Sunday, January 29, 2012

am I my brother's keeper?



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

In our epistle today, St Paul talks about food sacrificed to idols … and I think the passage serves as a good example of a passage where a modern reader might easily begin by saying: well I have no idea what is going on here; & once they do know what is happening, might well say – that's interesting, but of course it has no real application to the world we live in, in general, or me, in particular … and I think that would be the wrong way to look at it … our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy says that God will raise up a prophet for his people and they must heed such a prophet – why? Because people need guidance … the guidance that comes from the revelation of God … and St Paul's passage today contains such revelation … the fact that it may require some work on our part to understand what it saying to us makes it no less relevant …

So let us begin by trying to understand what is going on in this passage – what is this food sacrificed to idols that St Paul is speaking of? In the ancient world, most of the meat came from temple sacrifices … the meat from the sacrificed animals was sold off in the markets as a way for the priests to supplement their incomes … the problem for the early Christians was this: some were revolted at the idea of eating meat that had been killed as part of a pagan sacrifice; others fall into the 'o for goodness sake' category … there's no other gods, therefore what we are eating is not sacrificed to a god, therefore it is OK to eat it and so I will …

and St Paul said, yes, that's true, but what about your brothers and sisters … they see you eating this, and so they do too, but it weakens their faith because they are not 'strong minded' like you … in their hearts they can't get past the fact it was sacrificed to an idol, forget that they aren't real … it makes them feel that they are taking part in pagan rituals … and if it is OK to eat the meat, why not other things to do with pagan rituals … and it begins to eat away at their faith, causing some of them to fall back into pagan ways … St Paul says that for that reason he would rather never eat meat again …

That's where we come to the: it is all very interesting, but what has it to do with us part of things … the meat in our supermarkets has nothing to do with idols … it's nice to know what was going on back in St Paul's time, but it is an issue that was solely of its time …

Except that would be to miss the deeper point … St Paul may be speaking about meat and idols, but we should see these as only illustrating a far more important aspect of Christian living … in a way, what St Paul has done here is to take the question that was asked all the way back at the beginning of the Bible, the question asked by Cain 'am I my brothers keeper' and answer it with a very firm 'yes.'

And it is in line with what Jesus had to say about loving our neighbour as ourselves … we, as Christians, are one body, and as such it is not enough to simply worry about our own salvation – we have to worry about the salvation of each other also … it is not enough that we do not sin directly ourselves … we have to consider how it is that the example of our lives may act to encourage others not to sin also. The paradox is, even if what we do is not a sin in itself, if it encourages others to sin, then we have ourselves sinned … because we have failed in our duty to our brothers and sisters …

No doubt some of you are at this point thinking: that sounds all very well in theory, but how does it work in practice … what are the areas of our lives in which we are in danger of leading others astray? It is a delicate matter … for a start, it is definitely one to be cautious about if for no other reason than it is very much 'speck in the eye of another while ignoring the beam in my own eye' territory … and it is, I think, more beneficial for each of us here to go away & quietly think about how it is that we might be failing in this way rather than my trying to come up with a list of examples, which if they don't apply to you, might come across as being offensive as if I were trying to accuse people of such behaviour …

but on the other hand, I think it is useful to have some kind of a concrete example of how this might apply in the modern world … & so I thought I'd use an example from my own life … how the example of others, none of whom were doing anything wrong as such, influenced me … and not for the good …

when I was in my late teens and in college, life was very busy … not only were there my studies, there were all the clubs and societies I belonged to … and going to Mass on Sunday … well, not only was that a big chunk of time, but also, it meant having to get up on the one day I had to lie in … but I started to notice some things in Church first I noticed that a lot of people came late ... no doubt they had their reasons ... & while it wasn't best practice, they were still meeting their Sunday obligations ... so I started to come a bit late ...
And then I noticed that quite a lot of people left directly after the celebration of Holy Communion … they went directly from the altar rails and out the door … some didn't even receive … the moment the priest invited them to come forward, they headed for the exits! Well, I thought, no doubt they have a good reason to go early … and so do I! every extra moment counted for a tired student …

before long I was coming late & leaving early … & then as I came late, I noticed all the people standing at the back … if you're only going to be there a few minutes, easier to stay at the back so as not to be delayed leaving … & then the next thing was that quite a number of people stayed in the porch … why not? You're still technically in the Church, there was a speaker (installed for when the church was full, not so that people could stay as far from the altar as possible!) … and then I saw the groups who stayed outside altogether, near the door, where they could sort of hear what was said on the speakers …

it was death by a thousand cuts really ... as you can imagine, it wasn't too long before I wasn't going altogether! In a space of a few years I'd gone from being an altar boy, serving at God's altar, to a non-church goer ... and why? Many reasons ... but part of it was the example set by others … a slippery slope that I headed down, influenced by those who as I said were not actually doing anything wrong … but who also didn't stop to consider the impact that their behaviour might have on an impressionable young person, who like a lot of young people had come to a point of questioning … my story ultimately worked out all right ... but I can't help wondering if for many in the same situation it did not ... if they didn't slide out the doors of the church never to return ...

