Sunday 23 November 2014

What makes Jesus cringe?

Address given at Kinnitty, Shinrone & Aghancon on Mission Sunday, 23rd November 2014, the last Sunday before Advent year A, 

This is Mission Sunday.
It is the day each year when the Diocesan Board of Mission appeals to us to give generously to the good causes it supports. But it is also an opportunity for us to think about what we mean by mission, and why it is so important.

The word ‘mission’ comes from a Latin word meaning ‘sent out’, but I think it is really more about ‘calling out’.

In the past people thought about mission mostly in terms of sending out missionaries to foreign lands to convert the heathen savages. But the reality of mission is very different, certainly these days. Mission is not so much about sending out missionaries to make converts and grow the church, but much more about calling out all Christian people to reveal the Kingdom of God to our fellow human beings, wherever and whoever they may be.

As Christians, Jesus calls us all to continue his ministry by making the kingdom of God visible. But how are we to discern what it is that we should actually do? At the Mission Evening in Adare ten days ago Salters Sterling suggested an excellent answer to this question.
In order to discern where Christ is calling us to mission, we should look about us to find places where people are suffering the kind of injustice that would make Jesus cringe.
And then of course we should work together to do something about it.

Today’s Gospel, the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46), can help us to see where to look.
Jesus is teaching his disciples when they are alone with him, he is not speaking to the crowds. He tells them, ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory … he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … Then the king will say to those at his right hand,
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you …
for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
And when in their surprise they ask when they had done this, the king will say to them,
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Jesus was accustomed to refer to himself as the Son of Man. Here he uses the imagery of divine judgement to teach his disciples what they must do to be blessed by God and accepted into his Kingdom - they are to comfort and support even the least member of God’s family who is in any kind of distress or trouble.

And God’s family is inclusive. Every human being is made in God’s image, and hence is a member of God’s family - whoever they are, wherever they live, whatever they look like, however they worship, whether they are friends or enemies. Every person is our neighbour, and Jesus commands us to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:39).

So you and I, as Jesus’s disciples today, must take his call to heart. Where we encounter any kind of injustice, injustice that would make Jesus cringe in Salters’ words, Jesus calls us to do something about it, to shine something of the light of God’s kingdom on it. We too are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner. If we do so, we will be blessed by God and inherit the Kingdom. If we do not, we are accursed.

This is why mission is so important to us as Christians.

80% of our Mission Sunday collection will once again go to Luyengo Farm in Swaziland.
Swaziland is a place where people really are suffering injustice that would make Jesus cringe. It is one of the poorest countries on earth, with more than a quarter of adults infected by HIV, and all the problems of orphaned children and families headed by children that go with that.

We can feel proud as a diocese that since 2011 we have raised nearly €60,000 for Luyengo Farm. The Farm is a success story. When we started there was nothing but bear earth, now it is producing carrots, lettuce, beetroot, pigs and other commodities, for sale in Swaziland and South Africa. This provides local employment, and the money raised supports AIDS relief and feeding stations run by the Diocese of Swaziland.

Our efforts have helped the Diocese of Swaziland in a very concrete way to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and educate Swazi children. We have opened a window to let the light of God’s kingdom shine through, and we are blessed by it.

Now the Board of Mission is calling us to make one final effort to meet our diocesan commitment to clear the debt incurred to build the reservoir – they need just €5,000 to do so.

The other 20% of the collection will be returned to the parish for local mission work.
Why is this? The Board of Mission is seeking to encourage parishes to look about them in order to identify and support a project in our own communities which will shine the light of God’s kingdom on people in our own communities who need help.

Heaven knows, there are enough people here in Ireland that are suffering injustice that would make Jesus cringe:
·         People who go hungry because their money does not stretch to the end of the week, and children who go hungry to school in the morning.
·         Homeless families in B&B accommodation, or sleeping on friends’ sofas or in cars.
·         Travelers and immigrants who are not made welcome and suffer discrimination in shops and pubs.
·         People whose naked bodies are exploited for profit and pleasure in the sex industry.
·         Frail and lonely elderly people confined to the house with few if any visitors.
·         Patients waiting on hospital trolleys, or on endless lists for under-resourced public health care.
·         Refugees for whom living in direct provision for years on end feels like imprisonment.

If we address their needs, we do the same to the Son of Man and we will be blessed. If we don’t, we deny the Son of Man and we are accursed. Which of us would wish to be judged for not responding to their needs? So what are we going to do about it?

Most of us, I’m sure, already give generously to local charities. But this question, ‘what are we going to do about it?’, is one we need to talk about within our parishes. We need to seek creative answers, as for instance people in Tralee have by establishing a Soup Kitchen & Food Bank, and people in Kenmare have with a very successful Men’s Shed.

