Sunday 2 December 2012

Reading the signs of the times

An address given in Templederry on the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C, 2nd December.

We are living through ‘interesting times’ as the Chinese say – times of crisis.
Let me try to read some of the signs of the times:
·        We know that our Irish economy is banjaxed following the crash. Government expenditure exceeds receipts. The Troika dictates that services will be cut and taxes raised in the forthcoming budget. Meanwhile ordinary families struggle to pay the mortgage and energy bills and to put food on the table, carers are at their wits end, and our children leave because they cannot find work at home. And it is not just Ireland in trouble - overseas the Euro area and the entire global economy look to be faltering.
·        Scientists tell us that potentially catastrophic climate change is upon us, and that this is a result of human activity like burning fossil fuels and cutting down rainforests - recent reports show the ice caps are melting three times faster than they previously realised. And there is precious little evidence that the leaders of our world are able and willing to lead their peoples to make the changes necessary to avert disaster.
·        Advertising constantly urges us to consume more and more in an increasingly materialist society, encouraging us in fact to be self-centred and greedy, a sure path to disaster. The internet revolution is driving perhaps the biggest social changes since the invention of the printing press, so that we begin to feel that we live in a different world from our children. And as Christians we face increasing challenges, as churches struggle to respond to scandal and division, while both militant atheism and religious fundamentalism are on the rise

No wonder we worry about the future – our own, our children’s and our grandchildren’s. We are afraid, and I think we have reason to be afraid. We are living in apocalyptic times.

Luke records Jesus speaking in apocalyptic terms in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 21:25-36).
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves’, Jesus says. ‘People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.’

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

Is Jesus forecasting in these words that the world will end in apocalypse? There are Christian fundamentalists who look forward to the second coming of Christ amid awful battles and destruction in the end-time. They may believe so, but I don’t. They take scripture too literally, and I think they are deeply misguided. Instead I suggest that Jesus intended his words to apply to every time, not just to an end-time.

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

And it is true, isn’t it, that every generation faces its own apocalyptic fears. We may be terrified by the looming catastrophe of global warming. But my parents were haunted by the horror and destruction of total war and nuclear holocaust. Their parents suffered the horrors of the trenches followed by bloody rebellion and fratricidal civil war. And every previous generation has lived through its own nightmares – famines, plagues, wars and social collapse.

Jesus tells us to read the frightening signs of the times clearly. Otherwise we will be unable to respond to them in the way God wishes. But his message is surely one of hope as we confront our fears - hope for us and for every generation that hears his words. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Even if these things are terrifying. ‘Stand up and raise your heads’, he tells us, ‘because your redemption is drawing near’.

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

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

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

Jesus urges us, ‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’ It is through praying that we will find the strength and confidence to endure, and even we may hope avert, the worst the future can bring, so that in the end we can stand fearlessly in front of God in his Kingdom.

I shall finish with a prayer:
Loving Father,
Who sent your Son Jesus Christ
to proclaim your kingdom
and restore the broken to fullness of life:
Look with compassion on the anguish of the world and of your people;
Give us the strength to overcome our fears
And to stand before the Son of Man;
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Redeemer.

Sunday 11 November 2012

2nd Chances

An address given at Templederry and Nenagh on Sunday 11th November 2012, the 3rd Before Advent.

‘Beware of the scribes’, Jesus says, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.’ (Mark 12:38-44)
·        Now, Jesus’s words make me feel rather uncomfortable. Here I am dressed up in a long cassock with a flowing surplice. Of course it’s just a uniform, based on the plain clothes of long ago, but perhaps it would be better if I wore a decent suit, not long robes, to lead worship. I like to be treated with respect too, just like everyone else. And you probably think that the prayers I lead are too long. Perhaps you should beware of me! I try not to devour widows’ houses though.
·         The scribes were the leaders of society in Jesus’s day. Today we might identify them with the professional classes – the lawyers, the doctors, and the business leaders; the developers, the bankers, and the politicians - as well as the church hierarchy. The widows, on the other hand, were among the most vulnerable and marginalised of the poor – in today’s terms they might be those trying to live on social welfare or the minimum wage.
·         Jesus is criticising the well-got for feathering their own nests at the expense of the poor and vulnerable – ‘they devour widows’ houses’, is the cutting way he puts it. What a contrast to the generosity of the poor widow who gave all she had – two small coins worth just a penny – to support worship in the Temple!
·         As we approach the budget in December, we hear a torrent of voices calling for cuts which will hit the poor and vulnerable hard, and we hear the same voices assert that the well off can’t afford to pay more in taxes. I think we too should ‘beware of the scribes’. The truth is that the rich - the 1% -  can afford to be generous in their support of the poor.
·         But that is not what I want to focus on today.

