Sunday 28 December 2008

Shepherds glorifying God

An address given on Sunday 28th December 2008 at Shinrone

“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 (Luke 2:15-21).

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 I believe 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 Aurora, 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 – 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 sense 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 to me, to all human beings. 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 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 what St Paul is telling us in today’s Epistle reading (Galatians 4:4-7).

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.’

They don’t hang about. Once they have seen the child Jesus lying in the manger – the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord – and once they have 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 to summarise, we have indeed 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 glorifying and praising God as changed people, to bring God’s loving Spirit back with us into the world.

Sunday 14 December 2008

Rejoice, pray, give thanks!

An address given on 14th December 2008 at Templederry and Killodiernan.

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’.

In these words from today’s NT reading (1Thessalonians 5:16-24), St Paul encourages the Christians in Thessalonica to hold fast to their faith in the goodness and love of God – and encourages you and me too, thanks to their preservation of his words.

And surely this is exactly what Isaiah is doing in today’s OT reading (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11) as well, in his beautiful, heart-stirring poetry: The Lord God
‘has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners'.

It is powerful stuff, isn’t it? The Israelites to whom Isaiah is speaking would have drunk in his words. They had been living in exile in Babylon for many years. They knew all about oppression and captivity. In a few years the armies of Cyrus, king of Persia would conquer Babylon, and the Israelites, or some of them, would be allowed to return home.
‘Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed’,
says Isaiah.

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.’

These words of Paul echo down the centuries to us. But let us be very clear just what a hard thing Paul is asking. To rejoice, pray and give thanks when all is well is one thing. But always? Without ceasing? In all circumstances? What of the man who has just lost his job? What of the single mother who cannot pay the fuel bill? What of the parents I spoke to recently, whose son has just been killed in an accident? Isn’t Paul asking the impossible of them?

When everything seems to go against us it is very easy to become obsessed with our own misery, and fall into clinical depression. For those who have been there, as I have, life is very bleak for a time, and to be told to pull your socks up is worse than useless – it makes such people feel worse. Many people find that medication helps. But at root depression is a spiritual disease, I think. It is about feeling cut off from the love of the Father – as Jesus himself said on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Depression starts to be cured when, for all our troubles, we begin to see things to rejoice over, things to pray for, things to be thankful for.

For this reason, Paul’s words are wise advice, both for the Christians in Thessalonica, and for all who believe in the goodness and love of God: quite apart from the theology, they are a tool to help us resist depression. You might like this analogy: if you stand with your back to the sun you see your own shadow, but if you turn to face it your shadow is behind you.

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.’

It is different for those unable to experience God’s love, those who are depressed. Paul’s words won’t help them directly, only make them feel worse. But we can help them - you and I - by showing through our love and care that there are things to rejoice about, things to pray for, things to be thankful for.

The coming Christmas season will be psychologically difficult for some people. Society seems to demand that everyone should be jolly, when sme people don’t feel jolly at all. And this year for many it is made even worse by the consequences of the recession. So let us make a special point of letting those who have lost a loved one in the last year know that we are thinking of them. Let us keep an eye out for our neighbours who are lonely, old, or finding life difficult, and show them love and support if they need it. And let us give as generously as we can to those agencies who are trying to relieve the shocking poverty too many are living with in this rich country.

God sends us, just as he sent Isaiah:
'to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.’

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.’

Sunday 7 December 2008

Make straight the way!

An address for Advent 2, preached at Templederry & St Mary's Nenagh on 7 Dec 2008

1. Lets listen again to the prophet Isaiah’s beautiful, poetic words in the 1st reading (Isa 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.

Of course we know a lot about making highways here in North Tipperary – just think of the new Nenagh to Limerick 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. Workers will continue to labour hard and long to complete it by 2010. I must say though, that I am very disturbed to read how many subcontractors have not been paid what is owed them for their work. I think the authorities have a moral obligation to ensure they are paid as soon as possible - before Christmas I hope.

Roads were not so vast in Isaiah’s time, but it would still have been a gigantic community enterprise to make the roads through the rugged Judean hill country to allow farmers to transport their produce on pack-mules to market in Jerusalem, and to allow pilgrims to travel to the temple on Zion. The roads knit together the Jewish people in the cities of Judah to Jerusalem, 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, but a road for his people to travel to God.

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

2. In our 2nd reading, in the very first words of his Gospel (Mark 1:1-8), 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.’

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.’

3. Why did the compilers of the Lectionary - the people who selected the readings we use each Sunday - choose this reading for today?

John’s message of repentance and forgiveness for sin might seem at first sight out of place in this joyful 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 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 as Jesus. But he does not force himself on us. He does not compel us 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 to God on. Each one of us must ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ and ‘make his paths straight’. And to do so we must accept John’s baptism for ourselves, by admitting our own sins, by repenting, and by seeking God’s forgiveness.

4. So to conclude:

By the readings they have chosen for us, I think the people who compiled 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 that 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 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. All we have to do is to work at it!

Sunday 12 October 2008

The Banquet and the Naughty Step

1. We all love a good wedding, don’t we!

It’s lovely to be able to join the bride and groom, and their families, to rejoice in their love for each other and to wish them joy in their new life together. It’s so much fun to join in their celebration feast and raise a glass to toast them. And it’s so rewarding to meet and get to know the other half of their family. I never turn down a wedding invitation if I can help it!

In today’s gospel reading Matthew (22:1-14) records Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a sumptuous wedding reception prepared by a king for his son. But the guests the king planned to invite would not come! They were asked twice, but they ignored the invitation: some went on working on their farms and in their businesses; others went so far as to mistreat and even kill the king’s messengers. The king, quite reasonably, was enraged. He sent his army to destroy the murderers and their city. He declared those who had been invited unworthy of the celebration, and sent his servants out into the streets to gather all the people they could find, good and bad, to fill the wedding hall and feast in their place.

This is a parable, and parables used by Jesus always have multiple meanings: one will be the meaning understood by the people who first heard it; and there will also be at least one, probably many, deeper spiritual meanings, revealed by reflection to Christians over the ages and ourselves. Let us tease out some of these meanings.

2. This is one of several parables that Jesus addresses to the chief priests and the elders of the people – in other words the Jewish elite of the time.

They understood his meaning very well: he was talking about them, they were the rude and unworthy guests. He was saying that they had ignored God’s invitation to the wedding banquet made first through the prophets, and later by John the Baptist and himself. Jesus was promising the people that they, not the elite, would enjoy the kingdom of heaven. The elite wanted to arrest him to shut him up, but they were afraid of the crowds who followed him, we are told.

The early Christians interpreted it this way too, including Matthew who was writing probably half a century later between AD80 and 90. For them of course the king’s son was Jesus, God’s own Son. And they saw themselves, by now primarily a gentile church, as the people chosen by God to replace the bad Jewish elite at the banquet, in the kingdom of heaven. By this time Jerusalem and the 2nd temple had been destroyed by the Romans following the Jewish revolt around AD70. Did Matthew, with hind-sight, add the passage about the king’s troops destroying the murderers and burning their city, in order to turn Jesus’s parable into a prophecy? Perhaps, or perhaps not; for Jesus elsewhere is recorded using strong violent images in his teaching to ram his point home.

But what is certain, shamefully certain, is that later on Christians identified not the Jewish elite but all Jews, as a race and as a religious community, as the unworthy, the Christ-killers. In a sermon on this parable, the great reformer Luther could say that this is why ‘there is not now a poorer, a more miserable and forsaken people on the earth than the Jews. Such is the end of the despisers of God’s Word.’ Mainstream churches no longer preach this, but some fundamentalists do. It is one of the roots of the anti-Semitism that led to the horror of the Holocaust. It is a false and wicked doctrine I believe – we must always test our interpretation of scripture against the fruits it yields. This one has yielded very bad fruit.