We Church of Ireland folk can sometimes feel discouraged. ‘What can we do?’, we say to each other, ‘we are so few and dispersed’. But we do not have to do it all by ourselves. God’s family is inclusive. When we begin to do things we will probably find that we are doing it with people of good will from other Christian traditions, from other faiths, and from no faith. And we may hope that what we do will reveal something of the kingdom of God to them as well.

So to finish, let us respond as generously as we can to the Diocesan Board of Mission this Mission Sunday
If we usually pull out a note from our wallet, let us make it a bigger one. If we usually put a coin on the plate, let us make it two.

And I pray that we will also start the debate within this parish about where and how we are being called to make the kingdom of God visible, where and how we are being called to mission.

Sunday 9 November 2014


Address given at Templederry & Nenagh on Sunday 9th November 2014, the 3rd before Advent.

I hope you are wise enough to check the oil level in your central heating tank regularly.
When I read through today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (25:1-13), I was prompted to rush to check my own tank. It’s an awful pain when the oil runs out, as I know only too well, because it has happened to me far too often. This time, though, there was plenty of oil, thank heavens.

And I don’t just have problems with central heating oil. My mother, God bless her, always used to ask me as I drove away whether I had enough petrol, because twice in a fortnight more than 20 years ago I had run out on the road – she never accepted my excuse that the fuel gauge was broken, so I had to dip the tank with a stick. And Marty continues to tease me with the same question!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As time passed, as Christians died with no sign of Jesus’ triumphal return, later Christians began to think that Jesus wouldn't necessarily return in their lifetimes - he was delayed like the bridegroom. So they came to believe that Christ’s 2nd Coming would be at some indefinite future date - at the ‘end of time’. This is why Paul finds it necessary in today's epistle reading to encourage the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) to believe that 'the dead in Christ will rise first'

I’m troubled by this theology of the 2nd Coming – to me it smacks too much of a vengeful, rather than a loving God. Why should God exclude those who are simply foolish from his Kingdom?

But is this what Jesus meant to convey to those he originally spoke to?
I prefer another way of looking at the parable. When Jesus refers to the undefined future coming of both the bridegroom and the Son of Man, I believe he is talking metaphorically about a typical if unknown future time, not the literal end of time.

Jesus is telling his disciples that each one of them should expect to personally encounter him as the Son of Man – God’s Son - at a time they cannot know, but in their lifetimes. That is when they will be judged, depending on whether they are ready to greet him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 26 October 2014

The word of God

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 26th October 2014, celebrated as Bible Sunday, year A

Today I’m going to talk about the Bible.
This is the last Sunday in October, which General Synod has designated as Bible Sunday. It gives us an opportunity to celebrate and reflect on what we sometimes call the Good Book.

But the Bible is more than just a book - it is in fact an extraordinary library of books.

The books of what we call the Old Testament are a record of how the ancient Hebrews - the children of Israel – developed over many centuries their beliefs in one great God JHWH. We find in them a strange mixture of origin myths, history, poetry, philosophy and theology. Why should these records of a small, weak nation more than 2000 years ago still be important to Christians today? Because they provide the background and context in which Jesus and his disciples thought and talked about their God, who is also our God. The New Testament would be unintelligible without the Old Testament.

The New Testament tells us in the Gospels about Jesus, whom we call Lord and believe to be God’s Son. It tells us of his teaching about God as Father, God’s outpouring Love and the power of God’s Spirit. And in Acts and the Epistles we get an insight into how Jesus’s small band of followers was inspired to bring their faith in him to the world, from which we too take inspiration.

Without both sections of the library, we could not be Christians. The scriptures anchor us to our faith. They allow us always to return to the safe harbour of Jesus’s teaching. Without them we would be adrift, bobbing about in chaotic seas of speculation, by turns wrong-headed or ineffectually well meaning. This is why the Bible is such a precious gift.

Christians often call the Bible the Word of God.
The word of God has meant different things to different people at different times, as the 3 readings set for today illustrate.

For Ezra and the people who gathered in the square before the Watergate in the 1st reading (Nehemiah 8:1-6), set in the 5th Century BC, the word of God meant ‘the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel’ – that is the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Old Testament.

By the time of Jesus the Jewish people had come to see the word of God in the later books of the Old Testament too.

Paul, writing 500 years after Ezra and a generation after Jesus’s death, identifies the word of God with the words of Jesus Christ. In our 2nd reading (Colossians3:12-17) Paul prays for the Colossians, ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’, because, as he has written earlier in the letter, ‘in (Christ) the whole fullness of (God) dwells bodily’ (Colossians 2.9).

