more and more John-like hellfire from our Christian pulpits, as the ecological catastrophe of climate change intensifies. Why? Because we should be terrified of the wrath to come predicted by the scientists. That should bring us to repentance. And we should seal that repentance by mending our ways!

And as we mend our ways, we must also try to live out John’s social gospel, to share the good things we have received with our neighbours of every faith and race, at home and abroad. Mé féin is a road to perdition in our shrinking, globalised world. We must do so because this is not only the gospel of John, but the Gospel of Jesus, who empowers us by baptism not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire!

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word

God of our salvation,
you straighten the winding ways of our hearts
and smooth the paths made rough by sin:
keep our hearts watchful in holiness,
and bring to perfection the good you have begun in us.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose Day draws near,
your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Friday, 12 November 2021

Reflecting on COP26


 A reflection at morning worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 9th November 2021

We’ve been hearing a cacophony of voices in the media about the UN COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow, which continue this week. More or less vague promises of action in the future, often made by leaders whose word we do not trust. Diplomatic manoeuvres by states and multinationals determined not to be stuck with stranded assets. Competing commentaries, some spinning the success of the negotiations, others bewailing their failure. ‘Blah, blah, blah’, to quote Greta Thunberg. But what we all surely understand by now is that urgent, coordinated, global action is imperative to protect life on this beautiful living planet God has placed us on.

I suggest that the reading we have just heard from the Gospel of Mark (12:38-44) has much to teach us about how as Christians we should navigate our way through the verbiage.

Jesus warns his followers to ‘Beware of the scribes’. The scribes were lawyers, highly educated professionals, who enjoyed great privilege and status in Jewish society, as lawyers still do in ours. Yet many had a reputation for greed, for charging exorbitant fees for their services. For instance, as an executor of a will, their charges could sometimes consume the bulk of the estate. ‘They devour widows’ houses’, is the way Jesus puts it. But, he says, ‘They will receive the greater condemnation’. They will be damned.

The national and business leaders meeting at COP26 enjoy great privilege and status in our globalised world. Those who do not take effective action against climate change and the environmental crisis are the greedy scribes of today. We must beware of them. God will hold to account those who continue to exploit fossil fuels, who destroy forests and other natural habitats. They may seem invincible to us now, but their greed and false promises will be exposed. Future generations will damn their names.

If the results of COP26 prove to be weak, we may be tempted to despair. We may feel that there is nothing we can do in the face of massive carbon emissions and environmental damage. But we should learn from the action of the poor but generous widow. Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on’. She is a model of faithful action by ordinary, modest, little people of the world.

If we allow despair to prevent us from taking even small actions, the catastrophic future we fear is what we, our children, and our children’s children will have to endure. We must ask ourselves what things, however small, each one of us can do to help avert disaster, or to support those already suffering from the environmental crisis. And we must act on the answers we find in our hearts.

We cannot know the results of our efforts, but as Christians we must strive to respond faithfully to the call to protect God’s planet. Our faithful God will respond to our faith. By his grace, others will be inspired to join with us, and that will inspire yet more to act. Positive change will begin to happen. It will grow and it will spread in a great wave of hope for a better future.

In the midst of COP26, and beyond it, we must be faithful, we need to be hopeful. We must pray for the success of COP26, and for leaders making difficult decisions in response to the climate emergency. And we must pray that the Holy Spirit will show each one of us what actions to take personally to care for God’s planet as we should.



Tuesday, 12 October 2021

St Philip the Deacon

A reflection at morning worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 12th October 2021.

Philip the Deacon proclaiming the good news to the Ethiopian eunuch

 (icon written by Ann Chapin)

Yesterday was the feast day of Philip the Deacon, a contemporary of the apostles and St Paul. And we remember him today. He is not to be confused with the Apostle Philip. Philip the Deacon helped the apostles to administer the alms of the growing church in Jerusalem, and when that church suffered persecution, he became a travelling evangelist first in Samaria, and then along the Mediterranean coast of Palestine. His name tells us that he was Greek speaking, a Hellenised Jew, which must have been a great advantage in his work away from the Aramaic speaking Jewish heartlands.

