Sunday 9 December 2018

John the Baptist

Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 9th December 2018, the 2nd of Advent

As I dodge the potholes on the back road to Dromineer, I often pray that the County Council would take to heart the words of Isaiah we’ve just heard Luke quote in his Gospel:
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;”
Joking aside, today I want to focus on John the son of Zechariah, the subject of today’s gospel reading (Luke 3: 1-6). There are 3 questions I shall try to answer:
                 i.    Who was he?
               ii.    What was his teaching? and
             iii.    How is it relevant for us today?

So, firstly, what do we know about John the son of Zechariah?
Quite a bit, in fact - and not just from the Gospels. Josephus the 1st Cent Jewish historian is an independent source, who says more about John than he does about Jesus. John was a real person, not just a character in the gospel story. Notice how firmly Luke places John in his historical context.

He is the person we familiarly call John the Baptist, but Orthodox Christians call John the Forerunner. This is quite as it should be, because the gospel writers and the early church saw him as the forerunner of the Messiah, foretold by Old Testament prophets including Isaiah.

Within the gospels, Luke tells us the most. He weaves the story of John’s birth in with that of Jesus. At the very beginning of his gospel, he tells us about John’s parents, a priest called Zechariah and Elizabeth his wife: both good, pious people, but getting on in years and childless. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to tell him that Elizabeth will bear a son to be named John, who will be a great spiritual leader. Zechariah doesn’t believe Gabriel and is struck dumb, but Elizabeth does indeed conceive.

Elizabeth is a relative of Mary the mother of Jesus. Six months later, after Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her she will give birth to Jesus, Mary rushes off to visit Elizabeth. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, the baby John leaps for joy in her womb, and Mary responds in the words of the canticle we know as the Magnificat.
In due course, Elizabeth bears her son, whom Elizabeth and Zechariah duly name John. Zechariah’s speech returns, and he gives thanks in the beautiful canticle we know as the Benedictus, which we used as our psalm today. It echoes the OT prophesies:
And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest,
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
to give knowledge of salvation unto his people,
for the remission of their sins.

All 4 of the gospel writers tell us how John, now grown up, goes out into the barren desert country by the Jordan, calling on the crowds who followed him to repent, and baptising them as a sign of their repentance. The background to all this was a great popular religious revival: many people were convinced that the Messiah of prophesy was about to appear, and they were urgently looking for signs that this was so.

Matthew and Mark paint a memorable picture of John haranguing the crowds in the wilderness, dressed in camel hair with a leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey. He wouldn’t have been the only wandering preacher in the desert at that time. Archaeology has uncovered the ruins of the Essene religious settlement at Qumran, and their library of writings we call the Dead Sea Scrolls. Josephus mentions the Essenes as a sect alongside the Pharisees and Sadducees. John must have known them, and may even have been one of them.

Jesus sought and received baptism from John, who recognised him - not surprisingly since they were cousins.

John was just as blunt and bold a preacher as the Old Testament prophets before him. He was bound to run into trouble with the authorities. And he did: he upset Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch or King of Galilee, who ordered him to be arrested, and later beheaded. Josephus says he had John killed ‘to prevent any mischief he might cause’.

Let’s now turn to examine John the Baptist’s teaching.
In today’s gospel passage, Luke says that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. He then goes on to outline John’s teaching. Three points stand out for me:
             i.    All the gospel writers are clear that John never claims to be the Messiah, but believes that he is the forerunner. Luke puts these words in his mouth: I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  
           ii.    John is what we might call a hellfire preacher. Luke quotes him saying: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. () Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’.  John tries to shock the crowds into repentance by terrifying them with the consequences if they don’t, before sealing that repentance by dipping them in water to symbolise that they are washed clean of sin. His preaching must have been very effective, judging by the crowds he gathered.
          iii.    But John’s message is about much more than just hell fire. He calls for social justice. Quoting Luke again, he says: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. And he calls for people, even tax collectors and soldiers, to do whatever work they do fairly and not extort more than their due. No price gouging!

So what relevance does John the Baptist and his teaching have for us today?
Luke saw John the Baptist as the hinge on which salvation history turns, the forerunner promised by the prophets, making straight the way for Jesus the Messiah. It is difficult for us to see the world as Luke and his contemporaries did, through the prism of scriptural prophecy. And we deeply distrust fundamentalists who see it that way today. But that world view empowered the early church to respond to Jesus’s message, no matter what the cost. Without it, the church would never have survived, and we would not be Christians today. The mysterious working of the Holy Spirit through prophecy is something we should celebrate.

