Sunday 29 November 2009

Apocalypse and Advent

An address given at St Mary's, Nenagh, on 29th November 2009, Advent Sunday.

We have witnessed appalling sights over the last 10 days.
Homes, businesses and farms have been flooded, devastating the lives of thousands. More thousands have been deprived of clean water to drink. Close to home, the Shannon has risen to levels never previously recorded, and there are fears for critical infrastructure such as the bridge at Killaloe and the Ardnacrusha dam. Those of us who have been spared have a duty, I think, to help those who are suffering. So I urge you to put your hands deep in your pockets for the retiring collection suggested by Bishop Trevor, which will be channelled through the Irish Red Cross. Or alternatively you can make a donation on their website by credit card.

Many people are asking themselves whether all this is due to climate change. No one can say so with certainty, I think, because climate is a matter of statistics. But climate scientists say that global warming will increase the frequency of extreme weather events, and also that winter rainfall in the west of Ireland is likely to increase as temperatures rise, making flooding like this more common. I believe we should take these floods as a wake-up call to act now to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Catastrophic global warming is not just something that will affect people far away – our own future is at risk.

We are increasingly afraid, afraid that the world as we know it is about to undergo a terrifying change. And I think we have cause to be afraid. We are living in apocalyptic times.

Luke records Jesus speaking in apocalyptic terms in today’s Gospel reading.
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves’, Jesus says. ‘People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.’

Jesus’s words are in an apocalyptic literary tradition reaching back into Old Testament times - “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” is actually a quotation from the Book of Daniel, one of the apocalyptic books. The tradition reaches forward to the New Testament book we call Revelation. And from there through medieval visions of the last judgement to, I suppose, modern science fiction fantasies of disaster.

Does Jesus forecast in these words an apocalyptic end of the world? There are Christian fundamentalists who look forward to the second coming of Christ amid awful battles and destruction in the end-time. They clearly believe so - but I cannot. They take scripture too literally, and I think they are deeply misguided. Instead I suggest that Jesus intended his words to apply to every time, to all times, not just to an end-time.

Perhaps his parable is a clue: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.’ Trees sprout new leaves every year – the image is of something that happens again and again and again, not just once at the end.

And it is true, isn’t it, that every generation is faced with its own apocalyptic fears. We may be terrified by the looming catastrophe of global warming. But my parents were haunted by the horror and destruction of total war. Their parents suffered the horrors of the trenches followed by a bloody liberation struggle and fratricidal civil war. And every previous generation has lived through its own nightmares.

Jesus’s message is surely one of hope as we confront our fears, hope for us and hope for every generation that hears his words. ‘So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.’ Even if these things are terrifying. ‘Stand up and raise your heads’, he tells us, ‘because your redemption is drawing near’.

The basis of this hope - our hope - is the miracle of the Incarnation.
This is the first day of Advent, the time each year when we look forward to the Incarnation; the miracle that God has chosen to be part of the world he created, our world; the miracle that God has taken on our flesh in a stunning act of solidarity with his creatures. We wait in expectation for the kingdom of God and our redemption to come near.

On Christmas day Jesus will be born as the helpless baby son of Mary and Joseph into a frightening world. A Roman imperial decree will make his parents travel from their home to far away Bethlehem, where they will find no shelter but a stable. And soon they will be forced to flee as refugees from Herod’s violent wrath. Mary and Joseph had to confront their own fears just as we must.

But through the eyes of faith we will see this helpless child grow up to be ‘“the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory’, who announces the kingdom of God and promises us redemption. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’, he says, ‘but my words will not pass away’.

Jesus urges us, ‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’ So I shall finish with a prayer:
Loving Father,
who sent your Son Jesus Christ
to proclaim your kingdom
and restore the broken to fullness of life:
Look with compassion on the anguish of the world and of your people;
Give us the strength to overcome our fears
and to stand before the Son of Man;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord and Redeemer.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Generous widows

An address given at Templederry on 8th November 2009, the 3rd Sunday before Advent, Year B

Did you notice the common themes running through today’s readings? I’m sure you did - if you were listening!
1st - they’re both about widows. 2nd - they’re both about giving generously:
  • In the OT reading (1Kings 17:8-16), we met the generous widow who fed the prophet Elijah during a great drought and famine.
  • In the NT reading (Mark 12:38-44), Jesus first warns his audience against scribes who ‘devour widow’s houses’, and then he points out another generous widow, who puts all the money she has into the Temple collection.
This morning I want to reflect a little about what the readings say to me.

