Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Women bishops

Today's Gospel


Today is the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So perhaps it is not surprising that the role of women in the Church is on my mind. I'm thinking locally right now, about the Church of Ireland. It's over 20 years now since we prayerfully made the decision to ordain woman. In terms of deacons and priests the numbers are good. But why do we still have no women bishops? I detected some smuggness among CofI folk when the CofE was tying itself in knots a while back over its own debate. That's something we sorted our long ago, I heard people say (or words to that effect). But did we? If we really did, where are our women bishops? Twnety years is long enough for some to have worked their way up through the piple-line to the point where they can wear purple other than as a stole. But none have. Indeed, where are women in the pipeline at all? By which I mean, where are the women deans, arch-deacons, and women in other senior roles such as chairing important committees that are all part of the track-record of the profile of what is normally considered episcopal material? So far there has been only two female Deans. I don't think there is anyone else in a position that gives the kind of experience we expect of someone who will wear a pectoral chain. So the question is, does the CofI have some kind of a glass ceiling? It could be, of course, that women are not attracted to the roles that leads to a See House address. If that is the case, we must still wonder why. The biblical scholars like to tell us that the important role that women played in the early church was essentially edited out (Margaret Daly-Denton back me up here!); it would be a shame if we were today still not allowing women a real chance to show the world the part they can play in the church at all levels.

I have a few more bits & pieces to say about this, but I'll leave it until tomorrow.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Saving Ryan

today's Gospel: John 15.26-16.4

There's a report in today's Irish Times about how, two years since the Ryan Report into the sexual abuse of children by clergy was issued, there hasn't been a single prosecution, despite the assurances that were given at the time of publication that it would certainly do so. Personally, I'm not surprised. After years of costly tribunals that have achieved pretty much nothing other than a slew of rich lawyers, should we really be surprised that the Ryan Report has proved to be, thus far, an insufficient basis on which to mount a criminal prosecution.  This country needs a way of investigating its scandals that is far less expensive and far more efficient. It's bad enough when corrupt politicians and business men get to thumb their nose at society as a result; it is unacceptable when the victims of sexual abuse are further wounded by the sheer ineptitude of our system. I'm not going to re-hash all horrors that have come out since these abuse scandals started to emerge. But there's a verse in today's Gospel that seems apt: Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. There's a lot of people who are very angry with the Church right now. It's hard to blame them. By them I mean those who have truly suffered and those who have had their faith damages by what happened. I don't mean those who were anti-church to begin with and have adopted the mantle of righteous indignation in order to take advantage of this scandal to serve their own agenda. But leaving them aside there's a lot of people who are hurt and angry and rightfully so. There may have been no prosecutions in the two years since the report. But what have we done in those two years as 'Church' to help heal those who were wounded?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

making and taking opportunities

today's readings

Sermon 5.29.2011 6th of Easter
May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Amen.

In our reading from Acts we hear about St Paul's visit to Athens … It must have been quite amazing for him to be there … the city was filled with some of the treasures of the ancient world … even today it is quite stunning … it was the kind of place a man like Paul would have appreciated … if you remember your scripture, you'll be well aware that Paul was an educated man … he was a Pharisee, which means that he was someone who was highly trained in all the Jewish scholarly traditions … and we also know that he studied, as he puts it himself, at the feet of Gamaliel, the major rabbinical scholar of his time, which was a bit like going to Cambridge or Harvard today … so, there he is, this very bright, cultured man, walking through Athens … admiring all the sites of one of the major cultural centres of the Ancient World … seeing all the buildings & statues & sculptures … all the temples and altars dedicated to all the different deities of the Ancient World … and then he sees something a little different … an altar dedicated to 'an unknown god'

Now the people of the Roman Empire tended to be what we would call 'pluralistic' … they allowed everyone to worship whatever god they pleased … this wasn't just being socially enlightened … not trying to interfere with people's religion made them easier to rule … plus, they were a superstitious lot and they were a bit worried about giving offence to some god or other … and this was the main purpose of the shrine to 'the unknown god' … just in case they had left anyone out, here was the safety-net … sorry we didn't know about you, god or goddess, but we didn't ignore you … look, here is the altar that we set up for you!

Now when Paul saw that, he might have just 'tut-tutted' like a good monotheist and kept going, muttering something under his breath about the all these pagans he had to put up with in this foreign city, where people were clever enough to create great works of art, but foolish enough that they saw gods in every bush and tree and stream … and now had gone so far as to put up an altar to a god they hadn't even thought of just in case they had missed one … but he didn't … because, as I said, Paul was a very bright man … and he was also very focused … in this case focused on his mission to spread the Word of God and to let the world know about the good news of Jesus Christ …

And so where others might have seen nothing … or only to shake their heads at in disappointment … or frown at crossly … or just smile and give themselves a little mental pat on the back at how superior they were to all these ignorant and foolish worshippers of idols … Paul did none of these things … because Paul saw something that he could use to his advantage … to the advantage of the mission that had been entrusted to him by God … something that he knew he would help him to help others hear the Gospel message … and so, the first chance he got, he went to where the people of Athens had gathered and basically said to them:

'Folks, I've been walking around your city, carefully studying your objects of worship, and it's quite clear that you are very interested in religion … well guess what? The God you have been worshipping as an unknown God, I know who he is … now, let me tell you all about him …'

Lucky old Paul, you might say, finding a chance like that … but it didn't just happen. Paul's finding the altar might have been an accident … but he was a man who was alert to the opportunities that came before him … and having found his opportunity he took it … he marched himself off down to the city's meeting place and started talking to people …

Now I know we can't all be like Paul … Paul is a towering giant in terms of the Christian faith … his writings are foundational … and his missionary work laid the groundwork for spreading the church throughout the world … but we can try to be like him to some extent, in little ways … we try to be alert for opportunities to try and witness to the Gospel … one way is to merely display to others the importance our faith has in our lives … for example, how difficult would it really be to remember to always make our relationship with God plain for all to see … in little ways, in our conversations by saying things like 'thank God for that'; or 'I'll see you tomorrow, please God'; or saying 'God bless' as you say your good-byes … We have rather secularised our conversations in recent years … in fact, I wonder how many people remember that 'goodbye' is a contraction of 'God be with you'? …