So does Matthew in the Gospel reading (Matthew: 24:30-35), writing perhaps 20 years after Paul. He believes that Jesus who called himself the Son of Man was truly the Son of God, and Jesus’s words are God’s words: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’, says Jesus, ‘but my words will not pass away’. And they have not, thanks to Matthew and the other Gospel writers.

For Paul and Matthew holy scripture would have meant the Old Testament. The New Testament wasn’t assembled and put together until long after their deaths. So they could not have seen the Bible as we have received it as the word of God.

Some Christians believe the Bible is ‘inerrant’, meaning that every single word is God’s plain truth, never to be questioned. They believe that in some sense God has dictated the words to those who wrote the different books, and that God has ensured that no errors or omissions have been introduced over the millennia that they have been copied and translated. I can’t and don’t believe that myself. I fear their belief is dangerous, likely to lead them to misunderstand God’s word, and so not to behave as God wants them to.

But I do I suggest that we can and should believe that the Bible we have inherited is inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, even if mediated through fallible human authors. 

We can hear the authentic word of God in it -  provided we read it through the lenses of reason and tradition – as that great Anglican theologian Hooker put it. To which I myself would add the lens of experience – our own experience of the love of Christ working in our hearts, and that of God’s continuing self-revelation through his glorious creation.

But rather than listen to me talking about the Bible, surely we should be listening to what the Bible has to say to us.
Let me tease out some of the word of God that I hear in Paul’s words to the Colossians - I think they are particularly relevant to us today in this parish.

Paul has been warning the Colossian Christians not to be beguiled by false teachings, which have caused divisions among them. In his Gospel, John tells us Jesus prayed to his Father that his disciples may be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:21). But it is a sad fact that from the earliest times Christians have found it difficult to agree and easy to fight each other. Today, Christ’s Church is splintered. The splintered churches are divided into competing parties – as our Church of Ireland is on some matters. And our parishes are all too often divided by personal disputes, as we know only too well.

Now Paul urges the Colossians to come together. ‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body’, he says, because you are all ‘God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved’. In our heart of hearts we know we are chosen and loved by God too, don’t we? And our experience of God’s amazing, bountiful grace, as shown for instance in the harvest we’ve been enjoying, confirms it. So let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts too.

But holiness – that's difficult, isn’t it? The holy, Christ-like qualities of ‘compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience’ don’t fall on us like rain at our baptism or confirmation, drenching us to the core once and for all. We have to work at them continually. We have to consciously put them on every day, and wear them like clothes. Above all, says Paul, we must ‘clothe (ourselves) with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony’.

We know, don’t we, that Jesus calls us to ‘turn the other cheek’, to bear with one another and forgive those who hurt us: ‘just as the Lord has forgiven (us), so (we) also must forgive’, as Paul says. If ‘the word of Christ dwells in (us) richly’, as Paul prays it will for the Colossians, then we will ‘teach and admonish one another in all wisdom’ – that means, I think, we are to use our God-given common sense when we engage with those with whom we have fallen out or disagree, not let our feelings rule us.

Through it all, says Paul, we should always strive to be joyful. A smile on our face makes us feel better and that will help us be better – it will make others feel better too, and perhaps that will help them be better. And it is easier to be joyful if our heart sings – when we worship let us sing out our gratitude to God who has graciously given us so much.

And finally, says Paul, as Christians, ‘whatever (we) do in word or deed’, we must do ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’.

These are words of God that I hear in St Paul’s words to the Colossians.

Let me finish with a prayer that the peace of Christ may rule in our hearts, as Paul prayed it would in the hearts of the Colossians.
O God, our loving Father,
Lead us from division to unity, from falsehood to truth.
Lead us from fear to trust, from hate to love.
Let peace fill our hearts, our parish, our church, our world.
Let us dream together, pray together, work together,
to build God’s Kingdom of peace and justice for all.

In Jesus name we pray. Amen

Sunday 5 October 2014

Blessed are we

A Harvest Festival address given at Mountshannon on Sunday 5th October 2014, at Cloughjordan on Friday 10th October 2014, and at Shinrone on Sunday 19th October, Year A

