Saturday, March 31, 2012

Can we deny access to Holy Communion? 2

As I said yesterday, I am not a canonist, but I have my own thoughts on the matter as to whether it is acceptable as a matter of Canon Law in the CofI to deny someone access to Holy Communion. I offer the following thoughts in the spirit of generating discussion that might clarify the situation. I welcome the thoughts of others on the matter, particularly those who are better qualified to speak on this issue.

First, at ordination in the CofI the priest binds themselves to be under the discipline of the church. That means, I suggest, that it is for the priest to apply the law of the church in such matters but not to manufacture it. If a priest is to deny someone Communion, then they must be able to point to that part of church law that demands that they acted as they did.

Secondly, Canon 16 of the CofI, which deals with this topic, lays down certain procedures in relation to excluding people from Holy Communion. These include, inter alia, consultation with the Ordinary and a right of appeal to the diocesan court. This means, as far as I can see, that no priest acting solely of their own authority may exclude a member of their congregation from receiving from the Lord's Table.

Thirdly, ever before going to the bishop Canon 16 states that 'If the incumbent is convinced that any member of the congregation ought not to be admitted to Holy Communion by reason of grave and open sin without repentance, the said incumbent shall warn such a person of the grave spiritual danger of communicating in such a state and shall offer pastoral advice, and report the case to the bishop of the diocese in which such congregation is situated.'

As I said, I am not a canonist. Nor am I a lawyer. But from my army days I consider myself a fully qualified barrack room lawyer! But my previous work as an Inspector of Taxes did involve a certain amount of legal training & my work gave me a lot of experience of picking holes in legal arguments & suggesting possible avenues of attack when instructing council for prosecutions. Based on that it seems to me that there are quite a lot of hoops to be jumped through before someone would even be allowed to approach the ordinary on this matter. And certainly no one could be turned away from the altar rails by anyone prior to the full procedures laid down by this canon were carried out, with every 't' crossed & 'i' dotted. I have some thoughts on what some of the 'hoops' might be ... but as they are rather lengthy, rather than make this post overly long, or break the 'hoops' in the middle, I'll come back to them in tomorrow's post ...

Friday, March 30, 2012

Can we deny access to Holy Communion?

The case of Father Marcel Guarnizo is generating a lot of heat and light in the US & the blogosphere. The brief facts are that Fr G denied a Ms Barbara Johnson Communion at her mother's funeral subsequent to her introducing him to her female lover in the sacristy just prior to the service. If you'd like to know more, here's a blog that has done some posting on the matter, which has some links to others posts. Fr G's account of the affair is here. And, if you are really interested, then google Fr Guarnizo & you'll probably get more hits than you can handle!

There is a lot of debate as to whether Fr G  was correct in canon law to refuse Ms J. The relevant canon is 915. While there are those who argue that he was, the most eminent canonists who have posted on the issue have no doubt that he was wrong. The diocese apologised to Ms J & Fr G has had his faculties withdrawn in the diocese.

Clearly, within the Roman Catholic Church, the decision to refuse someone Communion is not to be taken lightly. In almost all cases, the best course of action seems to be to administer the sacrament to all who come forward to receive ... and leave it to their own (hopefully informed!) consciences as to whether they do so worthily.

Currently we are in the middle of a debate on human sexuality in the Church of Ireland. I was told that a member of the clergy declared at a public gathering that he would refuse communion to a homosexual if they came forward to receive. In the article 'My Vocation – Mary tells her Story' in the Changing Attitudes Ireland booklet 'Moving forward together,' the eponymous Mary gives the impression she was effectively banned from the Lord's Table by her rector & a group of parishioners. And I seem to recall mention in the Hard Gospel document (though it may have been elsewhere) of a young man who had just come out being told by members of the congregation that he could not receive (with some mutterings about physical violence should he not comply).

So perhaps this is an issue for the Cof I should look at also? What is the position for any CofI clergy who took such action - as a matter of Law? We may not have a similarly detailed and finely worked out code of canon law as the Catholic Church, with its accompanying body of legal opinion issued by qualified jurists and precedential case law set out by church courts. But we do have Church law. What does our own law say about refusing Communion to those that we believe should not come forward?

I am not a canonist, but I have my own thoughts on the matter ... which I will come to in tomorrow's post!

(update; part 3 of this post is here)
Until then ... please pray for me as I approach an important stage in my journey as a priest of God's Church. I will pray for you, as part of my general intentions ... if you would like me to pray for some specific intention of yours, please let me know in the comment's box.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Radically Conservative Nature of the Priesthood

I begin by thanking RM whose comments on previous posts prompted me to reflect a little on this topic. My thoughts here are my own ... no research, no references, just musings ... and given that I am very much a 'baby' priest, perhaps not of much worth ... but perhaps others with more experience will comment with their own thoughts? If for no other reason than to guide me a little on this path & help me mature in my vocation.

So ... by nature I am probably objectively seen as conservative ... my wife thinks I am! That is not surprising, perhaps, for someone who is a former soldier & tax inspector ... and someone who occupies what is a formal role in organised religion (but I don't want to get ahead of myself ... more on that later). On the other hand, perhaps not all that conservative ... my family have butchers on one side and farmers on the others , and I am a vegetarian, bordering on vegan. I am a former altar boy, whose secondary schooling was under Catholic religious orders ... and I am now an Anglican priest ... while I was a tax inspector, going out on audit, I had a pony-tail & an ear-ring ... I left the army as a conscientious objector ... I may be the only CofI cleric who is a member of the Jesuit-run Pioneer Total Abstinence Society ...

So if not a radical, perhaps capable of somewhat surprising decisions at times? Perhaps like most, not fixed in any direction, but a complex mix of apparently opposing ideas?

But that's by way of background to my thoughts on the priesthood. So ... is the priesthood radical? To my mind, without a doubt. The message of Christ was radical when he first preached it; it is even more radical in 21st Century western society. So to be a priest is by default to be someway radical. It is radical to make the vows one makes at ordination and stick to them. It is radical to wear a collar and make oneself a public reminder of institutional religion in a world where many argue that religion is a private matter and adherence to institutional religion is in sharp decline.

The priesthood is radical because we try to live out the message of Christ in a special way ... all Christians are called to love their neighbours ... we put our number in the phonebook, on websites, & billboards outside churches inviting strangers to call ... and call they do, especially at times of need ... and we respond, hoping it will make a difference to their lives ... knowing from past experience that once the crisis is past we will almost certainly be once again unwelcome in their lives ... but we cheerfully respond when they need us ... and thank God for the opportunity to serve and the privilege of being part of people's lives at their time of need ...

The priesthood is radical because, frail and failing as we are, we tell them that God loves them ... that he loves them enough to become flesh and die for them ... and no matter what they do that is wrong, he will forgive them ... and we model that love by being available to all and welcoming all into God's house and offering a place to all who wish receive from the Lord's Table (maybe that last bit is aspirational? But that is how I see it.)

