Sunday, 28 November 2021

What the Dog taught me about God! My sermon for Advent Sunday 2021

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Advent Sunday Sermon 2021


Intending to raise cattle, a family from New York bought a ranch out West. When their friends visited and inquired about the ranch’s name, the would be rancher replied: “I wanted to name it the Bar-J. My wife favored Suzy-Q, one of our sons wanted the Flying-W, and the other liked the Lazy-Y. So we’re calling it the BAr-J-Suzy-Q-Flying-W-Lazy-Y.”

But where are all your cattle?” the friends asked.

None survived the branding.”

That is a perfect example of the consequences of disagreement and a lack of unity. The longer I live the more I believe that Unity and Oneness is essential to living productively and faithfully on this Earth. The growing crisis of climate change is teaching us that and there is an urgency to find a true unity of purpose that acknowledges our unity interdependence on one another and for us as Christians on God.

One of the consequences of believing in the fundamental unity of all things and the centrality of Unity to the message of the Gospel is that one is inclined to look for and discern moments and experiences in everyday life where we are given a glimpse of the Sacred/Holy in our World, where that fundamental unity is demonstrated most explicitly.

One that occured to me recently comes from my experience as a doggie person. Anyone who has a dog (especially a male dog I'm told) knows well the twin dreads of dog ownership.

The first is that bark at 3am on a freezing winter night which means that I/you have to get out of our lovely cozy bed and go out into the garden so that the dog can do his business.

The second flows from the first and that is standing there freezing while your dog does everything but do his business and spends his time sniffing every square inch of the lawn or chasing cats or hedgehogs as you wait interminibly for him to finally circle in on the chosen spot and do the necessary so that you can go back to your lovely warm bed before you become hypothermic.

All very well but where you ask is the glimpse of the Sacred/Holy in that?Particularly as yours truly may have uttered some very unholy words while waiting for the canine parambulations to end?

But that same experience seems to me to present so well two sides to the experience that we all share throughout our lives and that is the process of WAITING.

First the anxious wait for something that we do not want to happen and then the impatient waiting for something that we want to be completed or fulfilled.

Advent is a time of Waiting and it two has both those aspects:

If we understand Advent not simply as a preparation and a lead in to Christmas but as the expectation of the return of Christ in Glory then there may be a sort of trepedation or anxiety about that long anticipated event – we may be in no hurry for this life or this world as we know it to come to an end and in the words of St Augustine may be thinking:

'Give me Chastity – But not yet!'

We have plans and are not quite ready for Jesus' return!

Or alternatively we be counting the days till the end of Advent which will signal the arrival of the infant Jesus on Christmas day and the joy and happinness that comes with the Incarnation.

The reality is that we have to live with that tension – Waiting is a part of our witness – Waiting is a part of our human condition and waiting is intrinsic to the Gospel.

We live in an inbetween world and an inbetween time – we see glimpses of the Kingdom in our lives and it is those glimpses that give us the strength to live in the moment and to acept the tension and sometimes even the seeming contradiction in our lives. But to that we must seek the Unity that is all around us and be reconcilers and healers in a world which is so divided by those who would deny that unity and interdependence.

That I believe was and is fundamental to Jesus message as articulated in his prayer to the Father in John 17:

20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,[a] so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

I want to finish with another prayer written by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ who was a very influential theologian and died in 1955. He had a particular understanding of the inate sacredness of Waiting and his prayer may be helpful to us as we wait, not alone for Advent and Christmas and Christ's return in glory but also I am sure I speak for all of us an end to the pandemic which has cast such a long shadow on our lives:


Patient Trust—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete. AMEN.



Friday, 2 July 2021

COVID19 - NO SURRENDER!

Like most people I am utterly fed up (that's putting it very politely) with COVID. It has sucked the joy and pleasure out of life. It is like a dark cloud hanging over our lives and even on the brightest Summer day that cloud is there – It may not be visible but you can feel its presence nontheless. I would consider myself relatively compliant when it comes to the necessary public safety restrictions – indeed I previously argued publically that the churches should not be lobbying for an early return to public worship.

However the recent bad news re the D variant and the pulling back from planned easing of Covid measures caused something to snap and I took to social media and had a rant about what I called the 'Stockholm Syndrome' that appears to be affecting our national psyche. When I cooled down I had to acknowledge that caution is required at this point and that until most of the adult population is fully vaccinated it is probably wise and necessary to hold back on indoor dining and other social pleasures that we once took for granted. In saying that I am hugely cognisant of the high price that those in the hospitality sector have paid and continue to pay due to these measures. For them especially I long for a return to 'normality'.

What disturbs me most though now is the common response when I or others express this desire to get our old lives back and usually it goes like this: 'O but this is the new normal – you'd better get used to it' – Or when I say I am looking forward to ditching the face mask I have heard the response from more than one person that they quite like the mask and are in no hurry to stop wearing it – 'At least it keeps the colds and flu at bay'! I find this not only mind boggling but also very sad. For me it signals a loss of Hope and a resigned acceptance of the status quo and I for one am not prepared to go down that road – Hope is a vital component of our humanity and when we give up on that I think we may as well give up full stop.