Instead let us reflect on the story in the 1st reading (Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17) about Naomi, Ruth and Boaz.
·         First, what's the context of the story - just who are these three characters.
·         Naomi and her husband, with their two sons, had left their home in Bethlehem years before for the land of Moab to escape a famine. Naomi’s husband died there, and then her two sons who had married Moabite women died as well. Naomi had lost her whole family, and decided to go back to her home place, Bethlehem. But Ruth, one of her daughters-in-law, insisted on going with her. She said, ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God’. Ruth must have loved Naomi very much.
·         It was the time of the barley harvest when Naomi and Ruth got to Bethlehem. It was a Jewish tradition to leave the corn in the corners of the fields to be harvested by the poor – this was called gleaning. Ruth went out into the fields to glean to support both of them. There she met Boaz, the owner of a field, who was a relative of Naomi’s late husband – that’s important as we shall see. Boaz had heard about all that Ruth was doing to support Naomi, and praised her for it. And because he was a kind man, he made sure that Ruth was able to glean enough for two of them without being harassed by the young lads doing the harvesting. This is where today’s reading begins.

I found the reading rather odd when I first looked at it – perhaps you did too.
·         It sounds almost as if Naomi puts Ruth up to seducing Boaz, tricking him into marrying her. It sounds rather unsavoury. But that is only because the reading jumps from ch3 v5 to ch4 v13 - for some reason the good compilers of the lectionary have missed out an important piece of the story.
·         To understand what really happened we need to understand another Jewish tradition, called ‘levirate marriage’. In levirate marriage, if a married man died without leaving children, his next of kin - his brother or another close relative - could choose to marry his widow, and this was seen as a good and righteous thing to do. It kept the property in the family. It ensured the future of the widow. And any children of the marriage would be treated as children of the dead husband.
·         No doubt Naomi could see how Boaz was attracted to Ruth. So she sends Ruth to ask Boaz if he would marry her in this way, to provide her with security. Ruth does as Naomi suggests. She uncovers Boaz's feet and lies down beside him, and when he wakes she says to him, ‘Spread your coat over your servant, for you are next of kin’. Boaz wants to marry her, but he tells Ruth that there is another, closer relative who legally should have the first refusal - if that man does not wish to marry her, he, Boaz, will. And Boaz is careful to guard her reputation and sends her away with a present - 6 measures of barley she could hardly carry.
·         Boaz is entirely honourable by the standards of his society and he is as good as his word. The next day he goes to talk to the closer relative in front of the elders. He establishes that the closer relative does not want to marry Ruth – in fact he persuades him that he shouldn’t! And then Boaz says to the elders, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from Naomi all that belonged to (her husband and sons). I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite … to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance’.
·         In this way Ruth becomes Boaz’s wife, and with Naomi they live happily ever after. Their son whom Naomi nurses is the grandfather of King David, and an ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ, through his earthly father Joseph.

It’s a charming story - a love story really. But why should it have been included in our Bible, and why should we still read it in churches today?
·         I suggest it is because this very human tale illustrates how God works in individual human lives.
·         Naomi and Ruth had suffered terrible blows. Naomi had lost her husband and two sons. Ruth had lost her husband. Suddenly they had become impoverished widows dependent on charity. It must have seemed as if the very heavens had fallen in on them. It would have been so easy for them to give in to  depression, to become bitter and angry, people no body likes to be with. But they didn’t. Instead they make the best of their situation, showing their love for each other.
·         And then good things start to happen. They meet a good man, Boaz, who is attracted by the love Ruth shows Naomi. He wants to help them and sees how he can do so. New life and hope comes into all their lives. They are offered a second chance of happiness. And they take it.
·         This, surely, is how God works in our lives, if God forbid dreadful things happen to us. If we hold on to what is good and true and beautiful, even when it seems we have been abandoned, even when we find ourselves in the depths of depression, then suddenly we will notice good things starting to happen. Our spirits will rise and we will start to discern new life and happiness. This at least has been my experience.
·         This is redemption from evil. This is God redeeming us. This is God acting like our loving Father. In the words of the Benedictus, sung in the temple by Zechariah,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us
In the house of his servant David.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Rivers & Lakes

Address given at the Ecumenical Service of Thanksgiving for the Lough Derg Yacht Club Regatta, at Killodiernan Church on Sunday 19th August 2012.

We’re so lucky, aren’t we!
We are all so lucky to be able to spend time relaxing and enjoying ourselves, with friends and family, on the beautiful waters of the ‘Lordly Shannon’ - whether it is for just a few hours, or for a full two weeks, if you’re one of those hardy souls who’ve sailed both Regattas! I personally feel particularly lucky to have been able to make my home with Marty in sight of the water, in a community where my family has lived, worked and played for generations.

Actually, I feel certain it is down to much more than luck. The right way to see it, I think, is as a gift from God. God has blessed us, blessed us all with this great gift of the Shannon which we have been enjoying, and blessed us with the even greater gift of the families and friends who we’ve been enjoying it with. That is why so many of us keep coming back here, year after year, generation on generation.

