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.

Friday 5 July 2013

Be safe on eBay!

I sold an unwanted upgrade iphone 5 yesterday on eBay but got suspicious when buyer who had a Texas PayPal account wanted it posted to Vietnam! I refused to do so after consulting with eBay who said I should only deliver to the US address. 

On mailing buyer via both his eBay email and his PayPal email (different addresses) he responded via eBay and opted for the Texas address. Sorted I thought! 

Then a very urgent email from another person  who claimed to be the owner of the PayPal account and that their account had been hacked.

 Thankfully I had not posted the phone and on contact with PayPal the fraud was confirmed. The paypal account had been hacked and the US address associated with it changed. 

I finally managed to reverse the payment this morning which was complicated by the fact I had already transferred it electronically to my regular bank account and that transaction also had to be reversed. 

I have just had an email from the fraud victim who has been notified that he will be refunded in next couple of days so all is well though it did cause me a lot of grief and time on the phone. 

I have to say that PayPal were as always excellent to deal with - I was the victim of a fraud myself on eBay a few years ago (this time purchasing an iphone) and they got my funds back and banned the seller. 

The experience confirms my personal policy of always using PayPal when using Ebay - It doesn't guarantee you won't be the victim of fraud but ultimately it will be sorted. 

Wednesday 22 May 2013

The Abortion Debate – Reluctantly leaving the Middle Ground!

When the current abortion debate blew up in the wake of the Savita Halappanavar tragedy and the ABC case I wrote to the Irish Times Letters page (Published Nov 22nd 2012) arguing for the ‘Middle Ground’ to makes its voice heard so that we could progress beyond the extreme polarity of the ‘Pro-Life’ & ‘Pro-Choice’ campaigns. I am not going to repeat all the points I made on that occasion but in essence I suggested that this is a complex issue which is ill-served by either ‘side’ demonizing the other. Sadly and despite the attempts of people far more qualified and influential than I the middle ground has not really been heard and we are if anything becoming daily more polarized on this issue. The debate around suicidality in particular has driven into a cul de sac and only addresses a tiny fraction of the issues around abortion.

On a personal level I too (to my surprise and a certain amount of discomfort) have become more polarized and I wonder am I alone in this. Leading into the current debate my position would have been that abortion should only be available in cases of rape, unviable pregnancy and a threat to the health and/or life of the mother. My inclusion of the threat to health as well as life would it seems to me be justified in the light of the ambiguity over the transition from threat to health to threat to life in the Savita  Halappanavar case.

I would not have been and am still not in favour of abortion on demand. I certainly do not want abortion to become an alternative form of contraception.  Equally I would hate to see abortion used as a means of genetic selection where pregnancies of Downs Syndrome or other Special Needs were routinely terminated. I say this as the parent of a child with Special Needs who has brought untold joy to my life and that of my wife.

My views on abortion are not merely speculative in that in my ministry I have encountered the issues outlined above where I feel abortion should be available. Incidentally in my experience abortion has not always been and indeed was rarely the desired choice of the mother but it is my belief that that choice should be there.

So what has changed? Where do I stand in the wake of the debate to date? Well in the absence of a middle ground I am forced to make a hard choice and I do so fully conscious of the potential for many of the things that I do not want to see happen become a reality.

In my original letter to the Irish Times I regretted the at times casual regard for the life of the foetus by many in the ‘Pro-Choice’ camp and I went on to say that to minimize the reality of abortion as the termination of a life is to ‘undermine our own humanity’. However I find even more disturbing the approach of many in the ‘Pro-Life’ camp and I still stand over what I wrote in that earlier letter:

When it comes to the ‘Pro-life’ group the principal fault is ironically the failure to take seriously the life of the mother. Their pro-life stance is somewhat selective. The mother is portrayed as a vessel whose sole purpose is to support the life within her with no account for her own humanity, welfare and integrity. Her motivations in choosing abortion, no matter how traumatic or medically necessary, are ignored and her actions are described in terms of murder regardless of the circumstances. This is cruel and for want of a better word tantamount to misogyny.’

