Sunday 20 November 2011

Mission Sunday collection for Luyengo Farm Project, Swaziland

The parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) is vivid and memorable - so typical of the stories Jesus uses to convey his teaching.
And its message is clear – God will judge us in accordance with our response to human need.

In NT times sheep and goats were usually kept in mixed flocks, as they still are in the Near East. But it was sometimes necessary to separate them into their kinds, at shearing time for instance. Or at the approach of hard weather – sheep are hardier than goats and can be left to graze over winter in the uplands, but goats must be brought down and folded in the shelter of the valley. Or to manage grazing – sheep eat only low growing herbs while goats will eat the leaves of bushes so that when forage of one kind is running out the appropriate animals must be moved to other grazing.

Jesus uses this image of separating sheep and goats, so familiar to those he was talking to, as a metaphor for how people can be separated into two kinds. ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory’, says Jesus, ‘… he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left’.

Those that are righteous will be blessed by God and receive everlasting life, and those that are not will be accursed and receive eternal punishment. ‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, and ‘he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”’.

The test for whether a person is righteous or not – to be blessed or accursed - is how he or she responds to the human needs they encounter. The king tells those who are blessed, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”. He tells those who are accursed that they did none of these things.

And when both kinds of people express surprise because they did not recognise him, the king tells them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”.

Jesus confronts those who hear him, then and now, with this great truth: help given to those who need it is help given to him as the Son of Man, the king; and in contrast help withheld is help withheld from him. God is our loving Father, we are made in his image, and it is our Christian duty to help his children, our fellow human beings.

This teaching of Jesus is wonderfully apt for today, Mission Sunday.
Mission Sunday is the day designated by the Bishop for a special collection for overseas mission. In previous years the money has been split over many projects, all most deserving, but inevitably this has meant that none received very much. But this year the Diocesan Board of Mission, with the support of Bishop Trevor, has decided all the money should be directed to a single project in Swaziland. By concentrating resources in this way our diocese can make a real difference, which seems like a very good idea to me.

Most of you will remember Amy Hanna’s inspiring talk about her experiences in Swaziland on Mission Sunday last year. She told us that this small landlocked country squeezed between South Africa and Mozambique, with a population of around 1 million in an area about the same as Northern Ireland, is desperately poor – most people live on less than €1 per day. And she shocked us by telling us that as many as 40% of people have HIV, with the result that Swaziland has the lowest life expectancy in the world, just 32 years.

The poorest of the poor in Swaziland need help. The Anglican Diocese of Swaziland recognises that it is their Christian duty to respond. They have initiated a programme to help people affected by HIV, which includes these elements:

  • Care Points: Places run by parish churches where orphans and vulnerable children can come after school for fellowship and food, and to interact with adults who care and will listen. Swaziland has 140,000 orphans. 15% of all families are headed by a child.

  • Home Based Care: Anglican teams of retired nurses visit homes, bringing painkillers, antibiotics, vitamin supplements etc to supplement the antiretroviral drugs supplied by the state.

  • Egumeni: In Swaziland this is the reed fence around a homestead where women sit and girls learn from their mothers and grandmothers. The egumeni programme is about passing on wisdom from generation to generation, and in particular training in safe behaviour and self respect - not just a matter of morals but a matter of life and death in Swaziland.

  • Life Skills: A training programme for teenagers, enabling them to take control of their lives and stay safe, covering topics from personal identity to safe sex.

The programme sounds splendid, doesn’t it? There is just one problem – paying for it. But the diocese, supported by USPG Ireland mission partner Andrew Symonds and his wife Rosemary, has identified a way to do so.

  • The diocese owns 200 acres of good agricultural land, with unlimited access to water, at Luyengo Farm at Big Bend.

  • An investment of €300,000 would turn it into a productive commercial farm. Part of the site would be used to produce baby vegetables for export. Three harvests annually would create regular seasonal employment. Pigs would be fed from farm waste.

  • A commercial partner has agreed to provide half the investment and USPG Ireland seek to raise the other half on behalf of the Diocese of Swaziland.

  • The income from the farm is expected to rise to €40,000 in the 2nd year. And what will be the result? The diocese will become self-sufficient, with a steady, reliable income to pay for the HIV/AIDS programme.

Our Mission Sunday collection this year will go to support this Luyengo Farm Project.
As the Bishop of Swaziland the Rt Revd Meshack Mabuza puts it, ‘As a church we see agriculture as an answer to the continuance of our AIDS ministry. This land that we have is arable and fertile, with plenty of water running through it. We must use it, and we desperately need your help to get started’.

The Board of Mission has challenged the whole diocese to raise at least €40,000 for it this year. That may seem a lot, but it is only €20 for each active member of the diocese. It is therefore a challenge we can meet, if we choose, and meet in a single year. This collection is the first bite at it, and they invite us to use our creativity to find ways to raise more in the next 12 months.

I commend the project to you. By helping the Diocese of Swaziland we are helping Swazi people in need, and as today’s Gospel teaches us, when we help those in need we are helping Jesus himself.
So please be truly generous with your money in the Mission Sunday collection envelopes. However rich or poor you may feel in these recessionary times, we are all rich compared with the people who will be helped by it. If you usually put a coin in, look for a bigger one; if you planned to put in a note, pull something bigger out of your wallet.

Our heavenly Father will bless us for our generosity!

