Saturday 14 November 2015

After Paris? - Sermon for Sunday 15th November 2015

Sermon for Sunday 15th November 2015 - After Paris?

' When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. ' - Mark 13, 7-8
          It would be very easy to take today's Gospel reading which is known as the Little Apocalypse and apply it to the horrible and tragic events of Friday night in Paris
I have already heard it said in some circles that this event and others like it are signs of the end times. Some others say the passage refers infact to the now historic destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and others that it refers to Jesus 2nd Coming in glory but at the end of the day we don't know and to indulge in such speculation unduly is a distraction from the very real and pressing responsibilities we have as Christians in the wake of  such senseless and brutal events.
For almost 2000 years scholars and people of faith have debated this passage and frequently predicted its immanent fulfilment but we are still here! So what is our response to the massacre on the streets of Paris? And respond we must because even if as the passage suggests there is a certain inevitability in war and violence we are not mere spectators but followers of a God who has acted and continues to act in human history and very often that action is exercised through us, his people, the Body of Christ. We have work to do!
          Let me backtrack a little - I had another sermon in mind for today (the World Day of remembrance for Road traffic victims) and it was precipitated by the chaos of last Wednesday morning when Dublin was paralysed by a traffic jam on the M50 which was caused by the collision of a car and 2 trucks.  At the centre of this disruption was a woman badly injured in the crash and who has subsequently tragically died.
          But like many my first reaction was not to dwell on the plight of this woman but rather to feel frustration and anxiety about how this incident was going to effect my plans for the day. I got caught up in the gridlock as I brought our son Aaron to his college in Maynooth and found myself getting unduly stressed about being late back to Celbridge to celebrate the midweek Holy Communion. I was late but the sky didn't fall in and nobody minded. During the service it struck me how wrapped up I was in my own needs and agendas and that the really important thing at the centre of this was the life of fellow human being then hanging in the balance and so when we came to the intercessions I added a prayer for her and I hope regained a sense of perspective.  As any driver will I am sure agree it really is a case of 'it could just as easily have been me' when we consider all the 'near misses' we have on the roads in a lifetime of driving. It has certainly reinforced my belief in Angels (especially of the Guardian variety).
          But back to the traffic and that morning when things did not go according to plan. It strikes me that it as good an illustration as any of the interconnected and interdependent nature of all our lives. It only took an accident involving only three commuters among tens of thousands to bring our city to a standstill! Strangely enough this shared experience of inconvenience on Wednesday morning actually brought us all closer together in a world where there is so much choice in terms of networks and relationships that we can very easily live lives that rarely intersect with those around us. It was what is sometimes called a 'watercooler moment'... something that everyone talks about - even to total strangers!
As Christians though we do believe in the centrality of relationship in our lives and one of our foundational metaphors is the Church as the Body of Christ, emphasising that same mutuality and interdependence where each member needs the other to function properly and that if one member is hurt then we all feel the pain. Life should therefore be one long 'watercooler moment'.
          But increasingly that does not reflect how we behave as Church! When the behaviour of another brother or sister in Christ disrupts our lives and our agendas our first instinct is to cut ourselves off from them without even asking the question whether they too are hurting and if they are outside the Church it is even worse! We are so wrapped up in our own rightness and righteousness that we automatically assume that we are better off without those with whom we disagree, no matter what their situation. 
This mirrors the way we relate to each other in wider society. In a world dominated by social media we are increasingly inclined to build relationships only with those who are of a like mind and often at the expense of meaningful engagement with those around us, especially if they don't agree with us. It seems that it is a basic human instinct to narrow the circle of those who we are prepared to relate to and by implication those who matter to us, all at the expense of our common humanity.
          Like the events of last Wednesday morning the horror of Friday night created another of those 'watercooler moments' - it is the only thing we are talking about and yet again in a cruel irony it is a sad and in this case horrific event that unites us as human beings.  We are all horrified by the slaughter of ordinary citizens out on a Friday night enjoying themselves until their lives were ended in such a callous and random fashion! And it is right that we should be horrified but let us pause for a moment and ask this question: Are we equally horrified by what happened in the 'Paris of the East', Beirut on Thursday night when 50 people were killed in an ISIS suicide bombing? Are we even aware of it? I hold my hands up and say 'NO!' - For whatever reason it doesn't have the same impact! Why is that? Well like most of you I suspect I have been to Paris, I learnt French at school - I even have a cousin living very close to the events of Friday night and I am a European. But is that really an excuse? At the end of the day all those who died were human beings created in the image and likeness of God and all their deaths were blasphemy.
          We have a huge responsibility as people of religious faith to ensure that we are not unwittingly contributing to the alienation and marginalisation of those who are driven to such appalling acts of violence. There are many people today who are blaming religion for what happened on Friday night and there is a very real danger that we will prove them right if we allow ourselves to be sucked into a them and us mentality. This is not a religious war between Christians and Muslims or Muslims and Jews but rather a distortion of religion which suggests that for any religious identity to thrive it must destroy all alternatives. Most of those who died in Beirut were Muslims and indeed some of those who died in Paris were Muslim.
This is not the age of the Crusades with the Christian armies marching against Islam and if we buy into that narrative we will only be perpetuating the culture of death and mutual destruction. In a nuclear age this is something we need to consider very carefully - we are living in very dangerous times and the Christian Church worldwide can be an agent for peace or catastrophic conflict!
          But it is not easy - Violence comes naturally to us - I was delighted at the news that the British Islamic terrorist Jihadi John was likely blown to bits by a drone strike earlier this week - his actions in the decapitation of numerous hostages over recent months were unspeakably evil and yet one must ask what was it that made him hate so much? And also how many more terrorists were created by the deaths of those who died alongside him this week? Violence is not the answer and I am disappointed in myself for celebrating yet another act of violence however justified it may be argued to be.
          As Martin Luther King Jr put it so well: ' The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. ...
.... Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.'
          As Christians we should never be comfortable with hatred - If we are to be a force for good in the  world we must overcome our base instinct for vengeance and retribution - Someone has to stop the madness and as those who follow the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ we cannot shirk our responsibility.  We need to widen our circle of care and compassion - We need to stand up and say that those who die on the streets of Beirut and Baghdad matter every bit as much as those who die in Paris or New York whatever their faith or ethnicity.
          Our silence in the face of the suffering of our fellow human beings on whatever corner of this planet only contributes to the culture of suspicion and hatred which has brought us to where we are today. It is extraordinarily ironic that the so called global village created by communications technology has actually further alienated us from our fellow human beings who we wilfully choose not to relate to.
Why? Because we have been conditioned to believe that choice is everything, that it is our right but the reality is that with choice comes responsibility! Our choices have consequences and if we choose to make non-persons of those who are different from us then we should not be surprised when these same people treat us with less than the humanity we believe we deserve. I am not for one moment condoning the horrific acts of Friday night but I am saying that we can and must and can do something to reverse this spiral of death and destruction. We must affirm our common humanity and recognise in all our fellow human beings the creative impulse of a God who loved us all into being and wishes only the best for all that he has created.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Marriage Equality 2015 - Waking up to the Importance of the issue