There are, of course, other little things that could be done … such as whenever you go away for the weekend, making a point when you are booking your hotel or B&B of asking for the times of local services … and insisting that they find out if they don't know … the customer is always right, after all! Or, if you are staying with friends, asking them to find out for you … and if friends are staying with you inviting them to come to church with you … perhaps you could let people know that you are not available until services are over if you are asked to do something on a Sunday morning, … even something as simple as not being afraid to say your Grace before meals when you are eating in a restaurant, just as you would at your own table, is a way of finding an opportunity and taking it … and I'm sure there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, ot way you can think of for yourself … Because, just like Paul walking through Athens that day, life presents us with opportunities … we can keep our eyes closed and not see them … or see them, and make no use of them … or as we journey through life, we can in our own small way be like Paul, taking those as he did to witness and strengthen the faith of others … something that I pray for you, for myself, and all those we meet … in Jesus name

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Soft Violence

today's Gospel: John 15.18-21

A friend of mine, who should know, tells me that one of the worst forms of emotional violence it to be deliberately ignored. Close behind that is to be mocked, belittled, & ridiculed. They may be 'soft' forms of violence, but they are violence nontheless. When Jesus tells us, his disciples, that just as the world hated him it will hate us, I think we are prepared for physical violence and agressive hostility. That's what the church faced in the bad old days, & still faces in many parts of the world. But in our modern, enlightened society what we get is to be made fun of or ignored. But it is the same thing. It is still an expression of hatred for for what we know to be true. It's the same wolf in different clothes. So we should take the same encouragement from the words we hear from Jesus today as those did who first heard them. The world hated him first. Those of us who love him should not be surprised when there are those in the world who hate us also, however they express it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

the love effect

today's Gospel: John 15.12-17

The media is full of reports about the 'player' who took out an injunction, whose effect was defeated by twitter. A few questions arise. Did he actually have the affair? If he did, is it really any of our business? Is the fact that twitter now allows us to gossip on a global scale to be celebrated? What of his family? The courts granted the injunction to protect their privacy & must have thought it was something they were entitled to - is our responsibility to obey the law only real up to the point where it can be enforced? What of respect? What of decency? What of love? In today's Gospel Jesus tells us to love one another. Is there really any love in all this?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

that your joy may be complete

Today's Gospel: John 15.9-11

Today's Gospel is so short, I'm pasting the whole thing here. If you want to put it into the context it occurs in John's Gospel, click on the link and then use the buttons at the bottom of the page to navigate back and forth. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. They are only a couple of verses, but I find them so beautiful. I'm tempted to get all mystical about the way the various statements weave in and out of each other, but that would just detract from the wonderful simplicity of the overarching message that I see here ... which is that in order to live a full and complete human life we must live that life dwelling within the love of Jesus. To dwell within that love you must do his will. But this is not some kind of arbitrary burden. To do so brings the joy of living in Christ into your life. And this joy is the fullness of joy, the completeness of joy. It is the joy that comes from being what it was you were created to be - a child of God who is truly in relationship with him.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Just go to Church!

today's Gospel: John 15.1-8

It would be very easy to see Jesus' language today - abide in me - as being very comfy-cosy. As long as you love Jesus everything is OK. But Jesus is saying a lot more than that. When he says that he is the vine and we are the branches he's using rich imagery that is used elsewhere in the New Testament - imagery that means if you are to be a follower of Jesus then you have to be part of the collective body of his followers, his Church.

One of the most frustrating things one meets in ministry - and there are many! - is the number of people you meet who say they are spiritual but not religious and feel that they can be good Christians without going to church. With no desire in the world to be judgemental (OK, maybe just a little!), I feel the need to vent on this topic a bit and point out that this goes entirely against scripture, tradition, and reason.

Tradition is easily demonstrated. Christians have always met together for worship of a Sunday, and lots of other days as well, from the very earliest days of the Church. Case closed. That is the tradition of the Church.

Reason, I think is a simple one to prove also. If you call yourself a Christian, then you are part of that larger body of people who call themselves Christian. If you claim to be part of a group, then you do what the group does. It's like being a tennis player. You can practice your swings in the back yard all you want, but there comes a point when you need to get down the courts and play a few games. If you don't, you're not a tennis player. You are a Christian; Christians go to Church; therefore, you go to Church. Quod erat demonstratum.

As to scripture, it's hard to know where to begin. Scripture is littered with proscriptions enjoining us to corporate worship. Take the Last Supper, where Jesus tells his disciples to 'do this in memory of me.' In the Greek, this is a plural imperative - in other words 'you (plural) do this' not 'you (singular) do this.' The Eucharist, which is our central act of worship, is something that Jesus not only commanded us to do, but commanded that we do it together.

St Paul uses the metaphor of the Church being body and we are the various parts with different functions. Rather difficult to claim to be part of the body if you're sitting at home refusing to have anything to do with the rest of the body. Not only that, how can you fulfil your part unless you actually become actively part of the life of the body?

I could go on ... and on ... and on ... but I won't. Enough said. Call yourself a Christian? Then you have to act like one. And part of that means going to church.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Three stones

Today Gospel: John 14.27-31a

The phone rang at 8.50 this morning. It was one of the parish primary schools. Was I coming to take assembly this morning? Well no, I said ... assembly is Thursday and this is Tuesday. Ah, but we switched it this week ... didn't you get the message?

Clearly the answer to that was no! But ever willing I offered to jump in the car and be there as soon as I could ... but I warned them I had nothing prepared. That's fine, they said. Just say a few words. Indeed!

So I flung myself out the door, praying that traffic would co-operate, and trying to remember what was on the list for assembly topics this week. Stephen ... great ... what do you say to 200 kids about stoning people to death off the top of your head? But then I remembered the reading from Peter on Sunday about living stones ... hmm ... maybe I could do something with that?