    Sunday 6 November 2011


    An address given at Portumna, Eyrecourt and Banagher on Sunday 6th November 2011, the 3rd before Advent.

    I hope you are wise enough to check the oil level in your central heating tank regularly.
    When I read through today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (25:1-13), I was prompted to rush to check my own tank, and I was very glad I did because there were only a few inches left.

    It’s an awful pain when the oil runs out, as I know only too well, because it happens to me far too often. And I don’t just have problems with central heating oil, but other oil too. Patrick Towers teased me this week, advising me to check I had enough fuel in my car today of all days, lest I be shown up as a ‘foolish Diocesan Reader’. This struck a nerve because it reminded me of my mother, God bless her. She would always ask me as I drove away whether I had enough petrol, because she knew I’d run out twice in a fortnight years before – she never accepted my excuse that the fuel gauge was broken and I had to dip it with a stick to see if I needed a fill.

    The bridesmaids in the Gospel story - or the virgins as older translations had it: the Greek word simply means an unmarried girl – needed oil for their lamps. The wise ones made sure they had enough, but the foolish ones didn’t. We would all like to think we are like the wise bridesmaids but I fear I’m often more like the foolish ones.

    The story Jesus tells about the bridesmaids may seem a bit strange to us in Ireland in the 21st Century.
    In our wedding tradition we don’t expect bridesmaids to have to wait up with oil lamps for the groom to turn up in the middle of the night. But those who heard the story from Jesus would have found it all quite familiar.

    In Jesus’s time the tradition was for the bridegroom to go around the houses of his friends and relatives before the wedding so that they could congratulate him and rejoice with him – a bit like our stag-nights I suppose. And the bride’s unmarried friends – the bridesmaids – would gather to escort the bridegroom to the house where the marriage ceremony would take place, when he finally arrived with his friends. When they got there everyone would join in a big party – the wedding banquet - which might go on for several days. No one could be sure when the groom would arrive - perhaps the suspense of waiting added to the general excitement, or perhaps it was a bit of a game for the groom’s friends to see if they could catch the bride’s friends napping.

    So in Jesus’ story the wise bridesmaids, who came prepared with extra oil for their lamps, get to join in the bride’s big day and enjoy the party. But the foolish bridesmaids, with no extra oil, not only have the shame of being late for their friend’s wedding, but they are shut out and miss the party too.

    Jesus finishes by saying ‘Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’. Those who heard him would have grasped the moral of the story straight away – it is to ‘Be prepared’, just like the Girl Guide’s motto. If you are wise you will be prepared. If you are not prepared you are foolish.

    Jesus tells the story as a parable about the kingdom of heaven.
    ‘The kingdom of heaven will be like this’, he says. But what did he intend the parable to convey to those who heard him?

    Since ancient times Christians have taken the parable as an allegory of the 2nd Coming of Christ in the end times. The bridegroom who is delayed stands for Christ, the time of whose coming we cannot know; he will judge between the faithful and the unfaithful – the wise and the foolish – in a Last Judgement; the wise bridesmaids stand for those faithful Christians who will receive their just reward in heaven - represented by the wedding banquet; and the foolish bridesmaids are those who are unfaithful - they will be excluded from the heavenly kingdom.

    Matthew believed with all the earliest Christians that Jesus would return again within their lifetime to usher in the kingdom of God which he had preached. Earlier in his Gospel (16:27-28) he quotes Jesus saying, ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’.

    As time passed, later Christians began to realise that Jesus wouldn’t necessarily return in their lifetimes - the first Christians had died. Jesus was delayed like the bridegroom. So they came to believe that Christ’s 2nd Coming would be at some indefinite future date, at the ‘end of time’.

    I’m not convinced by this theology of the 2nd Coming – it smacks too much of a vengeful, not a loving God. I don’t think it is what Jesus meant to convey to those he spoke to.

    But there is another way of looking at the parable, a way I prefer. Perhaps when Jesus refers to the undefined future coming of the bridegroom – or to the end times, because this parable is surrounded by other end-times parables - he is really talking metaphorically about a typical time, any old time. No one can know when that time will be, but perhaps Jesus is telling his disciples that each one of them should expect to personally encounter him again, during their lives not in the indefinite future. That is when they will be judged, depending on whether they are ready to greet him or not.

    Looked at this way, the parable teaches us that Jesus’ disciples – like the bridesmaids – must prepare themselves to be ready to greet him – as the bridegroom – whenever he comes. And who are Jesus’s disciples today? – You and I, all of us, of course!

    If we are wise, we will prepare ourselves to recognise and respond when Jesus returns – though in truth he never really left us: ‘Remember’, Jesus says, ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20).

    If we are wise, we will prepare ourselves to hear and respond to the prompting of the Spirit – ‘The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything’, says Jesus, ‘and remind you of all I have said to you’ (John 14:26).

    If we are wise, we will prepare ourselves to discern that still small voice of the God Jesus calls his Father – to which we should respond as Eli advised Samuel to do: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’ (1Samuel 3:9).

    If on the other hand we are foolish, if we are unprepared, if we are not ready when the time comes, we will miss the opportunity our Trinity-shaped God freely offers to each and every one of us, the opportunity to share in the joy of his kingdom, the opportunity to share in the joy of doing what is right and just, simply because that is what God calls us to do.

    Ultimately, if we cannot respond to God we condemn ourselves. That surely is the sin against the Holy Spirit, the only sin that can never be forgiven.