But the priest as radical is not without conservative elements. The faith we pass on is not something we have created ourselves. It is part of a 2000 year tradition. Our own insights must be tested against that tradition ... our vow at ordination is the teach the faith of the Church  ... at least it is in the CofI ... presumably the same for all Christian priests? And the faith of the Church is an ancient thing, if not a fixed point, then surely slow to change ... which is a good thing, because it means that the tenets of our faith are not subject to the whims of every changing fashion of the world ...

We also promise to be obedient to the discipline of the Church ... I took an oath when I became a soldier ... another (the official secrets act) when I became a civil servant ... such vows bind one to aims and goals of the organisation to which one is committing oneself ... the organisations themselves are at the very least perceived as being part of the forces of conservatism within society ... even if at times they are also forces for change ... and to promise obedience is to promise to set the wisdom of the organisation above your own, at times at least, because you accept that even if you don't necessarily agree with a particular decision, as part of the bigger picture, your allegiance to the organisation helps to serve its higher purpose which you believe in ... I think this is truer in the case of the church than it is in most cases ...

And if they values we espouse of priests of God's Church are radical, they are at the same time curiously old-fashioned in this modern world. We call people to pray ... we lead them in worship, wearing garments based on those of our predecessors centuries before us ... we preside at rituals that while they may have been adopted somewhat to the current age, would be strangely familiar, at least in parts, to someone from the early church if they could join with us ... we speak of eternal truths in a world where yesterday can seem passe ... in a world where, jokingly, the 11th commandment is 'thou shalt not get caught' we firmly state that wrong-doing is wrong even if you the doer is the only person living who knows or will ever know ...

I am going on a bit. I tend to do that. So I'll stop ... in a minute! I haven't covered every angle here ... not possible in a single blog post ... but perhaps enough to give the flavour of what I think ... that I see the priest as being both radical and conservative ... that one is not of necessity in opposition to the other ... one can't be a priest without being a radical ... and one can't be a radical priest without being conservative also ... but perhaps my understanding of what radical and conservative mean differs to what others think? I like every priest administer the sacraments of the Church without being able to point to a single bit of scientific evidence that they do what the Church says they do ... asking people to take it on faith ... is that not both radical and conservative? I, like every priest - I hope! - think Jesus is more important, more interesting, more fascinating than any pop-star, movie star, sports hero, writer, scientist, philosopher, or any one else, who has ever lived or will ever live, and I think it is not just important but vital that all human beings alive now and yet to be born should know about him and come to know him in a personal way ... is that not both radical and conservative?

I end where I began ... thanking RM for prompting me to think about this ... a little bit a least ... I would value the views of others on this (in the comments box of the blog please ... I know some people come to this via  a link on facebook, but most who read this blog access it by a different route ... if you limit your posts to facebook, then only those on facebook can see them; whereas if you post them on the blog both facebook friends and all others can see them). You don't have to be a priest to comment ... the insights of those who are not priests quite likely are of more value than those who are ... if priests are servants, serving both God and neighbour, then knowing what the neighbour thinks is important ... particularly as we won't know what God thinks (for sure) until judgement day! Please pray that he will judge both you and all others and all priests, including myself, kindly on that day.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Vatican Report 2

So, where was I? O yes ... despite my understanding that Dominicans have brains to burn, I wasn't impressed with Fr Tom Boyle's (OP) take on the Vatican Report in yesterday's IT. I rather considered he had tainted any opinion he might offer by clearly stating that he found Enda Kenny's speech last July to be 'laser sharp' ... a speech I thought far from balanced.

But what of what Fr Tom had to say? He states that the cause of the abuse scandal was ' the secretive clerical culture, the lopsided theology of sexuality, seminary training disconnected from reality and the “church’s” obsession with control.' Those are big claims ...
which he vaguely justifies by saying they have been made by the Irish people ... claims which I am still waiting for anyone to substantiate by way of scientific, peer reviewed studies by qualified individuals that show that they do. I am not aware of any. Certainly Fr Tom doesn't quote any here.

My point is simply this: if someone is going to make sweeping statements along the lines of 'the “church’s” obsession with control' was a factor in the abuse scandal, then it behoves them to back up those statements with substantial evidence. It doesn't matter if the one making the statement is a journalist, a priest, or a high-court judge. It falls to you to prove what you have said is true. Saying that everybody knows isn't proof. Saying 'what other explanation could there be' isn't proof. It isn't for me or anyone else to prove what they are saying is wrong. They made the statements. Now they must substantiate them or retract them.

Abuse happened. Abuse is terrible and is not to be condoned under any circumstances. But if we want things to change into the future, whether in the Church, any organisation that deals with children, or in society in general, we have to have a clear understanding of the causes ... and a rational basis for how we determine what those causes are. Muttered public opinion amplified by way of media distortion and thereby transformed into uncontested (& incontestable) cause is not rational investigation. It may be emotionally satisfying, particularly to those who either wish to assuage any sense of guilt they may have themselves or those who have an animus against the Catholic Church, but it really does not advance our understanding of the underlying causes one whit.

I began this two-part post by saying that I believe Dominicans to be smart guys. Fr Tom is a Dominican. So let's pray that smart guys like him can actually start using their brains to figure out and demonstrate the causes of what happened ... and then work for real change. This is truly what the victims of the past deserve ... and society needs if this particular monster is not to rise again in another form elsewhere at some future date.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Vatican Report 1

All the Dominicans I have ever met are smart people. One of my lecturers in Theological College was one - a very smart man. My wife had an uncle who was one - a very erudite gent. Several of the blogs I follow are written by Dominicans (such as these: Domine, da mihi hanc aquam! Releasing the Arrow) & they are clearly clever, if conservative (& I tend to take it as a given that Catholic priests should be reasonably conservative - it seems to me that it really is part of the job description for someone who has taken a vow of obedience and celibacy; indeed, I think that most priests of any denomination tend to be relatively conservative - we are in the business, after all, of preaching 2000 year old truths!). So when I see the letters 'OP' after someone's name, I am inclined to think they must be someone who is very bright indeed.

And yet ... the op-ed piece in today's Irish Time's Vatican report attempts mere excuse not explanation with the by-line Fr Tom Doyle, who is described as an 'American Dominican priest and canon lawyer' does not sit well with me. The words 'Dominican', 'priest', and 'canon lawyer' all promise a fine mind ... and yet I do not agree with his analysis of the situation. (Of course, my disagreeing doesn't mean he's not clever! For some, it may be proof positive that he must be an actual genius ... 'quick, Bob! I've just heard that Fr Levi disagrees with this man - call the Nobel committee fast; no, I don't know the number, but ask Fr Tom - he's a genius; he'll know!')

Let me begin by being a bit picky. At the end of his piece he describes Enda Kenny's famous Dail speech, in the wake of the Cloyne Report,  last July as 'laser sharp.' Hmmm. First - and this may seem petty - but lasers are not sharp; they are hot. They can be used to do some quite extreme precision work, but that is a function of controlled use of intense light. But, that gripe off my chest, I presume what Fr Tom means is that Mr Kenny's speech was a model of precision. It was not. It was full of inaccuracies and unsubstantiated assertions. I challenged some of what Mr Kenny had to say in the letters' page of the Irish Times. I still await a reply. Indeed, I have yet to see any of my points answered in a satisfactory manner in any forum.