Rather, I think, we should see the parable as good news, good news for each and every one of us. The OT prophets had imagined God as a stern judge loving only the righteous, with a special relationship with the children of Israel. Here Jesus reveals a different image of God to us, a king like a loving Father who invites every passer by on the street to join him in a heavenly kingdom as joyful as any wedding feast - Jew and gentile, Irish and immigrant, settled and traveller, black and white, banker and labourer. We do not even have to be particularly righteous, for both good and bad are invited to fill the wedding hall. We are all invited to rejoice with him: as Christians we are to be joyful, not gloomy and depressed! All we must do is to respond to the invitation, not behave like rude, unworthy guests!

3. But I have missed out the second half of the parable. What are we to make of the man without a wedding robe thrown into the outer darkness?

The first half of the parable teaches us that by God’s grace the door to the kingdom is open to all of us. Christians have traditionally seen the second half as teaching us that with that grace comes a responsibility to amend our lives. We all know that we are by nature sinful creatures. To share in the banquet the stains of our sins must be washed from our garments through our true repentance and God’s forgiveness. The man without a wedding robe could make no answer when God challenged him: he could not repent, so he was bound hand and foot, removed from the banquet, and cast into the outer darkness.

Some people have seen the outer darkness as a terrible thing, nothing less than eternal damnation, forever cut off from the joyful kingdom. But I can’t agree. That would not be the act of a loving Father. And the king starts by calling the man ‘Friend’, after all. I prefer to see the outer darkness as the ‘naughty step’.

Do you know about the naughty step? All parents do! When our children behave badly we tell them they must go and sit on the naughty step, or go to their room, until they are ready to say sorry and really mean it. It can be very difficult for a parent to bear the wailing and gnashing of teeth, but this is the way a loving parent teaches children how to behave. When the children feel properly sorry we give them a kiss and let them rejoin the family.

In just this way, I think, God uses the outer darkness to teach us the self-discipline to recognise when we have done wrong and to repent. When we have finished wailing and gnashing our teeth, when we are truly contrite, he will forgive us, and he will allow us to return to the joy of the banquet.

4. So to conclude
  • Let us give thanks for the grace of God revealed by Jesus in this parable.
  • Let us joyfully accept God’s invitation to the wedding banquet of the kingdom of heaven.
  • And let us trust in God’s Fatherly goodness as he teaches us how we are to behave there!

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Earthly and Heavenly Harvests

An address given at the Lorrha Harvest Festival, Sunday 7th September 2008.

1. First, I want to say what a privilege it is for me to join you today in this ancient holy place for your Harvest Festival, to give thanks to God for all the good things he has given us all. And I must thank you, Archdeacon Wayne, for your invitation.

Like all of us I’m sure, I’ve loved Harvest Festivals ever since I was a child! Let us just look around us at this beautifully decorated church, filled with harvest bounty. The decorators have every right to be proud of their skilful arrangements, and those who have grown the produce have every right to be proud that the best of it should be displayed here in God’s house! We all enjoy the colours and the smells of the fruit and the vegetables and the flowers, the familiar harvest hymns, and the cheerful people.

I’m going to talk about two things today: the earthly harvest, for which we are giving thanks today; and then a different, heavenly harvest. The two are deeply interconnected.

2. So first, the earthly harvest.

I do hope you’re cheerful, because we have so much to give thanks for, even though this is a difficult time for many. Cheerfulness is a Christian virtue!

It has been a difficult year for those of you who are farmers, with so much rain, and so little sun. Many of you will be disappointed with how it has turned out, with the return you have got from all your planning and hard work. And many more of us will be anxious about the economic recession, and the turmoil in global financial markets. Worries bubble up: Is my job safe? What about my savings and my pension? How can I stretch my income to pay the rising bills for energy and other things?

But let us look at the glass as half full, not half empty! Just reflect for a moment on the breadth and variety of our harvest:

  • We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, hay for cattle. If the grain price is lower than we would like, it’s because the northern hemisphere grain harvest is bigger than ever before this year, whatever about here in Ireland.
  • And there’s much more than staples for us to enjoy, isn’t there: there’s milk and honey, butter and cheese, fruit and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips, pumpkins and marrows, peas and beans, cabbage and lettuce, and gardens full of flowers!
  • Many of us work with animals, and there are this year’s foals, and calves and lambs and chicks. But there’s also the fruit of our own bodies - our children and grandchildren born this year - I have a new grandson myself, a little dote - thank God for them too!
  • Above all perhaps we should thank God for our health and strength, and also for our intellects, our god-given cleverness. As every farmer knows, this bountiful harvest does not appear from heaven as if by magic: it takes intelligent planning and hard graft!
In this rich corner of the world today, we will not starve, as our forefathers so often did after a bad harvest. With our cleverness we have invented ways to store food and to transport it, and economic and social systems to distribute it to where it is needed. If we consume a little less, it will probably be good for our health; and perhaps the whole planet will benefit. So let us be cheerful and follow the good advice of Deuteronomy (26:1-11): ‘You shall set the first of the fruit of the ground down before the Lord your God … Then you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you.’

Yet for all our cleverness, the earthly harvest is perishable and uncertain. Why has God not given us perpetually good harvests? Perhaps to remind us that we are not masters of the universe: God is. God’s laws don’t change: Nature is as God made it; and what we sow, we shall reap. We remain as we have always been, totally dependent on God’s continuing fatherly goodness.

3. In the passage from John’s Gospel (6:25-35) that we’ve just heard, Jesus asks us to look beyond the earthly harvest, to a different heavenly harvest.

He tells the crowd: ‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’ He tells them that ‘the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ And finally he makes the great claim: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whosoever believes in me shall never be thirsty’. What is Jesus talking about?

His teaching is difficult; at least I find it so, but then so did many of Jesus’s disciples, according to John. One way to look at it, which I find helpful, is this:

  • Just as God has made us clever, able to till and keep the world of which we are part, so he has made us in his image to be moral beings, to be souls, with the capacity we call conscience to distinguish right from wrong, truth from lies, love from hate; and to prefer good to evil, as he does. If we use our conscience to make the right choices, we reap a heavenly harvest of good, which nourishes us for eternal life. As the old saw says, the good we do lives after us.
  • But we are not masters of our own souls, any more than we are masters of the universe: our souls are as God made them, with free will, vulnerable to temptation. So it’s hard to be good. We have to work at it, just as we do for the earthly harvest. It is hard work resisting temptation, putting what is right above our own desires. All too often we fail. We sin. And when we fail and sin, the evil we do poisons our soul, and the evil too is eternal. A bad deed done can never be undone!
  • What a mess it is! How can we possibly be as good as God wants us to be? As good as God has made us want to be in our best moments.
  • This is where Jesus’s teaching speaks to me: he promises us all the help we need to reap the heavenly harvest. All we require is the faith to come to him, to believe in him. As the bread of life, he strengthens our souls. He helps us to resist temptation and to do good. And when we fail, he sucks out the evil that poisons the soul – in other words he redeems us. The only cure for a bad deed is forgiveness!
  • It is in this sense that Jesus is the bread of life that endures for eternal life.
What are the practical implications of this? Consider greed for example:

  • Greed is the cause of so many of the problems we face, I think, from global warming to the global crash; old-fashioned, sinful human greed. Greed to consume more than we need at the expense of our planet. Greed for profit at the expense of other men and women.
  • To overcome the problems we need to learn to be generous to others, not greedy for ourselves. We must learn to share. This wonderful planet – our God-given Garden of Eden – would be enough and more than enough for all of us if only we could do so.
  • But we cannot do this by ourselves, because of our innate tendency to sin. We can only do it through the grace of Jesus Christ, the bread of life, who will help us transform our sinful greedy natures into generous ones. He will help us to be as generous as God wants us to be.
  • And think on this: our greed threatens our future; without Jesus’s help to transform our greed into generosity, we stand to lose the earthly harvest too. The earthly harvest depends in a very real way on the heavenly harvest.
4. So to sum up:
  • Let us thank God for this bountiful earthly harvest. God makes it possible, and we work hard for it, so we should celebrate it and enjoy it.
  • But let us work just as hard for the heavenly harvest of goodness, to nourish our souls.
  • Let us also thank God for Jesus, whose help we need to reap this heavenly harvest.
  • And let us pray that Jesus will transform our greed into generosity.
If we believe in him, if we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty for good things!