It is the worst of bad manners not to thank someone who has given you a wonderful present.  So it is very right and proper that we should come together at the end of the Regatta season to thank God for his gifts which have given us so much enjoyment. And this is just the sentiment that Isaiah expresses in beautiful poetry in the 1st reading (Isaiah 43:16-21): ‘Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters … I give water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.’

And in just the same way as we expect a child not to wilfully spoil or break a generous present, our duty is to look after the great gift of the Shannon, as well as the greater gift of our families and friends. We need to cherish our families and friends because these relationships are precious and fragile. This is not the time or place to go into the politics of water abstraction, but we should surely also do our best to ensure that however we use the gift of the Shannon we conserve it for those who come after us, because it too is precious and fragile.

The Sea of Tiberias is also a great gift from God to the people of Galilee.
Jesus and his disciples were Galileans and they surely loved their lake, just as we love our Shannon lakes. Today’s 2nd reading (John 21:1-14) is set around the Sea of Tiberias, otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee. After all the heightened emotion in Jerusalem surrounding Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, it is not surprising, I think, that the disciples returned to the Sea of Tiberias. They surely needed to take some time out to work through all that had happened, and where better than the lake they knew so well?

I’ve never seen the Sea of Tiberias, but it’s much the same size as Lough Derg - about 40% bigger in area, and wider, but not so long. In my mind’s eye I like to imagine the many Gospel stories that are set in and around the Galilean lake as taking place around Lough Derg.

So, indulge me, let us imagine Jesus standing, just after daybreak, on a grassy lake shore - in Luska bay, perhaps, where there are still places which scrub has not invaded. The seven disciples, prompted by Simon Peter, have been fishing all night without catching a thing – how frustrated they must be! They’re about 100 yards out when Jesus calls to them from the shore, saying ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find (fish)’. They do as he suggests, and they catch so many fish that they can’t bring the net back into the boat. They have to pull it into the shore, where they find they’ve caught no less than 153 large fish.

Notice, this is not described as miraculous – just amazing. Perhaps Jesus, higher on the shore, could see a shoal of fish which those in the boat could not.

But there is something strange about the story, as there is with all the stories about the disciples encountering the risen Christ. They do not immediately recognise their close friend Jesus, even when they came ashore. Just as Mary Magdalen mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus fail to recognise their companion on the road as Jesus.

‘None of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord’, we are told. You don’t ask a friend you know well ‘who are you’. The risen Jesus on the shore must have seemed rather different to the Jesus the disciples knew so well. But they just knew it was him.

It is the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ who first makes the connection, crying out, ‘It is the Lord!’ He is traditionally believed to be the apostle John, the author of this Gospel. Hearing this, Simon Peter – brave, impetuous Peter – jumps into the lake to get to Jesus on the shore before the others. But first he pulls on some clothes, because he has stripped naked to work the nets – now that's a striking image, St Peter stark naked in the boat!

Jesus has already prepared a barbeque breakfast for the disciples, with fish and bread over a charcoal fire. Just imagine the delicious smells of the fish grilling! How hungry the disciples must have been after fishing all night! He says to them, ‘Come and have breakfast’, and then he waits on them. He ‘took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish’, we’re told. It reminds me of the Eucharist in which we re-enact the Last Supper, but with bread and fish instead of bread and wine.

It’s a lovely, vivid story - it could almost be a film script! But what are we to make of it?
John is not writing a biography of Jesus, nor is he writing history. John is writing a Gospel, in which he weaves stories of Jesus’s life and ministry, death and resurrection, into a rich tapestry, in order to explain Jesus’s true significance – Jesus the incarnate Word, the Son of God, through whom those who believe have life in his name. No doubt this particular story can be understood in many ways, but this is what I take from it.

We often encounter the risen Jesus when we are struggling and failing, searching but unable to find what we’re looking for. We find him in the stranger we do not recognise, at the time and in the place we least expect it, with a sudden realisation, ‘It is the Lord!’ If we listen carefully we will hear Jesus call us to change what we are doing – in other words to repent – to cast the net to the right, not the left. When we do so we haul in a great catch of good. And this risen Jesus feeds our spirits in a life-giving banquet – a Eucharist if you will - with the gifts he has prepared for us.

God spoke through Isaiah saying, ‘I am about to do a new thing.’ As Christians we believe that God is doing this new thing through Jesus - not 2000 years ago, not in the distant future, but now, today. In Isaiah's words, ‘Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’.

Let me finish with a prayer:
Loving Father God, may we all encounter the risen Jesus, may we respond to his call to change, may we haul in a great catch of good, and may we join with him in the life-giving banquet he has prepared for us. Amen

Sunday 8 July 2012

Training Apostles

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on 8th July 2012, the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, Year B

In today’s Gospel St Mark (6:1-13) tells us how Jesus sent the Twelve out by themselves, two by two.
The same story is also told in slightly different words by Matthew and Luke.