As a Christian priest Hope is also central to what I do – I try to witness to the Resurrection, Hope not only to that of Jesus and our own ultimate destiny but also to the hope of a better tomorrow and the hope that our yesterdays and today's do not determne or limit our tomorrows.

That same hope is what keeps me going as I currently witness my 24 year old son with special needs rapidly going blind – I hope that if not a miracle in the short term that in the longer term medical science will provide a way for him to regain that most precious gift of sight. I don't know but I will contine to hope till my last breath on this earth.

Covid may not have taken our sight away but in many circumstances it has deprived us of the sense of touch which is equally essential to our humanity. The skin is the biggest organ in the human body and it is made for touch as we are made for touch. That touch may be everything from a handshake to a warm embrace, the exchange of the Peace in the liturgy, a hug of comfort for the bereaved or the passionate embrace of a lover. The contemporary author and poet Margaret Atwood said of touch: 'Touch comes before sight, before speech - It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.'

I still hope for that truth and I still hope for a return to the messy, tactile, touching and cold and flu-ridden world that I took for granted and I will never give up on that hope. I know for now I must be patient but I will not surrender my life to Covid 19!

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

The New Puritanism! Throwing the Statues out with the Bathwater

This strikes me as a classic example of the increasingly pervasive Neo-Puritan iconoclasm (mostly but not exclusively focused on statues) which while well motivated runs the risk of turning into a Talibanesque random destruction of the artifacts of history and culture which like the society from which they have sprung will always contain ambiguities and even things that are unpleasant and uncomfortable. That however IS our history and our heritage, a mixture of good and bad, light and dark, appropriate and inappropriate. Any attempt to airbrush it is like the common contemporary practice of photoshopping model's bodies (mostly women) in glossy magazines. It is false, dishonest and only results in alienating those who do not conform to increasingly narrower criteria of acceptability. I wonder how many of us would have stood up against slavery when it was the accepted norm in certain parts of the world? We are products of our time and to impose our modern enlightened standards to the art, architecture and iconography of another time is a mono-cultural fundamentalism no more helpful or wise than trying to read the Bible as literal history - indeed if the same logic that provoked the removal of theses statues was applied to the Bible or the Koran for that matter then both would be banned if not burned! There is of course the additional argument that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. The original Puritans while also well intended in overturning the excesses of the pre-Reformation Church threw away much of the richness and aesthetic beauty of church life and worship and created a form of Christianity that was strict, sterile and monochrome.It is only in latter years that some forms of Protestant Christianity have rediscovered the importance of the aesthetic in worship - Some still haven't! Let's be very careful before we throw the baby out with the bathwater again - he or she may not survive this time!

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Lockdown Leadership?


 I like many am getting very weary of the lockdown. I feel that perhaps the unlocking is too slow and at times arbitrary in its progression. However I don’t pretend to be an expert epidemiologist and would not (despite my frustration) presume to second guess such eminent experts such as Tony Holohan and his colleagues who have spent a lifetime of research into infectious pandemics such as we now face.

However I am increasingly concerned by what the journalist Ian O’Doherty succinctly described this morning on the Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk as ‘Narrowcasting’ – In using this phrase he clearly was referring to the narrow focus of the response to the pandemic which is focussed only on the infections and direct deaths from Covid19 with no reference to the broader picture which of course includes the thousands of undiagnosed cancers, heart conditions, pulmonary disease, children in agony awaiting scoliosis surgeries, transplant patients, mental health patients with suicidal ideation and a growing waiting list of urgent surgeries which will take years to catch up with and on which many will die because help came too late! Not to mention of course the ongoing destruction of our economy, Sport and the Arts and a recession greater than any in our history which will further hamper us in rebuilding our health services in order to minimise the numbers of ongoing casualties which most predict will (if it has not done so already) far outnumber the direct deaths from Coronavirus.

Do I blame Tony Holohan and his colleagues for this? No – not for a moment – he is doing his job very well – he was asked to flatten the curve and he and his colleagues with our cooperation have done that – He wasn’t asked to look at the bigger picture, the side effects on other areas of medicine or the devastation of the economy and society. And rightly so because he wasn’t qualified to do so. The problem is that nobody on NPHET (which he chairs) – the group  appointed to coordinate the State’s response to COVID 19 is qualified to look at the economic and social consequences of their policy – They are all medical!

The sad truth of this is that the Taoiseach and his ministers, have abrogated their responsibility to lead. It started well with a truly statesmanlike speech from the Taoiseach and initially it seemed a broad government ministerial involvement but as the weeks have gone on we have heard less and less from the Taoiseach and the only visible leadership figure in the country is Tony Holohan whose daily updates have become the closest thing we have to governance in the country. This is neither fair on him or on us. He is not elected or qualified to lead our country through this crisis. Of course one might argue that in the present political shambles the Taoiseach himself has a very fragile authority – but at the moment he is all we have got and he needs to step up to the plate and take this burden off Tony Holohan’s shoulders and put it on his own and give a broader leadership to this country which takes account of the broader consequences of this pandemic and the disastrous effects of the counter measures. If the lockdown must continue so be it – I would prefer to hear that from the Taoiseach and know that other factors including but not exclusively the advice of Tony Holohan had been taken into account in making the decision. I know that these are not easy decisions and that lives literally hang on what is decided but that is the responsibility of Government not the chief medical officer.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

An open letter to fellow clergy and bishops of the Church of Ireland and other religious leaders of all faiths.