I have tried very hard not to get sucked into the current Marriage Referendum debate - I have often spoken out from an inclusive standpoint on human sexuality issues both within the Church and in the public square - I voted with my feet in attending the Consecration of my friend Gene Robinson's (1st openly gay bishop) consecration as Bishop of New Hampshire USA in 2003 which was one of the highlights of my life to date - I am conscious that for many this event is seen in a very different light but for me it was Spirit filled and inspirational despite having to pass through a demonstration by the hate filled Westboro Baptist Church and Airport level security (due to death threats against Bishop Gene) to attend the Consecration service. The consequences for me in supporting my LGBT brothers and sisters have not always been entirely positive - I have experienced vile personal abuse both verbally and through hate mail and have been driven to some intemperate and less than constructive comments and responses to 'the other side'. That is probably why I haven't really engaged publically in the current referendum but tonight a threshold was crossed. I was watching the RTE Prime Time debate and realised that this is not a discussion I am free to opt out of - This is a social justice issue and I cannot as a Christian priest opt out of justice issues - As I listened to the No protagonists trot out one dishonest, irrelevant and cynical argument after another I knew I could no longer sit on the fence or I would be complicit in this dishonesty. The God I believe in isn't black or white, gay or straight, liberal or conservative but a God who is able to embrace a greater diversity than any one human being can contemplate - who am I to define the limits of Love when I am loved unconditionally and who am I to stand by when others seek to define the limits of that Love?

Thursday 19 March 2015

Friday 1 August 2014

Nirbhaya - A response

48 hours have now passed since I watched Nirbhaya at the Pavillion theatre in Dun Laoghaire and still I struggle to process and articulate the immensity of what I witnessed.  Sexual abuse and sexual violence is an all too familiar subject in Ireland today and yet the real and personal stories told by the actors in this play inspired and provoked by the rape and murder of  Jyoti Singh Pandey manage to break new ground.

I have been pondering what is different about their stories and it has only just dawned on me that in Ireland we have tended to focus on the perpetrators of sexual violence and their evil deeds and less on those who they have hurt, damaged and often destroyed. They have been simply described as victims or perhaps survivors but still our fascination has been with the abusers and not the abused.