Sunday 14 September 2008

Christian Tolerance

1. What a dramatic, blood-curdling story our 1st reading was (Exodus 14:19-31)!

Through the power of the LORD, Moses led the Israelites through the sea on dry ground, to escape from Egypt, but the pursuing Egyptian army were drowned, with all their chariots and all their horses. Christians traditionally see this story of the Exodus as a metaphor for how God will save his faithful people. But I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the Egyptian soldiers, and for the horses!

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. Instead I shall focus on the 2nd reading, Paul’s eloquent plea to the infant Roman church for tolerance of the differing opinions of fellow believers. I want to tease out his advice, and reflect on its implications for today.

2. First let’s look at Paul’s views on tolerance, as expressed in the reading (Romans 14:1-12)

St Paul picks out two areas of dispute in the Roman church of his day. That church would have been made up of a mixture of Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah and gentiles who followed Christ.

The first dispute was between those who would eat anything, and others who would eat only vegetables. Why should this be an issue? Probably because in Rome animals were always ritually sacrificed to the pagan Gods, before being sold as meat in the markets. Some Christians felt it was wrong to eat such meat. Particularly no doubt the Jewish converts who did not like to eat meat that was not kosher. Others were more liberal, including no doubt many gentiles. After all Jesus taught that it was not what went into the mouth that made one unclean, but what came out of it.

The second dispute was between those who treated one day of the week as a holy day, and those who treated all days as the same. This may well also be a split between Jewish and gentile factions, with the Jews wanting to maintain their Saturday Sabbath customs. But perhaps too some were beginning to celebrate Sunday as the Lord’s Day, commemorating Jesus’s resurrection.

Paul calls those who are vegetarian ‘weak in faith’. It is clear that Paul himself was a liberal in these matters. That’s worth noting. Some people today criticise Paul as a prejudiced old curmudgeon because of his views on the status of women, and on homosexuality. But in his own day, Paul was a liberal churchman!

Nevertheless, Paul calls on both parties to be tolerant. Do not judge one another, he tells them. God has welcomed you all. Each of you is accountable to God, so leave the judgement to God.

Paul is telling us that we should tolerate the odd views of others even if we believe them to be mistaken. But then, surely, we too are entitled to expect others to tolerate us, when we act on our own odd views? Anything goes! Wrong, quite wrong, that is not what Paul advises at all!

3. After the passage we’ve already heard, Paul said this (Romans 14:13-17):
Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Beyond tolerance, Paul tells the Romans – and us I think - that the right Christian response to fellow Christians with whom one disagrees is to avoid doing things which they find hurtful, which would be a stumbling-block or hindrance to their faith. It is a message of loving self-denial. To do anything else, would be not to ‘walk in love’. And it is our Christian duty to walk in love with one another: Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’.

4. So how might we apply Paul’s advice today?

Well, in our Anglican communion at present there are two big disagreements threatening to divide us: first, should women be ordained as priests and bishops, and second are same-sex relationships necessarily sinful. Paul’s advice is surely relevant to partisans on both these issues.

Now I am on the liberal side of both arguments. I think we have been blessed in the Church of Ireland with the ministry of women priests, and I look forward in due course to seeing women bishops. And I don’t believe that same-sex relationships are any more or less intrinsically sinful than heterosexual ones: what matters surely is the quality of the love in them. My heart bleeds for our homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ who are so often treated as 2nd class Christians.

Yet reflecting on Paul’s words to the Romans, surely he is right to remind us that the Christian way is not just to be tolerant, but to walk the extra mile in love with those who disagree with us.

Perhaps this is what lies behind the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call at the end of the Lambeth Conference for both sides to refrain, for now, from taking actions which hurt the other. He has called for moratoriums both on the blessing of same-sex relationships and the ordination of bishops who are in them. And he has also called for a moratorium on attempts by those who call themselves orthodox to prise whole parishes and dioceses from provinces they believe to be in error. Can both sides accept this, despite the pain they feel? Perhaps not, but surely by doing so they would be following both Paul’s advice and Christ’s commandment to ‘love one another as I have loved you’.

The Roman church overcame its disagreements. Paul’s views on eating meat were eventually accepted by all. All eventually agreed to keep the Lord’s Day holy, but dispensed with the Jewish Sabbath prohibitions.

Let us trust God and pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us all to a common understanding and unity in future, as it did the Roman church.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Bed-sitters and baptism

It was a great joy for me to be take part in the christening of George Edward de Warrenne Waller on 17th August 2008 in St Mary's Nenagh, at which I was privilged to give this address.

1. Today is a joyful occasion, a day for celebration, a day of baptism!

For many of us it is a family celebration. Particularly so for William and Orla, as with their daughter Esme they bring their baby son George to be christened in the presence of so many of their relatives and friends, who share their joy in him. It is a special joy for me to be here, because William was christened by my father, and I was present at Esme’s christening.

For George’s Godparents, for Clodagh Conroy, Adam Waller, and Tom Waller - Tom unfortunately cannot be here today, but I know he is with us in spirit - it is a day when they promise to encourage George in his life and in his faith. It is a day to celebrate the start of a very special relationship they will have with him as he grows up. My daughter, when she was small, called her Godmother ‘my bed-sitter’, because when her Godmother came to stay she would sit on the end of her bed and have long talks with her. My daughter loved those special talks. May you as Godparents be equally special ‘bed-sitters’ for George!

It is surely right for families to celebrate as families. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself was reared in a human family, and he took part in family celebrations such as the wedding in Cana of Galilee.

2. But today is about much more than just a family celebration.

Today’s reading from St Matthew’s Gospel tells us how Jesus commissioned the eleven to make disciples of all nations, and to mark it by baptism. They in turn passed on the commission to others, handing on the gift of faith to new generations. And so we, as that part of Christ’s church gathered here today, as Jesus’s disciples, pass on this gift to a new generation, to George.

We are here to welcome George as a new member of Christ’s Church. Baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God, which will last for the rest of his life. Whether we are family or not, we celebrate that today. And as we renew our baptismal vows, let us reflect on our own journey, and let us be determined to support George’s parents and Godparents as they guide him on his journey.

3. George will be baptised “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

Matthew tells us that Jesus himself used these words. Those of us who are Anglicans share this baptismal formula with most other Christians, including the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox and most Reformed Churches. It is a symbol of unity within the diversity of our denominations that we baptise in the same words.

We shouldn’t see the Trinity as a static thing, I think. Rather, God reveals himself in the Trinity in a dynamic cycle of loving relationships. The Father and the Son loving each other; the Son and the Spirit loving each other; and the Spirit and the Father loving each other.

May George grow up to recognise God’s dynamic cycle of love reflected in his own relationships!

4. According to Matthew, the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples are these: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus was speaking to the eleven, but he still speaks these words to his disciples today.

What an amazing thing it is, that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, our friend and brother, is travelling with us on our journey. Even when we are tired or anxious, lonely or frightened, doubting or lost, Jesus is there with us, to encourage and support us, to love us.