Dear friends – I write to you as the rector of a County Kildare parish within the commuter belt of Dublin city and the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough. This weekend I took the difficult decision to close all of our churches until the end of the month or indeed until advised that the current Coronavirus threat has passed. This was not an easy decision and not one I took lightly but I did it because I was conscious that ANY public gathering increases the risk of spreading infection within the community.
It is not just those who might attend church that are vulnerable but everyone they subsequently interface with which will inevitably include the aged and the immuno-compromised. I like many in the Church of Ireland am rector of a parish where the age profile is very high and so a significant number of my parishioners are in a category (80+) where if they catch the virus, one in eight of them will likely die! Please dwell on that for a moment! These are people who have served our church all their lives and have sustained it through thick and thin and now we are wilfully risking them these precious twilight years!   This is not a chance I am willing to take! In addition to this I have a number of recovering cancer patients, transplant patients and those with respiratory issues who are extremely vulnerable to this virus.
And I am also conscious that it is not just my parishioners that I have a responsibility towards but also those in the wider community – My church is part of that community and if we are negligent we risk not only our own health but also those who we interface with in our daily lives and we have an equal duty of care to them.
I am aware that the Government in neither jurisdictions has demanded that we close and so those churches that remain open are not in breach of the law but that does not mean that there is no moral imperative to do otherwise!
Is our piety really more important than the health of the most vulnerable members of society?
Do we believe in a God who demands that we sacrifice the vulnerable in order to maintain public worship during a temporary crisis such as this?
If we can say hand on heart that continuing public worship will not increase the risk of infection then all is well but the reality is we cannot and all is not well! This is a chance for those of us of religious faith (no matter what creed or denomination) to stand up for the vulnerable – It’s in the Gospels as far as I recollect…….

NB: I am aware that the bishops of Cashel, Ferns & Ossary & Limerick & Killaloe Dioceses  have advised church closures and welcome the wisdom of their respective decisions

Monday, 6 January 2020

Sermon for Epiphany - A shared Vision for 2020


Sunday by Sunday clergy of all denominations get up into pulpits like this one, the length and breadth of this island, and deliver a message or a reflection that hopefully resonates with their congregation - something to takeaway - something to mull over - something perhaps to disagree with - but hopefully something for the week ahead or perhaps something that speaks to the experience of the week just past.
The reality is that despite these efforts less and less people see the importance of coming to our church buildings to participate in the liturgy or to listen to whoever it is that is nominated to preach and reflect on the scriptures.
There are other voices however that they do listen to and engage with and this weekend the nation mourns in Marian Finucane one who had become not just a voice but the voice of the weekend - her influence every bit as great as the combined outpourings of hundreds and even thousands of preachers across the various churches. That is the reality - One voice did that - and yes she had the advantage of broadcasting on the National radio service and therefore the potential to be heard by every soul on this island. But there is more to it than that - In a world of huge choice where live media is under threat she managed to achieve the highest figure for an individual broadcaster with a listenership of 374 thousand people on a regular basis.

Why and how? - Those are questions I have been puzzling over the last 48 hours and in listening to the extensive commentary on her legacy I think I know the answer.

She had huge empathy (having lost her daughter of eight years old) she knew what suffering was, she had an interest in people and didn't just look for the facts when she was interviewing someone but also a sense of the person - who they were and what motivated them - she also had no time for spin or waffle - she valued the truth and integrity in others.
And she walked the talk - I had no idea of the huge amount of voluntary work she did on the ground in Africa and how she was loved there by locals who had no knowledge of the other Marian we all thought we knew.
        And she was a true friend to those who needed her - so many having come forward in the last few days. I was particularly moved by Fr Brian Darcy's account of how Marian had reached out to him after an interview she had done with him at a time when he was going through his own dark night of the soul - she was so worried about him when he left the studio that she got hold of his mobile number and left a text message to ring her without disclosing her name - when he did she counselled him to get help and not try to cope on his own - no doubt speaking from her own personal experience - he said that nobody had ever done something like it for him before and was obviously hugely grateful. He the priest had been ministered to by the radio personality - no reason why not but it is still hugely significant and I think marks a very important moment of both crisis and opportunity.
        All of that and more besides is I think why her death has left such a void - For people who had no other Church Marian created a community around her founded on empathy, interest and compassion in and for the other and she motivated people to be kind to each other.
        I think her death can be a teaching moment for those of use who used to think of ourselves as the voice of the weekend (or at least Sunday) - We are not as important as we think!
This is a wake up call for churches across this island. I'm not suggesting that we are so arrogant as to think we can fill the void left by Marian - there may well be another voice waiting in the wings to carry the baton and that would not be a bad thing but we can still learn something by observing what it is that connects with the people of today.