This play redresses the balance and we get an insight into their experience as subjects not objects. Whether it is sexual and emotional violation, physical scarring or the enforced separation from a precious child we see and hear first hand their pain and their hurt and it is hugely disturbing and uncomfortable. And yet in holding their hands up and telling their story they have reclaimed their role as authors of their own stories and destiny. Their loss is profound and the impact on their lives hard to contemplate but it is their life and their loss and they are using it to ultimately bring about change and transformation. They are reclaiming control of their lives and refusing to succumb to being mere objects of the depraved cruelty of their abusers.

On a personal note I have to acknowledge that the fact that one of the actors, Poorna Jagannathan is a childhood friend and neighbour has made the whole experience particularly poignant - Our lives overlapped during what was a very happy if not charmed childhood in Dublin. The thought that after leaving those happy and innocent times in Dublin  and while still a child she was to experience repeated and regular sexual abuse at the hands of both a family friend and random strangers makes me very sad but I do not pity her.

Rather I admire her and stand in awe of what she and her sisters have accomplished in bringing this extraordinary play to the stage. It is not easy to watch but it is essential to witness and if there are still tickets available in Dublin or wherever it plays next go and see it! But, a warning, be prepared to be forever changed and challenged by it!

Friday 11 July 2014

Nirbhaya - A Play you will never forget!

Friends - A favour to ask - Old friend and neighbour of mine from Ballsbridge days, Poorna Jagannathan is bringing this play to Dublin - This will never get the attention that the #GarthBrooks event/non-event has but it is infinitely more important and worthy of attention - Read the articles linked below, but for a flavour this is what it is all about:

Remember the story of: 'Jyoti Singh Pandey, who was returning from the cinema with a male friend, was viciously gang-raped by six men, including the driver of the bus, before they were mugged, stripped and thrown from the moving vehicle, which they then allegedly tried to back over Pandey, who died from her injuries 13 days later. The stop from which she and her friend had boarded the bus was directly opposite Poorna's old house.

"I felt that I could have been her, on that bus, in so many ways and my mind was unable to process the information printed later in the press."

She contacted the South African playwright Yael Farber, whose testimonial play about Apartheid, 'Amajuba', she had greatly admired. "I am a victim of sexual violence," Poorna told her via Facebook, "who has been silent all these years. By keeping quiet, I consider myself a part of what happened on that bus. Come here. Women in India are ready to break their silence and speak. There is no turning back."  (Source - Irish Independent Weekend Magazine 5th July2014 - Interview with Caomhan Keane)

The play is on in Pavilion DL (Pavillion Theatre DunLaoghaire) from 21st July - 2nd August and has won awards worldwide for its powerful depiction of this issue and the women who have been and continue to be abused not only in India but worldwide - Please share this via whatever media you can and come along if you can to see this most important work and brave witness:

Irish Independent - The Violence of Silence

Pavillion Theatre - Nirbhaya 

Praise for Nirbhaya
"One of the most powerful and urgent pieces of human rights theatre ever made"
★★★★★ The Herald
"Powerful and incredibly moving"
★★★★★The Independent
"One of the most powerful pieces of theatre you’ll ever see"
★★★★★ The Telegraph

Awards: Fringe First | Herald Angel | Amnesty International Freedom of Expression

Saturday 8 February 2014

Sermon for Sunday 9th February 2014 - Getting Over Ourselves - Living a Compassionate Life

'You are the salt of the earth.......You are the light of the world' (Matthew 5:13ff)
Immediately prior to these verses we have heard the Beatitudes, and in those teachings Jesus talks in almost abstract terms about how blessed are those who are poor, bereaved, meek, hungry etc. However in the final verse he turns it around and says 'Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you......'
This is no longer abstract and fluffy teaching - this is a teaching meant for his audience to act on and by extension it is meant for us to act on.

Today's Gospel is in direct continuity as it reminds the audience, you and me, that we are 'the salt of the earth' and 'the light of the world' and that with that comes a responsibility to be doers as well as hearers. We have been given gifts that are to be used not hidden and neglected. The teaching is clear enough but responding to it and putting it into practice is another matter.

The key to that implementation is to be found a couple of chapters further on in Matthew's Gospel: Chapter 7 v 12 in a teaching that has come to be known as the Golden Rule and is incidentally found in similar form in all the mainstream religious traditions in the world.
Matthew 7:12 ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.'

