Sunday 8 December 2013

Prophets change history!

Address given at Templederry & Nenagh on Sunday 8th December 2013, the 2nd of Advent, year A

Today we lit the 2nd candle in the advent wreath to remember the prophets.
And today’s readings are concerned with two of the greatest of them: Isaiah in the Old Testament (Isaiah 11:1-10) and John the Baptist in the New (Matthew 3:1-12). Christians see their prophetic words as referring to the incarnation of God in Jesus, and the coming of Christ’s kingdom.

We shouldn't see prophets, I think, as being like weather forecasters, or racing tipsters - people who merely foretell the future without engaging in it. Rather a prophet is someone who tells things how they are and expresses a vision for how things should be. This powerfully influences those who listen, so that they act to make that prophetic vision a reality. Prophets actually change history through their vision!

Let me try to tease out what these prophets’ words say to me.

Let’s start with Isaiah’s vision of a world of peace and justice.
‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’

Beautiful imagery - but we all know, don’t we, that the strong prey on the weak; the natural world is all about survival of the fittest. ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ – the phrase comes from Tennyson's long poem ‘In Memoriam’ (canto 56). In it the poet contrasts the idea of a good and loving God with the terrors of an uncaring Nature. He talks about a person of faith,
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law-
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

Surely Isaiah’s vision of predator and prey at peace together can be nothing more than a fairytale? That’s just not the way the world works. What’s going on here?

The context is important, I think.
Isaiah is writing in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, at a time of great danger. The Assyrians have just conquered Judah’s twin kingdom of Israel and carried the people off as captives, and now they threaten Judah. Isaiah believes that the social and political collapse of Israel was caused by its failure to live up to the spirit of the law given in Sinai – and he sees the same thing happening to Judah. Isaiah has just prophesied that Judah too will be overthrown, but he can’t believe that God will desert his chosen people completely – once the Assyrians have purged those who have broken the covenant, surely a faithful remnant will be left.

So in today’s reading Isaiah prophesies that from the root of Jessie, the ancestor of Judah’s kings, a new shoot will rise up. From the ruins of Jerusalem, from the ruins of the kingdom of Jessie’s son David, a new kingdom will arise. It will be a kingdom of justice and peace, worthy of God’s favour. It will be marked by ‘the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord’. Its ruler – from the stock of Jesse – ‘with righteousness … shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth’.

It is a vision of the kingdom of heaven. In such a society the powerful will not prey on the weak. Isaiah’s vision is about people, not nature. Survival of the fittest should not – must not - apply in human society, however much it does in nature.

Isaiah was mistaken in his belief that Judah would fall to the Assyrians.
The Assyrians mysteriously abandoned their attack. When destruction came, 100 years later, it was the Babylonians, not the Assyrians who laid waste to Jerusalem and carried its leaders into exile.

But Isaiah’s vision was not forgotten. His words were remembered by the exiles. His vision inspired them to hold firm in their traditional faith, to keep their identity as a people, and to return home when conditions allowed.

Over the centuries that followed, Isaiah’s words were studied and elaborated. By Roman times, religious Jews felt quite certain that God would send his Messiah – his anointed one – of the stock of Jesse, who would rule over the Jewish people, as Isaiah had prophesied, with righteousness and faithfulness.

John the Baptist believed in Isaiah’s prophecy and expected God to send his Messiah.
As Matthew reports, he told his followers ‘one who is more powerful than I is coming after me, I am not worthy to carry his sandals’. Matthew also believed that John himself was the messenger that Isaiah said would announce the Messiah, ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. John called the people to, ‘Repent,’ – that is, to make a new start, to change their lives – ‘for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ – the kingdom of Isaiah’s vision.

Jesus surely pondered Isaiah’s words too. I believe he came to the conclusion that they were to be fulfilled in him. But God gave Jesus the insight that as the Messiah, he must come not in physical power and glory like a secular king, but with self-sacrificing love as a suffering servant to lead his people – all people, Jews and gentiles alike – by his example, to the kingdom of heaven which his loving father God wills for all his people.

The early Christians, steeped in the Jewish Messiah tradition, were convinced that Jesus is the shoot from the stock of Jesse in Isaiah’s prophesy. And why not? The spirit of the Lord rested upon him. He preached the kingdom of heaven. He died that we might be saved, he rose from the dead, and he ascended to God. Surely, they said, he will return to rule with righteousness and faithfulness over God’s kingdom of justice and peace.

So what of us today? Do we believe in Isaiah’s vision?
In our own time, as in Isaiah’s, we are faced with dangers and uncertainties. But we must live in hope for the future.

Isaiah’s vision is in front of us – the world can be like the kingdom of heaven, filled with justice and peace. 

John’s call echoes in our ears, to make a new start because the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Jesus has shown us the way as God incarnate. He has sent us the Spirit to lead us, and fire to drive us forward, just as John said he would. 

Our task as Christians is to do our bit to make his kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, a living reality.

God is faithful to his faithful people.
‘They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.’

Isaiah’s vision is not a fairytale – it is a vision of the kingdom that God wants for us. And Jesus has shown us how to make it a reality.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Saints and saints

An address given at Templederry and Nenagh on Sunday 3rd November 2013, celebrated as All Saints.

We are celebrating All Saints today.
But just who are these Saints we are celebrating? Let’s try to tease it out a bit.
The common answer, I suppose, is that Saints are dead Christians who were most particularly holy and close to God, either because they lived such exemplary Christian lives, or because they died as martyrs for their faith in Jesus Christ.

But how can we be sure that any particular individual is a Saint?

No one would doubt, I suppose, that Jesus’s earthly family and close friends, and the Apostles and Evangelists we meet in the NT, were very close to God and worthy to be called Saints.