This is the Eve of the Epiphany - the manifestation of Jesus the Christ to the wider world - How are we to share the Good News and connect with people in a world where so many churches are inclined to withdraw and isolate themselves from a world in which there are no longer the 'voice of the weekend'? There is an increasing tendency to keep Jesus safe from all that would taint and disturb.
Within our own Anglican Communion we see a move towards a New Puritanism which narrows and chokes the path of God's Grace in the Church and the World and finds comfort in the tidiness and security of absolute unity in doctrine within communities where diversity is aggressively discouraged.

That to me is not a viable way for the Church to be in the World - so what is the alternative?
It seems to me that its a case of back to basics and that means back to life and earthly ministry of Jesus Christ which was far more radical than the Gospel we are inclined to preach and live and one which no church on this planet could hope to control or circumscribe.
So unpredictable and even dangerous as this may be we do need to set this Jesus free.

The famous classic 'The Brothers Karamazov' by Dostoyevsky contains a poem within the book called the Grand Inquisitor - In it  Christ comes back to Earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospels). The people recognize him and adore him at Seville Cathedral, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. The main portion of the text is devoted to the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the Church.
Everything is under control and the people have been made compliant and do not need the messiness of Free Will or any of Jesus' other radical ideas to make things untidy.
If Jesus is released he will as Archbishop Michael Curry of the American Episcopal Church commenting on the same poem says "mess things up". Curry also observes the irony that "there stands Jesus of Nazareth whose life and teachings are a threat not only to the surrounding society but, sadly, to a church that professes his name but tries everything possible to keep him and his message hidden away from view......it has been so easy for the church in various generations, including our own, to disregard, disarm and domesticate Jesus to the point that he may not even resemble the Jesus of the New Testament.....Whenever Jesus of Nazareth - his actual teachings, his lived example, and his loving, liberating and life-giving way - takes centre stage, a revolution of love, a reformation of life and a renewal of our relationship with God, each other and all of Creation is at hand"

And so what is a daunting challenge can also become an opportunity - we in this parish cannot change the world but we can make a big difference in our little corner of it. And I'm not just talking in the abstract here - this is something that must come to more than words if we are to play an effective role in working for the Kingdom of God here on Earth.
So where do we start - I think it must be again with the basics:
Scripture and Prayer

Could I suggest that we consider that portion of Matthew Chapter 5 containing the Beatitudes and the passage on Salt and Light  which I think point to the radical roots of Jesus teaching - I have printed them out for everyone along with a prayer (see below) that we might say together in the weeks and months ahead as we try to discern how we can together as Church in this parish more fully present and reflect the person and love of Jesus Christ in all our relationships and encounters. I have some ideas but the Church is not me - it is all of us and following a time of reflection and prayer I would love that we could share our thoughts and ideas together.

To conclude with the words of Archbishop Michael Curry:
'This crisis may be a genuine opportunity to reclaim our roots, our origins, our true identity as Christians, by reclaiming Jesus of Nazareth and his way of love'.
Amen.

Matthew 5

The Beatitudes

When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Salt and Light

13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

PRAYER
Lord Jesus who taught us to pray 'Thy Kingdom Come', give us we pray a fresh vision of your Kingdom in this place and a sense of our shared and individual callings to discipleship. Give us courage to let you into our lives, and faith to follow you wherever you lead us. Forgive us for those times we have not responded to your calling and those occasions we have been obstacles to your loving purposes. You have called us to be Salt and Light - Renew us in this calling and where we have lost our saltiness and light restore us so that we may commit ourselves afresh to serving you. We wait on you Lord - Lord Hear our Prayer. Amen.


Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Christmas Sermon 2019 - A celebration of humanity



I love Christmas and in this I know I am not alone. For most people - for most of you I would imagine it is a cherished time - a time for family, a time to stand back and pause for a while, to appreciate some of the things and even people we take for granted in this life. Yes of course for those who have lost a loved one in the past few years Christmas can be difficult and can become something to survive rather than celebrate. And that is sad, but sadder still because it need not be so - Christmas is for all of us, whether happy or sad.

I say that because at the centre of this festival is the Incarnation in which God chose to become as one of us - God chose to become human - and he did so in the most vulnerable form possible - a human child - the baby Jesus. And this Jesus didn't exactly have an easy time - forced into exile as an infant - forced to flee for his life with his parents and some 30 years later dying the most brutal death on the Cross.

We know little of Jesus early years until he reappears on the scene and begins his public ministry in Galilee but it is fair to assume he had happy times as well as the traumas of his birth and death - he had friends - we know that, not only his disciples but Mary and Martha and Lazarus - and it is clear again and again that he had a deep awareness of the Father's Love and he in turn had great love for not only his friends but his enemies.
And so at Christmas while we gather around the manger and look at the Holy Child of Bethlehem we are also witnessing an incarnation that moves beyond the stable, beyond an innocent child into this extraordinary man Jesus who has taken upon himself not only the joy of humanity but also all the potential for pain and hurt that is a part of the human condition.
God became fully human in Jesus and that means that every part of our humanity and our human experience is God infused.

Why did God come to us in human form? Because that is what he made us to be and he did a pretty good job - God saw hope and potential in humanity and essentially became incarnate as one of us not to call us to something else but rather to be the best human beings we can be.

