Wednesday 22 February 2023

Have a happy, holiday Lent!

A reflection given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Ash Wednesday, 22nd February 2023

I’m not going to preach a sermon, but I do want to say a few words about the meaning of 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 of us 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. Lent is a holiday, a holiday from the everyday, and an opportunity!

·        Lent is an opportunity for me to liberate myself for a while 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.

·        Lent is an opportunity to spend more time with God, to feed my spiritual side, my soul. God is the great lover of souls, but often I feel too busy to respond to his love. There are so many ways to spend time with God that it is difficult to choose, from prayer, or reading scripture, or some other worthwhile book I wouldn’t otherwise find time to pick up, to joining with others in a Lenten course.

·        Lent is an opportunity 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.

·        Lent is an opportunity to be as generous as 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.

But whatever we choose to do or not to do, we must not be gloomy about it! As Jesus tells us, ‘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!



Tuesday 14 February 2023

Remembering St Valentine and celebrating romantic love

Marty and I chose that passage, chapter 2 of the Song of Songs in the OT, to read together at a service to bless our marriage here in Killodiernan church back in 1995. And it is a delight to read it together again, nearly 30 years on!

It seems particularly apt for St Valentine’s Day tomorrow, when this service will be streamed. The Song of Songs is a great celebration of romantic love, love between two people who desire each other and long to be together, lovers who are in love. 

Historically, the Church has often found physical desire and its sexual expression to be a bit difficult, a bit embarrassing perhaps. In both the Hebrew and the Christian tradition, many have preferred to interpret the Song of Songs as about the love between God and his people Israel, or the love between Christ and his Church. But I suggest this is being a bit po faced. The Song of Songs has been included in the Biblical canon, I suggest, to signify God’s blessing upon all of us who have experienced the delight of being in love with another in a committed relationship.

Some years ago, Marty and I found ourselves in Dublin on St Valentine’s Day, and we decided to attend a Mass in Whitefriar Street Church, which since 1836 has held a reputed relic of the saint, given by Pope Gregory XVI to an Irish Carmelite preacher called John Spratt. The atmosphere in the church was quite emotional, packed as it was with loving couples young and old, and single people longing for love.

St Valentine was a 3rd Century Roman priest or bishop martyred on February 14th AD269 on the orders the emperor Claudius II. He is an early hero of the Roman church who refused to renounce his faith and acknowledge the emperor as divine. But how did he come to be associated with romantic love? The reason is quite obscure, but there are legends that Valentine defied the orders of Claudius II by secretly marrying couples, allowing the husbands to escape conscription into the pagan army, and that to remind them of their vows he gave them hearts cut from parchment. 

Whatever the truth of this, by the time of Chaucer in the 14th Century his feast day was already recognised as a day for romance and devotion. And this continues to our own day – intensified if anything by those who wish to market cards and flowers and intimate meals to couples in love

As we remember St Valentine on his feast day, let us also use the day to celebrate romantic love as a gift from God, and pray for loving couples everywhere.

Gracious God, we pray at this time for loving couples. We thank you for uniting their lives and for giving them to each other in the fulfilment of love. Watch over them at all times, guide and protect them, and give them faith and patience, that as they hold each other’s hand in yours, they may draw strength from you and from each other; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday 12 February 2023

Care for Creation

The Pillars of Creation are set off in a kaleidoscope of color in NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s near-infrared-light view. The pillars look like arches and spires rising out of a desert landscape, but are filled with semi-transparent gas and dust, and ever changing. This is a region where young stars are forming – or have barely burst from their dusty cocoons as they continue to form.

An address given in St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Creation Sunday 12th February 2023, the 2nd before Lent.

I doubt if anyone here today believes that God created the universe in 6 days.

Through the patient work of scientists, studying the natural world and building on their predecessors’ discoveries, we now know so much more about creation than the authors of Genesis could. The universe began in an explosion of energy some 13 billion years ago. Our planet Earth was formed from the dust of exploding stars some 4 billion years ago, and the first life appeared soon after. There are at least 10 million distinct life forms on earth today. All are related, descending from a common ancestor. And life on earth has been just as diverse for 100s of millions of years.

