Saturday 30 September 2006

'Whoever is not against us is for us' - More alike than we like to admit!

Sermon for Sunday 1st October 2006
Trinity 16: Gospel: Mark 9:38-50; Epistle: James 5: 13-20

‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’

No doubt when John said those words to Jesus he was expecting praise and affirmation. Here was someone else – not one of the disciples casting out demons in the name of Jesus! How dare he? The cheek of it! And then Jesus responds in a way that nobody could have possibly expected:

‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.’

That statement of Jesus has profound implications for how we relate to one another as human-beings. We have a very narrow concept of the embrace of God’s Love and the extent of his mercy. We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that to be committed to Jesus means rejecting others who don’t seem to be doing things our way – The Right Way!

That is not to say that we embrace everything we encounter in some wishy washy haze of relativism! No! – There are times we are called to stand against evil whether it be personal or systemic. Yes - Jesus said ‘whoever is not against us is for us’ but that still leaves open that there are those people and forces who are against us and Jesus certainly encountered those forces, but most importantly for us he triumphed over them.

I was like many of you I am sure watching the Late Late show (Irish TV chat show) on Friday night and watched an extraordinary interview with a young woman Janette Byrne who has just published a book called: "If it Were Just Cancer: a Battle for Dignity and Life." Her story of institutional and systemic neglect and failure by our health services can only be described as a battle with evil – if we understand that evil is anything that is against God. The obstacles that the so called system put in her way to recovery and the fact that she had to take a court case to get her chemotherapy which had been cancelled 3 times due to shortage of beds flies in the face of God!

For those of you who didn’t see the interview I am going to read you a short extract from the book where Janette is attending accident and emergency in an attempt to gain access to the hospital where she has been denied admission by consultant due to lack of beds:

“I need to use the bathroom and I don’t know if I am allowed up and about. Still in my flimsy nightdress and nightgown I pad to the toilet in my slippers. No one bats an eyelid. So I carry on my way to the nearest toilet. This is located outside at the casualty exit. I am surprised to see gangs of injured and ill, people staring vacantly, waiting for help. I know from the other side that there is already no room at the inn. My heart gives a pang of pity for the aged and innocent, fear etched on their faces. It reminds me of a scene from one of those old black and white war movies we watched as children. Blood splattered the floor as a bandaged head bleeds through; an old lady sits crying, with pain I suppose; and a girl vomits over and over in a bowl already to small too accommodate her lot.”

That is surely against the will of God and surely something that we need to stand against! And it is no good simply blaming the politicians – this is all our responsibility and it is not good enough to simply pass the buck!

This is something we cannot distance ourselves from and yet like John who tried to distance himself from the ‘imposter’ – as he saw him, we too are inclined to distance ourselves from people and situations that make us feel uncomfortable. It is if you like part of our nature.

Jesus recognizes this and reminds John that we are not all that different from our neighbours who we do down to build ourselves up! ( ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’). We have a current example of this on the political stage. This is not a party political sermon but there is something very sinister going on at the moment and I not talking about the gifts, loans or whatever that our Taoiseach (Prime-minister) received.

There is no doubt that ethical boundaries were crossed albeit it in circumstances of huge personal stress and difficulty at a time of marital breakdown.
But what is actually even more significant is the distancing that is going on by some on a very senior level who are reveling in the opportunity to expose the failures of the most senior politician in the land and who are making some very self-righteous pronouncements which may yet come back to haunt them as indeed they have the Taoiseach.

Listening to public opinion there is no doubt that there is huge division but there is also a huge hypocracy in many who condemn this man and talk about him as if her were another breed never mind a fellow human being. I wonder just how many of us here can hand on heart say that they have declared every cent of their earnings to the taxman – how many people here have never been given a helping hand by a friend – how many people here have never helped a friend in need or done a favour for a friend that perhaps broke a few rules or guidelines?

And so I find it hard to understand that we expect our political and public representatives to be so different than the rest of us. Yes they have huge responsibility and power – yes when they are corrupt the implications are far greater than if you and I cross the boundaries but it is the same for want of a better word ‘sin’ that is in all of us. Why do we want to put such distance between ourselves and the mighty as they fall? Is it because the exposure of their failings makes us more aware of our own failings? And so we distance ourselves from them and try to unload all our shortcomings onto them.

We need to be very sure that that is not what is going on at the moment because if it is then we have fallen into the same trap as John did when he tried to disassociate himself from the man casting out demons in Jesus name who ‘was not following us’!

I know well that we need high standards in high places but we also need high standards in low places if those who exist in the rarified air of the high places are going to get the necessary support that they need in their work. There is a lot of temptation in the high places and we need to remind ourselves constantly that those who hold high office in this world are yes privileged and often enjoy the material benefits of their status, but there also exposed to a greater possibility of evil than we who have the often under-rated privilege to live outside the glare of the ever hungry media.

So what should we do when faced with what we perceive to be the failings of our fellow pilgrims. James has some very sound advice in his Epistle, Chapter 5:

‘The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. …………My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.’

This is a powerful reminder of the mercy of God and the possibility for redemption. It also emphasises the need for all of us to confess our sins to each other and pray for each other. That is not what is going on at the moment. Currently we are focussing all our attention on a man like us who has fallen in the same way we do and meanwhile things of a truly evil nature are escaping our notice. We are not called to ignore the failures of another but rather to build one another up so that together we may confront the real evils in this world. Let us remember those words of Jesus – “Whoever is not against us is for us”.