The Twelve have been chosen and called specially by Jesus. They have given up everything to follow him - career, family in some cases - everything. They have watched as he carried out his travelling ministry. Now Jesus decides the time is right to send them off by themselves, on what is really a training exercise to prepare them for their future role as apostles – the Greek word apostle literally means ‘one who is sent out’.

The story conjures up for me the memory of the training exercises I took part in as a member of the School Corps – they were called manoeuvres. We went off in a bus, in battledress with boots and spats, with a packed lunch, a map and a compass. We were dropped off in pairs or small groups at different grid-references with instructions to march across country to rendezvous at another grid-reference some miles away where we would find our tea. Now I’m much too bolshy to make a good soldier. I confess I rather admired a worldly-wise friend who chose to spend the day in a near-by village pub and order a taxi to get to the rendezvous in good time. But I did learn one useful lesson – if you do not know where you are a map is completely useless!

Jesus gives the Twelve precise instructions as he sends them off.
Their task is to practice what they have seen Jesus do, to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is near, to call people to repent, and to heal the sick. And to bolster their confidence he gives them ‘authority over the unclean spirits’, which were then believed to cause illness.

They are to travel light, very light - to take with them just the minimum they need, a staff, sandals and a single tunic – no food, no bag to carry stuff, no money, no spare clothes. They must rely entirely on the hospitality of the people and the villages that they meet. That means of course that they will have to look outward, to constantly engage with other people around them.

And they are to avoid any confrontation. If people in a place do not welcome them and offer the hospitality that was traditional in Palestine then, they must simply leave, but ‘shake off the dust that is on (their) feet as a testimony against them’. This is what pious Jews did when they returned after visiting an unclean gentile village so as not to pollute Jewish soil. I wonder if Jesus did the same as he left his home town of Nazareth, amazed at the unbelief he found there.

Mark tells us that they did as Jesus asked them. ‘They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.’ And when they came back, they ‘told (Jesus) all that they had done and taught’ – in other words Jesus de-briefed them. No doubt the Twelve learned important lessons from the whole exercise. And no doubt Jesus too would have understood their individual strengths and weaknesses much better – for none of them were perfect.

We shouldn’t forget that one of the Twelve was Judas Iscariot, who would later betray Jesus. I wonder which of the others was paired with him. And I wonder how Judas scored on the training exercise.

Jesus calls a specially chosen few of his disciples to be Apostles.
Apostles are those that are called to give up everything else to follow Jesus, and to travel light as they continue Jesus’s ministry in the world. They’re not perfect – they share our common human faults and weaknesses, as the Twelve did. The difference between them and us is the gift of their special call. The rest of us Christians have other gifts and are called to different forms of discipleship. And as St Paul had the insight to see, our gifts as well as theirs are necessary to build up the body of Christ, which is the Church.

I attended Lucy Green’s ordination 2 weeks ago in Killaloe Cathedral – it was a magnificent occasion. In it Bishop Trevor exhorted Lucy in these formal words:
‘We trust that … you are fully determined, by the grace of God, to give yourself to his service … that you will devote to him your best powers of mind and spirit’.
All ordained clergy in the Church of Ireland make this commitment to give up other lives they might have led, in order to follow Jesus and devote their lives to his service. Theirs is an apostolic ministry which we need to receive.

We do not always give our clergy the recognition which they deserve. We should give thanks for them and for their commitment, both to the ministry of Jesus Christ and to us, often at great personal cost to themselves. And we should pray that in the future men and women will continue to respond to the call to selfless apostolic service. 

Sunday 1 July 2012

Jesus' Healing Ministry

Address given at Templederry & St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 1st July 2012, the 4th after Trinity.

Have you heard this one? - Sermons are like biscuits – they need shortening!
These words jumped out of the page at me, as I was sitting idly in a waiting room the other day, scanning the jokes page of an old copy of the Tipp Tattler. It seemed to be meant just for me – a message from on high! I wish I could preach a sermon like a wicked, buttery shortbread biscuit, but I fear it’s beyond my capability.

