Friday, September 30, 2011


Today's Gospel reading has three healing miracles. Which begs the question: why don't we have miracles of healing today?

Firstly, we do, but clearly not as many as in the time of Jesus. Which to my mind is hardly surprising, since we are not living in the time of Jesus. The second thing is: what is healing? Is it only to be defined narrowly, in some sort of clinical medical sense? For example, a dying person recovering inexplicably from a terminal illness? Or can it be seen more broadly? For example, a dying person coming to terms with their approaching mortality?

If we think of healing in the broader sense, then I've seen a lot of healing miracles. I have seen people achieve a sense of peace and calm in the face of their own imminent death. And this kind of healing isn't limited to dying. Life wounds us in all kinds of ways ... the lost job, the broken relationship ... and healing is available for all these wounds. 

Those who Jesus healed all faced illness and death again later in their lives. But I am sure they also faced it with a sense of peace and calm ... not because they thought Jesus or someone else was going to show up and make them better; but because their previous experience of healing let them know that there was a loving God and whatever happened them in this life, ultimately all would be well.

And that kind of healing remains available to us today. We can open ourselves up to Jesus' healing power in all the tribulations we face in life. And from that experience we also can know that all will be well.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

be an angel

Years ago when I was in a pub, a rather drunk woman looked at my (then!) long black curls and exclaimed:
'Are you an angel?'
'I don't know,' I replied. 'Maybe!'

I wasn't serious, but perhaps there was some unintended truth in what I said. Today is the feast of St Michael & All Angels (readings here).  Now I must confess, I find the subject of angels a difficult one, in the sense of separating truth, tradition, & myth. But this I do know. The Greek word 'angelos' that we translate angel also means messenger. An angel is God's messenger. And since as Christian we are all called to spread the Word of God, we are all in a sense God's messengers. To be a Christian is to have something of the angel about you.

So that's my thought for today, on the feast of St Michael and All Angels. Remember that you are called to be God's messenger. Let others know the Good News that you believe. Be an angel.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

the Gospel according to Homer

At a social-cum-fundraising event in the parish, someone came up to me to talk. This person wasn't a parishioner; they'd come along  as a bit of a social outing, to browse the cake stall, rummage through the books, and have a cup of tea and a cake. After a few minutes chat, they began to explain to me that they weren't church-going themselves ... and then they explained why they didn't need to come to church.

'I do my worship my own way, in the garden,' they said. I raised an eyebrow.
'So, you pray in the garden?'
'Well, no. I don't pray exactly. But I find gardening a very spiritual experience.'
'In what way?'
'Well, you know ... I'm out there enjoying nature.'
'I'm glad you enjoy it. But it sounds a bit like the Gospel according to Homer Simpson!' The person frowned.
'I don't understand.'
'Oh, at the start of the Simpsons Movie, Marge is dragging Homer to church with the kids. And Homer is loudly complaining and asking why can't he worship the Lord in his own way. Lying down in his bed with his eyes closed! You don't have a hammock in your garden do you?'
'No, no! I'm not sleeping! I'm gardening!'

There is a lot of that kind of spirituality in the world. The idea that they get to make Christianity up as they go along. And conveniently what they make up seems to involve living their life just as they please. No sacrifice. An eat, drink, & be merry lifestyle with an occasional vague nod towards spirituality. Spirituality in the sense of sticking a label marked 'spirituality' on something they already do, or claiming a spiritual dimension for a favourite activity.

I'm sure you know what I mean. You probably have heard people say things like 'I feel very close to God on the golf course.' And maybe they do. But it is interesting how statements like that only seem to come out when they are explaining why they have no other spiritual practices evident in their lives.

For my own part, I have my doubts about this kind of life-style spirituality. It doesn't seem to tie in with what we hear in the Gospel today: narrow is the gate that leads to eternal life. Whereas it does seem to fit the other thing that Jesus says: the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction.

People make their own choices. But all I can think is that the kind of choices that would fit in with Homer's 'why can't I stay in bed' kind of spirituality is not really spirituality at all.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

how we tortured our children

I remember as a child we would occasionally drive by the reform school in Greenmount. And if my siblings and I happened to be bickering in the car, which often happened, my mother would point to the school and say: 'if you don't behave, I might have to send you there.'