I pulled up outside the school at bang on 9am. I grabbed three stones from the foot of a tree and marched in. It was like I arrived on cue. They just were finishing a hymn and the principal introduced me. I handed the stones to three smallies at the front.
-Study these well, I said. What are they?
-Stones, they solemnly informed me.
-Well done. And what can we do with stones?
Hands shot up, eager to let me know what one can do with stones. Apparently you can use stones to make fires, play hop-scotch, make bricks, an in war, amongst other things. I seized on the bricks and the war.
-So we can use stones for building things and for destroying things?
They agreed. I read them the story of the stoning of Stephen from Act 7.
-That guy at the end ... Saul; he had another name, didn't he?
They remembered he had been called Paul.
-And what did Paul do?
They remembered he had travelled the world spreading the word.
-So Saul/Paul acted to both damage the church and build it up?
Why yes he did, they agreed. I told them about the idea of living stones from Peter ... and how people could act to build things up and tear them down. So we all had a choice didn't we? We could act to build things up in the world or we could act to tear them down.
-Give me a show of hands for which you'd rather do, tear things down or build them up. Who'd rather tear things down?
One hand went up.
-Anarchist! Who'd rather build things up?
Every hand went up.
-That's fantastic! Give yourselves a big round of applause!

Then we prayed that we might follow the example of Paul and build up the church in the world and the example of Stephen of being faithful to the end.

I don't know if it was the best assembly I've ever done, but it was actually one of the ones I've enjoyed most. It's good to have to think on your feet ... because what comes out is generally simple and generally what you really believe. So ... try it yourself sometime. Set yourself the test. Read the Gospel for the day. And then think, if you had to talk to someone else about it in ten minutes, what would you say? Or maybe just wonder, what does it say to you, about your faith and how you should live your life.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Christ -centred faith

today's Gospel reading for Holy Communion is John 14.21-26

There's an important message in today's reading. Elsewhere in the Gospels we have heard Jesus say that we must love God and love our neighbour. Today he tells his disciples that:

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. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me .

Jesus tells his disciples what they must do if they are to know God's love ... they must love Jesus. More, Jesus says how it is that people are to love him. They are to keep his word, which is also the word of his Father.  Loving God has been bound up with loving Jesus and doing God's will has been bound up with hearing and obeying the word that Jesus speaks.

To state the glaringly obvious, ours is a Christ-centred faith. The Word was made flesh and that Word must take root in our hearts, so that our lives become a constant hymn of praise, the notes of which are our every thought, word, and deed being in tune with the word of Jesus. And quite frankly that is not something that I think comes easily.

It takes hard work.

The work of making prayer a part of your daily routine even when you have a thousand other things pressing for your attention ... and even when you're not in the mood for praying; perhaps especially then. The work of regular worship, of getting up on a Sunday morning to be part of a worshipping community even when you've had a late evening the night before, or when there's a bunch of other things that you might do with the time in your busy weekend schedule. The work of incorporating the word into your daily life and doing the right thing - saying the kind word, doing the good deed, sharing with those less fortunate, foregoing the things that call to you because you know they are not consonant with the faith that you profess.

Looking at that (admittedly only partial) list makes me realise that it's even harder than I thought! But it's what we have to do if loving Jesus is to be anything more than just something we say we do.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

all roads

today's reading for Holy Communion are here.

As I mentioned in my last post, yesterday was my nephew's First Holy Communion. Naturally there was a party at my sister's house afterwards. While it was in full swing I was dispatched to the nursing home to fetch my dad so he could be part of the festivities.

My sister lives in the country & I wouldn't usually drive from her house to the nursing home. In fact, it was a trip I had only made once, about six months ago. It involves driving down some back country boreens and should only take about 10 minutes, as opposed to 20 if one goes by the main roads. However, yesterday was lashing rain and I missed a turn & soon realised I had no idea where I was.

I decided not to worry about it. I knew I would eventually come to a road I recognised, or at least a sign pointing me to a town that I knew was close to where I wanted to go. I was under no pressure time-wise ... yes, the journey was going to take longer, but I knew that I would eventually get there.

So I drove along the back roads, the wet green hedges filled with the white blossoms of hawthorn overhanging the white blossoms of wild garlic, twisting and turning and pretty much following my nose. I recalled what I had written in yesterday's post, about how my faith journey had been sparked to new life by the baptism of my eldest son and how that had led to my discernment of vocation to the priesthood. I wondered what would have happened if for some reason that 'trigger' event hadn't taken place ... what direction would my life have taken? Would I still have ended up pursuing a vocation to the ordained ministry?

The answer, I think, is yes. There are many ways to get to the same place. Even when we aren't sure of where we are going. We just need to be calm and not panic. Have a little faith, a little trust. We'll get to the places we need to get to.

A few minutes later than scheduled I picked my dad up and drove him to the party. And I took the short cut back. I figured that a wrong turn every now and again shouldn't discourage me. After all, one has to have a little faith - even if only in our own abilities. And even if I were to go wrong - again! - I knew that I'd still get to where I was going eventually.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

between the church and the bouncy castle

today's Gospel reading for Holy Communion is John 14-7-14

My nephew made his first Holy Communion this morning & I'm writing this in the hiatus that occurs between the church and the party that follows. The special Mass is to be followed by that other temple that is now part of the ritual, the bouncy castle, in that wonderful mix of the sacred and the secular that has become part and parcel of marking this particular rite of passage in modern Ireland.

Rites of passage are important. During his child friendly homily, the priest reminded the children that 8 or 9 years ago their parents and godparents had brought them to church for baptism to begin their faith journey, and they were in church again today to mark another milestone on that journey. As he spoke, I couldn't help being reminded that it was in that very church that I had brought my eldest son to be baptised nearly 15 years ago to begin his journey of faith. And I also remembered that it was that occasion that promoted me to re-examine my own faith journey and ultimately led to my being ordained priest.

Rituals matter. Who's not to say that many people who attended that Mass today will not pause and take stock of where they are in their faith life as a result? The rituals that the church provides, especially the 'milestone' ones that are rites of passage, are wonderful opportunities for drawing people back, for reminding them of something that is missing from their life. And having things like bouncy castles added to the mix reminds us that the church and our faith is not something that stands apart from 'real' life - they are all of a part, connected, inextricably intertwined. The joy that we experience in our life of faith must shine forth for all the world to see, not just on the special occasions that are followed by parties, but every day.