Three things strike me particularly as I read today’s NT reading (Mark 5:21-43).
First, notice how hectic Jesus’s healing ministry is.
·        Jesus has just returned from healing a mad-man on the other side of the lake, to find a crowd clamouring to see him. Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, begs him to come to heal his desperately ill daughter. Jesus immediately responds as he always does to people in need. But on the way, pressing through the crowd, he suddenly senses another person in need, a woman with a haemorrhage has touched his cloak. He turns aside with healing words for her too. When he finally reaches Jairus’s house, he heals the girl who everyone else believes is already dead.
·        Jesus is always on the go, he never stops. How tired he must be with all the crowds and all their demands – but he keeps at it, because he knows it is God’s work he is doing.
Second, notice how sensitive Jesus is to the needs of all he meets.
  • He recognises Jairus’s agitation and goes with him straight away to see the girl – there are no waiting lists for Jesus, unlike our own health service.
  • Despite the crowd pressing around him, Jesus senses the touch of the woman with a haemorrhage, and pauses to talk to her directly.
  • When people come to tell Jairus his daughter is dead, Jesus reassures him. When he reaches the house, after sending away those in hysterics, he lovingly takes the girls hand, and gently says, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And he even makes sure that she gets something to eat when she comes to and can walk about.
Third, notice how important faith is to Jesus’s healing.
  • “Daughter, your faith has made you well”, he says to the woman with a haemorrhage, “go in peace, and be healed of your disease”.
  • “Do not fear, only believe”, he says to Jairus.
  • Wise doctors, I think, have always appreciated that the faith and belief of patients in the treatment they receive is important for recovery. A consultant proposed injections of colloidal gold to treat my father’s rheumatoid arthritis. He replied, ‘I believe in gold injections about as much as I do in rhino horn’, and sought a second opinion. The gold I am quite sure would have done him no good, because he did not believe it would. But his faith in the second consultant’s treatment gave him several more years of good health.
  • Mark also tells us, in the very next passage of his Gospel, that Jesus’s healing powers were almost completely ineffective in Nazareth. People who knew his family, people he had grown up with, just could not bring themselves to believe in his message of good news.

Mark records these healing miracles to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
But for me the real miracle is that Jesus continues his healing ministry even today, both in us and through us.

There are times when each and every one of us desperately needs healing. And Jesus, who told his disciples ‘Remember, I am with you always’, offers us his healing touch whenever we need it.

Jesus is never too busy to respond to us. With his great sensitivity he understands our needs beyond what we ask, and he will heal us in whatever way is best for us. If it is physical healing we seek, we may not always receive it – healing miracles are rare enough these days - but he will surely give us the spiritual healing we really need.

The only thing he needs from us is the faith and boldness to ask him in prayer.

But as well as healing us, Jesus also heals through us. Jesus calls us as Christians, corporate members of Christ’s body, his Church, to continue his ministry in his name.

St Teresa of Avila puts it beautifully, Christ has no body now but ours. No hands, no feet on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but ours.’

Today’s reading has something to teach us as we do our poor human best to live up to Jesus’s call. First, we must expect our lives to be hectic – there is so much that needs to be done. Second, in order to minister successfully to others we must cultivate in ourselves a Christ-like sensitivity to their needs. And third, our ministry will do little good unless we also foster faith in the good news Jesus preached, not just in those we meet on the way, but in ourselves.

I shall finish with St Ignatius Loyola’s beautiful prayer for Jesus to strengthen us in his service:
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. Amen

Thursday 28 June 2012

School's Out!

On 26th June I was privileged to address the children of St Mary's No. 2 National School, Nenagh, at their End-of-year Service, and bless those who were leaving. This is what I said to them.

Children – how lucky you are! You have a long summer holiday in front of you to enjoy. I pray that it will be warm and balmy, full of exciting activities, and filled with joy and fun, for you to share with your families and with friends old and new.

But it’s not just you who are lucky – we are all lucky, each and every one of us, whether we are young or we are old. Because God loves us. He has given us a beautiful and wonderful world to live in. He has given us families and friends who love us and whom we love. He has given us teachers and wise neighbours from whom we learn new things every day. And he has given us a community in which we may flourish.

Above all God has given us the gift of life. For God each life is precious and unique. Each life – yours and mine – is like an exciting story – much more exciting than you could read in any book – much more exciting than a Harry Potter story for instance. Because it is your very own unique story. Day by day, week by week we each turn a new page in the story of our life.

For those of you who are school leavers this is a particularly exciting time. You are not just turning over a page; you are beginning a whole new chapter in the story of your life. You are leaving St Mary’s No2 and after the summer you will be going to a new school, where you will meet new people, make new friends and learn lots of new things.

But as well as excitement you may also be feeling a little sad at leaving old friends, a little anxious about what the new school will be like, and how you will fit in. That would be only natural. I can remember what it felt like to move to a new school – exciting but a teeny bit sad and scary too.

But if you do feel like that, here is something to think about. God who loves you will hold you safe like a loving Father. He sent his Son Jesus to show us all how to live good lives and make bad things come right. Jesus reassures us like a loving brother, saying, ‘Remember, I am with you always, until the very end’. If you ask him to, Jesus will help you through all the changes which will come in your life. And lastly, God through Jesus sends his Holy Spirit to inspire you to be and to become the very best you can be – a uniquely special, uniquely loved child of God.

And here is a school leavers' blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you;
May the wind be always at your back;
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
May the rains fall soft upon you;
May you continue to grow
in wisdom, knowledge and grace;

And may the blessing of God Almighty
be upon you and remain with you always.

