Sunday 25 August 2019

Call & Response

Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 25th August 2019, the 10th after Trinity, year C

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

‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy’.
So says Jeremiah, when he hears the Lord God JHWH calling him to be a prophet.

I feel empathy with Jeremiah. I suspect he was one of those shy introverts who find it difficult to speak in public, to be the centre of attention among a crowd of people he doesn’t know, even perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum.

I wouldn’t want to compare myself to a great prophet, but I too am an introvert. When I was younger, up to my twenties - perhaps the same age as Jeremiah - I also found public speaking difficult. The mere thought would bring me close to a panic attack – tightness of breath and a racing heart. At first I avoided such occasions, but as time passed I became more confident. I found I was able to teach small groups, and then to speak at large conferences. Much later, when a call went out for readers in the diocese, I realised that I was well able to lead worship, and this was a ministry I could offer to my church. You could say that I felt the Holy Spirit was calling me to it. Now, commissioned as a diocesan reader for many years, I am comfortable leading worship and preaching. But I still get anxious when I think I may have left my sermon notes behind!

This Sunday’s readings are all about God calling people, and how people respond to that call. Let’s look at them in turn.

In today’s 1st reading (Jeremiah 1:4-10), Jeremiah hears God’s voice calling to him.
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ God has known him since before his conception and calls him to bring God’s message not just to his own people, but to the whole world.

But Jeremiah protests that he is young and inexperienced, and God rebukes him. God promises to be with him and to strengthen him. ‘You shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you’.

Then God commissions Jeremiah through the symbolic action of touching his mouth, sending him out to the nations and the kingdoms of the world, ‘to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’. In other words, to do away with corruption and ungodliness, and to promote ethical conduct and godliness.

And that is precisely what Jeremiah does. He overcomes his fears thanks to God’s reassurance, and responds to God’s call. He becomes the prophet God wants him to be, starkly warning the people of Judah what will happen if they do not follow God’s ways. From his name we get our English word ‘jeremiad’, meaning a sustained invective against the state of society and morals.

Today’s 2nd reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 12:18-29 reminds us that as Christians we are called to be part of God’s Kingdom through Jesus.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, it’s anonymous author contrasts how the children of Israel received the Ten Commandments and their Covenant with God through Moses at Mount Sinai, with how Christians receive the new covenant with God through Jesus Christ at ‘Mount Zion, … the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’.

The response of the children of Israel to the Ten Commandments and the Covenant was one of terror. They saw God as distant and they were terrified that if they transgressed the commandments in the smallest degree a wrathful God would punish them. So, they felt the place where Moses received the coomandments, Mount Sinai, must not be approached, it was taboo: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death’.

But our response as Christians to the new covenant, mediated by Jesus, must be different. God has come close to us through Jesus. We must not refuse to listen when he speaks to us. Jesus brings us to a new home, Mount Zion, the city of the living God. There we are welcomed among ‘the spirits of the righteous made perfect’. Our response must be to give thanks: ‘Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe’.

In today’s 3rd reading Luke 13:10-17 tells us the story of how Jesus called a crippled woman over and healed her, and how different people responded to it.
He tells us that when Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath, he spotted a woman who ‘was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment”. When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.’

It would be futile to try to explain how Jesus cured the woman in this miraculous way, but the effect is clear. Not only her body is healed, but her standing in the community. She must have been on the margins of the comunity, since people then thought that illness such as hers was caused by an evil spirit. But without being asked, in his compassion, Jesus not only heals her, but affirms her as a full member of the community - ‘a daughter of Abraham’. She responds by speaking out and praising God for what Jesus has done for her – something that women were not supposed to do in the synagogue.

The response of the leader of the synagogue was quite different. He was indignant. He knew the Jewish Law prohibited any work on the sabbath, and he kept telling the congregation, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day’. Jesus responds sharply. ‘You hypocrites!’, he says. You untie animals to water them on the sabbath, so why shouldn’t this woman be untied from her bondage on the sabbath? His opponents are shamed, and the congregation rejoices.

What is the point of these three stories? I suggest it is this.
God calls human beings in different ways to be the people he wants each of us to be. Each one of us is different, and he calls each of us to different things.
·         Jeremiah hears the Lord God call him to be a prophet. This is the Jewish God that Jesus refers to as Father. With God’s encouragement Jeremiah overcomes his fears and becomes the prophet he is called to be.
·         As Christians we hear the Holy Spirit speak through the letter to the Hebrews. It calls us to listen to Jesus, who is God’s Word. And it calls us to respond by giving thanks that we are included in God’s Kingdom, the city of the living God.
·         The crippled woman in the synagogue on the sabbath hears Jesus Christ the Son of God calling her to be healed and to be affirmed as a full member of the congregation. And she responds by simply praising God.