That principle is often summed up in the word 'Compassion' but we need to understand what compassion is - It is not pity for another person but rather it means 'suffering with' the other and arising out of that shared suffering a desire to alleviate it. Without compassion there is no connection or relationship with the other and no possibility of being the salt and light that we are called to be.
If we are looking for a model of pure compassion then we need look no further than the Cross, where God in Christ entered into our humanity and into the depths of our suffering.

Karen Armstrong a contemporary theologian and historian of world religions and the founder of the 'Charter for Compassion' (a worldwide interfaith movement which seeks to bring reconciliation and healing at every level of society through compassion) has identified some of the key components to living a compassionate life in the world today. (Karen Armstrong: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life). At least some of these are perhaps helpful to us as we seek to fulfil our Gospel calling to be salt and light in the world:

Our families, in all their diversity, are a place where we potentially learn how to be compassionate people. Part of being in a family is putting the needs of others before ourselves, subordinating our selfish needs to the good of the whole family. Families are founded on and dependant on compassion. They are a vital training ground for living a life of generosity and service in a world which increasingly demands selfishness and efficiency. It is in our families that we learn we do not live for ourselves alone.

We do however, without being selfish, need to know ourselves and to love ourselves if we are to love others. We need to be aware of the basic instincts that can sometimes overwhelm our compassionate intentions. Chief among these is fear of the other, and out of that fear we often act hatefully towards those we do not understand or appreciate. Ironically the things we despise in the other are very often the qualities we most dislike in ourselves. We need to learn to forgive ourselves and love ourselves even in our brokenness.  Fear is human - it is natural and it actually unites us with those we fear for they too are fearful people.  If we recognise that it may help us to open our hearts to those we fear and hate and that is the beginning of compassion. It surely has particular application in the current debate in our country on human sexuality and same sex marriage. Whatever our opinion on the issue we must not overlook the real people whose lives are impacted by our desire to be right, sometimes at the expense of being loving.
Compassion expands our horizons and sets us free from the chains of fear and hatred which ultimately will only consume us. If we are to 'suffer with' others then we also need to be aware of our own suffering - not to deny it or belittle it but to use it as a route to understanding the suffering of another human being. If we feel our pain then we can empathise with the pain of another. Better self knowledge then helps us 'get over ourselves' and focus on those around us. This echoes powerfully with our baptismal calling to die to our old selves and to be born again of the Holy Spirit.

Humility, not something that comes naturally to us is also a vital component in living a compassionate life. We need to make a place and a space for other people and their demands on us. To do that means letting go of our tendency to act as if only we know the right way to be and the right thing to do in the world. We need to acknowledge how little we know! This does not sit comfortably with the religious disposition but to quote Karen Armstrong directly:
'Religion is at its best when it helps to ask questions and holds us in a state of wonder - and arguably at its worst when it tries to answer them authoritatively and dogmatically'
She goes on to speak of Love which arises from Compassion and quotes Iris Murdoch (who in turn is quoting Simone Weil):
'Love, the sudden realisation that somebody else absolutely exists'
To live a life of compassion, to be salt and light we must take seriously the other in our lives. That other does not need to earn our attention by doing good to us but rather we need to recognise that by virtue of our shared humanity we have an interest in the welfare of others, even those that hate us. Again Jesus in his words from the Cross is a model of that compassion: 'Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing' (Luke 23:34)

Compassion is the only way to break the cycle of fear, hatred and violence that dictates the agenda of the world. It is to be salt and light and to use the gifts that we have been entrusted with to be a blessing to the whole of Creation. May we walking in the footsteps of Jesus hear again those words:
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.'

Saturday 7 December 2013

Nelson Mandela & John the Baptist - Sermon for Advent 2 - 2013 - 8th December

It would be impossible to preach this weekend and not make some reference to the death of Nelson Mandela. The world has quite literally stopped in its tracks since the sad but inevitable news of his death was announced and indeed we have now seen days of saturation coverage of his life and his legacy.

There are some, albeit it a minority, who look at him in a less favourable light and see him as a terrorist rather than a freedom fighter. It is very hard for us to judge that at this distance and indeed the time that has passed since his active involvement in the armed struggle before his imprisonment makes it even more difficult. However it is undeniable that since his release from prison he confounded all those who doubted his character by seeking not revenge but reconciliation. He sought to unite the people of South Africa of all colours and creeds under one flag and do away with the remnants of Apartheid. He was not about settling scores and indeed had to campaign hard within the ANC and elsewhere to stop others going down this road.