Later on, in the first Christian centuries, local churches and dioceses quite informally came to recognise other people as Saints, such as outstanding bishops, teachers, martyrs and missionaries within their own area. This includes our many early Celtic Saints, among them St Brendan the Navigator, who a number of us in the Pilgrim Fellowship was remembering in Clonfert Cathedral yesterday.

The process of recognising Saints was gradually formalised over the years, until eventually in the pre-Reformation Western Church it was accepted that only the Pope in Rome could declare someone a Saint, after exhaustive enquiries and checks, as is still the case in the Roman Catholic Church. By now there are thousands and thousands of them. I have a Roman Catholic ‘Book of Saints’ at home which has alphabetical entries for almost 5,000 named Saints and groups of Saints, starting with St Aaron – a C6th  Breton Abbot, and ending with St Zoticus – a C4th  priest in Constantinople.

It is particularly important for Roman Catholics to have certainty about who is a Saint, because they believe in the intercession of Saints – that dead Saints can effectively intercede on our behalf with God, if we ask them to in prayer. Only God truly knows who is a Saint, the theory goes, so no one is declared a Saint until God has demonstrated this by performing miracles in answer to prayers addressed to that candidate for sainthood.

Most reformed Christians reject the practice of asking Saints to intercede – Article 22 of the 39 Articles describes the invocation of Saints as ‘a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God’. Nevertheless, reformed Christians like us continue to honour Saints, at least those recognised before the Reformation, as examples of holiness and faith that we do well to imitate, in order to strengthen and encourage our own holiness and faith.

The Church of England has not declared any new Saints since the Reformation – with the peculiar exception of Charles I, who was honoured for political reasons as St Charles King & Martyr from the Restoration until 1859. But the Church of England Calendar does list many post-reformation Christians as worthy of commemoration, without explicitly calling them Saints. Not all of them are Anglican – they include for instance: George Fox the Quaker, Oscar Romero the martyred Catholic Bishop of San Salvador, and German Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

We in the Church of Ireland are more parsimonious, but our BCP Calendar includes commemorations for two post-Reformation Bishops - Bishop Jeremy Taylor of Down, Connor and Dromore, and Bishop Charles Inglis, a bishop in North America from Raphoe.

All of these are examples for us of holiness and faith whom we should honour at All Saints – I suppose we might call them ‘heroes of the Church’ – and we are at liberty, I think, to consider them Saints too if we wish.

So far so good – but St Paul in today's reading from Ephesians 1:11-23 gives us a completely different view on who the saints are.
‘I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints’, says Paul. ‘I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ … may give you a spirit of wisdom … so that you may know what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints … for us who believe’.

It is clear from the context of this and other similar passages, that for St Paul the saints are all those who are ‘in Christ’, both those alive who believe and follow Jesus as his disciples, and those who have died. For the first Christians, the saints included ordinary Christians like you and me, as well as a few exceptionally holy people.

We are all saints (with a small ‘s’)!

We are all saints in this sense: we are sanctified, that is made holy, by being made part of the body of Christ in his Church at our baptism - the English word ‘saint’ comes from the Latin ‘sanctus’, meaning holy. Even though we know we are all sinners if we are honest with ourselves. We are not particularly holy, we often feel far from God – and, please God, we won’t be asked to die as martyrs. But we do try to live good Christian lives, and when we fail we seek forgiveness and try again - and again, and again. That is what makes us saints.

Those that we recognise as Saints (with a big ‘S’) and heroes of the Church are different from us in degree but not in kind – they too knew they were sinners. Even as marvellous examples of holiness and faith worth celebrating, they were human and fallible just like us. Remember, even the great St Peter was rebuked by Jesus with the words, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that we should celebrate ourselves at All Saints - how horribly narcisistic that would be – but surely at All Saints tide we should remember the saints (with a small ‘s’) from whom we have received our own faith, whether they are parents, teachers, friends, or others we have met on the way.

Since we are all saints, surely there are implications for how we should live our lives.
And I think Jesus spells them out for us very clearly in today’s 3rd reading from Luke’s Gospel (6:20-31).

First, as saints we must never forget that we are blessed by God, whatever bad things may befall us. Let's hear Jesus's words again:
‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man … for surely your reward is great in heaven.’

Second, as saints Jesus tells us that we must obey what philosophers call the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’. He tells us:
‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.’

Wow! That is a big 'ask'! How difficult these things are for ordinary, self-centred human beings. But they are commands from the very lips of Jesus, the Son of God. Unless we do our best, however poor, to follow them, we cannot claim to be part of the body of Christ, and we are not worthy to be called saints, even with a small ‘s’. No wonder we need the example of the Saints with a capital ‘S’ to show us that it is possible!

So as we celebrate the lives of all the Saints, let us pray that God the Father, through his Holy Spirit, will strengthen and encourage us to live up to the example of the Saints, and to behave as Jesus has commanded us to.

Friday 18 October 2013

The Earthly & Heavenly Harvests are deeply interconnected

A Harvest Festival address given at Kinnitty on Friday 18th October, year C

What a privilege it is for me to join you for your Harvest Festival, to give thanks to God for all the good things he has given to us all.
And I must thank your Rector, Michael, for his invitation to address you this evening.  

Like all of us I’m sure, I’ve loved Harvest Festivals ever since I was a child! Let us just look around us at this beautifully decorated church, filled with harvest bounty. The decorators have every right to be proud of their skillful arrangements, and those who have grown the produce have every right to be proud that the best of it should be displayed here in God’s house! We all enjoy the colours and the smells of the fruit and the vegetables and the flowers - when I came in I smelt the apples and was transported back to my childhood. And we love the familiar harvest hymns, and all the cheerful people.