Few Christian preachers nowadays stir up hellfire in their sermons, as they once did - and not so very long ago. We have become uncomfortable with the idea of the wrath of God. Instead it is ecologists and scientists who have been leading denunciations of our foolish and wicked trashing of the beautiful planet God has given us, from secular pulpits, as David Attenborough did only a few days ago at the COP24 Climate Conference in Katowice, Poland – you probably saw him on the TV.

But now more and more Christians are hearing the call to protect God’s planet, and acting upon it. The WCC has appealed for Christians to intensify their advocacy and action for climate justice, and transition to a sustainable economy. Pope Francis has given us a clarion call in his encyclical Laudato ‘Si. The Anglican Communion Environmental Network is echoing the call through their Eco Bishops network. And here in Ireland, Eco Congregation Ireland is spearheading the movement.

I hazard a prophecy that we will hear more and more John-like hellfire from our Christian pulpits, as the ecological catastrophe of climate change intensifies. Because we should be terrified of the wrath to come predicted by the scientists. That should bring us to repentance. And we should seal that repentance by mending our ways!

And as we mend our ways, we must also try to live out John’s social gospel, to share the good things we have received with our neighbours of every faith and race, at home and abroad. Mé féin is a road to perdition in our shrinking, globalised world. We must do so because this is not only the gospel of John, but the Gospel of Jesus, who empowers us by baptism not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire!

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
God of our salvation,
you straighten the winding ways of our hearts
and smooth the paths made rough by sin:
keep our hearts watchful in holiness,
and bring to perfection the good you have begun in us.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose Day draws near, your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Sunday 4 November 2018

Ruth's story

Address given at Borrisokane on Sunday 4th November 2018, the Fourth before Advent

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

I have a confession to make - I’m a sucker for romantic stories, and the Book of Ruth is just such a story!
It follows a trajectory from sorrow to joy, from emptiness to fullness - what a delightful romantic movie it would make.

Today’s 1st reading (Ruth 1:1-18) sets the scene. It introduces two women as the main characters – Naomi, a refugee from famine in Judah settled in the land of Moab, and her daughter-in-law Ruth, a Moabite with no children. Disaster has befallen them. First Naomi’s husband dies, and ten years later both her sons die, including Ruth’s husband. They are both left as widows without the security of family, filled with sorrow and emptiness.

Naomi, in despair, decides to return home to Bethlehem in Judah. Her two daughters-in-law start out to follow her, but Naomi tells them to go back to their own people, where they might marry again and find security. One of them does so, but the other, Ruth, insists on staying with Naomi. Ruth says:
‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried.’

In these beautiful words, Ruth makes a vow never to leave Naomi. By using the Jewish name for God, YHWH, she renounces allegiance to Moab and Chemosh, the God of the Moabites, and aligns herself with Naomi’s people and her God, the God of Israel. Ruth launches herself out into an unknown future as a refugee, trusting in Naomi’s God that all will turn out well. How much Ruth must have loved Naomi! We shall return to their story later.

But first let’s look at the 2nd reading from Mark’s Gospel (12:28-34).
A scribe asks Jesus, ‘Which is the greatest commandment?’, and Jesus gives a two-part answer. Matthew’s Gospel (22:37-39) records the same question and Jesus’s answer in slightly different words, which we all recognise from the prayers of penitence during Holy Communion.

 ‘The first’, says Jesus, ‘is “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”’

These words come from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. They are known in Hebrew as the Shema - even to this day they are the first words of every service in a synagogue. They are also written down inside a little cylindrical box called a Mezuzah fixed to the door of every Jewish house, to remind Jewish families of their covenant with God every time they go out or come in. I am sure every devout Jew would agree with Jesus that this is the greatest commandment.

 ‘The second is this’, says Jesus, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’
These words come from Leviticus 19:18. In effect they summarise the commandments in the Law of Moses concerning how to treat fellow Jews. No Jew could see them as being controversial. But for Jesus these words would not mean quite the same as for the Jews who heard him. They would see only fellow Jews as their neighbours, but Jesus believes that gentiles are to be treated as neighbours as well as Jews.