We all love the harvest season and Harvest Festivals, don’t we?
Just look around us at this beautifully decorated church, filled with harvest bounty - how can we fail to feel thankful? The decorators have every right to be proud of their skillful arrangements. 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, we all enjoy the familiar harvest hymns, and we all enjoy seeing so many cheerful people, filled with a sense of accomplishment, now that the year’s work has been crowned with success.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the sheer breadth and variety of our harvest:
·         We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, and forage for cattle. One farming neighbour is pleased by his winter barley yield and ease of harvesting, another by his good hay and silage for the sucklers. Both are anxious about prices – farmers are always anxious about something - but once again the land has yielded its bounty.
·         But there is so much more than staples for us to enjoy, isn’t there! There’s milk and butter, cheese and yogurt, fruit and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips, pumpkins and marrows, cabbage and lettuce, peas and beans. My wife Marty has had terrific strawberries and flowers this year, and my beans and pears have done particularly well.
·         It has been an exceptional year for beekeepers. I am wildly delighted by my very first honey crop, more than 60 jars so far, and more to be extracted. So it is with great gratitude to God, and no little pride – not too sinful I hope - that I have brought a jar of my own honey along today.
·         There are the animals too – we have this year’s foals and calves and lambs, chicks, ducklings, and goslings to delight us. And we must not forget the fruit of our own bodies, our children and grandchildren born this year – I rejoice in a new grandson, Soren, born in February.

Psalm 65:12-13 expresses it in beautiful poetry, ‘The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy’.

Thanks be to God for giving us so much joy!

In the OT reading from Deuteronomy (8:7-18), Moses speaks to the Israelites as they wait to cross into the Promised Land.
‘The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land’, he says, ‘a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley’. Well, God has placed us in just such a land, hasn’t he? We live in ‘a land where (we) may eat bread without scarcity, where (we) lack nothing’. It is surely right for us, like the Israelites, to ‘eat our fill and bless the Lord (our) God for the good land that he has given (us)’.

But Moses also gives the children of Israel a warning. As they enjoy all these good things, he tells them, ‘Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances and his statutes, which I am commanding you today’. For, he says, it is God who makes it possible to have all this wealth of good things. And, he adds, if you fail to keep his commandments – that is if you fail to live as God intends you to live – terrible things will happen to you. In the very next verse he says, ‘If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish’.

In his long speech to the Israelites, of which today’s reading is a tiny part, Moses restates the Ten Commandments, and expands on them at length, as a rule of life for the Israelites. Moses believes God is just and righteous; God has made a covenant with the Israelites; this requires them to behave with justice and righteousness to other Israelites, because that is what God does.
“Justice and Righteousness” - these two words are like mirror images, because to do what is just is to do what is right and, vice versa, to do what is right is to do what is just – these two words run right through the OT like a vein of precious metal.

In his life and teaching Jesus extends Moses’ idea of God’s covenant of justice and righteousness to apply to all people, Israelites and gentiles alike. And it is Moses’ rule of life that Jesus summarises for us when he says: ‘You shall love the Lord your God’; and ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. Love of God and love of neighbour go together like two sides of the same coin.

In our 2nd reading, St Paul encourages the Corinthians to be generous (2 Corinthians 9:6-15).
Paul is organising a collection for the poverty-stricken church in Jerusalem among the gentile churches he has planted. He has just told the Corinthians about how generous the Macedonian Christians have been, and now he urges the Corinthians to be generous too.

He tells them what every farmer and gardener knows – you reap what you sow: ‘The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows generously will also reap bountifully’.
He says they must not think they are under any compulsion to give more than they feel they can, because ‘God loves a cheerful giver’.

But he reminds them that God has given them quite enough so that they can afford to be generous. ‘God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance’, he says, ‘so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work’.

And he tells them that by being generous, not just to the needy in Jerusalem but to all others, they will both glorify God and benefit themselves spiritually. ‘You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God … because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you’.

We must, I think, listen very carefully both to Moses’ warning and to Paul’s urging.
Moses warns against breaking God’s covenant of justice and righteousness. Consider the situation that faces us. We may be beginning to emerge from the global crash, but there is a growing crisis of inequality in our consumer capitalist societies, as the rich get richer and the poor poorer. And the gathering environmental catastrophe threatens to unpick the web of life on this planet on which we all depend, as we are slowly coming to realise. Could it be that both crises result from a failure to keep God’s covenant? I rather think they do. Both crises are driven by human greed - by people who always want more and more, because they reckon they are worth it – such people worship Mammon in place of God, I think.

Paul urges generosity as a positive value. God who is just and righteous will generously supply more than enough to allow us all to flourish. But it is in our own interests to respond justly and righteously, by taking no more than we need and generously sharing the surplus with those who do not have enough.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that anyone here is greedy or ungenerous - though none of us is perfect. But it is plain for all to see that greed and lack of generosity are deeply embedded within the globalised world we live in. To change this won’t be easy, but it is necessary. Both as a society and as individuals, we need to cultivate justice and righteousness; we need to know when we have enough, we need to recognise when our neighbour has too little, and we need to listen when God calls us to share what he has so graciously given us. If we can’t do that, the future for the human race is dire.