I’m going to talk about two things today: the earthly harvest, for which we are giving thanks today - and then a different, heavenly harvest. The two are deeply interconnected.

So first, the earthly harvest.
Are you feeling cheerful? I do hope so, because we have so much to give thanks for. And cheerfulness is a Christian virtue!

After the fodder crisis of the winter and late spring, my farming neighbours tell me the good summer has cheered them up. The crowds at the Ploughing were happy ones. The harvest has been easier than for several years. And a friend who grows cereals told me, with a twinkle in his eye, that although prices have dropped back, yields aren’t too bad, and he can’t complain – now for him that’s almost a shout of joy!

Yet even so, many of us remain anxious in this great recession we are living through. After the turmoil in global financial markets, policies of austerity have destroyed jobs and many are driven to emigrate. Worries bubble up: Is my job safe? What about my savings and my pension? How can I stretch my income to pay the rising bills for energy and other things?

But we should try to look at the glass as half full, not half empty! Just reflect for a moment on the breadth and variety of our harvest:
·         We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, hay for horses and silage for cattle.
·         And there’s much more than staples for us to enjoy, isn’t there? There’s milk and honey, butter and cheese, fruit and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips, pumpkins and marrows, peas and beans, cabbage and lettuce, and gardens full of flowers!
·         Many of us work with animals, and there are this year’s foals, and calves and lambs and chicks. But there’s also the fruit of our own bodies - our children and grandchildren born this year, and older ones growing apace as mine are - thank God for them too!
·         Above all perhaps we should thank God for our health and strength, and also for our intellects, our god-given cleverness. As every farmer knows, this bountiful harvest does not appear from heaven as if by magic: it takes intelligent planning and hard graft!

In this rich corner of the world today, no one will starve in times of recession, as our forefathers so often did. With our cleverness we have invented ways to store food and to transport it, and economic and social systems to distribute it to where it is needed. If we consume a little less, it will probably be good for our health; and perhaps the whole planet will benefit. So let us be cheerful and follow the good advice of Deuteronomy (26:1-11): ‘You shall set the first of the fruit of the ground down before the Lord your God … Then you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you.’

Yet for all our cleverness, the earthly harvest is perishable and uncertain. Why has God not given us perpetually good harvests - and recession free economies? Perhaps to remind us that we are not masters of the universe: God is. God’s laws don’t change: Nature is as God has made it; and what we sow, we shall reap. We remain as we have always been, totally dependent on God’s continuing fatherly goodness.

In the passage from John’s Gospel that we’ve just heard (John 6:25-35), Jesus asks us to look beyond the earthly harvest, to a different heavenly harvest.
He tells the crowd: ‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’  He tells them the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. And finally he makes this great claim: I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whosoever believes in me shall never be thirsty.
What is Jesus talking about? His teaching is difficult; at least I find it so. But then so did many of Jesus’s disciples, according to John. One way to look at it, which I find helpful, is this. I offer it to you:
·           Just as God has made us clever, able to till and keep the world of which we are part, so he has made us in his image to be moral beings, to be souls. Souls with the capacity we call conscience to distinguish right from wrong, truth from lies, love from hate - and to prefer good to evil, as he does, at least in the abstract. If we use our conscience to make the right choices, we reap a heavenly harvest of good, which nourishes us for eternal life. As the old saw says, the good we do lives after us.
·           But we are not masters of our own souls, any more than we are masters of the universe: our souls are as God made them, with free will, vulnerable to temptation. So it’s hard to be good. We have to work at it, just as we do for the earthly harvest. It is hard work resisting temptation, putting what is right above our own desires. All too often we fail. We call that sin. And when we fail and sin, the evil we do poisons our soul, and that evil too is eternal. A bad deed done can never be undone!
·           What a mess it is! How can we possibly be as good as God wants us to be? As good as God has made us want to be in our best moments.
·           This is where Jesus’s teaching speaks to me: he promises us all the help we need to reap the heavenly harvest. All we require, all that is asked of us, is the faith to come to him. Then, as the bread of life, he strengthens our souls. He helps us to resist temptation and to do good. And when we fail, he sucks out the evil that poisons the soul – in other words he redeems us. The only cure for a bad deed is forgiveness!
·           It is in this sense, I suggest, that Jesus is the bread of life that endures for eternal life.

What are the practical implications of this? Consider greed for example:
Greed is the cause of so many of the problems we face, I think, from global warming to the global crash; old-fashioned, sinful human greed. Greed to consume more than we need at the expense of our planet. Greed for profit at the expense of other men and women.

To overcome the problems we must be generous to others, not greedy for ourselves. We must learn how to be unselfish. This wonderful planet – our God-given Garden of Eden – would be enough and more than enough for all of us if only we could do so.

But we cannot do this by ourselves, because of our innate tendency to be selfish and greedy. We can only do it through the grace of Jesus Christ, the bread of life, who will help us transform our sinful greedy natures into generous ones. He will help us to be as generous as God wants us to be.

And think on this: human greed threatens our future. I'll say it again: human greed threatens our future.

Selfish over-consumption in the rich world not only pushes the poor into deeper poverty to which they may respond violently, but it drives the climate change that is damaging our planet’s ecosystems on which all life depends. Without Jesus’s help to transform our greed into generosity, we stand to lose the earthly harvest too. The earthly harvest depends in a very real way on the heavenly harvest.

So to sum up:
·         Let us thank God our loving Father for this bountiful earthly harvest. God makes it possible, and we work hard for it, so it is right for us to celebrate it and enjoy it together.
·         But let us work just as hard for the heavenly harvest of goodness, to nourish our souls.
·         Let us also thank God for the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. We need his help to reap this heavenly harvest.
·         And let us pray that Jesus will transform our selfish natures into the generous natures on which both our earthly and heavenly harvest bounty depends.

