Sunday 29 November 2015


We are living in a time of great insecurity and many of us are afraid.
Only a fortnight ago we watched with horror images of the carnage Islamic State terrorists wreaked in Paris. They brought home to us in Europe a little of what people in Syria and Iraq have been suffering. This is the latest manifestation of the bitter conflict between Sunni and Shia Islamic traditions that has been devastating the Middle East for more than a generation, since the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980.

One consequence has been millions of people displaced as refugees. Most live in camps inside the countries affected, or in neighbouring countries, which struggle to feed and house them with insufficient help from the global community. More and more refugees have given up hope of a decent life where they are, or of ever returning home in safety. These are the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children we have seen this year, travelling to find sanctuary in Europe, crammed into unsafe boats, drowned on Mediterranean beaches, trudging along railway lines and motorways, or camped in make-shift reception centres. We have not seen such movements of people in Europe since the end of WW2. They are desperate, they are determined, they are unstoppable – we cannot push them back into the sea, nor can we shoot at them until they go away.

As European citizens we are worried how we will feed and house so many, and what social changes they will bring. Since most of them are Muslim – though many are Christian – extreme nationalism and Islamophobia are on the rise. Increasingly we hear strident voices claiming refugees are probably Islamic terrorists, and that Islam is an irredeemable religion of violence. Yet for all but a tiny percentage of Muslims, Islam is a religion of peace. Just like us, they want to make a decent living, raise their families in peace, and contribute to the communities they live in. Before we demonise Islam, let us remember the European Wars of Religion at the time of the Reformation, when Catholic fought Protestant in bloody conflicts that lasted for more than a century. Does that make our Christianity a religion of violence?

And then there is the crisis of climate change. We know that to avert the worst effects we will have to make great changes in how we live now. But we do not yet understand what those changes will be, so we are afraid of what we may have to give up, and at the same time we are afraid of the world our descendants will inherit if we do not change.

No wonder we worry about the future – our own, our children’s, our grandchildren’s, and if we are lucky our great-grandchildren's. We are afraid, and I think we are right to be. We are living in apocalyptic times.

Luke records Jesus speaking of apocalypse in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 21:25-36).
 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves’, Jesus says. ‘People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.’

The original meaning of the Greek word ‘apocalypse’ is a prophetic disclosure, a revelation, though in modern English we now usually mean a great catastrophe that results in widespread destruction or the collapse of civilisation.

Jesus’s words are a prophetic disclosure, an apocalypse in the original sense. They are in a literary tradition reaching back into OT times - “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” is actually a quotation from the apocalyptic Book of Daniel. The tradition reaches forward to the NT book we call Revelation. And from there through medieval visions of the last judgement, to modern science fiction fantasies of disaster.

Is Jesus forecasting in these words that the world will end in catastrophic violence, an apocalypse in the modern sense? There are Christian fundamentalists who look forward to the second coming of Christ amid awful battles and destruction in the end-time. They may believe so, but I don’t. They take scripture too literally, and I think they are deeply, deeply misguided. Rather I suggest that Jesus intended his words to apply to every time, not just to an end-time.

Perhaps his parable is a clue: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.’ Trees sprout new leaves every year – the image is of something that happens again and again, not just once at the end.

And it is true, isn’t it, that every generation is faced with its own apocalyptic fears. We may be terrified by terrorism and the refugee crisis, and of the consequences of climate change. But my parents were haunted by the horror and destruction of total war and nuclear holocaust. Their parents suffered the horrors of the trenches followed by bloody rebellion and fratricidal civil war. And every previous generation has lived through its own nightmares – famines, plagues, wars and social collapse.

Jesus tells us to read clearly the frightening signs of the times, but his message is surely one of hope as we confront our fears - hope for us and for every generation that hears his words. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Even if these things are terrifying. ‘Stand up and raise your heads’, he tells us, ‘because your redemption is drawing near’.

The basis of our hope is the miracle of the Incarnation.
This is the first day of Advent, the time each year when we look forward to the Incarnation; the miracle that God has chosen to be part of the world he created, our world; the miracle that God has taken on our flesh in a stunning act of solidarity with his creatures. We wait in expectation for the kingdom of God and our redemption to come near.

On Christmas day Jesus will be born as the helpless baby son of Mary and Joseph into a frightening world. A Roman imperial decree forces his parents to travel from their home to Bethlehem. There they find no shelter but a stable in which Mary gives birth. And soon they will be forced to flee as refugees from Herod’s violent wrath. Mary and Joseph have to confront their own fears just as we must.

But through the eyes of faith we will see this helpless child grow up to be ‘“the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory’, who announces the kingdom of God and promises us redemption. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’, he says, ‘but my words will not pass away’.

Jesus urges us, ‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’ It is through praying that we will find the strength and confidence to endure - and we may hope avert - the worst the future can bring, so that we can stand fearlessly in front of our God in his Kingdom.

So I shall finish with a prayer:
Loving Father,
Who sent your Son Jesus Christ
to proclaim your kingdom
and restore the broken to fullness of life:
Look with compassion on the anguish of the world and of your people;
Give us the strength to overcome our fears
And to stand before the Son of Man;
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Redeemer.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Second chances

Address given at Templederry and Nenagh on Sunday 8th November 2015, the 3rd before Advent, year B

This morning I want to reflect on our 1st reading (Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17), the story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz.
First let’s remind ourselves who these three characters are.

Naomi and her husband, with their two sons, had left their home in Bethlehem years before for the land of Moab to escape a famine – they were refugees. Naomi’s husband died there, and then her two sons who had married Moabite women died as well. Naomi had lost her whole family. And she decided to go back to her home place, Bethlehem. But Ruth, one of her daughters-in-law and a Moabite foreigner, insisted on going with her. She said, ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God’. Ruth must have loved Naomi very much.

It was the time of the barley harvest when Naomi and Ruth got to Bethlehem. It was a Jewish tradition to leave the corn in the corners of the fields to be harvested by the poor – this was called gleaning. Ruth went out into the fields to glean to support both of them. There she met Boaz, the owner of a field, who was a relative of Naomi’s late husband – that’s important as we shall see. Boaz had heard about all that Ruth was doing to support Naomi, and praised her for it. And because he was a kind man, he made sure that Ruth was able to glean enough for two of them without being harassed. This is where today’s reading begins.