The loving Christ journeys with George, and with every one of us. Let us give thanks for it, and let us celebrate it!

Sunday 10 August 2008

Walking on Water

1. Have you ever been out on the water at night in a small boat in a gale? I have, and I can vouch for how terrifying it can be!

When I was a teenager, I used to spend the summer holidays with my parents in a cottage on Lough Derg. The only way to get to it was by rowing-boat, though it wasn’t really on an island, and the distance to row wasn't very far. Those were lovely holidays! But I remember one stormy night when my mother and I were returning to the cottage. It was blowing a full gale, with a big sea running, and the waves breaking. With one oar each, side by side, we pulled against the wind, inching forward, sometimes being thrown sideways as the wind caught the side of the boat, shipping water all the while. We made several attempts and were thrown back, but eventually we made it to calmer waters, and arrived safely on the other shore. By that time I was shaking like a leaf and quite scared, as I think my mother was too, though she never showed it. It taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten: respect for the water – it’s not our native element, and we must never underestimate the power of wind and wave.

Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 14:22-33) brings this memory back to me. I feel I can identify with the disciples, even though I don’t think I was in real danger, as they must have been. The Sea of Galilee, more than 200 metres below sea level in the Jordan rift valley and surrounded by hills, is renowned for the fierce and dangerous storms that suddenly appear out of nowhere, and abate just as quickly.

The story of Jesus walking on the water comes immediately after the feeding of the 5000, and it is recorded in the Gospels of Mark (6:45-52) and John (6:15-21) as well as Matthew, but not in Luke’s. I want to try to enter imaginatively into the story, drawing on all three accounts, and then finish by reflecting on what we can learn from it today.

2. First, why did Jesus send the disciples away by boat and go up himself into the mountain alone to pray?

Matthew tells us that when Jesus heard that Herod had executed John the Baptist, he went across the lake to be by himself. Herod’s rule did not extend there. Perhaps Jesus was afraid that Herod would try to arrest and kill him as he had John. And no doubt he wanted time to pray for God’s guidance on what he should do next.

But the crowds followed him. And we heard last week about what happened then – the miracle of the feeding of the 5000.

After that John tells us that Jesus realised that the crowd was ‘about to come and take him by force to make him king’. This I think is the clue. Jesus knew that earthly power was not what God intended for him. It was a dangerous situation. Perhaps Jesus thought the disciples might complicate it, because they were still thinking of him as an earthly ruler as well.

So Jesus sent them away, dismissed the crowd, and went up the mountain into the night to pray about it, until early morning.

3. Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble in one of the lake’s notorious storms.

They had set out in the boat in the evening light, unaware of the coming storm. Mark records that Jesus ‘saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind’. I imagine the night must have been bright and moonlit despite the storm, for Jesus to be able to see the little boat.

Matthew agrees with Mark that, ‘early in the morning’ Jesus ‘came walking towards them on the lake’. The Greek words translated as ‘early in the morning’ literally mean ‘in the 4th watch of the night’. In those days, with no clocks, time during the night was counted in 4 watches of 3 hours each. So at around 3 am, Jesus walking on the high ground after praying clearly saw the little boat struggling through waves and spray, and came down to the shore to help.

John adds that ‘they had rowed about three or four miles’, so they must have been making painfully slow progress through the storm. I can empathise with that!

4. But what is this about Jesus walking on the lake? Should we imagine Jesus far from land, in the middle of the lake, walking on the water over the waves?

This is how most Christians have imagined the scene, I suppose, and many artists have depicted it. But there is a difficulty with translation here. The Greek words translated as ‘on the lake’ could equally mean ‘towards the lake’, or ‘at the lake’, that is by the lake shore.

The truth is that there are two perfectly possible interpretations of this passage. The first describes a miracle in which Jesus actually walked on the water. In the second, the disciples boat was driven by the wind to the shore, Jesus came down from the mountain to help them when he saw them struggling in the moonlight, and Jesus came walking through the surf towards the boat. Both interpretations are equally valid. Some will prefer one and some the other.

All three Gospels agree that when the disciples saw Jesus they were terrified, believing him to be a ghost, until Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’.

However we interpret the Greek, the significance to the disciples is perfectly clear: In the hour of their need, Jesus came to them, to help and reassure them.

5. Only Matthew adds the detail about Peter trying to walk on the water too.

It’s a charming vignette, and so in character for Peter, from the other things we know of him. He was brave and impetuous, but often found it hard to live up to his good intentions. Remember, it was Peter who swore undying loyalty to Jesus only to deny 3 times that he knew him the next day.

When Jesus said ‘Come’, Peter bravely ‘got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus’. But his courage failed him and he started to sink. ‘Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”’

Whether Jesus was miraculously walking on water, or whether he was walking through the surf on the shore to help the disciples in the boat, Peter surely learned this: It is not always easy to follow Jesus, but Jesus is always there to catch him when he stumbles and sinks.

The Gospel writers differ on what happens next. Matthew and Mark both tell us that as soon as Jesus got into the boat, the storm ceased. But John says that ‘immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going’. Whichever it was, the disciples must have been very relieved that they were safe. Only Matthew records that they worshipped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God”.

6. Finally, as Jesus’s disciples today, what can we learn from this story, 2000 years on?

Well, surely the same things that Peter and the disciples learned! They were privileged to know Jesus the man and sail the Sea of Galilee with him. But we are privileged too to know the spiritual reality of the living Christ.

In life the wind is often against us. Life for every one of us sometimes feels like a desperate struggle, with ourselves, with our circumstances, with temptations, with sorrow, with the consequences of decisions made. But none of us need struggle alone, for Jesus comes to us across the storms of life, bidding us to take heart and have no fear in his calm, clear voice. In the hour of our need, Jesus will come to us as he did to the disciples long ago, to help and reassure us. Just listen for his voice saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’!

If we seek to follow Jesus, we will find like Peter that it is not always easy. It will test our faith at times. Our faith will not always be enough and we will have doubts. But when we feel ourselves going under, if we cry out ‘Lord save me’, Jesus will be there for us, just as he was for Peter, reaching out his hand to catch us. Jesus is always there to save us when we are sinking. Just listen for his voice saying, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

Sunday 3 August 2008

Feeding 5000 (or 500 million!)

1. Today’s Gospel reading (Matt 14:13-21) is wonderfully apt for the day that’s in it!

The August bank holiday is a great time to have a picnic. Provided the weather is good, of course, which thank God it is today, and please God it will be tomorrow! A picnic - this is what Matthew is telling us about, isn’t it? A truly gigantic picnic!

To those of us brought up in the Church the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is a well-loved, familiar story from childhood. We can all picture the scene, because so many artists have painted it over the centuries.

Jesus wants to get away by himself for a while. He sails across to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, to a deserted place, but the crowd spots him and follows by land, getting there before he does. I haven’t been to the Sea of Galilee, but I imagine it as a bit like our own Lough Derg; a little bigger in area, and wider, but not so long. In my minds eye I see Jesus sailing from Terryglass over to Portumna Forest Park!

Jesus we are told ‘had compassion for them and cured their sick’, and no doubt he talks to the crowd about the good news of God’s kingdom too, as he usually did. And when it gets late and they are hungry he arranges to feed them. In a grassy place, miles from anywhere, the disciples serve a bountiful picnic to the crowd. Jesus provides the food miraculously from five loaves and two small fishes. Everyone eats their fill, and the leftovers fill twelve baskets!

It’s the only one of Jesus’s miracles that comes in all four Gospels. They all tell the same story, with the same numbers: a crowd of 5,000, 5 loaves and 2 fishes, and 12 baskets of leftovers.