There is an ancient tradition that he was one of the seventy disciples whom Jesus sent out in pairs to proclaim the good news. But the first we hear of him in the New Testament is when he is appointed as one of seven deacons, along with Stephen and five others, to help the apostles to administer the growing church, so that they could concentrate on spiritual leadership. The epithet ‘deacon’ derives from the Greek word for ‘helper’. It must have been a very sensitive job, since Greek speaking Christians were starting to complain that they were being neglected by Hebrew speaking Christians in the distribution of alms.

The church in Jerusalem suffered pogroms after the martyrdom of Philip’s fellow deacon Stephen. Most Christians fled from the city, leaving the apostles in Jerusalem. Philip went first to Samaria, where he worked as a travelling evangelist, with great success, we are told. 

Then, as today’s reading tells us, he was inspired to travel to the South, toward Gaza, where he encountered the ‘Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians’. These people were probably not from Ethiopia as we know it today, but from the Kingdom of Kush in Nubia, South of Egypt, which at that time was governed by queens with the title Candace. Philip’s exposition of a text from Isaiah, from which he proclaimed the good news about Jesus, so impressed the eunuch that there and then, he asked Philip to baptise him, which Philip did. How lovely it would be if the eunuch’s conversion and baptism could be seen as the origin of the Ethiopian Church. While this is not impossible, historians tell us that the Ethiopian church dates only from the 4th Century AD.

Immediately after the baptism, we are told, ‘The Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away’ to a place called Azotus, which is identified with Ashdod, a town on the coast close to Gaza. From there Philip travelled North up the coast, ‘proclaim(ing) the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea’, a port town between modern Tel Aviv and Haifa. He must have settled in Caesarea, because the Acts of the Apostles reports that many years later St Paul and his companions stayed there with ‘Philip the evangelist, one of the seven’ on his way to Jerusalem. It adds the detail that Philip had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.

What a career Philip had! Guided by the Spirit he served and nurtured the growing church in many different ways, as the need arose. It is good to remember him, and all he achieved, because he is one of the heroes of the primitive church, a model for all who serve the Church as deacons. As we travel our own pilgrim paths through this world, may his story encourage us to continue proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.


Sunday, 10 October 2021

Through the eye of the needle

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan church on Sunday 10th October 2021, the 19th after Trinity

Do you know how to catch a greedy monkey?

First take a jar with an opening a little larger than the monkey's hand. Attach the jar to something that can't be moved, like this pulpit. Then put something in the jar that the monkey wants – a sweet, perhaps. The monkey reaches in, grabs the treat, but with his hand full, he can't get his hand out of the opening. He's so greedy he won't let go – you have him trapped!

The man in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:17-31) is rather like the monkey, isn’t he? He had asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” - ‘Jesus, looking at him’, we are told, ‘loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.’

I think the man is a failed apostle. He received the same call to leave everything and follow Jesus that Peter and the rest of the Twelve did. Jesus loved him and must have seen his potential. But the man was trapped, trapped by all his possessions, and he could not respond to Jesus.

 What should we learn from this man’s story?

Should we all, perhaps, do what this man couldn’t do – sell all our possessions, give the money to charity, and follow Jesus in holy poverty?

Just imagine what would happen if everybody did that. Prices would immediately crash. The economy would come to a grinding halt. And as ever the weak would suffer the worst consequences.

No, the fact is that Jesus calls each one of us uniquely, personally. He does not call us all to be or to do the same thing. He calls some to follow him in holy poverty, as he called his twelve apostles, as he called others through the centuries like St Francis of Assisi, and as perhaps he calls some today. But very few of us are called to be apostles.

Rather each one of us should practice listening attentively for Jesus to reveal our personal call, through prayer, through our conscience and through the working of the Holy Spirit. And we should pray that when we hear Jesus call, we will be able to respond.

Jesus goes on to reflect on how wealth and possessions can cut us off from God.