I found the reading rather odd when I first looked at it – perhaps you did too.
It sounds almost as if Naomi puts Ruth up to seducing Boaz, tricking him into marrying her! But that is only because the reading jumps from ch3 v5 to ch4 v13 - for some reason the good compilers of the lectionary have missed out an important piece of the story.

To understand what really happened we need to understand a Jewish tradition, called ‘levirate marriage’. In this case, if a married man died without leaving children, his next of kin - his brother or another close relative - could choose to marry his widow, and this was seen as a good and righteous thing to do. It kept the property in the family, it ensured the future of the widow, and any children of the marriage would be treated as children of the dead husband.

No doubt Naomi could see how Boaz was attracted to Ruth. So she sends Ruth to ask Boaz if he would marry her in this way, to provide her with security. Ruth uncovers his feet and lies down beside him, and when Boaz wakes she says to him, ‘Spread your coat over your servant, for you are next of kin’. She is seeking his protection. And Boaz wants to marry her, but he tells Ruth that there is another, closer relative who should have the first refusal - if that man does not wish to marry her, he will. And he is careful to guard her reputation and sends her away with a present.

Boaz is entirely honourable by the standards of his society - and he’s as good as his word. The next day he goes to talk to the closer relative in front of the elders. He establishes that the closer relative does not want to marry Ruth – in fact he persuades him that he shouldn’t. And then Boaz says to the elders, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from Naomi all that belonged to (her husband and sons). I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite … to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance’.

In this way Ruth becomes Boaz’s wife, and with Naomi they live happily ever after. Their son whom Naomi nurses is the grandfather of King David, and an ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ, through his earthly father Joseph.

It’s a charming story. But why should it have been included in our Bible, and why should we still read it in churches today?
I suggest it is because this very human tale illustrates how God works in individual human lives.

Naomi and Ruth had suffered terrible blows. Naomi had lost her husband and two sons. Ruth had lost her husband. Suddenly they had become impoverished widows dependent on charity. It must have seemed as if the very heavens had fallen in on them.

It would have been so easy for them to give in to depression, to become bitter and angry. But they didn’t. Instead they make the best of their situation, showing their love for each other.

And then good things start to happen. They meet a good man, Boaz, who is attracted by the love they show each other. He wants to help them and sees how he can do so. New life and hope comes into all their lives. They are offered a second chance of happiness. And they take it.

This, surely, is how God will work in our lives, if God forbid dreadful things happen to us. If we hold on to what is good and true and beautiful, even when it seems we have been abandoned, even when we find ourselves in the depths of depression, then suddenly we will notice good things starting to happen. Our spirits will rise and we will start to discern new life and happiness.

I have had my own dealings with loss and depression, and this has been my own experience. The story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz is a message of hope to hold on to in the most difficult of times.

This is redemption - God redeeming us. This is God acting like our loving Father. In the words of the Benedictus, sung in the temple by Zechariah,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us
In the house of his servant David

Sunday 11 October 2015

Harvest Thanksgiving - Living simply

Address for Harvest Thanksgiving, year B, given at Killodiernan Church on Sunday 11th October 2015.

We all love 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 skilful 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:
o   We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, rape-seed for oil, silage for cattle, and hay for horses.
o   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, meat and leather. My wife Marty has harvested delicious vegetables and beautiful flowers this year. My plum crop was so heavy that the branches broke on the tree, and I’ve harvested over 40 jars of honey and a good crop of filberts.
o   Let’s not forget the animals too – we have this year’s foals and calves, lambs and chicks, ducklings, and goslings to delight us. And we must not forget the fruit of our own bodies, the children born this year.

Thanks be to God for giving us so much to rejoice over!

In today’s 1st reading (Joel 2:21-27) Joel expresses this feeling in beautiful poetry.
‘Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things!
Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.
O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God…
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.’
Don’t you just love it, that Joel calls not just human kind, but all living creation to be glad and rejoice, even the very soil on which fertility depends.

Joel is writing at a time when Judean farmers have been suffering hardship - successive plagues of locusts have ravaged the land. In these words he gives them hope for their future. They ‘shall eat in plenty and be satisfied’, he tells them, because God says:
‘I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you…
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.’

The harvest has been bountiful this year. Cereal yields have been good and cows have produced more milk than ever, according to figures I’ve seen from Teagasc. But market conditions are making many farmers very anxious, so a farming neighbour tells me. Dairy farmers struggle to survive with milk prices below the cost of production. Arable farmers are also worried about prices.

And it’s not just farmers who are anxious. Despite the economic recovery there are still very many here in Ireland trapped in unemployment, negative equity, at risk of losing their homes, or actually homeless. And then there are those other anxious, frightened people we see on the news in foreign countries far away, refugees from persecution, war and intolerable poverty.

We would all love to believe Joel’s words of hope: that the Lord our God promises us that he is with us, and that times will get better. But do we?

How do you feel when somebody says, ‘Don’t worry! Everything will be fine!’
I don’t know about you, but my first reaction is to scream inside, ‘It’s easy for you to say! This is my life. It isn’t happening to you. It’s happening to me.’

Worry is such a large part of all our lives. We worry about everything: our jobs, our children; our personal relationships. We worry whether we have enough money to pay the bills. In this wealthy country, while some go hungry others worry whether their food is healthy or fattening, and while some have no warm winter coat others worry about fashion. And we worry about our health, our aches and pains, and about dying.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 6:25-33) – part of the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus tells us, ‘Do not worry about your life’. I wonder what the crowds who heard him thought - I feel sure many reacted just like me: ‘It’s alright for you, Jesus – you don’t have my responsibilities, you can afford to be idealistic’.

But in our heart of hearts I think we all really know that Jesus is right. We know that worrying cannot add a single hour to our life. We know that there really is more to life than material things, more than food and drink and clothing, more than all that stuff that we are greedy for, but which clutters up our lives.

