Sunday 5 December 2010

Remembering Prophets

An address given on the 2nd Sunday of Advent 5th December 2010 at Nenagh (it would have been given in Templederry too, but the service there was cancelled due to the icy conditions).

Today we lit the 2nd candle in the advent wreath to remember the prophets.
And today’s readings are concerned with two of the greatest of them: Isaiah in the Old Testament (Isaiah 11:1-10) and John the Baptist in the New (Matthew 3:1-12). Christians see their prophetic words as referring to the incarnation of God in Jesus, and the coming of Christ’s kingdom.

We shouldn’t see prophets, I think, as being like weather forecasters, or racing tipsters, who foretell the future without engaging in it. Rather a prophet is someone who expresses a vision of the way things are, and the consequences that flow from this, which powerfully influences those who listen, so that they act to make that prophetic vision a reality. Prophets change history through their words!

Let me try to tease out what these prophets’ words say to me.

Let’s start with Isaiah’s vision of a world of peace and justice.
‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’

A beautiful image - but we all know, don’t we, that the strong prey on the weak; the natural world is all about survival of the fittest. ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ – the phrase comes from Tennyson's long poem ‘In Memoriam’ (canto 56). In it the poet contrasts the idea of a good and loving God with the terrors of an uncaring Nature. He talks about a person of faith,
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law-
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

Surely Isaiah’s vision of predator and prey at peace together can be nothing more than a fairytale? That’s not the way the world works. What’s going on here?

The context is important, I think.
Isaiah is writing in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, at a time of great danger. The Assyrians have just conquered Judah’s twin kingdom of Israel and carried the people off as captives, and now they threaten Judah. Isaiah believes that the social and political collapse of Israel was caused by its failure to live up to the spirit of the law given in Sinai – and he sees the same thing happening to Judah. Isaiah has just prophesied that Judah too will be overthrown, but he can’t believe that a God who is faithful will desert his chosen people completely – once the Assyrians have purged those who have broken the covenant, surely a faithful remnant will be left.

So in today’s reading Isaiah prophesies that from the root of Jessie, a new shoot will rise up. From the ruins of Jerusalem, of the kingdom of Jessie’s son David, a new kingdom of justice and peace will arise, worthy of God’s favour. It will be marked by ‘the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord’. Its ruler – from the stock of Jesse – ‘with righteousness … shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth’.

It is a vision of the kingdom of heaven. In such a society the powerful will not prey on the weak. Isaiah’s vision is about people, not nature. Survival of the fittest should not – must not - apply in human society, however much it does in the natural world.

Isaiah was wrong in his belief that Judah would fall to the Assyrians.
The Assyrians mysteriously abandoned their attack on Jerusalem. When destruction came, 100 years later, it was the Babylonians, not the Assyrians who laid waste to Jerusalem and carried its leaders into exile.

But Isaiah’s vision was not forgotten. His words were remembered by the exiles. His vision inspired them to hold firm in their traditional faith, to keep their identity as a people, and to return home when conditions allowed.

Over the centuries that followed, Isaiah’s words were studied and elaborated. By Roman times, religious Jews felt quite certain that God would send his Messiah – his anointed one – of the stock of Jesse, who would rule over the Jewish people, as Isaiah had prophesied, with righteousness and faithfulness.

John the Baptist believed in Isaiah’s prophecy and expected God to send his Messiah.
As Matthew reports, he told his followers ‘one who is more powerful than I is coming after me, I am not worthy to carry his sandals’. Matthew also believed that John himself was the messenger that Isaiah said would announce the Messiah, ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. John called the people to, ‘Repent,’ – to make a new start, to change their lives – ‘for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ – the kingdom of Isaiah’s vision.

Jesus surely pondered Isaiah’s words too. I believe he came to the conclusion that they were to be fulfilled in him. But God gave Jesus the insight that as the Messiah he must come not in physical power and glory like a king, but as a suffering servant, leading his people – all people, Jews and gentiles – by his example, to the kingdom of heaven which his loving father God willed.

The early Christians, steeped in the Jewish Messiah tradition, were convinced that Jesus is the shoot from the stock of Jesse in Isaiah’s prophesy. The spirit of the Lord rested upon him. He preached the kingdom of heaven. He died that we might be saved, he rose from the dead, and he ascended to God. Surely, they said, he will return to rule with righteousness and faithfulness over God’s kingdom of justice and peace.

So what of us today? Do we believe in Isaiah’s vision?
In our own time, as in Isaiah’s, we are faced with danger and uncertainty. But we must never give up hope.

Isaiah’s vision is in front of us – the world can be like the kingdom of heaven, filled with justice and peace. John’s call echoes in our ears, to make a new start because the kingdom of heaven has come near. Jesus has shown us the way as God incarnate. He has sent us the Spirit to lead us, and fire to drive us forward, just as John said he would. Our task as Christians is to do our bit to make his kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, a reality.
God is faithful to his faithful people.

‘They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.’

Isaiah’s vision is not a fairytale, because for God all things are possible!

Sunday 14 November 2010

Remembering - and the kingdom of God

An address given on Sunday 14th November 2010, the 2nd before Advent, Remembrance Sunday, at Templederry & Killodiernan.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Rev F A O (Derick) Sanders CF(EC) in battledress

Today I wear a poppy in my father’s memory.
He was dragged - unwillingly - into the maelstrom of the 2nd World War. As a Chaplain to the Forces he landed in Normandy on D-day, he was there at the crossing of the Rhine, and he ended up in the ruins of Berlin. He spoke little about his experiences, not to me or to most others I think - but he was marked by them. He felt it right to wear the emblem of a poppy on Remembrance Day, in memory of his comrades who died, and in memory of the scenes of murderous destruction he had witnessed. I thank God that my life has not been scarred by war in the same way his was.

Many people choose to wear a poppy today, but not all do. And we should be mindful of the sensitivities of others, particularly here in Ireland. It is surely right to remember our family and friends who have suffered in war – for they are part of us. It is right to remember the horrors of war – lest by forgetting we allow them to happen again. And it is also right to support the charitable work of the Earl Haig Fund.

But how we remember is important, I think. Jesus proclaims, ‘the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1:15). War is the very opposite of the kingdom of God. Our remembering should be mingled in equal measure with repentance. We need to repent the very human tendency - which we all share - to hate those not of our tribe, to treat them as enemies, who all too often we seek to kill and maim in war. And we should not let others manipulate our remembering to reinforce the tribal instincts that promote war.

Let us join together in faith and penitence in a minute’s silence, in remembrance of all those who have died, been maimed or suffered in war; men, women and children; whether military or civilian; on whichever side, and on no side.

Ever-living God, we remember those whom you have gathered from the storm of war into the peace of your presence; may that same peace calm our fears, bring justice to all peoples and establish harmony among the nations, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

What a beautiful vision of the kingdom of God Isaiah (65:17-25) paints in today’s OT reading!
The Lord is ‘about to create new heavens and a new earth’, says Isaiah. ‘No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.’ It will be a place of peace, in which, ‘the wolf and lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox’. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord’.

For the Jews of Jesus’s time, the holy mountain was Mount Zion, one of the hills on which Jerusalem is built, with the Temple at its summit. Herod the Great had extended, adorned and beautified the Temple in the years before Jesus was born. Judging by the remains excavated by archaeologists and descriptions from the time, it must have been a stunning building.

I imagine that visitors must have seen the Temple as like a foretaste of Isaiah’s new creation, a model of what the kingdom of God would be like when it was realised on earth, a monument to peace and plenty for all.

But Jesus did not see the Temple in this way, as the NT reading (Luke 21:5-19) tells us.
For Jesus the kingdom of God that he cares so passionately about – his kingdom – is not built of stones, no matter how magnificent. His kingdom is not of this world, as he later tells Pilate at his trial. He recognises that the Temple with all its sacrifices, priests and temple-taxes is an unsustainable burden on God’s people. And he knows, as we do, that all material things turn to dust in the end. So when he hears some people admiring the magnificence of the Temple, ‘how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God’, he publicly foresees its utter destruction. And of course he is proved right – some 40 years later it is indeed destroyed in the course of a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule.