That usually shut us up. Because even as kids we knew that it was no place you wanted to go.

And that is what has emerged from the Amnesty International Report, In Plain Sight (full report here), about what was going on in institutions in Ireland. Everybody knew. Maybe not the specifics, but enough to make you uneasy as you passed by.

Colin O' Gorman of Amnesty thinks it was due to the deference that people in Ireland had to powerful institutions at the time. That may be partly true. But I think there's a lot more to it than that. 

Money played a part. Proper care would have been expensive. And of course, there was a lot of casual violence towards children in society at the time anyway. I experienced some pretty hefty beatings while I was in school. And I witnessed others that were terrifying. And this was in ordinary school, where the children had families to look out for their interests. These children had no one.

But more than anything, this was a failure of moral values ... a failure of simple Christian values in a society that was overwhelmingly Christian ... in today's Gospel reading, St Matthew talks about what is often referred to as the Golden rule:  ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.' Because it was easier, because it was convenient, because they were only children - because, because, because ... people did not apply one of the fundamental rules of our faith: if that was me, how would I like to be treated?

The Amnesty report says that our children were tortured. And that while some may bear greater responsibility than others, we were all at fault. What we have to do now is say 'never again.' And mean it.

Monday, September 26, 2011

do not worry

"Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry". St Padre Pio

We hear in the Gospel today that we should not worry.  It seems counter-intuitive advice in a world that is filled with so much to worry about - our economic woes, climate change, world hunger ... and then there are what might be called the ordinary worries of life: disease, old age, putting food on the table day by day ...

But do not worry does not mean that we shouldn't be mindful of such things. We still have to do what we can in this world. And it doesn't mean that such things won't affect us. It means that we put our trust in God. Ultimately, all will die. Just as the sparrow falls, so will we. But just as the sparrow's fall is seen, ours is also. And if we can know that, and still put our trust in God, still have faith in his love in mercy, then we will not worry.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

public private

I remember when I was a child going into the city with my mother. As soon as she stepped off the bus she would march up to one of the inevitable flag day ladies who were shaking their boxes; she would deposit a small coin; and then take one of the sticky label 'flags' & stick it on her coat.
'And I'll take one for him too,' she'd say, with a nod of her head toward me. As we walked away she'd say:
'Now we have our pass; the rest of them won't bother us for the day.'
Her main concern was not the charity in question - it was being able to walk the streets in peace! That's the closest I've ever come to the kind of public alms-giving for display we read about in Matthew's Gospel today!

But really, it seems almost quaint to hear instructions about doing one's alms-giving, prayers, & fasting in private, rather in public for show. Whatever about alms-giving, there's not too much danger of people trying to impress with public prayer and fasting these days. Quite the opposite. People are more likely to tell you how they never pray; and of those that pray, many will never fast, not even in the seasons of Lent or Advent

However, if we leave aside the bit about the public display of these virtues, which was clearly a problem in New Testament times, there remains the instruction to do these things. We should give to those less fortunate, we should pray, we should fast. It might be good to do it in public these days, to encourage others. Not crazy displays that are just for show. But quietly, reverently, & unashamed. Perhaps only publicly in the sense that you will quietly tell others that it is something that you do - your friends and family, maybe, or even others in your church. But if not in public, then in private. And in public or private your heavenly Father will see and reward you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Today is the feast of St Matthew. I have to confess a certain affection for the saint: he was a tax collector; I was a tax inspector. The fact that he is equated with the figure of Levi, the tax collector in Luke and Mark, is one of the reasons I chose that name when ordained.

I find the calling of Matthew, today's Gospel reading, a beautiful story. I can see the tax collector, hated by all, sitting at his booth; his out-cast status has hardened his heart & given him a neck of solid brass - he thinks he doesn't care that everyone despises him. he thinks they're all fools - they don't live in the real world. The Romans are in charge & anyone with any sense sees that you have to work with them.

But he sees Jesus and his followers about the town. He over-hears from time to time the words that he preaches. He hears him speak of love and mercy and compassion. And he thinks: fine words - but I don't see him coming near me!