So. In my opinion Mr Kenny's speech was not laser sharp, razor sharp, or in anyway deserving comparison with anything sharp. It was a blunt object used to hammer out a populist beat. But Fr Tom thinks it was great. So I am bound, I suppose, to find his analysis of the Vatican Report suspect.

What's it got to do with me? Why should this Anglican priest care if a Catholic priest want to pour burning coals upon the head of his own Church? Well, I think anything that is damaging to one religious grouping in the public square is damaging to religion in general. Which is why I believe that anything said must be fair and accurate. Since Fr Tom chooses to associate what he has to say with Mr Kenny's remarks ,which I found to be anything but fair and accurate, I find his opinions on the Report suspect on that basis alone.

But what, you may ask, don't I like about what he actually has to say about the report? Well ... I've got work to do ... & I've burned up today's allocation of blogging time ... so I'll have to come back to this tomorrow (how's that for a cliff-hanger? You'd never guess I used to work in television, would you?). Talk to you again tomorrow, if you're interested.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Annunciation

There is a certain degree of unease in the Church of Ireland's relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the one hand, she has more festival days in our calender than any other saint: The Annunciation, the Visitation, & the feast day commemorating her birth. Two others have strong associations with her - the Presentation in the Temple &, not surprisingly, Christmas. On the other hand, we don't seem terribly comfortable with what might be deemed our (quite limited) Marian devotion. The Presentation used to be called the Presentation of our Lord and the Purification of the Virgin ... but that last bit seems to have been dropped. The Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary is in several places referred to as the Annunciation of our Lord (BCP p. 20; CofI Directory's entry for today) ... is this from a desire to down-play her role? Although to be fair in other places in the BCP today's festival is given its full title.

And then there is the fact that the Marian festivals that we do have will often pass unremarked and uncelebrated  ... but again, to be fair in this, they are perhaps treated no worse than any of the other saints' days in our calender which are equally woefully neglected. But then again, I've never heard anyone express surprise that we have a day for St Paul or St Philip, whereas I once had a conversation with a faithful son of the CofI who was not only unaware that the Annunciation was part of our calender, but actually tried to convince me that I was wrong when I tried to explain to him that it was!

There are two big dangers to this unease that occur to me (& I'm sure there are others out there who can list more!). The first is that the reluctance to put much of an emphasis on the BVM can lead to poor catechises. I had a conversation with a lady one time who was frankly puzzled by this whole business of calling Mary the Mother of God ... why would God need a mother? I think she thought the title gave undue deference to the BVM. And yet it is from our Christological understanding of her Son - that he is fully man, fully God, of one nature indivisible - that the title flows. Not to understand why Mary is the Mother of God is not to understand a fundamental tenet of our faith.

The second danger is in the area of ecumenism. Christ created one Church, not many ... and he prayed that we would be one. That means that the schism that currently exists in his Church is a major failing on our part ... and that seeking a return to full unity is not something that is optional for us. And sadly, differences about our understanding of the role of the BVM is a major stumbling block. One need only recall the reaction to the ARCIC document Mary - Hope & Grace in some circles to realise the difficulties that are still to be resolved in this area.

There is a huge irony that Mary should be a source of division in the Church. The Church is the body of Christ. What wounds it, wounds him - & we must accept, I think, that the brokenness that we have caused or allowed to continue is wounding to Christ. And it doesn't take a great deal of theological insight to realise that the last thing  Mary would desire, as the mother of Christ, is that there would be any further injury to her Son.

I am not arrogant enough to think I can solve this problem. As always I offer no solutions. But it does behove us to pray endlessly that a solution will be found. Certainly those who honour the Son should long for the day when this brokenness to his body will be healed ... and those who honour the Mother should long for the day her distress at our inability to follow the will of her Son will end. The example we have from her today in our Gospel reading is one of humble obedience to the will of God. It is an example that we would all do well to imitate. Amen.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

hearing the voice of God

May my words be in the name of the Holy & undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Gospel reading today reports an unusual incident … the people hear the voice of God … and some of the people think the voice has come from heaven … and others poo-poo the idea and say that it is only thunder …

now we can be quite sure that it is a voice from heaven … first, the narrator St John says that it is … secondly he reports the actual words, which at least some in the crowd seem to have heard also … and finally Jesus affirms that it is by saying that this voice has spoken from heaven for their sake …

today is Passion Sunday … the 5th Sunday in Lent … we are deep into this penitential season … a season during which we, through our Lenten disciplines are trying to draw ever closer to God … and given the topic of our Gospel, that of hearing the voice of God, I thought it might be no harm to go over a little the ways in which we might hear God speaking for ourselves …

first of course, there is hearing his voice directly in some way … that is not very common … it is so uncommon that most of the people in our Gospel think it can't be happening … but it does happen … we hear it mentioned in the Bible a lot … usually to special holy people … Adam & Eve, our first father and mother, Noah, Abraham, Moses, King David, prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah … In the New Testament there is the famous incident when the man Saul journeying to Damascus to persecute Christians encounters Christ … causing him to change his course in life and become the apostle we know as St Paul …

other holy people since then have also heard his voice … we call them saints and they have usually encountered him in visions … St Francis of Assisi began his great renewal movement having heard the voice of God in an old & ruined church … and other saints of the modern age have heard his voice also … Saint Padre Pio is well known in Ireland … and the holiness movement known as Opus Dei was begun when its founder, St Josemaría Escrivá had a vision from God …

But as I said, even if such things do happen, they are not very common … and while most of us hope to aspire to good and holy lives, few of us are saints of the magnitude of those I have mentioned … but we too can hear God speak to us … even if it is not in the clear voice that these saints did … prayer is one way … prayer is when we enter into conversation with God … and conversation is supposed to be a two-way process … most of us are very good, when we pray, of talking to God … but how many of us take time to listen? Remarkable things can happen when we take time to spend a little while in silence, opening ourselves to hear what it is that God may say to us … I myself remember quite a dramatic incident that happened to me … when I was offering myself for ordination training, my first thought was to go the non-stipendiary route … and I was very happy in my decision … and yet one evening quietly in prayer, only a few days before the selection conference, even as I was thanking God for how things were progressing, I had a feeling that happy as I was, this was not what I was called to … that instead what God wanted of me was to go into full time ministry … and so here I stand today!