Some who were listening to Jesus miss his point completely. They ask him to tell them how to know exactly when this destruction will happen. Many people in Jesus’s time were just as consumed with apocalyptic fears about the end-times as some folk are today. But Jesus will have nothing to do with it - he does not feed their fears. Instead he warns them not to believe people who claim to be able to forecast such things. And he tells them not to fear that the end is imminent, even when they hear of awful events, such as ‘wars and insurrections’, ‘earthquakes’, ‘famines and plagues’.

Then with amazing frankness, Jesus uses the occasion to teach his disciples what is in store for them, and in a strange way to reassure them.

Jesus knows that the political and religious authorities are determined to get rid of him, to put him out of the way. The end game is upon him – in just a few days he will be seized, tried and executed on the cross. And then the authorities will turn on his disciples. ‘Before all this occurs’, he says, ‘they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name’.

But Jesus promises to help them to hold on, to stand firm and testify to the values of the kingdom of God which he has taught them – that is what matters, whatever may befall them. ‘For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict’, he says. ‘You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls’.

I put it to you that Jesus’s disciples in all ages – including us – should be reassured by his words. Jesus will help us to proclaim the values of the kingdom of God. It may be that in Ireland today we're not likely to be killed for sticking up for the kingdom of God, though we may very well suffer in other ways. But that is our duty as disciples. Desertion in the face of the enemy is shameful. By our endurance we will gain our souls.

To suffer or die for the kingdom of God is not the worst thing that can happen to us.

Vines & Grapes

A talk for children at the Family Service on Sunday 14 November 2010 in St Mary's, Nenagh. The theme was The Vine.

Children, I’m going to talk to you today about vines, because that is the theme of the service.

Perhaps those of you at the back could come up to the front with the girls choir, because I have something to give you.

The grown-ups can listen in if they want to, or go to sleep, but they should be very good and quiet as mice.

What is this? (hold up a bunch of grapes) - Grapes

What kind of plant do grapes grow on? – Vines

Do you like to eat grapes? – Yes! Well here they are for you to share.

Grapevines are wonderful plants.
Here is a picture of a grapevine.

Grapevines like to grow in countries that are much drier and hotter in summer than Ireland is, so they don’t grow very well here. To get really good sweet grapes in Ireland you have to grow them in a glasshouse. But they grow well in Palestine where Jesus lived, and everyone there then knew as much about vines and grapes as we do about apple trees and apples, because you could find them in every garden.

A vine grows from a big old trunk every year. It has roots that go down a long way to find every drop of water and all the nutrients it can. The water and the nutrients make a rich sap which the trunk pushes up to feed its new growth. In spring and summer the vine grows branches and leaves, and produces flowers which turn into tiny grapes. During the autumn, the tiny grapes swell and ripen until they are the sweet juicy fruit we can buy in the shops. And all the time the vine-grower has to tend it. He has to cut out any branches or twigs that break. And he carefully prunes any branches and twigs that aren’t growing as they should. If he doesn’t tend it properly, the vine won’t produce a big harvest of good fruit.

How are those grapes, by the way? Are they sweet and juicy? Yes! So the vine-grower has done his job well!

In today’s reading (John 15: 1-8), Jesus tells us a story about vines.
Jesus uses the picture of a vine to show us what our relationship should be with him – as his followers – and with God – his and our loving Father.

‘I am the true vine’, he says. Have you noticed these words written in our beautiful stained-glass East window? They are there to remind us of Jesus’s story.

And he goes on to say, ‘my Father is the vine-grower’ - that's God, and ‘you are the branches’ - that's you here, everyone over there, and me too.

If I were a vine branch, I’d want to produce good fruit – and I’m sure you would too. In the same way, we all would like to be the good people that God wants us to be.

That means we must hold tightly to Jesus like branches to a vine trunk. Just as the vine branch needs rich sap from the vine trunk to produce good grapes, so we need the kind of spiritual food which only Jesus can feed us with, to be as good as God wants us to be.

We grow and learn throughout our lives, not just as children, but as grown ups. We learn from our experience. As we live and learn, we must expect God to teach us hard lessons sometimes. God, our loving Father, is like a skilful vine-grower. We must let him prune out any bad bits in us, so that the good bits in us will produce good fruit. That is what learning from experience is all about, and we should rejoice in it.

So, every time that you eat a really juicy grape, and every time that you look at that beautiful stained-glass window, I want you to remember Jesus’s story about the vine:

  • Jesus is the true vine that feeds us

  • You and I are like branches of the vine

  • God, our loving Father, is like a skilful vine-grower

  • If we hold tightly to Jesus and we trust in God, we can and we will produce good fruit to please him - as sweet and juicy as any bunch of grapes!

Sunday 17 October 2010

Harvest in the wilderness

Address given at the Lockeen Harvest Festival, Sunday 17th October 2010. It was a great privilege to be invited back, three years after the last Harvest I attanded there. Year A readings (Deuteronomy 8:7-18 and Luke 17:11-19)

We all love Harvest Festivals, don’t we?
Looking around us at this beautifully decorated church, filled with harvest bounty, how can we fail to feel thankful? 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, filled with a sense of accomplishment, now that the year’s work has been crowned with success.

And it’s not just human beings who feel thankful, I fancy. Have you come across John Betjeman’s well known poem, The Diary of a Church Mouse? The Church Mouse has a lean diet for most of the year, nibbling on old service books, floor polish and the stuffing of hassocks. He doesn’t care much for Christmas or Easter or Whitsun, but he dines like a king at Harvest:
For me the only feast at all
Is Autumn’s Harvest Festival,
When I can satisfy my want
With ears of corn around the font.
I climb the eagle’s brazen head
To burrow through a loaf of bread.
I scramble up the pulpit stair
And gnaw the marrows hanging there.

My farming neighbour tells me it’s been a good harvest this year – and if he says so it must be true, because he’s not usually so positive! His grain yield is a bit down, due to the dry summer, but the harvest was easier than last year, moisture is low, and he’s anticipating a good price. Dairy farmers are also happy, he tells me, though dry-stock folk a bit less so. Sheep farmers are pleased too. And those of us like me with gardens are delighted with our excellent crops of fruit and vegetables.

We really do have so much to be thankful for. In the OT reading from Deuteronomy (8:7-18), Moses speaks to the children of Israel as they wait to cross into the Promised Land. ‘The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land’, he says, ‘a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley’. Well, God has already placed us in just such a land: Ireland is well-watered; our yields of wheat and barley are among the highest in the world. Instead of ‘vines and fig trees and pomegranates’, we have cherries and plums, apples and pears, raspberries and currants. We may not have olive trees, but we have rape-seed for oil. It is ‘a land where we may eat bread without scarcity, where we lack nothing’. It is surely right for us to ‘eat our fill and bless the Lord our God for the good land that he has given us’.

But we are not all farmers, and in other respects we are suffering a hard, bitter season.
We are shocked and angered by revelations of financial mismanagement by so many of our leaders. The actions of bankers, developers and politicians here have made the global crash worse than in other countries. Many have lost their jobs, many more have had their take-home pay cut, the old find their pensions are not what they expected. Services are being pared; people are struggling to pay mortgages on homes now worth just a fraction of what they paid for them. And we are being told that we face four more years of increasing pain to bring our public finances back into balance.

It is also slowly – too slowly – dawning on us that our modern consumer lifestyle is not sustainable. To feed this lifestyle, human beings are over-exploiting the Earth’s resources of fossil energy, minerals, water and fertile land. If this continues God’s planet which nurtures us will be damaged, and we will suffer with the rest of creation.

Our lifestyle is also unjust. Everyone can’t enjoy the high consumption that we do in the developed world – there are simply not enough resources to go round. The rich unjustly take the lions share, and so deprive the poor of their aspirations to development.

We know we will have to make changes, but we do not yet understand what and how. We are anxious; we are frightened. And for many people it is difficult to feel thankful.

How is it that we find ourselves in this position?
The root cause of the problems we face is surely that old fashioned sin of greed, to which human beings have always been liable – greed for money, greed for possessions, greed for a lifestyle richer than our neighbour has.

Could it be that we have been forgetting God, and saying to ourselves, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’?

Our situation is a bit like that faced by the children of Israel as Moses led them out of Egypt into the Sinai desert, long before they ever get to the Promised Land.

God is leading us ‘through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions’. We are being humbled. We are being tested. God has given us a task on our journey - to build a sustainable and just society, more like the kingdom of heaven than the one we know today, the kind of society in which all can flourish. We are journeying through a wilderness - but in the end the journey will be good for us – we will enter the Promised Land.