Unfortunately elements within the history of the development of Christian theology have given us a disproportionate sense of shame and guilt about the human condition which is neither just or true. Sometimes this church induced guilt has bordered on self hatred which is a terribly destructive force in people's lives - How could we hate and why should we hate that which is made in the image and likeness of God? We are fundamentally good - that doesn't mean we are perfect but rather than being wretched and hopeless we are perhaps broken but simultaneously hopeful and full of potential.

The Incarnation says it is ok to hurt or to fail, to grieve, to be angry, to feel loss, to doubt because all these things are human and so are we and we cannot reasonably be expected to be something we are not.

We live in a world where so many people are pressured to try or to pretend to be something they are not and so live lives that are disingenuous and self destructive.
The pressures that many of our young people feel to conform to a particular body image or behaviour have produced a lot of casualties whether through bullying, self harm and suicide. And we need only look superficially at social media to see how many people feel pressured to present a particular face or mask to the world  which may be far removed from their reality.
Or look at our politics which worldwide is becoming increasingly dysfunctional and a big part of that is a culture of spin, alternative truths (whatever they are) and expediency which forces many good people to live a lie, and that can never be a good thing.

Jesus came to set us free from all this -  so that we might be ourselves, our best selves - to realise the God-given potential in each of our lives and when we cannot or will not do that then we quite simply tear ourselves apart - We are alienated from ourselves!
         
There is nothing as disarming as a baby - grown men and women crumble at the sight of a newborn infant - I think that is why God chose to come in this form - because we need to be disarmed and remove all that is not real and genuine in our lives - anything that suggests that we are not good enough - that we need to do something to become part of God's story - The truth is that God has come to meet us in the Incarnation and to make his story our story - we stand on Holy ground on this earth but we also inhabit holy bodies. We need to learn to love ourselves without feeling guilty - That's the thinking I believe behind those words of Jesus 'to love your neighbour as yourself' - Self love is the beginning of the love of others and in loving ourselves we are simply acknowledging the beauty of what God has done in us.  

And that is also what God is doing in the incarnation - acknowledging the beauty of what he has worked in us - God fell in love with his creation and chose to identify fully with it in birth and in death - and yes in Resurrection but lets not rush there too quickly as if this death was not real - It is one of the weaknesses of our Protestant heritage that we find it hard to look at the broken body of Jesus on the Cross and replace it instead with the empty Cross.
The fact that Jesus did die on that Cross means that this Christmas story we celebrate tonight/today can embrace those who grieve as well as those who celebrate. The Resurrection changes our eternal perspective but it does not take the pain of death away - There is no need for false joy or empty celebration - each of can be who we are - we can put away the masks and the burdens of others expectation and simply be who God made us to be - we can be honest and true to ourselves and whether we find our selves in pain or in happiness we are accepted for who we are - we are good enough - we don't need to pretend.

I am reminded of a wonderful observation by the contemporary biblical scholar and theologian Walter Brueggermann who said 'Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest place in town.' I think he had a point - A banal and vacuous happiness has become the principal  goal of modern life and for those who are not happy its relentless and often shallow pursuit can become a tool of exclusion and separation. The Christmas greeting itself whether you say Merry or Happy Christmas contains pressure and expectation that not everyone can deliver.

As we gather at the crib we see a little baby - and a baby is the most honest thing in all creation - a baby does not  pretend or hide behind a mask or live a lie -  a baby does what it says on the tin - there is no filter and no deception- A baby but this baby in particular says it is ok to be you - no matter whether you are filled with sorrow or joy, whether you are happy or sad, you are invited to fall into the loving arms of a God who entered our humanity and made it something sacred and beautiful. You are, each one of you sacred and beautiful
We may not always be happy - hopefully we are sometimes  but our lives are filled with meaning, purpose and truth because of what God has done in Jesus and that is surely something that we can all celebrate. Amen.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Trump & Making a Prisoner of Love




'Go back to where you came from!' - Its hard to credit that a sitting US President would speak such hateful words, not just once but repeatedly to four female politicians, all American citizens and all but one born on US soil. It is reasonable to say that anyone who denies the explicit racism in this statement is either deluded or dishonest. It is hateful language and sadly hate appears to have become the default mode of communication for this extraordinary US presidency.

Regrettably Trump's America is not the only place in the World today where hate is all too visible. Look at the tragedy that is the Middle East and the ongoing calamitous wars and the consistent and routine ill-treatment of the vulnerable and again hate is in the driving seat.

Closer to home and while thankfully the recent marching season in Northern Ireland has not been as violent or as disruptive as recent years the mutual hatred manifest in sectarianism is alive and well and there are still some on both sides of this divided community who would rejoice at the painful death of one of the other tribe.

And lest we get complacent here in the Republic, according to a report issued by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties last year, 'Ireland has one of the highest rates of hate crime against people of African background and transgender people in the EU'. That is surely cause for shame.

Hate is thriving and somehow we have to find a way to defeat it. Martin Luther King had a lot to say about engaging with hate but it always came down to Love. These are among his famous remarks on Love and he did walk the talk.  'We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.',  'Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that' & 'Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.'