But even holy people like myself (!) can usually only point to a few dramatic incidents like that in a lifetime … and yet, I can assure you I hear the voice of God every day in another way … one that is available to all his chldren … that is of course to hear his word in the sacred scriptures … and this is a way of hearing God's voice that not only we can hear, but should hear … we should all engage in a regular programme of reading the Bible … to even spend five minutes a day following some systematic programme would ensure that not only that we are all familiar with a fundamental part of our faith … but would allow us the opportunity to hear God speak to us regularly … because the word of God is a living word … it speaks fresh to us each day … a few minutes each day prayerfully reading that word will keep each of us directly connected with our Maker … and help us to understand what it is that he created us for … not just in general but in particular …

Of course, many will say that the Bible can be difficult … which indeed it can … it was after all written a long time ago in very different times … which is why we are blessed that God gave another way of helping us to hear his voice … a way ordained directly by his Son … you may remember Jesus' words to his disciple Simon … thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church … Jesus left us his Church to guide us … and you may remember the words of St Paul to the Corinthians, where he tells us that we are all part of Christ's body the Church, but that body is made up of many parts … and each part has a different God-given task … some are to be leaders and teachers … God assigned a teaching role to some within his Church … and to listen to those faithful teachers, and to the teaching that has been passed down in the Church from generation to generation …

Even with all this, many do not hear the voice of God in their lives … there are many distractions in the world … and many prefer to think that the ethics and morality approved of by the world is as good as if not better than the teaching of the Church or Scripture … and if they hear the voice of God at all, they dismiss it as being something else … just as the people in today's Gospel dismissed it as thunder … but I pray that your ears and hearts and souls and minds will be open to hear his voice … and that you will listen today and always … Amen.
sermon notes for 25 March 2012 (5th in Lent- Passion Sunday)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Mahon Report

(today's Gospel reading)

So it is now official. The Mahon Report makes it clear that there was (& probably is) a culture of corruption in Ireland. It has taken us a long time, over a long & hard road, to come to accept this. About 15 years ago I did some part time lecturing on Public Administration in an Irish university. On one of the courses we did a little on corruption in Ireland ... very little, because the official view was that there was very little corruption ... I think there was perhaps 7 real cases known, only one or two of which was seen as being really serious (the one which promoted the Beef tribunal being one).

Now we know we were living in a different world to the one we thought we were. Senior politicians were taking money for making decisions that were supposed to be in the public interest. Given that a lot of these payments involved property deals, it's hard not to believe that our property linked economic meltdown is not to be laid at least partly at the door of this corruption. And of course the deals that were done to save the banks and turn their private debt into public debt was done by the same politicians (or their parties) who were deeply entrenched in this culture of corruption.

At the time those who raised questions were ridiculed ... those who said that these decisions were questionable were mocked ... those who said that the whole property bubble was unsustainable were told they should go hang themselves for talking down our wonderful economy ... by politicians who it turns out were greedy and corrupt ...

Is having it all out in the open supposed to give us some form of comfort? I wonder. Knowing that the misery generating austerity measures are going to pay off the legacy of this corruption isn't very comforting. Knowing that some legal sanctions may be applied to some of those involved isn't much of a comfort either ... past history indicates they may at most get a slap on the wrist.

And here is an interesting thought. When the economy started to boom & we all did well for a while, it was then that religion really started to collapse in Ireland. Is that surprising? Religion tells people that the things of this world are not the most important things in our lives ... so when we suddenly have a lot of things, we don't want to hear that. It may seem a bit trite to say it, but if we had all kept our eyes a bit more firmly on heavenly things, maybe we wouldn't be in this earthly mess.

So what now? In this season of Lent, our voluntary season of austerity in our increasingly austere world, perhaps prayer will be both solace and guide. I pray that it will. And I pray that we will all learn lessons from the Mahon Report ... not least among them, the importance of having proper checks and balances in place to safeguard against this corruption occurring again.

Friday, March 23, 2012

a question of faith

A Frank Bruni has an article in today's Irish Times. He's of the opinion that Rick Santorum's fidelity to Catholic teaching isn't helping him with Catholic voters in the US ... the opposite if anything.

This is hardly surprising. For a lot of people today religion is ethnic or tribal - it's what they were born into but they don't necessarily know much if anything about what their faith teaches. What they do know is as likely to have been garnered from popular perceptions about what their church teaches as from direct catechesis from their church itself. Their true teacher when it comes to how they should live, to morals and ethics, is more often than not popular culture ... the media, tv, movies.

Think not? Then consider the sexual morality prevalent in society today. Which is it more in line with: Church teaching or an episode of Friends? If you think the former, let me know where you live - I'd like to visit such a quaint place!

This is quite a challenge for all churches. But it is not a challenge we can back away from. Our Gospel reading today shows Christ preaching the truth in face of opposition ... a truth he was willing to die for. If we truly have faith in him, we must bring his message to the world ... I don't think we've come to the point in the Western World where we have to be willing to die for it ... but we have to at least risk being unpopular! Amen.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ave Maria

I had occasion to address one of the parishes small groups the other day. Given that the Church of Ireland is a minority denomination in the Republic, it follows that a most CofI members perforce will have a great many Roman Catholic friends and neighbours. And since RC funeral rites incorporate a decade of the Rosary at several points (at the funeral home, the Removal, & the graveside) I thought it useful to explain a little bit about the Rosary to them.

An interesting question arose when we were talking about the Hail Mary. Why pray to Mary? Of course I explained that isn't what the prayer says: Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners ... the Hail Mary is not a prayer to Mary, but rather a request that Mary pray for us ... a rather significant difference I think!

At which point the questioner thanked me for my explanation ... and pointed out that that was not how several of her Catholic friends had explained it to her before! I'm afraid I can't fault her there ... I've had to explain that one to some Catholics myself on occasion ... A lot of people understand their own faith poorly & that of others not at all. Which makes one wonder if some of the things that cause the scandal of schism in God's Church are less about actual differences and more about muddled thinking on all our parts? 

What do you think?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

stop the lonliness

Yesterday's Irish Times reported on a pensioner who was found dead in his home. The man had died months earlier. His body was only discovered because a passerby noticed that the Christmas lights were still on & called the Gardai (the police).

The story is sad on many levels. The man had not lived in the area very long and was a comparative stranger, but it is still sad that in Ireland, or anywhere, a human being can die alone and unnoticed. There is also the question of family. Surely he had someone, even if not blood ties, then those he had formed relationships with some stage in his life. Where were they when he died - or did he truly have no one to call sister, brother, friend?

I'm not sure what we can do to stop people from dying alone like this ... this is after all an extreme case. But surely we can do something about loneliness in general. Be more alert to the needs of the elderly living alone. Visit them regularly. Is it beyond the bounds of what might be asked that communities set up rotas to ensure that every person living on their own has someone calling by for a few minutes everyday?

And let us not forget about those members of our communities who have gone into nursing homes. In the course of the few years I have been ordained, I have come across a few people in nursing homes who have had a certain kind of loneliness thrust upon them. They were people who when they were in their health were vibrant members of their communities. With age & failing strength they entered nursing care ... and because of the vagaries of the system, the home they went to was a long distance from the place they called home. Initially people came to visit ... but with time, their old friends came less and less and finally stopped.