So as we enjoy this harvest bounty, let us rededicate ourselves to justice and righteousness.
Let us love God and thank him for his good gifts. Let us also love our neighbours and share his gifts with those in need of them. And let us pray that all without exception may have enough.
In this way we can join together to pronounce a blessing on all our communities:

Blessed are we when we sing God’s praises
and walk together faithfully on God’s earth.
Blessed are we when we proclaim God’s justice
and share together the fruits of creation.
Blessed are we when we are guided by God’s wisdom
and live together in harmony with God’s world. 

Sunday 10 August 2014

For Lygia Waller, 25 January 1923 - 3 August 2014

This address was given on Saturday 9th August 2014 at Killodiernan Church of Ireland at the funeral service of my cousin by marriage Lygia Janina Waller nee Bansinska.
It was a great privilege to be asked to lead the service. A lifelong Roman Catholic, it was her expressed wish that her funeral should be in Killodiernan and be ecumenical. Fr John Slattery and Archdeacon John Hogan from Puckane & Carrig Catholic parish, and family friend Rev Felix Stephens OSB, as well as Church of Ireland Rector Canon Marie Rowley-Brooke also attended and took part in the service.

We have just heard the Beatitudes, the opening section of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.
They are radically counter-cultural. They were when Jesus spoke them, and they remain so today. Surely poverty and grief are not things anyone would wish to be blessed with?

Now is not the time or place to try to expound them, though their paradoxes do repay much pondering and meditation. Rather, let me try to relate the first two beatitudes to the Lygia that we knew and loved.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Lygia was a fortunate woman. She was brought up in comfortable homes reflecting the status of her father Eugene Banasinski, a Polish diplomat. He and her mother Kira, though, had both experienced being refugees with nothing in a foreign land. And Kira is celebrated in Poland today for her work with Polish refugee children. After marrying Hardress, the rootless life of an army wife must have been difficult for Lygia at times, but with his rising career came a comfortable life and many opportunities for exciting travel and appreciation of art, which she developed into her own career as a picture restorer, trained in the Courtauld Institute. I can testify that she enjoyed with relish the good things of life that came her way. I can’t conceive that she ever felt poor.

But Jesus is not talking about material poverty here. To be ‘poor in spirit’ is surely not so much about what you may or may not have, but about what you desire. For all the comfort she enjoyed, Lygia was not consumed by desire for wealth or possessions, material things – what mattered to her were qualities like beauty and honesty and kindness.

A life-long Catholic, Lygia was not conventionally pious and was seldom seen in any church. When religion came up in conversation with me, as it occasionally did, she used to joke, ‘You know, I think I’m more a Buddhist than anything else’. Buddhists, I understand, believe that desire for material things is a poison that brings suffering - it must be avoided to achieve Nirvana, release from suffering. It seems to me that as she aged, and particularly after Hardress’s death, Lygia began quite consciously to give material things up, to live more simply, to enjoy the present moment. So perhaps she was only half-joking about the Buddhism!

But the way I see it is this - she was cultivating being ‘poor in spirit’, in the sense Jesus meant it. Let us pray that she is now experiencing the blessings due to the poor in spirit in the kingdom of heaven.
May she rest in peace and rise in glory!

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’
Theologians debate what this means, but today let us take it as a simple promise by Jesus, that those who mourn will be comforted.

To mourn, to grieve for lost loved ones, is part of the human condition. Good mourning, giving time to attend to grief, is hard work, but it allows us to come to terms with loss. Over time the good memories of loved ones emerge from the pain of losing them. We are comforted.

Lygia had her own share of grief, but she did not allow it to consume her – she kept her mourning quite private. Each anniversary of Hardress’s death, she would ask to be taken to Cloughprior, where we will shortly take her body, for me to lead some simple prayers. There she would spend just a few minutes remembering Hardress and her much loved grandson Ed, and laying flowers on their graves. I feel sure these little formal acts of mourning gave her comfort.

Afterwards, Lygia being Lygia, she liked to be taken for a jolly good lunch with a glass or two of wine somewhere nice, and she would be the witty good company all her friends enjoyed.

Today, Jocelyn and Tom, Alex and William grieve for a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. And Lygia’s many friends are grieving too. Let us pray that they will be blessed with good mourning, and that they will receive the comfort promised by Jesus for those who mourn.

Sunday 27 July 2014

The Kingdom of heaven

An address given at Templederry and Killodiernan on Sunday 27th July 2014, the Sixth after Trinity

Today’s reading from Matthew (13:31-33, 44-52) is about the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now that’s a pretty heavy topic, so let me begin with a joke. It made me laugh – and perhaps it will you too.