Sunday 10 June 2012

Kings, Queens & Presidents

Address given at Killodiernan, Sunday 10th June 2012, 1st after Trinity, Year B

I was privileged to represent the Nenagh Union of Parishes at the opening of the new Nenagh Community Garden by President Michael D Higgins last Wednesday
Although still very new, it will grow into something quite lovely – do make a point of visiting it, just opposite Centra in Cudville. Its creators hope it will be ‘a community space that promotes wellness and learning in the areas of gardening, food cultivation and healthy living’. It is a wonderful demonstration of community spirit, volunteer effort and the generosity of sponsors, not least the local woman who made the land available.
 President Michael D spoke very well I thought, about what this initiative means, about sustainable communities, about sustainable living and about learning to recognise when we have sufficient – such a contrast to the recent Celtic Tiger era of excess – these are values for the future which also recover older Irish values. I was particularly struck by a question he posed – ‘Who ever saw a hedge fund in full bloom like the natural hedges of our countryside?’ He made me feel proud of our Republic and glad that we as citizens had chosen him to represent us.

Our neighbours in the United Kingdom are just as proud of their Monarch. Wasn’t it moving to see the crowds of ordinary people from so many different backgrounds that came out to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee? It was much more than just an excuse for a party. They were also there to celebrate the lifetime of service that their Queen has given to their country and the Commonwealth. The Archbishop of Canterbury caught the public mood well in his sermon in St Paul’s Cathedral, when he declared that in all her public engagements, our Queen has shown a quality of joy in the happiness of others; she has responded with just the generosity St Paul speaks of in showing honour to countless local communities and individuals of every background and class and race’.

Both the Queen and our President – successive Presidents – are widely admired and loved, no doubt in part because while they reign or hold office, neither governs.

Today’s OT reading (1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15) is about a momentous change of government for the Israelites.
From the time when Joshua led them across the Jordan into the promised land of Canaan, right up to Samuel’s day, the Israelites lived in a fragmented, tribal society with no central authority and shifting allegiances. They were loosely held together by their common ancestry as ‘Children of Israel’, and by a shared sense of covenant with the Israelite God Yahweh. But they prized their independence, and saw no need for a king – surely Yahweh was better than any human king!

The Israelites lived alongside other peoples with kings, the original Canaanites and neighbouring peoples – Moabites, Midianites, Ammonites and Philistines. Shifting alliances of Israelite tribes would come together in times of crisis under charismatic military-religious leaders the Bible calls Judges, who led them in sporadic wars against their neighbours. We remember the names of some, such as Gideon, Deborah and Samson but others less familiar.

 Samuel was the last in the line of these Judges. Times were changing. The tribal elders had come to recognise that without central leadership the tribes would lose their independence. Samuel was too old to lead, and his sons were wastrels. So they came to Samuel and said, ‘you are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations’.

Samuel holds to the old tribal values. He dislikes the very idea of kingship. He consults Yahweh in prayer, but Yahweh’s reply surprises him: ‘Listen to the voice of the people… They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them… only – you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them’.

Samuel understands the nature of the contract between a king and his subjects: in exchange for protection from enemies, the people must give up some of their freedom. He tells the people how a king will behave: “he will turn your sons into soldiers, your daughters will become his servants; he will take a tenth of your possessions and give them to his supporters; and you will be like slaves”.

But the people refuse to listen: ‘No! …we are determined to have a king over us’, they say, ‘so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go before us and fight our battles.’

Despite his reservations Samuel leads the people to make Saul their king. From that time forward until the Babylonian defeat and exile the Israelites are ruled by kings, some good, some not so good, and some down right bad.

Why should we read this old story in our churches today, you may well ask.
The answer I think is that the story has a moral that is still relevant.

God does not decree any particular form of government for us – he leaves it up to us to decide. That implies that it would be wrong for me – or anyone else for that matter – to pretend to tell you from this pulpit what political choices you should make.

But we must take our responsibility seriously. As Christians that means trying as best we can, prayerfully, to make political decisions which align with God’s will and promote his kingdom. Such decisions will often not be black and white, but between shades of grey. We may feel uncomfortable about this, but Christians cannot withdraw from the political world – God is in the world of politics as much as he is in everything else.

And I think it likely that we will shortly be faced with critical decisions which will determine how we are governed for generations to come. Just as the Israelites decided despite Samuel to appoint a king – just as our forbears decided 90 years ago to establish this State separate from the United Kingdom - so in our own time I believe that the present financial crisis and geo-political developments will force us with our European partners to decide whether or not to join in a much deeper financial and political union, in effect a United States of Europe.

Let us pray that the Irish people and our friends in Europe may be guided by the Holy Spirit to make wise decisions.

Sunday 3 June 2012

Nicodemus and Jesus

Sermon preached at Templederry and Nenagh on Trinity Sunday 3rd June 2012, Year B

We have just heard Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus from John’s Gospel (3:1-17).
It is a difficult passage to understand – at least I find it so. But it is crucial for the later development of our Christian faith and Trinitarian theology. So I felt on this Trinity Sunday it would be proper for me to reflect on it.