In fact if we stop to think about it we will realise that it is precisely our society’s lifestyle of over-consumption which causes so many of the world’s problems that make us so anxious. And that anxiety, that constant worry, is unhealthy not just for our bodies and our minds, but for our deepest being, our soul.

We need to live more simply.
If we don’t we are lost - as individuals, as a society and as a species. Our over-consumption is destroying God’s Earth and making the poor poorer. We need to learn to trust that God, our Father in heaven, who knows what we need, will faithfully give us enough, so that we can stop grasping for more.
‘Consider the lilies of the field’, says Jesus, ‘how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?’

Jesus is not saying we should not work, he is telling us we must get our priorities right. ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’, he says. What does this mean?  God’s righteousness is found in his unconditional love for all his creation, including all human beings. To be righteous ourselves we must imitate God’s love. Jesus has told to love God, and love our neighbour as ourselves. This surely is what it means to ‘strive first for the kingdom of God’.

We must strive – that is, work hard - to show our love by replacing consumption with self-sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing. This is about not simply giving things up, but giving things away. It is a way of loving which moves away from what I want, to what God’s world needs – at the same time liberating us from all that makes us anxious.

God knows what we need and God works in and through us to provide it for one another. If we join together to show our love for one another like this, God will give each and every one of us enough - though maybe less than our foolish desires. If we live simply, so that others may simply live, we really can believe Joel’s words of hope!

We’ve all been horrified by recent images of refugees in the media.
We’ve seen pictures of people fleeing for their lives to seek sanctuary and build new lives, far from home. Today these refugees are like ‘the birds of the air’ that Jesus talks about. ‘They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns’, because they cannot – they have lost everything.

How will our heavenly Father feed them? Through us, of course, through you and me, and through the generosity of our spirit.

So as we give thanks to God and rejoice in the Harvest, I urge you to reflect on how together we can best help these brothers and sisters, our neighbours. And I ask you to give generously to the collection we will shortly take up for the Bishops’ Appeal in response to the refugee crisis.

Sunday 27 September 2015

St Michael & All Angels

An address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 27th September, 
St Michael & All Angels, transferred

How do we talk about what we know but cannot see, what we perceive but cannot touch?
Today’s readings use the language and metaphor of angels and demons to talk about good and evil. Good and evil are spiritual concepts. We can’t see or touch them, but we know all about them, and we can distinguish between them, because each of us has the capability called conscience. I think this is what it means to say God has made us in his image.

Many people these days are embarrassed to talk about angels and demons. We’re modern people, they say - these are just old, unscientific, superstitious ways of talking. But hold on a moment. Scientists also talk about what they cannot see or touch. To talk about the nature of space and matter and energy, they coin strange, new words and concepts, like quarks and gluons, inflation and dark energy – with no embarrassment at all.

Others may be turned off by the highly sentimental depictions of angels we find in popular culture, and the ‘mind & spirit’ shelves of bookshops. But there is nothing sentimental about angels and demons in the Bible.

I suggest the biblical language of angels and demons is actually a fruitful way for us to talk about those very real but spiritual concepts of good and evil, and our relationship with God. Have you ever read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis? The letters are written by a senior demon named Screwtape to his younger and less experienced nephew Wormwood, to show him how to be a better tempter. If you haven’t read the book, you should – it’s very funny, but also full of insight into how we can be persuaded to make bad choices. I recommend it as a confirmation present, and for young people of all ages.

Let’s begin by looking at what we mean by an angel.
The word ‘angel’ is derived from the Greek word ‘angelos’, meaning simply ‘messenger’, any sort of messenger. Today we usually think of an angel as a spiritual messenger from God. People often suddenly realise what the right thing is to do in a particular situation, and make a life-changing decision - say to choose a caring vocation, or to make a stand against evil, or to decide this is my life’s partner. Sometimes this is so vivid an experience that it’s as if a voice calls them to make the right choice. That voice is the voice of an angel passing on a message from God.

The ancient Hebrews struggled to understand their relationship with God. In today’s 1st reading (Genesis 28:10-17) we heard how Jacob in a dream suddenly realised something really important - that it is the very nature of God to care for his people. In his dream he sees God’s messengers – the angels of God - ascending and descending a ladder reaching from Earth to Heaven. Then in his dream, in the voices of the angels I like to think, he hears God make that great promise to the Hebrew people which we call the Covenant: ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go’. As Christians we believe this applies to us as much as the Hebrews.

When Jacob wakes up from his dream he says, ‘This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’. He makes an altar out of the stone he used as a pillow, and he names the place Bethel, meaning House of God.

Jesus knew his Hebrew scriptures very well, of course.
In today’s 3rd reading (John 1:47-51), he is surely thinking of Jacob’s dream when he says to Nathanael, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’.

He says this in a joking tone, I think. But the underlying message is completely serious. Jesus is identifying himself, the Son of Man, with Bethel, Jacob’s House of God. And without saying so directly he tells Nathanael that he, Jesus, is the Gate of Heaven.

Why does Jesus not say this more clearly? Perhaps the time is not yet right for Jesus to reveal his significance publicly. But he does so later in John’s Gospel in the seven familiar ‘I am’ sayings: ‘I am …the bread of life … the light of the world … the gate to salvation … the resurrection and the life … the way and the truth and the life … the true vine’.

Not all angels in the Bible are good, however, as we heard in the 2nd reading (Revelation 12: 7-12).
We heard about a great war in heaven: on the good side, Archangel Michael and his angels; and on the bad side, ‘the great dragon …that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world’, and his angels.  Yes, there are bad angels as well as good ones – we call them demons! Michael and his good angels triumph, and the Devil and his bad angels are thrown down from heaven to the earth. What is this about?

We all know how weak we are, don’t we? Even though my conscience allows me to distinguish right from wrong, all too often I can convince myself that what is wrong is right, perhaps because I desire it, or because I am afraid of what will happen or what others will think of me if I do the right thing, or simply because it is more convenient. It is part of the human condition, it is what is called original sin. Sometimes it is as if I hear persuasive voices in my head, arguing bad is good, lies are true, ugliness is beauty, or hate is love. These are the voices of the bad angels that have been thrown out of heaven, messengers from the Devil.