A diocesan reader dies and is standing in the queue to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In front of him is a rough looking guy with a leather jacket, jeans and tattoos, effing and blinding away. St Peter addresses this guy, "Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?" The guy replies, "I'm Jack, a flippin taxi driver from flippin Moyross." Saint Peter consults his list. He smiles and says to the taxi-driver, "Take this silken robe and golden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven." Now it's the diocesan reader's turn. He stands erect and booms out, "I am Joc, a diocesan reader who has faithfully preached God’s word for many years." Saint Peter consults his list. He says to Joc, "Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven." "Just a minute," says Joc. "That foul-mouthed taxi-driver got a silken robe and golden staff and I get cotton and wood. What’s going on?" "In the Kingdom of Heaven we work by results," says St Peter. "While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed."

But the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t just a laughing matter. In Matthew’s Gospel it is a central part of Jesus’s teaching. At the very start of his ministry Jesus proclaimed, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 4:17). And when Jesus sent out the Twelve he instructed them, ‘As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”’ (Matt 10:7). In Mark and Luke Jesus uses ‘the Kingdom of God’ to mean the same thing. As Christians we must take it seriously.

So, just what is this Kingdom of Heaven, or Kingdom of God? As a skillful teacher, Jesus uses parables based on everyday experience to teach those who follow him. I think he wants his disciples to work out the truth for themselves, not just learn it parrot fashion without properly understanding it. So he gives us clues in parables about the kingdom of heaven. We are meant to think about them deeply, and surely to share what we find between us.

So let me reflect a bit on what I find in these parables.
The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast tell us how the Kingdom of Heaven grows.
o   God does not bring the Kingdom of Heaven into existence suddenly, fully formed, in a kind of spiritual ‘big bang’. Rather it grows organically, bit by bit, just as the tiny mustard seed grows almost imperceptibly into a tree, or a tiny quantity of yeast works to leaven a loaf.
o   Sometimes it may seem as if nothing is happening at all. Then suddenly we notice a new shoot bursting, or the dough expanding. And when we come back later we see whole new branches, or the dough rising above its container.
o   The Kingdom of Heaven really has come near, it grows all around us, and if we search we will find it.

The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great value tell us what it feels like to find the Kingdom of Heaven.
o   It is like a farmer finding treasure in a field, or a merchant the most perfect pearl. When they find it they joyfully trade everything else they value to obtain it.
o   We are so used to calculating what a thing is worth that it is hard to imagine something that is beyond price. Yet there are some things that are worth infinitely more than money or possessions. The Kingdom of Heaven is literally priceless. To live as part of it, by its values, as it grows, will bring us more real joy than anything else possibly could.

The parable of the net tells us what happens if we don’t live by the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.
o   We live in a world full of people of every kind, good and bad, just as the sea holds fish that are good to eat and not so good. But it is not for us to decide which is which. Just as in the parable of the tares we heard last Sunday, it is for God and his angels at the end of the age to separate the evil from the righteous.
o   God’s generosity is stupendous, isn’t it? In God’s creation we have been given enough and more than enough for all to flourish, both the good and the bad, the wheat and the tares. If you pull out the tares, you damage the wheat too. If we exclude those we don’t like from our community, we impoverish it and ourselves. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely certain whether I am wheat or tare – or most likely a bit of both.
o   Our task is to seek out the Kingdom of Heaven, to help it grow, and to live by its values. But part of these values is to be inclusive and leave judgement to God.

So far, so good. But these parables don’t by themselves answer one crucial question, I think.
It is this: How are we to recognise the Kingdom of Heaven when we find it?

I think the Lord’s Prayer fills the gap. Jesus teaches us to pray to our heavenly Father, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’.

We can recognise the Kingdom of Heaven because God’s will is done there. And Jesus shows us how to discern God’s will. To find the Kingdom of Heaven is to align our will with God’s will. The Kingdom of Heaven works like this:
o   When any one of us does God’s will, in no matter how small a way – when we do what is right, or don’t do what is wrong - the Kingdom of Heaven grows accordingly. It is a bit like Pinocchio’s nose in reverse – in the children’s story, remember, his nose grew longer every time he told a lie.
o   When we experience the life and growth of the Kingdom of Heaven we feel a joy which encourages us to change our way of life for the better. That is what it means to repent.
o   We live more as part of the Kingdom of Heaven, we do more of God’s will, and we become better people. Our example may inspire others to do so too, and the Kingdom of Heaven grows some more.
o   Finally, at the end of the age, God’s angels will have less work to do to separate the evil from the righteous, there will be less weeping and less gnashing of teeth.

That is how God saves us through Jesus.

To finish, let me return to the joke I started with.

It is fanciful and childish to imagine St Peter at the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven when we die, checking in a ledger whether we are good enough to get in. But the joke does get one thing right - the Kingdom of Heaven is about results – the results of doing God’s will. We enter the Kingdom of Heaven when we do God’s will.

