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.