Today’s 1st Reading from the first chapter of Genesis (1:1-2:3) is obsolete as a description of creation – it is a myth. To be taken seriously today Christians must engage with the language of science to talk about creation. Evolution is the way that God has created the diversity of life we see today. God has been at work creating it over geological aeons, he is doing so now, and he will continue to do so into the distant future.

But like all good myths the creation story in Genesis chapter 1 encapsulates deep truths which we should not carelessly discard. 

One of these truths is that God loves biodiversity - why should he make it if he doesn’t love it? We are told that ‘God saw everything that he had made and … it was very good’. If we love God then we must seek to protect the diversity of his creation – anything we do to damage it is an offence against him.

Another of these truths is that human beings are special, made in the image of God: ‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them’, says Genesis.

We alone of all the creatures on earth are blessed with intelligence – we can imagine a future, plan how to bring it about, and act to make it happen. And we alone of all the creatures on earth possess a moral sense – we can tell right from wrong, distinguish truth from lies, prefer beauty to ugliness – as God does. We call this capacity conscience. If we follow our conscience we are able to do good, to be as good as God has created us to be, and in a sense we become co-creators with him. This is what it is to be truly human. Of course we know that all too often we fail at this – we sin – but we believe God will forgive us if we truly repent and mend our ways.

Yet the 1st chapter of Genesis also contains something more problematical.

Humankind is told, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’.

Well, the human race has certainly been fruitful and multiplied - there are now more than 8 billion people on planet Earth, and still increasing, though the annual rate is slowing. As a species we have subdued the Earth - human beings are consuming more resources than Earth can provide. By some estimates we are using today the resources of 1.8 Earths. The result is the ecological crises we are facing now - climate change, the degradation of natural ecosystems, and species extinction.

Too often people understand the command to ‘have dominion’ over Earth’s resources as a licence to exploit them greedily, to take as much as they can, without thought for the future. But this is wrong. It is wrong and it is sinful.

Wise farmers know they hold their land on a repairing lease for their successors. They know not to take more from the land than its fertility allows, and not to overstock their farm. Wise rulers protect their dominions in order that they may continue to flourish.

The second creation myth in the 2nd chapter of Genesis forbids over-exploitation of the Earth. God takes Adam, the archetypal human being, and places him in the Garden of Eden ‘to till it and keep it’, in other words, to care for it.

We human beings have a special responsibility to care for God’s creation.

The ecological crises we face have brought the importance of this into sharp focus. In response our different Christian traditions recognise that care for creation is a Christian imperative.

Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew challenges us, calling out human destruction of the natural world as a sin. Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato ‘Si, on Care for Our Common Home”, quotes Patriarch Bartholomew approvingly, and he appeals for ‘a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet … a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all’. And our Church of Ireland, along with the rest of the Anglican Communion, commits itself ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth’, as a mark of its mission.

The challenge has been laid down, and now it is up to Christians of all traditions to work together, with people of goodwill from other faiths and none, to care for and cherish the Earth, the Garden of Eden that God has given us.

This is the context in which Jesus’s words from the 3rd reading (Matt 6:24-33) speak to me.

Jesus says, ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

Our society’s single-minded pursuit of wealth in a consumer market economy is surely at the heart of the ecological crisis we face, which threatens our very civilisation. We have a choice to make: either we serve wealth – continue business as usual - and face destruction; or we serve God by changing our lifestyles to live simply without waste, protecting the environment, and generously supporting those in need.

Jesus understands very well that fear for the future is the greatest barrier to making lifestyle changes. He tells his followers not to worry, because God looks after his creatures. ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? … Consider the lilies of the field, 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?’

Our heavenly Father knows what we need and is faithful. If we ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’, he will give us all that we need – just perhaps a little less than our greedy desires, but all we need. Part of our striving must be to care for and cherish the good Earth God has given us, and at the same time to care for and cherish our fellow human beings.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word.

God of the living,
with all your creatures great and small
we sing your bounty and your goodness,
for in the harvest of land and ocean,
in the cycles of the seasons,
and the wonders of each creature,
you reveal your generosity.
Teach us the gratitude that dispels envy,
that we may honour each gift,
cherish your creation,
and praise you in all times and places. Amen