perhaps if you thought about it, you might find areas in your life where you have also been influenced by the example of others … or perhaps if you thought even more carefully you might come to wonder how does your behaviour possibly influence others … St Paul warned the Corinthians that what they were doing, though not wrong in itself, was wrong if it acted to weaken the faith of others … so for us today I pray that we have the strength and the courage to examine our own lives for such behaviour … and  the Grace from God to change it if need be … amen

(Sermon notes 29 Jan 2012 -  Epiphany 4)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Follow me



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

this is the week of prayer for Christian unity … what message for that in our Gospel reading? Jesus says 'follow me' … is that indicative of one Christ, one church … he leads we follow? Perhaps three different interpretations of the story … each with a different emphasis … each indicative of a different way of doing church …

3 models: authoritarian; thoughtful/rational, spiritual/experiential

authoritarian - Mark's account of the calling of the disciples Jesus, full of Holy spirit after baptism, clarity of thought after temptations, arrives on the beach & orders fishermen to 'follow me' and that's what the disciples did … and that is what we must do, following their example …

thoughtful/rational - Luke's account of the calling of the disciples: Jesus, rejected at Nazareth went to Galilee of the pious fishermen, waiting to begin his mission; he preached in the synagogue, went to Peter's house where he cured his mother-in-law, later healed others, then went into his boat & preached from it, & caused the miraculous catch of fish before calling them to follow.
He had talked with them, worked with them; they knew him, trusted him; when the time came to say follow me, they knew who he was & what he was doing … their decision was a calm & rational one based on what they knew about Jesus

spiritual/experiential - John's account of the calling of the disciples; all four at Jordan; part of the highly-charged group surrounding the charismatic figure of John the Baptist; perhaps saw Jesus' baptism, certainly heard testimony of J the B about Jesus, saw Jesus' effect on Nathanael; travelled with him to Cana & saw first sign … followed him based on their direct spiritual experiences …

3 models – right or wrong? Don't we need all 3? Authority because we can't reinvent the wheel every day? Rationality because that's part of what it is to be made in God's image? Spirituality because that is the starting point of all faith, our own direct experience of God?

And if we need all three models, then perhaps we need all the different ways of doing church … so that we can learn from each other … and so that together we can be the one church that Christ established … and together follow his request that we follow him … amen

Sermon notes for 22 Jan 2012   - Epiphany 3;week of prayer for Christian Unity

Sunday, January 15, 2012

the calling of Nathanael


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

Today in our Gospel we have the story of the calling of Nathanael … and a strange wee story it is too; Nathanael comes across as rather a prickly character … first when Philip tells them to come meet Jesus of Nazareth he says 'can anything good come out of Nazareth?' … when he does meet Jesus, his response to being called a true Israelite is basically 'and what do you know about me?' And then there is his response to Jesus telling him he saw him under the fig tree … he goes from being cynical to declaring Jesus the Son of God & the king of Israel … which seems a rather over the top reaction to someone saying they saw you under a tree!

So let's try to look at what is going on here a little more closely … first of all, exactly who was Nathanael? We don't have a lot of information on him … he is at the Jordan, with the followers of John the Baptist, so he is clearly a spiritual man;

next Philip goes running to him to tell him that they have found the one whom Moses and the prophets spoke, in other words the Messiah … indicative I think that Philip at least thinks that he is the kind of man who would want to be with the Messiah & that he would be a good man to be at the Messiah's side from the outset … he is present in the final scene in John's Gospel, where Jesus eats with his disciples on the beach … which tells us he was with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry to the end … and it is stated in that last chapter that he is from Cana …

but also, as all the others present on the beach are apostles, it seems that he also must be one of the 12 … which can seem a bit confusing as his name isn't mentioned in the other 3 gospels, the Synoptics, and certainly not in the lists given when they talk about the formal calling of the 12 (an incident which John doesn't include) … but that problem is not insurmountable … it is possible that the person named as Bartholomew in the Synoptics and Nathanael in John is one and the same.