John adds the charming detail that a boy gave the loaves and fishes to Andrew, who gave them to Jesus saying But what are these among so many? What a generous boy he was! I imagine the boy’s mother sending him off with a packed lunch, and though he must have been hungry himself, he offered it to Andrew to give to Jesus.

What I want to do today is to reflect on what we, today, can learn from this miracle. But before we get to that I think it’s useful first to reflect on the miracle itself, and second to reflect on what those present on the day would have learned from it.

2. So what really happened that day? What miraculous thing did Jesus do?

I suppose that most Christians over the last 2000 years have believed that what Jesus did was quite simply to multiply the loaves and fishes until there was enough to go round. The miracle was to multiply the physical items. If this is what you believe, you are in good company; be content with it, and may you remain undisturbed in your faith. If we believe that Jesus is God, and God is almighty, then Jesus as God can do anything he pleases. There is no reason to believe that he didn’t simply multiply the loaves and fishes.

But many Christians find this difficult to accept, and look for other explanations. Such simple multiplication seems to break the laws of physics, the laws God has established for the material world, which he seems to have made to behave quite predictably.

Some Christians see in this miracle a sacrament. They believe that those present received only the tiniest morsel of food, yet were strengthened by it in a spiritual way so they could return home satisfied. If this is so, then it is a miracle which we re-enact every time we take communion, and go out strengthened to walk the road of love that Jesus has shown us.

Other Christians see in it something at the same time both perfectly natural, and quite miraculous. Surely the majority of the crowd would not have set off on their long trek around the lake without taking some food with them. But they are humanly selfish, and afraid to produce what they have in case they must share it and be left without enough themselves. Then Jesus takes the lead. He takes the boy’s small offering and shares it with a blessing and a smile. And his example prompts the rest of the crowd to share, so that before they know it there is more than enough for all. If that is what happened, the miracle is how the touch of Christ changes selfish people into generous people.

But in the end, I do not think it matters a whit what we believe happened that day, and I do not think we all need to believe the same thing. What does matter is this: when Jesus is there the sick are healed and the hungry soul is fed.

3. So what did those present at the miracle learn that day?

Jesus’s miracles don’t yield their meanings all at once. They work like slow fuses, revealing their meanings bit by bit to those who ponder them.

The crowd who followed Jesus around the lake experienced someone who really cared for them. An ordinary man might have been resentful that they were invading his privacy with their continual demands. But not Jesus. He graciously made time for them, even though he wanted rest and quiet. He healed those who were sick. And when it was late and they were hungry, he arranged for them to eat to give them strength for the journey home. Most of them probably didn’t see what he did or how he did it - with 5000 there, how could they? But afterwards, as they mulled over the events of the day and talked to others about it, I feel sure that they came to realise that this man Jesus cared for them in the same way that, as Jews, they believed God cared for his chosen people.

What of the disciples? They experienced Jesus’s miracle directly, and Jesus made it into an action learning lesson for them. They ask Jesus to send the crowd home when they become anxious that it is late and everyone is hungry. But Jesus is uncompromising, that is not his way. He challenges the disciples, saying ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ What are they to do? They certainly don’t have enough food for such a crowd. In consternation, after searching around to see what there is, they bring him the 5 loaves and 2 fishes and tell him this is all they have. Only then does Jesus take charge, when they have run out of ideas, when they have offered him what little they have. Only then does Jesus bless and break the bread, perform the miracle, and give the disciples enough to feed the crowd with more left over.

They may have been slow to understand what Jesus was teaching them. On a later occasion Mark records Jesus reminding them of the miracle, and saying: ‘Do you not yet understand?’ But they did come to understand in the end, or the miracle would not have been recorded in all 4 Gospels. In years to come they understood that Jesus had taught them an important lesson of faith to guide their work. The lesson of faith is this: what they have to offer may be woefully inadequate to do what Jesus asks; but if they bring it to him, if they place it in his hands and let him use it, Jesus will bless it and he will give it back to them, but multiplied unimaginably, and now more than adequate for his purpose.

4. Now at last we can turn to see what we can learn today from Jesus’s miracle.

Jesus had compassion for the crowd and cured the sick. Jesus saw the crowd were hungry and arranged to feed them. Today as we look around the world, we see millions of people, made in God’s image like us, suffering and dying from preventable disease. And we see more millions of people hungry, many starving to death. Closer to home, the deepening economic recession will likely increase the suffering of the poor and the sick. As Christians, surely Jesus is calling us to show the compassion and care that he showed to the crowd by the Sea of Galilee.

We in the church, in all our denominations, are Jesus’s disciples today. There are many more of us now than there were disciples then. Jesus is calling us just as he called them to carry out his mission of love. And we need to learn the same lesson that he taught them, that lesson of faith.

The lesson of faith is this. Though the needs of the world seem altogether too big for us to make even a dent in them, we must not be daunted. Let us offer what we have to Jesus. Let us allow him to use it. He will bless and multiply what we offer. And it will be enough!

Sunday 13 July 2008

Sowing on the banks of Lough Derg

1. I’ve had mixed success with my sowings this year.

The problem is hares. We’re used to having them about, but this year there seem to be more than usual, and they seem to be more destructive than ever before. They’ve devoured the young French bean plants, they’ve made a fair start on the peas, and a few nights ago they took an entire row of emerging runner beans, each bitten off a bare inch from the ground! We’re trying to do something about it: my wife has put chicken wire fences around her raised beds, and I’ve ordered a spray from England which claims to deter them. But the yield this year will be poor all the same.

All this came to mind as I looked at today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (13:1-9, 18-23), commonly called the Parable of the Sower: the hares seem to be playing the role of the birds sent by the evil one to snatch up the seed from the path!

What is a parable? A parable is a story describing a scene from everyday life, which conveys a deeper meaning - when Jesus used them, a spiritual meaning. No doubt Jesus taught so often in parables because they conjure up memorable images, which lead those who hear them to reflect on their meanings, and discover the truth in them for themselves. No lesson is better learned than one you tease out for yourself! Parables are a bit like slow-release fertilizer, gradually yielding up their truth to people who ponder them.

The parable of the sower comes in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels as well as Matthew’s, and in startlingly similar words. Scholars believe the vivid image was remembered and later recorded, and an edited version was the basis of all three Gospel writers' texts. All three Gospels also contain the same explanation by Jesus of what the story means, so we can take it as authoratitive.

So let us in our imaginations picture the scene of the parable, let us reflect on its meaning, and let us tease out its relevance for us now, 2000 years later.

2. So many people wanted to listen to Jesus that he used a boat as a pulpit to address the crowd on the beach.

The beach was on a lake, the Sea of Galilee. I’ve never been there, but I see it in my minds eye as rather like our lake, Lough Derg: it’s about 40% larger in area, and wider but not so long. Imagine the people crowded on the beach at Dromineer, and Jesus in a lake boat talking to them.

Did Jesus see a man sowing in a nearby field? Perhaps this prompted his parable; if so everyone could literally see what he was talking about. The sower wouldn’t be using a seed-drill; he would be broadcasting the seed by hand, just as our ancestors would have done only 150 years ago. The seed would be in a bag or a basket, and he would walk steadily up and down the field, taking a handful of seed and throwing it out as evenly as he could. Even at a distance it would be quite clear to everyone what he was doing: they had seen it hundreds of times before, and many of them would have done it themselves.

