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,