Thursday 7 September 2006

'The Protestant Bus'

The context of this was a dispute whereby a Roman Catholic family demanded access for their children to a VEC (Educational authority) sponsored bus which provided transport to 'Protestant' children to their nearest school, which in this case was Villiers School in Limerick city, a school of joint Anglican/Presbyterian foundation which is also open to children of other denominations and none. However in the case of Roman Catholic children their local school would be deemed to be the local Roman Catholic school. (Only in Ireland as they say! - No wonder we have had such sectarian strife when we seggregate our children from their earliest years, but that is another issue from the one discussed here). The family in question pass a number of other schools in attending Villiers but claimed rights of transport to Villiers on the basis of 'equality'. What follows is an article I submitted to the Irish Times, one of the Irish national newspapers, and which was subsequently printed on their OpEd pages:

Irish Times
Opinion Mon, Sep 04, 06
As a society we must clarify what we mean by 'equality'
Rite and Reason: Confusion and conflict between 'equality' and 'fairness' would not be so likely if those drafting equality legislation were clearer in their intent, writes Canon Stephen Neill.

The apparent resolution of the recent dispute in Limerick revolving around a VEC-sponsored transport scheme for "Protestant children" is to be welcomed, but some significant issues remain outstanding. Principal among these is the as yet undisclosed reason for the VEC's ultimate capitulation. Until this policy reversal they were simply implementing existing Department of Education regulations which provide for the free/subsidised transportation of students who live more than three miles from their nearest school. Taking into account the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, the VEC correctly judged that, in the case of Protestant children, the option of transport to their nearest Protestant school was appropriate.
The provision of passes to the Roman Catholic children concerned is generous but not consistent with either the Constitution or Department of Education policy and sets a precedent which is not likely to be ignored by others in similar circumstances.
Many commentators, including the local branch of Republican Sinn Féin, interpreted the dispute in terms of sectarianism and the denial of equality, which may have provoked the VEC into its panic-stricken and ambiguous response.

If this unnecessary confusion is not to be repeated, we need as a society to consider what exactly we mean by "equality". This little word is far from straightforward in its interpretation. Very often we hear people talking about "equality and fairness" as if they were the same thing or at least two sides of the one coin. One only has to look at the latest Cori (Council of Religious of Ireland) report, "Developing a Fairer Ireland", to see examples of this assumed equivalence. Most reasonable people acknowledge the importance of fairness. The question that needs to be asked is whether to be fair to all parties concerned in a dispute means treating them all the same; or, to put it another way, with equality?
The recently-retired American industrialist Dennis Bakke, founder of the multi-national AES energy corporation and strong advocate of employee-centred business practice, thinks not. In his best-selling book Joy at Work, which among others carries Bill Clinton's endorsement, he insists that "fairness or justice means treating everyone differently". To do otherwise ignores the individuality of people and their particular circumstances. He goes even further, suggesting that pay classification systems used by governments and advocated by trade unions are both arbitrary and unfair, benefiting underperformers and insufficiently rewarding star performers. In this context he demonstrates very convincingly that fairness is not necessarily the same as equality and that the two can easily be in conflict with one another.

This confusion and conflict between "equality" and "fairness" would not be so likely if those drafting equality legislation were clearer in their intent. There are two basic approaches to the whole notion of equality legislation. One is "equality of opportunity" and the other is "equality of outcome". The fact that the legislation governing this area is generally referred to as "equal opportunities legislation" is not much help, as almost invariably the success or otherwise of such legislation is judged by its outcome. That might seem perfectly logical and sensible, but to ensure "equality of outcome" involves trespassing on other very dear constitutional rights such as liberty and freedom.

"Equality of opportunity" means ensuring that issues such as nationality, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation and other similar characteristics should not circumscribe the potential of an individual citizen. As such, "equality of opportunity" is a fair approach and one which respects freedom and individuality. "Equality of outcome" is a different animal entirely; taken to its logical conclusion, it guarantees that everyone gets the same treatment and reward, regardless of their personal contribution. The implications of this are many and for the most part very destructive of society. It undermines the value of personal responsibility and feeds the growing litigation culture, which thrives in a climate where rights are paramount and responsibilities optional. To enforce "equality of outcome" inevitably means compromising "equality of opportunity", as it imposes arbitrary and unjust criteria on individuals and organisations which limit the freedom of those who are supposedly guaranteed "equality of opportunity". In this sense, ironically, equality legislation very often runs the risk of increasing inequality.

The British journalist and novelist Fiona Pitt-Kethley once famously commented in an interview in the Guardian newspaper: "I believe in equality. Bald men should marry bald women." As ludicrous as that sounds, it is no more so than the situation which now pertains following the "Protestant bus" debacle in Limerick. The whole issue of denominational education in Ireland needs urgent reappraisal, not least in the light of the growing religious diversity of Irish society. But as long as it is part of the Irish educational system it needs to be administered in a way that is consistent with the underlying and constitutional values of the State. The recent VEC U-turn in Limerick undermines that aspiration.

Canon Stephen Neill is Rector at Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary

© The Irish Times