And then one day he does. And Matthew is overwhelmed. He has been invited in ... and he suddenly realises that it something that he wants more than anything. So he gets up and goes with Jesus. Later as they are eating, he hears the murmuring of the good people of the town. And his heart freezes. This is it, he thinks. I'm going to be pushed out again. But it doesn't happen. Jesus doesn't tell him to go. Instead he tells the good people that he is here for people like Matthew. They are the ones that really need him.

Matthew can't believe what he is hearing. Not only has Jesus invited him to be with him, he has defended him against those who would condemn him. Matthew can hardly describe the feelings that well up within him. But he knows that he will never leave this man. He will follow him everywhere. And he will tell others about him, so they can feel the way that he feels now.

That's what I think when I read the story of the calling of Matthew; how wonderful it must have been for him to go from being the one who was despised to one who knew love and acceptance. And of course, if it isn't to labour the point, it reminds me that that love and acceptance is still on offer to us today ... or at least it should be. Think of those you might look down upon ... now look around your church. Are they there? If not, why not? Are they welcome there? Do they know they are welcome? Have you invited them in? That's what Jesus did for Matthew. That's what we must continue to do today.

Monday, September 19, 2011


I sometimes think about the boys who pricked me with pencils or compasses when I was in primary school; the teachers who clipped me across the ear; the British army recruiter who threw me out of his office for being Irish; and a myriad other small and ancient injuries.

It surprises me how real and alive these hurts can be. How angry I can get at these ghosts and phantoms. Most of these people are either dead or so far removed from the person they were at the time that one can say that the person who injured me no longer exists.

But still letting go isn't easy, even though they were all so long ago, and how trivial they can seem. How much harder for those whose injuries are more recent and far more serious.

Jesus reminds us that we must. No one ever said being a Christian was easy. Jesus said it was like taking up a cross - taking up an all but unbearable burden. Jesus was able to forgive even as he was dying on his cross. We must try to forgive also and let go of the anger, old and new, if we are to be true to the one we follow.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Maxing 20


icon of St Monica, patron saint of patience

Maxing 20

(a poem, written on my 49th birthday as I was heading home for cake)
patiently, patiently I motor home
the car before me maxing twenty.

But it is Sunday,
There is no hurry.
I bite my lip
and hold back my hand
from the horn.
He must be old.
I can not see him
but his glacial pace
speaks of age;
to flash my lights
or try to overtake
on the narrow streets
might give him a fright,
risk a crash.
Better to wait;
patience is a grace …

But why must he slow
for every oncoming car?
And hit hard the brakes
and yield to all who creep
from every side-street?
And why must every turn he makes
mirror mine in advance
without even the benefit
of an indicator light?

I grit my teeth
and deeply breathe
and remind myself
that this is Sunday;
there really is no hurry.
This car is the blessing of
mobility to this senior son;
and today's Gospel
spoke of forgiveness.
Perhaps even as I forgive
his snail like serenity
God will forgive my own
seething lack of grace.

At last an intersection
is reached
and the elder leader
goes to the right lane
while I slide to the left;
I glance right before I turn.
I finally see him:
no senior son
but a middle-aged one.

Who let's people like him
on the road?

Friday, September 16, 2011

light under a bushel

'No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel-basket.' So says Jesus in the gospel reading from morning prayer today, 'but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.' The metaphor is drawn from the kind of houses those listening to him would have lived in. Small, with all the family in one room of an evening - quite likely only having the one room. No street lights to cast an amber glow through the window once the sun set. The lamp you lit would have been all the light you had. And if you were going to light it, why on earth hide it under a basket? Putting your smoky little oil lamp under a tightly woven bushel basket would have been a crazy thing to do.

Jesus is talking about the light of faith. 'Let your light shine,' he says. It' s if you have faith that you shouldn't hide it, but let it shine before others. How? Through good works. Faith has to express itself in action in the world. If that's not happening, then there's a basket over the lamp. and a basket with a lamp over provides light to no one. Not others. Not you. And a smoky lamp under a tightly woven basket will soon go out.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

blessd are ...