It’s tricky, isn’t it? If I hear the voice of an angel, how do I know the message is from God? How do I know it is not from ‘the deceiver of the whole world’? So often we hear competing voices and struggle to decide which is right - echoing that war in heaven in which, thank God, good triumphs.

These words from Matthew’s Gospel (7:15-20) give us a clue, a test we can use: ‘You will know them by their fruits’, says Jesus, ‘Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit’. In other words, we must use our God-given reason to look at the consequences of any decision we make, and if our God-given conscience tells us they are bad, we can be sure the voice we hear is that of a bad angel, a demon.

It is hard work to discern what is truly right from what is truly wrong. That work is the spiritual work which we call prayer. We would all do well to do more of it. Of course many unbelievers, if they are of good will, also work hard to make the right choices – they would not call it prayer, but that I think is what it really is.

Let me finish with a prayer for discernment:
Loving Father,
we pray that the voices of your holy angels
may help us to discern your will in all we do,
and to disregard the deceiving voices
which do not come from you;
May we share in the victory
of Michael and all your holy angels
as we work for the coming of your Kingdom.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen

Sunday 2 August 2015

Advice to Ephesians

Address given on Sunday 2nd August 2015, the 9th after Trinity, at Templederry & St Mary's, Nenagh

Today’s OT reading (2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a) is a shocking story, isn’t it?
We heard the first part last week - the great King David, whom God has so favoured, arranged for Uriah the Hittite to be in effect murdered because he lusted after his wife Bathsheba. This week we hear how David takes her into his harem. Word of this wicked deed has got out, and the prophet Nathan confronts David, accuses him and tells him to his face that God will punish him. But David confesses his sin, and Nathan pronounces absolution, saying ‘The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die’.

You may feel shocked that David was let off so lightly for such a wicked act. However, that is not the end of it - we are told later in 2 Samuel that David was later publicly humiliated, both by family strife and by his son Absalom openly seizing his concubines, much as Nathan had prophesied.

But the truly shocking truth is this: it is the very nature of our God to forgive even the most heinous misdeeds of those who truly repent. That is shocking, because it is so unlike our own nature, but it is also comforting to us as sinners. But notice - even though we may be forgiven, we do not escape the consequences of our evil deeds.

What I want to talk about today, though, is the advice Paul gives to the Ephesians in the 2nd reading (Ephesians4:1-16)
Paul urges the church as a body to make ‘every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’, while urging individuals to behave ‘with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love’. Put that way it sounds easy, doesn’t it? But the history of the church over 2000 years has shown just how hard it is!

Paul points out the variety of gifts that have been given to the church: ‘that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers’. I wonder if we have come to expect our parish clergy to display all of these gifts at the same time in the one individual. It must be a very heavy burden for them to bear, and perhaps we should not expect so much of any one person.

Paul goes on to describe the purpose of these gifts: to equip the saints’ - which in this context means all church members – for the work of ministry’ – that is, serving others - in order to ‘build up the body of Christ’  - the church as a whole.

Paul calls the Ephesians ‘to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’. ‘We must no longer be children’, he says, ‘tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming’. Instead, ‘speaking the truth in love’, we must grow together to work like the church body Christ means us to be, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped’.

Don’t you just love that image of the church as a living body, with Christ as the head!

I believe this advice is just as relevant to us today as it was to The Ephesians.
First, let’s relate it to our own parish. We are very lucky that God has sent us Rev Lucy to be our pastor during the vacancy. In due course we will receive a new Rector, and of course a new Rector always brings change. Most of us are suspicious of change - some changes we like, and some we dislike, and different people like and dislike different things.

I feel strongly that Paul’s words have a message for us in this context: with humility and gentleness, speaking the truth in love, we are called to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace within our own parish, both during the vacancy and amid the changes a new Rector will bring. We should be careful not to make mountains out of molehills, and not to over-react to the changes we experience.

Second, let’s relate it to our Church of Ireland and the Anglican Communion. I’m sure you, like me, have been reading and hearing in the public media about dissensions in the Church.

In all of this, I think I detect some of the things Paul warns us of: winds of doctrine, trickery, and crafty scheming. It is clear that in many churches of the Communion, including the Church of Ireland, there are those who are preparing for schism. The immediate issues are those of LGBT relationships and equal marriage. But underlying these issues are profound differences in how Anglican Christians perceive the word of God, and the role of the Spirit in interpreting it.

Whatever our own views may be, I feel each of us would do well to respond to Paul’s words, to resist being tossed to and fro by the winds, to speak the truth in love, and to refuse to countenance the dismemberment of Christ’s body. We do not all need to believe exactly the same things, and I for one consider myself in communion with all who confess Jesus’s name.

Let me finish with a prayer for the whole of Christ’s church, by Canon Frank Colquhon:
Heavenly Father, whose will it is
that your Church should be one visible body,
so that the world might see and believe:
draw us and all your people closer to him
who is the one Head, Jesus Christ,
so that we may come closer to one another;
and unite us all in a common concern
to share your good news with others
and further your kingdom here on earth,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord: Amen

Sunday 5 July 2015

Training Apostles

In today’s Gospel St Mark (6:1-13) tells us how Jesus sent the Twelve out by themselves, two by two.
The same story is also told in slightly different words by Matthew and Luke.

The Twelve have been chosen and called specially by Jesus. They have given up everything to follow him. They have watched as he carried out his travelling ministry. Now Jesus decides the time is right to send them off by themselves, on a training exercise to prepare them for their future role as apostles – the Greek word apostle literally means ‘one who is sent out’.

The story conjures up the memory of the training exercises I took part in as a member of the School Corps – they were called manoeuvres. We went off in a bus, in battledress with boots and spats, with a packed lunch, a map and a compass. We were dropped off in pairs at different grid-references with instructions to march across country to rendezvous at another grid-reference some miles away where we would find our tea. I’m much too bolshy to make a good soldier. But I did learn one useful lesson – a map is completely useless if you do not know where you are!