So, let us pray to our heavenly Father that through the teaching of our Saviour Jesus Christ, we may discern God’s will and follow it, so that the Kingdom of Heaven may grow, and we may know its joy. Amen.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Fearlessly do what is right

An address given At Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 22nd June 2014, the 1st after Trinity, year A

Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (10:24Matthew 10:24-39 is strong meat, isn’t it!
When I first read it I said to myself, ‘Joc, you really can’t preach about this!’ How could such dark stuff about conflict, violence and death be appropriate for a lovely summer’s day? A day of joy, as Caleb & Laura Clarke bring their daughter Amy to Killodiernan to be baptised. And a day of fond farewells to Bishop Trevor and Joyce this afternoon in the Cathedral in Limerick.

But then I re-read it, I thought about it some more, and I realised that I have no choice in the matter – it is my duty to wrestle with it. That is what the Lectionary is for – to make preachers like me focus on passages from scripture they might prefer to avoid. As Jesus said, ‘What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops’.

First, what is the context of the passage?
Jesus is briefing his disciples - the Twelve - as he sends them out two by two on a ministry training exercise. He is sending them out on their own for the first time to imitate his ministry, to proclaim the good news and to heal the sick. He has just warned them what they must confront: ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me’.

Who are these wolves? Jesus as always is entirely realistic about the world – it is full of people consumed by evil motives. People like the Pharisees, who Matthew tells us criticised Jesus for healing the mentally ill, whispering about ‘By the ruler of the demons he casts out demons’. Beelzebul is the Aramaic name of the ruler of the demons, the devil. If the Pharisees and people like them attack Jesus and call him Beelzebul, what will they do to his followers?

So, in the first half of the reading Jesus seeks to reassure his disciples.
Three times he tells them not to be afraid of such people – they may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul. Instead they should fear God. Now, if we disobey God, if we blank out our God-given conscience, we lose our soul, we lose our integrity as human beings made in God’s image. And that is worse than death.

Shakespeare expresses the same thought in Hamlet, when he puts these words in the mouth of Polonius as he says farewell to his son Laertes, ‘This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man’.

Jesus reminds his disciples that God is like a loving Father who values them. ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’ What a lovely image.

And Jesus promises solidarity with his disciples in the face of persecution: ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven’.

Jesus is surely teaching his disciples – and through them us - an important lesson, which we must in turn teach our own children. It is this: each one of us must be fearless in doing what we know is right, because each one of us is loved and valued by God.

At the Baptism in Killodiernan the address ended with this:
Let us pray that with the help of Caleb and Laura, and her Godparents, Amy will learn this lesson and learn it well. 

May she and Sarah-Jane, and all the children here, grow up ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ to overcome the wolves they will encounter in the world!

In the other churches it continued s follows.

But what of the second half of the reading, with its apocalyptic tone?
Matthew has already told us that Jesus taught his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to turn the other cheek in the face of violence. How then can Jesus now declare: ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’?

Jesus continues, quoting from the prophet Micah: ‘For I have set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household’. Micah is writing in the 8th Century BC about the corruption of Jerusalem, lamenting the collapse of traditional Israelite values and foreseeing the city’s eventual destruction.

No doubt Jesus’s disciples understood the reference to be to the corruption of their own time. And they probably realised that for them to be true to the values Jesus taught them and leave home and family to become itinerant preachers - would inevitably split their families.

Notice that Jesus, following Micah, is talking about conflict between generations – sons against fathers, daughters against mothers. We all know, don't we, that children always cause their parents grief by their behaviour. And parents are always scorned by their children for their comfortable hypocrisies. I think Jesus is making a general point, relevant to every time and place: young people, in order to be true to their own conscience and to God – to be true to their own selves in Shakespeare’s sense - are bound to behave in ways that hurt their parents.

And this is right. Because Jesus claims his disciples for himself before any family ties, and calls them to follow him no matter what pain and suffering it causes: Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me’.

Are we prepared for this? 
We must become so. Loving parents must let their children go to grow as individuals, informed by their own sense of right and wrong - and loving children likewise their parents. Our Christian hope is that their relationship with God through Jesus will deepen and broaden as the Spirit leads their journey as disciples - because ‘those who find their life’ – those concerned only for their own life - ‘ will lose it, and those who lose their life for (Jesus) sake will find it’.

And let us pray that young and old we may all be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ to overcome the wolves we encounter in the world.