“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” he says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

What a knack Jesus has for vivid, humorous images! – once heard, no one ever forgets this image of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle, as a metaphor for human impossibility.

Almost all of us here in Ireland are rich compared to most on the planet. Surely we must all sit up and take notice of these words of Jesus, whatever else our personal call might be.

The trouble, I think, is not wealth and possessions in themselves; it is how we use them - and how we allow them to use us. They are God’s good gifts, but it is all too easy for us to allow them to close our ears to Jesus’s call, preventing us from being the people God wants us to be – in other words preventing us from entering the kingdom of God. We must always be prepared to surrender wealth and possessions back to God, or to give it away to others, if that is necessary to do God’s will.

Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, coined the slogan ‘To be rich is glorious’

Doesn’t that sum up the false values of our consumer capitalist society? We share those values with other modern industrial societies, including supposedly Communist China.

Advertising encourages us to want more and more stuff we don’t need. We run around in circles to get the money to buy it, at the expense of our health, our communities, and our families. And we consume it and finally throw it away, damaging our environment in the process. Yet we are no happier for doing so! Meanwhile, the owners of capital seek to increase their wealth, and if they cannot find a profitable investment hide it away in off-shore accounts. We are on a treadmill leading us to the despair that Job expressed in the 1st reading (Job 23:1-9,16-17): ‘If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!’

We all know this kind of collective madness cannot go on - unless we are peculiarly deaf and blind. People made in God’s image are being hurt. God’s planet is being trashed. Humanity’s greed is damaging the beautiful life filled planet God has placed us on. This cannot be God’s will. The Holy Spirit is speaking very clearly, and our consciences must tell us this is wrong. Now, surely, we need as a society to discard the false values, to surrender our greedy dreams of riches.

Jesus tells us that it is almost impossible for us to enter God's kingdom while we hold on to our riches. But how hard it is to let them go! “Then who can be saved?” say the disciples to one another. “For mortals” – that’s men and women like you and me – “it is impossible”, says Jesus, “but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

The author of our 2nd reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews (4:12-16), urges us to listen to the living, active word of God, and to trust in Jesus, the Son of God. ‘Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,’ he says, ‘so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’.

This surely is what we must do to escape from the treadmill of riches. We must pray that God will show us how to live more abundantly with less, how to heal our damaged earth, how to rekindle community, and how to serve fundamental human need instead of worshiping greed.

I shall finish with a Collect of the Word.

Merciful God,
in your Son you call not the righteous but sinners to repentance;
draw us away from the easy road that leads to destruction,
and guide us into paths that lead to life abundant,
that in seeking your truth, and obeying your will,
we may know the joy of being a disciple of Jesus our Saviour,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Hope amidst climate chaos

 Reflection at Morning Prayer for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 14th September 2021

Creation Time 2021

In the reading from Proverbs 1:20-33, we have just heard the voice of Wisdom, personified as a woman, raising her voice in the public square, crying out from the city walls and at the city gate, rebuking the people of a great city. If the people do not listen, says Wisdom, ‘the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them’.

Theologians, who always like to argue, disagree about the nature of Wisdom. Is she the mouth-piece of the Holy Spirit? Is her voice that of the as yet unborn Christ? But we can surely all agree her voice comes from God.

Today the prophetic voices of climate scientists and ecologists are calling out to us in the public square and the media, the modern equivalent of the city walls, to warn us that we must urgently change the way we live. Theirs is surely the voice of Wisdom in our own times. We must live sustainably within the resources of this good earth, or suffer the consequences. Unless we stop burning fossil fuels, our children and grandchildren will experience climate chaos – the droughts and fires, storms and floods of the last months are only the foretaste of what they will experience. If we continue to carelessly destroy the delicate web of life on this beautiful planet, there will not be enough food for all, many will starve, and the beautiful diversity of living creatures, which feeds our spirits, will be snuffed out.

Human nature is greedy, and our whole society is shaped by market capitalism, which generates ever greater consumption – the antithesis of sustainability. Will it be possible for human-kind to change course in time to prevent disaster?