But my darling wife tells me what I have prepared is too long, with too much theology and difficult words. So if you don’t feel up to a long sermon, please feel free to tune out and think about something else while I talk, even have a little snooze – just so long as you don’t snore, which might wake others up!

Although he is a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, Nicodemus is sympathetic to Jesus.
Pharisees have had a bad press they don’t deserve. In general they were good people, rather too pious for some people’s taste perhaps, but they did their best to do God's will by keeping every detail of the Jewish law. As well as being a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, which much later would try and condemn Jesus on a trumped up charge.

‘(Nicodemus) came to Jesus by night’, we are told. Perhaps he didn’t wish to be seen visiting a controversial figure like Jesus. But perhaps after dark, away from the distracting crowds was also a good time for serious conversation - which is what they had. ‘Rabbi’, he says to Jesus, ‘we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’. And then they talk.

Poor Nicodemus – he must surely have felt that Jesus spoke to him only in riddles! ‘Being born from above’; ‘entering the kingdom of God; ‘the Son of Man’; ‘having eternal life’: what in God’s name is Jesus talking about? Let me try to tease it out.

We start with the kingdom of God – what did Jesus understand by it?
The key I think is in the prayer he taught us: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.’ I feel sure we find and enter the kingdom of God when we do God’s will here on earth, as it is done in heaven. But that ain’t easy – we have to resist our human impulses to do what we want, not what God wants. We cannot do so unless we are changed, utterly changed. In a sense we need to be ‘born again’ to be immune to human wilfulness.

Jesus talks about being ‘born from above’ – but the Greek words could just as well be translated as being ‘born again’ – and that is the sense in which Nicodemus correctly understands them. He understands the necessity to be born again, but he does not understand how to achieve it. ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old?’ he asks. ‘Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’

So Jesus explains, ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’. We need to be washed clean of our sins, the things we have done against the will of God – that is what baptism symbolises. But that is not enough. By ourselves, without help, we cannot surrender our will to God’s will. For that we need God to take the initiative through the power of his Spirit. Only then can we entrust ourselves to God completely, without reservation, as to a loving Father.

In Greek the same word is used for both wind and spirit – ‘pneuma’. Jesus says, ‘The wind - pneuma - blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit - Pneuma.’ He is telling Nicodemus that he doesn’t need to understand how the Spirit works, he just needs to know that it does work.

There’s nothing very difficult about any of this from Jesus’ point of view – this is just how human beings are made psychologically – it is a plain observable fact, an earthly thing he calls it - not a deep truth, a heavenly thing. But Nicodemus just does not get it. ‘How can these things be?’ he says in exasperation. And Jesus chides him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? … If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?’

But I think Jesus likes Nicodemus, and enjoys conversing with him.
Because Jesus does indeed go on to tell Nicodemus – and through him us too - about deep heavenly truths, about theology.

‘No one has ascended into heaven’, says Jesus, except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’.
‘The Son of Man’ is a typically Jewish way of saying ‘a representative man, a typical man’. Jesus is saying that for a representative man to go up to God, he must have come down from God in the first place. And Jesus clearly understands himself to be the Son of Man, the representative man.

Jesus continues, ‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’

What is this about Moses lifting up a serpent? It is a reference to a strange story in the Book of Numbers (21:8-9). On their journey through the wilderness, the people of Israel complained about their hardships since they left the fleshpots of Egypt. God sent a plague of deadly serpents to punish them. When the people repented and cried for mercy, God instructed Moses to raise an image of a serpent on a pole in the centre of the camp. Those suffering from snakebite who came and looked at it were healed.

Jesus is saying that he, the representative man, is destined to be lifted up – on the cross or to God in heaven - to bring eternal life to those who believe in him, just as the image of the serpent healed those who came to it.

But what does Jesus mean by ‘eternal life’? We should distinguish it from ‘everlasting life’, I think. Everlasting life might just as well be everlasting hell as heaven. Duration doesn’t matter - eternal life is surely to participate in God’s life, full of the joy and peace and love that can only be found in God’s presence.

Then Jesus says the comfortable words, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’

Jesus is revealing to Nicodemus – and to us – that Jesus the Son of Man, the representative of all human beings, is also the only Son of God. The full extent of God’s love for the world – for you and for me and for all creation - is shown by the gift of his only Son. And God sent his Son to save the world, not to condemn it – to offer us the chance to reconcile ourselves with God by aligning our will with his, rather than to be punished for not doing his will.

John does not tell us what Nicodemus makes of all this.
You might expect Nicodemus to have taken umbrage when Jesus chided him. But he didn’t. John goes on to tell us  (John 7:50-53) that Nicodemus defended Jesus in the Sanhedrin when there was a move to arrest him. And after the crucifixion Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus, contributing the expensive embalming spices (John 19:39-40).

Nicodemus may even have become a disciple of Jesus, and he is considered a saint in both the Orthodox and RC churches. I hope that this was the case.