First, in the Synoptics the tendency is to pair the apostles off and Bartholomew is paired with Philip … the same person who is his companion in John; second, he wouldn't be the only apostle to have more than one name … famously Simon was also know as Peter … and finally, the name 'Bartholomew' is what is called a patronymic … in Aramaic the word 'Bar' in front of a name means 'son of'; much like 'mac' in Ireland. So 'Bartholomew' means 'son of Ptolomeis' … it is quite likely that he had another name also, which might well have been Nathanael …

So knowing a little more about Nathanael, let's look over that scene a little more … first, why does he say 'can anything good come out of Nazareth'? Scholars suggest it sounds a bit like a saying, something like a proverb … now Nazareth is in Galilee and Galilee was regarded as being a bit backward in ancient Israel … the place where the folk from Judea, who thought of themselves as being more sophisticated, thought of as being full of country bumpkins … but as Nathanael is from Cana, and Cana is in Galilee so that isn't likely the motivation … but Nazareth was a fairly small and unimportant place, and Cana seems to have been a bit more important, where a royal official was stationed to collect taxes and deal with administrative matters … so perhaps it was a Cananite being superior about a Nazarean …

In any case, he does what Philip says: he goes to see … and as he approaches Jesus, Jesus says something that on the face of it seems rather nice … he calls him a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit … but it seems to me that Nathanael doesn’t take the compliment well … he still seems a bit prickly … perhaps even hostile … 'how do you know me?' he says … it certainly seems a bit challenging … he almost seems sensitive or defensive … but Jesus seems to turn it all around by saying he saw him under the fig tree … and again, it seems that to say that someone is under a fig tree is something of a saying … it means that someone is a student of of the Torah and the law … a bit like our expression of the 'groves of academe' meaning someone is at third level …

but understanding that Jesus isn't speaking about a literal fig tree here doesn't really serve to explain Nathanael's reaction to the remark … however, perhaps the clue is in his reaction to Jesus' first statement that he is a true son of Israel … I've already said that it strikes me that Nathanael seems a bit defensive about the remark … why? Is it because of his other name, Bartholomew … which means Bar-tolomeis?

names, as you know have meanings … Bar means son of … but son of who? There is an Aramaic word 'tolmas' which means furrow or plough … and there is a Greek name 'Ptolomey' … Hebrews, as you know, were quite keen on purity in all its forms … was Nathanael sensitive as to his status as a real Israelite because he had a name that suggested Greek ancestry? This suggestion is made a little stronger by the realisation that the friend and companion of Nathanael Bar Ptolemy in all four Gospels is Philip … a man who also bears a Greek name …

so perhaps the prickly, aggressive response to being called a true son of Israel is promoted by years of feeling not quite good enough, a life-time of little jibes about not being a 'real Jew' … and when Jesus speaks he fears it is the lead up to yet another put-down … but Jesus next words turns it all around … he says before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree … before Philip called you, I knew you for what you really are, someone who is a student of God's Word, a lover and seeker after the truth that only God has to offer …

Jesus has looked into the very heart of Nathanael … he has seen his true self so well and so deeply that Nathanael knows that Jesus can be only one person … the Son of God … the King of Israel … the Messiah … so, this is what he declares … and then he follows Jesus for the rest of his life …

We can't know for sure that this is what prompted Nathanael's response … a lot of what I've said could be categorised as speculation, what-if, and maybe … but we can know this: whatever the reason behind it all, Jesus' words prompted an amazing response in Nathanael … taking him in moments from being someone who would declare that nothing good can come out of Nazareth to being someone who would call someone from there the Son of God … what Jesus said touched Nathanael deeply … because in that moment he felt himself to be truly known … known so deeply and intimately that it could only have one source … the divine … we, through our baptism and through the relationship we have with Jesus in his body they Church, also have it available to us to be as deeply known as Nathanael was that day … and I pray that, being so know, the response of us, and all God's children will be that of Nathanael … to follow Jesus faithfully for the rest of our lives … amen

Sermon notes: 15 Jan 2012 (Epiphany 2)

Friday, January 13, 2012

begging letters



It has been my lot ever since being ordained to receive begging letters, by post and email. Perhaps that is the case for all clergy. Why I can't think - I thought everyone knew that clergy are not exactly rich. But perhaps it is that the senders hope we will be a 'soft touch.'

Alas, I am afraid I am cynical when it comes to these communications. If I sent even a small amount of money in response to each of these messages - that invariably begins with 'Dear brother in Christ' before going on to recount in detail a tale of woe - then I would find it difficult to feed my children.

Luckily for my bank balance (and my family's food budget!) I find it difficult to believe any of the stories I am told. Just today I received one purporting to be from a student nurse in Africa. 'She' gave the whole sad story of how her single mother had raised her, struggling to educate her, only to be struck down by cancer, leaving her 'daughter' now in urgent need of funds.

I almost tossed the letter straight into the re-cycling bin, my usual course of action. Today I paused. What if there was some truth in it this time? I noticed she mentioned the name of the nursing school. I googled it. It did not exist. And so my cynicism about such missives was confirmed. The sad truth is that the only way to be sure that one is not being scammed is to channel charitable giving through reputable charities.