There are times in ones life when a choice has to be made. Choice is part of what it means to be a human being. Many of the choices we face are not black and white and we do not always have the luxury of chosing between what is obviously good or bad, right and wrong.  I believe that abortion is such an issue and that for any of us from a distance to presume we know what is right in any given circumstance is at least naaive and perhaps more than a little arrogant.

There are a number of factors which sway me. As the debate has continued I have become more and more uncomfortable with the predominance of male voices who pontificate on this issue with little if any sympathy for the complex variety of situations in which women considering abortion find themselves. Yes there are ‘pro-life’ women too but I think we as men need to ask ourselves a question before we even presume to weigh into this debate: How would we feel if we were the one’s who had the privelege and the pain of childbearing? The answer is we don’t know and thus all our contributions should be made in the context of respect for the role of women in child bearing and humility in the light of our own inevitable ignorance.

I am also increasingly concerned at the level of amateur interference in medical issues that this debate has fostered. We are putting doctors in an impossible situation as we attempt to second guess their every decision.  There is something quite bizarre about non-medical politicians, clergy (of any church) and others trying to argue medical technicalities with highly qualified consultants and other medical specialists.  Our doctors need to be given clear and unambiguous guidance in principle by legislators  and then given the necessary level of trust to perform their duties and maintain the integrity of the doctor/patient relationship which is hugely undermined by the proposed legislation.

I have deliberately not until now argued my position from a religious perspective as I am not under the illusion that we religious have a monopoly on wisdom or on respect for life. However I do think there is something within the Christian tradition which speaks quite powerfully on this issue and that is our role as Co-Creators with God. We human beings as well as being created have been given the ability to create life and that is our choice. We are not forced by God to do so. Even Mary, the Christ bearer, was given the choice to say yes or no to bearing the Incarnate Lord. Her yes is at the root of the faith of those of us who call ourselves Christian. This may be irrelevant to those who are of another faith or of no faith and if so feel free to disregard but to those of us who profess a Christian faith I think the cooperation of Mary as Mother is something we should reflect on.

On a pragmatic level I am also increasingly swayed by the fact that we already have abortion in Ireland. Its simply that we export the implementation of it and in so doing condemn women to an often lonely and frightening journey to foreign shores. Here they have non of the support structures of friends and family and even on arrival home are afraid to disclose what they have experienced. In some cases where post-abortion complications arise this is potentially life threatening and does not reflect well on our compassion as a nation. What we don’t know may not hurt us but this 'fool's paradise' we choose to live in is hurting women every day.

And finally it comes down to TRUST. If we are to truly respect the role of women in childbearing then we have to trust them with that role without subjecting them to the kind of overbearing oversight that is proposed in the new legislation. Yes all life is precious and deserves respect but that includes the lives of  women who must face the joys and agonies of childbearing and childbirth and all the complexities that involves. Their ‘yes’, and even their ‘no’ is something which we must respect.

And so if you haven’t already realised I have vacated the Middle Ground and must now declare myself  Pro-Choice. I do so because I feel that I must trust women with the integrity of their own bodies. The alternative is to be party to a culture of coercion and enforcement which takes from women that most fundamental right of determining their own role in Creation. That is for me fundamental to their humanity and to mine.

Monday 20 May 2013

The Minister and Mick

Alan Shatter TD and Minister for Justice is a solicitor with a proven track record, particularly in the area of family law. It is ironic then that such an able legal mind should have perhaps committed such a basic legal faux-pas that would threaten the future of his political career. It remains to be seen whether any offence will be deemed to have been committed but even to place himself in a situation where the question can be asked shows a lack of judgment on the part of the Minister. Surely a man of Shatter’s experience and standing would realize that the use of privileged information in a political context is exceedingly dangerous. 

I sympathize with his frustration in sharing a platform with Mick Wallace who to my mind belongs anywhere but in public office, but that was the will of the people in our democracy, which all politicians, Shatter included, are sworn to uphold.  The Minister should know better than to let himself be risen by such buffoonery.

And yet Shatter’s response has been anything but conciliatory. His familiar arrogance has been to the fore as he has tried to bluster his way out of an exceedingly tight corner. I am quite certain that the Minister knows that he has at best pushed the boundaries of his office to a new limit and at worst may have committed an offence under data protection legislation.