But whether this is true or not, let us give thanks for the insights that Nicodemus prompted Jesus to reveal, about the relationships between God, his Son, his Spirit and human beings like us. They are the scriptural basis for our Trinitarian faith.

Sunday 20 May 2012

The Kosmos-World

Sermon preached at St Mary's, Nenagh on 20th May 2012, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the Sunday after the Ascension, year B

I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom for me and for you, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
 I apologise for my bad singing! But I’m sure you all recognise this song – it’s perhaps best known sung by Louis Armstrong. And it’s true isn’t it! We all know what a truly wonderful world God has made for us to live in - a veritable Garden of Eden, if only we would learn to look after it and use it rightly.

St John uses the Greek word ‘kosmos’, meaning ‘world’, no less than 13 times in today’s  reading from his Gospel (John 17:6-19). But this is not the beautiful material world which God made and saw was very good, as the 1st chapter of Genesis puts it. I shall call what John has in mind the kosmos-world, to distinguish it from God’s wonderful world. The kosmos-world is a place of spiritual death, filled with souls cut off from God: a place where greedy people trample on each other to grab more for themselves; a place where violent people kill and torture other people; a place where cynical people despise what is good and true and beautiful. And we all know the reality of that kosmos-world too, don’t we!

For John the very opposite of the kosmos-world is eternal life, as he tells us in the preceding verses, This is eternal life, (to) know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. And the author of 1 John echoes this in today’s 2nd reading (1 John 5:9-13), ‘This is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son’.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples.
It is the night of the last supper, just after he has washed the disciples’ feet. It is immediately before he goes out with them to the garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron valley, where he will be arrested by soldiers and police led to him by Judas Iscariot. Jesus is praying for his disciples, but he is also teaching them, for he prays out loud in their hearing. His words are dense with meaning - perhaps because he knows this is his last opportunity to speak to them before he is arrested, tried and executed.

It would take a very long sermon to tease out all the nuances of his prayer. So I shall pick out just three points about the relationship between Jesus’s disciples and John’s kosmos-world.
  1. Jesus’s disciples are in the kosmos-world, but they do not belong to it. God has given the disciples to Jesus, in the sense that God has made them able to respond to the word of God which Jesus has given them. They have been brought to know and believe the truth that Jesus is sent from God. That is what sets them apart from the kosmos-world, even while they remain in it.
  2. The kosmos-world has already shown it hates Jesus’s disciples because they do not belong to it. Those mired in evil, in cynicism, violence and greed, cannot co-exist with those who live by God’s values. So Jesus calls on his Father to protect his disciples from evil, when he is no longer there to do so in the flesh.
  3. Jesus does not ask God to take his disciples out of the kosmos-world. Just as God sent Jesus into the kosmos-world, so Jesus sends his disciples into it. God sent Jesus to redeem the kosmos-world from within. Jesus sends his disciples to continue his redeeming work there.

The kosmos-world is a metaphor for the evil we encounter all around us, day by day.
It’s hard to see evil for what it is in the abstract. It comes in so many disguises. I think it helps to focus on concrete examples. There are so many to choose from - but let’s focus on the child abuse which has so disfigured Irish society.

We were shocked to learn of the abuse perpetrated by a very few priests and religious in RC parishes and church institutions – a small minority, but still far too many. But lest we are tempted to believe it is not our problem too, we are now hearing the testimony of those abused in protestant institutions, such as Bethany Home in Rathgar and Westbank Orphanage in Greystones. 219 Bethany children are buried in unmarked graves in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin. Many who survived were sent into dysfunctional and abusive situations in places like Westbank.

It is now clear that the evil of child abuse extended far beyond the abusers themselves. It extended to their colleagues and superiors who colluded in it by failing to stop the perpetrators. It extended to organs of the State which failed to exercise their duty of care. And it extended throughout Irish society, to all of us who knew there was something wrong, but could not bring ourselves to say so publicly, thus allowing the evil system to fester for decades.

We must not forget that more children have been abused outside the churches than within them. But it is almost incomprehensible how so many who professed to be Jesus’s disciples could have gone so wrong – but they did. And that must be a lesson to us all not to underestimate the forces of evil. Every one of us needs God’s grace to prevent the forces of evil overcoming us.

So to sum up:
·       The wonderful world God has placed us in is good. We should rejoice in it, and give thanks for it. But as Jesus’s disciples, we must always be on guard against the evil that spoils it.
·         As disciples we live amidst evil, but we do not belong to it, because God has given us to Jesus.
·         As disciples we must be ready to suffer personally when we confront evil and refuse to collude with it. But we can take comfort that Jesus intercedes for us, asking God to protect us from something much worse than suffering – that is, from being drawn into evil ourselves.
·         Our task as disciples is to continue Jesus’s redeeming mission. We have been set apart to confront and defeat evil wherever it is found, not to hide ourselves away like cowards in the face of it.