          A few of his own words after his release demonstrate this commitment to peace and love as the way forward for South Africa:

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

          There is no doubting that South Africa is a better place for having had Nelson Mandela make his mark on it but it is a work in progress. There is still a huge amount to do. It is still a very dangerous and crime ridden society. I had occasion to drive from Johannesburg airport to the border with Swaziland a few years ago on a trip to Swaziland and the poverty that was visible on the roadside was very disturbing. Mile after mile after mile of corrugated tin shacks almost on top of one another (each about 100 feet sq) stretched out of the eastern suburbs. My companions and I were warned under no circumstances to even consider stopping on that road as hijacking was not uncommon. The contrast with the modern city we had just left was dramatic to say the least.
Apartheid may have gone but there is still a significant division between the haves and the have-nots. There is still a large amount of tribal tension and violence and the scourge of AIDS has left its mark disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged. So Nelson Mandela did not live to see the total fulfilment of his dreams for a new, just and prosperous South Africa. That is in the hands of others who will have to take personal responsibility for making the dream a reality. They cannot rest on his legacy or things will fall back into chaos and conflict and a wonderful opportunity will have been wasted.

          There are remarkable parallels between the story of Nelson Mandela and John the Baptist. Where Mandela took the first steps toward the complete freedom of South Africa and all its peoples John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus to bring God's Kingdom closer to Earth. He (John the Baptist) saw many wonderful things in his life and ministry and had the extraordinary privilege of baptising Jesus but like Mandela he did not see the end of the journey, for that work is ongoing and you and I are also charged with working towards its realisation.

In this light perhaps the most significant passage in the Gospel today is where John the Baptist addresses the Pharisees and Sadducees:

‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even 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.

This is not just advice to the Pharisees and Sadducees but also to us - we cannot rest on our laurels or the legacy of others - We have personal responsibility for our faith and for our relationship with God. And the implication of that is that we are called to participate in the work of building God's Kingdom on Earth - bringing God's justice and peace and love to all peoples.

Part of that work is in South Africa where there is still a need for God's love and justice and peace among a people who have begun the journey but who like us have not reached its end. As long as there are those who hunger or thirst, who are sick and suffering, lonely and lost and have nowhere to lay their heads at night, whether that is on the streets of Dublin or Johannesburg there is work to be done and we are the only ones who can do that work. We are Gods eyes and ears, his hands and feet and it is through us that he can and will bring justice, love  and peace to all his people. So today we pray for South Africa as it mourns Mandela but we pray especially that all of us who are created in his image will respond to our personal calling to be workers for the increase of the Kingdom on Earth.


Saturday 2 November 2013

St. Zacchaeus? - Sermon for 4th Sun before Advent/All Saints

Today, the 4th Sunday before Advent is the closest Sunday to All Saints Day this year and All Saints Day is too important a feast to let pass without comment. The appointed Gospel for the day is not that appointed for All Saints Day but it does speak of one who can properly be called a Saint: Zacchaeus. (Luke 19:1-10)
You could be forgiven for wondering whether I am being a little generous to Zacchaeus – After all, up to his meeting with Jesus he has led, by his own admission, a corrupt life feeding his own greed at the expense of his fellow Jews and was an agent of the hated Roman Empire. Hardly a candidate for sainthood surely!
That would be the conventional wisdom and yet the Saints are a varied and diverse body and not all of them led totally virtuous lives.
To quote another unconventional and contemporary theologian:
“The saints are friends of God,” he said. But they “are not superheroes, nor were they born perfect. They are like us, each one of us.” “What makes them stand out, he said, is once they encountered Jesus, they always followed him.”

Those words were spoken on All Saints Day this year by Pope Francis who has shown himself as one not afraid to challenge the commonly held perceptions of what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
When we apply these words to Zacchaeus we find that they apply perfectly….certainly no superhero – he was a man of very short stature who had to climb a tree in order to see Jesus. He was not born perfect or certainly his early life was far from perfect unless one was to make a virtue of extortion and corruption. He was like us! We might not want to admit that but if we are honest with ourselves we have more in common with Zacchaeus than many of the traditional saints that we would prefer to be compared to.  We are all of us flawed and imperfect and hopefully like Zacchaeus we have come or will come to an understanding and acceptance of that. He was a friend of God – Well by the end of today’s Gospel I think we can certainly say that about Zacchaeus – Jesus has shared table fellowship with him (a hugely significant gesture in that time and place) and following Zacchaeus’ repentance/conversion Jesus declares that ‘he too is a son of Abraham’. That is more than affirmation - it is acceptance and through it Jesus is welcoming Zacchaeus into the fellowship of God.  So yes I think we can say that Zacchaeus was a Saint and indeed he was venerated as such from earliest times. Indeed it seems according to some early writings that he may in fact have become the first Bishop of Caesarea.
But there is more and it is the last line of the appointed Gospel reading that is particularly significant for furthering our  understanding of why we might consider Zacchaeus as a Saint:
For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost

Another contemporary theologian, also speaking on this recent All Saints Day said this:
‘The Church has throughout its history struggled with ‘failure and weakness’…‘The answer is found in Christ who loves a broken church and brings new healing to our weakness, and makes us holy.’
This holiness was ‘seen in radical identity with those whom Jesus loves. Those whom he loves are the ones the world puts to one side. . . It is the poor of the earth. . . It is the persecuted. It is the hated and those held in contempt.’