Friday, May 20, 2011

God save the Queen!

today's Gospel reading from the RCL is John 14. 1-6

I am in no way a royal watcher. I have manged to complete nearly five decades while blissfully avoiding any number of royal weddings; newspaper gossip and scandal rarely gets so much as a skim; and indeed I didn't even watch Princess Diana's funeral (even though I, like most of the world, paused, stunned and saddened by her untimely death). Yet as I was walking around a nursing home yesterday, with all the tellies in the rooms tuned to the Queen's visit, it really hit home to me how much respect and admiration was due to the woman. The lady in question was older than a lot of the residents I was visiting. (Note - I wonder is it the right protocol to refer to the Queen as 'lady' & 'woman'? I have no idea. But if it is, no disrespect intended.) And yet there she is, trotting around the world, working at a pace that would put someone half her age to shame.

But that's not the reason I feel she deserves our admiration. The jaw dropping thing is that there she is, 80-plus, putting herself in harms way for the sake of the greater good - to cement the peace process and foster better relations between our nations into the future. You might say she's not at much risk, what with all the security; you might say she's in more danger of being hit by a shower of eggs or a bag of flower than anything more lethal. But that's not really the point. Think of all those news clips of big strong (relatively) young male politicians being hit by eggs, flour, custard pies, etc. The first look on their face is one of terror - because, it would seem to me, they have no idea who is attacking them or with what & are afraid it might be someone trying to kill them. Any kind of attack is scary, even if you're reasonably young and fit. Now try to imagine your frail and elderly granny in the middle of a potential riot and you'll get the idea of the level of personal physical courage this lady is displaying.

Queen Elizabeth is one brave woman. I've noticed all the male members of her family have all kinds of medals pinned on their chests when they are in uniform. Her entry on Wikipedia says that she has held honorary military titles and positions, so presumably she's just entitled to awards and decorations as they are. I wonder if anyone has ever thought about giving her one for this particular act of bravery? In my book she's earned it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Royalty, religion, & irrelevance

today's Gospel reading from the RCL is John 13.16-20

There is always an element, it seems, that declares that royalty and religion is irrelevant. And then what happens? The Pope visits the UK and people throng the streets. The royal wedding is the most watched television event on the planet. The Queen visits Ireland and it is declared a historic and healing occasion. What's next? Well on UTV last night one commentator suggested the next logical step was for the Pope to visit Ireland ... and not just South, but North too. Royalty and religion irrelevant? Somehow I don't think so.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


today's Gospel reading from the RCL is John 12.44-50

In today's Gospel we hear Jesus talk of judgement. I don't think the idea of judgement is very popular any more. Those who are most enthusiastic about the torments of Hell always seem to think they are reserved for the other fellow - but perhaps it was always thus! Scripture is quite 'thin' on what judgement entails. Jesus seems quite clear that there will be a judgement and warns his disciples to avoid 'Gehenna,'  which my Anchor Bible Dictionary informs me was a metaphorical place of fiery judgement in first and second century Rabbinic thought. Many would escape it altogether; for most who went it was temporary; only the most hardened sinners would have it as a permanent abode. As there is nothing to indicate otherwise in scripture, we have to take it that this is what Jesus meant, and what his hearers understood, when he spoke of judgement and Gehenna. If we strip away all the accretions about the geography of Hell and such that have built up over the years, that understanding and the tradition of the Church are not too far distant. Judgement is a reality. But  Jesus also says in today's reading that he has not come to judge the world but to save it. God wants us to be saved and God's will is a powerful thing. The odds, it would seem, are in our favour.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Father and I are one.

today's Gospel reading from the RCL is John 10.22-30

'The Father and I are one.’ Quite an extraordinary statement. Even more extraordinary when you consider that we, through our baptisms, are one with Christ. So, we also can be one with the Father. But it isn't easy to feel that way. Br Lawrence, the 17th Carmelite,  achieved this by constant conversation with God. He called it the practice of the presence of God. It meant spending your whole life remembering you are in God's presence and acting accordingly. And even he felt 'arid' periods - dry times when it was hard to feel that God was near. His solution? To simply keep up the conversation. To keep trying always, and to try harder during the tough times. It seems abundant good sense. Jesus and the Father were one. Yet we know that it was during the tough times, in Gethsemane, on the Cross, when he perhaps felt most distant from the Father, that he spoke with him most.

Monday, May 16, 2011

One Shepherd, one flock

today's Gospel reading from the RCL is John 10.11-18

In today's Gospel reading, which is a follow-on from yesterday's, Jesus tells us there will be one flock and one shepherd. We're a long way from that, aren't we? How much of that is due to human pride and willfulness - an insistance that we are going to bring about the kingdom in our image, how we think it should be? We are not very good at treating each other lovingly and trusting in God that he will bring his plan to fulfilment. Jesus calls us to be together; instead we scatter more widely each day. We think we are his flock - I wonder instead if really we are wolves, tearing the flock apart from within.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The shepherd, an image of the royal and the divine

today's Gospel reading from the RCL is John 10.10

Sermon 5.15.2011 4th of Easter

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Amen.