We need cleansing just as much as the lepers that Jesus met on the way to Jerusalem. (Luke 17:11-19)
We need to be cleansed of sinful greed. Without that we cannot be successful in the task God entrusts us with. And we can be sure that Jesus will cleanse us, if we recognise our sin for what it is, and call out to him, as the lepers did, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’

But let us not be like the nine lepers who failed to show their gratitude. Let us be like the one who turned back, praising God, to thank Jesus. It is against the grain of society today, it is counter-cultural. But if we praise God and show our gratitude, Jesus will bless us, as he did that Samaritan, saying, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well’.

Others will notice the change in us. Our positive, unselfish, grateful attitude will attract them. They will be inspired to work with us to build that sustainable, just society in which all will flourish.

God will look after us on our journey in the wilderness; he will make ‘water flow from flint rock’ and he will feed us ‘with manna that our ancestors did not know’; in fact he will continue to bless us with good harvests. Enough to meet our needs if not our unreasonable wants. And we must give thanks for them, as we are doing today, because our joy will bring others to join us.

Betjeman’s Church Mouse was surprised at harvest time to be joined in the church by so many field mice from outside. The poem finishes:
But all the same it's strange to me
How very full the church can be
With people I don't see at all
Except at Harvest Festival.

As Christians we must go forward confidently, certain that God will bring us into a good land:
  • There will be economic recovery – thank God!
  • We will build a sustainable and just society, more like the kingdom of heaven – thank God!
  • And like the children of Israel we must ‘remember the Lord our God, for it is he who gives us power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to our ancestors, as he is doing today’thank God for that promise too!

Sunday 10 October 2010

Foreigners & Exiles

‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.’
These words came to my mind as I read today's passage from Luke's Gospel (17:11-19). They come from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, sung by a character who is an exile in the Forest of Ardenne.

Luke tells us that Jesus healed ten lepers, and only one came back to show his gratitude. ‘Were not ten made clean?’, says Jesus, ‘But the other nine, where are they?’

I fear I’m more like the nine ungrateful than the tenth grateful leper – and I dare say you are too. How many of us do not owe an immense debt to someone else? Perhaps to a friend, a teacher, a doctor, who has done something for us that we could not possibly repay. Or to our parents - a week’s neglect on their part would have killed us when we were new born. Yet how often do we forget to express our gratitude, how often do we not even bother to say thank you?

And we are often ungrateful to God as well. He has blessed us with so much: he has given us a wonderful world so perfectly made to meet our needs for food, clothing, shelter and beauty; he has given us the capacity to form deep loving relationships as parents and children, as friends and lovers; and God has even given us his only Son to show us the way to his kingdom, the way of self-sacrifice which leads through the cross. When times are bad we may pray to God with desparate intensity, but when times are good we are inclined to forget to be grateful. On Sundays we recite automatically the words ‘Almighty God, we thank you for feeding us’, but how many of us ever offer even a silent grace before meals, I wonder?

Jesus saw that the one who came back was a Samaritan. ‘Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’, he says.

As an ethnic group the Samaritans were heretics - they did not behave, or believe, or worship as the Jews did – they were ritually unclean. They were disliked and despised by their Jewish neighbours – somewhat as many Irish people dislike and despise immigrants or travellers today. But Jesus teaches his disciples a lesson by drawing their attention to this particular outsider, who was the only one to turn back, praise God for his healing and thank Jesus. And Jesus publicly blessed him, saying, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well’.

Jesus is never dismissive of people who are different in race, culture or faith, and we should not be either, if we are to claim the right to call ourselves Christians. We can have much to learn from those who are different – those of us who were at Monday’s celebration of Creation Flourishing might reflect on the lesson about joy in worship which Suma and Priya from India taught us in their traditional dance of praise and thanksgiving.

Jeremiah (29:1,4-7) gives the exiles in Babylon some good advice in today’s OT reading.
Let me summarise it. Get on with your lives; build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce, marry and have children. But also, seek the welfare of the city where you find yourself, and pray for it, because in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Others at the time were stirring up the Jewish people to rebel against the Babylonians. But history shows that Jeremiah was wise. It seems the Jews did as he advised, they prospered in Babylon and retained their identity, so that some 70 years later, after Babylon in turn had been overthrown by the Persians, their descendents were able to return to Jerusalem and restore the Temple.

It is good advice for migrants everywhere. It is good advice for the New Irish that we have brought to our country. And it is good advice for the many Irish people who will likely be forced by the economic crash to emigrate over the next few years. Our children and young relatives may well be among them - how heartbreaking it will be for them and for us. But let us pray that they may build good lives in their new communities and work for them to flourish, because if their new communities flourish, so will they.

The majority of us, though, will stay in Ireland to cope with what looks likely to be a long recession. We are shocked and angered by recent revelations of economic mismanagement. The economic landscape has changed. The future will not be one of ever-growing material prosperity as we expected just 2 or 3 years ago. We know much will have to change, but we do not yet see clearly what and how. We are scared by the uncertainty. And we risk falling into a communal psychological depression which would prevent us addressing the real problems we face.

In a way we are like internal exiles in our own country.
Jeremiah’s advice is good for us as well:
  • Get on with your lives, he says. We must not look back at what we feel we have lost, but instead look forward.
  • Build houses and live in them, he says. Well, we won’t need to build much soon, but what we should do is to seek new uses for the ghost estates, the offices, the commercial properties and factories lying empty all over Ireland. We must adapt them for fruitful purposes.
  • Plant gardens and eat what they produce, he says. We are blessed in Ireland with bountiful renewable resources: our land and seas, energy from wind, ocean and geothermal heat, skilled people and vibrant culture. Let us use them productively – they will feed us like gardens.
  • Marry and have children, he says. Ordinary human life can and must continue – let us use our capacity for deep loving relationships as parents, children, friends and lovers, to support and care for one another.
  • But also, says Jeremiah, seek the welfare of the city where you find yourself, and pray for it, because in its welfare you will find your welfare. Let us strive to build a just and sustainable society for the future, because only in such a society can we all flourish.
And as recovery comes - which it will, thank God - let us behave like the grateful Samaritan and remember to turn back, to praise God, and to give thanks for all he has given us.

Sunday 3 October 2010

Faith & Duty

Address given on Sunday 3rd October 2010, the Eighteenth after Trinity, in Nenagh.

In today’s NT reading, Luke (17:5-10) records two short sayings of Jesus.
They are memorable, because Jesus, as he always does, paints vivid pictures in simple everyday language.

But they are also paradoxical, I think, because although they seem simple on the surface, it is only after pondering them for a while that we can begin to grasp their true implications.

In these two sayings, Jesus is giving his followers – then and now – two important rules for living as God’s beloved children: a rule of faith, and a rule of duty. Let's look more closely at them.

First, the rule of faith
The apostles said to Jesus, ‘Increase our faith’. Jesus replied ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.’

I wonder whether the apostles felt when they heard this that Jesus was exasperated by their request? Was he criticising them for not having even the merest smidgeon of faith? Because of course they knew very well they couldn’t expect a tree to obey their command!

But once they thought about it they would realise that he was simply telling them the truth, in his typically vivid way.

Surely what Jesus really meant is this. They mustn’t use the excuse of too little faith to avoid doing what God asks of them. If they have any faith at all, no matter how small, they must act on it. They must trust that God will work his purpose out through them - and get on with it. They will find that they can do things they never thought they could – miraculous things.

And I think, perhaps, that we have experienced the truth of this in our own parish, in a small way. When we discovered that St Mary’s needed a new roof which would cost hundreds of thousands of euros, we didn’t at first believe that we could raise the money. But when we overcame our fears, when we trusted that God would not let us down, when we acted on our little faith, then we discovered that by God’s grace, with the help of our neighbours and the wider community, we could perform a little miracle. We raised enough money to complete the roof in a little over a year, and we have gone on to replace two more!

The rule of faith that Jesus gives us is this: do not fear that you have too little faith; instead trust in God and obey the promptings of his Spirit; you will discover that you have faith enough to do things that might seem impossible.

Second, there’s the rule of duty
Jesus asks his followers to imagine that they are slave owners. A slave owner wouldn’t dream of thanking a slave for doing what he is ordered to do, says Jesus – that’s just what a slave is meant to do! But then he asks them to imagine their role reversed, with them in the role of slaves in relation to God. ‘So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done!”’