These are familiar words and will resonate especially with those who have grown up in various faith traditions (not alone Christianity) which speak of the power and centrality of Love. Indeed they are not unfamiliar to secular humanists either - Love is almost universally recognised as a necessary part of that which makes us whole and truly human. Without Love we are as St Paul so famously observed 'a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal'.

We can all, no matter what faith or tradition, contribute to the displacement of hate in this world. Speaking as I do from the Anglican Christian tradition I follow one in Jesus whose whole earthly life was a demonstration of pure Love, and the broadest possible understanding of that Love whereby he defined it in terms of the equivalence of love of neighbour for love of self.
When he was asked to clarify 'who is my neighbour' Jesus responded with the Parable of the Good Samaritan which declared a love without limits! This Samaritan, a traditional enemy of the Jews demonstrates love of the stranger and love of the enemy, an indiscriminate love which doesn't look for qualification or justification. This man who he saved was half dead, stripped naked, and there is no mention of him speaking so there was no way for the Samaritan to know who or what he was beyond the fact that he was a fellow human being and that alone was enough to provoke his loving response.  This is a far cry from the unashamedly racist sentiments of Donald Trump which continue to enjoy the uncritical support of the vast majority so called 'Evangelical Christians' in the US.

However its not just Trump's Christian supporters that need to ask questions of themselves, For any of us who are of a religious disposition this parable brings little comfort for it is the religious and pious, the priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side and leave this man for dead. Why? Because they are not driven by what is loving but rather by what is right according to the law, in this case most probably a concern for ritual purity which would be damaged by association with blood or a potentially dead body.

But times have changed - we have moved on and the Church of today will as Jesus did always do the loving thing.
If only! The greatest tragedy of contemporary Christianity (with few exceptions) is that unlike Jesus we do not preach or live a wide and extravagant love as he did - we do not preach or live  a love that challenges convention and the organised religion of the day - we preach and live a love that upholds the Status Quo - a love that is qualified and doctrinally circumscribed, a love which is rooted in the desire to preserve the purity of the institution. We as Church are the priest and the Levite in the parable. This is nowhere more evident than in the bitter division within almost every Christian church and denomination on the subject of human sexuality. Based on anachronistic interpretations of a paucity of scriptural verses we drawn boundaries around who is in and who is out, whose love is genuine and whose love is acceptable to God. Ironically we try to soften this with phrases such as 'hate the sin but not the sinner' or a declaration that we are welcoming to all, but those who do not conform to our terms soon find that there is a limit to the welcome and so a limit to our love.

What extraordinary arrogance on our part! In drawing any limits on Love we are effectively trying to limit and circumscribe God. Love is of God and is the essence of God and as such is unpredictable and beyond our control. Our attempts to do so are futile but also undermine our ability as churches to be transformative in society. Hate will triumph as long as our love is anything less than unreservedly generous and universal.
While we continue to debate who is worthy and who is not we are not just rendered ineffective but we are part of the problem. We are feeding the hate!

There are many within the churches today who complain about the marginalisation of the churches in modern Ireland. Part of this is most certainly the aftermath of the abuse scandals (which were not unique to Roman Catholicism and were a part of the legacy of the Church of Ireland too) but I believe that today a much bigger factor is the blatant hypocrisy of our churches in failing to follow the example and teaching of Jesus. Part of my work involves interacting with young people in our parish school and in Confirmation preparation and I can say I have never seen a generation with a greater sense of integrity and a passion for justice. They can smell hypocrisy a mile off and if the church is to have any future then we need to get our heads around just what unconditional Love means.

So what is my answer to Donald Trump when he says 'Go back to where you came from' - My answer must be and one which I would claim for every living person (who would wish it) on this planet - 'I will go back to the One who created me and loved me into being and nothing you can do or say can make me less beautiful or less precious in the eyes of God.'

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Mothering Sunday Sermon 2019