We hear the idea of the shepherd used a couple of times in our scripture readings this morning. St Peter uses it to talk about Jesus, saying For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. And in our Gospel reading from St John, we hear Jesus talking about himself as being a shepherd … and not just any shepherd, but one that wants his flock to have life, and have it abundantly

Now on the one hand, the use of shepherd imagery in the bible is some thing we're quite used to … it is used a lot, so it doesn't strike us as strange when we hear people talking about God as a shepherd or indeed Jesus himself calling himself the good shepherd … and perhaps it should … because our idea of who a shepherd is and his relationship with his flock is very different to the one that would have been understood by the biblical writers. We might see a shepherd as a low-paid manual worker, but in the ancient world, flocks and herds represented wealth and power … so much so that the imagery of the shepherd became associated with kingship … the king was the shepherd who looked after the flock who was his people … and the image became associated with divinity also … God was seen as the shepherd who cares for and looks after the sheep who are his children …

Again, to the modern mind, the idea of the shepherd being seen as incredibly caring of his sheep might seem strange … after all, the shepherd eats the sheep or sells them off to be slaughtered! But not so in the ancient world … in the biblical times, the sheep was prized for the milk and wool it provided … the idea of raising an animal up for the primary purpose of killing it and eating it would have seemed strange to them … in fact they ate very little meat in the ancient world; it was seen as a luxury item; most of the meat that they did eat was from the ritual slaughter of animals as part of religious ceremonies … so much so, that pious Jews living outside Israel were strict vegetarians, because most of the animal flesh that was available in the meat markets of the ancient world came from the sacrifices that were made in the temples and the Jews wanted nothing to do with meat that came from offerings that had been made to false gods … but avoiding meat wouldn't have been a huge hardship in any case, because as I said meat formed a very minor part of the Mediterranean diet.

Even the Romans, whom historians love to tells us about their having great feasts with all kinds of exotic dishes such as pies made from larks tongues, ate very little meat. What the historians often forget to mention is that the ancient Roman writers whose works act as the sources for our history books are writing about these feasts with a certain disdain – they don't approve of this luxury and high living. The Roman army conquered the world on a diet that was mostly wheat … and the Roman historian Tacitus tells us the soldiers were quite shocked when they met up with the German natives and discovered all the meat that they were eating … they didn't think it was healthy!

But this attitude towards meat was an important reason why the imagery of the shepherd worked as one of kingship and divinity. For these people the shepherd loved his animals and took care of them, they were precious to him … yes they might be killed, but only as a sacrifice to God, and even then that showed just how precious they were … they were giving to God of their very best, something that was precious to them, something that they relied upon to live … something that was a real sacrifice for them to give up …

Understanding all this helps us understand something very important about what Jesus is saying about himself … when he says that he is a shepherd, he is not saying that he is some kind of agricultural worker … but it is a royal claim … and it is more that that … he says that all who have come before him are thieves and bandits … he is saying he is the one and only true king that has occurred in all of human history … and for the Jews the one true king from whom all authority flowed was God himself …

And elsewhere in John's Gospel, this one true shepherd who is God himself tells us that he is the Good shepherd who will lay down his life for his sheep … the shepherd will become the sacrifice, for the sake of his sheep … he will become the sacrificial lamb … as St Peter tells us He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; and by his wounds we have been healed … so that we might have life, and have it abundantly

By his wounds we have been healed. The Good Shepherd who is the King of Kings and God made man has laid down his life for his sheep … for us … because we were going astray … we still are going astray … but the Good Shepherd knows us still … and if we listen, if we really listen, we will know his voice … and we will return to the safety of his fold, the safety that he bought for us at the price of his own blood, and we will have the life that he desired for us and have it abundantly … Amen.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Good fruits

today's Gospel reading from the RCL is Matthew 7.15-27

In today's Gospel Jesus tells us that a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bad fruit. I wonder what he thinks of the fruit that we are producing today? The Church of Ireland is having it's General Synod  Armagh at this time. Yesterday one of the speakers, the Archdeacon of Tuam, Gary Hastings, said we were facing a 'crisis in slow motion' in relation to church decline. Is this a good fruit? Where does our own responsibility lie for this - is it all about societal change? After all, all faiths and denominations are facing challenges. But if we have become marginalised and perceived as irrelevant surely some of the blame rests with us? Had we become too comfortable and inward looking, assured of our position?

The archdeacon talks of the past trend whereby young people would be confirmed and fall away only to return later when they had children of their own. But this is happening less and less.  the link has been broken. When people go now they just go. Should we ever have accepted such a pattern? From talking to the clergy of other denominations I know this problem is not unique to the the Church of Ireland. And it means that a large proportion of the members of all churches are middle-aged and elderly. What does it say about our Church that this is the age profile of those to whom we are the natural home? And fewer of those people than in times past. 

Can such a church change and become the home of all generations? I hope & pray so. I want there to be somewhere for my grand-children, should I be blessed with them, to learn and grow and worship. I want that for all those who are part of the church. I want to be able to look back in my old age, if God should spare me that long, and see that I was part of something that produced good fruit. And I want that all the members of God's Church to be able to look back and see that too.

Friday, May 13, 2011

annoyed ... and delighted

Feeling a little annoyed right now. Couldn't blog today because 'blogger' was down. The info page on the site said they were having problems. Part of the solution was temporarily removing the last two days posts, but they'd put them back when things were sorted. Well, things appear to be sorted, but my last two days posts aren't back. Huge deal, I suppose, but annoying none the less. I hadn't backed them up, but I can probably drag them out of the original backup memory  - the one in my head - if I get time tomorrow. In the meantime, apologies.

Still, I suppose it's an ill-wind. If I'd posted this morning, it would have been before Universae ecclesiae came out, an instruction from the Vatican which is apparently aimed at giving greater support to those who prefer the Latin Mass. I would have to say that I approve of the idea. I'm of an age where the effects of Vatican II had kicked in before I was old enough to have experienced what is now referred to as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass - what to my parents and grandparents would have been the traditional way of doing things. Cultural treasures come in all shapes and sizes and I am of the opinion that the Latin Mass, crafted over centuries, was one of the West's greatest treasures. It could easily have been lost in the name of keeping up with the times.

Imagine what would happen if someone suggested that the Mona Lisa should be have been painted over with some pop-arty piece of trivia back in the 60s. To those who recognise the value of the traditional form of the Catholic Mass, that's a bit like what happened. Thank goodness there were those who kept up the tradition and are in a position to pass it on now to future generations. Treasures like this are like living, breathing chains, with a new link forged in each age so that it stretches back unbroken to the earliest days. But let one generation fail to forge its link, then the chain is broken and it is denied to those who may come after.

There may never be a great take-up in the practice of the traditional form. But at least now a great treasure of the Church has been given a greater chance of surviving into the future. So, something delightful to make up for the annoyance. I guess there is balance in the universe!

update: & one of the missing posts has reappeared!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Where is Osama bin Laden now?