Now, we’re not at all comfortable today with the idea of slavery – thank God! Slavery was abolished largely because Christian men and women came to realise that it contradicted the biblical conviction that every human being is created in the image of God – though shamefully, not until nearly 2000 years after Jesus’s death. I doubt that many of Jesus’s disciples owned slaves themselves – they weren’t rich folk – but slavery then was part of everyone’s common experience – they would have understood what Jesus was talking about very well.

If Jesus were making the same point today, he might say something like this.

‘Imagine you’re a multi-millionaire, who employs a housekeeper, a personal assistant and other staff. When they do their job, you don’t go out of your way to thank them, or give them a bonus, because you pay them well to work for you – doing their job is only what you expect of them.

Now, put yourself in God’s shoes. He employs you to serve him by doing good, doing his will. He has given you this wonderful world and all its resources to meet all your reasonable needs. You don’t expect God to give you any special reward just because you have done what he asks of you, do you? You’ve only done your duty!’

The rule of duty that Jesus gives us is this: behave like servants of God; the Holy Spirit will tell you what God wants of you if you listen for it in prayer; your Christian duty is to do what he asks. But you should not expect to earn any special favour from God for doing it – it is no more than what is your duty to God.

We have no right to expect good things in this life, nor a place in heaven, just because we have done a few good deeds – and inevitably failed in many others. Yet Jesus reveals to us a God who is like a loving Father. He assures us that God will forgive our failures if we ask him to, and that he has prepared a place in his kingdom for his faithful servants. But it is a matter of God’s grace and not our own merit.

Let us then resolve to live our lives according to Jesus’s rules of faith and duty:
  • Let us trust in God, and believe that though our faith is little it will be enough to achieve God’s purposes.
  • Let us be servants of God, doing what is right and our duty, not because we expect to be rewarded for it, but just because it is right and our duty.
St. Ignatius Loyola captures this beautifully in his prayer

Teach us, Good Lord, to serve you as you deserve:
to give, and not to count the cost;
to fight, and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,

Sunday 12 September 2010

Love casts out fear

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams preached a thoughtful and challenging sermon at an ecumenical service in Copenhagen Cathedral during the Climate Change talks last December. This is a slightly adapted version. I am very much indebted to him for his insight. And I hope he will forgive me the sin of plagiarism!

‘Perfect love casts out fear’, says St John in his 1st Epistle, as we heard in our opening sentence from scripture.
John is talking about how Christian confidence in God’s love and forgiveness leads us to be fearless. Our confidence, our fearlessness, is built on seeing love at work through us – not just warm feelings or positive emotions or even kind actions, but the love that really sets people free and brings something new into the world: God’s love, reaching into the deepest tangles and knots of our human condition, the love that was the essence of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection.

As Christians, we must be fearless in protecting God’s creation, because when God looks at all he has made he finds it good, as we read in Genesis. We must show in our lives some echo of God’s delight in his creation.We are called to be, God enables us to be, a channel through which God expresses his love for all creation.

Love casts out fear.
If our starting point is the belief that God wants us to rejoice and delight in creation, our whole attitude to the environment will not be anxiety, or a desparate search for ways to control it. It will be an excited and hopeful search to understand it, and to honour its complex interdependent beauty.

If we have any fear, it should be fear of spoiling the heritage God has given us, fear of forgetting the overwhelming scale and depth of his gift and of our responsibility to care for it, fear of forgetting that we are called to show the same consistent and sacrificial love for creation that we must show towards our fellow human beings.

And the truth is that we cannot show the right kind of love for our fellow human beings unless we work to keep the earth a secure home for all people and future generations.

At the present moment, the human species is faced with the consequences of generations of failure to love the earth as we should. Human beings have been polluting the atmosphere and waters, living on the pigs back on non-renewable resources, causing the extinction of other species, causing our planet to warm dangerously – ultimately risking the collapse of the web of life which sustains all species, including ours.

We are not doomed to carry on in the downward spiral of the greedy, addictive behaviour that has brought us to this point. But fear still rules our hearts and imaginations. We are afraid because we can’t imagine how to survive without the comforts of our existing lifestyle. We in the rich world are afraid that the rapidly growing developing economies will take advantage of us. Those in the poor world are afraid that our older, richer economies will use the excuse of ecological responsibility to deny them proper and just development.

So long as this fear dominates our thinking, we are stepping back from love – love for creation itself, which we must look at as God looks at it – love for one another and for the generations still unborn, who need us to do whatever we can to guarantee a stable, productive and balanced world to live in – not a world of chaotic and disruptive change, of devastation and desertification, of biological impoverishment and degradation.

Love casts out fear.
The truth is that what is most likely to get us to take the right decisions for our global future is love.

There is a temptation to underline fear to persuade one another of the urgency of the situation: to say things are so bad, so threatening that we simply must do something.

It would be all too easy, for instance, to enlist Jeremiah’s terrifying vision of the destruction of creation in our 1st reading (Jeremiah 4: 11-12, 22-28) as a stick to wave at doubters. ‘I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins.’ But that would be wrong, I think. Jeremiah’s words relate to his own time and place – the precarious position of the Kingdom of Judah and its people, faced by the rising imperial power of Babylon. Scholars tell us that most likely Jeremiah’s words were remembered, collected together and no doubt edited after the disaster he foresaw had already taken place, after the leaders of Judah had been carried off in captivity to Babylon, where they reflected on what had happened to them, and where as survivors they took comfort from God’s promise not to make a full end of them.

Our situation is quite different. We may be tempted to think bitterly that the human race is still not frightened enough by what is in store for us if we don’t change our ways. But that kind of fear could simply paralyse us, as we all know. It could make us feel that the problem is so great, so insoluble, that we might just as well pull the bedclothes up over our head and wait for disaster to strike. What’s more it could make us just blame one another or just wait for someone else to make the first move because we don’t trust them. We need more than that for lifegiving change to happen.

Love casts out fear.
As we respond to the global environmental crisis as Christians, there are two simple things we can say to ourselves, our neighbours and our governments.

1st: Don’t be afraid – but ask questions.

  • Ask how the lifestyle you live looks in the light of God’s command to love God and your neighbour. Ask how Government policy looks in the same context. Ask what would be a healthy and sustainable relationship with this world, a relationship that manifests both joy in and respect for the earth.
  • If we really love God’s creation, each one of us will repent of any greed and excess in the way we live – and as Jesus teaches us in today’s 2nd reading (Luke 15:1-10), ‘there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’. We will start to make changes to tread more lightly on God’s world ourselves. Our families, friends and neighbours – even Governments - will notice the changes we make and our joy in and care for God’s world. By God’s grace they will be led to do the same themselves
2nd: Don’t separate environmental concerns from trust for one another.

  • In a world like ours with limited resources there can be no trust without justice, without the assurance of knowing that my neighbour is there for me when I face insecurity or risk.
  • We must work for justice and strive to build up trust. If we allow God to teach us trust and if we learn to live in trust and seek justice, the whole of creation will feel the effects. Selfishness will give way to liberation, human beings will flourish alongside a flourishing creation, and the result will be to God’s glory.
Let us not be afraid – let us act for the sake of love, not out of fear.

Sunday 8 August 2010

Of honey-bees and human beings

Address given on 8th August 2010, the 10th Sunday after Trinity, at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan

What wonderful creatures honey-bees are!
Last week at the Nenagh Show one of the most popular stands was the Beekeeping Association’s, where I watched bees at work through glass inside a sealed hive. What business, what industry!

We all love honey of course, and the finest church candles are always made from beeswax. But even more important is the service bees give the rest of creation by pollinating flowers. I am concerned not to have seen a single honey-bee in my garden this year - not one! I think their absence may account for the bad set on my broadbeans. So I’m planning to take a beekeeping course this winter, and set up a hive in the garden, to see if that helps.

Wild bee colonies have been killed off, we are told, by the Varroa mite, an alien species human beings have inadvertently introduced from overseas. This is just one of many ways in which human action is damaging biodiversity – in other words, unravelling the wonderful web of life which God has created on this planet. He made it through evolution, the mechanism he has chosen to continuously create new life.

