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.