If we believe in him, if we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty for good things.

Sunday 18 August 2013

Sowing the seed

Address given at the annual ecumenical service of thanksgiving for the Lough Derg Yacht Club Regatta on Sunday 18th August 2013.

Every year members of the Lough Derg & Loug Ree Yacht Clubs join with friends from near and far to share time together sailing on the Shannon, in competition but also in friendship and love. It is a great blessing. And it is very right that participants should also join together to give thanks to God for blessing them in this way. The Regatta Service has been held annually for more than 70 years. It is a lovely tradition, and one I hope will continue for many years to come.

Do you find it difficult to remember the point of a sermon you’ve just heard, 5 minutes later?
I do - it’s as if what goes in one ear comes straight out the other! But I do remember one sermon preached by Stephen White, then the Dean of Killaloe, at a Regatta Service like this one several years ago.

He likened our different Christian traditions to a flotilla of yachts racing on the lake. We may look as if we’re sailing in different directions as we tack to find better air, but we are all sailing to the best of our ability to reach the same mark – which is God’s heavenly kingdom. Stephen was not a sailor, and may not have intended it, but I had to laugh when I thought of all the shouting and roaring which so often goes with racing, whether it’s the crew arguing about tactics, or shouts of ‘Starboard!’ or ‘Water’ to other competitors. How like our different churches so much of the time!

The point I took from his sermon is that we are all sailing the same race together, and there is so much more that unites than divides us. I remember it of course because the image Stephen conjured up was so vivid and familiar, and appropriate to the time and place.

Jesus was also a master of the vivid, familiar and appropriate image to make his words stick.
Let us enter in our imagination the scene of the reading from Mark 4:1-9 we have just heard, what we now call the ‘Parable of the Sower’.

So many people wanted to listen to Jesus that he used a boat as a pulpit to address the crowd on the beach. The beach was on a lake, the Sea of Galilee. I’ve never been there, but I see it in my minds eye as rather like Lough Derg: it’s about 40% larger in area, and wider but not so long. Imagine the people crowded on the beach at Dromineer, and Jesus in a lake boat talking to them.

Did Jesus see a man sowing in a nearby field? Perhaps this prompted the parable, and everyone could literally see what he was talking about. The sower wouldn’t be using a seed-drill; he would be broadcasting the seed by hand, just as our ancestors would have done only 150 years ago. The seed would be in a bag or a basket, and he would walk steadily up and down the field, taking a handful of seed and throwing it out as evenly as he could. Even at a distance it would be quite clear to everyone what he was doing: they had seen it hundreds of times before, and many had done it themselves.

And Jesus describes just what the crowd can all see:
§         Imagine a big field divided like allotments into strips farmed by different families, with paths between them, beaten down hard by the passage of many feet. The crowd can see the birds following the sower swooping down to gobble up the seed that inevitably falls on the path, for all the sowers skill.
§         Everyone would understand that different parts of the field are of different quality.
§         Some parts would be stony. Don’t imagine small pebbles - imagine great sheets of rock just under the surface, with just a few inches of soil on top. The soil above the rock would warm early, and the seeds would germinate quickly, but without a depth of soil the young seedlings would soon run out of nutrients and water and shrivel up in the sun.
§         Some parts of the field would be infested with perennial weeds: imagine scutch grass and creeping thistle, which would quickly outgrow the delicate crop, choking it.
§         But other parts of the field would be good land, with a deep, clean soil. Here the crop would have nutrients and water enough, and little competition. It will flourish and produce a harvest of thirty, or sixty, or a hundred times the grain sown on it.

‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ Jesus finishes.
·        But when the crowd has left his disciples are still uncertain what he meant – as we are so often uncertain. So Jesus interprets it for them himself, in the passage that follows - perhaps to reassure them that they do indeed understand what he is getting at.
·         The seed sown on the path is the word spoken, but not understood. Satan snatches it away, before it ever has the chance to sprout.
·         The seed sown on rocky ground is the word received with joy, but by a person with shallow roots, without character, whose initial enthusiasm cannot withstand trouble or persecution.
·         The seed sown among thorns is the word heard by those who are so trapped by worldly cares and the lure of wealth that they cannot act upon it.
·         And the seed sown on good soil is the word heard by those who understand it, and act upon it. Only such people will yield a harvest of good.

The point of Jesus’ sermon is just the same as it was on that lake shore 2000 years ago.
If we are to be the good people God wants us to be, we need to cultivate our characters so that as good soil we yield a rich harvest.

Each one of us has to develop the character traits of attention, persistence, and concentration. Attention so that we do not miss God’s call when it comes. Persistence so that we can withstand opposition when we answer God’s call. And concentration so that the cares of the world and the pursuit of wealth do not distract us from acting on God’s call.

And I suggest these 3 marks of character are also needed by any winning sailor. Attention to the wind, the water and other boats. Persistence to overcome temporary setbacks. And concentration to make the most of the conditions we encounter.

I was never a winning sailor, as most of you know. But my prayer for every one of us is that we may never cease striving to build up our character – our powers of attention, persistence and concentration - so that we may be better sailors - and more like the people God wants us to be.

May you have fair weather and good sailing in the year ahead!

Sunday 11 August 2013

Hoarding stuff

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 11th August 2013, the 11th after Trinity

Are you a hoarder? I know I am – as Marty will confirm if you ask her!
I am surrounded by ‘stuff’ – the attic is full of it, so is the garage. Some stuff  has sentimental value, such as things I’ve inherited which I remember from childhood. Some stuff I don’t need right now, but a nagging voice tells me it might just be useful sometime. And then there is some old stuff which I tell myself I might be able to sell, if I ever find myself down on my uppers – little enough, for in truth most of it is just junk.