I remember one old lady whom I saw shortly before she passed away in a home in my parish. Shortly after the funeral I met someone from her home parish, where the funeral had taken place, and asked if it had been well attended. She looked at me shocked. She hadn't gone. She thought that the lady, whom she had once been close to, had died years ago.

I mentioned this to my wife over dinner, while we were discussing the Irish Times story. I wondered what could be done to prevent people who have been shipped out of their parish for nursing home care being forgotten about. 'Pray for them,' my wife said. 'Include them in the prayers in church on a regular basis. Keep they alive in the parishes they called home by praying for them publicly and often.'

And I think that is a very good idea. So perhaps if you have occasion to visit a nursing home, as a chaplain or in some other capacity, perhaps you would ask people where they come from. Then ask their permission and, if they agree, contact the clergy of that parish and ask them to include the person by name at Mass, or other Sunday services, on a regular basis. Perhaps put their names on a list and put in on the bulletin board. If you have a little parish magazine, publish their names and where they are and ask your parishioners to visit, and if they can't visit to at least include them in their prayers.

These people were young and strong once. When they were, they did the jobs in the parish that we do now. Just because they are old we should not cast them aside. They do not deserve the loneliness we have condemned them to ... no body does.

Perhaps changing our behaviour like this won't prevent cases like the pensioner who died amongst his Christmas decorations not being found until half-way to Easter again. But perhaps it might. I pray it does. I pray for all who are lonely. I ask you to pray also.
remember the words of our Saviour from today's Gospel reading ‘I can do nothing on my own.' We needs God's grace and strength as we struggle in this broken world, and seek to make God's kingdom known. Amen.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

love in Lent

Are the things we do during Lent to our own benefit only or to the benefit of others also? Surely they must be for both ... during this time we seek God's grace to strengthen our love of him and do his will more perfectly ... and that love is shown in the way that we obey that will by showing love to others. But we must be careful, I think, not to let things get in the way of our showing that love. In our Gospel reading today we see people condemning Jesus & seeking to persecute him because the love he showed for others broke the rules - as far as they were concerned ... and it is all too easy for us to fall back on rules and systems and say that we would help others if it wasn't for this reason or for that. But this is not how Jesus saw things ... and so neither must we ... during Lent we must work not just for our own good, seeking to deepen our relationship with God ... we must also look to our relationship with those around us ... thinking of their needs, whether those needs be material, spiritual, or of some other kind. Otherwise not only will our Lent not be of benefit to others ... it will also not be of any benefit to us. Amen.

Monday, March 19, 2012

St Joseph

now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a righeous man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Matthew 1.18-20

It would be all too easy to think that St Joseph wished to divorce Mary because he didn't believe her story about being with child by the Holy Spirit. And yet our Gospel reading uses the word  'righteous'-  in relation to his wish to set her aside quietly - why would a righteous man wish to spare an unfaithful woman from the consequences of her own actions? Indeed, why would he take some of the consequences upon his own head? For by divorcing her quietly, not only would the world presume that the child she was having was his, but would also believe he was abandoning his pregnant young wife for no good reason, bringing a certain degree of opprobrium upon his own head.

The clue comes, perhaps, from the word the angel speaks to him. 'Do not be afraid to take her as your wife,' he says. Afraid for us can carry a variety of meanings, from a slight worry all the way to absolute terror. But the Greek word it translates here is φοβηθης
'phobeethees' which has as its root 'phboeo.' It is where our word phobia comes from, and it means alarmed or overawed, with connotations of reverence. In the context of St Joseph being a righteous man, we must understand by it, I think, that he did indeed believe Mary when he told her that she was with child by the Holy Spirit ... and the thought filled him with both awe and alarm. He was not worthy to be the husband of such a wife. And so he was going to set her aside, but only in such a way that no one would think badly of her in any way, even if it meant that they might think badly of him instead.

But the angel asked him to do otherwise, and that is what he did. He set aside his own fears and sense of unworthiness to do what it was that God willed of him. St Luke's Gospel presents us with the Blessed Virgin Mary's perfect obedience to the will of God; St Matthew's gives us, I think, St Joseph's absolute obedience also. Which makes him the perfect spouse for our Lady, and a man worthy to share with her in the task of being the earthly parents of our Saviour. Amen

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mothering Sunday

May my words be in the name of the Holy & undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

As this is laetare Sunday, I thought I might preach a fairly light-hearted sermon today … Lae-what? I hear some of you say?     Lae-ta-re … meaning in Latin 'Be joyful' … this is the 4th Sunday in Lent, roughly the half-way point in the season … and traditionally by way of encouraging people for all the austerities that they had been practising up until now, they got to take a little break & cheer things up a little bit … and so flowers were allowed back to decorate the altar … music, which was traditionally banned during this season, was played … even the liturgical colour changed, going from the sombre purple to a more light-hearted 'rose' colour … & if we don't keep up with those traditions very well any more, perhaps it is because we don't take Lent as seriously as they did in times gone by and we don't feel the need for a break in the same way that they did!

Now I'm sure some of you are thinking at this point, what's all this Laetare stuff? I thought today was Mothering Sunday? Well today is also called that … but have you ever stopped to wonder why we have a mothering Sunday, when we don't have special day in the church calendar for any other relatives? There's no fathering Sunday, or uncle-ing or aunt-ing Sunday … no cousin-ing … and if we were going to pick a relative, why not brother-ing or sister-ing, given the emphasis in the New Testament on how we are all brothers and sisters in Christ?

Well, the clue is in today's Gospel reading, where we see the Mother of our Lord at the foot of the Cross with the beloved disciple … & if you looked at the other Mothering Sunday reading which the lectionary gives us as an alternative, you would find that it also has Mary in it – in that case the passage from Luke where Simeon tells Mary that a sword will also pierce her heart …

The readings suggest that there is very much a Marian character to this festival … that the title 'mothering' refers not to the secular (in other words a church version of Mother's Day) but the sacred …

And in fact, this festival began as just that: a festival of Mary, as mother of us all who have been baptised into her Son, Jesus Christ … and also a festival of the church's role as mother, how it nurtures us and cares for us … the impetus for there being a festival of mothering began in the early days of the church … the ancient Romans had a festival in March in honour of the mother goddess Cybele, who was connected with the earth & fruitfulness … our early brothers and sisters in Christ while they thought it a good idea to do away with the pagan festival, nonetheless thought it a good idea to have their own festival, honouring both Mary and the Church, and so we ended up with Laetare Sunday … so named from the entrance antiphon traditionally used on this Sunday which begins 'laetare Jerusalem' O be joyful Jerusalem … Jerusalem, of course, being the mother city of the Christian faith.

Many customs grew up around this Sunday … and with all the references to motherhood, it is not perhaps surprising that the custom of honouring our earthly mothers also came to be seen as appropriate. Initially the term 'mothering Sunday' came from the practice of going 'a-mothering' which was when people went either to the mother church of their diocese on this Sunday, the cathedral, or for those living away from home, returning to visit their own mother church, their parish church, on this Sunday … and as for most people in the old days this might be the only chance to visit their homes and families in the entire year, the custom also grew up of bringing some small gift home to mother, even if it was only as simple as picking her some of the flowers that grew along the roadside as they made the long journey home on foot.