So why does he not simply apologize to Mick Wallace and the Irish people for overstepping the boundaries of his office? Surely one such as he who has devoted his professional life to the law, its formation and enforcement would not wish (no matter how arrogant he is) to stand over actions which if condoned would undermine the basis of our democracy. Surely even he would eat a little humble pie for the sake of the Law. I use capital letters for Law here intentionally because I do believe he would see it as one of the pillars of our society.

So why not hold his hands up and ask for forgiveness? I think this is the nub of the matter. He knows that there will be no forgiveness. To admit to having, however inadvertently, broken the law is career suicide. That will be the end of Alan Shatter TD and Minister for Justice and it will be not only his loss but ours too for he has made a considerable contribution to Irish politics and law in his lifetime. It will indeed be a sad end if this does prove to be his nemesis.

However as long as Shatter persists in defending the indefensible he will simultaneously diminish the democratic capital of this State. However provoked we cannot allow those with such weighty responsibility to abuse their privileged status for political point scoring. This is a dangerous precedent and one which must be stopped in its tracks! As it stands the best solution for the ongoing integrity of our democracy would be that the Minister would relinquish office.

I wish it were other, but in an unforgiving society there is no alternative. I wish we lived in a society where people could admit to mistakes and failures and be allowed the opportunity to learn from them. I would much prefer to have Alan Shatter continue in office, having eaten the necessary humble pie, and through the whole experience grow in stature and integrity. But that will never be unless things change radically and we abandon the culture of spin and systems failure where nobody is ever responsible for anything or anyone. In the meantime in this imperfect world I hope the Minister does the right thing.

Friday 3 May 2013

Sermon for Sunday 5th May 2013

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…..the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.”

Jesus words to Judas are words addressed to all his disciples and indeed to us today. We are called not only to Love as we heard in last weeks Gospel but to the implications of that Love. Here it is spelt out for us in greater detail:
“Those who love me will keep my word”….. It seems clear enough and yet through the centuries the Church has often misunderstood what that means.
The word keep is a word open to misinterpretation – does keep his Word and God’s Word, for that is what Jesus says it is – does that mean observe it in everything that we do – follow its instruction and do as Jesus told us or does it mean to guard it, to keep it safe, to keep it to ourselves and not let anyone who isn’t in the Church have access to it?

Most of us would probably say its about following God’s commands and wishes for us as we engage with the world but very often in practice it has meant the opposite. We are inclined to keep God and God’s Word to ourselves and not always intentionally. We do it sometimes by putting up accidental barriers to communication with the world we are called to serve.
One of the greatest and worst barriers we construct is the one of language – we speak a language in church and in church circles that is quite different than the language we use in the rest of our lives. We throw around words like ‘Kingdom’ ‘Salvation’ ‘Redemption’ ‘Sin’ & ‘Judgement’ without either really understanding what we mean and certainly not explaining it to those outside the inner circle.
It is a kind of jargon or shop-talk that is every bit as effective in keeping the stranger away as erecting a barbed wire fence around the perimeter of our buildings. We don’t do it intentionally but we do it unthinkingly and it is something that clergy and congregations are equally guilty of.
There is often a demand to make the Gospel relevant – we don’t need to do that – The Gospel is already relevant – God has made it so but we as the vessels in which that Gospel is communicated must make it intelligible to the world in which we find ourselves.

That is no easy task either because the Church is increasingly alien to its own environment. We live in a digital culture which for better or worse is driven by a demand for instant and universal communication and transparency – It is no longer the privileged few who control the flow of information in society – we are all broadcasters, or can be if we want to through the medium of social networks. We may be uncomfortable with them, we may actively dislike them but if we do not engage with them we may as well close the doors. What is happening today is every bit as revolutionary as the Printing Press and it was the Churches early adoption of printing that ensured the spread and growth of the Gospel.

Keeping Gods Word today may actually mean entering into this new world of communication, collaboration and sharing. Like all new developments there is good and bad but it is the primary place where those who we seek to share the Word of God are ‘hanging out’ for want of a better word.