And it doesn’t stop there either. There is something inside me which covets more stuff than I have already, and which covets the security that money and wealth brings. There is that urge to accumulate in most if not all of us, I think.

It is this covetous human nature that advertisers constantly play on in this consumer market economy. Their siren voices tempt us to buy that new car, the latest smartphone, cosmetics to make us young again, exotic foreign holidays – ‘because we’re worth it’. If we cannot have it all we feel cheated.

Those unlucky enough to have no paying work are made to feel inadequate as they eke out an existence on welfare, unable to afford what is advertised. And begrudged by those better off who pay their dole. While those with good incomes feel an inner void, finding that despite the siren voices all the stuff their money can buy does not make them happy after all.

The market economy has created great wealth, and a high standard of living for the majority in rich societies like Ireland. We have all come to believe that we will have more than our parents did. But it depends on ever growing consumption which the finite resources of our beautiful planet cannot sustain. When growth inevitably falters - as it has done - those with the least suffer the most, and all of us become fearful for the future. We worry that our jobs and pensions are precarious, we see our children and grandchildren emigrate and fear their lives will be harder than our own, we are anxious about the damage being done to the natural world about us, and we dread the prospect of massive climate change.

Today’s Gospel reading (Luke 12: 32-40) has a lot to say to us in present circumstances.
Jesus understands that people are often selfish and greedy because they are anxious and afraid for the future. So he tells the disciples – and through them, us – that we should put aside such anxiety. God knows what we need, and God will give us all we need when we work for his kingdom – in other words, when we try to be the people God wants us to be, loving God and his wonderful creation, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock’, he says, ‘for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’.

God has given us all that we have so that that we may be generous with it, not hoard it. What we give away, to those who need it more than we do, is ‘an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys’. If we want to be good Christians we must focus on that kind of spiritual wealth, rather than accumulating material wealth, ‘for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’.

And we must be alert at all times for opportunities to respond generously, as and when God prompts us to do so. As Jesus puts it, ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit’. We should not put off calls on our generosity, waiting perhaps for a better time or a more pressing need to come along. We are mortal – we do not know when God will knock on the door to call us out of this life. ‘You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’, says Jesus. And it would be shameful, when he does come knocking - as we know he will - to admit that we wasted the opportunities he gave us to act like the good people he created us to be.

Jesus calls his disciples, I believe, to live lives of holy simplicity and generosity.
In the passage immediately preceding the one we heard, Jesus talks of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. ‘Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither store-house nor barn, and yet God feeds them … Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Soloman in his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field … how much more will he clothe you.’

As Christians we need to live like the birds and the lilies. That does not mean that we should not work and plan for the future. Unlike the birds and lilies we must sow and reap, build store-houses and barns, toil and spin, and we must do so communally with others, because that is what it means to be human. That is how we have evolved to make our living, how God has made us to be - just as the birds and the lilies have evolved to make their different livings. But we must also recover a sense of what it is to have enough. We must resist the temptation always to seek more than we need, more than God has already given us. And we must cultivate a generous spirit.

So I commend to you Rae Croft & Marty Sanders’ lovely initiative to send pencil cases to help children in schools in Swaziland. This simple action can make so much difference to children who have so very little, as Bishop Ellinah of Swaziland told us when she visited our diocese in Adare a few months ago. Please have a look at the poster on the noticeboard, take a leaflet, and give as generously as you can. As their Lenten project the children in St Mary’s No2 school have already sent 97. Surely we the grown-ups can do just as well!

To finish, our globalised world is like an over-wound clockwork toy.
The spring that drives it is ready to snap. We face disastrous consequences unless we can release the tension. Our example of holy simplicity can show others how together we can ease the tension, how we can return to a way of living which will enable everyone to continue to flourish in the wonderful world God has given us, alongside the birds and the lilies.

Holy simplicity is liberating, and our world needs liberating now as much as it has ever done. Let us live simply, so that others can simply live!

Sunday 14 July 2013

Who is my neighbour?

Address given at Templederry & Killodiernan on 14 July 2013, the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, year C.

Jesus’s story about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is so familiar that it is easy to miss his main point.
It is more about recognising who our neighbour is, than about loving them as ourselves and responding to their needs, important though that is.

And his words would have been very shocking for those who heard them first.

The story was prompted by a lawyer, we’re told – a learned professional man.
He asks Jesus ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ – in other words, how must I behave to be worthy of God’s favour. Jesus bounces the question back at him, saying ‘What does God’s law say?’ When the lawyer answers, ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself’, Jesus agrees with him, saying ‘Do this and you will live.’ After all, as both Matthew (22:37-39) and Mark (12:31) tell us, Jesus had said as much himself when asked what the greatest commandment was. Jews understood very well their obligation to protect and care for their neighbours in need. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, is a quotation from the book Leviticus (19:18) – it is a command from God.

But then the lawyer chances his arm again, asking Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ It is in reply to this that Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

A man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite travelling on the same road pass by on the other side, ignoring his plight. (A Levite was a layman privileged to help the priests in the Temple – a bit like a Diocesan Reader, I suppose!) But then a Samaritan comes along. A Samaritan of all people, who stops and helps the traveller, treats his wounds, takes him to a safe place, and even pays for him to be cared for. When Jesus asks which of the three was a good neighbour, the lawyer replies, ‘The one who helped’ – in other words the Samaritan. Jesus tells him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

To accept help from a Samaritan as a neighbour – that is what was shocking for a pious Jew.