Bees have evolved in an intricate three cornered dance of life with flowering plants and animals including ourselves. In this dance, plants provide pollen and nectar to sustain bees; bees in return pollinate the flowers so that they can produce fruit and seeds; the fruit and seeds in turn sustain animals, which in wonderfully ingenious ways distribute seeds to start a new generation of plants.
How wonderfully God's purposes are worked out! God’s purpose in creating bees, I think, is simply that they should be good bees, playing their part in the dance of life alongside all the other creatures he has created to sustain the web of life. The scarcity of bees should shock us out of complacency. We thwart God’s purpose if we do not protect them.

In God’s eyes, I think, we are not so very different to honey-bees!
Surely God’s purpose in creating us is simply that we should be good human beings.

Like bees we are small, vulnerable creatures, short-lived, subject to disease. Unlike bees, I suppose, we are made in God’s image, as souls with consciences. We are able to reflect on what is right and wrong, and to plan for the future, in a sense to be co-creators of it with God. But with this privilege also comes our susceptibility to those spiritual diseases which we call sin - spiritual diseases like greed and selfishness, which all too often lead us to hurt our fellow human beings and damage God’s creation.

Todays readings tell us much about how to be the good human beings God wishes us to be - and how to resist our innate susceptibility to sin.

In the OT reading, Isaiah (1:1,10-20) proclaims a great insight.
God has no use for empty rituals and sacrifices, says Isaiah. From the dawn of our species human beings have sought to placate, even manipulate, gods they have seen as angry and untrustworthy as well as powerful, in order to benefit themselves – and many still do today. But all this is folly: ‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; … I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity’.

Instead, Isaiah tells us, God wants us to ‘cease to do evil, learn to do good’. God will bless us when we behave as good human beings should, treating others as we would want them to treat us, if our circumstances were reversed – a principle often called the ‘golden rule’, which we Christians share with many others of different faiths and none. We are to ‘seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’.

In the NT reading (Luke 12:32-40), Jesus reveals deeper truths.
Jesus understands that people are often selfish and greedy because they are anxious and afraid for the future. So he tells the disciples – and through them, us – that we should put aside such anxiety. God knows what we need, and God will give us all we need when we work for his kingdom – in other words, when we try to be the good human beings God wants us to be. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock’, he says, ‘for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’.

God has given us all that we have - and we have been given so much, haven't we! - in order that that we may be generous with it, not hoard it. What we give away, to those who need it more than we do, is in Jesus's words ‘an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys’. If we want to be good human beings we must focus on that kind of spiritual wealth, rather than accumulating material wealth, for as Jesus says, 'where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’.

And we must be alert at all times for opportunities to respond generously, as and when God prompts us to do so. As Jesus puts it, ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit’. We should not put off calls on our generosity, waiting perhaps for a better time or a more pressing need to come along. We are mortal – we do not know when God will knock on the door to call us out of this life. ‘You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’, says Jesus. And it would be shameful - shameful, when he does come knocking - as we know he will - to admit that we wasted the opportunities he gave us - the opportunities to act like the good human beings he created us to be.

Just at the moment we are hearing a great deal about the devastating floods in Pakistan, caused by exceptionally heavy monsoon rains. 14 million people have been affected and more than 1600 people have died already, with more likely. The aid agencies are calling urgently for donations to help relieve their distress. You might care to ask yourself this, ‘Is God giving me this opportunity to give generously to help those who are suffering now?’

Let me finish with prayer:

O God, grant us the grace:
to cease to do evil and learn to do good;
to be unafraid and generous with your gifts,
so storing up unfailing treasure in heaven;
to be always alert for opportunities
to be the good human beings you created us to be.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord we pray.

Sunday 11 July 2010

Loving God is not enough

An address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 11th July 2010, the 6th after Trinity

Have you ever had your wallet stolen or your bag snatched?
I hope not, but no doubt many of us have at some time or another. If you’re one, you will understand my mixed feelings of foolishness, helplessness and fury when I discovered my wallet had been stolen when I was on holiday recently in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.

It was upsetting. First I was angry with myself for being so foolish as to let it happen – I had hung my jacket on the back of my chair by the street on a restaurant terrace. The thief just dipped his hand in my pocket - I saw it on security footage later. Then I felt helpless, with no money, no plastic cards and no driving licence, in a foreign country where I couldn’t speak a word of the language. But the restaurant manager, the police and our hotel staff were all very sympathetic and helpful, just as they would be in Ireland if the same thing happened to a visitor here, I’m sure. I still had my passport, and my wife still had her plastic cards so we could continue our holiday. Yet as I began to deal with the hassle of replacing cards and licence my fury with the thief only grew.

… But I wasn’t mugged and left half-dead, like the man the Good Samaritan helped in today’s NT reading. Thank God for that.

I want to reflect a bit on the familiar Good Samaritan story as Luke tells it (10:25-37).
The story was prompted by a lawyer, we’re told – a learned professional man – who asks Jesus ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ – in other words, how must I behave to be worthy of God’s favour. Jesus bounces the question back at him, saying ‘What does God’s law say?’ When the lawyer answers, ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself’, Jesus agrees with him, saying ‘Do this and you will live.’ Remember, both Matthew (22:37-39) and Mark (12:31) tell us Jesus had said as much himself when asked what the greatest commandment was.

But then the lawyer chances his arm again, asking Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ It is in reply to this that Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. Let me recap.

A man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite travelling on the same road pass by on the other side, ignoring his plight. (A Levite, by the way, was someone privileged to help the priests in the Temple – a bit like a Diocesan Reader, I suppose!) Then a Samaritan comes along. Unlike the other two, he stops and helps the traveller, treating his wounds, taking him to a safe place, even paying for him to be cared for out of his own pocket. When Jesus asks which of the three was a good neighbour, the lawyer replies, ‘The one who helped’ – the Samaritan. Jesus tells him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Jews of Jesus’s time understood well enough their obligation to protect and care for their neighbours in need. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, is a quotation from the book Leviticus (19:18) – it is a command from God. But many people in Jesus’s time questioned who fell into the category of neighbour, just as we are inclined to do now: surely God did not expect them to love those who were not good people like them, those of different cultures and beliefs, people they did not like, or who did not like them? Perhaps Jesus sensed that the questioning lawyer felt like this.

Jesus’s own view of the matter is quite clear. Through his story Jesus teaches the lawyer - and us - that we must treat every human being as our neighbour and love them as we love ourselves, whoever and whatever they are.

Loving God is not enough; God wants us to love our neighbours too.
No doubt the priest and the Levite both loved God. But for whatever reason neither could bring himself to help the robbed man. Perhaps they feared touching a man who might be dead would make them unclean according to Jewish law, or perhaps they just did not want to get involved. They passed by on the other side - they did not behave like loving neighbours.

God wants us to respond with unconditional love to our neighbours in need.
Even if we feel they have brought their troubles on themselves. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, a mountain road descending 3600 feet from the Judean hills to the bottom of the rift valley, through twisting rocky gorges where brigands lurked. You might say the man who was robbed was reckless, even asking for it by travelling alone on that road. But when he needed help the Samaritan responded.

It is our response to a neighbour's need that counts for God, not who we or they are.
Samaritans were despised and disliked by orthodox Jews. They were heretics who did not follow Jewish law, untrustworthy, outside the pale. We might compare them to Travellers or muslims in our society. Yet it is this despised outsider who shows himself to be a loving neighbour of the traveller who was robbed.

To follow Jesus means we must love our neighbours as ourselves.
And this truth has consequences for us today, which are brought into stark relief by the Great Recession we are living through.

So many neighbours in our own community are falling into need. Unemployment has soared. People on low incomes are falling into debt. Services for the disabled are being cut. Young families are struggling to pay the mortgage on homes worth a fraction of what they paid for them.

Amos in today’s OT reading (7:7-17), fiercely prophesies that God in his wrath will destroy Israel and its royal house - he doesn't hold his punches does he? The reading does not explain why - but Amos in the following passage does. He rails against those ‘that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land’, those who ‘practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat’. Doesn’t it sound familiar? Don’t today’s media commentators sound just like Amos as they assign blame for the economic crash and forecast future disasters to come?

But as Christians we are surely asked to do more than rant at those to blame for robbing the people. Jesus calls us to practical action to relieve our neighbours’ distress to the best of our ability. He calls us to be Good Samaritans - ‘Go and do likewise’, he says to the lawyer. What will I do in response. What will you do?