Those words were spoken by the Archbishop of Canterbury as he addressed the current 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in South Korea.
Archbishop Justin, very much on the same page as Pope Francis, is pointing to how our brokenness and our imperfections can be the path to our redemption. It is when we come before God, like Zacchaeus, looking for mercy, and aware of our need of mercy that God can work in us most effectively and we can become agents of his Grace and Love in the world. It is when we are lost that we can be found!

But all of this still begs the question: Why does God not prefer perfection? – After all surely the perfect is a closer reflection of God? Why does God again and again come alongside the broken and despised, the flawed and the failed?
Because he can work with brokenness – Perfection is by its definition incapable of growth or improvement or change – Why would anyone want to improve on perfection? One can simply admire it and sit in its presence but there is no relationship. The perfect has nothing to gain from us and so has no need to engage with us. The only exception to that is God who out of pure Love and Grace reaches out to us and seeks to raise us to the potential that is in each one of us to become Saints of God.

Zacchaeus, an unlikely saint perhaps nonetheless maps out for us a path from brokenness to healing, from failure to redemption. He is a much more effective mentor or model than an image of purity and perfection that only leaves us feeling inadequate and hopeless. Zacchaeus on the other hand gives us hope that there is always a way back – there is always a way to God and that God as Jesus did in the story of Zacchaeus will come to meet us half way. That is something that we recall in the beautiful Post Communion Prayer in the BCP:
When we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home’

Zacchaeus shows us the way home in admitting that he is lost and in need of mercy.  All of us are on a journey towards God; we come from God and in Jesus Christ we are invited to return to God. Life can be very difficult and challenging and all of us bear wounds from living in the world and sometimes like Zacchaeus from making the wrong decisions, but those same wounds are also opportunities for God’s healing to enter our lives.
As those wounds are healed they become scars which are not marks of failure but signs of God’s work in us and points on our journey home. One contemporary theologian, Nadia Bolz Weber has gone so far as to say ‘Preach from your scars not your wounds ’ – As human beings we can become so pre-occupied with our hurt and our pain that we cannot see the healing that God is working in us. If we look at the story of Zacchaeus and see only the bad he has done and the hurt he has inflicted then the story makes no sense but when we see God working in him through the encounter with Jesus we see how the wounds are transformed and become a way for God to enter and to transform his reality and that of those who he has hurt and wounded by his actions.
His scars which are many are now signposts to freedom, to a new life in Christ.

And so we give thanks for St. Zacchaeus, flawed and damaged as we are but like us bearing the image and likeness of God and able through God’s Grace to find forgiveness, hope and new life.

Saturday 14 September 2013

The Church needs to get lost! (Sermon for Sunday 15th September 2013)

’Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”   (Luke 15:4)

The following is a Church of Ireland press release issued by Dublin Diocese last week:
In November, the Church of Ireland will be undertaking a ‘census’ of the worshiping Church of Ireland population for the first time in many years.
On three Sundays in November (3 November, 17 November and 24 November) clergy and parish officials will be attempting to ascertain the age profile and gender profile of those attending services in Church of Ireland Churches throughout Ireland. Worshippers on those Sundays will receive a card on which they will be asked to indicate their gender and age. The card will be completely anonymous.
The objective of the census is to provide information on the worshiping Church of Ireland population and to enable parishes, dioceses and the Church at an island–wide level to make decisions for the future based on an up to date analysis of the Church of Ireland’s population.
It is anticipated that the 2013 census will be repeated every three years in order to enable the Church to examine trends in worship attendance and ministry throughout Ireland.

There is no doubt that the results of this survey will be interesting and informative and may well be useful for strategic planning into the future but in the light of today’s Gospel perhaps it should come with a health warning which might be worded as follows:
This survey will present an incomplete picture of the ministry of the Church and should be treated with caution

Why say that? Well let’s hear that verse from today’s Gospel again:
’Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

Jesus couldn’t have made this any clearer – Parables can sometimes be a little obscure but not this one! Our concern should not be primarily for the people who are at the centre of the community of faith, not for the gathered but for the lost and the marginalized. If we are in any doubt as to the meaning Jesus intended us to take from this parable then we only have to look at the one that immediately follows it, the Parable of the Lost Coin which hammers home the very same point – Its not about what we have but rather what we have lost! This was obviously a teaching Jesus wanted us to understand clearly and so he tells us twice.