But – and I think this can not be stressed enough – what we celebrate in church on mothering Sunday is not mother's day … Mother's day is a secular American celebration … and worthy as that idea of that holiday is, we do not make secular events part of our church calendar … what we are celebrating is the idea of mothering … an ideal of mothering drawn from the perfect mothering of the Blessed Virgin Mary for her Son … and the image of mothering as presented to us in the love and care we receive from the Church as our metaphorical mother …
this reminds us that on Mothering Sunday, while we may rightly look to honour our own mothers … we must also honour those who in some way fulfil the role of mothering in our own lives … we must also honour, for example, grandmothers, aunts, big sisters, and god-mothers … neighbours and friends who have looked out for us … teachers who have watched over us in loco parentis during our school days … all those who with love and affection have contributed in some way to creating the cocoon of love and affection that has sheltered and nurtured us all our days
… and of course as love and affection is not limited to women, we must also on this day remember fondly all those men who have provided us with care and nurture, perhaps doing the things most commonly associated with women, but nonetheless, often also done by men …
most of us, no matter how impoverished our backgrounds, have many people to give thanks for in our lives … which is why this Sunday, laetare Sunday, we give thanks with great joy for all those who have shown a mother's love to us … the Mother of our Lord … our mother the Church … our own mothers … and all others who have cared and nurtured us … and pray that they will continue in that love … and that we will continue to be nurtured by it, even as we show that love to others oursleves… something that I pray that we will all be able to do on this Sunday, in this Holy Season of Lent, and always … in the name of the Father & the Son & the Holy Spirit. Amen.

sermon notes for 18 March 2012 (4th in Lent- Mothering Sunday)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St Patrick

Today is St Patrick's day ... not only the feast day of Ireland's patron saint, but also my own patronal day. Don't worry - I'm not going to give you a potted history of the good man, who was kidnapped as a youth & enslaved, who after his escape returned to the place of his captivity to bring them the good news of Christ ... if you want that, look here ... instead, I offer my musings on what the day has become ... Paddy's day, a festival of indulgence and green beer, when all the world becomes Irish, but few think of the significance of the day ... which is of course a festival of thanksgiving for the life of the man who brought the faith to Ireland ... the Gospel reading today speaks of reaping where others have sown ... St Patrick began the work of sowing in this land ... others have followed, reaping the harvest ... but also sowing, so that others who come after might have a harvest to reap ... and we who today reap what others have sown are reminded that we also must sow so that others who come after us will have something to reap ... it is a chain that stretches unbroken into the past to the time of St Patrick ... our mission is to ensure that the chain continues unbroken into the future, until the time when our Lord comes again ... so keep that in your prayers today, if you will, even as you give thanks for the life of St Patrick and all the saints who have gone before us, so that we might have the precious gift of faith that we enjoy today. And if you do go to a parade, or hoist a scoop of green beer to your lips, then enjoy ... but always keep in the back of your mind the reason for it all: St Patrick, the slave turned humble missionary who dedicated his life to bringing the faith to the people who had enslaved him in the first place. Amen.

Friday, March 16, 2012

the summary of the law

In Lent we try to acknowledge our failings and better align ourselves to God's will. In today's Gospel reading Jesus tells us how we may do this, in his summary of the Law: love God and love our neighbour. When we fail to do these we sin; the better we succeed in doing these, the closer we come to doing God's will and following his plan for our lives.

The order of the two great commandments is important. First we must love God. We cannot love neighbour properly unless we first love God and our love for neighbour flows out of our love for Him ... because then our love for others flows from a love that is formed by God's will. Our actions towards others are not guided by our own imperfect natures and misguided ideas about what others need or what is good for them, but by are guided by the Divine.

That is why Jesus tells the scribe, who understands that what Jesus has said is the truth, that he is not far from the kingdom of God. Because when we live according to these commandments, we live as God wants us to live and the love that he has for his creation - a love that he wishes us to share in and to show to others - is evident for all to see ... his kingdom breaks through into the world.

And so I pray that we will all this Lent draw ever closer to loving God - heart, mind, soul, and strength - and from that love learn to love others better ... so that all may draw closer to the kingdom of God. Amen.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

here be demons

In today's Gospel reading we hear about demon possession. It is the kind of thing that is deeply uncomfortable to our modern ears. We're all much too well educated and sophisticated to believe that kind of stuff. And we try to explain away what we read, pointing out that in ancient times a lot of diseases and conditions for which we have modern scientific names now (& sometimes even cures or treatments!) were attributed to demons. Look at today's reading - it says the man was mute. Surely that is illness, not a demon, we protest. In another instance, the sufferer seems clearly to have been an epileptic. And many of the others displays signs of what we would today call mental illness ...

And yet ... not all of them are so easily dismissed. Modern exorcists today seek every reasonable explanation first, before they will accept that the person they are seeing may be suffering from demon possession. All medical, psychological, and other avenues are explored. But when nothing else is left, they look to the supernatural.

I believe that the Gospels do present us with cases of actual demon possession. It seems logical that the divine breaking into this world in the person of Jesus would cause some kind of supernatural reaction. But even if there is a natural explanation for what the Gospels calls demons ... Jesus still healed them. And his healing was never for its own sake but to point to who he was so that we might see and believe.

So if you have trouble with the idea of demons, OK, I can live with that (and please God you will never be faced with a situation where this lack of belief is forcefully challenged). Only remember that Jesus' healing power touched the lives of those he encountered ...  not only for their sake, but for yours ... so that you might know that he had the power to heal you of your sins ... something that I pray you will prayerfully reflect upon in holy and penitential season of Lent. Amen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The law and the prophets 2

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.' Matthew 5.17-19

Today's Gospel reading is one on which there is no consensus of interpretation. The plain meaning of the text is to affirm all the Old Testament commands. However,  there is no Christian denomination which affirms the 613 OT precepts in their entirety.  Also, it seems to be at variance with other New Teaching ... that in relation to dietary law and circumcision for example.

What are we to make of it? Perhaps it teaches us humility ... it shows us that we do not have all the answers ... that when it comes to trying to interpret scripture, to understand words written centuries ago, in languages whose nuances we may only grasp at, in times and societies that are far from our own and which we may peer at only dimly ... that we can never fully enter into what was in the mind of what the writer was trying to tell us.

And perhaps it offers us something by way of a warning ... it can be overly easy for us to look at a passage and say: that plainly means such and such. But does it? We need to exercise caution - if we acknowledge that there are obvious passages that are difficult to understand, does that not suggest that there are less obvious ones ... ones we may think we understand, but actually do not ... what we think of as the 'plain' meaning may have more to do with the world we live in & the eyes we read the passage with today than the meaning the writer hoped to convey.