I shall finish with a prayer:

Loving God,
your Son Jesus Christ taught us
that every person is our neighbour,
to be loved as we love ourselves.
Move our hearts through your Holy Spirit
to be like the Good Samaritan.
Point us to those who are in need.
Show us how we may best help them.
And strengthen our will to do so.
We pray this in Jesus’ name.

Sunday 9 May 2010

Our Friend and Brother

Address given on the 6th Sunday of Easter, Rogation Sunday, 9th May 2010 at Puckane Church, which the Catholic parish has kindly allowed the Killodiernan congregation to use while repairs are made to their own.

‘You did not choose me but I chose you’, says Jesus to his disciples.
These are perhaps the key words from today’s reading from St John’s Gospel (John 15:9-17). They contain a wonderful spiritual truth: it is not we human beings who choose Jesus – it is Jesus in his grace and love that chooses us – Jesus whom we believe to be the Son of God.

The whole reading is an amazing passage, so dense with meaning! It’s well worth reading and re-reading and pondering on, for what it reveals to us of the relationship between Jesus the Son of God and ourselves as his disciples. You might like to take out your Bible sometime at home and look again at John Chapter 15, and reflect on it.

Here are some of the things that occur to me when I do so.

Jesus calls us to joy.
‘I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete’, says Jesus.

Christians are meant to be men and women of joy, not wreathed in gloom with long faces. We are sinners of course, but redeemed sinners. How can any of us fail to be happy when we walk the paths of life alongside Jesus?

Jesus calls us to love.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’
, says Jesus.

Sometimes we live as if we are sent into the world just to compete with one another, to quarrel with one another, or even to fight one another. But Christians are sent into the world to show what is meant by loving our neighbours as ourselves.

And the love Jesus is talking about is not a soppy, sentimental love – it is a flinty, self-giving love. The test he gives us is this, ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’. That is the love that Jesus lived and died for – that is the love he calls us to share with one another.

Jesus chooses us to be his friends.
‘I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father’, says Jesus.

Jesus was a teacher, and his disciples called him ‘Master’ as a term of respect. He taught them how to live as God’s people – to love God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves – as he still teaches Christians today, in words and actions which echo down the centuries to us.

But here he tells the disciples they are more than servants to him as Master. They are his friends – his partners in doing his Father’s work – and down the centuries he still chooses those who follow him to be his friends.

Jesus offers us intimacy, intimacy with himself, but also with God, who we should not see as a distant stranger but as our close friend.

Jesus chooses us to be his ambassadors.
‘I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last’, says Jesus.

He does not choose us to live a life retired from the world, but to represent him in it.

He sends us out to be advertisements, to bear fruit which will stand the test of time. The way to spread Christianity is to be Christian, to show others the fruit of a Christian life; not to argue others into faith, or worse still to threaten them into it, but to attract them into it.

Jesus welcomes us as his brothers and sisters, sharing with him in God’s family.
He taught us to pray to ‘Our Father in Heaven’. If we share the same father, then Jesus must be a brother to every one of us, and we too are God’s children.

And Jesus gives us the rules for maintaining harmony in God’s family: ‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love’.

So, in conclusion:
Jesus models for us what it is like to be God’s Son, by his life and ministry, by his death and resurrection, and through his words recorded in the Gospels – he is a constant spiritual presence with us in every age.

Jesus chooses us, chooses us to be his joyful, loving friends, his ambassadors, brothers and sisters in the family of God.

And this is just what we need, I believe, to flourish as human beings, because it answers a deep psychological need that we all share – we can only truly love God and love one another if we first feel specially chosen ourselves.

Let me finish with the much-loved prayer of Richard of Chichester, an English bishop and saint of the C13th – it is a gem of Anglican spirituality, capturing the joy of being chosen by Jesus:

Thanks be to Thee, Lord Jesus Christ
for all the benefits Thou hast given me,
for all the pains and insults Thou has borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother,
may I know Thee more clearly,
love Thee more dearly,
and follow Thee more nearly,

day by day.

Sunday 11 April 2010

The patience of Job

An address given on Low Sunday 11the April 2010 at Templederry, Nenagh and Puckane. The Puckane Roman Catholic parish has with great generosity allowed us to use their beautiful church while Killodiernan is being renovated.

Do you have the patience of Job? I certainly don’t!
Because of a silly accident to my eye, I’ve had to make a couple of visits to Limerick Regional hospital in the last few days, so I’ve spent my fair share of sitting around waiting anxiously. I’m rather bad at waiting anxiously – I start to give out, to whoever is in reach including my darling wife, though I know I shouldn’t. But I must say all the hospital staff I’ve met have been simply wonderful and cared for me magnificently.

Job’s patience is proverbial, but I’m not quite sure why – when he suffered a whole succession of frightful disasters he gave out to all and sundry, including God.

It seems that we are all beset with disasters at the moment. Most of us feel like giving out about them – it doesn’t much matter to whom. The economic crash we are living through is causing hardship to so many; the great institutions of our society – business, political and religious – seem to be teetering on the brink; we stare into an environmental abyss because of reckless over use of the earth’s resources, which no one seems able or willing to halt; and the media daily bring us horrific reports of earthquakes and floods, as well as stories of intimate private disasters.

If you are anything like me – or like Job, for that matter – you feel compelled to cry out ‘Why?’ I’ve done nothing wrong, ‘Why me?’ Ordinary, decent people are suffering, ‘How can God let bad things happen to innocent people?’

In today’s OT reading (Job 42:1-6), Job finally comes to some conclusions after agonising about these questions. But to understand what his conclusions are, we need to look at the whole story.

Do you know the story of Job? Here is the simplified version of it.
Job is a good man. He has also been blessed with all a man could desire, ‘seven sons and three daughters’, ‘seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants’.

However Satan – which means The Accuser in Hebrew – comes to God and says that Job is only good because Job has been blessed with family, money, and good health. And so a heavenly bet is made that if these things were taken away from Job, he would curse God. And so, Satan takes away Job's wealth and his children, but Job does not curse God. He says,‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ – words we still echo at funerals. Then Satan inflicts Job with terrible sores all over his body. His wife tells him, ‘Curse God, and die’ - but Job will not curse God.

Worse still, Job's friends come to console him. You must have done something wrong, they say, or else why would God punish you? But Job protests against their suggestions. He proclaims he is innocent, because he knows he is innocent. To this, they reply, "See, ... you are too proud to admit it. Your pride is a sign of your sin." Friends like that aren’t a lot of help, are they?

Job does not curse God, but Job argues with God. He eloquently makes the case for his innocence and calls on God to hear him. ‘Let me be weighed in a just balance, and let God know my integrity’, he says (Job 31:6). In fact Job puts God on trial for allowing bad things to happen to him, an innocent man.

God answers Job - out of the whirlwind, we are told. ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me’, he says. And over 3 chapters of beautiful poetry, God responds to Job’s challenge by reminding him of all that God has done and continues to do in the universe he has created and sustains. ‘Were you there when I created the universe? Were you there when I made life upon the earth? Do you give the animals their food, and give them children?’

God does not explain to Job why disaster has befallen him. Instead God redirects Job’s attention away from his own questions, his own struggles, his own pain, towards the glory of God.

And Job responds in humility to God’s self-revelation, in the words of today’s OT reading.

Job says, ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.’ At last Job gets it - he recognises his own insignificance in comparison to God. This is a message we all need to hear again and again, surely – nothing is about us, it is all about God.

You ask me, God, Job says, ‘“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.’ The Hebrew word translated here as counsel means intentions or plans. Job acknowledges that it is futile to question God’s plans and intentions. They are far too wonderful to comprehend for mere human beings, for human beings like Job, and for human beings like you and me.

You tell me, God, Job says, ‘“Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.” I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’ Through his honest struggle with the meaning of his distress, Job now sees that he has learned something new about the nature of God. Scholars have argued long and hard about the last phrase, about repenting in dust and ashes: does it simply emphasise Job’s humiliation, or does it suggest that Job is finding healing, moving on from his grief? I rather prefer the latter - dust and ashes are symbols of mourning which Job must leave behind to find healing. Whatever it means, though, Job is changed. God has lifted Job’s consciousness beyond his own pain. He repents - his whole attitude is changed - and Job can leave the pain behind.