The New Testament reading for Morning Prayer today contains the Beatitudes . I'd like to suggest you read them slowly. They are the first of our Lord's teaching we hear in Matthew's Gospel. Position alone accords them a particular importance: it's the first teaching of the first Gospel. That emphasis sets the tone for all the teaching that follows in the Gospel. That tone is one of love and mercy and compassion. For that reason, even non-Christians such as Mahatma Gandhi thought they were sublime; and for the same reason Friedrich Nietzsche hated them. He thought the reflected the slave morality of Christianity (you may remember that Nietzsche's concept of the Superman was much beloved by Adolf Hitler). As I said, read them slowly. Then read them aloud. Make your own mind up. For my own part, I think this world could do with living more people living their lives according to the values reflected in the Beatitudes. Looking at the headlines today, or any day, it seems hard to argue that this world doesn't need us living our lives with a bit more love and compassion.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

saying yes to Jesus

In the New Testament Reading today for Morning Prayer we read about Jesus' calling of the first disciples. I've sometimes heard that passage preached about as if he just appeared on the scene, gave them a shout, & they at once followed ... without question, without thought. Up they get from their work, their families, their responsibilities ... and go.

That's a hard act to follow. But I'm not sure that's how it happened. We know that Jesus had begun his ministry before he called his disciples. And we know that the gospels by their nature often compress events. It seems much more likely that Jesus was a familiar figure to his first disciples, someone they had already heard preaching, someone whose teaching they already found compelling. so that when he said to them 'lads, I'd like you to come with me' they were able to say 'yes' knowing full well what they were getting themselves into.

It gives a far more hopeful picture, I think, for those of us who want others to follow Jesus today. We're not trying to persuade them to make some blind leap of faith. We instead want them to listen to what he has to say; we want him to become someone who is a familiar figure in their lives. So that rather than us telling them he is someone they must follow, the day will come when they hear that call for themselves. And it is something they can say yes to.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

God's Forgiveness

May my words be in the Name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit - Amen.

9/11 seems an appropriate day to be talking about forgiveness. As Christians, we talk about forgiveness a lot. It's part of the Lord's Prayer after all, something most of us will say everyday, if not several times everyday. And in today's Gospel reading, we hear about it in the context of the unmerciful servant.

The servant is forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents. His response? To demand repayment of a debt of 100 denarii. It sounds pathetic.

But think about his in context. A denarius was a day's wages for those sitting there listening to Jesus. 100 denarii was not a trivial sum - it's around 4 months wages. To put that in the context of the average Irish industrial wage, it would be about €14,000. But that doesn't really give the full flavour of the context. Think about what 4 months wages would mean to someone who was really poor, someone who lived day to day in a time and place where there was no social security to turn to. It is not a pathetic sum ... it is huge money ... more than they could hope to save in the course of a lifetime ...

But look at what his master forgives him by comparison - 10,000 talents. Now a talent was worth over 5,000 denarii ... more than a labourer would earn in 15 years ... which makes 10,000 talents worth more than one could earn in 150,000 years ... many thousands of lifetimes ...

Now forget all about the money ... Jesus isn't really talking about money at all ... he's talking about forgiveness ... the fact that God forgives us ... and that we are called to forgive others ... and no matter how grave the offence the other person has committed against us, it is trivial compared to the forgivness we receive ...

maybe that's why it's so hard for us to forgive others ... because deep down, we don't think we're so bad ... but that is not what Jesus is saying here ... he's saying that we are all like that servant ... we each owe God a debt so great, because he has forgiven us so much, that if we were to live a thousand lifetimes, or even 10,000 lifetimes ... we couldn't pay it off. Maybe that's hard to hear, but that doesn't it make it any less true. God has shown us forgiveness and mercy beyond all measure ... and so we therefore must show others forgiveness also ... not because what they have done to us is so little ... but because what we have been forgiven has been so much more ...

It's not easy ... it takes hard work ... mainly hard work by way of prayer ... I don't find it easy to forgive others ... I can only imagine how hard it must be for those who lost loved ones in 9/11 ... or have suffered in their lives as a result of this or other terrorist attacks ... and so that is why we must pray ... pray that God will give us the Grace to forgive ... so that we might be worthy of the forgiveness he shows us ... something that I pray for myself, for you, and for all God's children ... Amen.

