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!

Sunday 8 February 2015

God and Creation

Sermon preached at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th February 2015, the 2nd before Lent year A

I want to share with you some thoughts about God and about Creation, because that is the common theme of today’s readings
When we look about us at creation - at this amazing living world and the wider heavens - how can we feel anything but awe and wonder? It is natural for us as human beings to interpret it as the work of a mighty creative God. The Psalmist captures this in beautiful poetry (Psalm 104:26-37):
‘O Lord how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.’

God in his wisdom has made his creation comprehensible to us through logic, mathematics and science. Thanks to science we now comprehend so much more about creation than the Psalmist ever could. We can now see that creation is not a once-and-for-all thing, but an unending process starting from the ‘big bang’ at the dawn of time, and continuing still into the distant future.

I do not consider myself an old man, but in my own lifetime we have discovered how the material universe evolves: we are literally made of star-dust – the very elements of this earth came into existence in the explosive deaths of generations of stars. And in my own lifetime we have started to unravel how the subtle biochemistry of DNA has allowed teeming life to evolve on our planet.

Some people like to say that this new science is incompatible with the idea of God, but I disagree. I think that’s poppycock! For me it makes God’s work of creation even more marvellous. Evolution is the mechanism God uses in creation – and God has not finished his creation yet.

The OT reading from Proverbs (8:1, 22-31) introduces us to God’s Wisdom.
God’s first creative act was to create Wisdom, we are told. And Wisdom has remained beside God ‘like a master worker’ throughout creation.

I like to think of Wisdom as like the laws of nature, God-given. The laws of nature make continuing creation through evolution not just possible, but inevitable.

Cosmologists have been surprised to discover that the laws of nature seem to be very finely tuned to allow the evolution of a universe like ours, with life like ours. Some have proposed what is known as the Strong Anthropic Principle, that the Universe is compelled, in some sense, to eventually have conscious and sapient life emerge within it.

Perhaps we should see this as God’s Wisdom at work: Wisdom tells us, ‘I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race’.

But there is more to creation than physics and biochemistry.
Ours is also a moral universe. We human beings have been created as souls with a moral sense of what is good and what is evil, and a conscience which prompts us to choose good over evil. We can distinguish between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness, love and hate. Yet all too often we fail to choose wisely and do what we know we shouldn’t. We are imperfect beings, incomplete, not yet finished by God – that is what the idea of original sin and the myth of the Fall is all about.

It is not true, as it is sometimes said, that nature is always red in tooth and claw – there is more to life than a vicious struggle for existence. Communities of plants and animals live together supporting each other. Think of the intricate three-cornered dance of life between plants like plums and apples, the insects that pollinate them in return for pollen and nectar, and the animals that disperse their seeds in exchange for the fruit. Think of social insects like ants and bees, how virgin sisters devote their lives to raising their queen’s children. Think of the altruism and unselfish love of which we human beings are capable at our best.

This shows me that God is still at work, creating a moral universe in which good triumphs over evil. Shall we call it the Kingdom of God? Perhaps the Kingdom is an emergent property of creation, necessarily arising out of evolving life, just as life necessarily arose out of the physics and chemistry of matter. If so, the potential for it has been there from the start, a consequence of God-given laws of nature. It has evolved gradually in many species. We see it dimly and imperfectly in our human natures. And we may believe that it will become ever brighter and more perfect as God works his purpose out through creation.

Why should this be so, I ask myself? The answer I think is this: Just because God is good, and God prefers all that is right and true, beautiful and loving.

The moral universe – the Kingdom of God - is what matters to both St Paul and St John.
Both of them place Jesus Christ at the heart of the evolving moral universe, much as Proverbs places Wisdom at the heart of the evolving material universe.

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:15-20), Jesus Christ ‘is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation … through (whom) God (is) pleased to reconcile to himself all things… by making peace through the blood of his cross’. In John’s Gospel (1:1-14) Jesus Christ is the eternal  Word: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … he gives power to become the children of God to all who receive him, who believe in his name’.

Theirs is a deep theology, and I am no theologian. But one key message I take from them is this:
God offers through Jesus to complete his creation of us in his image to be part of God’s Kingdom.
The big question for each one of us is this:
Will we accept God’s offer?

If we want to be a part of the Kingdom of God – the emerging moral universe filled with all that is good, right and true, beautiful and loving - then we must start with Jesus. If we want to be reconciled to God, then we must start with Jesus. If we want to become children of God, then we must start with Jesus.

Because in Jesus, ‘the Word (becomes) flesh and (lives) among us, and we (see) his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’.