First, there are the scribes that Jesus warns us about.
‘Beware of the scribes’, he says, ‘who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.’

Now, I have to confess Jesus’s words make me feel a little uncomfortable. Here I am dressed up in long robes - a cassock with a flowing surplice. Of course it’s really no more than a uniform, based on the plain clothes of long ago, but perhaps I ought to wear a decent work suit, not long robes, to lead worship. I like to be treated with respect too, just like everyone else. And you probably think that the prayers I lead are too long. Perhaps you should beware of me! I don’t think I devour widows’ houses though.

The scribes were the leaders of society in Jesus’s day. Today we might identify them with the professional classes – the lawyers, the doctors, and the business leaders; the developers, the bankers, and the politicians - as well as the church hierarchy. The widows, on the other hand, were among the most vulnerable and marginalised of the poor then – in today’s terms they might be those trying to live on social welfare or the minimum wage.

Jesus is criticising the well-got for feathering their own nests at the expense of the poor and vulnerable – ‘they devour widows’ houses’, is the cutting way he puts it.

As we approach the budget in December, we are hearing a torrent of voices calling for cuts which would hit the poor and vulnerable hard, and we hear the same voices asserting that the well off cannot afford to pay more in taxes. I think we too should ‘beware of the scribes’. The truth is that the rich can afford to be generous in their support of the poor.

Then there’s Elijah, caught up in a great drought sent to punish Ahab, King of Israel, prophesied by Elijah himself.
In the passage just before today's reading, Elijah is first guided by the word of the Lord to find refuge by a stream in the Wadi Cherith in the Eastern wilderness, where the ravens bring him food and he has water to drink - but the stream dries up. Then, as we heard, the word of the Lord directs him to Zarephath where he meets the widow.

She is poor, she is vulnerable, with a son to feed. She’s at her wits end, ready to give up. Elijah asks her for food, and she answers, ‘I have … only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die’.

But Elijah assures the widow that God will provide. ‘Thus says the Lord the God of Israel’, he tells her, ‘the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth’.

And with amazing generosity – with reckless generosity - the widow does as Elijah asks. She shares her small stock of food with him. And it lasts all three of them until the famine is over.

This surely is a parable about sharing generously. When times are hard, if we share generously what we have, there will be enough for all – God will provide. Times are hard now. So many of us are worried and anxious about how we will get through the next few years of economic depression. It would be very easy to hoard every red cent we have because we might need it later. But if instead we are generous in sharing what God has given us, we will all come through it together.

Finally, there’s the poor widow Jesus spots at the Temple treasury.
It was the custom for people to give money at the treasury to support the Temple, in much the same way as we take up collections in Church. Jesus is a great observer of people, a people-watcher. He watches and sees many rich people giving large sums. Then he notices the poor widow contributing two small copper coins – I imagine them as like those annoying 1 cent coins which few of us bother to pick up from the ground anymore. And he uses this contrast to teach his disciples about generosity.

‘Truly I tell you’, he says, ‘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’. Her generosity is reckless, just like Elijah’s widow’s – she might have put in just one of her coins, but no, she puts them both in!

Real generosity isn’t about how much you give; it is about the sacrifice you make. You get no brownie points in heaven for giving more than someone else, but you do for giving until it hurts.

You should all have had Mission Sunday envelopes, and I want to remind you they are due back today. I hope you will fill them generously, because our diocesan mission partners rely on our support to be able to carry out the good work they do. But if 5 cent is a sacrifice for you it is quite enough, while if €50 is no sacrifice, perhaps you should consider giving more.

I think it is rather wonderful that the person Jesus marks out as a pattern of generosity had so little to give in money and possessions, because they really have nothing to do with it, nothing at all. The last verse of Christina Rossetti’s beautiful carol, In the bleak mid winter, which we will soon be singing, sums up what real generosity is about, I think:
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him, give my heart.