Today's Gospel reading from the RCL is John 6.44-51

(Icon from the Icon Chapel in Glenstal Abbey)

There's a letter in the Irish Times today about Osama bin Laden which touches on where his soul might now be resident. The letter is by a Roman Catholic priest and in it he points out that we shouldn't try to preempt God's judgement in these matters. Where is OBL now? His followers no doubt consider him a martyr who has earned paradise. Most followers of Islam thought his views were completely out of step with the true message of their faith & so presumably would regard the idea of his being in paradise as being rather doubtful. Those who suffered as a result of his actions, directly or indirectly, might be quite happy to think of his being punished in some way.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says 'No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.' Elsewhere in John's Gospel Jesus says that he will draw all people to himself. What Jesus did for us in his life, death, & resurrection is available to all. When the last moment it is available is open to debate - during life, at the point of death, perhaps even in the next life. We don't know. What we do know that God is merciful. It is not for us to say that OBL is beyond that mercy.

The bread of life

Today's Gospel reading from the RCL is John 6. 35-40

(icon from the Icon Chapel in Glenstal)

In today's Gospel Jesus says:‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.' This is of course one of the great 'I am' sayings of St John's Gospel, one of the ways he points to Jesus' divinity by directly linking him with 'I am' statement that God made to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3, and helps us understand why it is so important to try and get that bread of life.

Jesus tells us that we must come to him to receive that bread of life. How do we do so? In the sacraments, of course. But also in our prayer life. While I was on retreat in Glenstal Abbey last week, our group had a couple of talks from one of the community, Fr Gregory Collins, on prayer. He recommended a structured prayer life which incorporated a systematic reading of scripture. 'You are Anglicans,' he said, 'so I would suggest you use the daily offices from the Book of Common Prayer and the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.' May I be excused for being a bit chuffed by what he said, as it happens to accord with my own practises? It's quite encouraging to have an external authority like Fr Gregory say you're doing the right thing! (To understand what I mean when I call him an authority, take a look at his books in the Abbey shop.)

So what are you doing with regard to your prayer life to try to draw closer to Christ? If the answer is 'nothing much' you could do worse than follow Fr Gregory's advice. If you don't have a prayer book of your own, here's a link to the CofI Book of Common Prayer to help get you started. I'd sugggest Morning Prayer 2 and/or Evening Prayer 2.  You can find links to the RCL here. 

You might have to read through them a few times to get the hang of it, but believe you me it is nothing like as difficult as trying to follow the offices they use in Glenstal when you're not used to them! Give it a shot. If it doesn't work for you, oh well at least you've tried and you've learned that this method isn't for you. And if it does work, well you may have your way of being fed on the bread of heaven that Christ offers and calls us all to feast upon.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Women priests

the gospel reading today for Holy Communion from the RCL is John 6.30-35

(detail of icon from the Icon chapel in Glenstal)

While I was on retreat in Glenstal the topic of the ordination of women in the Catholic Church was raised with one of the community. Hardly surprising really - our group did include both women priests and lay readers. The monk's reaction was interesting. He had no objection to the idea, and thought there was quite a lot of support for the idea in certain circles, but believed it was unlikely to come about for a long while. And the reason why was not theological but social.

The Catholic Church can't do something in one part that wouldn't fly in another, was his reasoning. In many parts of the world the status of women is still so low that the idea of women in any position of authority simply wouldn't be countenanced. And so, since you can't have women priests in countries that are largely, say, Muslim, you can't have women priests anywhere in the Catholic Church.

It was an interesting point, one that I hadn't thought of before. No mention of tradition; no mention of theology; no mention even of ecumenical relations with the Eastern Church, although I know these are serious issues & I have no doubt he would see them as such. But the main stumbling block, as he saw it, was one that would, of course, remain even if the others were resolved - the purely practical need to be consistent across the whole of the Church.

It was one of the consequences of being such an integrated Church that hadn't occurred to me before. Things are, after all, a little different in Anglicanism. For example, there are many of the member churches within the Anglican Communion that do not ordain women and that doesn't stop them from being in communion with those that do. It simply means that in practice a woman priest can't go and minister in that part of the Communion. And yet women bishops were welcome at the Lambeth conference even when the CofE had no provision for a distaff episcopate. But that's is an approach that simply wouldn't work in the Catholic Church.

In an odd way though, I wonder does this mean that there is more hope for some form of closer relationship between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church than many currently seem to think. Two of the big stumbling blocks currently are that Anglicanism (or some parts of it) ordains women, and Rome doesn't recognise Anglican orders. Issues in relation to orders seemed to have been largely resolved in ARCIC, even though it wasn't followed through on. Perhaps the ordination of women isn't the barrier that some see it as. After all, if the Anglican Communion can hobble along despite the differences of its members, perhaps that same sort of compromise can be reached between Rome and Canterbury.

It is, of course, the kind of situation that Anglicans, in general, would be comfortable with. We don't expect our constituent churches to agree on every point. The important question, is it the kind of 'rub along' solution that would be acceptable to the Catholic Church? Perhaps. The Holy Father surprised a lot of people in the way he reached out to a part of Anglicanism in the Ordinariates - which do, after all, contain certain concessions toward the Anglican way of doing things. Perhaps he may yet surprise us further. I would certainly like to hope so - and more than hope, but pray.

Monday, May 9, 2011

filling ourselves on faith

The Gospel reading for today from the RCL is John 6. 22-29

   windy dawn
    ~two donkeys
     under a cyprus

(Icon from the Icon Chapel in Glenstal Abbey)

Jesus says something very interesting to those following him in today's reading: ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.' I think this points to something very important about our religious practice. How many of us are involved because of what we can get out of it? Because it makes us feel good in some way? The danger is, what happens if you stop getting what you want? I've lost track of the amount of times I have  heard from someone who isn't active in their faith give as their reason 'I wasn't getting anything out of it.' It's not unreasonable to want to be spiritually fed yourself by your practice of your faith, but if your focus is solely on you, then it is ultimately a hollow faith and holds within it the seeds of its own destruction. It's a bit like eating: we need food to live, and we're entitled to enjoy it, but the most important purpose of eating is give us the strength to lead our lives; if eating becomes an end in itself it ceases to be life enhancing and becomes destructive of our bodies and damaging to our health. So too our religious practices should strengthen us to do God's work in the world.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Our Journey to Emmaus

Todays Gospel from the RCL is Luke 24.13-35

Sermon 5.8.2011 3rd of Easter

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Amen.