We can see this clearly in Luke’s Gospel (10:25-37). When a lawyer asks Jesus, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’, Jesus leads him to answer his own question – he must love God and love his neighbour as himself. The lawyer then asks, ‘And who is my neighbour?’. In response Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans were gentiles despised and disliked by Jews, but Jesus leads the lawyer to admit that the Samaritan is a better neighbour to the man who is robbed and beaten on the road than the Jews who passed by on the other side.

Jesus tells him – and us too – that every person, without exception, is a neighbour to be loved as we love ourselves.

Let us get back to Ruth and Naomi – how does their story continue?
It was harvest time 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 by the young lads doing the harvesting.

The Jews had a tradition that 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 will marry her in this way, to provide her with security. Ruth does as Naomi suggests. She visits Boaz on the threshing floor when he is sleeping, uncovers his feet and lies down beside him, and when he wakes she says to him, ‘Spread your coat over your servant, for you are next of kin’. Boaz wants to marry her, but he tells Ruth that there is another, closer relative who legally should have the first refusal - if that man does not wish to marry her, he, Boaz, will. And Boaz is 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 … 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. Naomi and Ruth’s sorrow is transformed into joy. The emptiness of their lives is filled by the son Ruth bears to Boaz, whom Naomi nurses. This boy will grow up to be the grandfather of King David, and an ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ, through his earthly father Joseph. It really is a romantic story, isn’t it!

Ruth’s story illustrates how God works in individual human lives.
Naomi and Ruth had suffered terrible blows. It would be so easy for them to become bitter and angry, but they don’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 Ruth shows to Naomi. New life and hope come into their lives. They are offered a second chance of happiness. And they take it.

This surely is how God works 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. This at least has been my own experience.

Jesus calls us to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves, whoever they may be.
And we can see love of God and love of neighbour in Ruth’s story.

Naomi doesn’t desert her Jewish God, even as a refugee in Moab, and her example brings Ruth to take Naomi’s God for her own. Boaz in the story is a good man who constantly speaks of his God, YHWH. All three of them love God to the best of their ability and strive to do the right thing – to be righteous, in other words.

Both the Moabites and the Jews in the story show their love for neighbours who are outsiders and foreigners. Naomi and her family arrive in Moab as refugees from famine. The Moabites take them in and generously include them in their community as neighbours, so that both Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women. Ruth herself is a foreign economic migrant when she arrives in Bethlehem with Naomi, but Boaz and his people generously include Ruth as a neighbour in their harvest, and Boaz is glad to marry her.

There is a lesson in this for us today, when more people than ever are leaving their homes as refugees or migrants, driven by natural disasters, wars, and poverty. Will we include these people in our communities? Will we allow them to work and build new lives with us? Will we be glad when our children fall in love and choose to marry them? Will we love them as ourselves, as Jesus calls us to do?

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
O God, whom to follow is to risk our whole lives:
as Ruth and Naomi loved and held to one another,
abandoning the ways of the past,
so may we also not be divided,
but travel together into that strange land
where you lead us,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday 14 October 2018

Harvest Thanksgiving in Kilglass Church

A Harvest Thanksgiving address given in Kilglass Church, Kilmoremoy Union on Friday 12th October 2018

I must begin by thanking Archdeacon Stephen for his invitation to speak to you.
My name is Joc Sanders, a diocesan reader from Nenagh in the diocese of Killaloe, part of the united dioceses of Limerick & Killaloe. It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to join you today in your harvest worship and thanksgiving here in beautiful Kilglass Church in this diocese of Kilalla, part of the united dioceses of Tuam, Kilalla & Achonry.

Stephen and I met as we participated in the inter diocesan discussions about the future of our dioceses and became friends. Recently our separate diocesan synods have both voted to seek unity under a single bishop in the fullness of time, so no doubt over future years all of us in our dioceses will be getting to know each other much better, but I already feel I am among friends here.

We all love Harvest Festivals, don’t we?
Just look around 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:
·         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.
·         But there is so much more than staples for us to enjoy, isn’t there! There’s milk and butter, cheese and yogurt, nuts and blackberries, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips, pumpkins and marrows, cabbage and lettuce, peas and beans, mushrooms, meat and leather. My wife Marty has harvested delicious vegetables and beautiful flowers this year. I’ve picked 4 supermarket trays of apples, the first quinces on a young tree, and a fine crop of cob nuts.
·         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 thankful 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 last year has been difficult for farmers here in Ireland, with the late cold winter and the summer drought. I think the drought may have been worse where I live than for you – no grass grew for two whole months where I live in North Tipperary. One neighbour had to feed fodder he needed for the winter and is already selling beasts he can’t feed for low prices. Another tells me his barley yield is way down, and only partly compensated by the high price he has got for the straw. Farmers are anxious for the future.

