Saturday, 18 July 2009

From Space Shuttle to An Bord Snip - A Sermon

Sermon for Sunday 19th July 2009

Gospel: Mark 6: 30-34,53-56

Sometimes there are events in life that bring home to us just what a small planet we live on. Last Wednesday night, I watched the Space Shuttle take off from Cape Canaveral – It is something that fascinates me and also makes me a little uneasy – In the light of 2 shuttle tragedies I am always glad to see the shuttle achieve orbit successfully without disaster striking. You might say that that’s not something particularly remarkable – It’s been happening for over 20 years now – why get excited about it? Well about a quarter of an hour later like stargazers all over Ireland I stood outside our house and watched the clearly visible same shuttle streak across the sky being followed by its now separated fuel tank in the same orbit. Now that was something very special and very powerful. Not only do we share common experiences via television from one side of the world to the other but now human beings can travel from Florida to Ireland in 15 minutes. In other words we are no more distant from people on the other side of the planet than we are from our neighbouring towns and villages.

To me that is almost like getting an insight into how God sees us – we consider ourselves so different and distinct so isolated and in some cases so alone but God sees us all in one sweep of his vision – we are all part of the one picture, all part of the one story. For all our factions and divisions, all our wars and atrocities we are all simultaneously visible and simultaneously loved by God. That I believe is a truth that we cannot stress enough. It may be an obvious truth but we live in a world that displays very little recognition of that truth.

We live in a selfish world – a world where there is enough food and water for everyone and yet people still die of hunger and thirst! A world where there is enough shelter and housing for everyone but people still live in cardboard boxes and sewers. A world where there are enough resources for everyone but the greedy pile them up and store them away for their own security. We live in a world where religious faith of whatever type has lost its outward focus and become self-serving and destructive of others. And of course we live in a world where greed for money has plunged our economies into a state of catastrophe and heightened tensions and divisions in an already stressed society. We are, to borrow a phrase from today’s Gospel: “Like sheep without a shepherd” . We are scared and confused. People are loosing their jobs – there are already signs of antagonism and resentment towards foreign workers – industrial action is on the rise – economic partnership is falling apart and trust is in short supply. Everyone is looking out for themselves and very few people are able to see beyond the troubles that loom large in their own lives.

Simultaneous to all this has been the collapse of trust in Institutional Church, especially in this country in the light of recent scandals and most notably the Ryan report – That and the rise of militant secularism which seeks to purge God from the public sphere of life has left a lot of people without any point of reference in their lives. It is not so much that we live in an immoral society but increasingly an amoral society. We are like sheep without a shepherd.

And the Government response (and let us remember that the Government are not all that different from us – and we put them there), the response has been to commission a soulless report (An Bord Snip) which treats the most vulnerable people in our society as mere statistics and has only served to cause huge anxiety, not all of which may be warranted. Yes it is a financial report but our problems go far deeper than finance and demand a response that at least shows a hint of compassion. When Jesus saw the crowd in today’s Gospel, he must have felt besieged as does many a government minister today but did he give off – did he go and hide – No, we are told “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And not only did he feel compassion but he demonstrated it in his actions in healing the sick who came to him looking for help.

There is a huge contrast between that response and our own minister for health who cynically released the Leas Cross Nursing Home report (containing the most sickening revelations of elder abuse and neglect) on the same day as the An Bord Snip report, obviously hoping it would get buried along with the victims of that shameful chapter in the life of the HSE! That to me is a completely amoral act! It is incomprehensible that anyone could do such a thing and the Minister doesn’t even seem to get it – That is a sign of a very sick society! A society which has lost a point of reference – a society of sheep without a shepherd.

This is a situation that demands a response from people of faith – and we as Christians have a message and a model in the life of Jesus which can transform the helpless situation in which people find themselves. This is a huge responsibility and something which we are called to do if we are truly followers of Jesus and not simply passive members of the church. But to be the people that God calls us to be means preparing ourselves – and the Gospel is very explicit – “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile” Jesus tells the apostles. As the story relates that rest proves elusive but essential nonetheless. Jesus frequently retreats before a period of ministry – we need to do likewise, to be people who reflect as well as people who do. Otherwise our witness is ineffective and lacking in depth – We need to be able to give a good account of the faith that is in us and the God who we believe has created us and desires the best for us and who contrary to popular opinion is not an irrelevance!

But if that is to be the case Christianity needs better headlines than The Holy Stump in Rathkeale, the widely discredited Blasphemy legislation and the latest I heard this week where the newly formed ‘Atheist Ireland’ are calling people to read their Bibles so that they can then discredit and mock its contents.