So just who were these Samaritans?
The Samaritans worshipped the same God as the Jews, the Hebrew God YHWH, but believed that YHWH had chosen Mount Gerizim near Nablus, not Jerusalem, as the site of his holy temple. That was where they worshipped and where Samaritan priests made the traditional Hebrew sacrifices. They accepted variant texts of the Torah, the first 5 books of the Hebrew scriptures, but they rejected the rest.

According to the Samaritans themselves, they followed the true religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian Exile, preserved by those who remained in the Land of Israel, as opposed to Judaism, which was changed and brought back by those returning from the exile.

When Jesus was alive up to a million Samaritans lived alongside but apart from the Jews in their own villages in what we now call Palestine and Israel. But history has not been kind to them. They suffered centuries of persecution and forced conversion, first by Byzantine Christians and then by Arab and Turkish muslims. Yet a small Samaritan community of around 1,000 still remains today in Nablus in the West Bank, faithfully maintaining their own distinctive faith.

In Jesus’s time, orthodox Jews despised and disliked Samaritans. They were heretics who did not follow Jewish law, unclean, untrustworthy, quite outside the pale. And the Samaritans no doubt heartily returned these sentiments. Both groups had as little to do with each other as they could – neither saw the other as their neighbour.

Jesus made the shocking point that every person is a neighbour, even despised Samaritans.
Many people in our society today find it just as hard as the Jews in Jesus’s day to accept some people as neighbours.

Take Travelers for instance. It is not so many years ago that one of the Nenagh RC priests bravely insisted that a sign saying ‘No Travelers’ should be taken down in the cinema. More recently a house in Ballina was burned to prevent a traveler family from moving in. And I notice the Council is still sending out an unmistakable message that travelers are unwelcome by mounding up the verge on the Drummin Rd.

Or consider asylum seekers. There is a lot of prejudice against them, partly perhaps because so many are not European. Surely it cannot be right to keep people in direct provision centres for years on end on a dole of €19 per week, denying them the right to work and contribute to society. There are fears for the safety and welfare of children in these centres, and once children reach the age of 18 they are denied funding to take up college places, and left in complete limbo.

And then there are Muslims. A Muslim doctor at Nenagh Hospital was assaulted in the street a couple of years ago, and there are disturbing reports of growing harassment and attacks on Muslims in Ireland. Since Bush declared his ‘war on terror’, I have often heard derogatory comments about Islam, including remarks that ‘Muslims are all terrorists’, which is quite untrue.

We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus unless we accept that all these - and many more besides - are our neighbours. We have an obligation to be good neighbours to them, to protect and care for them when they need it. And when we hear others express crude prejudice about them we should confront it and not collude with it.

The Samaritan crossed the boundaries of prejudice to help his neighbour – may we ‘Go and do likewise’.

Sunday 7 July 2013


Address given at Portumna, Eyrecourt & Banagher on 7 July 2013, the 6th Sunday after Trinity

How’s your handwriting? Are you proud of it? – I’m rather ashamed of my own scrawl.
Despite my teachers’ valiant efforts to teach me copper-plate writing at school, I sometimes find it difficult to read what I’ve written myself!

Is this how St Paul felt when he wrote in today’s 2nd reading (Galatians 6:7-16), ‘See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!’? Was his handwriting poor? Or was his sight bad? Perhaps neither - many commentators believe that he used large letters to stress the importance of what he was about to say.

Let’s see if his words have any important message for us today.

Paul goes on to write about the Jewish ritual practice of ‘circumcision’. Why did he do so?
Every Jewish man was required by the Jewish law to be circumcised - it was a permanent mark that he was one of the children of Israel, with whom God had made a covenant.

The Galatians were not Jews, but gentiles. Originally they were a Celtic people living in central Asia Minor, near Ankara in modern Turkey, but no doubt by Paul’s time there were also many migrants from elsewhere in the Eastern Roman Empire, and Greek would have been the common language.

Paul had founded churches in Galatia on one of his mission journeys. He had taught them that it was not necessary for gentile Christians to adopt the Jewish law, and this had been agreed with the Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem. Now he has learned that some people - who is not clear - are pressing these churches to insist that all must obey the full Jewish Law, including male circumcision. In his letter he appeals to them not to go down that road. They are made children of God by faith, not by obeying the Law given to Jews. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’, he says. Paul’s letter is dictated, but in the passage we have just heard Paul reinforces this message, by writing in his own hand, ‘For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything’. And that new creation is to be found in Christ.

Paul’s letter is written in very specific historical circumstances. His message may have been very important for the Galatians, but surely it can’t be relevant for us 2000 years later? But I suggest it is.

Our Church of Ireland, like other churches, has got itself into an awful tizz on the LGBT issue.
One party insists on the traditional view that all same-sex sexual activity is sinful, another disagrees and seeks to affirm permanent, loving same-sex relationships. Many in the church wish that the issue would go away, so we can get on with the business of loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves, which Christ called us to do. Meanwhile most outside our church have already made up their minds that gay marriage should be welcomed, according to opinion polls.

General Synod in 2012 voted 3 to 1 to reaffirm the traditional view – I was in the minority, and I felt most uncomfortable with the procedure used. General Synod 2013 appointed a ‘Select committee on human sexuality in the context of Christian belief’ – now there’s a mouth full - to continue the listening process begun last year. Bishop Trevor and the Dean of Limerick Sandra Pragnell from our diocese are members of it. Views are deeply entrenched, and I will not be holding my breath for a speedy resolution any tile soon.

It is very much my personal view of course, which you should feel free to disagree with according to your conscience, but I see clear parallels with the debate in Galatia about the Jewish Law. To insist that our LGBT brothers and sisters deny their natures is like insisting that gentiles obey the Jewish Law, circumcision and all. Surely what matters to God is the love displayed in our personal relationships, not our genders. I suspect the Holy Spirit is calling us to add something like this to Paul’s call to equality in Christ: ‘There is no longer gay or straight – for gay or straight is nothing, but a new creation is everything’. If that is so, most of our fellow citizens have heard the call, whether they recognise it as the work of the Spirit or not, and the institutional church – our Church of Ireland is in danger, to use Paul’s phrase, of not ‘sowing to the Spirit’.