So Jesus describes just what the crowd can all see:

  • Imagine a big field divided like allotments into strips each farmed by one family, with paths between them, beaten down hard by the passage of many feet. The crowd can see the birds following the sower. They swoop down to gobble up the seed that inevitably falls on the path, for all the sowers skill.
  • Everyone would understand that different parts of the field are of different quality.
  • Some parts would be stony: don’t imagine small pebbles, imagine great sheets of rock just under the surface, with just a few inches of soil on top. The soil above the rock would warm early, and the seeds would germinate quickly, but without a depth of soil the young seedlings would soon run out of nutrients and water and shrivel up in the sun.
  • Some parts of the field would be infested with perennial weeds: imagine scutch grass and creeping thistle, which would quickly outgrow the delicate crop, choking it.
  • But other parts of the field would be good land, with a deep, clean soil. Here the crop would have nutrients and water enough. It will flourish and produce a harvest of thirty, or sixty, or a hundred times the grain sown on it.
Jesus said many other things to the crowd that day in parables, we’re told. We don’t know what they were, but I think we can take it that Jesus was ‘proclaiming the good news of the kingdom’ as Matthew tells us elsewhere (Mat 9:35).

Let anyone with ears listen!’ Jesus finishes.

3. Jesus himself explains the parable in terms of ‘the word of the kingdom … sown in the heart’.

When his disciples ask him why he teaches in parables, Jesus gives them this interpretation of the parable, no doubt to reassure them that they do indeed understand what he is getting at.
  • The seed sown on the path is the word heard, but not understood, which the evil one snatches away, before it ever has the chance to sprout.
  • The seed sown on rocky ground is the word received with joy, but by a person without roots, without character, whose initial enthusiasm cannot withstand trouble or persecution.
  • The seed sown among thorns is the word heard by those who are so trapped by worldly cares and the lure of wealth that they cannot act upon it.
  • And the seed sown on good soil is the word heard by those who understand it, and act upon it. Only such people will yield a harvest of good.
Like those who crowded to the lake-shore 2000 years ago, we are the soil in which Jesus sows the seed. On a personal level, the message of his parable remains what it was then: we need to cultivate our characters so that as good soil we yield a rich harvest. Each one of us should try to develop the character traits of openness, persistence, and detachment from the world. Openness so that we do not miss God’s call when it comes. Persistence so that we can withstand trouble or persecution when we answer God’s call. And detachment from the cares of the world and the pursuit of wealth so that we are not distracted from acting on God’s call.

4. For Jesus, the sower is one who proclaims ‘the word of the kingdom’.

That is himself of course. But it is also his closest disciples, the twelve apostles, who he sent out saying ‘Proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mat 10:5-7)’. No doubt the twelve took comfort from the parable that even when their teaching seemed to show poor results, enough people would accept it to make it all worthwhile.

Before his ascension Jesus commissioned the apostles to go out and make disciples of all nations. Their commission was handed on to others, so that the Church in all its varied denominations still proclaims Jesus’s good news of the kingdom today. In Paul’s memorable words Christians are all part of Christ’s body the Church. Today the Church is the sower. Is there then a message for the Church in this parable? I believe there is.

The Church’s sowing of the seed does not seem to be producing a good harvest these days, does it? The fact is that here in Ireland - and in Europe generally - taking a broad view across all denominations, more and more people are losing contact with Christ’s Church. We see falling Church attendance; we see fewer baptisms; and we see insufficient ordinations to maintain the stock of full time clergy. Of course we need to understand why this is, and we need to do something about it; we also need the Holy Spirit to guide us for this to be successful.

It would be so easy for us to sink into depression about it. Particularly when the lost souls are those close to us. But we should not despair. Jesus himself was completely realistic about the prospects for his teaching, and so should we be as the Church. As Jesus realised, no matter how good a job we do as sowers, the sad fact is that many people will not become his disciples and will not be led to the kingdom of heaven by his or the Church’s teaching. Yet those who do become disciples make up for those that don’t by the rich harvest of good fruit they yield – as Jesus put it, 30, 60 or 100 fold.

5. So to sum up, the parable of the sower remains just as relevant today as it was in Jesus's day. Among the things we should learn from it are these:
  • As Christians we need to cultivate the soil of our own characters. We need to develop the Christian virtues of openness, persistence, and detachment from the world, so that we may yield a plentiful harvest of good fruit.

  • And we should not despair at the state of Christ’s Church today. Rather we should rejoice in the rich harvest of Christian souls we already have, as we pray for God to guide his Church and all of us to be better sowers of the word in future, so that the harvest yields even more.

Sunday 6 July 2008

Children & Yokes

1. Why does Jesus so often use children to illustrate his teaching?

Perhaps it’s because he knows what so many preachers forget, including me, that the best way to make your point stick is to relate it to everyday experience. And what’s more part of our everyday experience than the doings and sayings of children?

Or perhaps it’s because the open-minded, trustful innocence of a child has something special to teach us.

Or perhaps it is just because he loves children.

Whatever the reason, the responses of children are an obvious link between the two short passages we’ve just heard from St Matthew’s gospel – I suppose that’s why the good compilers of the Lectionary put them together, although by doing so they've rather lost their contexts. Let us look at them more closely, to see what they tell us.

2. In the 1st passage (Mat 11:16-19) Jesus evokes the image of children in the street who can’t agree what game to play.

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn says Jesus. You might hear something very similar on a street today:

‘Lets play weddings’ say one lot of kids;
‘Lets not’ say another lot, ‘Lets play funerals’;
‘No, we don’t want to play funerals’ say the first lot, ‘We want to play weddings!’

Jesus applies this image of squabbling children to the people of his generation. One lot won’t listen to what John the Baptist says because he is too puritan; ‘He has a demon’ they say. Another lot won’t listen to the Son of Man – Jesus of course, because he is too lax; ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ You can really feel Jesus’s exasperation, can’t you?

But what is going on here? To get to the bottom of it, I think we have to look at the context of Jesus’s words in Matthew’s text.

Matthew has just told us that Jesus’s cousin John, whom Herod had imprisoned and
would later execute, had sent his disciples to ask Jesus a question, ‘Are you the one who is to come?’ – In other words, are you the Messiah? And Jesus has answered, in a coded but unmistakable way, that he is: he says, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’ These were the signs by which Jews believed the Messiah would be recognised, based on Isaiah’s prophesy.

The Jews believed then, as many still do, that before the Messiah came, Elijah would return to herald his coming. But if Jesus is the Messiah, where is Elijah? Jesus then addresses the crowd, saying that John is more than just a prophet; John ‘is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!’

So Matthew has just told us that Jesus saw John as the new Elijah, heralding himself as the Messiah. Their teaching styles may be different, but John and Jesus’s teaching go together like a hand in a glove. There is no reason to take one side and rubbish the other! This is why Jesus is so exasperated with the squabbling factions.

But Jesus’s exasperation is tempered by his certainty that this will not derail God’s plan, which will ultimately be successful. He finishes by saying ‘Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’ Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures is seen as emanating from God, created by God before he created the world in the Genesis story. Wisdom is personified in the Book of Proverbs as a woman teaching a simple youth. And in future centuries this idea was to be developed in the Eastern Church into the idea of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, to whom Emperor Justinian dedicated his great church in Constantinople.

2. I think that in our own generation there’s a great deal we can learn from Jesus’s words too.

Take our Anglican Communion. You’ve no doubt heard reports, as I have, about the increasingly bitter divisions in it. We have a self-styled Orthodox party struggling for power in the Communion with a so-called Liberal party. Both parties are vying for the support of everyone else, while threatening to leave or to expel the others. On the surface the issue is whether homosexual behaviour is sinful, but underlying this are very different opinions on how literally or not to interpret scripture. It’s all rather confusing and disturbing, isn’t it! At least, I find it so.

But isn’t the whole hubbub rather like Jesus’s squabbling children? I don’t think we should allow their arguments to disturb our own faith. We should continue prayerfully to follow Jesus in the way he calls us, recognising that he may call others differently. They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. I for one intend to maintain Christian fellowship with all who look to Jesus, whatever disagreements I may have with them. Like Jesus, we can be certain that this squabbling cannot derail God’s plan. Perhaps the arguments will ultimately strengthen our churches, no matter how painful we may find the dissension now. Let us trust, like Jesus, that God’s Wisdom will be vindicated!