Sermon notes: 11 September 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

suicide awareness

There was a heart-rending article in the Irish Examiner this week about one young man's struggle with suicidal feelings. It was particularly sad that he felt he could not speak to anyone about his feelings. In my own pastoral work I often meet people who want nothing more than that another human being would really listen to them.

Not so long ago most knew if they had something they needed to talk about, something perhaps they didn't think they could bring to those closest to them, that they could turn to their local clergy. With church attendance in decline, it would be tragic if those who felt that they had nowhere to turn did not realise that this was an option that remains open to them.

Clergy are not professionals in this area. Possibly all we can do is listen. But we are willing to do that. And perhaps that can be the first step on the road for someone who needs help.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

endless growth

I'm on a bit of an anti-waste rant at the moment. Back to school time brings it out in me ... all the 'new editions' of school books that only have a few updated pictures or whatever, which means that expensive school books must be bought new rather than passed on or sold for second hand use.

I hate waste. On my mother's side I come from a farming background - and on a farm everything is put to use. Nothing is thrown away thoughtlessly ... it is recycled and then recycled again. It has to be coming apart at the seems and completely beyond repair before it's finally dumped. And even then the 'junk' may have a use: the old bits of wood, burned for fuel; old horse-drawn farm implements used to block a gap in a ditch; and old bath used as a water trough down the field.

And my father was a car mechanic. His garage was neatly filled with all kinds of old bits of stuff - nails, screws, gaskets, whatever - that he'd stripped off something else and stored for future use. It was a rare day when my dad needed to go off to buy something simple like a nut and bolt.

So I get my distaste for waste 'honest' as they say - from both sides. No wonder I sometimes feel like I'm living in chaos - I feel like getting rid of anything is a moral failing! But it's no bad way to be in a world where there is so much waste. Our consumer society is driven by the premise that we will waste things: that we will throw stuff away rather than fix them.

To keep us coming back, manufacturers even have a term for what they do to make us inclined towards waste: it is called built in obsolescence. Sometimes that means that the object has only a limited life, beyond which it is no longer cost efficient to repair. sometimes that means they are going to come out with a 'new improved model' in a year or so.

It's all dreadful really. We live on a planet with finite resources & we have a model for our economies which is predicated on limitless growth. Clearly the two are not compatible. We're wasting what God has given us for the sake of short term gain. Worse, we're stripping the planet of things that can not be replaced to satisfy the current generation. Effectively we are stealing from our children and our children's children. And what's worse, we know we are doing it.

Often, people look back on history and say of the people they read about: they did terrible things, but nobody knew any better then. We may be the first generation of which history will say: our forefathers really messed things up for us ... and they knew what they were doing and didn't care.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The joy of expletives

It was a joy to read Donald Clarke's satirical piece 'The joy of expletives depend on continuing power to shock' in today's Irish Times. I invite you to click on this link & read it, not only so you may appreciate it for yourself, but also so that what follows will be placed into its proper context.

The piece is subtly done, but the giveaway that it is satire is his brilliantly ironic accusation that those who object to profanity are prudes, while prudishly refusing to spell out the f-word himself. He claims he must do so to protect 'sheltered psyches', but this is surely a device to give added sting to his wit; studding the piece with asterisks only highlights his disdain for such language.

His distaste should not come as a surprise, for he is a clever man and there is nothing clever about profanity. Quite the opposite: using the same few words to describe everything must surely be the height of dumbing down. Of course, as Mr Clarke reminds us, its users think themselves sophisticates who desire to shock those whom they, presumably, regard as less sophisticated than they. Ironically, to be deliberately shocking one must find the words shocking oneself. There is something positive in this, as it indicates that they in some way recognise there is something fundamentally wrong in what they are doing; that to reduce all of human experience to the crudest of terms and justify it as wit or sophistication is to demean us all.

Most were afraid to speak out, fearful of being seen as old-fashioned or, worse, unsophisticated. Mr Clarke, however, has shown us that the emperor has no clothes. And defenders of profanity may note that he didn't need to use a single swear word to do so.