What is Mothering Sunday about? Is it simply the Church’s version of Mothers Day – Well no – Mothering Sunday was around long before Mother’s Day even though it is difficult to buy a Mothering Sunday card today but the shops are full of Mother’s Day cards. We still do focus on mothers and women in general on this day in the life of the church but strictly speaking as a festival Mothering Sunday  is not primarily about human mothers but rather Mother Church and has evolved into what it is today over a 500 year period.
During the 16th century, people returned to their Mother Church for a service to be held on the 4th Sunday in Lent. This practice was known as: "a-mothering". Subsequently Mothering Sunday became a day when servants were given a day off to visit their mother church with their family.
Children who were in service were also given a day off on that date so they could visit their families and Mother Church. The children would pick wildflowers along the way to place in the church or give to their mothers. And in time the religious tradition evolved into the Mothering Sunday secular tradition of giving gifts to mothers.
The readings we use in church today reflect the theme of motherhood with the Old Testament reading coming from the book of Exodus -  the story of Moses where his mother lets him go,  not once but twice so that he may survive – first when she puts in the papyrus basket and the second time when she finally relinquishes him to Pharaoh’s daughter who took him as her own son……Loving and letting go are all part of motherhood – And an even greater pain is foretold in the Gospel from St. Luke where Simeon tells Jesus’ mother Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too”.
And it is appropriate that we use these readings because the idea of Mother Church is of course derived from our human understanding of mothering.
It is also important that we focus on mothering because the Church over the centuries has lost an appreciation of the importance of the feminine in humanity as women were so often written out of history in the patriarchal culture from which we are only just emerging – and we are not there yet!
When I was training for ordination there were some (women included) in the theological college who at the time believed that while they could be ordained they should never be a rector (never mind a bishop) because a woman should not hold a position of authority and should remain a perpetual curate. Today there are still clergy in the church (mostly men) who believe that to be the case.
          I found this totally shocking when I first encountered it having come to ministry training having already completed an undergraduate degree in Theology and Biblical Studies and one of the optional modules I had taken was Feminist Theology in which I was lectured by our now Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone. I am still reminded of the occasion in one of her classes when I declared that I had found the feminine within myself! There was a stunned silence in the class before one of my colleagues burst out laughing and the rest of the class soon followed.  Katherine if I recall was however greatly impressed!
Before you write me off as slightly confused, the context of my declaration was a discussion of the scientific reality that we are all a mixture of what we classically distinguish as male and female – for example both Oestregen and Testosterone are present in the bodies of men and of women albeit in different ratios and therefore some men display what are classically seen as female behaviours and vice versa.
          There is though a serious issue which we need to consider as a Church and that is the way in which we have suppressed the feminine elements of our faith. Yes of course Jesus was a man but God is beyond gender and yet we are content to use language of God which only reflects the lived experience of 50% of humanity.
Right up to the Reformation the figure of Mary was hugely visible and revered throughout the Church, East and West and then with the Reformation and the rise of rationalism and literalism which suppressed the symbolic and the artistic representations of Mary and other saints the feminine dimension within the life of the Protestant churches in particular was hugely reduced.
Richard Rohr the contemporary Catholic theologian comments on this and says quite critically that ‘many Catholics divinised Mary …… have a poor theology of Mary but an excellent psychology: Humans like need and trust our mothers to give us gifts, to nurture us, and always to forgive us, which is what we want from God’.
He goes on to give a very concrete example: ‘I once counted eleven images of Mary in a single Catholic church in Texas cowboy country. I see that as a culture trying unconsciously, and often not very successfully to balance itself out. In the same way Mary gives women in the Catholic church a dominant feminine image to counterbalance all the males parading around up front!’
          But even outside of the explicitly religious there are vestiges in our language of an almost forgotten appreciation of the centrality of the feminine in life. The phrase ‘Mother Earth’ reflect the association with the primary role of the female in Creation and yet that has been effectively suppressed or at best ignored. The Hebrew for Spirit is ruach which is a feminine noun. In Genesis 1:2, the verb for hovered takes on the feminine of the noun. So, Genesis 1:2, the beginning of the Creation narrative could be translated, “the Spirit of God she was hovering over the face of the waters…” In other words God’s creative spirit is depicted as feminine from the very beginning.
Little wonder then that the Church in its earlier years and still in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions has such a strong attachment to the figure of Mary who represents the ongoing presence of the feminine in God’s ongoing creative work in the world. Richard Rohr points out that she is present at key moments in the Gospel story and plays a key role in our faith experience ‘From her first yes to the Angel Gabriel, to the birth itself, to her last yes at the foot of the cross, and her full presence at Pentecost where she is the only woman named at the first outpouring of the Spirit……in Mary we see that God must never be forced on us, and God never comes uninvited……In Mary, humanity has said our eternal yes to God….Far too often the feminine has had to work in secret, behind the scenes, indirectly….We see Mary’s subtlety of grace, patience and humility when she quietly says at the wedding feast of Cana, “They have no wine” and then seems totally assured that Jesus will take it from there. …….While Church and culture have often denied the Divine feminine roles, offices and formal authority, the feminine has continued to exercise incredible power at the cosmic and personal levels. Feminine power is deeply relational and symbolic – and thus transformative – in ways that men cannot control or understand. I suspect that is why we fear it so much.’
And so back to Mothering Sunday – how different would Mother Church, the Church look if we embraced a fuller and more balanced vision of Church and recovered the feminine dimension of our faith which is not just about Women’s Ordination but opening ourselves to the fullness of God’s creativity in our world today. God is still at work in our world today and perhaps a wider vision of that presence will help us to be a more authentic and more effective force for good and for change. On this mothering Sunday we give thanks for our experience of mothering and pray for the wisdom to say yes to it in all its fullness and possibility. Amen.