And I suggest that whenever we find ourselves drawn into disagreements with others, in our church, in our community, or anywhere else, we should reflect on these words of Jesus. Could we be exasperating our Lord by behaving like squabbling children? Are those we disagree with, like us, trying honestly to do God’s work? If so, perhaps we should try harder in love and fellowship to find common ground. We should be reassured by Jesus’s words: whatever the outcome, God’s wisdom will be vindicated!

I've been told by one dear to me that I should have finished the sermon here - she's right! There are two sermons in this one address, and one would have been enough! So please feel free to come back and read the second one later!

4. Turning to the 2nd passage (Mat 11:25-30), Jesus starts by publicly thanking his loving-father God.

‘I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth’, he says, ‘because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.’ The child theme again!

Jesus is surely speaking from experience: the experience that the wise and intelligent, the rabbis, the intellectuals, reject him, while plain ordinary folk accept him. I don’t think Jesus is condemning those who are clever – rather he is condemning those who are puffed up with intellectual pride. We must have the open-minded, trustful innocence of a child to believe that Jesus is who he claims to be.

Jesus continues, making the claim that is the centre of the Christian faith, ‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ What Jesus is saying is this: if you want to know what God is like, look at me! As Christians we believe that in Jesus we see what God is like. But surely we can only see it if we are as open-minded and trustful as children. Children really do have much to teach us!

Jesus then says the ‘comfortable words’ that we used to hear every Sunday in the old traditional language Communion service: they are comfortable in the sense that they give us comfort. ‘Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ And he continues, ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

We Irish tend to use the word yoke these days for something whose name we’ve forgotten, or we are too lazy to dredge from our memory. Unless we work with draught animals we probably know very little about real yokes – those wooden bars that go over the shoulders of men or animals to allow them to carry or pull heavy loads safely. But Jesus’s audience would have been very familiar with yokes. And Jesus himself was quite likely an expert in yokes. He probably made them as a youth in his father Joseph’s carpenter’s shop. They would have been bespoke – the carpenter would no doubt take measurements of the man or animal, trim the wood, and fit it carefully, making fine adjustments until it fitted just right, like a good tailor. Perhaps the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth had a sign over the door saying something like ‘Buy my yokes - they fit well!’

What Jesus is saying to his audience, echoing down to us over the millennia, is this. ‘My way, the life I show you, is not a burden to cause you pain; your task is made to measure to fit you’. Whatever God sends us is made to fit our needs and our abilities perfectly. It is not that life’s burdens are easy to carry, but God lays them on us in love, they are meant to be carried in love following Jesus’s example, and love makes even the heaviest burden light.

5. So to conclude

Let us pray that we may not exasperate our Lord Jesus Christ by unnecessary squabbling, like the people of his generation, but rather may we draw strength from Jesus’s certainty that God’s wisdom will be vindicated in the end.

And let us pray that we may be as open-minded and trustful as children, so that we may see God in Jesus, so that we may take up his yoke of love, and so that we may find rest for our souls.

Sunday 15 June 2008

God suffers with us in Jesus!

1. Sickness brings patience, patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope.

If you’ve ever been to the Galway Clinic, you’ve most likely seen these words, written on the wall in the reception area close to the chapel, and attributed to St Paul. When I first saw them, I thought what a strange thing to write on the wall of a hospital. If I were sick - in pain, frightened, suffering – I think I would rather resent the suggestion that I should display the virtues of patience, perseverance and hope. I would much rather someone just made my suffering go away!

These words are of course a variant translation of Paul’s words in his Epistle to the Romans, which we have just heard. ‘But we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’

Now we all know about suffering – to some degree or another it is a part of our common experience as human beings. And surely suffering is a bad thing, a manifestation of evil within the world. I don’t mean pain. Pain can be a good thing, when for instance it teaches us as children not to put our hands in the fire. And a little pain can even be pleasurable, like the slight ache I get when I’ve done a couple of hours hard digging in the garden. Suffering is more a psychological torment that comes from feeling bereft, out of control, in danger, unloved, hopeless, only sometimes from unremitting pain. Suffering drives us to forget everything and everybody else around us in our rage to be rid of it. Suffering is evil.

So how can Paul possibly ask us to ‘boast in our sufferings’? Doesn’t that sound a bit like glorying in something evil? Today I want to try and tease out some thoughts about suffering.

2. First let’s think about the causes of suffering.

Much of the suffering that we see about us and experience ourselves is caused directly or indirectly by you and by me, and by other human beings. The wholesale suffering caused by war, oppression and famine is driven by human greed and thoughtlessness. What you might call retail suffering, from hurtful words to a loved one up the scale to violence, rape and murder, are caused by individual people like us not living up to God’s loving message, expressed by Jesus when he summarised the Law - ‘You shall love the Lord your God, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. This suffering is the result of human sin. We are moral beings, souls, who know the difference between right and wrong. Yet we know too how we seem to be drawn to do what we know to be wrong or not to do what we know is right. We seem to be born that way - theologians call it original sin. We are all sinners, we all need forgiveness, and Jesus assures us that our loving-father God will forgive us if we truly repent.

But there’s an awful lot of suffering in this world which we really can’t trace back in this way to human sin. I’m thinking for instance of the suffering caused recently by the cyclone in Myanmar/Burma, and the earthquakes in Szechwan in China. I’m thinking of the suffering caused by illness and disease, for instance by viruses and cancers. And I’m thinking about the suffering caused by the fact of death – each one of us must face up to the fact that in the long run death will separate us from all that we know and love. All of this suffering seems to be due to the working out of the natural laws of physics, chemistry, biology, in the universe created by almighty God.

3. As Christians we believe our God is both almighty and loving.

But surely if God were really both, he would not allow such a burden of suffering to exist. He would not have made us humans subject to original sin, we would always be perfectly good, and we would never cause others to suffer. He would have created a universe in which natural disasters and disease were absent, and where we would be immortal. Therefore, some say, if God exists he can’t be both: if God is almighty he can’t always be loving, and if God is always loving he can’t be almighty.

This is known as the Problem of Suffering, or the Problem of Evil, and it has been debated by philosophers and theologians since time immemorial. I think the apparent paradox at the heart of it is something that prevents many thoughtful, caring people from accepting our Christian view of God. So how can we as Christians resolve it?

Many Christians, using an argument first made by St Irenaeus in the C2nd, suggest that God made us with free will, and therefore capable of sin which causes suffering, because only that way could we be souls, moral beings made in his image, capable of freely choosing good.

More recently others have extended the argument to suggest that it may be logically necessary for God to establish the universe with the natural laws it has, in order that beings like us can emerge who are free to choose to love. And surely a universe without freely given love but without suffering would be worse than one with both. One such is the eminent physicist John Polkinghorne, who is also an Anglican priest.

These are only speculations, and there are many others, which you can accept or not. But for myself, I think that I must accept as a Christian, with all humility, that I just do not know why God has made both human-kind and the universe such that suffering exists. I believe God is both almighty and loving, so I must also believe that he had sufficient reason to do so. But what that reason is is hidden from me. There is so much that is hidden from us, at least for now!

4. The Romans would have understood Paul’s reference to ‘our sufferings’ to mean their persecution.

Scholars say the letter was probably written by Paul around AD55. The Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome in AD49, ‘because the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus’, a likely misspelling of Christus, Christ. No doubt the authorities continued to make life difficult for the early Christians, and we know that in AD64 Nero was able to scapegoat them for starting the great fire during which he fiddled.