And it’s not just farmers who are anxious. Despite the economic recovery very many here in Ireland are trapped in negative equity, at risk of losing their homes, or actually homeless. Others are anxious about Brexit, geo-politics in the age of Trump, and climate change.

And then there are those other anxious, frightened faces we see on the news in foreign countries far away, refugees from persecution, war and intolerable poverty, and those picking up the pieces after natural disasters.

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 how can 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 would have reacted like me: ‘It’s easy for you to say, Jesus!’.

But in our heart of hearts we all know, don’t we, that Jesus is right. We know that worrying can’t add a single hour to our life. We know 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 today’s lifestyle of over-consumption which causes so many of the world’s problems that make us anxious. And that anxiety is unhealthy not just for our bodies and our minds, but for our deepest being, our soul.

We need to live more simply, to love God, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
If we don’t we are lost - as individuals, as a society and as a species. This is what Jesus is telling us - and this week’s latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gives world leaders the same message. 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?’

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 of us. To be righteous ourselves we must imitate God’s love. Jesus has told us 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 what 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!

St Paul in the 2nd reading (1Timothy 2:1-7) urges us to pray and give thanks for everyone
- including ‘kings and all in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity’.

So in this harvest season let us pray both for ourselves and for world leaders:
Creator God,
We thank you for the wonder of the world in which we live:
for the earth and all that springs from it,
for the mystery of life and growth,
and for the bounteous resources you have given us.
Through your Holy Spirit,
give us the grace to share the good gifts we have received in your Son’s spirit of generosity,
guide world leaders to take the decisions necessary to protect our fragile planet and all its creatures,
and strengthen in us the determination to tread lightly on the planet you have given us.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord we pray.

Sunday 9 September 2018

Faith & Works

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 9th September 2018, the 15th after Trinity.

Do you feel anxious for the future? Many of us do, I think, including me.
Different folk worry about different things. Some dread accelerating climate change, some are concerned by the unknown dangers of new bio-technologies or artificial intelligence, some are frightened that newcomers of different races and religions will change their familiar communities, while others fear that class, race and religious hatreds will lead to social collapse and disastrous wars.

But there is nothing new in any of this. It is part of the human condition, as we grow older, to fear that the world is going to hell in a handcart. Jesus himself warned his disciples not to be alarmed by ‘wars and rumours of wars’, for ‘the end is not yet’ (Matthew 24:6).

Nor should we ignore the good things that are continually happening. In my lifetime, advances in hygiene and medicine have reduced the burden of disease and immensely increased life expectancy. And global development has lifted hundreds of millions of people across the world out of crushing poverty. We should see these as signs of hope, signs that God’s kingdom of peace and justice is growing.

I think today’s readings teach us much that is important about our Christian duty to contribute to the growth of the kingdom. And if we respond to them as we should, perhaps it will allay some of our fears.

In the Gospel, Mark (7:24-37) tells us two stories about Jesus ministering to foreign strangers.
Jesus has left the Jewish homelands to travel on a circuitous route through Gentile country in the regions of Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis. We are told he did not want anyone to know he was there, so perhaps he was taking a holiday from ministry, but news of his presence got out.

In the first story, a Greek-speaking Syrophoenician woman with a sick daughter hears about him and comes to beg him to cure her daughter.
Jesus says to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She boldly and wittily answers, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ And Jesus tells her that because of what she has said, her daughter has been healed.

I ask myself, is this the moment when Jesus realises that his ministry is not just to Jews, but to people of all races and faiths? We believe that he is fully human as well as fully divine – in his humanity we can believe that his understanding of his own significance and mission developed over time.

Do Jesus’s words sound like a rude and crushing response to you? Some have seen his words that way - the children would be understood as the Jews, the children of Israel, and the dogs as gentiles like her. But I cannot believe Jesus was being rude or crushing – it would not be like him.