The barriers to change are immense, and time is very short. It would be all too easy to lose hope. But that would lead to inaction, and bring about the disaster we fear. As Christians we are people of hope, people who rejoice in the good news, people who believe that the kingdom of God is at hand. The voice of Wisdom in Proverbs promises, ‘Whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm’. We must listen to that voice of hope.

And there are signs of hope. More and more ordinary people are listening to the wisdom of scientists. Governments around the world are beginning to take action. They will come together in October in Yunnan, China for the UN Biodiversity Conference, and in November in Glasgow at the COP26 UN Climate Conference.

At the start of Creation Time 2021, Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a rare joint message, called on us to pray for world leaders as they prepare to meet, and to consider what choices we all must make. ‘We call on everyone’, they say, ‘whatever their belief or worldview, to endeavour to listen to the cry of the earth and of people who are poor, examining their behaviour and pledging meaningful sacrifices for the sake of the earth which God has given us.’

Let us join them in prayer:

We pray for the good earth which God has given us, and for the wisdom and will to conserve it.

We pray for the world leaders preparing to meet in Glasgow at the COP26 climate change conference in November, and in October at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Yunnan.

Grant them the wisdom to take the hard decisions before them.

And inspire us all to make meaningful sacrifices for the sake of the planet,

working together and taking responsibility for how we use our resources.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen


Sunday, 29 August 2021

My Beloved

 

Today’s OT reading from the Song of Solomon(2:8-13) is beautifully romantic, isn’t it?

It is a passionate, poetic dialogue between two lovers:

·         The one cries out, “(I hear) the voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.

·         The other responds, “‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.’”

Nothing can persuade me that this is about anything but the physical desire the couple have for one another – they are lovers, and they are in love. Which is why my wife Marty and I chose this passage, sharing the voices between us, at a service in Killodiernan Church to bless and celebrate our marriage, a quarter of a century ago.

But, you may ask, why should such passionate love poetry be read in church? Indeed, why should the ‘Song of Solomon’ be included in our Bible at all, since God is not mentioned in it even once? The early church chose to view this Jewish text as an allegory for the love between God and his people. Later Christians read it as an allegory of the love of Christ for his Church. And we may do so too.

But I prefer to see the inclusion of the Song of Solomon in our Bible as a sanctification of passionate human love, a recognition that it is a holy thing, inspired I feel sure by the Holy Spirit.

In our 2nd reading, James addresses his audience as ‘my beloved’, which no doubt explains why the lectionary pairs it with this reading from the Song of Solomon. ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above’, says James ‘coming down from the Father of lights.’ The essence of passionate human love is surely the generous giving by lovers of themselves, one to the other. Such love is a perfect gift from God. Without it, loving, stable human families would not be possible.

Let us look at today’s 2nd reading (James 1:17-27) a bit more closely.

The author identifies himself as ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’, and he is writing to ‘the twelve tribes scattered abroad’. It is traditionally attributed to James the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just. St Paul describes him as ‘one of the pillars of the church’ in Jerusalem. James remains in Jerusalem and writes to Jewish Christians in the diaspora, at the same time as Paul travels among and writes to Gentile Christians.

It is God’s good purpose, says James, to ‘(give) us birth by the word of truth’. I am reminded of the opening words of John’s Gospel: ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’.

‘So that’, James continues, ‘we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures’.When we offer the first fruits of the harvest to God, we intend them to be the best of the good things he has graced us with. And similarly, God intends us, through the word of truth he has given us in Jesus, to be the best people we can be. James pleads with those he writes to, and to us: ‘Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’.

‘Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger’, says James, ‘for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness’. There is a great deal of anger about just now, isn’t there? And not just anger about secular things. For instance, Christians who disagree about how to respond to God’s word in the way they treat the LGBT community are furious with each other, even in our own Church of Ireland. But James tells us that such anger is unproductive, it does not produce positive results. Instead, we should respond to God’s word with meekness, with humility, not use it to bludgeon each other in argument.