Jesus gives the Twelve precise instructions as he sends them off.
Their task is to practice what they have seen Jesus do, to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is near, to call people to repent, and to heal the sick. And to bolster their confidence he gives them ‘authority over the unclean spirits’, which were then believed to cause illness.

They are to travel light - to take with them just the minimum they need, a staff, sandals and a single tunic – no food, no bag to carry stuff, no money, no spare clothes. They must rely entirely on the hospitality of the people and the villages that they meet. That means of course that they will have to look outward, to constantly engage with others around them.

And they are to avoid any confrontation. If people in a place do not welcome them and offer traditional hospitality they must simply leave, ‘shak(ing) off the dust that is on (their) feet as a testimony against them’. This is what pious Jews did when they returned after visiting an unclean gentile village so as not to pollute Jewish soil. I wonder if Jesus did the same as he left his home town of Nazareth, amazed at the unbelief he found there.

Mark tells us that they did as Jesus asked them. ‘They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.’ And when they came back, they ‘told (Jesus) all that they had done and taught’ – in other words Jesus de-briefed them. No doubt the Twelve learned important lessons from the whole exercise. And no doubt Jesus too would have understood their individual strengths and weaknesses much better.

We shouldn’t forget that one of the Twelve was Judas Iscariot, who would later betray Jesus. I wonder which of the others went out with him. And I wonder how Judas scored on the training exercise.

Jesus calls a specially chosen few of his disciples to be Apostles.
Apostles are those that are called to give up everything else to follow Jesus, and to travel light as they continue Jesus’s ministry in the world. They’re not perfect – they share our common human faults and weaknesses, as the Twelve did. The difference between them and us is the gift of their call. 

The rest of us Christians have other gifts and are called to different forms of discipleship. And as St Paul had the insight to see, our gifts as well as theirs are necessary to build up the body of Christ, which is the Church.

At their ordination, the presiding Bishop exhorts every priest ordained in the Church of Ireland in these formal words:
‘We trust that … you are fully determined, by the grace of God, to give yourself wholly to his service … that you will devote to him your best powers of mind and spirit’.
All ordained clergy in the Church of Ireland make this commitment to give up other lives they might have led, in order to follow Jesus and devote their lives to his service.

Theirs is an apostolic ministry which we need to receive. We do not always give our clergy the recognition which they deserve. We should give thanks for them and for their commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ and to us, often at great personal cost to themselves.

At the same time that Revd Lucy is ministering among us during the current vacancy, she is holding down a full time job as a carer, and doing what she can to care for her mother at a distance. Let us give thanks for her ministry and show her how much we appreciate it.

The formal process for appointing a new Rector to the Nenagh Union of Parishes will begin shortly with a visit by the diocesan Ministry & Resources Committee.
In consultation with the parish, their job is to identify our needs, to confirm we can fund and house a new Rector, and to recommend a way forward to Diocesan Council. Diocesan Council must then issue a ‘Certificate of Stipend’ – in September we may hope – before the post can be advertised and the search process proper begin.

Let us pray that the appointment process will run smoothly, so that we can welcome a new Rector without delay, and receive the blessings of her or his ministry among us. Please turn to the top of p149 in the Prayer book, and let us pray together the prayer ‘During the Vacancy of a Parish’:
Almighty God, the giver of every good gift,
look graciously, we beseech thee, on thy Church,
and so guide with thy heavenly wisdom
the minds of those to whom is committed
the choice of a minister for this parish,
that we may receive a faithful pastor,
who shall feed thy flock according to thy will,
and make ready a people acceptable unto thee;

through Jesus Christ, thine only Son our Lord. Amen

Sunday 7 June 2015

Government and politics

Address given at Templederry and Nenagh on Sunday 7th June 2015, the 1st after Trinity, Year B

“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people...religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” So says Linus in the Peanuts comic strip.
Well, I’m on dangerous ground, because today I’m going to talk about all three!

First, do you know about the Great Pumpkin? Every Halloween night Linus sits in a pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear. Every Halloween the Great Pumpkin fails to appear. Every Halloween a humiliated but undefeated Linus stubbornly vows to wait for him again the following Halloween. The Great Pumpkin is a symbol of faith and persistence.

So, on to religion and politics.
The OT reading (1Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15) is about a momentous change of government for the Israelites.

From the time when Joshua led them across the Jordan into the promised land of Canaan, right up to Samuel’s day, the Israelites lived in a fragmented, tribal society with no central authority and shifting allegiances. They were loosely held together by their common ancestry as ‘Children of Israel’, and also by a shared sense of covenant with the Israelite God Yahweh. But they prized their independence. They saw no need for a king – surely Yahweh would protect them better than any human king!

But they lived alongside other peoples who did have kings, the original Canaanites and neighbouring peoples – Moabites, Midianites, Ammonites and Philistines. When disputes arose with their neighbours, the Israelite tribes came together in alliances under charismatic leaders whom the Bible calls Judges. The Judges led them in sporadic wars against their neighbours - we remember some of their names, like Gideon, Deborah and Samson, but others are less familiar.

Samuel is the last in the line of these Judges. Times are changing. The tribal elders have come to recognise that without central leadership the tribes will lose their independence. Samuel is too old to lead, and his sons are wastrels. So they come to Samuel and say, ‘you are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations’.

Samuel holds to the old tribal values. He dislikes the very idea of kingship. He consults Yahweh in prayer, but Yahweh’s reply surprises him: ‘Listen to the voice of the people… They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them… only – you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them’.

Samuel understands the nature of the contract between a ruler and his subjects: in exchange for protection from enemies, the people must give up some of their freedom. He tells the people how a king will behave: “he will turn your sons into soldiers, your daughters will become his servants; he will take a tenth of your possessions and give them to his supporters; and you will be like slaves”. That remains the contract between government and people today – though government takes rather more than a tenth of peoples earnings in tax these days.

But the people refuse to listen: ‘No! …we are determined to have a king over us’, they say, ‘so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go before us and fight our battles.’ Despite his reservations Samuel leads the people to make Saul their king. From that time forward until the Babylonian defeat and exile the Israelites are ruled by kings - some good, some not so good, and some down right bad.