There is another Story – It’s the Story as God sees it – It is One story and we are all a part of the story - the story of his people, created in Love – we may behave as sheep without a shepherd, we may think we are sheep without a shepherd but like the parable of the Lost Sheep the Shepherd wants only to find us and to bring us home. Just because we think we don’t need the shepherd, just because others tell us there is no shepherd doesn’t make him go away. He is far more more patient and far more forgiving than we can comprehend. It is in him that we find our place in that great story of Love and Forgiveness. It is in him that our lives find meaning and make sense. It is in him that we have Hope that will allow us to see beyond the length of our nose to our neighbour and recognise in that neighbour another creation of God made in God’s image and worthy of our Love and respect. When we can recognise that then we have recovered our true nature. We exist for God and for one another, not for ourselves.



John Barry said...

"We exist for God and for one another, not for ourselves". This sums up the Christian message nicely. Militant secularism offers nothing but emptiness and despair. It is a cancer. It is a major causative factor in the increased suicide rate in the western world. If we do not believe in a God we have nothing to live for. Indeed space exploration has opened up the wonders of the universe. These did not slot into place without the guidance of a Supreme Being-proof positive that there is a God.

Stephen Neill said...

Thanks John - What I find particularly interesting is the new Fundamentalism that characterizes militant Secularism/Atheism - It has become that which it seeks to condemn. Ironic or what?

Póló said...

I met an astronaut a few years ago. I asked him if he had yet lost the feeling of awe from being in space. He hadn't the faintest idea what I was talking about. Very depressing.

Joc Sanders said...

It's good to have you back, Stephen - you seem to have been walk-about since the big Four-Oh!

'Sheep without a Shepherd' sums up the place that so many are in just now - a dangerous place, where we must be alert for false shepherds. I guess we can use Love and Forgiveness to screen for them!

Stephen Neill said...

Póló - Sounds like an experience wasted on the said individual

Joc - Thanks - yes post 40 writers block!

Brianna said...

An inspiring sermon Stephen. Wish we had someone like you in our parish. At the moment a lot of us feel like sheep without shepherds. Keep up the good work and God bless you. Ann

Stephen Neill said...

Ann thanks for your kind words - sorry to hear how things are for you - I hope and pray things change soon.

Lorna said...

I enjoyed reading that (if enjoyment is the right word for reading about cruelty to elders, the ryan report and An bord snip but hope you know what I mean) - a good sermon without being preachy! Very true and apt.

I just joined you in the over 40 brigade!

I was delighted when my 7 year old watched the C4 programme we'd taped for him about the first landing on the moon and he was totally enthralled and wonder-struck by it all, as we all should be. said...

Dear Father O'Neil,
I follow your blog regularly. God's love and humor shows through it, and it can be a real pick me up. Sadly, I usually agree with your more painful observations too. I've written to you one other time when you wrote about a street preacher who had involved his son in a rather hate filled ministery of "God's Love."
I live in Fort Worth, Texas, which as you know has been at the center of the Anglican debate on homosexuals. My church is one of the few that opted to stay with the mainstream American Episcopal church. Most of the others went with Bishop Iker to form the new "Southern Cone," soon to be the "Orthodox Anglicans." It strikes me that so much of the problem is that everyone believes in being "right" rather than loving. Shortly, before the split, I spoke with the retired priest who was incredibly good to me when my mother died. HE said something to the effect, "I really think Bishop Iker believes he's cleansing the church, but that's not his job or our job. Our job is to worship and love each other." I agree with Father Walt. Unfortunately, I know from my own personal failings that it's almost always easier to choose self-righteousness, being the pharisee, over being loving and worshipful. (I was raised Evangelical Free Church, and I VERY much struggle to be loving towards vs. critical of that theology. I don't want to believe in a God that shares my prejudices, because that would make God no more expansive than I. Like you, I see a great deal of "fundamentalism" in the new Atheism, intent on identifying all hypocracy (did I spell that correctly?) but its own. Clearly, they are not offering a better alternative, only more of the same old, same old disillusionment with a new name. Meanwhile, I struggle not to bury the hatchet in a shallow unmarked grave, to forgive others for having faults similiar to my own. Reading of well-meaning but often bumbling ineptitude of the disciples in the Bible, it strikes me that Jesus only Christ can truly see the Gold flecks in our feet of clay. Thank you for all you write. Tracie Stokka

Stephen Neill said...

Tracie - thank you for taking the time to share so personally and to give me such encouragement - it is a real blessing to read your message :-) I agree with everything you have written and just wish we could all concentrate more on following Jesus rather than turning his life into a cold and frozen standard which judges and condemns all those who we do not meet our standards. Sometimes I agree it is easy to be sucked into condemnation of those who we see as fundamentalists but at some point we must draw back and let Love do its work, despite us. Keep the faith and keep wondering :-) The quest for CERTAINTY is bad news rather than the Good News which still leaves room for our humanity and our need to doubt and trust.
Stephen said...

On the other hand, PJ O'rourke made the following snide but appropriate comment regarding Republican presidential hopefuls courting the fundamentalist vote two years ago. It could easily be applied to fundamentalist in general. He observed that when the interviewer asked how many of them did not believe in evolution, six of the eight raised their hands. However, when they put them down, their knuckles scraped the floor. Tracie Stokka