What I think was going on is this. A pious Jewish religious leader at that time would avoid contact of any kind with a Gentile woman to maintain his ritual cleanliness. But Jesus is different, he is intrigued, and he engages with her, no doubt with a twinkle in his eye and a friendly tone of voice. I think his words were to the effect that, ‘Look, I’m a foreign Jewish Rabbi and I’m on holiday – do you really want my help?’ In the woman’s witty reply, the word translated as ‘Sir’ is the Greek ‘Kyrie’, meaning Lord. She is acknowledging Jesus’s status and insists that she believes he can help. And that is what he does.

In the second story, the friends of a deaf-and-dumb man bring him to Jesus to be healed.
Jesus ‘took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue’. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and prayed over him, and the man was healed.

Notice how sensitive Jesus is to the circumstances and needs of the deaf-and-dumb man. The deaf man could not have known what was being said, and perhaps he was frightened by being the centre of attention in a crowd. So Jesus treats him in private, and Jesus uses mime to let him know what is going on.

As followers of Jesus we should model our behaviour on his.
Like him we must engage at a human level with people we meet who are different to us, and pay attention to their needs. We must not demonise Muslims or people of other faiths and races, but rather treat them as our neighbours, and offer them help if they need it.

And when we minister to people in distress, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, like Jesus we must be sensitive to their circumstances and treat them as individuals with rights, not merely anonymous ‘cases’.

The author of the Epistle of James (2:1-17) urges Christians to break down the barriers of class and wealth in order to relieve the distress of the poor.
We can’t be certain who the James was who wrote the epistle, but an ancient tradition says it was James the brother of Jesus, a leader of the earliest church in Jerusalem. At the great council there, he and St Peter supported St Paul’s case that gentiles should be accepted into the Christian church alongside Jews without being circumcised.

Nor do we know what church or churches he is writing to, but they are clearly riven by class divides – the wealthy are being treated better than the poor.

James challenges his readers to ask whether their behaviour is consistent with their faith in Jesus Christ. He points out that God has ‘chosen the poor… to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him’. And he reminds them of the law proclaimed by Jesus, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.

‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters’, he asks rhetorically, ‘if you say you have faith but do not have works?’ By ‘works’ he clearly means good works, deeds of love and compassion toward those in need. He continues, ‘If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food… and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?’ ‘So’, he concludes, ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’.

The message is clear. We have no right to call ourselves Christians – our faith is dead – unless we seek to relieve human distress when we see it. For us in modern Ireland, this means that we should not evade the taxes which fund the social welfare system and the health service – we must pay up with a good grace, provided we’re blessed with the resources to do so. And we must also be generous in giving to the organisations which support those who slip through the cracks - organisations such as St Vincent de Paul, Protestant Aid, the Simon Community, and the newly established Nenagh Food Bank, to name a few.

The 1st reading from Proverbs (22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23) tells us ‘Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor’.
And we are indeed blessed, aren’t we? Most of us live in at least modest comfort, and can well afford to be generous to those with less.  

And as Proverbs also reminds us, ‘the Lord pleads the cause of the poor’.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
O God, whose word is life,
and whose delight is to answer our cry:
give us faith like that of the woman
who refused to remain an outsider,
so that we too may have the wit to argue
and demand that our children be made whole,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday 12 August 2018

Thinking about the bread of life

Adress given at Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 12th August 2018, the 11th after Trinity

One of life’s greatest pleasures is to share a meal with loved ones and friends, isn’t it?
It is for me, and it is for you too I’m sure – good food, good drink and good company. And it must have been so for Jesus as well, since so often in the Gospels we find Jesus sharing meals with others. He shared meals not just with his disciples and friends, but also with tax collectors and sinners, and with Pharisees and scribes – with all kinds of people.

When Jesus himself broke bread as the host at a meal, he had a special way of doing so – first he took the food, then he gave thanks or blessed it, and finally he broke it and shared it out. It was so distinctive that only when the disciples on the road to Emmaus saw it did they recognise Jesus, after his death and resurrection. Today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John 6:35, 41-51) comes just after Jesus shares a meal with others on a grand scale – the feeding of the 5000 – a truly gigantic outdoor picnic. There too in his special way, he took, blessed and shared the five barley loaves and two fish to feed the crowd.