Sunday 25 May 2014

Looking forward to Ascension & Pentecost

Address given at St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick on 25th May - the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year A - for Sung Matins, rite 1

1. For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Joc Sanders, and I come from Nenagh.
·         It is a very great privilege for me to be invited to lead you in worship here today in this magnificent ancient cathedral. I love the traditional language of rite 1 - for me, and for many of you I’m sure, it takes me back to childhood – it has a deep resonance. And how wonderfully the singing of the choir and the organ accompaniment enhances our worship – we are blessed by it, and on your behalf I thank them for it! It is all part of the rich heritage of our Church which gives us so much to be grateful for.
·         Another part of this rich heritage is the church calendar and lectionary, which we have inherited from the undivided Catholic church of ancient times. It leads us through the year in an unending cycle, to reflect on the story of our salvation. This is the 6th and last Sunday of Easter. We continue to celebrate the central event of our faith, the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
·         But today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John 14:15-21) leads us to look forward, to peek over the horizon so to speak, toward the great events of the Ascension - which we will celebrate on Thursday - and Pentecost in 2 weeks time - when we celebrate the coming of the Spirit which Jesus promised us.
·         The reading is just a small part of Jesus’s farewell discourse to his disciples. John sets the scene as after the last supper. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet to teach them his example of service. He knows how things will play out. Judas Iscariot has already left to betray him to the authorities, who will arrest and execute him. Time is short for Jesus to prepare his followers for what must come, so his words are dense with meaning. Let me reflect on what they mean to me.

2.       ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you’, says Jesus.
·         Even as Jesus endures Judas’s betrayal and waits to be taken to his death, he puts aside his own distress to comfort his disciples. He loves them. He will not desert them. And he promises he will continue to be present for them, whatever befalls.
·          ‘In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me’, he says. The Gospels tell us the risen Christ appeared to the disciples between the Resurrection and his Ascension, when he returned to his Father - they experienced his presence physically. But I do not think this is what Jesus means here. Jesus is looking beyond the day of Ascension, up to our own time and beyond. Throughout the ages Christians continue to experience Jesus’s reassuring presence, as friend and brother, saviour and redeemer. As Matthew (28:20) tells us, Jesus said, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. Jesus is alive for us.
·         ‘Because I live, you also will live’, says Jesus. We live – we can be fully human as God wants us to be – because we know, as Jesus tells us, ‘I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you’.

3.       ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever.
·           Jesus promises his disciples they will receive the gift of another Advocate - ‘the Spirit of truth’, the Holy Spirit - to teach and support them as a mentor. As we read in Acts, they did indeed receive the Spirit, on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit led them to go out boldly, declaring their belief in Christ, to make disciples of others. The disciples they made in turn received the Spirit and did the same, and so on - down through the years, the centuries, the millennia. Christians continue to be inspired by the Spirit to this day. The result is the Church we know, in all the glorious variety of our traditions. The Spirit will be with us for ever, Jesus promises, helping us to discern the truth.
·           Notice, Jesus asks the Father to send the Spirit. He does not ask him to send scripture – not the Gospels, not the letters of Paul, nor any other scripture. The primary gift Jesus asks for us from the Father is the Spirit, the Spirit of truth. Scripture is secondary – while we believe it is divinely inspired, we must also believe that we need the Spirit of truth to help us interpret it and come to discern the truth.
·         The disciples recognised the Spirit when they felt it working in them and saw its effects in others. So can we. ‘You know (the Spirit)’, says Jesus, ‘because he abides with you, and he will be in you’.

4.        ‘If you love me’, says Jesus, ‘you will keep my commandments’.
·         We need to take these words very seriously, I think. Jesus loves his disciples, but not in any soppy, sentimental way. His love demands obedience from his disciples. Just as loving parents demand obedience of small children, so that they do not run in front of cars, or burn or electrocute themselves.
·         ‘Those who love me will be loved by my Father’, continues Jesus, ‘and I will love and reveal myself to them’. We cannot expect to feel the loving presence of Jesus, nor the love of God the Father, unless we are obedient.
·         But just what are these commandments of Jesus? We surely need the continuing help of the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, to enlighten us. But scripture is pretty clear on the bones of it, I think.
o           Matthew (22:36-40) tells us that when Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he answers, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
o           And John (13:34) tells us that Jesus says shortly before today’s reading, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’.
·         If we follow these 3 commandments, I don’t think we can go too far wrong. But we need the help of the Spirit to do so. And when we fail, as we surely will from time to time, we need to seek the forgiveness that God freely offers to those who are truly penitent.

5.       So to finish, I hope you will take 3 things away from my words today:
·         1st, as we celebrate Ascension Day on Thursday, let us give thanks for the continuing reassuring presence of Jesus, our friend and brother, our saviour and redeemer.
·         2nd, as we look forward to Pentecost in 2 weeks time, let us give thanks that the Spirit ,which the Father gave us at Jesus’s request, will continue to lead us to discern his truth.

·         And 3rd, let us pray that the Spirit may guide us to keep Jesus’s commandments: to love God, to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to love one another as he loves us, so that we may know the loving presence of Jesus and the love of his Father.