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!