The moral of the story is this, I think.
God does not decree any particular form of government for us – he leaves it up to us to decide. That implies that it would be wrong for me – or for anyone else for that matter – to pretend to tell you from this pulpit what political choices you should make.

But we must take our responsibility seriously. As Christians that means trying as best we can, prayerfully, to make political decisions which align with God’s will and promote his kingdom. Such decisions will often not be black and white, but between shades of grey. We may feel uncomfortable about this, but Christians cannot withdraw from the political world – God is in the world of politics as much as he is in everything else.

We are blessed to live in a democracy in which we collectively choose who governs us.
We have just experienced the democratic privilege of voting in two referendums. The referendum on Equal Marriage was passed by a large majority – the other we’ve probably already forgotten! Wisely I think, the Church of Ireland did not call explicitly for either a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ vote, leaving individuals to vote according to their conscience. Our Church, including the House of Bishops, is deeply divided on the issue. The people of the Republic have spoken clearly. Now it is time for all the churches - including ours - to adjust to a new reality, as Samuel did when he led the people to crown Saul as king. But I won’t hold my breath for any early change to the Church of Ireland’s doctrine of marriage.

We’ll have another chance to visit the polling stations soon, as the General Election to Dáil Eireann must be held by April 2016, and may come sooner. With the referendums out of the way politicians are once again starting to wind up their campaign machines. Our Christian duty when the election comes is to engage with the issues, reflect prayerfully on what will promote God’s Kingdom and cast our votes accordingly. Only after counting of votes and negotiations will we know for sure who is to govern us. Then we will pray for them in the words of the BCP, ‘O Lord, guide and defend our rulers – and grant our government wisdom’. Amen that they be granted wisdom!

But we may well be faced before long with another critical decision which will determine how we are governed for generations to come. The project for ever-deepening European Union is under stress due to economic and financial pressures and competing nationalisms. The British electorate has been promised an in-out referendum with an uncertain result. Just as the Israelites decided despite Samuel to appoint a king – just as our forbears decided 90 years ago to establish this State separate from the United Kingdom - so in our own time European states including Ireland will need to decide whether to join in a much deeper financial and political union, in effect a United States of Europe, or whether to go our different ways.

Let us pray that the Irish people and our friends in Europe may be guided by the Holy Spirit to make wise decisions.

Sunday 24 May 2015

The Living Church

Address given in Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 24th May 2015, Pentecost, Year B

We’re moving into Summer and Spring is almost if not quite behind us!
We all love the sense of unfolding new life and development at this time of year, don’t we? . And it is right for us to rejoice in the changing of the seasons. It is the creative power of the Spirit of God at work: as today’s Psalm 104 puts it, When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; may the Lord rejoice in his works.”

This Sunday is Pentecost – what we used to call Whitsunday. For Christians it ranks alongside Christmas and Easter as one of the great festivals. It celebrates the day when the Holy Spirit filled Jesus’s followers, empowering them to begin the great task of making disciples of all nations. The first Pentecost was the spring-time of the Church, the day when the first green sprouts burst into the light of day, the day the Church was born – the birthday of the Church.

The Lectionary readings are of course all about the Spirit. Let’s have a closer look at two of them.

In the 3rd reading, Jesus told his disciples that he would send them the Holy Spirit from the Father.
For what we know as the Holy Spirit, the 3rd person of the Trinity, John uses the Greek word ‘Paraklētos’ in today’s Gospel (John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15), translated as ‘advocate’ or ‘helper’. On the night he was betrayed Jesus tells the disciples, ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.’ He goes on to say, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth’.

These are very important words, I think – Jesus tells his first disciples that they do not know the whole truth, but must trust the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father to guide them. Surely the same applies to his disciples in every age, including ours. It is too easy to say as some fundamentalists do ‘we must hold to the faith once for all delivered to the Saints’, because all truth is provisional. Jesus teaches us our faith must be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit – it must be a living faith, open to development.

In today’s 1st reading (Acts 2:1-21), Luke describes the events of that very first Pentecost.
7 weeks after Christ’s resurrection, 10 days after his ascension, something happened among his followers. Something that caught the attention of the crowd – citizens of Jerusalem and visitors from all over the Roman Empire, alike. Something that caused the crowd to stop and look and listen. What was it that happened?

It is this - the disciples suddenly experienced the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, in them and in their lives, just as Jesus had so recently promised them. The OT uses wind and fire as symbols of the presence of God. So it was natural for them to describe their extraordinary experience in terms of a rushing mighty wind and tongues of fire. And they were changed, changed utterly by it.

They began to speak in tongues – this is what first attracts the attention of the crowd – some people even thought they were drunk on new wine! Did they really speak in all manner of foreign languages? Or is Luke using this as a device to signify the Gospel message is universal? Or was it just the disciples’ obvious enthusiasm and joy, bubbling forth, that impressed the crowd?

Then Peter comes forward. Peter the simple fisherman from Galilee, who just seven weeks before had been afraid to admit he knew Jesus. Peter as spokesman for the others starts to speak confidently to the crowd, quoting from the prophet Joel. And Peter goes on to declare his faith in the risen Christ, with such eloquence that we are told he convinced 3000 people that day to believe and be baptised. What a change in Peter! And so Christ’s Church is born.

No doubt in principle we could explain what happened with, say, the science of psychology. But I think it’s enough to use the same words Luke did – ‘All of them - the disciples - were filled with the Holy Spirit’, and they were changed by it. And this sense of receiving and being changed by the Holy Spirit has marked out and empowered Christians in every generation ever since.

Notice this - the disciples were all together in one place when they received the Spirit.
The Spirit was a gift to the whole community who followed Jesus. I think that if Christians of different traditions were more often gathered together in one place, we would receive more of the Spirit.

I can be a Christian without going to Church, I sometimes hear people say. Well, yes – a taste for singing hymns and listening to sermons is perhaps optional. But nobody can be a Christian alone – for as Christians we are those to whom God has given his Spirit, and the Spirit is a community Spirit. We are not given it for our individual salvation; we are given it to empower us to be the Church, the community of believers, so that we may pass on the good news to others, not necessarily in words but in our lives.

I believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired people since time immemorial. Long before Jesus’s patient sowing of the seed with the disciples, the Spirit was no doubt planting seeds in the minds of the ancient prophets of Israel as they, like us, struggled to understand their relationship with God. And who can say that the Spirit has not also inspired what is good in other religions?

But for us as Christians let us rejoice in Christ’s Church as a living, developing organism, sprouting from the seed Jesus sowed, and constantly growing in new ways, guided by the Holy Spirit who Jesus sends from the Father.

So to conclude:
As we rejoice in the glorious growth and development in nature around us, let us also rejoice in the Church as a living, changing and developing organism, to use the Archbishop of Armagh’s words.

And let us pray that in this part of Christ’s Church, in the churches of our parish union, in the Church of Ireland, God’s Holy Spirit will guide us to change and develop according to God’s will:
God the Holy Spirit,
come in power and bring new life to the Church;
renew us in love and service,
and enable us to be faithful
to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
(BCP p149)

Sunday 19 April 2015

Something Happened

Address given at Templederry & Nenagh, and from memory at Killodiernan, on Sunday 12th April 2015, the 2nd of Easter Year B.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Jesus Christ is that we've all heard of him!
That first Good Friday it must have seemed that the whole life and ministry of Jesus was a complete and abject failure. He started out so well, proclaiming the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, on the side of the marginalised and needy. But then it all seemed to fall apart. He got on the wrong side of the temple and the state; he was arrested; he was deserted by his disillusioned followers; and he was painfully and shamefully executed. Just another 1st Century messianic pretender, destined to be forgotten like so many others – so it must have seemed!

If the story had ended there, none of us would ever have heard of him. But we have all heard of Jesus – that’s why we are here today. Something happened to continue the story. The writers of the NT describe this something as Resurrection. They all believe and give witness that Jesus rose from the dead. This belief emboldens them to continue his mission, now strengthened by the sense of God’s Holy Spirit working in and through them. The followers of Jesus multiply. Less then 3 centuries later they take over mighty Roman Empire. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Resurrection is a mystery. No one is recorded as witnessing the event itself, just the empty tomb. Many disciples, we are told, met the risen Jesus, but there is something strange about the accounts – even his best friends find it hard to recognise him, and he comes suddenly, even through locked doors. These aren’t ordinary meetings. The gospel writers do not attempt to explain it – for them the fact of the resurrection is all that is important. I suggest the same should be true for us. We can’t go back in time to study it with our 21st century science. But something happened – something happened which we might as well call what the NT writers called it: Jesus Christ rose from the dead!

Let us look more closely at today’s readings, and reflect on what they tell us about how the earliest disciples responded to Christ’s Resurrection.

In the gospel reading John (20:19-31) gives an account of the disciples meeting the risen Christ.
On the first day of the week, though the doors were locked, ‘Jesus came and stood among them.’ He shows them his wounds and the disciples rejoice. He tells them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then, ‘he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”.

One thing that strikes me about this passage is how his disciples feel when they meet the risen Christ. Jesus would have used the Hebrew word Shalom, which has a rather wider meaning than the English word peace – it also signifies wholeness, wellbeing. When his disciples sense that Jesus stands among them, they feel his peace, they feel whole, they feel well: as we say today, they feel centred. This is what enables them to rejoice, no matter how difficult the situation is – it’s hard to imagine a situation more desperate than the one they faced after the crucifixion, isn’t it? Huddled together in a locked room in fear of their lives.

Another thing that strikes me is this: as he sends them out, the risen Christ gives his disciples the strength to continue his mission of self-sacrificing love and service - he breathes his Holy Spirit on them - just as the Father gave Jesus the strength to begin it. I believe Christ does so in every age.

The 1st reading from Acts (4:32-35) tells us about the common life of the earliest Christians.
Time has moved on. Many new believers have joined the small frightened band of disciples who had met the risen Christ behind locked doors. The apostles testify ‘to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power’. All the believers, new and old, are ‘of one heart and soul’, and ‘great grace (is) upon them all’. The word translated here as ‘grace’ is the Greek word charis (χαρις) – ‘that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness’. It is ‘shalom’. It is how the disciples felt when they heard the risen Christ say ‘peace be with you’.

These earliest Christians were living as a community sharing everything. ‘No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common’, we are told, and ‘there was not a needy person among them’.

Some suggest this is a scriptural endorsement of Communism, but that would be a mistake, an anachronism, I think.  Communism as a political philosophy is a 19th Century idea, a response to the injustices of industrial capitalism. The circumstances of the tiny group of disciples trying to live a life of Christian witness within the Roman Empire were quite different.

But what we should notice, I think, is that the disciples of Jesus cared intensely for each other. They were generous; they never forgot that when some do not have enough, everyone must help; they wanted to share what they had, because they loved one another, as Jesus commanded them to do.

So to sum up, as 21st century Christians here are three things we can learn from the response of the earliest Christians to the fact of Resurrection
1st, the risen Christ blesses us with his ‘shalom’, the gift of his peace – just as he did the first disciples.
2nd, the risen Christ breathes his Holy Spirit into us to give us strength to continue his mission of loving service in the world – just as he did the first disciples.
And 3rd, in response to Christ’s peace and the Holy Spirit we should care intensely for one another - love one another. Let us share what God has given us so that no one is in need – just as the first disciples did.

Sunday 1 March 2015

Finding life by losing it

‘Get behind me, Satan! Get thee behind me, Satan!’
What a shock it must have been for Peter to hear Jesus address him in these cutting words, recorded by Mark (8:31-38).

Peter had been the first to say, ‘You are the Messiah’, when Jesus had asked, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But Jesus then ‘began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering … and be killed. Peter knew Jesus was referring to himself, and he was shocked. Like most Jews of his day, he expected the promised Messiah to come as a great conqueror to destroy the gentiles – including the hated Romans - and to rule over a revived Kingdom of Israel. The Messiah would vanquish his foes, not be killed by them! So Peter remonstrates with Jesus: ‘Look here, Jesus, that can’t be right!’ he says - or words to that effect. It is then that Jesus turns on him and likens him to Satan – and he does so in front of all the others!