We can recognise this same sequence of actions – taking, blessing and sharing - in the Last Supper as recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke. And that of course is the model for the Eucharist which we with all other Christians continue to celebrate in his memory. The Last Supper can be seen as an acted parable – and so, I think, can all the other meals Jesus shared in his Eucharistic way of taking, blessing and sharing.

But what does the acted parable of Eucharist mean? In today’s reading John opens out for us the spiritual significance of Eucharist for Jesus himself, in Jesus’s own words. The last verse sums up what Jesus meant:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
Today I want to share with you what these words say to me.

First, what does Jesus mean when he says, I am the living bread that came down from heaven’?
Jesus says ‘I am’ many things on different occasions, among them ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the door’, ‘I am the way’, and ‘I am the true vine’. He is of course talking in metaphors, about his relationship with those he is talking to, but also his relationship with God, who he calls his loving Father.

Jesus has just been responding to hecklers in the crowd who want him to display earthly power, as they believe Moses did by sending bread from heaven – manna - to feed the people in the wilderness. So naturally the metaphor Jesus uses on this occasion is about bread.

As Jesus tells the hecklers, it is God, not Moses, who sent the manna, just as it is God who sends the food we all need to nourish our bodies. But Jesus wants his listeners to look beyond the physical to the spiritual. God also provides what we need to nourish our spirits – by analogy with the bread which feeds our bodies, this too is bread from heaven.

And Jesus knows that his loving-father God is calling him, by his every action and his every word, to offer this spiritual nourishment to all people. So he describes himself as the living bread which comes down from heaven.

The hecklers in the crowd know quite well who Jesus is - the son of Joseph the carpenter from nearby Nazareth. They choose not to understand his metaphor – and they ridicule the idea that Jesus came down from heaven. 

Second, what does Jesus mean when he says, Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever’?
I suppose people since the dawn of humanity have dreaded death and had fantasies of living for ever. But we all know, as Jesus did, that our physical bodies are doomed to die and to decay.

Yet for Jesus this is not what truly matters. What does matter is our relationship with God. It is those who believe that God enfolds and protects them like a loving father that are released from dread of their own mortality. So he says, Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. Eternal life is surely another metaphor for a loving relationship with God.

And more than that, Jesus knows his own importance. Working in and through him, God reveals his own nature as loving Father to those who listen. Those who feed on Jesus’s words and actions, as on bread from heaven, have eternal life.

‘This is eternal life’, says Jesus, in John’s Gospel after the Last Supper, ‘that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Third, what does Jesus mean when he says, The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’?
Jesus equates bread from heaven with his own body, his own very flesh. He does so again at the Last Supper, when he says Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you, words we still hear every time the priest consecrates the Eucharistic bread.

What a shocking thing to say, with that suggestion of cannibalism! It certainly upset the hecklers in the crowd. And it upset many of Jesus’s disciples too, who, we are told, turned back and no longer went about with him.

And it still causes problems for some of Jesus’s disciples today. On the one hand we have those who accept the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby in some miraculous way the essence of the Eucharistic bread is actually transformed into the essence of Jesus’s flesh. On the other, we have those who are disturbed, put off, by the idea that the Eucharist involves eating human flesh.

I think that some people interpret these words of Jesus too literally, as the hecklers in the crowd did. For here surely Jesus is extending the metaphor of bread from heaven, and to understand it we need to look behind the literal words. Christians have wrestled to understand Jesus’s metaphor of his flesh as bread. They have come up with many different ideas – and perhaps this is part of the strength of the metaphor, that it can be understood in so many ways.

For myself, I suspect the point is simply this - that Jesus is expressing in the strongest, most shocking  way the depth of his commitment to God’s saving work for us. He is ready to give up his life, his human existence, his very flesh, for our salvation.  That is precisely what he did for us on the cross.

These words of Jesus are difficult, and you’ve sat patiently through my reflections on them
But why don’t you take a little time to ponder Jesus’s words for yourself? They may speak to you in quite a different way to how they speak to me. And that is alright. Metaphors often bear many different meanings at the same time. God will surely grant you the ones that are right for you.

Listen again to what Jesus says:
‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Gracious Father,
your blessed Son came down from heaven
to be the true bread that gives life to the world.
Grant that Christ, the Bread of Life,
may live in us and we in him,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen

Sunday 22 July 2018

The Household of God

In today’s 2nd reading (Ephesians: 2:11-22), Paul addresses the Ephesian Christians as ‘you Gentiles by birth, called the “uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”’.
Called that is, by Jews – like Paul himself – who were brought up to despise and dislike Gentiles, whom they saw as immoral and unclean.