For those of us not at all comfortable with this digital world there are alternatives – other ways in which we can break down the walls around the Church so that the Word can permeate through our world. What does that look like ? – Quite simply putting Love at the centre of everything we do.
It means using Love as the litmus paper or test of the goodness of what we are doing.  If we do this then we are told that God will come to us and make his home with us. That home is to be found wherever the Church, you and me, are active in his service in the world. People will always recognize and respond to a Church that does what it says on the tin – May we as disciples of Jesus and living stones of the Church of Christ be the walking witness of his Love in the world. Amen.

Sermon for Sunday 28th April 2013

Love Love me Do, The Power of Love, Love can build a bridge, Love can mend a broken heart, Endless Love, Love me Tender, Dream Lover, I can’t stop loving you, You’ve lost that loving feeling, Will you love me tomorrow………..

That is but a small sample of the songs that have been written about Love in the last 50 or 60 years – I went online to have a look at how many there were and one site listed just shy of 1200 love songs – I was going to read them all and end by thanking God for the gift of love but thought I might not get away with that.

But there is an important point in this – Our music is a reflection of our culture at any given time in our history – Music reflects the mood and the events of life both on the large scale and on the deeply personal scale – Think back to Band Aid when Bob Geldof’s song captured the moment of the Ethiopian famine and not only reflected the compassion of people for the starving but motivated people to take action. So we need to take music seriously. And obviously judging by the number of songs written about Love we need to take Love very seriously indeed!

In today’s Gospel from John 13 we have the support of our Lord in this prioritizing of Love.

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

It is also important to be aware of the context of this command to Love – When we think of love we perhaps think of the excitement of first love, the embrace of a loved one, a wedding or even a cosy meal by candlelight.

It actually was at a meal that Jesus gave this command, probably by candlelight / torchlight but it was certainly wasn’t romantic! Jesus gave us the command to love one another at the Last Supper shortly after Judas had left the upper room on his way to betray Jesus!

So this central teaching of Jesus – this command to Love came in a moment of crisis, a moment of sadness, a moment of huge challenge and almost certainly fear.

That’s generally not how we think about Love – we have for the most part a very sanitized view of Love. We see it as a spontaneous thing, a mutual and balanced relationship between two people. 
But Love is much more than that and to fully understand that we have to look to the events that were to follow that fateful night when Jesus gave us this command to Love.

The most perfect vision of Love that we can look to is the Cross – In the Cross God in Christ gives his life so that we may live…. He gives something that we can never return in equivalent scale. And in giving that Love, without demanding a return he actually transforms us and allows us the potential to be the best that we can be…..but it is our choice, God’s Grace freely given which we can decide to accept or reject…..Pure Love!

While we cannot match what God has done we can be what God has given us the potential to be – we can Love in a divine way and we too can be part of that transformative work. But it means practicing another kind of love – Don’t worry you don’t have to stop loving the people you already love but you and I are called to broaden the horizons of our love. So that means loving not just those who are family, not just those who deserve our love, not just those who we feel sorry for but also those we dislike, those we hate and those who hate us.

Why do that? Because if we like God take the initiative in showing Love to the undeserving and the stranger extraordinary things can happen – Look at Saul for example – He hated God with every fibre of his body and God Loved him into becoming his disciple. That is the example we are called to follow. We don’t have to to like everybody but difficult and all as it is we do have to Love everybody!

What does that look like today? Well it means taking off our Love blinkers and looking around us to see those in pain and despair and ask ourselves how my loving them could make a difference. It also involves thinking about our behaviour as consumers as we shop for cheap clothing which is brought to us at the expense of workers in desperate conditions in sweatshops throughout the world, as was highlighted in last weeks tragedy in Bangladesh. It means constantly asking ourselves what are the fruits of my actions – Are they furthering the cause of Love or are they furthering my own selfish desires.

May our example be the one who loved us more than we can ever comprehend. He loved us when we were unlovable and somehow through that love we were transformed. We do not need to wait for love to be deserved – if God had done that we would never have known his Love. Love is the first step, not the last – so let us Love and so transform the world into what God wishes it to be.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Sermon for Easter 2 - Crackpots for Jesus?