*In Italics extracts from Richard Rohr's 'The Universal Christ - How a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for and believe'

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Sermon for St Patrick’s Day 2019 - A response to the massacre in New Zealand Mosques


What does St. Patrick's Day mean to you? Is it about the parades, the green beer and a nice long weekend?  Is it about our Patron Saint and the stories told about him and attributed to him, some of them true perhaps and more of them legends? Is it about the history of Christianity on this Island? Or is it an opportunity to celebrate our Irishness, our culture, our identity and indeed identities plural because it is not so easy to define what it means to be Irish today? 
When I was growing up Irish identity was assumed to be Catholic and Nationalist and we Protestants were a small minority who kept our heads down but now we are part of an increasingly diverse Ireland which is uncomfortable with identifying with any religious tradition and if anything has come to define itself in terms of its plurality and openness to difference. I think this is a good thing but we still have our moments - times when we get sucked back into that them and us way of thinking.
          Like many people on this island I watched with disbelief the shambolic behaviour of the British parliament last week in dealing with the ongoing Brexit issue and I was provoked to post some very negative satirical material on social media which to the neutral observer might be deemed anti British. It is a fine line that is very easy to cross when defending ones own nation becomes an attack on another and I think in hindsight I probably crossed that line - and that is not a good thing. Celebrating or even protecting our own national identity should not necessitate attacking or undermining another! 
          Today we live in a world where a very strident and aggressive nationalism is on the rise and is characterised by demonization of various minority or marginalised groups.  It is a politics of hate and makes no apology for that.
Sadly it was part of the narrative that brought about the result of the Brexit referendum which was fuelled by the politics of fear and hate concerning immigrants and refugees. It is also to be witnessed in the domestic and foreign policy of the United States under their current president who cannot bring himself to condemn Nazi intimidation in his own country and has created an entirely false narrative equating immigrants with terrorism when virtually all such incidents on US soil have been perpetrated by white US indigenous nationals.
          Just a few days ago we saw the outworking of this mindset in the New Zealand massacre by Brenton Tarrant who in his manifesto praised Donald Trump as a 'symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose'.
          If all of this is sounding too political for the pulpit let me assure you this is not about party politics - but the kind of politics that Jesus himself was concerned with - Jesus was probably crucified because of his politics. The Gospel when you take it seriously and try and implement it in the world is a very political instrument.
          So how do we respond as Church to this? - Many people have said that 'Thoughts and Prayers' are not enough and that we need to be proactive - not just salving the wounds but addressing the very roots of the problem. One response to the New Zealand massacre published in the Guardian was an article by Masuma Rahim who said this:
........it’s not just Muslims who are losing their lives at the hands of far-right nationalism. It’s Jews and Sikhs and black people. Because when fascism comes to call, it usually doesn’t care what shade of “different” you are. All it knows is that you are different, and it does not like you for it.
My fury and my pain is not lessened when a Jewish person is killed, or when a Hindu person is killed. We share a common humanity and that is sufficient for us to feel rage and pain. ............ It’s time to make a stand. Defend our rights......... Use your position to send a clear message that hatred has no place in society. .......Too many have died. More will die if you fail to act. History will judge you for it.
I want to pick up on one of the phrases that Masuma Rahim used and that was 'common humanity' which straight away resonated with me as I am currently reading a wonderful book which is all about embracing a more generous worldview and faith that focuses on those things that unite us rather than divide us as peoples and nations. In this book, The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr makes the comment that 'Frankly, Jesus came to show us how to be human much more than how to be spiritual, and the process still seems to be in its early stages'.
Well that is certainly an understatement - we have a lot of work to do on our humanity when these atrocities can be committed in our name and in the name of faith and we must do all in our power to stop the Gospel ever being used to condone, hatred, exclusion and persecution.
In this same book Richard Rohr identifies some specific issues with the way that Christianity has evolved which is at best not helpful in the current crisis and at worst may actually fan the flames of hatred. Much of these failings are truths that we have forgotten but which were part of our faith tradition from the very beginning.
He calls for a recovery of an 'incarnational worldview' which is 'the profound recognition of the presence of the divine in literally everything and every one'.
'Without a sense of the inherent sacredness of the world....we struggle to see God in our own reality, let alone respect reality, protect it or love it. The consequences of this ignorance are all around us, seen in the way we have exploited and damaged our fellow human beings, the dear animals, the web of growing things, the land, the waters and the very air.'
 He also points out that we have narrowed the remit of the Gospel and ignored some key Scriptures such as  the prologue of St John's Gospel which makes it clear that Christ has existed from the beginning of history - Christ as he puts it is not Jesus last name:
 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. ............... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,  full of grace and truth.
And yet despite this proclamation of the universal nature of the Incarnation our faith became a competitive theology with various parochial theories of salvation instead of a universal cosmology inside of which all can live with an inherent dignity......As a rule we were more interested in the superiority of our own tribe, group or nation than we were in the wholeness of creation.
This is where it gets uncomfortable because this is exactly the theology which feeds and legitimises the kind of tribal zenophobic nationalism that is so destructive in our world today and it is not authentic Christianity.
Rather says Rohr: 'Authentic God experience always expands your seeing and never constricts it....In God you do not include less and less; you always see and love more and more. The more you transcend your small ego, the more you can include. And Jesus says: 'Unless the single grain of wheat dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it does it will bear much fruit.'
I said earlier that much of our failings are about truths we have forgotten - If proof were needed just listen to the words of this extract from the Breastplate, attributed to St. Patrick:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord
.

In a world scarred by fear and hatred, distrust and disillusionment let us embrace and proclaim, as did St. Patrick  a more generous Christ who alone can reconcile and heal our brokenness.  Amen.