This suggests, I think, that we have to put great value on the tradition of the Church - what meaning has been placed on the passage from the beginning and down through the ages? Sometimes that interpretation may have been active, in the sense that Church doctrine is based on it; and sometimes that interpretation may have been inactive, or silent if you will, in the sense that there is no teaching based on it ... or if there is teaching, it seems to contradict the particular passage - even if it is in accordance with others.

Such is the case with today's passage. The plain meaning suggests one thing - but that plain meaning has never been taken up by the church - both because it seems in conflict with other passages, and because it was not in accordance with the tradition of the early Church - a tradition which has been handed down over time.

But one thing we should never lose sight of: even if the Church has never taught that we should obey the 613 precepts, it has always taught that Jesus is the fulfilling of the Law and the Prophets. That fulfilment was to come to suffer and die that we might have eternal life. And we, who have baptised into Christ, have to continually struggle with trying to integrate that into our lives so that at the last we may have the eternal life that he came to bring us. Amen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The wicked servant

I remember preaching on today's Gospel not that many months ago. As part of my preparation, I learned that a talent was equivalent to 15 years wages for an average person at the time of Jesus - so ten thousand talents was more than someone could hope to earn in a thousand lifetimes ... and a denarius was a days wages ... so one hundred was more than someone could earn in about 3 months ... and probably equivalnet to a lifetime's savings for the average person sitting there listening to Jesus.

The point is not that what the wicked slave had to forgive was trivial ... it was simply that it was insignificant in comparison to what he had been forgiven. And what Jesus is saying to us is not that what we have to forgive others is tivial or insignificant ... the wrongs done to us are real, they do hurt, they do offend ... but when they are compared to what God forgives us, & what we owe to God ... they pale in comparison ... and because of that, we must forgive others ...

Lent is a penitential season ... it gives us the chance to show God how sorry we are for all we have done that is wrong, all that we have done to offend him, for every sin that we have committed. And as we say sorry, and try to train ourselves to better do his will, so also we must train ourselves to better forgive others what they have done to offend us. Because it is what Jesus commanded us to do ... and to do otherwise is to fail to obey his words ... to do otherwise is to sin further ourselves ... and to wilfully offend against the one to whom we owe so much. Amen.

Monday, March 12, 2012

a prophet rejected in his home town

There is encouragement, I think, in our Gospel reading this morning. If Jesus was rejected in his hometown by his own people, why should we be surprised when we also face rejection when we try to be faithful to his message? It is a reminder to us also to keep on trying - Jesus did not stop preaching the good news just because some people would not listen ... he did not stop even when faced with disbelief, angry words, threats, or actual violence.

As we move ever deeper into Lent, ever closer to Jerusalem, we realise, I think that this is no easy journey we are on ... neither the journey through Lent, nor the journey through life ... at least, it is not easy if we wish to be faithful followers of Christ. And Christ, by the example of his life, encourages us to continue. And so I pray that we all will continue ... gaining strength through this Lent as by our disciplines we open ourselves to allow God's grace to work in our lives ... strength that will help us to persevere both now and into the future. Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jesus cleanses the Temple

May my words be in the name of the Holy & undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

'Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle'

I wonder if any of you have ever made a whip of cords? Given our reading today, I thought I'd have a try … I rooted around in the tool cupboard & found a ball of heavy cord … I then took several lengths & plaited one end together to make a kind of handle … and then used the bits at the end as the whip itself … I found that the cords needed a bit of weight in them to use to whip anything … & when I was done I had a fairly decent short whip …

and making it taught me something … making a whip is something that takes a bit of time … and a bit of thinking … where are the materials that I need … how long should I make it … I spent about half an hour making mine … but even if our Lord only spent a couple of minutes, finding some cords and knotting them together, it still means it was a deliberate act … he didn't just angrily grab something that was close to hand, like a billet of wood or a shepherd's staff, and start lashing out … he took a bit of time and trouble over what he was doing … this may be the only act of violence that we see Jesus committing … but it isn't random violence & it isn't mindless violence …

So, what was going on that day in the temple? No doubt it started out like as usual … people coming to offer sacrifice … and to put their offerings of money into the temple treasury … now, of course, if you lived in Jerusalem, you weren't a farmer of some sort … you weren't raising animals with a flock from which to select the best for sacrifice at the temple … you needed to buy the animal from a dealer of some sort … and if you didn't live in Jerusalem, even if you were a farmer, unless you lived close by bringing an animal all the way to Jerusalem didn't make any sense.

and some of these people were coming from very far away indeed … not just from within Israel, but also from all the great cities of the Roman Empire … every one of which had a community of Jews … all of whom wanted to make the trip to Jerusalem at least once in their life and offer sacrifice in the temple … and if you were coming from Rome or Antioch or Athens then bringing an animal with you just wasn't feasible, even if you had one in the first place … the only practical solution was to buy one when you got there …

so the dealers in sheep and cattle and doves were offering a very necessary and practical service to those who came to worship … as were the money changers … only Hebrew coins were acceptable in the temple … and so much of the coinage floating around in this cosmopolitan city would have been foreign … Roman … Greek … Egyptian … all with depictions of their pagan gods which would have been abhorrent to the Jews … bad enough to have to do your everyday trade and commerce using these coins … but to use them to pay the temple tax or conduct any other temple business using them would have been a step too far …

And when Jesus stepped on the scene, it would have been utter chaos in the temple courts … The four Gospels do not agree on the point in Jesus' ministry at which this incident took place … Matthew, Mark, & Luke place it at the end, during what we could call Holy Week … and John at the very beginning … right after the wedding feast at Cana … but all four do agree that it took place around the time of Passover … the busiest time of the year … when crowds of people would have flooded into the city … all looking to make sacrifices … looking to get their lamb slaughtered for the passover meal … to pay the temple tax that all Jewish males over 20 had to pay … to see this amazing temple with their own eyes if it was their first time in Jerusalem … and to simply just to worship & give glory to God …

And it was this chaotic scene that was Jesus was looking on as he thoughtfully made his whip out of cord … and then began what was, as I said earlier, is his only recorded act of violence … but not out of control violence … look well at what Jesus does … who is he whipping? Actually, no one! It says: 'Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle' He's using the whip to drive the animals out of the temple – he's not going around the place, striking out at the people … and even with the animals, he's using something that may sting but certainly not injure …

and look how careful he is with the doves … they would have been in cages … on tables or stacked high … he doesn't knock them over, which might have injured the poor creatures … he just tells the sellers to take them out of there … he does turn over the tables of the money-changers … but that's a largely symbolic act … after all, they can pick the money back up again! And in the Synoptics we hear that he wouldn't let anyone carry any goods through the courts … he was shutting down trade at the busiest time of the year …

What does this singular act of violence on the part of our Saviour mean? It's clearly very important, as it makes it into all four of the Gospels … which is not as common an occurrence as you might think … if we leave out the events around Holy Week, you might surprised to realise how many events are only in one Gospel … the Annunciation? Just in Luke … The visit of the Magi? Only in Matthew. Jesus being laid in a manger? Just Luke again. It's even rarer for incidents to be in both the Synoptics and John … the Baptism of Jesus … hinted at in John, but not actually mentioned … the Transfiguration? Not a word … only a few miracles, such as the feeding of the 5000, are in all four … and then there is this, what we often call the Cleansing of the Temple … so for it to be in all four means that not only all four thought it was important … they must have thought it of huge significance …