And at last, but only when Job is able to pray for his friends, God restores Job’s fortunes.
He gives Job twice as much as he had before, we are told: fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys! He has another seven sons and three daughters, and his daughters are the most beautiful in the land. And he lives another 140 years, he sees his grandchildren, and he dies old and full of days.

In a time when we are inclined to wallow in our own distress, this too is a lesson we should remember – our pain will pass. There will be a future – it may not be the future that we expected, but it will be the future God has planned for us.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!

In a few minutes, just after the Rector consecrates the bread and wine, we will all join in this great acclamation, which is sometimes called the mystery of faith. On this joyful Easter Day, surely it is appropriate to reflect on these words.

The 1st reading we heard (Acts 10:34-43) is just a part of the story of the baptism of Cornelius - it’s worth summarising the whole of it.

Cornelius, a Centurion in the Roman army and a gentile, is a devout man who fears God – today we might describe him as a God seeker. He is prompted in a vision to send for Peter to visit him, and Peter too is prompted in a dream to go to Cornelius.

When Peter reaches Cornelius’s house he gives the speech that is our 1st reading. In it he tells Cornelius and his family the good news about Jesus – about his life, death, resurrection, and by implication his second coming as judge and forgiver of sins. In fact Peter is proclaiming the mystery of our faith - Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!

And Cornelius and his whole family respond to it immediately. The Holy Spirit falls on them, we’re told - they begin to praise God and speak in tongues, just as the disciples did at Pentecost. Peter then arranges for their baptism - they are actually the very first gentiles to be baptised.

What a suitable reading it is for today - because today is not just Easter Day, it is a joyful day of baptism for Molly Sara Shelly and her family!

No human eyes saw Jesus rise from the tomb on that first Easter day.

None of the Gospels suggest any such thing. But they do describe incidents that day in which several different disciples encountered Jesus after he had done so. Let’s remind ourselves of them.

We are told in today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John 20:1-18) how Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb early in the morning. She sees the stone which sealed it has been moved. She rushes to tell Peter and another disciple that the tomb has been robbed – tradition says the other disciple is John. Peter and John find it hard to believe, so they race to the tomb to see for themselves.

Mary also goes back to the tomb a little later, more sedately perhaps. She sees two angels, as if in a vision, and then a man she takes for the gardener. She does not recognise him at first, until he speaks her name. ‘Mary!’, he says, and immediately she recognises him to be Jesus and answers ‘Rabbouni!’, which means teacher. She goes to embrace him, but he forbids her – why is that I wonder? Instead he says, ‘go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

Mary is the first to see the risen Christ.

Let’s go back to Peter and John running to the tomb - John gets there first. From outside he sees the winding sheets lying there, but he does not go in. Peter, brave Peter, goes in first, followed by John. They confirm with their own eyes that the body is gone. But they do not see Jesus, nor do they yet understand that he has risen from the dead.

Peter must have seen the risen Christ later in the day, though, because Luke’s Gospel tells us so. When Cleopas and his friend, the two men who went to Emmaus, return late at night, the disciples in the upper room tell them, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon’ Peter.

Cleopas (Luke 24: 13-35) then recounts the story of their journey to Emmaus, and the stranger who walked with them. When the stranger spoke their hearts burned within them. They persuaded him to stay and eat with them. And it was only when ‘he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them’ – as he had done three nights before at the Last Supper - that they recognised the risen Christ.

Later still that night - as the disciples talk about these amazing events, trying to make sense of them - Jesus suddenly appears again to a large group of them, gathered behind closed doors in the upper room.

Throughout that first Easter Day, God gradually opens the minds of Jesus’s disciples to understand that Christ is risen.

What are we to make of these appearances of the risen Christ on the first Easter Day?

On the evidence of the Gospels the risen Christ is rather different to the man Jesus. His close friends do not recognise him by sight, but by such things as a tone of voice or a characteristic action like blessing bread. He appears and disappears, unlike any human being.

For the disciples who knew Jesus before his death, meeting the risen Christ seems as much a spiritual as a physical experience. But whatever the nature of their experience, it changed them completely – it drove them to go out and preach the good news, even at the cost of their lives.

They described it as Jesus risen from the dead, and we might as well call it the same thing.

Christians ever since continue to meet the risen Christ, as a spiritual if not a physical reality.

It is a dynamic process that goes like this, I think:

  • God prompts those who seek him to investigate the good news about Jesus;
  • they come to faith, accepting Jesus as Christ their saviour, through the witness of his disciples - that's you and me;
  • God responds to their faith with the gift of his Spirit;
  • and the Spirit leads them to understand that Christ is risen, and what this means for them.
In other words: We come to believe in the resurrection because we first believe in Christ – rather than the other way about. We do not come to believe in Christ because we first believe in the resurrection.

This process is displayed in the story of Cornelius. And Christian disciples still seem to be made by this process today. So I believe it must also be true for Mary Magdalene, for Peter & John, for Cleopas and the other disciples too - though their faith came not from the witness of disciples but from personal knowledge of Jesus.

Before his death Jesus promised his disciples that he would come again (John 14:3)

He tells them that he is going away to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, but that he will come again and take them there to be with him.

Christians sometimes imagine the second coming as Christ returning in glory at the end of time, in a last great judgement of the living and the dead to usher in God’s kingdom. But I think the end of time is better seen as a metaphor for any & every time - a typical time if you will. I prefer to imagine that Christ will come again to each one of us, at just the time that is right for each one of us personally.

In our hearts we will hear his voice. He will speak our name. And we will reply as Mary did,
‘Rabbouni – my teacher.
Now I understand -

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!
Let me be your disciple now and always.’

Sunday 14 March 2010

Mothering Sunday - Hannah & Samuel, Simeon & Mary

Address given on 14th March 2010, the 4th Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday, at Templederry & Puckane

Mothering Sunday is not just a secular celebration of motherhood but one of the best loved festivals of the Church year, though not a particularly ancient one.
But what does it mean for you and me?
  • Is it a time to show our mothers how grateful we are for all they have done for us?
  • Is it a time to remember them with love, if they are no longer with us?
  • Is it a time for soppy cards and flowers and gifts?
  • For the cynical, is it just another excuse to make money by selling us over-priced, themed merchandise?
  • Or is it a lovely excuse for families to get together and celebrate their shared stories?
  • If you are particularly pious, it might it be a time to give thanks for ‘mother church’ which nurtures us in our Christian faith.
It is, I suppose, all these things … and a lot more too. It is a day when as Christians we are invited to reflect on many different aspects of motherhood. Today’s readings focus our minds on one, darker aspect: children can bring heartbreak as well as joy to mothers.

Let’s look at the story of Hannah and her baby boy Samuel (1 Samuel 1:20-28).
If you feel the reading was a bit odd, it may be because it is only the middle part of a longer story. The good compilers of the lectionary have an unfortunate habit of setting small parts of stories to be read - when you get back home you might like to take down your bible and look at the very start of the 1st book of Samuel to read the whole story. Here is asummary of it.

In the first part, which we didn’t hear, we learn that Hannah is the wife of Elkanah, a man with two wives. Every year Elkanah takes his whole household to the shrine at Shiloh to sacrifice to the Lord. His second wife, Peninnah, provokes and mocks Hannah because Peninnah has children, but Hannah doesn’t. Elkanah loves Hannah, we are told, but perhaps he had taken a second wife because Hannah could not give him children. How hard it is for people who long for children but can’t have them! Hannah is desperate. She longs for a child - she prays for a child in the shrine at Shiloh - and she offers God a deal in exchange for a child. She bargains with God! The bargain is along these lines: “God, if you give me a son, then I will give him back to serve you for the rest of his life.” Eli the priest notices her unhappiness as she prays silently. She is so distressed that he thinks she is drunk and chides her, but Hannah with great dignity explains she isn’t drunk, but has a lot of troubles to pray about.

In the passage we heard today, God has answered Hannah's prayer. She conceives, gives birth to a son and calls him Samuel. When Samuel is old enough, perhaps barely more than a toddler, she takes him with her on the annual trip to Shiloh, and leaves him there with Eli. ‘For this child I prayed,’ she tells Eli; ‘and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.’

In the last part of the story, we are told that every year Hannah makes a little robe for Samuel and brings it to him in Shiloh, when she goes there with her husband Elkanah for the sacrifice. Every year Eli blesses them for her gift to the Lord. And over the years the Lord blesses Hannah with three more sons and two daughters.