The way human psychology works, groups who are persecuted tend to be strengthened by it. No doubt these persecuted early Christians were proud of the endurance, character and hope they showed under persecution. I don’t think we should take the word ‘boast’ too seriously. No doubt Paul skilfully drew on their pride to get them to listen to his difficult theological message. But I don’t think in the context we can accuse Paul of glorying in something evil.

Rather I think what is important is to see what we can learn from Paul’s message.

5. What St Paul is teaching us, I think, is that God suffers with us in the person of Jesus.

As he puts it, ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’. Jesus, with perfect obedience to his loving father God, suffered a cruel death on the cross in order to show us all how to deal with the suffering and death which every one of us will know.

‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’, Paul says, just as Jesus promised us. It is this love which gives us the character to endure suffering, and never lose hope.

Our Christian hope is that by God’s grace our faith will justify us – that is our faith will put us in the right relationship with God – and so bring us ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’.

God sent us his son, Jesus, to ‘proclaim() the good news of the kingdom’, as Matthew’s Gospel has it, and to show us his way of eternal life. He is always full of compassion for those who suffer.

How amazing it is that almighty God should make such a gesture of loving solidarity toward sinful people like you and me!

How comforting we find that solidarity when we ourselves suffer!

Let us thank God for expressing his solidarity with us in the life and mission, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday 8 June 2008

Grace & Faith

1. Born in Africa, Munster by the grace of God!

This was the slogan on the T-shirt worn by a young Ghanaian Munster supporter in Cardiff when they played and beat Toulouse in the Heineken cup there recently. It made me laugh, but it also got me thinking about the grace of God.

In today’s epistle reading (Romans 4:13-25), St Paul argues that God’s promise to human beings, that we will be justified through Jesus’s death and resurrection, depends only on God’s grace and the faith in God it evokes in us, and not on our vain human attempts to follow God’s law, in other words our trying to be good. And to make his point Paul uses the old familiar Israelite story of how God blessed Abraham and his wife Sarah (Genesis 12:1-9), promising to them ‘I will make of you a great nation’.

It is rather difficult stuff; at least I find it so. And Christians have often bitterly disputed the relationship between God’s grace, God’s law and our faith in God. It was a central theme of the Reformation, and still causes disputes to this day. So I think it might be useful to try and tease out Paul’s argument about grace, law and faith.

2. First let us refresh our memories about the story of Abraham and Sarah

It is indeed a very old story. It is really the foundation myth of the people of Israel. Most cultures have foundation myths of some kind. We do too: the ancient Irish claimed descent from Milesius King of Spain as the mythical founder of Celtic Ireland through his sons who invaded and dispossessed the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through an O’Brien ancestor I can claim descent from Milesius through Brian Boru. Most of you probably can too, however dodgy the genealogy is!

In the small part of the story we heard today, God tells Abraham ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.’ Abraham obeys, and when he gets to the land of Canaan, God tells him ‘To your offspring I will give this land.

You may have noticed that in the passage Abraham was called Abram and his wife Sarah, Sarai – God renamed them later on, when he made a covenant with Abraham, renewing his promise and establishing male circumcision of Abraham and his descendents as a sign of it.

Later on we learn that Sarah, who was Abraham’s half-sister by a different mother, couldn’t conceive. Perhaps their consanguinity had something to do with it. So how is Abraham to have children and fulfil God’s promise? Sarah sees a way: she persuades Abraham to take her slave-girl Hagar as a surrogate mother, and Hagar gives birth to a boy called Ishmael, when Abraham is 86 – Ishmael is the ancestor of the Arab people in both Jewish and Islamic tradition.

But, we are told, this is not how God intended to keep his promise to Abraham. God tells Abraham that the promise will be kept through Sarah. Through all this long saga - there’s much more of it than I’ve covered, it’s well worth going back to Genesis and reading the whole story – Abraham never gives up his faith that God will fulfil his promises, and at long last Sarah conceives and gives birth, when he is 99 and she is 90. Sarah expresses her delight in beautiful words, saying ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’ Her son Isaac is the father of Jacob, also called Israel, and the ancestor of the Jewish people.

Now I can’t for one minute believe that Sarah was really 90 when she gave birth to Isaac. But then I don’t think we should treat the story as if it were history: we have to accept it for what it is, a myth. Myths usually contain a nugget of truth. The nugget of truth within the myth is surely that the Israelites looked back to founders who were not particularly good people, but who cultivated a strong relationship with a God who promised them so much, and who believed whole heartedly that God’s promises would be kept.

3. Now let us examine Paul’s argument

Firstly Paul argues that the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendents the Jews in the old story can have had absolutely nothing to do with obeying God’s law – the Jewish law. After all, the law was given to the Israelites by Moses, long after Abraham’s time. For Abraham there was no law, so there could be no violation of the law, and no wrath, no punishment for breaking it.

Religious Jews were asking then, as religious people still do, How can we enter into the right relationship with God in order to inherit God’s promise? Their answer was that we can do this by earning merit in the sight of God by obeying God’s law, in other words by being good people, by doing good works. It is all up to us – God will only fulfil his promise if we merit it. Paul saw with great clarity that this could not be true: no one could fully keep the law, so if God’s promise depends on keeping the law, the promise can never be fulfilled.

So on what did the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham depend? Paul’s answer is that it depended on Abraham’s faith, on his unshakeable belief and trust that God would fulfil his promise. Abraham continued to believe in God’s promise, even when he grew old, and even when Sarah was clearly unable to have children. His faith was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness’; that is it was his faith that put him in a right relationship with God.

There are two Greek words for a promise. Huposcheisis is a promise on condition: if you do this, I will do that. Paul uses the other, Epaggelia, which is an unconditional promise out of the goodness of ones heart, such as a father or mother might use when promising to love their children no matter what they do. Fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham was not earned by his good works, it was given freely by God’s grace, it was unmerited. All Abraham had to do was believe it.

And finally Paul argues that this applies to us as Christians, in just the same way as it did for Abraham. If we only have faith in the God who raises Jesus from the dead, he will reckon us to be righteous. We will be justified by God’s grace through Jesus’s death and resurrection. We will find ourselves in a right relationship with God, and we too will experience God fulfilling his promise, just as Abraham did.

That is what the grace of God means: it is the favour that God has showered on all of us human kind without our doing anything to earn it – the wonder of creation, our loving relationships, our capacity for happiness, our very lives – and our salvation, in the sense that God has shown us how to recover from our innate propensity to sin, to receive forgiveness. The Greek word translated as grace is charis (χαρις), which literally means "that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness".

4. Another way to look at all this perhaps is through the prism of psychology.

When I was a child, I was just as naughty as every other little boy. I was wilful, I often did not do as I was told, and could be quite nasty, particularly to my baby brother when he annoyed me. But rather than expecting more of me than I was capable of, and punishing me unmercifully when I did not live up to their hopes, my parents always cherished me. They let me know they were sad when I was bad, but they also let me know that I could rely on their loving me whatever I did. Their unconditional love showed me how to love back, and as I grew up, I learned from their example how to distinguish right from wrong.

Perhaps this is the way that God works with us. God does not expect more of us than we are capable of. He does not punish us unmercifully when we break his law and do not behave as we should. Rather he promises us unconditional love, which we experience as God’s grace. And when we respond in faith, and learn from his example, we become more like the people he wants us to be. God’s kingdom comes that little bit closer.

5. So let us pray that we may respond in faith to God’s grace, let us pray that we may receive the fullness of his promise, and let us pray that we may be led by it to understand and obey his loving law.

And if you’re a Munster supporter, and their victory affords you joy, pleasure and delight, you can reckon it as yet another manifestation of God’s overwhelming grace!