‘You reap whatever you sow’, says Paul - the adage was old even in his day.
‘So let us not grow weary in doing what is right’, he continues, ‘for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith’.

Our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ are part of the ‘family of faith’.  So what can we do to work for the good of all, while the institutional church makes up its mind?

One possibility would be to list your church as a ‘Welcoming and Open Congregation’ with Changing Attitude Ireland on their web site – you can use google to find out all about it. This would require the Select Vestry to discuss and agree to declare publicly that your church is a place where LGBT Christians can be sure of a welcome. In our own diocese, the Killaloe and Kilcolman Unions have already done this, and my own Nenagh Union has just agreed to join them.

The traditionalists are also part of the ‘family of faith’ of course. We should seek to continue respectful dialog together, as we wait for the Holy Spirit to draw us to a common understanding of God’s will.

So, I believe Paul’s words are as important for us today as they were for the Galatians.
Referring to those who follow his advice, Paul says, ‘peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God’ – the latter I think are those who don’t accept his advice. He wishes peace and mercy on both factions.

I shall finish as Paul finishes his letter, though we did not hear it today: ‘May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.’

Sunday 9 June 2013

A call to remember St Columba

Address given on Sunday 9th June 2013, St Columba's Day, at Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan

I ring this bell to call us to remember St Columba, whose feast day it is today.
St Columba’s name in Irish is Colm Cille, which means Dove of the Church – Columba in Latin simply means a dove. He was born in 521 AD in Co. Donegal to an aristocratic, warrior family. He studied in Clonard monastery, Co. Meath, became a monk, and eventually was ordained a priest. In his early years he is said to have founded several monasteries including those at Kells, Derry and Swords.

But Columba was not always as peaceable as his name suggests. He got embroiled in a quarrel over a psalm book with St Finnian of Moville. Columba borrowed the book and copied it secretly for his own use, but Finnian disputed his right to keep it. He took it to court and the High King adjudicated the case, coming to the famous judgement, ‘To every cow its calf, to every book its copy’ – setting a precedent that is still remembered in copyright law. Columba would not accept the judgement, and the dispute eventually resulted in a pitched battle between the supporters of the two men in which 3,000 were killed.

A Synod threatened to excommunicate St Columba for the deaths he had caused, but St Brendan of Birr spoke up for him, and he was allowed to go into exile. Columba went to Scotland as a missionary, pledged to convert as many heathen Picts as had been killed in the battle.

Columba sailed into exile in 563 AD in a curragh with 12 companions.
No doubt he brought with him a precious copy of the Gospels and the psalms, perhaps also a bell like this one, as many early Irish saints did, to call his fellows to prayer and worship.

Landing on Iona, an island in the Inner Hebrides, he began his life’s work to convert the Picts to Christianity. This year is the 1450th anniversary of his arrival – an anniversary worth celebrating! He established a great monastery in Iona, one of the most important in the Celtic world, which he developed into a centre of learning and a school for missionaries.

He became deeply involved in Scottish politics, helping to broker peace between the warring Picts and Gaels. Isn't it wonderful how the aristocratic Irish warrior who caused so much slaughter became St Columba, the dove of peace. Today’s 1st reading (Micah 4:1-5) is very apt for his feast day:
‘(The Lord) shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

Columba’s monastery continued to flourish after his death in 597 AD. It was renowned for its learning, and the scriptorium for beautiful illuminated manuscripts, among them many scholars suggest the Book of Kells. From Iona missionaries went not only around Scotland, but to England where St Aidan went from Iona to Lindisfarne, where he converted the heathen Anglo-Saxon Northumbrians.

The Iona monastery was eventually abandoned in 849 AD after being sacked several times by the Vikings. Its treasures and relics were dispersed around Scotland and Ireland, which may explain how Kells got its famous Book.

But Iona remained a sacred place. Scottish kings continued to be buried there, including Macbeth. And a Benedictine Abbey was built there in 1203 to cater for pilgrims, which continued to flourish until the Reformation when it was suppressed. The Abbey in turn fell into ruins.

But that is not the end of the story.
The history of Iona is one of continuing cycles of decay and rebirth – Columba himself, the Celtic monastery, the Benedictine Abbey. This brings Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading (John 12:20-26) into sharp focus: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’.

So, in 1938 a Presbyterian Minister called George McLeod brought a party of men from Govan near Glasgow to rebuild Iona’s ruined Benedictine Abbey. In doing so he founded the Iona Community

The Iona Community today, in words taken from their website (, ‘is a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship. (They) are an ecumenical community of  men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Church, engaged together and with people of goodwill across the world, reflecting and praying for justice, peace and the integrity of creation’.

The Community run pilgrim and retreat centres on Iona and nearby Mull. Newslink readers may remember a fine report by Jonathan Pyle about his pilgrimage to Iona. They run outreach programmes in Glasgow and for children. And their Wild Goose publishing house makes new, exciting liturgy and hymns available to Christians everywhere. The Rector regularly includes their materials in her services, particularly the Family Services, because they are so accessible. You may also remember John Bell, a member of the Iona Community, hosting his ‘Big Sing’ with us here 2 years ago.

In this their 75th anniversary year we can truly say that the Iona Community continues to bless us by building on their inheritance from St Columba.

Let me tell you a secret - I have a dream - foolish, maybe, perhaps impractical, but bold.

What is there to stop us in this Diocese, in our part of Ireland, from emulating our brothers and sisters in the Iona Community?

Bishop Trevor in his conversations on Vision, Mission & Ministry has given us permission to come up with new ways to express our faith. He has encouraged us to find a critical mass in clusters of parishes on a wider canvas than our historic parishes. We also have beautiful, ancient cathedrals such as those of Clonfert or Kilfenora which are barely used, but whose stones like Iona’s speak of a long, living Christian tradition.

We might start, perhaps, by calling together a group to adopt in a sense one of these cathedrals - only with the blessing of that parish of course. We might use it for modern, joyful services, designed to attract and inspire the young at heart in all generations from a wide area and from different Christian traditions. We might draw on Iona materials at first, but then we might start to develop our own voice. It would be wonderful if it became a place for pilgrims to gather. Perhaps a new dispersed Christian Community might come together around it. And who knows what blessings might flow from that?

So, I ring this bell to call us to remember St Columba.
·        Let us give thanks for his arrival on Iona 1,450 years ago, and for his work as missionary and peacemaker.
·        Let us give thanks in our own day for the 75 years of Christian witness and service of the Iona Community.

·        And let us give thanks for the inspiration we continue to receive from both St Columba and the Iona Community.

Sunday 5 May 2013

Rogation prayers

Today is Rogation Sunday - ‘But what is this Rogation thing all about?’, I hear you ask.
The word ‘rogation’ comes from the Latin verb ‘rogare’, which means to ask. In the medieval church the 3 days before Ascension Day - that’s next Thursday this year - were called Rogation Days. They were kept as special days of prayer and fasting to ask for God’s blessing on the crops in the field – as so often, this was a case of the Church taking over – Christianising - an earlier Roman pagan festival, called Robigalia. The Gospel set in the old lectionaries for this Sunday included Christ’s words, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give to you”, so it was called Rogation Sunday.

All kinds of traditions grew up in different places in Western Europe about Rogation-tide, though I’m not aware of any particular Irish Rogation traditions. In many places entire congregations would march in procession around the fields to bless them. In some places this was combined with ‘beating the bounds’ - visiting all the landmarks on the boundaries of the parish, so that in the days before maps the young would come to know them, and they would continue to be remembered in immemorial tradition.

We don’t do that anymore, of course – though it would be rather fun, wouldn’t it!. But I do think it is important in our rural community to recognise our dependence on God’s blessing for our livelihoods and communities. At Harvest time we come together to give thanks for all he has blessed us with, and at Rogation we come together to pray that he will bless us in future – they are two sides of the same coin.

It’s been a long and difficult winter for many of us, hasn’t it?
After a bad summer last year, many farmers were feeding fodder early and were left with low stocks for the winter. And with Spring close to a month behind and late snows and frosts, there has been little grass growth. Animals have been on short rations, even starving. Farm organisations, Co-ops and Government have responded to the crisis by importing fodder from Britain – something quite unprecedented. Could we be starting to see the ill effects of climate change?

The Great Recession we have been living through since the housing bubble burst is a bit like a long and difficult winter too, it seems to me.

But we have turned the corner now – the grass is growing, the arable crops are starting to move forward, we are beginning to see calves and lambs and foals in the fields. Now, as the great on-rush of spring lifts our spirits, is a time to look forward not back, to ask God for the blessings we hope to receive in future, not dwell on past troubles.

Last Sunday I missed the large and joyful Confirmation party you had here in St Mary’s. I was sorry to miss it – but I was also part of large and joyful party at a long planned wedding in Co Clare. That lifted my spirits – but then they were raised to towering heights by an afternoon in the Burren with Marty.

I took a long walk on a green road that was new to me, up the Glen of Clab to the great circular sink-hole of Pol an Bhiain. Although the trees were barely budding, the Spring flowers were a sight to see. In sheltered grassland there were plenty of Spring Gentians with their blue eyes – I discovered they close again in the late afternoon – did you know that? Under the hazel and ash woodland canopy were sheets of golden saxifrage, carpets of primroses and violets. Up on the heights, I found cattle grazing, met a herd of donkeys and saw feral goats in the distance. And in Pol an Bhiain I found a badger’s set. Enough to make my heart sing, despite the blisters!

I hope your heart sang too this morning, as you heard Joel’s beautiful words (Joel 2:21-27)
“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! 
Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. 
children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God…
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 
I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten…
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God.”

So in that hopeful mood, trusting in God’s faithfulness, let us pray on this Rogation Sunday for a successful harvest to come, for an end to painful unemployment and austerity so that our communities will flourish, and for a sustainable future for us and for all God’s creatures.

Let us also reflect upon how our prayer can and will work.
Some people believe that by prayer you can somehow get on the right side of God. That if you have been good enough to worship him, to pay him attention and flatter him with a request, then he will reward you by giving you whatever it is that you want. But to seek to manipulate God like that is a travesty of Christian prayer. Rather we should understand prayer as a kind of conversation with God, a dialogue if you like, that opens us up to be transformed by God’s truth and love.

Our prayer, if it is genuine and sincere, expresses our most heartfelt desires. But we must recognise that it expresses our will, which may or may not be closely aligned to God’s will. The object of prayer is not to align God’s will with our will, but instead to align our will with God’s will.

And always, alongside us in this conversation with God, is the hard material reality of the natural world which God has also created and loves as he loves us.

As we express in prayer our deepest hopes and fears we must also seek to understand the real consequences of our actions, in order to discern how to align our will with God’s.
·        God cannot grant us a successful harvest unless we work hard and apply our God-given skills and ingenuity to achieve it.
·        God cannot grant us flourishing communities unless we make sure the economy works with God rather than against him.
·        And God cannot grant us a sustainable future unless we restrain our greedy and acquisitive natures.