What sort of a mother is Hannah?
Your initial reaction, like mine, might be to think she isn’t a very good one. How could a good mother abandon her baby at the gates of a religious institution, as Hannah did Samuel at the House of the Lord at Shiloh?

It would surely be a mistake to judge Hannah by the standards of our own time - we must apply the standards of her own society, not ours. But we should not forget that until quite recently many women in Ireland chose, or felt obliged, to give their children over to the care of religious institutions. Many privileged women still send their children away to Prep schools as boarders when not much older than Samuel was when Hannah left him with Eli. And we all expect the State to take children into care when their mothers cannot care for them as they need and deserve.

Hannah must have felt her heart breaking as she left Samuel behind to be fostered by Eli. But by doing so she ensured that he had a fine education and a good home. She was able to visit him, to give him presents, and Eli looked after him well. Fostering has been an honourable tradition in many societies – it was in Gaelic Ireland – and it still is for people in Nigeria for instance, which regularly causes misunderstandings with our immigration authorities.

Living in the shrine at Shiloh, Samuel learned to know and serve God. He grew up to be a great prophet - and eventually the leader of his people. It was Samuel who anointed Saul to be the first King of Israel, and David to be their greatest King ... and when Samuel died as an old man, the whole nation of Israel gathered to mourn him.

The fact is, by leaving Samuel with Eli, Hannah allowed him to grow up to be what God called him to be - a prophet, and a leader. Her sacrifice was good for Samuel, and turned out well for all.

Perhaps she wasn’t such a bad mother after all!

There is a lesson here, not just for mothers, I think, but for all parents: to know when to let our children go. Our real job as parents, surely, is to do all that we can to enable our children to become all that they can be - what God intends them to be. That means we must be prepared to let them go. Even though that breaks our hearts.

A mother’s heartbreak is at the centre of Simeon’s words to Mary too (Luke 2:33-35).

‘A sword will pierce your own soul too’, says Simeon to Mary, when she and Joseph brought their baby Jesus to the Temple for the purification required by Jewish law, after he had taken Jesus in his arms and praised God in the words we now call the Nunc Dimittis – ‘Lord now letest thou thy servant depart in peace...’

And we know, as Mary could not when she heard Simeon’s words, that Mary was to endure at the foot of a cross the horror of watching brutal men torture her lovely boy to death. Just as so many parents, men as well as women, have had to endure the loss of a beloved child.

Motherhood – parenthood – brings heartbreak for some. May God forbid I should ever have to endure it.

So today as we celebrate Mothering Sunday, and let us celebrate it with joy:
  • As children - let us show our love and gratitude to our mothers.
  • As mothers - let us allow our families to make a fuss of us.
  • And as families - let us enjoy all the memories.
But let us not forget those heartbroken over children:
  • those who long for children but cannot have them;
  • parents that are separated from their children;
  • and parents who have lost their children through death or in other ways.

And let us give thanks for those foster parents, adoptive parents and carers who by their love show God’s love to children that are not their own.

Sunday 14 February 2010

Jesus heals the Centurion's slave

An address given at Templederry on 14th February 2010, the Sunday before Lent.

Luke tells us a fascinating, vivid little story in today’s NT reading (Luke 7:1-10), about Jesus healing the Centurion’s slave in Capernaum.
Matthew gives a slightly different version of what is clearly the same episode (Matt 8:5-13). Scholars tell us that most likely both Luke and Matthew took this story, with others, from a collection of stories about Jesus written down before either of their Gospels were written. In this story we may have an eye-witness account at just one remove of a real incident in the ministry of Jesus.

Let’s look at the story a little more closely and then see what we might still learn from it in 2010.

The scene is set in Capernaum, a fishing village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus was well known in Capernaum. He settled there after leaving Nazareth, Matthew tells us. Peter and Andrew, and James and John, lived there, and it was there that Jesus called them to be his first four disciples. And Jesus himself taught on the Sabbath in the Capernaum synagogue, exorcising a man who was being disruptive, according to Luke.

Jesus is returning home after a day spent preaching to the crowds outdoors in the countryside. We now call what he said that day the Sermon on the Mount, since Matthew places it on a mountain, though Luke merely refers to Jesus standing on a level place. That was the day he taught the Beatitudes – ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…’

Jesus is met by some Jewish elders as he gets back to Capernaum. They have been sent by a Centurion living there, to ask Jesus to come to his house to heal a slave he valued highly, who was seriously ill. They tell Jesus that the Centurion, ‘is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’

When Jesus heard the Centurion’s plea, he would surely have remembered today’s OT reading (1Kings 8:22-23, 41-43), in which Solomon prays as he dedicates the 1st Temple, ‘When a foreigner comes and prays towards this house … do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.’ So Jesus heads for the Centurion’s house.

The Centurion must have been a remarkable person.
He was a career officer in the Roman army, commanding around 100 professional soldiers. He would have been a man able to command respect or he would never have held the rank that he did. As he says of himself, ‘I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’

As a representative of an imperial power on colonial service, you might think that he would despise the natives. But not so - he loved the Jewish people, we are told, and even paid for a synagogue to be built where he was stationed. I wonder if he was one of those gentiles called God-fearers, who were attracted by Jewish faith and ethics and attended the synagogue, but had not formally converted or been circumcised. The Acts of the Apostles tells us of another God-fearing Centurion Cornelius, whom Peter baptised with all his family (Acts 10).

For all his high social status, the Centurion was considerate, even humble, in his approach to Jesus for help. He would have known that Jesus might be embarrassed to visit his home, because a strict Jew was forbidden by law to enter the house of a gentile. Rather than command Jesus to attend, when Jesus responds to his plea through the Jewish elders, he sends other friends with a message, to say, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.’

We often echo his words today when we say, after the consecration in the Communion service, ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.’

The Centurion also had an unusual attitude to his slave.

In Roman law a slave was defined as just a tool of production, with no human rights. His master could ill-treat or even kill him if he chose - and often did, if the slave was no longer able to work. Yet this Centurion highly valued his slave and would go to any trouble to cure him. He was compassionate, a good master.

But the Centurion may have been more than compassionate – he may have loved his slave. Luke uses the Greek word παῖς ‘pais’ translated here as servant, and Matthew uses the same word throughout his version of the story, not the Greek word δοῦλος ‘doulos’ meaning slave. Scholars say that in Greek παῖς ‘paissometimes means the young male lover of an older man, rather than a plain servant.

Gay Christians take comfort from the idea that this text shows Jesus accepting homosexual relationships, and so accepting them. This interpretation is controversial and uncertain. Many reject it. But I would be slow to dismiss it myself. There is ambiguity in the translation, and nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus explicitly reject homosexual relationships – in fact he has nothing to say about them at all.

Rather, what Jesus is concerned about – is amazed by – is the Centurion’s faith.
He says, ‘Not even in Israel have I found such faith.’

The Centurion’s faith is not I think the same sort of faith that we have been raised in. Our faith is mediated by 2000 years of Christian teaching and recitation of carefully crafted scripture and creeds. His is a much simpler faith. Through his Jewish friends he has heard about Jesus, this charismatic wandering healer and teacher, who can cast out the demons then believed to cause disease. And he trusts him. He trusts that Jesus will respond to his plea, and he trusts that with a single word Jesus can heal his highly valued servant. And his trust is rewarded: because of his simple faith – his trust in Jesus – his servant is healed.

I wonder, too, about the faith of the servant. Had he too heard of Jesus? Had he asked his master to seek help for him from Jesus? Did the servant’s simple faith and trust in Jesus contribute to his cure?

Jesus uses this example of a gentile’s simple faith and trust to publicly challenge the smug self-satisfaction of many of his fellow Jews. Their faith had been formed by millennia of Jewish teaching and ancient scriptures. But they could not respond to Jesus with simple faith and trust, in him and in his healing message.

So finally, what can we learn from this little story?
Among lessons just as relevant today as they were 2000 years ago are these, I think:

  1. Jesus will respond to us today, if we trust him and ask for his help, just as he did then.
  2. We must not let the complex faith we have inherited get in the way of our personal relationship with Jesus.
  3. The structures of religious institutions, their buildings, their creeds and doctrines, are only of value to the extent that they bring us closer to Jesus.
May God grant us, like the Centurion, a simple faith and trust in Jesus Christ, our healing saviour - for that is what it means to be a Christian.