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.