It’s the Sunday after Easter – We in the modern Church know the whole story of Easter by now – We are happily celebrating the Resurrection and all that it means – apart from lots of sick stomachs after an overabundance of chocolate!

But when we turn to Scripture there is a strong sense of discord because our Gospel starts on anything but a joyous note! It starts in fear – Jesus friends and followers are hiding like refugees or criminals. They are behind locked doors. They have lost everything that they held dear – their future has been thrown into turmoil and they are to put it mildly terrified.

They are deeply traumatized by their loss – it means adjusting their whole approach to life.
And even when Jesus reveals himself the trauma is not ended because this is still not how they planned it – Jesus wasn’t meant to die – Yes he is resurrected but he will be with them for but a little time before they have to get used to loosing him all over again.

Yes they will have the Spirit but they like we form strong relationships and attachments and however strongly we believe in resurrection and eternity find it hard to lose the ones we love. It is not a sign of the weakness of our faith but rather the depth of our Love – loving and losing and the pain that goes with it are a part of the human condition. It is what makes us the beautiful and fragile creations that each one of us is.

The whole of life can be described as loving and loosing – whether it is a loved one, our hopes and dreams, our plans and ambitions, our health and even our own lives, everything and everybody we love apart from God himself is transient and fleeting.

I have been thinking about loss quite a bit this week and especially after listening to an interview (via with a man called Kevin Kling, a comedian, poet and playwright. Born with a disabled left arm, he lost the use of his right one after a motorcycle accident nearly killed him.

He thus experienced two very different kinds of loss in his life, one inherited and one acquired and he makes some interesting observations in comparing the kinds of loss he experienced.
Quoting from one of his poems he says this:
'Now when you're born into loss, you grow from it.
But when you experience loss later in life, you grow toward it.'

What did he mean by that? Well if I interpret him correctly - that if you are born with a loss, of whatever kind it is already a part of you and you don’t have to make a conscious effort to adjust to it – you move outward from it and it is something that is a part of your subconscious.

But when you loose something later in life you have to adjust to the new circumstance – you have to dig deep into your own reserves and find those things that a part of you that will help you to live with your new reality. In this sense you almost have to go back to a sort of childhood and begin your life again in the light of the new you. You do this so that you can incorporate this change and loss into your life rather than allowing it to end your life.

Kling tells a parable which he wrote himself which illustrates the point beautifully – Its called The story of the cracked pot:

'Back in the days when pots and pans could talk, which indeed they still do, there lived a man. And in order to have water, every day he had to walk down the hill and fill two pots and walk them home. One day, it was discovered one of the pots had a crack, and as time went on, the crack widened. Finally, the pot turned to the man and said, "You know, every day you take me to the river, and by the time you get home, half of the water's leaked out. Please replace me with a better pot." And the man said, "You don't understand. As you spill, you water the wild flowers by the side of the path." And sure enough, on the side of the path where the cracked pot was carried, beautiful flowers grew, while the other side was barren. "I think I'll keep you," said the man.'

The story it seems to me is a wonderful illustration of the beauty that can come from brokenness and loss. Its also as the author himself observed in that interview about how we respond to loss rather than being defined by that which we have lost….'what we bring rather than what we are not.'

But lets bring all this back to disciples and their fear and loss and lets put ourselves in their shoes for a moment, because we are – this story is our story too.
What does it mean for us and for them? Well I think it is about our baptism – where we are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ so that we may rise with him. Those words are part of our baptism liturgy – I wonder how often we really think about their implications? We have to reorient our lives to that change – we have to go back to the beginning and live in the light of the pain and death of Holy Week so that we can enter into the joy of the Resurrection.
We also have to fight the temptation to allow the hurts and pains of this life define us – we have to grow towards our pains and our losses so that we can with Gods help turn them inside out and allow them to become sources of hope and inspiration, moments of Grace even

All of this is possible because of what Jesus did for us, cracked pots that we are (as opposed to crackpots, a subtle distinction) – let us not waste the unlimited potential that is in every single person created in his image. Let loss not cause us to fear loving but let our loving transform our loss.