The proposed church attendance survey may have some limited use but it is essentially an exercise in counting sheep and we all know what happens when you count sheep – yes you go to sleep! There is a very real danger that that will be the fate of the Church of Ireland as well if it just counts bums on pews as an accurate and complete picture of the ministry of the Church.

So what about the ‘Lost’? Before we launch out on any crusade to save souls left right and centre we need perhaps to remind ourselves that we may be among the ‘Lost’. One of the greatest weaknesses of Christian mission through the ages has been the assumption that we have the Truth and we are going to show everyone how to find it! The history of Christian Mission is often simultaneously a history of religious imperialism and cultural vandalism as diverse communities all over the planet had their lives destroyed by an arrogant army of zealots who imposed a very particular and often-inappropriate model of Church on a people who were living quite happy lives until the Church came and ‘saved’ them!  Sometimes being ‘Lost’ is not the worst possible fate! Indeed our modern guilt for that shameful history may be one of the reasons we are not so inclined to go out in search of the ‘Lost’.

It’s hard to see where that model came from because its not the example of a Jesus who came alongside people in any and all situations and listened to them and more importantly heard them. It’s not the example of a Jesus who very often turned the tables on the ‘righteous’ and recognized and acknowledged Truth coming from the lips of the despised. Its not the example of a Jesus crucified who says to the criminal beside him ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’.

Throughout Jesus’ whole earthly ministry we see him pointing not only to himself but to many who society perceived as ‘Lost’ and who were ironically those closest to the way of Truth. One contemporary theologian, Rob Bell has perhaps described a model for mission today that much more faithfully follows the example of Jesus.
In his bestselling ‘Velvet Elvis’ he describes contemporary missionaries as ‘Tour Guides’, not going out to tell everyone to come back to the centre but going out to the margins and identifying and promoting the places where God is already at work and doing great and wonderful things.
That is a task that all Christians are called to. If we sit at home counting sheep we will never see those things and we will miss the opportunity to participate in what Jesus seemed to think was most important.

So yes, we will fill out the survey and look forward with interest to the results but lets remember that its not all about ‘where sheep may safely graze’ but rather the lost sheep who will lead us into new adventures in following Jesus.


Saturday 31 August 2013

Sermon for Sunday 1st September - With a word or two from Seamus Heaney

Today’s readings present the core values of serving God by serving others and putting others before ourselves. They talk of focusing not on ourselves but on the needs of others, taking the lowest place at a wedding banquet so that we may be called up higher but certainly fall no further.  They talk of giving without expecting anything back – reaching out to those who seemingly have nothing to offer in this life….and even offering hospitality to strangers for we may be entertaining Angels!

They are in fact, both the epistle and the Gospel reminiscent of the themes that we find in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where all the values of this world are reversed and we hear such extraordinary things such as ‘Blessed are the Poor’…’Blessed are the meek’ …. ‘Blessed are the persecuted’
Ask anyone today who falls into those categories whether they feel blessed and it could well be that we would feel the wrath of their anger and who could blame them!

Looked at through the eyes of our value systems poverty, humility, victimhood are not seen as anything to celebrate and in fact are an embarrassment in a society that still accords so much value to those who manage to accumulate great wealth, power and things.

Mind you it may be that things are changing when the death of a poet in our land completely takes over the news and conversation on this Island. Poets and prophets are not that unalike and they often help us to see the ordinary and everyday with fresh eyes – to re-examine all the prejudices and assumptions we have inherited.

That essentially is what the epistle and Gospel are asking of us – to look at our world, our lives, ourselves and even God with new eyes or even perhaps to open eyes that were previously closed, the eyes of faith.
And the difference is dramatic when we do that – anyone who has ever seen newborn kittens will know that they are born blind and only open their eyes at 8 days – Overnight their behaviour changes as they are no longer fumbling aimlessly and nervously but now purposefully seeking out new and exciting adventures.

         God wants to open our eyes too – and if already open to clean the sleep out of them so that we may see more clearly. Jesus himself is the instrument of that and his whole earthly life bears witness to the values proclaimed in today’s readings: poverty, humility, reaching out to the stranger, and even subjecting himself to the death of a criminal on a rubbish heap outside the city walls.
And we wonder how he was resurrected – well when you go that low the only way is up – when you humble yourself to the worst that humanity can throw at you there is no longer anything to fear. It is only when we refuse to let go of ourselves completely that we are vulnerable to the hurts of others but when we let go of everything and fall into God then we are beyond the reach of their torment.