And I'm sure you've heard many explanations as to why it is significant … it shows that Jesus could get angry … that sometimes direct action is called for ... it demonstrates the importance of treating God's house with utmost respect & reverance at all times … the fact that it shows Jesus publicly confronting the religious authorities, and may have influenced them into seeking his death … all good explanations … but thinking about it, in the context of Lent, a penitential season, a time when we are supposed to be trying even harder than ever to live our lives that way God wants us to …

another thought struck me … all those people in the temple … the merchants selling animals … the bankers changing coins … the ordinary people giving them their business … the priests who had set up this system and were looking on approvingly … not one of them thought they were doing anything wrong … not one … in all the Gospels there is a later scene where the Jewish authorities come to Jesus and ask him to explain and justify his actions … they all thought he was way out of line … no one thought they were doing anything wrong … and yet what they were doing made Jesus angry …

and not just angry … it drove him to take violent action against them … and to say that it made Jesus angry is to say that it made God angry … sometimes in our lives things can become so normalised that it becomes part of everyday life … we accept them without question … the people in the temple that day did …

But Jesus' actions pull us up sharply … just because something is ok with the world does not make it ok with him … it doesn't make it ok with God … but rather, we must look closely at our lives … and look at them to see where it is that we are comfortable … and where that comfort may be hiding behaviour that all the world is ok with … but is not ok with God … Not long ago, slavery was common-place … even more recently, it was considered proper to treat women as second class citizens … are there sins and injustices in our world that later generations will shake their heads at in sad amazement? What we see in the temple today sees a concern for economic justice, perhaps, as no doubt the dealer all were making a healthy profit from the captive clientele ...  do we accept economic injustice in our world unthinkingly ... and are there other areas in our lives where we accept what is unacceptable without a thought or hesitation? Lent is our opportunity for that kind of prayerful self-examination … a self-examination that must be followed with action if we come to realise that there are parts of our lives that are wrong … just as Jesus went into the courts with whips that day … so must we go after our wrong-doings with metaphorical whips … unmercifully driving out all that is wrong in our lives … as a public witness to the world … something that I pray that we will all be able to do in this Holy Season of Lent … in the name of the Father & the Son & the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon notes for 11 March 2012 (3rd in Lent)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

the Prodigal Son

The parable of the Prodigal Son, today's Gospel reading, is so familiar to most, it is hard to read it with fresh eyes, to separate it from all we have heard about it by way of interpretation. Even turning it around a bit and looking at it from different angles - the Good Father or the Self-righteous Brother - has been done so often that they can fail to add much by of freshness.

And yet, familiar as it is, the story has an enduring appeal and has soaked into popular culture, that even those who aren't Christian or who have never read the Bible are likely to have some knowledge of the parable - enough to know, for example, when someone exclaims something like 'the Prodigal returns!' by way of a greeting.

Perhaps the appeal is because of the core message of forgiveness and redemption - that it is never to late to go home and find the love that we once rejected waiting there for us - and that nothing is asked of us other than we repent and return ... it doesn't matter how much pain and hurt we caused before ... once we come to our senses we can always go home and discover that there we are the same beloved child we were before we turned away and left ...

That may be something for us to reflect upon in this Holy Season of Lent ... that it is never too late to return ... may this Lent be a time of repentance and return for us all. Amen.

Friday, March 9, 2012

the wicked tenants

Today's Gospel, the parable of the wicked tenants, speaks to us of the persistence of evil. Which suggests to me that we, who say we follow Christ, must be persistent in doing good. And doing good requires not only Grace but practise! Lent is our time for practise and training in doing good. The strength we gain now during this season of prayer and fasting and alms giving is to fortify us for all our lives. And so, during this season of Lent I pray that you will persist in your spiritual disciplines so that you may be persistent in doing good in the world ... not only for the sake of others, but for your own good, so that you may not, like the wicked tenants, for the sake of small rewards lose the greater prize of eternal life. Amen.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Today's Gospel reading is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In a way it is a subtle piece: it is never stated what the Rich Man has done to deserve Hades. Instead it states that he lives a life of luxury, feasting even while at his gate lies a man who is ill and hungry. And that is his sin: he had an abundance of good things in this life ...  more than he needed ... and he did not share with those in need ... 

This is a stark warning to us indeed. Because we live in a world where there are huge divisions between rich and poor ... and where in one part of the world the diseases caused by over-indulgence are our leading killers, while elsewhere in the world people starve and die of thirst and of diseases that are easily cured or prevented.

As you fast this Lent, be grateful that you have so much in your life that you have something to fast from. As you suffer the mild discomfort of going without what you have given up, think of those who have nothing to give up. Pray for them. Give what you save from fasting to them. Give more if you can. What you give them may save their lives. What you give them may save your soul. Amen.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Slaves of all

Our Gospel reading today shows Jesus and his disciples on the cusp of entering Jerusalem. Again, he explains to them that he must suffer and die, just as he did in our Gospel on Sunday. And their reaction? Again they fail to understand what he means. They seem to have progressed from the reaction that Peter had to Christ's first prediction of his suffering and death, where he tried to argue with him about. Here we don't see them arguing with him ... but instead, James and John ask for the best places when he comes into his kingdom.

They may no longer see his Messiah-ship in terms of being some kind of a conquering hero ... but they still are thinking it involves some kind of earthly glory ... an earthly glory in which they can share ... and they want to make sure that they are at the top of the pile, over and above their fellow disciples.

The rest of the 12 are angry when they hear ... not angry, I think, because James and John don't understand ... but angry they are looking for the seats at Jesus' left & right hand, to lord it over their fellows ... & maybe angry they hadn't thought to ask first! That Jesus has to explain to them, as well as the sons of Zebedee, what it truly means to be a leader in his kingdom, shows that they no more understood than James and John.

Jesus tells them that they must servants ... slaves really, because slaves receive no payment or reward, in the earthly sense. We know they still don't understand, otherwise they wouldn't have reacted they way they did when things began to unravel when Jesus was arrested. And this should serve as a warning to us. If they, after all the time they had spent with Jesus, could still not understand, why should we think we understand any better than they?

Lent is an opportunity to try better to come to terms with what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and ask ourselves how well are we doing at being a servant/slave to our brothers and sisters, at how is this command reflected in our lives. If we were to sit down and work out the percentage of our lives that were spent devoted to our own interests and how much devoted to others, what would the breakdown be?

If I were to crunch the numbers honestly, I'm not too sure how proud I'd be of the results. But it remains something that I, along with all others, am called to. So I will continue to strive towards following this command of our Lord, and to seek greater understanding of what it means, now in this holy season and with God's grace always ... something that I pray for you also. Amen.