Scholars have no real idea where the town of Emmaus referred to in our Gospel reading today was. It was a fairly common name and there are several towns from New Testament times near Jerusalem called Emmaus or had Emmaus as part of its name. The problem is that no one has ever been able to find one that matches the distance mentioned by Luke.

Now there are variant readings for the text, and one of these gives a distance of around 20 miles and there was a town called Nikolai Emmaus about that far from Jerusalem … but then you run into the problem of trying to fit the other details of the story around this town … Luke tells us that the two disciples walked to Emmaus; we know they didn't start out too early, because they had heard what the women had to say about the empty tomb before they left and the other disciples running to see for themselves … and by the time they arrived at their destination it was getting late and was almost evening. Having arrived, they sat down and began to eat … and once they realised who it was they had made the journey with, they went right back to Jerusalem and got back in time to catch the other disciples before they went to bed. Which seems to rule out the idea of the town being 20 miles away, and make the idea of a 7 mile trip more reasonable …

Well whatever about where the town was, why were the men going to it? Luke tells us that when they got to the village and it looked like Jesus was going to journey on, they urged him to stay with him and they sat down at table together … there is no mention of an inn, so  it seems likely that the men were inviting Jesus into the home of one or the other of them. These men had gone home. They had been with the disciples when during the events of Jesus's Passion, death, & burial; they had stayed with the group as they mourned … but when the women came running in to tell them that the tomb was empty and Jesus was risen it was all too much for them. They turned their backs on Jerusalem and headed off back home to Emmaus.

It is no wonder then that they don't recognise Jesus … we hear in the passage how their eyes were kept from recognising him … but we are not told what it was that kept their eyes from knowing who it was that was walking along with them … but Luke does have the idea of spiritual blindness in many other places in his Gospel … so perhaps it was their own lack of faith that kept these men from knowing who it was that they were talking to … the very same man that they were talking about!

Think about what they say about Jesus: that he was a prophet mighty in word and deed before all the people … they had hoped that he might be the Messiah … but then he was handed over by the Chief Priests and crucified … they had hoped he was the Messiah – why? Because of all he had said and done … but then they stopped believing – why? Because he was crucified. A Messiah who could suffer and die didn't fit into their idea of what a messiah was all about … so then Jesus explains to them how wrong they were … he opens the scriptures to them so that they can understand how the Messiah not only could be Jesus of Nazareth, but actually was … his life was the fulfilment of all the messianic prophesies …

The journey to Emmaus becomes not just a journey to a physical place … but a spiritual journey also … it is a journey during which Jesus opens their eyes … frees them from their spiritual blindness … as they journey the sadness that filled them when they first met him on the road begins to slip away … and as he opens the scriptures to them their hearts begin to burn within them ... so that by the time that they reach Emmaus and sit with him at the table, they are ready to recognise him again … and in that final moment, when he blesses and breaks the bread, just as he had done in the last supper when he said to his disciples this is my body, they see him for who he truly is … and at once they get up and go back to Jerusalem to share the news with the rest of the disciples … they have seen the Lord … he is risen … they recognised him in the breaking of bread …

Perhaps it is no bad thing that we do not know where the real town of Emmaus was … because as I said, the journey the disciples made that day was as much a spiritual one as a physical. And as a spiritual destination, it is a place that we all may journey to. We too may ponder the scriptures, remember the words and deeds of Jesus, see how the life he lived showed that he was the promised Messiah … as we journey we may pray that God will also open our eyes … that he will open our hearts so that they burn within us … and that we will truly come to recognise him in the breaking of bread … the road to Emmaus is a road that we are all called to walk along … and like the two disciples that day we do not walk it alone … we walk it with each other … and we walk it with Jesus, from Journey's beginning, to Journey's end … Amen.

Friday, May 6, 2011

please comment!

I'm off to Glenstal Abbey for the next couple of days on a retreat run by Affirming Catholicism Ireland (the Irish branch of Affirming Catholicism). It's my first time away with this group so I'm not sure what to expect. It's also my first time in Glenstal, which everyone says is brilliant so I'm really looking forward to my visit.

While I'm away, I wonder if I could ask a favour of you? The number of hits I get on this blog are somewhat erratic. One day I may get only a handful; the next a few dozen. I'm ok with the latter - after all, I haven't been blogging all that long. But the former can be a bit disheartening. Perhaps you could leave a comment about what you like about this blog and why you visit? It would give a better idea about what I might do in relation to future posts. I regard this blog as being part of my ministry and a post with few hits takes as much time to prepare as one with a good number and it's a little hard to justify the time unless I can figure out how to get reasonably consistant numbers going. So please leave some feedback while you are 'visiting.'

The Gospel reading for today from the RCL is John 6.1-15 and for tomorrow (Saturday 7 May) is John 6.16-21.

   lush spring growth
     among nettles

Thursday, May 5, 2011

in the hands of the Son

the Gospel for Holy Communion today from the RCL is John 3.31-36

     stormy morning
       ~cat on window ledge
       looking in

We are in the season of rejoicing in what it was that Christ did for us. Today's Gospel reading reminds us that there are uncomfortable threads running through the Gospel message. To believe the Son brings eternal life; but to disobey him means enduring God's wrath. What does he mean when he says 'God's wrath?' What does disobeying the Son entail? Does it mean not believing in  him? This is complicated stuff. It doesn't help that there are those who revel in the idea of a wrathful God - always presuming of course that God's wrath is directed against those who do not agree with them. And that there are those who push the notion of a merciful and forgiving God to the extent of living lives of wanton hedonism. Where does that leave the rest of us? Where John tells us, I suppose - in the hands of the Son; trusting that he will fill us with the Spirit sufficiently that even though we stumble our way through this life, our belief in him will see us through.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