We are called to pray for such people. And so we should. The letters they send are evil.  It is wicked to try to prey on the generosity of others with these false stories. Not least because they mean that genuine appeals for help may be ignored. Thus they harm their brothers and sisters in need and place their own souls in danger. pray for them ... and pray for those they harm, that their cries for help will not go unanswered. Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2012

In God's image



The Old Testament reading today is Genesis 1.1-2.3, the story of creation. In it are the words:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them;  male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply ...'

This ties in with an article in today's Irish Times. It's on the subject of cosmetic surgery and the fallout from the recent breast implants fiasco (which I've posted on previously). But the article contained info that was new to me: apparently there are doctors willing to perform surgery on the private parts of women for no better reason than that so they can look like those of the women featured in the pornography that is so readily available.

I have nothing but pity for the women who feel those sort of pressures - what kind of a society are we living in? As if the pressure to have the right clothes, hair, body, face, or life wasn't enough, now they have to have the right private parts? And I regard doctors who perform such procedures as predators. I know that cosmetic surgery is a necessary thing, but not this kind of stuff. 

It all comes down to image ... trying to conform our bodies to some kind of external image. Why? Even if the knife could give you the 'perfect' body, whatever that is, to what end? It is only a temporary fix, because time will take away what you have bought from the surgeon. And then what? Far better to be happy knowing that you are made in God's image than fooling yourself into thinking you can find happiness in a surgical theatre.

Something that we might pray for for ourselves ... and all others. Amen.

Monday, January 2, 2012

away in a manger


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

I begin of course, by wishing you happy New Year again! Our reading begins with the shepherds going to visit the child in the manager, and I was trying to work out how many times over the Christmas period I had heard that favourite hymn 'away in a manger'

4 parish carol services, 3 school services, a couple of times at assembly, the crib service … not to mention the Christmas day services and all the times on the radio …

the hymn came in as the joint favourite Christmas carol of all time in a recent poll … and has often been attributed to Martin Luther … which, sad to relate is not true … the first two verses seem to have been written around 1885 and first appeared in a book of Lutheran children's hymns … for some reason, this book stated it was a hymn that Luther used to sing to his own children, but this statement has no basis in fact: the hymn does not appear in any of his writings, and may have more to do with marketing as this was around the 400th anniversary of Luther's birth. The third verse appears to have been added in the mid 1890's by a man called Charles Gabriel …

fond of the hymn though I am, one line always troubles me a little: the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little lord Jesus, no crying he make …

Why no crying he makes? Babies cry don't they? Today is the feast of the circumcision of our lord … I remember one of the priest talking to us about that when I was at school … it was Fr Roderick, a very nice Capuchin friar, and what he had to say about the circumcision has always stuck in my memory: he said that when he was 8 day's old, the little baby Jesus must have cried a great deal …

And I think that that is something that is very important to remember … the Christ child wasn't some plaster figure lying in some anti-septic straw under electric lights in a romanticised stable in a centrally heated church … he was a flesh and blood human being, a real baby, lying in dusty hay in a stable filled with the smell of cows and sheep – with light and heat coming from a small flickering fire …

and just like any baby that's just been woken, he probably cried … because the baby that the angels announced, and the shepherds came to see, while he was the Son of God, was also the Son of Mary … he was fully God, but he was fully Man … which is what we need him to be … we need him to understand what it is like to cry when you're scared, to be afraid of the dark, to understand what it is like to be cold and hungry … to be alone and uncomfortable …

we need a baby Jesus who cried in the manger when the cattle frightened him, when he wanted to be held by his mother, or when he needed to be fed or changed … because we know a baby Jesus like that grew up to have all the human experiences that we did … and so he can understand what it is like for us to go about our daily lives, afraid for the future, sad when loved ones dies, worried when work isn't coming in and we're not sure how we are going to manage or cope … anything we can say about our lives, and what is like to live it, we can be sure that there was some comparable experience in Jesus' life, because we can be sure there was a comparable experience in any human life, and Jesus' life was most certainly a human life … 

don't get me wrong … Away in a manger is one of my favourite hymns … and I'll sing it again next year … and I'll include it in all the carol services and Christmas services that I'm organising not just because it is a much loved favourite, but because it is a genuinely beautiful hymn … but the image it portrays of the baby who doesn't cry owes more to the Victorian ideal that children should be seen and not heard & a quiet child is a good child than it does to any thing to be found in scripture or Christian tradition … a child that is crying isn't bad … it is simply a child … which is what Jesus was … and as we turn our back on the old year and begin the new I pray that we may all remember the profound humanity of Jesus … and take hope for the new year from that & for all the years to come. Amen.

Sermon notes: 1 January 2012 (Feast of the Naming & Circumcision of Jesus)