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.