But our meekness must not result in passivity. We should ‘be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves’, says James, ‘Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers  - they will be blessed in their doing’.

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this, says James: ‘to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world’. Listening to God’s word in church on Sunday is worthless – worthless - if it does not cause us to act upon it. Our response must be twofold.

·         First, we must generously support the poor and the marginalised – and for me that includes our LGBT brothers and sisters. If not, we deserve the rebuke that Jesus gives to the Pharisees and scribes in the 3rd reading (Mark7:1-8,14-15,21-23): ‘You (are) hypocrites. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’.

·         Second, we must resist the pressures of the world to be complicit in evil. We must guard and discipline our hearts as well, for as Jesus teaches us, ‘It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person’.

I finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:

Cleanse our consciences, O Lord,
and enlighten our hearts
through the daily presence of your Son Jesus Christ,
that when he comes in glory to be our judge
we may be found undefiled and acceptable in his sight;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

 

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Wisdom for children

Address given to children at the Family Service in St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 15th August 2021, the 11th after Trinity.

Children, I’m going to talk to you today. I hope you will pay attention. I'm delighted to see so many of you here, and you are truly welcome. Those of you who are grown up can listen in, and perhaps some of what I say may also mean something to you. So, children, are you paying attention?

The readings we have heard today are both about wisdom – what it means to be a wise person. So I’m going to talk about being wise.

But first I’m going to tell you a story about one of my daughters. I’m glad she is not here because if she were, she might be embarrassed by what I’m going to say. When she was a little girl of 6, she was playing with her friends in the school playground as she waited for her mother to pick her up to go home. The playground was surrounded by iron railings. I don’t know why – perhaps she was dared – but she squeezed her head through the iron railings. And what do you think happened?

Her head got stuck! And however much she squirmed and wriggled, she couldn’t get her head out – her ears got in the way. Parents and teachers came to help her, pushing her head up and down, and round and about, until it started to hurt, but she was stuck fast. Eventually the headmaster sent for the fire brigade. They brought a special tool called a jack to push the bars apart, and so she was set free. Do you think she was a silly girl?

Well it was certainly a silly thing to do...

What does it mean to be wise? My dictionary tells me that it is ‘the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions’. In other words, before you decide to do something, you think carefully about what the result would be, and you only do it if you believe it is right, if it helps people and doesn’t hurt anybody - including yourself.

In the first reading (1Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14), God asked Solomon what gift he would like to be given. Solomon could have asked for anything he wanted, wealth, fame, and so on. But Solomon asked God for an understanding mind, able to see the difference between good and evil. In other words, Solomon asked God to make him wise. This pleased God, who gave him the gift of wisdom, but also promised him riches and honour, and long life if he followed God’s commandments. The lesson we should learn from this is that God wants us to be wise like Solomon, and that if we are, we will receive other blessings too.

In the second reading (Ephesians 5:15-20), St Paul urges the Ephesians to be wise people. They should try to understand what God wants, not just what they want. Then they will be so filled with God’s Spirit of joy that they will want to thank God for all the good things they have received from God. The lesson we should learn from this is that it is not gloomy or boring to be wise. Rather, if we are wise, we will count the blessings God has given us, and we will want to dance and sing, and say thank you to God.

Let me go back to my daughter and the railings. The next day in the school assembly, the headmaster brought her to the front, and told her she had been a very silly girl, and that he hoped others would learn not to be so silly. Bravely my daughter said to him, ‘Yes, it was a silly thing to do, but I am not a silly girl’. That was a clever distinction for one so young to make. I think what she really meant is this, ‘I will learn from this bad experience so that I can do better’. In other words, she was determined to become wise – and now she is a very determined and wise grown up, the mother of three of my grandsons, and I am very proud of her!

Let us finish with a little prayer together, responding with a loud ‘Amen!’

Dear God, please show me how to be wise.
Help me to understand the consequences of my choices,
what is good and what is bad,
and help me always choose the good.
Help me to see all the blessings you have given me,
until I want to dance and sing to your praise and glory.
In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen