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.’