What sort of people were the Ephesians Paul was writing to? In his time Ephesus was the Greek-speaking capital of the Roman province of Asia, with a population second in the Empire only to Rome itself, perhaps as many as half-a-million. It was as vibrant and cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-faith as any modern European city. And it was rich, as I saw from the amazing archaeological remains when I visited 30 years ago – including an amphitheatre big enough for 20,000 spectators, and a massive public library!

Paul stayed in Ephesus for 2 years on his 2nd missionary journey, according to Acts. His first dozen or so converts had been baptised by John the Baptist – they were surely Jews like himself. Paul re-baptised them in the name of Jesus and they received the Holy Spirit. At first Paul preached the gospel in the Synagogue, but he encountered opposition there, so he withdrew elsewhere with his growing flock of Christians, both Jews and Gentile Greeks. By the time he left 2 years later, he had converted enough followers of the Greek goddess Artemis to threaten the business of local silversmiths who specialised in making shrines to her, provoking them to a nasty riot.

Clearly, by the time Paul wrote his letter the Ephesian Christians were overwhelmingly Greek speaking gentiles.

Paul believes in the continuity of the new faith in Christ that he preached with the old faith of the Jews.
He reminds the Ephesians that before they became Christians they were cut off from the true God that the Jews knew. They were ‘aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’.

But he is intensely conscious also of the staggering change that Christ brings. Christ has ‘create(d) in himself one new humanity in place of (Jews and Gentiles), thus making peace, reconcil(ing) both groups to God in one body through the cross’. All Christians, whatever their background or tradition, are made one people in Christ, ‘for through him (all of us) have access in one Spirit to the Father’.

Paul’s insight is just as important for us here today as it was for the Ephesians then. Our town, our country, is increasingly cosmopolitan like Ephesus. Our neighbours come from many countries, speak many languages and hold many faiths. The old divisions of Catholic and Protestant are increasingly irrelevant. All our churches must work together, we must break down the barriers between us, we must move from being exclusive to being inclusive, if we are ever to make a reality of Paul’s vision of one new humanity in Christ.

Only then will we be able to hear Paul’s words clearly, ‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God’.

The Church, ‘the household of God’, is like a building, says Paul.
This lovely, suggestive metaphor is an alternative to the more familiar metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, which Paul also uses later on in his letter (Ephesians 4:11-16).

It is ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone’, says Paul. ‘In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God’.

Without the right foundations a building is unstable – as unfortunate people living in new housing estates discovered, when foundations made from unsuitable pyrites rock swelled and cracked. The right foundation for the church is the teaching of the apostles – those Jesus sent out, of which Paul understood himself to be one – and the prophets – no doubt Christian as well as Hebrew prophets. As the Church we must be grounded solidly in scripture before we can build anything worthwhile using tradition or reason.

In Paul’s day builders made sure the walls of a building were true by carefully aligning them with a cornerstone – Jesus serves that function for the church. Jesus joins all of us together into a structure worthy of God, in which we can find God present.

Can we recognise today’s Church in Paul’s description?
Or do we see instead a building site with a higgledy-piggledy jumble of jerry-built shacks and lean-to extensions, a place where the architect’s plans have been ignored? Maybe we need to take lessons in construction!

Even if we can’t feel proud of the Church we see about us today, we should not be fearful for its future. We should listen, to what the prophet Nathan says to King David in today’s 1st reading (2 Samuel 7:1-14). Nathan advises David that the time is not yet right to build the Lord God a great Temple to live in. God is content to live in the portable tabernacle inside a tent which the children of Israel have carried with them since the Exodus. But, says Nathan, your offspring shall build such a Temple. David’s son Solomon was to build the first Temple in Jerusalem, we are told, but that of course was destined to be destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again.

Perhaps it does not matter so much that the Church does not yet live up to Paul’s vision of the holy temple, because it is what it always has been - a work in progress, one that is being built generation by generation - by us, by our children, by our children’s children, and by generations yet to come.

What does matter, though, is that we are all members of God’s household, whoever we are, wherever we come from, and however we worship. We are the Church, in all our glorious variety, founded on the apostles and the prophets, with Jesus Christ as our corner stone.