Why was Jesus so hard on Peter, his friend and disciple? Jesus knew that God’s way was not the way of violent earthly conquest, but the way of self-sacrificing love. I’m sure he didn’t want to die a painful death, but Jesus must have realised this was the inevitable outcome of what God called him to do. He was determined to face it bravely. But Peter tries to argue him out of it, in an echo of Satan’s tempting in the wilderness.

Isn’t this often the way it is? When we’ve made up our minds what the right thing is to do even at a personal cost, our friends and loved ones try to talk us out of it. The tempter can be the very person dearest to us! Yet we must not allow even the pleading voice of love to stop us from doing God’s will.

So Jesus seizes the moment to teach Peter and the disciples his way, the way of the cross, how to find life by losing it.

As usual, Mark compresses Jesus’s teaching to a very few words, but it goes to the very heart of our Christian faith. It is worth reflecting on it sentence by sentence.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Jesus’s honesty is startling isn’t it? No one can ever say Jesus lured them to follow him on false pretences! He does not offer his disciples an easy life or a comfortable way to God. Like other great leaders, he calls us as Churchill did to ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. But he does not call us to do anything more than he is prepared to do himself.

First Jesus calls us to ‘deny ourselves’, to say no to our own selfish instincts. But more than simply practicing self-denial, Jesus tells us we must be prepared to take real risks – even to risk our very lives – if that is what God, through our conscience, tells us is right. We who follow Jesus must do God’s will in all things to the best of our ability.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Jesus grabs our attention with this great paradox: to save life is to lose it, and vice-versa.

The very essence of life is to risk it and spend it, not to save it and hoard it. If we live selfishly, always thinking first of our own profit, comfort and security, we lose life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we follow Jesus’s way of loving self-sacrifice, we win life all the time.

The truth is that the only way we can find a life that matters is by losing it in the love of God and the love of our neighbours. That is the way of Jesus, that is the way of God, and that is the way of happiness too.

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
I’m sure you, like me, can think of people who are outwardly hugely successful, but who in another sense are living a life that is not worth living. In business, they may have sacrificed honour for profit. In politics, they may have sacrificed principle for popularity. In their personal lives, they may have sacrificed their deepest relationships for their own ambitions or desires. Such people are seldom comfortable in their own skin and often live to regret their bad choices.

It is a matter of values really - Jesus asks us where our values lie. As he says elsewhere, we are to store up our treasures in heaven, not on earth, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Our values must be God’s values, not the false values of worldly success.

 ‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
Many people did not like what Jesus said and did. He stood up for the poor, the despised, the rejected, and he was a friend of sinners. Scribes and Pharisees – the pious and respectable of his time – saw his behaviour as shameful. Knowing this, Jesus warns his disciples not to be ashamed to follow him publicly - for if they are, how can they expect to share in the glory of God’s kingdom?

These same words should be a warning for us. In Ireland - and in Europe generally - it has become deeply unfashionable for many people to own up to a Christian faith. Even if we believe in our heart of hearts, many of us find it easier not to speak openly about our faith for fear of being mocked or thought less of. In fact, we behave as if we are ashamed of our faith.

It is a simple truth: we cannot expect to share with Jesus the joy of shaping the world into the place God means it to be, if we do not stand up to be counted for Jesus and for his message of loving self-sacrifice.

So to sum up, when I reflect on these words recorded by Mark, I hear Jesus’s voice calling me, down through the ages:
1st, Jesus calls me to be ready to risk everything to do God’s will, rather than my own;
2nd, Jesus calls me to find true life and happiness by losing my life in the service of God and others;
3rd, Jesus calls me to live my life by God’s values, not the false values of worldly success.
4th, Jesus calls me to follow his path of loving self-sacrifice, joyfully, fearlessly and without shame.

Let us pray for the grace to respond to Jesus’s voice, in the words of St Ignatius of Loyola:
Teach us, Good Lord, to serve you as you deserve:
To give, and not to count the cost;
to fight, and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.

Through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Lent is a holiday from the everyday!

Address given at the Service for Ash Wednesday (with ashing) in St Mary's Nenagh on 18 Feb 2015

You’ll be delighted to know that I’m not going to give you a long sermon! But I do want to say a very few words about Lent.

The Church invites us, as we heard in the introduction to this service, ‘to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word’.

But to many in the wider society we inhabit, Lenten fasting and self-denial seem plain daft, perverse even. ‘Oh what a bore!’, I hear them say, ‘Why all this guilt-inducing, self-flagellating, call to gloomy repentance? Go away, and let us get on with our busy lives.’ There is no shortage of people to mock those who take Lent seriously.

My answer to them is this: Lent is not a burden – it’s not meant to be a burden, but a gift – it’s a holiday from the everyday!

Lent is an opportunity:
·         To liberate myself for a bit from one of those little habits of luxury that can so easily become addictive bad habits. It is a chance to prove to myself that I am more than the sum of my desires. And after the fast, thank God, I shall relish what I denied myself even more.
·         To spend a little more time with God, to feed my spiritual side, my soul. He is the great lover of souls, but often I feel too busy to respond to his love. There are so many ways to do so it is difficult to choose, from prayer, to reading scripture, or some other worthwhile book I wouldn’t otherwise find time to pick up, to joining with others in a Lenten course.
·         To live more simply for a while and enjoy the present moment. Heaven knows, most of us could do with a break from the pressures to be busier and busier to acquire and consume more and more. Lent is also the time of lengthening days and burgeoning spring – let us enjoy what God has given us - for free.
·         To be as generous as I can be from the surplus of good things God has given me. There is nothing so pleasurable and good for the soul than to help someone in need or donate to a good cause.

And whatever we choose to do or not do, we must not be gloomy about it! As Jesus tells us in the Gospel reading (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21), ‘when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’

May we all have a joyful, holiday Lent!