loving this world

today's gospel reading for Holy Communion is John 3.16-21

      puddles on the road

Sometimes it's hard to know what to make of this world. A world that had someone like Osama bin Laden in it, a world where others are willing to hunt down and kill someone like him. This is the world that God loves; this is the world that he sent his Son to save. Maybe if we tried to love the world a little too it might be a better place.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

simpler times

the Gospel for Holy Communion from the RCL is John 1.43-51
   bank holiday

Oh, weren't those simpler times? The first apostles believed in Jesus because they believed in God and the promises he had made. Now so many people don't believe in God because they can't believe in Jesus and the promises that he made. Maybe the world would be a better and a happier place if we could get back, in the way we lived and believed today, to those simpler times.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Tribulations and temptations

today's Gospel for Holy Communion from the RCL is Mark 13.5-13

           May Day
            ~after the sunshine

Jesus warned his disciples there were hard times ahead for the Church. What he never warned them about was that there would be good times as well, times of power and prestige ... but that these would be hard times too. The good times the Church has had, the times when it has had power and influence in the secular world have generally only served to store up trouble for the future. This is something that applies to the whole Church, not just parts of it.

Look at the debate that is raging over the Catholic Church's decision to beatify John Paul II. He may have been a holy man, his critics declaim, but look at the mess he made of certain administrative matters (they don't phrase it quite so delicately or abstractly). That's what becoming a force to be reckoned with in the world has done to Christ's Church.

Perhaps it should be kept in mind that the the canonisation process does not create saints but recognises them . Does anyone really doubt that John Paul II has already taken his place within the Communion of Saints? I stood before his tomb some years ago & it seemed to me then that this was something I could know to be true. I see no reason to doubt it now, whatever his critics may say.

Our Lord warned us there would be trouble ahead. Our mistake was to think that there would be times when the troubles would end. They don't, they just change their faces. Tribulations were replaced with temptations. Now tribulations are back. Let us pray that we can learn something from all this and go forward as a wiser, humbler Church of Christ.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Thomas wasn't the only one!

today's Gospel for Holy Communion is John 20.19-31
   first Mass
     ~collared dove
     cooing outside

Sermon 4.24.2011
2nd Sunday of Easter

May my words be in the of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Amen.

I often think that the nick-name 'doubting' is a little hard on Thomas. For a start, if you remember the story of the raising of Lazarus which we had a few weeks ago, you may remember that the other disciples are a bit worried about going back to Judea … they try to warn Jesus not to go: that's the place they were trying to stone you not too long ago … but when Jesus makes it clear that he is going anyway, Thomas is the one who says to the others 'let us go and die with him.' Thomas is a brave man and a loyal follower of Jesus.

Another reason I think it is somewhat unfair to give him the title of 'doubting' is because it isn't as if he was the only one who doubted. Every single one of Jesus followers doubted in some way. They doubted when they fled and left him to his fate in the garden when his enemies came to arrest him; they doubted when they denied knowing him, as Peter did, when things started to look dangerous … and they all doubted on the morning of the third day … not a one of them came to the tomb expecting to find it empty and Jesus risen, despite everything he had told them in advance … and even standing in front of the empty tomb, they still doubted. The first thought of the women was that someone had stolen the body until they met with Jesus in the garden.

And what happened when the women ran and told the men what had happened? The men didn't believe them … they also doubted. That's what we hear about in our Gospel reading this morning … the disciples are hiding themselves away behind locked doors 'for fear of the Jews' … it is the evening of that first day and they still doubt … that's when Jesus comes to them and shows himself to them … it is only then that they cease to doubt …

And poor Thomas isn't there and misses it! Which is a bit of a shame, because think what it means, the fact that he wasn't there – it means that, unlike his friends, he wasn't hiding himself away in a safe place shivering like the others … he is out somewhere – doing what? Trying to find out what happened? Perhaps … but when he comes back he isn't impressed by what his friends who were too scared to go out have to tell him … just as they weren't prepared to believe the women, he isn't prepared to believe them …

In a way, we should be grateful for all this doubt, for this layer after layer of disbelief, for this 'prove it to me' attitude that these disciples adopted … because it shows us that they weren't a bunch of credible individuals, ready to believe anything … they were hard-headed, country folk … they knew they idea of a man rising from the dead didn't make much sense … even if he was a miracle worker who had said that he would … they needed convincing … and convinced they were …

Which might leave you wondering … why in the face of all this doubt did Jesus say to Thomas 'blessed are they who have not seen but have yet believed?' It seems an odd thing to say when you consider that the people who had known Jesus face to face, and had heard him promise to rise on the third day, didn't take the word of others to believe he waas risen … the women didn't accept the testimony of the empty tomb … the men didn't accept the testimony of the women … and Thomas didn't accept the testimony of the disciples … why did he expect that those who hadn't seen would believe … how was it that Jesus knew that we, who have not seen as they did, would live up to his expectations?

Well, if you were paying very close attention to our gospel reading, you might have noticed an interesting detail … when the disciples are gathered together behind closed doors, the evangelist tells us it was the evening of the first day … in other words Sunday … and he also tells us it was a week later when the disciples had gathered again in the house, this time with Thomas present … a week later … in other words the following Sunday … each of these encounters with the risen Lord took place when they gathered together on a Sunday …

The evangelist is reminding us that we encounter Christ in a real and powerful way when we gather together to worship and to listen to the faithful testimony in scripture of those who were there and did see… and especially when we gather round his table to share in the bread and the wine as he commanded we do in memory of him, re-entering into that Last Supper with him as we re-live with him the moment when he told his disciples 'This is my body' and 'This is my blood' … we meet with Jesus in our prayers, in our worship, in our hearing of the word, in the breaking of the bread …

We meet with Jesus just as surely as Thomas did that day when he cast aside his doubt and worshipped … that is why Jesus knew that those who had not seen would believe …. because he knew that we would see … and believe … and be able to declare with as much certainty as Thomas when he looked upon the wounded hands and side of the one he had seen crucified and buried and now stood before him risen and alive: my Lord and my God … amen.