There is a basic wisdom in Jesus words – ‘when you are invited go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”….and ‘be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you” – So often out of our own sense of self importance we want to sit at the higher seats but in those seats is not just privilege but also responsibility which we are not ready for….. Our God knows our limits and our abilities and he will use them to the full if we let him but we need to leave that initiative with God.
It is almost as if we are called to forget ourselves so that we may remember God.

Perhaps a poem from the late Seamus Heaney is an appropriate way to finish – It’s called St. Kevin and the Blackbird and speaks powerfully of this self-forgetfulness:

St. Kevin and the Blackbird
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name. 

Saturday 24 August 2013

Sermon for Sunday 25th August 2013 - Rescuing the Sabbath

Humanity lets God down on a daily basis but perhaps the greatest disservice we do God is that we underestimate God!
For all our talk about God’s power and might, wisdom, strength, knowledge and so on we continually fail to understand perhaps the most important characteristic of God in his relationship with humanity and that is MERCY. Our relationship with God is defined by God’s initiative of mercy.
There is nothing we should be afraid to ask God for – God has infinite patience, sympathy and mercy when it comes to hearing us – it is not limited as we seem to think.

And yet we behave as if it was – The Gospel for today is a perfect illustration when Jesus is called to account for healing on the Sabbath, the day of rest, when no work should take place. The leaders of the synagogue clearly believe that God’s merciful interaction with humanity is limited to six days a week and for that they are mocked and rightly rebuked by Jesus who skillfully points out that they untie their ox or donkey and give it water on the Sabbath and yet are not prepared to see this woman loosened from the chains of her illness. Jesus demonstrates spectacularly that they have completely missed the point not only of the Law but of the Sabbath.
The law is there to protect the Sabbath for the sake of the people who need the rest of the Sabbath to refresh their bodies and restore their souls but it is not there to perpetuate the enslavement of those who suffer. As we hear in St. Mark’s Gospel, the Sabbath is for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.
The law of the Sabbath is about how a merciful God provides the necessary rest and refreshment for his people.

Unless you are an Orthodox Jew, the Sabbath means very little to us today in Ireland. Growing up we all remember how Sunday was a day that was completely focused on Church. Many people went twice a day and to Sunday school as well and no non-essential work was even contemplated. It was a family time and a day to take a step back from the busyness of the week. It was often enforced quite strictly and no doubt some people resented that and felt trapped by it but for others it was a blessed relief.
Today things are very different in our 24/7 world where shops are open every day and of course with the internet and mobile communications work is never further away than the next call, text or email.

When anybody in a position of leadership in our Churches says anything about this non-stop activity of modern lives they are usually mocked or ridiculed and told to mind their own business.  Perhaps they are perceived to be trying to control people – a people who have broken away from the chains of the old institutional church and found a new freedom which by definition must be the opposite of that which they have left behind.
But, and I hesitate to use this cliché but I think no other fits, have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater? In dumping the Sabbath have we lost something fundamental and valuable, not only to people of faith but to all humanity?

Is all this constant and at times frenetic activity good for us? It is good news for gastric surgeons who deal with a greater number of stress related ulsers than ever before. It is good news for relationship counsellors and solicitors who deal with the increasing numbers of relationship breakdowns due to exhaustion and working schedules that mean couples and their children become strangers to each other. It is good news too to some in the self-help industry that seek to help us squeeze every last bit of productivity out of our lives regardless of the consequences so that we can become rich! The fact that we have no time to enjoy that wealth is a minor detail!

The current financial crisis while traumatic to many of us is also a time of opportunity. The speed of working life has slowed down just a little to one in which we might even be able to jump off without getting too badly hurt. The rediscovery of time is a revelation to many people because when you are living your whole life in a hurry there is no time but when the rush is over you can actually begin to enjoy life and not just be carried along by it.
The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a lovely little book simply called  THE SABBATH and in it he said the following:

What we plead against is man’s unconditional surrender to space, his enslavement to things. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment ; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”

The Sabbath is God’s gift to us so that we may lead lives of significance, purpose and meaning. The Sabbath is a manifestation of God’s mercy which desires not to enslave us to set us free. The Law of the Sabbath is a law that is there to protect our souls from the addiction to activity that will ultimately destroy us. The Sabbath may be Sunday if you are a Christian, Friday night to Saturday night if you are a Jew or it may simply be that day you set aside to be with those who are significant in your life so that you may rest, reflect and be in each others presence. Whatever it is, guard it and treasure it as a blessing to you and perhaps even an experience of God’s mercy and grace.