Can you hear God calling to you? I believe that God is calling all of us, all the time. We may not always hear it, but when we do we must listen to his voice prayerfully, no matter how still and small it is. And if we are sure the voice really does come from God, then we must respond positively. We owe it to God, and we owe it to our deepest selves.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:
O God, the judge of all,
through the saving blood of your Son
you have brought us to the heavenly Jerusalem
and given us a kingdom which cannot be shaken:
fill us with reverence and awe in your presence,
that in thanksgiving we and all your Church
may offer you acceptable worship;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives to intercede for us,
now and for ever. Amen

Sunday 11 August 2019

Holy simplicity

Address given in St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan churches on Sunday 11 August 2019, the 8th after Trinity Year C

Are you a hoarder? I know I am – as Marty will confirm if you ask her!
I am surrounded by ‘stuff’ – the attic is full of it, so is the garage. Some has sentimental value, such as things I’ve inherited which I remember from childhood. Some I don’t need right now, but a nagging voice tells me they might just be useful sometime. And then there is some old stuff which I tell myself I might be able to sell, if I ever find myself down on my uppers – little enough, for in truth most of it is just junk.

And it doesn’t stop there either. There is something inside me which covets more stuff than I have already, and the security that money and wealth brings. There is that urge to accuumulate in most if not all of us, I think.

It is this covetous human nature that advertisers constantly play on. Their siren voices tempt us to buy that new car, the latest smartphone, cosmetics to make us young again, exotic foreign holidays. If we cannot have it all we feel cheated.

The capitalist market economy we live in has created great wealth for many.
Most of us in rich societies like Ireland have enjoyed a high and growing standard of living for many years. We have all come to expect that we will have more than our parents did. But this kind of economy depends on growing production driven by growing consumption, bringing ever-growing waste and pollution, which the finite resources of our beautiful planet cannot sustain.

As you may have seen in the news, July 29th this year was declared to be ‘Earth Overshoot Day’, the day after New Year’s Day when humans have consumed more resources than Earth can regenerate in a full year. Put another way, this year humanity is using the sustainable resources of 1.7 Earths – only 50 years ago we were more or less in balance, using about 1 Earth.

As a species we are faced with a perfect storm. Growth continues, even as greenhouse gases change our climate, causing heatwaves, droughts, floods, and rising sea levels which threaten coastal cities. Other pollutants such as microplastics and industrialised, unsustainable agriculture reduce the biodiversity on which all life on earth depends. When growth inevitably falters - as it must - those with the least will suffer the most - but it will affect us all.

So we fear for the future. We worry that our jobs and pensions are precarious, we suspect that the lives of our children and grandchildren will be harder than our own, we are anxious about the damage being done to the natural world about us, and we dread the prospect of runaway climate change.

Today’s Gospel reading (Luke 12: 32-40) has a lot to say to us in present circumstances.
Jesus understands that people are often selfish and greedy because they are anxious and afraid for the future. So he tells the disciples – and through them, us – that we should put aside such anxiety. God knows what we need, and God will give us all we need when we work for his kingdom – in other words, when we try to be the people God wants us to be, loving God and his wonderful creation, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock’, he says, ‘for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’.

God has given us all that we have so that we may be generous with it, not hoard it. What we give away, to those who need it more than we do, is ‘an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys’. But it is not just about giving away what we have. It is also about using what we have to stand up for the weak and the marginalised against the forces that oppress them, as Isaiah saw in his vision in today’s 1st reading (Isaiah 1:1,10-20). God calls us to ‘seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’. If we want to be good Christians we must focus on these kinds of spiritual wealth, rather than accumulating material wealth, ‘for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’.

And we must be alert at all times for opportunities to respond generously, as and when God prompts us to do so. As Jesus puts it, ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit’. We should not put off calls on our generosity, waiting perhaps for a better time or a more pressing need to come along. We are mortal – we do not know when God will knock on the door to call us out of this life. ‘You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’, says Jesus. And it would be shameful, when he does come knocking - as we know he will - to admit that we wasted the opportunities he gave us to act like the good people he created us to be.

Jesus calls his disciples to live lives of holy simplicity and generosity.
In the passage from Luke immediately preceding the one we heard (Luke 12:22-31), Jesus talks of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.
‘Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither store-house nor barn, and yet God feeds them … Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Soloman in his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field … how much more will he clothe you.’

As Christians we need to live like the birds and the lilies. That doesn’t mean that we should not work and plan for the future. Unlike the birds and lilies we must sow and reap, build store-houses and barns, toil and spin, and we must do so as a community, because that is what it means to be human. That is how we have evolved to make our living, how God has made us to be - just as the birds and the lilies have evolved to make their different livings. But we must also recover a sense of what it is to have enough. We must resist the temptation always to seek more than we need, more than God has already given us. And we must cultivate a generous spirit.

As I see it, our globalised world is like an over-wound clockwork toy, in which the spring that drives it is ready to snap. Our example of holy simplicity can show others how together we can release the tension, how we can return to a way of living which will enable everyone to continue to flourish in the wonderful world God has given us, alongside the birds and the lilies.

Holy simplicity is liberating, and our world needs liberating now as much as it has ever done. Let us live simply, so that others can simply live!